By 1781 it was becoming apparent to both sides that outright British victory in the American Revolution was unlikely, in part due to the commitment of French troops and other resources that would culminate in the successful Yorktown campaign in October 1781.
Connecticut native Benedict Arnold, a skilled military leader who switched his allegiance to Britain, was ordered to attack the port of New London in an attempt to divert some of Washington’s army away from the developing Virginia campaign, punish New London for its successful privateering operations against British shipping, and possibly to establish a base for future British military operations in New England.
The citizens fled the town, and Fort Trumbull, guarding the west side of the river, was quickly abandoned as Arnold’s force of about 1700 men landed from the British ships anchored off New London. The British troops set to destroying military and naval supplies and accidentally caused a fire that soon spread, burning much of the town. Meanwhile, across the river in Groton, militia forces commanded by Colonel William Ledyard had manned Fort Griswold, a substantial fortification atop Groton Heights, a hill overlooking the Thames River. American cannon fire caused considerable casualties among the British when they attacked the fort, but additional assaults finally breached the fort’s defenses.
What happened next is a source of controversy. Colonel Ledyard, seeing his troops were outnumbered, ordered the surrender of the garrison. According to some accounts, Ledyard was run through and killed with his own sword when he surrendered it to the British officer in charge. Other evidence suggests Ledyard may have died from a bayonet wound instead. What is clear is that confusion reigned, and it is possible that Ledyard’s order to surrender was not received by all the militia, leading the British to continue firing at the Americans. Following the battle the British withdrew, leaving death and widespread destruction on both banks of the Thames.
More than 100 Americans were killed and scores more were wounded. Many of the captured militiamen were taken to New York and imprisoned for months. Public passions were stirred by reports of the “massacre” and its particulars remain a topic of debate to this day. Fort Griswold was rebuilt and today is part of the Connecticut state park system.
The Connecticut Historical Society collection includes items relating to the Battle of Groton Heights, including the shirt and vest believed worn by Colonel Ledyard during the battle, and an engraved powder horn belonging to a survivor of the battle. These and other materials related to the American Revolution may be viewed by visiting the Waterman Research Center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The Research Center is open Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. For more details go to www.chs.org. Selected photographs and other images of Groton Heights may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at www.cthistoryonline.org.