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Accounts of the Battle of Fort Griswold

Excerpts from Stephen Hempstead's Account

Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to General Henry Clinton

Narrative of Avery Downer, M.D.

                                                                   

The Battle of Fort Griswold

Heroic Defense of Groton and New London in the War for American Independence British Forces Led by Benedict Arnold Against His Former Neighbors Gallantry of Colonel Ledyard and Splendid Record of the Avery Family Memorial Dedicated to the American Soldiers Who Fought and Fell at Griswold
MABEL CASSINE HOLMAN
Historian of the Anna Warner Bailey Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Groton and Stonington, Connecticut
Published in The Journal of American History, 1911.

ON September 6, 1911, there was dedicated at Fort Griswold, Connecticut, a Memorial Gateway bearing tablets of bronze on which are inscribed the names of brave men-the heroes of a well-fought fight-who gave their strength, and, many or them, their lives, in the defence of Groton and New London on 6 September, 1781. The Gateway is the entrance to Fort Griswold Park and has been there placed as a result of a bill passed by the Connecticut Legislature. The dedication of the Gateway was attended by Governor Baldwin, Lieutenant-Governor Blakeslee, and many other distinguished officials and citizens. The presentation of the keys of the Gateway was made to the Governor by Mrs. Sara T. Kinney, President of the Fort Griswold Tract Commission. Her speech was as follows:

"Your Excellency: Included in the business which was transacted by the Connecticut General Assembly in agog, was the passage of a bill relating to the public reservation known as the Fort Griswold Tract. By virtue of this legislative act the State Commission in charge of this historic landmark was empowered to do whatsoever might be deemed necessary and suitable for the preservation of the old forts, and for such restorations and improvements as might legitimately come within the limits of the National and State laws under which this particular tract is governed. I now have the honor to report to Your Excellency that a goodly part of the pleasant duty delegated to the Commission has been performed, and that a brief statement concerning it will be presented during the general exercises. My present mission concerns this memorial entrance to the tract of land which environs the upper and lower forts.

"This Gateway, with its bronze tablets bearing the names, not only of the killed, but of every man who had any part in the Battle of Groton Heights„, is the gift of the State of Connecticut, in commemoration of the heroic defence of the old fort by one hundred and sixty-five American patriots against an assault by approximately eight hundred British soldiers, on September the Sixth, 1781.

"In obedience to the requirements of a bill passed by the United States Congress in 1902, the design for this Gateway was submitted to, and received the approval of, the Secretary of War. If the substantial character of the memorial, its simple dignity, and artistic merit meet with the approval of the Governor and other patriotic citizens of Connecticut, the Fort Griswold Tract Commission will feel amply repaid for its labor of love.

"And now, Sir, I have the great satisfaction of presenting to you the key to the entrance, and, in behalf of the Fort Griswold Tract Commission of Connecticut, to invite you to unlock the gates and to declare the formal opening to the public of Fort Griswold Park."

When Governor Baldwin unlocked the gates the assembled guests and the people entered. At the spot where fell the gallant Colonel Ledyard, the Commander of the Fort, a wreath was given to Mrs. Kinney by two boys, Melvin Douglas and Owen Miner, both of whom are descended from ancestors who fought in the famous battle. Mrs. Kinney presented the wreath to Governor Baldwin, who reverently laid it upon the ground where Colonel Ledyard died.

This dedication of Fort Griswold Gateway is one of the many praiseworthy instances which all loyal Americans are glad and proud to note of the erection of permanent and fitting memorials throughout the land to perpetuate the name and fame of American heroes.-The Editor.

LISTEN, and you shall hear the tale of the Battle of Fort Griswold, fought on Groton Heights near the close of the Revolutionary War, September 6, 1781. Overlooking the beautiful harbor of New London stands a towering granite monument near Fort Griswold, in memory of the men who took part in the battle. Seen through the interval of the years their deeds stand out as one of the finest tests in America of courage, true manhood, and loyalty to their country,-and, no less, the action of their wives and sweethearts who bravely bade them God- speed as they hurriedly left their homes on the morning of the fight. During the Revolutionary War Connecticut had given of her best to aid in the great struggle for liberty and freedom, sending 32,000 men when the Colony numbered but 40,000, a larger proportion than any other Colony. Connecticut had also been ever ready to answer the calls of the Continental Congress and General Washington, who turned for consultation to her governor, Jonathan Trumbull, "in every painful emergency." Beacon-fires and an alarm of two guns had been arranged to call the military companies within a day's march of her coast, at any moment, while guard-boats patrolled the shore.

The British had learned from a number of attacks that the people of Connecticut "rallied like the inhabitants of a, hornet's nest," when molested. Although their war vessels had often singly, and many times in great fleets, sailed through the Sound, the people of Groton and New London had thus far dwelt in comfort and safety; but it was a well-known fact that the British had long looked upon New London with an envious eye, situated as it was within an hour's sail of the ocean, at the mouth of the Thames River, where large supplies, foreign and domestic, were frequently gathered, and where she was able at a moment's warning to send her ships up the river to places of safety. Adam Shapley had been appointed Captain of Fort Trumbull, situated on the New London side of the river, and William Latham, Captain of Fort Griswold, opposite, a much more formidable work, occupying a commanding position on Groton Heights, while Colonel William Ledyard was placed in command of the district embracing both sides of the river.

In the latter part of the summer of 1781 New London contained a rich store of supplies, and there had just been brought in the merchant ship, Hannah, a prize worth $400,000 which was a great loss to the New York city tories. One of the causes which led the British to make the attack upon New London and Groton at this time may have been to capture or destroy these treasured stores, especially the prizes from the Hannah, another, to divert Washington from carrying on the plan of his campaign in the South where he was hastening to meet Cornwallis. The late General Joseph R. Hawley, United States Senator from Connecticut, who made the centennial address at Groton Heights in 1881, seriously doubted the latter, and speaks of Sir Henry Clinton as reporting that on the second of September he was not certain of the change in Washington's plans, while on the sixth he wrote that it was no longer a secret that Washington was embarking 4,000 troops for Cornwallis. As the British fleet was seen off Stamford on the fourth, and it must have taken two or three days to prepare the New London expedition, General Hawley believed that Clinton had ordered the movement thinking Washington was meditating some attack against Staten Island and New York, and that he could check reinforcements from Connecticut and New England. The tory "Judge" speaks of Arnold's plundering expedition as being planned by Mr. Smith, the chief justice of New York who gained great credit by its success, as a proof of his loyalty to his sovereign, although an American.

There was one other motive. At this time Benedict Arnold was idle and impatient, and, if the British were to make an attempt to enter and invade New England, reclaiming it for England, what better plan than to put Arnold, who was born in Norwich and familiar with this part of the country, in command against his old friends and neighbors?

Which of these reasons is correct will probably never be known, but we do know that the expedition was planned, and the charge of the troops given to Benedict Arnold, with Captain Beazley, in the Amphion, commanding the naval forces. On the afternoon of September q., 1781, the fleet, consisting of transports and sloops-of-war, weighed anchor and with a fair wind proceeded down the Sound toward New London, The following day it came to anchor near the Long Island shore, directly opposite and about thirty miles from New London. The British officers, calculating upon the south wind, which during the summer along the New England coast blows from noon until about three in the morning with a regularity almost unbroken except by storms, expected to arrive off the town shortly after midnight, and they accordingly weighed anchor at seven o'clock in the evening.

Let us glance at the town of Groton this fifth of September, 1781. A number of inhabitants had returned from the war, or were at home on a furlough (among those killed in Fort Griswold the following morning, fourteen bore the title of Captain, as also three who were wounded), so that there was a general rejoicing, with a sense of peace and safety. The usual every day tasks had been taken up, and Captain William Latham was building himself a new house. In the early evening, when work was put aside, neighbors and friends gathered here and there in little groups, discussing affairs and talking over the latest war news. Lieutenant Park Avery, who had been with Washington, was at home on a furlough, and it is probable he brought the word of the movement south to crush Cornwallis. If so, how eagerly and anxiously the matter was gone over; and then the more homely topics were touched upon, good weather predicted for the morrow, and the unusual occurrence of the wind blowing from the north spoken of. So they separated for the night.

It was at three the following morning that Sergeant Rufus Avery, who had charge of the garrison at Fort Griswold, saw a fleet of thirty-two vessels near the entrance of the harbor. He immediately sent word to Captain William Latham, who came at once to the fort. After viewing the fleet, he despatched a message to Colonel William Ledyard, who quickly responded. As the latter stepped into the boat to be rowed across the river he turned to those about him and said, "If I have this day to lose either life or honor, you who know me best know which it will be." Upon his arrival at the fort he ordered two guns to be discharged, the usual alarm. Captain William Latham and Sergeant Rufus Avery fired them at regular intervals, but as the sound of the second one died away, a third was discharged from the fleet, as Benedict Arnold knew well the signal for help, and that three guns were fired when a prize had been brought into the harbor, or a cause for general rejoicing. Seeing this would prevent the troops from coming to the fort, Colonel Ledyard sent swift expresses to call every captain of a militia company to hurry to their aid, and a message was also sent to Governor Trumbull.

All was now hurry and confusion in the town. Groups of people could be seen hastening to the hill near the fort, pointing to the fleet and talking in excited tones. Others were standing with clasped hands and tears running down their cheeks, as they parted never to meet again in this world. The women and children, on horse-back and in wagons, were being sent to places of safety beyond the town. Among them, Colonel Ledyard's wife, with her young baby by her side, was carried on a bed to a barge and sent up the river. The guns continued to call for assistance, always answered by a third one from the British fleet. A number from neighboring towns, fearing there was trouble at the fort, arrived in time to render aid; a few, who were plowing in the fields, left their oxen yoked; but the greater part, supposing a prize had been captured, kept on with their work, and it was not until the smoke arose from the burning of New London that the attack became generally known.

During this time the British fleet was slowly coming up the river, and it was at eight o'clock in the morning that eight hundred officers and men, with horses, guns, and carriages, were landed at Groton, and an equal number on the opposite side of the river. Captain Shapely of Fort Trumbull, seeing that he was likely to be overpowered by the enemy, fired one volley, spiked his guns, and, obeying Colonel Ledyard's orders, started with his small company of men to cross the river. A number were badly wounded before reaching Fort Griswold. The army at Groton, having been divided into two companies of four hundred each, under the charge of Colonel Eyre and Major Montgomery, appeared in sight about nine o'clock, and were immediately fired upon from the fort. Colonel Ayer led his men to the woods half a mile away, whence they ran forward in broken ranks to the shelter of the rocky height about one hundred and thirty yards from the fort, while Major Montgomery stationed his men a short distance northeast of Eyre. Shortly after, Colonel Eyre sent a flag demanding an unconditional surrender.

It was one of those hot summer days that come early in September; the river flowed without a sound; in the harbor lay the British fleet, while outside thousands of little waves rippled and danced in the sunlight. Save for the sound of the crickets, for a moment all was still, as Colonel Ledyard looked his fellow officers, townsmen, and old friends in the face, asking, "What shall be done?" The flag above them scarcely stirred in the breeze as the little company of one hundred and fifty-five or one hundred and sixty men, gathered in the fort, came to the decision, "We shall not surrender." Captains Elijah Avery, Amos Stanton, and John Williams carried the answer that sealed their death-warrant. Again the flags met, and the second summons added that, if the British were obliged to storm the fort, they should put martial law in force. Captain Shapley carried the reply, "We shall not give up the fort to them, let the consequences be what they may."

Earlier in the day Benedict Arnold, seeing how many vessels were being sent up the river to places of safety, despatched a staff officer to hurry Colonel Eyre in making the attack, but upon reaching a hill in New London, and seeing that Fort Griswold was "much more formidable" than he supposed, he sent another officer to countermand the order to assault. But it was too late, as Colonel Eyre had summoned the fort to surrender.

Upon receiving the answer carried by Captain Shapley, Colonel Eyre immediately put both regiments in motion, advancing in solid column. When they reached open ground, Colonel Ledyard gave the word, and an eighteenpounder, double shotted with grape, cleared a wide space. The British then broke into a scattered skirmishing order and quickly advanced to the fort, where every man of the little garrison fought desperately. Colonel Eyre fell seriously wounded. Major Montgomery took his regiment around to the north, and entered the redoubt, where they emerged, charging upon the fort, which was now surrounded by six hundred soldiers, watching every head that rose above the parapet to load a gun or fire a musket.

Just as Major Montgomery was entering the ditch, where he had valiantly led his men, he fell dead, thrust through with a spear. His men rushed to avenge him, and the fight raged furiously. Lieutenant Park Avery turned to his eldest son, a boy of seventeen, "Tom, my son, do your duty." "Never fear, father," the boy replied, and the next instant fell. "It was in a good cause," said his father, as he carried him to the barracks. The gate of the fort was broken in, but the soldier who did this was shot dead. The enemy, four or five to one, were breaking the pickets down, shooting the defenders, and climbing up the walls. Solid shot was dashed upon their heads, there being no time to load. The flag was shot away, and the British cheered; in another instant, it was raised on a spike-pole by Luke Perkins. The enemy rushed into the northeast bastion and broke down the gate.

The day was lost. Colonel Ledyard ordered his men to throw down their arms and shouted a surrender. From the parapet the British continued to fire upon the well or wounded, armed or unarmed. Captain Shapley fell. Eyre's men came swarming in over the southwestern bastion. Montgomery's men, led by Major Bromfield, rushed into the fort. Raising and lowering his sword, Colonel Ledyard marched to meet them on the parade, when the voice of an English officer was heard, "Who commands this fort?" "I did, but you do now," said Ledyard, extending his sword to Major Bromfield. The next instant he fell dead, thrust through and through.

Honorable warfare fled in one moment. The British killed and wounded nearly every man in -the fort. Colonel Ledyard's nephew received a shattered knee and thirteen bayonet wounds; Lieutenant Park Avery, who had lost an eye and had part of his brains torn out, was bayonetted as he lay bleeding; and Lieutenant Enoch Stanton was massacred. Insane men fired into the wounded, sheltered in the magazine. Captain Bromfield, quickly raising his sword, shouted, "Stop firing or you'll send us all to hell." The blood flowed knee deep (this alone prevented an explosion), and a British officer was seen running from side to side, crying, "Stop, stop, in the name of Heaven, stop! My soul cannot bear it." The massacre ceased.

Not more than thirty men in the garrison had been injured, and from three to six killed, before the enemy had reached the crest of the parapet. Over eighty were now dead, stretched on the parade in front of the barrack. It was one o'clock, and the British immediately began burying their dead, of whom there were about one hundred and seventy, in the ditch of a triangular work made to cover the gate. Major Montgomery was buried on the right of the gate, as they passed out of the fort. (Some years after the battle, an Irish gentleman from Montgomery's home came to America on business, having been requested by Montgomery's sisters, if his travels should bring him near the scene of their brother's death, to find his grave, and, if possible, procure his skull that it might be buried on English soil with his ancestors. Their request was complied with, and the precious relic was taken back to England by their old friend.)

Across the river, New London was burning, and the line of women and children that had been seen from the fort earlier in the day, carrying their household treasures to places of safety, had long since disappeared, but the solitary figure of Benedict Arnold still stood in the burying ground on the hill, watching the burning city and the scene at Fort Griswold opposite. After burying their dead the enemy laid a train of powder from the barracks to the magazine, intending to blow up the fort, but in this they were not successful. The wounded men of the garrison, numbering between thirty or forty, were put in one of the ammunition wagons belonging to the fort, around which a chain was fastened, the enemy proposing to drag the wagon down a long hill to the river. Not being able to hold it back they let go, and the wagon dashed down the hill, until stopped by the trunk of an apple tree near the bank of the river, where the cries of the suffering men were clearly heard in New London above the turmoil and confusion of the burning city.

Nineteen homes near the fort were in flames before the British began preparations for embarking, at sunset. Thirty-five men were carried away prisoners, and Ebenezer Ledyard, a brother of Colonel Ledyard, Major Bromfield accepted as hostage for the wounded left on parole. As the last vessel of the fleet disappeared in the gathering darkness the women of Groton and nearby towns came seeking their dead and ministering to the wounded. Among the dead, Colonel Ledyard's face is said to have been the most peaceful; near him lay the "flower of the town," young and old. There was James Comstock, aged seventy-five, and Daniel Williams of Saybrook, in his fifteenth year. Major Bromfield is charged with Colonel Ledyard's death, but the question is an open one, and the British officers never made the name public. Ebenezer Ledyard was taken prisoner to New York, where he fell under the care of Sir Guy Carlton, successor to Sir Henry Clinton, and to a son born some six years later he gave the name of Guy Carlton.

It was Fanny Ledyard who first held draughts of water and warm cocoa to the lips of the dying and wounded. As the darkness settled down, came Eunice ii Forsythe, the wife of Captain William Latham, with her daughter, Mary. Mrs. Latham had been brought up with great tenderness and care, and never allowed even to spin, but this night she walked three miles from the "Old Avery House," the home of her uncle, where with her children she had been sent by Captain Latham as soon as he saw the British fleet, under the charge of his slave, Larbo. Now she came seeking for news of her husband and little son, William, who had been in the fort all that dreadful day, fetching and bringing the powder, until he received the name of "Powder Monkey." Holding a lantern near the faces of the dead, Mrs. Latham sought in vain for them, and it was not until morning that she found her husband, seriously wounded, in the home of Ebenezer Avery, used as a hospital, and learned that Benedict Arnold had taken her little son prisoner. Securing a rowboat Mrs. Latham crossed the river, and going to Arnold's tent demanded her child. "Take him," said Arnold, "but do not bring him up to be a d rebel." "I shall teach him to despise the name of a traitor," she replied.

The old slave, Lambo, was found lying with thirty-three bayonet wounds among the dead in the fort, where he twice had saved the life of his master, only to lose his own. Another colored man, for there were two in the fort that day, Jordan Freeman, is credited with killing Major Montgomery. Early in the morning following the battle, came a young woman of twenty-three, Anna Warner,-who in the War of 1812 became renowned through the country as "Mother Bailey" of the "Martial Petticoat,"-searching for her uncle, who the day before had hurried to the aid of the garrison. The night had passed with no tidings brought to the home, and Anna, after early performing the outdoor work of the farm, hurried to the fort three miles distant. Here she found her uncle, dying, on the bare floor of the house where the wounded had been taken. Upon recognizing her, he called for his wife and children. Anna hurried back to the farm with the sad news, and quickly saddled the family horse, on which she placed the mother and one of the older children, and taking the baby in her arms, herself on foot, returned to the dying father and laid the child beside him. Anna Warner afterwards married Elijah Bailey, who was ordered on the day of the battle to fire the field piece in the redoubt east of the fort as long as possible, and then come inside. Stopping to spike his gun, he was shut out of the fort, but secreting himself in a corn field, saved his life.

The morning of September 6 two young men, cousins, Benadam and Belton Allyn of Allyn's Point, had started for the fort in answer to the signal guns. On their way Belton stopped to speak to his cousin, who was teaching school, and to her question where they were going with their guns so early Benadam replied, "Down to the training to see the fun." They both lost their lives, and the first Belton's mother knew of the death of her only son was when his father came home with his body on his saddle.

Sergeant Daniel Stanton, a brother of Lieutenant Enoch Stanton of Stonington, a few days before the battle had given his sweetheart a heavy, rich piece of brocaded silk for her wedding dress, which he had received from the prize ship, Hannah, as a part of his share of her cargo. A day or two later, in sorrow and tears, the dress was put away, and the little sweetheart stood by the side of a double grave, where the brothers were laid. Not as romantic, but quite as brave, was Mrs. John Hempstead, who called to her husband, as he rode from his home in answer to the alarm on the morning of the battle, "Do not let me hear that you are shot in the back, John." In the Old Avery House, built in 1656, the home of Elder Park Avery, there were carried the night of September 6 and laid upon the floor, nine dead and wounded who bore the name of Avery, Among them was Lieutenant Park Avery, who had been left for dead. As he was taken out of the fort on the shoulders of those who were collecting the bodies, he startled them by saying, "Keep step boys, keep step!" His two brothers, jasper and Elisha, with his oldest son, Thomas, were dead, and a third brother, Ebenezer, seriously wounded.

Elder Park Avery was one of the most prominent citizens of Groton. In the beginning of the Revolutionary War he had written his four sons from Hartford, where he was a member of the Colonial Legislature, and one decidedly in favor of fighting, if necessary, for independence, "Stand by your country, as I am too old to fight myself." Elder Avery's boys had "stood by their country.

And so all through Groton and the neighboring towns were seen, during those dreadful days, processions bearing the dead and wounded to the homes and firesides they had laid down their lives to protect. Many of these heroes are sleeping near the old fort that remains very much the same as on the day of battle. As the flag softly furls and unfurls at close of day, when the deepening blue of the beautiful harbor is dotted with sails and the grass ripples through the trenches where the English soldiers lie, comes the song of the vesper sparrow, rising and falling like the notes of a silver bugle sounding "taps"-God's "taps" for all.

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