We last left General Benedict Arnold in Virginia, where his raid on Richmond encouraged General Henry Clinton to send reinforcements to the state. It also encouraged General Charles Cornwallis to move up from the south to join the fighting in Virginia.
Arnold had proven Virginia to be relatively weak, but he did not remain there long. Many other British officers still did not trust Arnold. His fight with the Navy over a share of the booty in Virginia did nothing but add to his reputation as a greedy officer who put personal profit above duty. He left Virginia after Cornwallis arrived. He claimed he was sick, but by most accounts he did not seem to suffer from anything serious, other than gout. By June of 1781, he was back in New York City, with nothing to do.
Arnold in New York
Arnold may have had personal reasons for returning to New York. He had left behind his wife Peggy, who was pregnant with her second child. On August 29, the Arnolds welcomed their son James Robertson Arnold, named after Major General James Robertson, the Royal Governor of New York. Robertson was one of the few officers to befriend Arnold shortly after his arrival behind British lines.
|Arnold Viewing the Destruction
of New London
He did this, despite the fact that the three boys were still living with his sister Hannah, in Connecticut, behind enemy lines. By granting them commissions, the three boys would receive pay as officers, and that pay would be collected by their father.
Even other British officers willing to overlook his years fighting with the enemy, did not trust Arnold. Arnold's efforts to line his pockets simply didn’t sit well. One British officer in New York wrote to a friend that Arnold “has hurt himself by discovering too much fondness for cash. . . . If he has attached to the latter, as is represented, he is no loss to the cause he has deserted and eventually can be no acquisition to us.”
His wife Peggy, however, seemed to fit in quite well. Not that she also wasn’t concerned about money. She learned that Major Andre had sent £200 to the Arnolds at West Point, to help them flee to New York. When the plot fell apart, the money never arrived before they had to flee. After Peggy arrived in New York, she tracked down the British agent who was supposed to have delivered the money and demanded he pay it to her.
When Peggy first arrived, other officers’ wives gave her the cold shoulder. As the wife of a rebel traitor, and as a colonist, they didn’t think much of her. But over time, Peggy’s good manners and charm won over most of them. One woman noted that a British Officers’ ball, Peggy “appeared as a star of the first magnitude, and had every attention paid to her as if she had been Lady Clinton.”
Arnold’s efforts to enrich himself also did nothing to endear him to the British Commander, General Henry Clinton. The General still felt the loss of Major Andre and believed that Arnold’s behavior contributed to the loss of that beloved officer. Arnold’s American Legion had also proven a major disappointment. Arnold had promised that thousands of American soldiers would join him in his new loyalist command. Instead, he only enlisted a few hundred men, almost all of whom were already loyalists before Arnold switched sides. During his time in Virginia, much of his regiment deserted, meaning he returned to New York with a legion of only ninety officers and men.
Shortly after Arnold first joined the British, he also wrote to Secretary of State Germain, advising the government on strategies to win the war, and differing from the strategies of General Clinton, were inherently critical of General Clinton’s strategies. Arnold also asked for a promotion to major general. Clinton, of course, had received word of Arnold’s letters to London.
Clinton and Arnold apparently had a conversation about this after Arnold returned from Virginia to New York in June. A short time later, Arnold wrote again to Lord Germain, this time being much more supportive of General Clinton’s strategies.
Instead of another command, Clinton assigned Arnold to various administrative duties, including coming up with a list of names of American sympathizers in Quebec.
Raid on New London
General Clinton continued to hope for substantial reinforcements from Europe. In early August, 1781, he received 3000 Hessians. A few weeks later, a fleet from the west Indies brought three regiments of regulars. That was a help, but not nearly enough to go on offensive operations.
Sir Henry, however, was willing to consider a raid on civilian towns. Arnold suggested a series of raids along the New England coast. Although Clinton was not ready to embark on an entire campaign of raids, he would consider allowing one raid.
Connecticut had proven to be a thorn in the British side ever since they had captured New York. Patriots raids from Connecticut against Long Island kept the British from securing the distant parts of that island. Connecticut harbors also supported fleets of privateers that harassed British shipping.
On September 2, 1781, Clinton gave orders for Arnold to raid the American port at New London Connecticut. New London was only a few miles from Arnold’s boyhood home. He would be attacking his former friends and neighbors. I sometimes wonder if Clinton chose this target as a way of forcing Arnold to prove his loyalty to the British cause.
Clinton, of course, had other reasons for such an attack. A privateer had captured a British transport ship, the Hannah, in early August, carrying valuable cargo. It was one of hundreds of prize ships taken to New London over the course of the war. Another motive for the attack was that, with the enemy headed to Virginia with most of its forces, a raid to annoy the enemy posed little risk. The raiders would likely only face resistance only from local militia. It was clear by this time that the enemy was not going to attack New York City, so sending soldiers out of the city for a raid would not create a worry about the defenses in New York.
Almost as soon as Arnold received the orders, he heard rumors that Clinton might rescind them and keep Arnold in New York. Clinton seemed to second guess himself quite often these days, and regularly changed his strategic views. To avoid giving Clinton an opportunity to reconsider, Arnold had his forces aboard ship and was sailing for Connecticut before dawn on September 4.
Arnold’s target New London, Connecticut was a port on the eastern side of the coast, just north of the eastern tip of Long Island. The town was set along the Thames River. The area was a harbor used primarily by privateer ships that prevented the passage of British supply ships in and out of New York. To access New London, ships would have to sail into the mouth of the Thames River, under the cannons of Fort Griswold. There were no Continental troops in the area. The fort and other defenses were manned by militia, most of whom would have to leave their homes and get to their defenses once someone spotted the enemy.
Arnold moved up the Long Island sound with a fleet of 32 ships carrying about 1700 soldiers. He personally would lead about half of the attacking force against the town of New London. By the night of September 5, the fleet was at the mouth of the Thames River, but an unfavorable wind prevented them from entering.
At dawn the following morning the lookout at Fort Griswold spotted the enemy fleet and fired two cannon shots to alert the local militia of an imminent attack. Just after firing the second warning shot, the British fleet fired a third shot. Three shots indicated a prize ship entering the harbor. Arnold knew this and ordered the third shot fired in order to confuse the enemy. Militia who might have dropped everything and rushed the fort after the two shot signal, would likely ignore the three shot signal. This confusion would slow the militia from turning out.
Arnold’s division of about 900 men landed just south of New London, near the lighthouse. The general deployed four companies to attack the smaller Fort Trumbull by land. Fort Trumbull was set up with several large cannons to bombard any enemy ships trying to move up the Thames River. Its small garrison of 24 officers and men were not prepared to defend against a land attack.
The fort commander, Captain Adam Shapley ordered his men to fire a volley of grapeshot against the attackers. The garrison then spiked the cannons and jumped into nearby rowboats to sail across the river to the larger Fort Griswold.
Having taken Fort Trumbull, Arnold continued his march northward, he encountered another small redoubt at a place called Fort Nonsense. Again, the defenders opened fire but then quickly retreated as the enemy advanced.
Arnold’s forces quickly took possession of New London, although many of the ships they hoped to capture or destroy had time to sail up river. Arnold set about burning all buildings or supplies of any military value in the town. Many of the loyalist soldiers with Arnold were also from Connecticut and very familiar with the town. According to Arnold, the men moved to the northern end of town first, setting fire to buildings, while moving back to the south.
The goal was not to burn private property, but when one of the fires hit on a hidden cache of gunpowder, the explosion set a larger area of the town on fire, assisted by the wind. This destroyed much of the town. The raiders also took as prisoners several citizens of New London who were known to favor the patriot cause.
In all, later reports indicated sixty-five homes were burned, along with thirty-one stores and warehouses and twenty barns. The Episcopal Church, the courthouse, jail, market and customs house were all put to the torch, as were the wharves and any ships that had failed to escape.
Arnold reported six of his own soldiers had been killed and another six wounded, while he inflicted the same number of casualties on the enemy.
Battle of Groton Heights
While Arnold was destroying New London, the other half of his raiding party landed on the eastern shore of the Thames, with the task of taking Fort Griswold. British Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre led a force of about 800 regulars, loyalists, and Hessian Jaegers, against the fort. He also brought several artillery pieces.
Fort Griswold was a small star fort atop a hill that overlooked the Thames River. Like the other forts, it was designed to deter enemy ships from moving upriver. Connecticut had built the fort in late 1775, after the outbreak of the war, and completed it in 1778.
The fort did not have a large regular garrison, but expected to be garrisoned by militia when the enemy approached. Because the British managed to confuse the canon signal, only a portion of the militia arrived quickly. Connecticut Colonel William Ledyard arrived that morning, and eventually accumulated about 160 men, including those who had evacuated from Fort Trumbull.
The British had to push their way toward the fort through swampy and heavily wooded terrain, taking several hours. General Arnold had already taken New London before Colonel Eyre could reach the fort. From across the river, it appeared to Arnold that the fort was too well fortified. Also, one of the main reasons Arnold had wanted to take the fort early was so that the British could use the fort's cannons to prevent American ships from escaping upriver unharmed. Since the ships had already escaped, and given the fort’s defense, Arnold sent a messenger to call off the attack on the fort.
Before the messenger could arrive, Colonel Eyre arrived at the outskirts of the fort with a portion of his men. Eyre sent Captain George Beckwith under a flag of truce. Colonel Ledyard came out of the fort to parley. The British officer demanded the fort’s surrender, but the American commander refused. Both parties returned to their lines. Eyre believed a direct assault on the fort would be successful but costly. He sent a second demand for surrender, informing the defenders that if they refused to surrender, the garrison would be denied quarter once the British took the fort. Ledyard replied that they would resist to the last extremity. With that, the men once again returned to their lines and prepared for battle.
Colonel Eyre led a group of soldiers against the southwest bastion of the fort. At the same time, Major William Montgomery led a second assault against the eastern side of the fort. Both assaults met with fierce resistance from the garrison. The defenders unleashed grapeshot from the fort’s cannons. Although they took heavy casualties, the attackers reformed and continued to advance. Colonel Eyre and several of his officers were wounded.
The second assault force under Montgomery came under similar fire. Montgomery was killed in hand to hand combat with the enemy, allegedly by a militiaman using a ten foot pike. The man who claimed to kill Montgomery was Jordan Freeman, a free black militiaman who had previously been a slave to Colonel Ledyard. Despite the resistance and the loss of their leader, Montgomery’s division forced open the main gate and allowed both divisions to swarm into the fort. What happened next is a matter of controversy.
Fort Griswold Massacre
According to American witnesses, the fort defenders attempted to surrender. The attackers ignored the calls for quarter and continued to cut down the surrendering garrison. According to one account Colonel Ledyard attempted to hand his sword to an enemy officer as that officer stabbed Ledyard. The British officer then took Ledyard’s sword and used it to stab him again. Another soldier, Lamboth Latham then killed the British officer who just killed Ledyard. Latham himself was then killed by the enemy.
The British had taken heavy casualties during the storming of the fort. That and the death or wounding of most of their officers may have accounted for the decision to continue killing an enemy that was trying to surrender. American witnesses said that the British continued the slaughter and only stopped when they believed their continued fire might blow up the fort’s powder magazine.
British reports filed after the battle reported 48 British soldiers killed and another 145 wounded, almost all of whom were hurt in the assault on Fort Griswold. That was roughly one-fourth of the division that assaulted the fort.
When the British entered the fort, survivors reported that the defenders had lost only about a half dozen killed. After the attempted surrender and subsequent massacre, nearly the entire garrison was dead or wounded. Arnold reported 85 Americans dead in the fort, and another sixty wounded, most of them believed to be mortally wounded.
After completing their day of destruction, both British divisions withdrew back to their boats before dark. The raiders took their wounded, their prisoners, and their booty back aboard their fleet and sailed back to New York City.
Although the raid was a British success, both sides criticized Arnold. The Americans, of course, were outraged at the butchering of surrendering soldiers. They blamed Arnold as the commander, even though he was nowhere near the fort when it happened.
Many of Arnold’s own officers and men were critical of their commander for remaining in New London and leaving the much bloodier fight against Fort Griswold to others. They also said that Arnold greatly under-reported British casualties, claiming it was more like 400 or 500 men killed or wounded. They called it a “Bunker Hill Expedition” recalling the 1775 battle when the British took the hill but suffered intolerable losses in doing so.
Whether the higher casualty estimates are accurate is impossible to say. But the criticism does make clear that those serving under Arnold did not respect nor trust their commander.
After his return to New York City, Arnold requested leave to go to London. He wanted to confer with Secretary Germain and other officials on a strategy to win the war. Clinton refused to let Arnold go, and instead kept him in the city, once again behind a desk, pushing paper. He remained in New York for about three months, when news of the events in Virginia arrived, along with General Cornwallis, who was on parole.
Cornwallis and Arnold both boarded a ship for London. Arnold’s family also sailed on a separate ship for London. The family took more comfortable quarters aboard a merchant ship. Arnold and Cornwallis had to sail on a military ship to reduce the chances they might be captured by the enemy. As they sailed out of New York, it would be the last time either Arnold or Cornwallis would set foot in the United States.
Next Week: we return to South Carolina for the Battle of Eutaw Springs.
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Benedict Arnold Turns and Burns New London https://connecticuthistory.org/benedict-arnold-turns-and-burns-new-london
The Battle of Groton Heights https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1781/battle-groton-heights
The Battle of Groton Heights, September 6, 1781: The Fort Griswold Massacre: https://emergingrevolutionarywar.org/2017/07/17/the-battle-of-groton-heights-september-6-1781-the-fort-griswold-massacre
VIDEO: The Life of Lt. Col. William Ledyard Groton Municipal Television: https://archive.org/details/gmtvct-The_Life_of_Lt._Colonel_William_Ledyard
(from archive.org unless noted)
Burnham, Norman H. The Battle of Groton Heights: A Story of the Storming of Fort Griswold, and the Burning of New London, on the sixth of September, 1781, New London: Bingham Paper Box Co.'s Print, 1903.
Copp, John J. The Battle of Groton Heights, Groton Heights Centennial Committee, 1879.
Harris, William Wallace The Battle of Groton Heights: A Collection of Narratives, Official Reports, Records, &c., of the Storming of Fort Griswold, and the Burning of New London by British Troops, Under the Command of Brig.-Gen. Benedict Arnold, on the sixth of September, 1781, New London: 1870.
Hempstead, Stephen Description of the monument on Groton Heights, with the inscription and names, New London: Williams & Bacon, 1853.
Ollier, Edmund Cassell's History of the United States, Vol. 2, London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1874.
Rathbun, Jonathan The Narrative of Jonathan Rathbun, of the capture of Fort Griswold, the massacre that followed, and the burning of New London, Conn., September 6, 1781. With the narratives of Rufus Avery and Stephen Hempstead, eye witnesses, New York: W. Abbatt, 1911.
Rogers, Zabdiel & Thomas Mumford Groton Heights and New London, Brooklyn, N.Y., Priv. print. 1881.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Jacob, Mark Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America, Lyons Press, 2012 (borrow on archive.org).
Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General; Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence, Knopf, 1964 (borrow on archive.org)
Merrill, Jane & John Edicott The Late Years of Benedict Arnold: Fugitive, Smuggler, Mercenary, 1780-1801, Mcfarland, 2022.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.