Benedict Arnold committed his final act of treason against his fellow Connecticut countrymen during the little-remembered Fort Griswold massacre. He also ordered New London plundered and burned across the river, just a few miles from his hometown of Norwich.
In September 1781 the Continental Army under George Washington intended to trap English general Charles Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Va. That would set the stage for the decisive victory that ended the American Revolution.
The commander of English forces for the colonies, Henry Clinton, was in New York. Upon realizing Washington’s strategy, he wanted to distract the American army from its pursuit of Cornwallis in Virginia.
Clinton turned to Gen. Benedict Arnold. Almost exactly a year earlier, Arnold, a one-time officer in the Connecticut militia, had joined the British side.
Clinton ordered Arnold to attack Connecticut forces at New London and capture the city. He hoped the port could become a useful base of operations for the British. New London also had warehouses full of military supplies for the patriot cause.
Arnold then transported 1,700 British regulars, Hessians and Loyalists from New York.
On Sept. 6, 1781, Rufus Avery stood the night watch at Fort Griswold. He saw the enemy fleet in the harbor at about 3 a.m., as soon as daylight appeared. Avery counted 32 in all — ships, brigs, schooners and sloops. He felt a “thrill of dread.”
The Burning of New London
Arnold landed half his men on the New London side of the Thames River under his own command. The rest he directed to land on the other side at Groton under the command of Col. Edmund Eyre.
On the New London side, the army marched to Fort Trumbull at the river mouth and then split up. Half proceeded to New London, where they plundered and burned the town from both ends. They destroyed more than 140 homes, warehouses and shops as well as the ships at the wharves.
Capt. Adam Shapley had only 24 Continental soldiers holding down Fort Trumbull. He spiked the cannon, and then he and his men tried to board vessels waiting to take them to safety up the river. But the British were too quick, and badly wounded seven of them.
Battle of Groton Heights
On the Groton side of the river, it took longer for the British forces to climb the heights through tangled underbrush. The fort’s commander, Col. William Ledyard, had only about 165 men, militia and volunteers, to face down 800 of the enemy. He sent messengers to the local militias to ask for help, but none came.
The two sides exchanged fire for about an hour. Then the British commander, Eyre, sent a flag of truce to demand surrender. Ledyard refused. Eyre again sent the flag. His message: What they did not kill by ball, they should put to death by sword and bayonet.
Ledyard replied they would not give up the fort, “let the consequences be what they would.”
The British then advanced on the fort, despite a barrage of artillery fire that caused heavy casualties. Eyre suffered wounds that may have been mortal (accounts differ) and his second-in-command was killed.
The loss of their officers didn’t deter the bloodthirsty British soldiers, wrote Avery. He described hard fighting, shocking slaughter and much blood spilled. Finally, several British regulars reached the gate and opened it. The British then marched in.
Fort Griswold Massacre
Ledyard ordered the American flag struck and stepped onto the parade ground to parley. His British counterpart asked him who commanded the fort. Ledyard said, “I did, but you do now.”
Ledyard offered his sword, expecting the officer to either keep it or give it back. Instead, he took Ledyard’s sword and stabbed him to death with it. Some claim the Americans then stabbed the British officer. Others say they did not.
Over the next two minutes the British killed every American they could, wrote Avery. “We trod in blood!” he wrote. “We trampled under feet the limbs of our Countrymen, our neighbors and dear kindred. Our ears were filled with the groans of the dying.”
Estimates of the American dead vary from as few as 30 to more than 80.
Avery thought the British grew tired of human butchery, and so let the rest of them live. They then marched their prisoners down to a sloop. After days of hardship at sea, the British exchanged prisoners, and Avery returned home.
The day after the carnage, 16-year-old Jonathan Rathbun arrived in New London with his militia company from Colchester, Conn.
“[W]e witnessed a scene of suffering and horror which surpasses description,” he wrote. “The enemy were not to be found, but they had left behind them the marks of their barbarism and cruelty. The city was in ashes.”
He saw more than 130 naked chimneys standing in the midst of smoking ruins. New London, he wrote, had been destroyed but not deserted. The British had made 40 widows in New London the day before, and Rathbun saw them following the carts that bore their dead fathers, husbands or brothers,” he wrote. “Never can I forget the tears, the sobs, the shrieks of wo[e].”
Clinton praised Arnold for his success, but complained about the number of British casualties suffered during the fighting. He’d lost about a quarter of his men.
The battle marked the one of the last major British victories of the American Revolution. It was soon followed shortly by Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown to French and American forces.
According to legend, the Marquis de Lafayette shouted, “Remember Fort Griswold,” as the allies stormed the British redoubts.
This story updated in 2023.
With thanks to Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun, With Accurate Accounts of the Capture of Groton Fort, the Massacre that Followed, and the Sacking and Burning of New London, September 6, 1781, by the British Forces Under the Command of the Traitor Benedict Arnold By Jonathan Rathbun, Rufus Avery, Stephen Hempstead
Images: Lower battery of Fort Griswold By It'sOnlyMakeBelieve – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101275905. Memorial plaque By It'sOnlyMakeBelieve – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=101276156.