October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
Fifth in a series of painting for
One of the ghastliest incidents of the Revolution took place at Groton, Connecticut, during the last engagement of the war in the north. Seventeen hundred British, Hessian, and Tory troops under the command of Benedict Arnold—now a British general after his defection the year before—set out against New London, on the west side of the Thames River from Groton, to seize a large supply of military stores there. The wide harbor between the towns was defended by two forts a mile or two north of the mouth, Trumbull and Griswold, the latter in Groton.
Arnold’s force landed south of the forts on the morning of September 6, 1781, one division on each side of the harbor. Arnold marched up toward New London, dispatching some troops under a Gaptain Milieu against Fort Trumbull. Twenty-four (Connecticut state troops manned the fort. This tiny force fired a single volley, spiked its artillery, and fled to Fort Griswold. Here a hundred forty militia under the command of Lieutenant (Colonel William Ledyard waited for the attack behind sturdy stone walls twelve feet high, atop a steep hill.
Acting on Arnold’s orders, Lieutenant Colonel Edmond Eyre approached Fort Griswold and ordered the garrison to surrender. Upon being refused, he attacked from two sides. The small garrison met the assault with fierce firing and drove it back. Eyre, mortally wounded, ordered another attack, and again his men stormed up the slopes but once more faltered under the Hailing musketry. On the third try they burst into the fort and overwhelmed its defenders.
Ledyard offered his sword in surrender to Lieutenant Colonel Van Buskirk of the New Jersey Volunteers, a Tory unit. Van Buskirk accepted the weapon and then, incredibly, plunged it into Ledyard’s body. The victors went on to massacre the garrison. When the butchery was done, eighty-five men were dead (six had been killed in the attack), and sixty wounded.
Although he had been born at Norwich, nearby in NewLondon County, Arnold put the harbor towns to the torch. Christopher Ward, in his classic study The War of the Revolution , sums up Arnold’s last campaign with uncharacteristic warmth: “Having thus visited upon the unoffending civil population of his own state this punishment for devotion to the cause that he himself had … so well defended and then so basely belnned, Ceneral Arnold embarked his gallant troops and returned to New York.”