British Brigadier Benedict Arnold’s last ‘homecoming’ only served to secure his place in the history books as America’s most despised traitor.
A fleet of warships and troop transports glided quietly across the waters of Long Island Sound toward the Connecticut coastline. The commander of the soldiers aboard the transports knew this country well. He had been born and raised in the town of Norwich, a dozen miles inland from the harbor before him. As a ship’s captain and a merchant trader, he had often sailed these waters. It was September 6, 1781, and Brigadier Benedict Arnold of the British army was coming home.
Up to this point, six years of Revolutionary War had left the Connecticut town of New London physically unscathed. Although battles had been waged around Newport, R.I., 40 miles to the east, and at New York City, 100 miles to the west, thus far British operations in the region had been limited to blockading and occasional raids by small landing parties. That was about to change.
By the late summer of 1781, the British presence in the Northern colonies was limited to New York City and its immediate environs. Their principal commander in the South, Lt. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis, had moved northward into Virginia after a long, fruitless campaign in the Carolinas. As Cornwallis’ force settled in Yorktown, General George Washington’s Continental Army and his French allies were reportedly turning their backs on New York and marching to strike at the vulnerable Cornwallis. Rather than reinforce his threatened forces there, however, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief based in New York, decided to take action in the local theater, perhaps partly in the hope that a diversion would draw American attention away from Virginia.
New London was an attractive choice for a quick operation. Its fine harbor, at the mouth of the broad Thames River, had sheltered numerous privateers that preyed upon hundreds of British merchant ships. Only a month before, the merchantman Hannah, loaded with a cargo valued at 80,000 pounds sterling, had been captured and carried into New London. The town’s warehouses were packed with goods that could supply Washington’s forces in the coming winter.
New London’s harbor was protected by Fort Trumbull, a waterfront battery on a small peninsula to the south, and by Fort Griswold, a much stronger work atop steep Groton Heights, directly across the Thames from the town. In addition, a small earthwork, derisively known as “Fort Folly” or “Fort Nonsense,” guarded the land approaches to New London from the south and west. Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard, a member of a prominent local family, commanded the coastal defenses. Except for about 50 Connecticut state soldiers divided between the garrisons at Forts Trumbull and Griswold, Ledyard would have to rely upon local militia. Although the rolls carried 2,000 names, far fewer men could actually be mustered during an emergency.
Clinton’s choice to command the expeditionary force was equally compelling. Not only was Benedict Arnold familiar with New London from childhood, but his presence would draw American ire. In the first five years since he had learned of the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Arnold had gone from Connecticut militia leader to major general, suffering two leg wounds and distinguishing himself at Quebec, Valcour Island and Saratoga. In 1780 he was placed in charge of West Point, on the Hudson River. Intensely ambitious, disgruntled over delays in promotion and angered by charges that he had mishandled funds, Arnold had already begun secret negotiations with the British. He agreed to surrender West Point in exchange for a commission in the British army plus a large cash reward. Through mischance the plot was discovered before it could be carried out, but Arnold escaped to the English lines. As a British brigadier general, Arnold led a force to harass coastal Virginia during the winter and spring of 1781 before being recalled. He had been in New York for two months when Clinton agreed to his proposal to attack New London.
Arnold’s heterogeneous strike force typified the British army in America by that stage of the war. The regulars were represented by the veteran 38th, 40th and 54th regiments of foot. A detachment of Hessian light infantry—Jägers—four units of Loyalists, including the “American Legion” raised under Arnold’s personal direction, and a few artillery pieces completed his roster of more than 1,800 men.
As the British approached New London in the early morning of September 6, an unexpected shift in wind direction forced the ships to beat back and forth in a zigzag course. At dawn Fort Griswold’s garrison sighted two dozen transports and their warship escorts. Orderly Sergeant Rufus Avery summoned the fort’s commander, Captain William Latham, who immediately sent for Ledyard. The colonel was not altogether surprised—a spy had already warned of a British fleet anchored off the north shore of Long Island, 30 miles from New London.
Ledyard ordered two alarm guns fired to warn the countryside—and the local militia—of an enemy approach. Within seconds, however, a third cannon sounded, fired from one of the British ships at the river mouth. Ledyard realized that spies had betrayed his alarm system, for three shots identified a friendly vessel. The American commander dispatched couriers to muster the militia regardless of the confusion in signals.
While the British fleet still labored against the wind to enter the harbor, Ledyard crossed the Thames to confer with civilian officials in New London. Recognizing that Fort Griswold offered his only realistic defense, Ledyard arranged for gunpowder from the town’s storehouses to be carried across the river to that fort. Ledyard also sent a courier with news of the impending attack to Governor Jonathan Trumbull’s home in Lebanon. Once warned of their danger, ship captains roused their crews and tried to escape upriver, but they had to contend with the same unfavorable wind that was delaying the British.
Having sent his pregnant wife away from the town, Ledyard crossed back to Fort Griswold. There, he found a disappointing number of militiamen, partly due to the confusion arising from the British signaling ruse but also because there had been numerous false alarms in the past. Ledyard called his officers to a council of war. Amos Stanton, a veteran Continental Army captain, urged that troops be sent to the shore to oppose the expected landing, and then to harass and delay any British advance while more militia arrived. Ledyard, however, probably mindful of the lack of discipline in the militia, decided to make his stand in Fort Griswold itself.
Arnold finally managed to anchor several hours behind schedule and divided his force into two parts. Arnold himself would lead a force of some 800 men, including the 38th Foot, three Loyalist battalions and a Jäger detachment, with one cannon. They were to land on a sandy beach near the western edge of the river’s mouth, then march three miles north on high ground to approach Fort Trumbull and New London from the west. The remainder of the British force, including the 40th and 54th Foot, the 3rd Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers, the rest of the Jägers and two guns, was to land east of the harbor entrance. Commanded by Lt. Col. Edmund Eyre of the 54th, this detachment would attack Fort Griswold, which Loyalist informants had reported was still under construction.
Arnold’s western column didn’t finish coming ashore by small boats until 10 a.m. About 40 American civilians and militiamen had gathered to oppose the landing, with the pointed encouragement of family and friends. John Hempstead’s wife shouted after him “not to let me hear that you are Shot in the Back.” The Americans, however, were quickly driven off by covering fire from British warships. Lieutenant Hempstead later recalled that “ther Cannon…balls flew over Our heads like hale Stones.” Arnold’s troops started inland, driving small groups of militia before them. Arnold split off four companies of the 38th Foot and a detachment of Loyalists to march directly against Fort Trumbull. The Connecticut-born Loyalist commander, Captain Nathan Frink, was well qualified to guide them—his sister lived in New London. The fort was a riverside battery intended only for defense against ships sailing up the Thames. Its 23-man garrison, commanded by Captain Adam Shapley, fired one volley of grapeshot that killed or wounded five British, then spiked their cannons and fled to boats on the riverbank.
Although several of his men were captured or wounded, Shapley brought the rest across the Thames to Fort Griswold. Among them was another member of the Hempstead family, Sergeant Stephen Hempstead, who had previously served under his friend, Captain Nathan Hale, a former New London schoolteacher, and had accompanied Hale during his doomed spy mission. He later volunteered as a crewman on a fire ship in an unsuccessful attempt to burn a British ship-ofthe-line at New York. Badly wounded at the Battle of Harlem Heights in October 1776, he returned home to New London to recuperate. Not yet fit for active field service, he had enlisted in Connecticut state forces for garrison duty in the coastal defenses.
As he advanced north, Arnold realized that although wind and tide were still holding the American ships in the harbor, they might soon escape upriver. He sent a messenger to cross the Thames with orders for Eyre to hurry his attack against Fort Griswold so that its cannons could be turned against the American vessels.
While Fort Trumbull was being captured, Arnold led the rest of his force along the main road to New London. South of Fort Folly, 100 militiamen had gathered. Colonel Joseph Harris, commander of New London’s Independent Militia companies, rode past, and when the troops called upon him to take charge, Harris replied, “You must excuse me, gentlemen, as I have a violent sick-headache this morning, and can hardly sit on my horse,” and departed. The disorganized militia scattered.
As John Hempstead neared Fort Folly, a friend called to ask if he would care for some gin. “I told him yes & thanky two,” Hempstead later wrote. After taking a drink of “holland Jinn” with several other would-be defenders, Hempstead helped hide the remaining bottles of liquor from the British in a patch of high weeds. He was later happy to record “they never fownd the case of jinn.” After being fired upon by green-jacketed skirmishers, Hempstead ran to the fort, only to find it already abandoned. He fled, dodging more enemy bullets, and the British entered the fort unopposed, as an American onlooker shouted, “Wilkom God damyou to fort Non Sence.”
After brushing aside another small militia force on the high ground above the town, Arnold quickly occupied New London. Many of the inhabitants had fled to the countryside. Arnold found that the wind had shifted, and thus any American ships able to raise sail were already escaping. Inspecting the fortifications across the river with a field glass, he saw to his dismay that Fort Griswold looked far more formidable than his spies had claimed. He immediately dispatched a new order to Eyre to suspend any attack on the fort.
Perched at the top of a hill 120 feet above the river, Fort Griswold formed a rough trapezoid, about 70 by 90 yards. Bastions at the northwest and southwest corners and a projection in the eastern face could deliver flanking fire against any enemy trying to scale the stone-and-earth walls. A dry moat along the northern and eastern faces augmented the 12-foot-high walls. The southern and western walls were considered tall enough to make a moat there unnecessary. Partway down the steep slope to the river, an additional battery of heavy guns pointed out across the Thames. A small redoubt a few hundred yards east guarded against any approach from that direction.
The main gate, in the northern wall, was shielded by a ravelin outside the fort. The narrow sally port, a cramped, twisted tunnel through the high south wall, was its only other entrance. Further obstacles to approach were provided by abatis, bundles of sharpened branches outside the moat, and by sharpened stakes sticking out from the walls themselves.
Inside the fort, a barracks for the permanent garrison stood along the eastern edge of the small parade ground. A powder magazine was built into the southwestern bastion, where the fort’s flagpole stood. About half of the fort’s 22 cannons faced west toward the river, while the rest peered out through embrasures in the parapets. Firing steps had been built between the cannons for the musket-armed defenders.
Strong though Fort Griswold looked, its rotted timber cannon platforms were liable to collapse during firing. Although Ledyard had brought more gunpowder for the magazine that morning, few preweighed and bagged charges were available. Most of the powder would have to be measured out for each shot, slowing the reloading process and increasing the danger of accidental explosion from the loose powder.
Even with the arrival of Shapley’s force from across the river, Ledyard had only about 160 men at Fort Griswold. Most were local farmers, of whom at least a dozen shared Sergeant Rufus Avery’s surname, but two men of African descent and a Pequot Indian also carried arms. The most valuable of Ledyard’s reinforcements were crewmen from privateers unable to escape upriver, who at least had experience in firing cannons.
When Colonel Eyre’s force disembarked on the Groton side of the Thames, he decided to leave his cannons behind to follow at their own pace, accompanied by the battalion of New Jersey Volunteers. Eyre himself pressed ahead with the 40th and 54th Foot and the Jägers. Eyre sent Captain George Beckwith forward under a flag of truce to demand Fort Griswold’s surrender, warning that, under the rules of war, no quarter would be given if the garrison refused his offer. Beckwith was kept waiting while Ledyard, in accordance with 18th-century military protocol, communicated formally through an American officer of a rank equal to that of the British messenger. Rufus Avery recorded the colonel’s final answer: “[H]e should not give up the fort to them, let the consequence be what it might.”
Arnold’s order to suspend the attack had not yet made its way across the river, so Eyre launched an assault before the Loyalists and the artillery came up. Eyre would lead the elite British Light Infantry and Grenadier companies north past the fort, then turn and strike the north and east faces. The line companies, commanded by Major William Montgomery of the 40th, were to attack the south wall while the Jägers screened the approaches to the fort.
As the British formations maneuvered and captured the outlying redoubt, the Americans opened fire. One blast of double grapeshot from an 18-pounder cannon aimed by privateer captain Elias Halsey tore a wide hole in a British column—Avery later heard that about 20 men had been killed or wounded by that single shot.
When in position, both British columns tried to push their way past the obstacles and up the walls. Eyre was wounded and carried from the field. Some of the Americans later remembered repulsing three separate assault waves in half an hour before the British fell back. By chance, however, a musket ball cut through the halyard of Fort Griswold’s flagpole. Seeing its striped banner flutter to the ground, British soldiers thought the defenders were surrendering. They cheered, fired a volley into the air and rushed eagerly toward the fort. The Americans, raising their flag on a pikestaff, again opened fire.
Incensed at this seeming treachery, the British furiously pressed their renewed attack. The Grenadier and Light Infantry companies of the 40th Foot shifted left to the fort’s south face and scaled it without ladders by climbing on one another’s shoulders. Major Montgomery was one of the first to make his way up the wall before being mortally wounded by a pike reportedly wielded by Jordan Freeman, Colonel Ledyard’s black orderly. Finding the rate of musket fire too slow, some of the Americans resorted to tossing cannon balls down upon the British.
“I commanded an eighteen-pounder on the south side of the gate,” wrote Stephen Hempstead years later, “and while in the act of righting my gun, a ball passed through the embrasure, struck me a little above the right ear, grazing the skull, and cutting off the veins, which bled profusely. A handkerchief was tied around it, and I continued at my duty. Discovering, some little time after, that a British soldier had broken a picket at the bastion on my left, and was forcing himself through the hole, whilst the men stationed there were gazing at the battle which raged opposite to them, cried, ‘my brave fellows, the enemy are breaking in behind you,’ and raised my pike to dispatch the intruder, when a ball struck my left arm at the elbow, and my pike fell to the ground. Nevertheless, I grasped it with my right hand, and with the men, who turned and fought manfully, cleared the breach.”
Hempstead looked across to the southwest bastion to see a wave of British soldiers overrunning its defenders. When Fort Griswold had been constructed, a rough outcropping of rock was incorporated into the wall at one angle of the bastion. British attackers now scaled that outcropping like a ladder and pushed the Americans back. One soldier leapt down on to the fort’s parade field and tried to open the sally port, but he fell wounded. A comrade finally succeeded in unbarring the gate. Ledyard, certain that he couldn’t organize a counterattack to retake the walls, called for his men to cease fighting.
Chaos erupted. “When they had overpowered us and driven us from our stations at the breastwork of the fort,” Avery wrote, “[the] officers and men…quit their posts, and went on the open parade in the fort, where the enemy had every opportunity to massacre us, there was about six of the enemy to one of us. The enemy mounted the parapet seemingly all as one, swung their hats around once, and discharged their guns, and them they did not kill with ball they meant to kill with the bayonet.”
British soldiers crossed the parade field to unbar the main gate, admitting more Redcoats. What happened next would spark controversy. Sergeant Avery, seeking refuge in the barracks, saw Ledyard approach a British officer, raising and lowering his sword as a signal of surrender. Avery turned to enter the barracks, then looked again towards Ledyard, only to see the American commander lying dead on the ground.
Although no witness reported actually seeing what happened at the time, Americans were quick to believe a dramatic tale of Ledyard’s death. Only three days after the battle, one local leader wrote Governor Trumbull that “Colo. Ledyard…thot. proper to Surrender himself with the Garison prisoners, & presented his Sword to an officer who Recd. the Same & imediately Lunged it thro. the Brave Commandant when the Ruffans (no doubt by order) pierced him in many places with Bayonets.” Trumbull repeated the story in a letter to Washington a few days later.
A tradition grew up that a British officer, often identified as a Loyalist, had called out, “Who commands this fort?” Ledyard supposedly replied, “I did, but you do now,” at the same time handing over his sword, hilt first. The officer is then said to have plunged Ledyard’s own sword into his body. Many years after the battle, several survivors, undoubtedly influenced by decades of propaganda, claimed they had personally witnessed his perfidious murder. Whether he was indeed killed by a sword or a British bayonet, as some evidence suggests, Ledyard and many of his men were in fact cut down after the fort’s surrender. British soldiers were enraged at the loss of many comrades, and American Lieutenant Obadiah Perkins was told by one of his captors that “every Man ought to be put to the Sword, for (says he) this is a propur storm, and you fought us after your Colours were struck.” Adding to British rancor, Ensign Alexander Gray of the 40th Foot wrote, “After the troops carried the work the Enemy fired from their Barracks and wounded several men.”
They killed and wounded nearly every man in the fort as quick as they could, which was done in about one minute. I expected my time to come with the rest. One mad-looking fellow put his bayonet to my side, and swore, ‘bejasus, he would skipper me.’ I looked him very earnestly in the face and eyes, and asked for mercy and to spare my life. He attempted three times to put the bayonet in me, but I must say I believe God forbade him, for I was completely in his power, as well as others that was present with the enemy. The enemy at the same time massacred Lieut. Enoch Stanton within four or five feet of me. A platoon of about ten men marched up near where I stood….They discharged their guns into the magazine among the dead and wounded, and some well ones, and some they killed and wounded. That platoon fell back, and another came forward to discharge their guns….As they made ready to fire, [a British officer] came suddenly around the corner of the magazine, and very quickly raised his sword, exclaiming, ‘Stop firing! You’ll send us all to hell together!’ Their language was bad as well as their conduct…they very soon left off killing, and then went stripping and robbing the dead and wounded, and also those that were not wounded.
Several months after the battle, Captain Solomon Perkins remembered a moment of horror:
I with a number of others being on the Parade perceiving they gave no quarters we retired into a room in one of the barracks in hope of escaping their fury, but an officer of the British came to the door of the barracks & ordered us to lay down our arms. We accordingly laid down our arms, begged for quarters. He damned us & told us we ought all to be put to Death immediately, upon this another officer with some soldiers came to the door & asked the first officer why he did not put us to death, the other replied we had begged for quarters, he again replied he would be damned if [we] should have quarters or words to that amount, & immediately ordered his men to fire in upon us. They fired & some they wounded & we crowded up into the opposite corner of the barracks being shut up & could make no escape, they continued firing & killing, & we kept pressing against the partition of the barracks & burst out into the other room & as I was getting the door I received a whole charge into my neck the ball coming out at the opposite side, this brought me down & nearly deprived me of my senses after which they put a ball through my body, pierced me three times in the stomach with a bayonet….
Americans subsequently claimed that almost all of the defenders’ casualties—85 dead and 35 seriously wounded—came after Ledyard called for his men to lay down their arms. In those chaotic minutes, the fate of individuals was often a matter of chance. While Avery was spared, Stephen Hempstead received a third wound, this time a bayonet thrust into his hip. Some survivors owed their lives to the intervention of British officers. Several escaped by leaping down from the ramparts and running for their lives. A few, pretending to be dead, hid among the piled bodies of their comrades.
British officers struggled to restore order. The American prisoners, most of them wounded, were gathered on the parade field. Those able to walk were escorted aboard British vessels. Several, too badly injured to be transported to New York, were placed in a wagon to be brought down to a house on the riverbank. The heavily laden vehicle broke loose as it was being rolled down the steep slope and crashed into an apple tree at the hill’s base. Although this was clearly an accident, American propagandists claimed that British soldiers had deliberately rolled the cart down the hill, even firing on it as it sped out of control.
While some British soldiers spiked the guns and knocked off their trunnions, others hastily buried their dead, including Major Montgomery, outside the fort. The slain Americans were left where they fell. The British had suffered 47 dead and 133 wounded, almost a quarter of the assault force. Many of the wounded, both British and American, would die in the coming weeks.
Once Fort Griswold was cleared and the British had marched back toward the mouth of the Thames with their wounded, a Captain Lemoine of the Royal Artillery poured a powder train into the magazine and then set fire to the barracks. A party of American militia watched the British depart, then hurried into the fort. They scattered the powder train, keeping the magazine from exploding, and managed to extinguish the barracks fire. Then the local families came to find and take home the bodies of husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.
On the western bank of the Thames, Arnold’s men, guided by Loyalists, set fire to about a dozen ships in the river and searched the waterfront. Public buildings and storehouses filled with the fruits of privateering voyages were burned. Americans claimed that the British soldiers deliberately set fire to private houses at Arnold’s direct order. Arnold later reported that the widespread destruction was accidental, writing: “An immense quantity of European and West India Goods were found in the stores…the whole of which was burnt with the stores, which proved to contain a large Quantity of Powder unknown to us. The explosion of the Powder and change of wind soon after the stores were fired communicated the flames to that part of the Town, which was, notwithstanding every effort to prevent it, unfortunately destroyed.”
By that time, John Hempstead had come upon a group of 500 Americans on a hill to the north of the town and asked, “why the Devel dont yoo Go down & meet the Enemy?” Picket Lattimer, captain of one of the independent companies of New London militia, replied “that he would not Resk his life to Save other mens property.” Ironically, unknown to Lattimer, his own house was among the first to be burned.
Although British soldiers were detailed to protect the houses of invalids, tales of rampant pillaging and the levying of unofficial ransoms to spare individual dwellings were common. Ignored, however, were reports of looting by Americans taking advantage of the disorder. Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Brooks sat by his house while watching for the British to enter the town. He later wrote: “The silence was soon broken by the entrance of five or six shabby looking fellows into the street on the full run….They passed me without notice, so intent were they probably on the prospect before them, for they shouted as they passed, ‘by G-d, we’ll have fine plunder by-and-by.’ Very soon I heard a great noise, and I…saw the door of a storehouse open, which contained the goods of the prize ship Hannah….The goods were flying out of the store, and I should think thirty or forty persons were loading themselves with plunder and scampering off.” In all, 143 buildings, including 65 houses, were burned in New London, with more than 20 others across the river in Groton.
Before Arnold left, a former Norwich neighbor, Abigail Dolebear—now the wife of privateer captain Elisha Hinman—reportedly tried to shoot the turncoat. Depending on the version, she either balked at shooting him in the back, shot his hat off or simply missed.
Arnold marched his men away in the late afternoon. Brooks, who had left New London as the British approached, now rode back to a scene of desolation:
I entered the north end of the town, passed into Main Street about twenty rods, when the heat and smoke of the burning buildings was such that I could not urge the mare on. I, however, retreated back about twenty rods, put on the whip, and she went through. I had just cleared the burning district at that point, when there was a store, containing a large quantity of gunpowder, blew up, which filled the air with smoke and fragments, which fell around me in every direction….I saw a heavy fire raging on the parade, which was the Court House, Jail, Episcopal Church, &c. I, of course, could not pass that way, and, indeed, the smoke was so dense—there being but little wind—no object whatever could be discovered….Thus you may understand that I passed through the principal streets of New London on the afternoon of the 6th of September, 1781, and never saw a single living creature, except one singed cat, that ran across the street when the store blew.
The British fleet sailed for New York the next morning. Although a great quantity of military stores had been destroyed and many American militiamen and civilians had been killed or captured, those results did not balance the severe casualties suffered at Fort Griswold. General Clinton published a general order that, while expressing “the greatest satisfaction from the ardor of the troops,” also stated that he could “not but lament with the deepest concern the heavy loss in officers and men.” Moreover, any hope Clinton had of the New London raid’s diverting Washington’s attention from Virginia was soon dashed. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown would come only six weeks after Arnold’s raid.
The burning of New London and the massacre of Fort Griswold’s defenders exacerbated American hatred of Benedict Arnold, who soon sailed to England. The favor he acquired in royal circles was soon lost when the Tory government fell and was replaced by the antiwar Whigs. He spent the remainder of his life in futile attempts to secure wealth and acceptance. He died on June 14, 1801, at age 60, in debt and widely scorned. In a final twist of fate, the bones of perhaps America’s finest Revolutionary War battlefield commander and certainly its most despised renegade today lie in an unmarked coffin, lost beneath a parish church on the bank of England’s Thames River, 3,000 miles from its American namesake and the site of his last infamous act.
Engineer Bruce A. Trinque writes from Amston, Conn. For further reading, he recommends: 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…the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold, by Jonathan Rathbun; and Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold, by Jean Fritz.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.