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American Revolutionary War Battles

The Battle of Groton Heights

September 6, 1781 at Groton Heights, Connecticut

Battle Summary

The Battle of Groton Heights (also known as the Battle of Fort Griswold, and occasionally called the Fort Griswold massacre) was fought between a small Connecticut militia force and the more numerous British forces.

General Henry Clinton ordered Brigadier General Arnold to raid the port of New London, Connecticut in an unsuccessful attempt to divert General George Washington from marching against Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis's army in Virginia. The raid was a success, but the Connecticut militia stubbornly resisted British attempts to capture Fort Griswold, across the Thames River in Groton. New London was burned, along with several ships, but many more ships escaped upriver.

Several leaders of the attacking British force were killed or seriously wounded, but the British eventually breached the fort and the Americans surrendered—whereupon the British entered the fort and massacred the defenders. However, the high level of British casualties in the overall expedition against Groton and New London led to criticism of Arnold by some of his superiors.

The battle was the last major military encounter of the war in the northern United States, preceding and being overshadowed by the decisive Franco-American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia about six weeks later. At the battle of Yorktown, the Major General Marquis de Lafayette reportedly yelled, "Remember Ft. Griswold!" as American and French forces stormed the redoubts.

Facts about the Battle of Groton Heights

  • Armies - American Forces was commanded by Col. William Ledyard and consisted of about 150 Soldiers. British Forces was commanded by Col. Edmund Eyre and consisted of about 800 Soldiers.
  • Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 85 killed and 60 wounded. British casualties were estimated to be 52 killed and 145 wounded.
  • Outcome - The result of the battle was a British victory.
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Prelude

The British fleet anchored about 30 miles west of New London to make final preparations, and then sailed for New London late on September 5, intending to make a nighttime landing. However, contrary winds prevented the transports from reaching the port until it was already daylight on September 6. In the early hours of that morning,

Rufus Avery witnessed the fleet's arrival as a colonial officer stationed at Fort Griswold: "... about three o'clock in the morning, as soon as I had daylight so as to see the fleet, it appeared a short distance below the lighthouse. The fleet consisted of thirty-two vessels.... I immediately sent word to Captain William Latham, who commanded [Fort Griswold], and who was not far distant. He very soon came to the fort, and saw the enemy's fleet, and immediately sent a notice to Col. William Ledyard, who was commander of the harbor, Fort Griswold, and Fort Trumbull."

Upon receiving the alert, Ledyard sent a messenger to notify Governor Jonathan Trumbull and local militia leaders of the British arrival, and went to Fort Griswold to arrange its defenses. Fort Griswold's guns were fired twice, a signal of enemy approach. However, one of the British ships fired a third round, changing the meaning of the signal to indicate the arrival of a victorious friend. This signal confusion led to delays in mustering militia companies.

On September 6, at sunrise, the British landed on both sides of the mouth of the Thames River. The people of the town could do nothing but evacuate, and several ships in the harbor escaped upstream. The 800-man detachment that Arnold led in New London met with no resistance.

The defenders of Fort Trumbull, 23 men led by Captain Shapley, fired a single volley, spiked the guns, and boarded boats to cross the river to Fort Griswold, following orders left by Colonel Ledyard. Seven of Shapley's men were wounded, and one of the boats was captured; the detachment that Arnold sent to take Fort Trumbull sustained four or five killed or wounded, according to Arnold's account.

Arnold's troops continued into the town where they set about destroying stockpiles of goods and naval stores. Under the orders given, parts of the town were supposed to be spared, some of which was the property of those secretly loyal to the British, but at least one of the storehouses contained a large quantity of gunpowder, which Arnold evidently had not known.

When it ignited, the resulting explosion set fire to the surrounding buildings. The fire was soon uncontrollable and 143 buildings were consumed by flames.Several ships in the harbor were able to escape upriver when the wind changed.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Eyre's force of 800 men landed on the east side of the Thames River, but they were slowed by tangled woodlands and swamplands. The New Jersey Loyalists landed after the initial wave of regulars, also delayed by the difficulty in moving the artillery through rough conditions, and they did not participate in the assault.

Twelve-year old George Middleton witnessed the quick rallying of Ledyard's militia and the landing of the British regiments, which he reported occurred between 10:30 and 11:00 am: "The other division of troops landed on the east side of the river ... under the command of Col. Eyre and Major Montgomery. This division ... got to the terminus of the woods ... a little south of east on a direct line from the fort. Here the division halted, and Major Montgomery sent Captain Beckwith with a flag to the fort to demand its surrender. Colonel Ledyard ... sent a flag and met Beckwith.... The bearer of the American flag answered, "Colonel Ledyard will maintain the fort to the last extremity."[23] Eyre sent a second parley flag, threatening to give no quarter if the militia did not surrender. Ledyard's response was as before, even though some of his subordinates argued that they should leave the fort and fight outside it."

Arnold ordered Eyre to assault the fort, believing that it would fall easily. However, upon reaching a prominence from which he could see its defenses, Arnold realized that the fort was more complete than anticipated and that taking it would not be easy. One of the reasons for taking the fort was to prevent the escape of boats upriver, and many had already passed beyond the fort; Arnold, therefore, attempted to recall Eyre, but the battle was joined a few minutes before the messenger arrived.

Battle Begins

Battle of Groton Heights map

Battle of Groton Heights map

On the return of the second parley flag, Eyre launched a full-scale assault upon the fort and its roughly 150 defenders. Stephen Hempstead, a sergeant in Shapley's Company, recounted, "When the answer to their demand had been returned… the enemy were soon in motion, and marched with great rapidity, in a solid column… they rushed furiously and simultaneously to the assault of the southwest bastion and the opposite sides."

As the British neared the ditch, they were met by a bombardment of grapeshot that killed and wounded many. This briefly scattered them, but they reformed into two units. Eyre led one force against the southwest bastion, where American fire repulsed the assault, seriously wounding Eyre and several of his officers.

Major William Montgomery led the second party to an abandoned redoubt just east of the fort. From there, they moved across the ditch and assaulted the ramparts. This unit gained the bastion against fierce resistance, but Montgomery was killed by the thrust of a 10-foot pike from Jordan Freeman, a black man who had previously been a slave in service to Colonel Ledyard.

Montgomery's men were finally able to open a gate from inside, and the British force poured into the fort. Seeing that the fort was penetrated, Ledyard ordered a cease fire and prepared to surrender it to the British.

What happened next was a subject of some controversy. The most detailed accounts of the event are from American sources and are fairly consistent in what they describe. According to these accounts, the British continued to fire on the Americans despite Ledyard's signs of surrender, and much of the garrison was consequently either killed or seriously wounded. Rufus Avery wrote in his account, "I believe there was not less than five or six hundred men of the enemy on the parade in the fort. They killed and wounded nearly every man in the fort as quick as they could."

Jonathan Rathbun described a British officer cold-bloodedly killing Ledyard with Ledyard's own sword: The wretch who murdered him [Ledyard] exclaimed, as he came near, "Who commands this fort?" Ledyard handsomely replied, "I did, but you do now," at the same moment handing him his sword, which the unfeeling villain buried in his breast! Oh, the hellish spite and madness of a man that will murder a reasonable and noble-hearted officer, in the act of submitting and surrendering!

Some accounts claim that Captain George Beckwith killed Ledyard, while others claim that it was Captain Stephen Bromfield, who assumed command after Major Montgomery was killed. A black soldier named Lambo Latham is credited with killing the British officer who killed Colonel Ledyard. Stephen Hempstead recalled the bloody scene in the aftermath: "Never was a scene of more brutal wanton carnage witnessed than now took place. The enemy were still firing upon us… [until] they discovered they were in danger of being blown up." Rufus Avery believed that the attack was called off due to the chance that further musket fire might set off the fort's powder magazine.

British descriptions of the battle ascribe several possible reasons for their behavior. During the battle, the fort's flag was allegedly shot down at one point, although it was quickly re-raised. Some of the British attackers claimed to have interpreted the event as striking the colors, making a sign of surrender; the British suffered significant casualties when they then approached the fort on that occasion.

They claimed that this led them to disregard Ledyard's legitimate surrender, and they vented their anger over the death and wounding of their commanding officers. Some other accounts claim that Americans in one part of the fort were unaware that Ledyard had surrendered, and continued to fight, leading the British to also continue fighting, even against those who had surrendered.

Early British historians generally did not report much beyond Arnold's report of the expedition, which did not mention killings after the surrender. William Gordon, however, reported in his 1788 history of the war that the "Americans had not more than a half dozen killed" before the fort was stormed, and that "a severe execution took place after resistance ceased." An Italian historian wrote in 1809, "The assailants massacred as well those who surrendered as those who resisted."

There were two black men and one American Indian known to be among the defenders of Fort Griswold. The black men were Jordan Freeman and Lambo Latham, who both acted heroically in the battle and were killed in action. Tom Wansuc was a Pequot Indian who was stabbed in the neck with a bayonet.

Aftermath

The massacre at Fort Griswold marked one of the largest tragedies in the history of Groton and Connecticut, and was one of the last British victories in North America before the end of the war. Damage to New London was substantial; one estimate placed the value destroyed at nearly $500,000. The battle left nearly 100 families homeless and destroyed nine public buildings and much of the town's waterfront. The state identified losses in 1792 that totaled more than £61,000, or $200,000 Continental dollars. Some who lost homes or property were awarded land in the Western Reserve.

The slaughter at Fort Griswold left dozens of Americans dead. The Groton Gazette reported that casualties numbered about 150. Some survivors escaped, such as George Middleton, but others were taken prisoner, including Stephen Hempstead. He stated, "After the massacre, they plundered us of everything we had, and left us literally naked." Hempstead was among the wounded and reported how he was placed on a wagon with others to be taken down to the fleet. The wagon was allowed to run down the hill, where it stopped when it struck a tree, throwing some of the men off the wagon and aggravating their injuries. Arnold reported that 85 men "were found dead in Fort Griswold, and sixty wounded, most of them mortally." Twelve year old William Latham was also captured by the British but was soon released on account of this age.

Benedict Arnold later issued a report stating that 48 British soldiers were killed and 145 wounded. Gen. Clinton praised Arnold for his "spirited conduct", but also complained about the high casualty rate; about 25 percent of the troops sent against Fort Griswold were killed or wounded.

One British observer wrote that it had been like "a Bunker Hill expedition", and many British soldiers blamed Arnold for the events at Fort Griswold, even though he had not been in a position to prevent the slaughter. Arnold next proposed a raiding expedition against Philadelphia, but the surrender of Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in late October ended that idea.