Although New London had been repeatedly threatened, no direct attack was made upon the town till near the close of the war in 1781. Gen. Arnold, on his return from a predatory descent upon the coasts of Virginia, was ordered to conduct a similar expedition against his native state. A large quantity of West India goods and European merchandise brought in by various privateers, was at this time collected in New London; the quantity of shipping in port was also very considerable, and among the prizes recently taken, was the Hannah, (Capt. Watson,) a rich merchant ship from London bound to New York, which had been captured a little south of Long Island, by Capt. Dudley Saltonstall, of the Ninerva privateer. The loss of this ship, whose cargo was said to be the most valuable brought into America during the war, had exasperated the British, and more than any other single circumstance is thought to have led to the expedition. At no other period of the war could they have done so much mischief -- at not other had the inhabitants so much to lose.
The expedition was fitted out from New York, the headquarters of Sir Henry Clinton and the British army. The plan was well conceived. Arnold designed to enter the harbor secretly, in the night, and to destroy the shipping, public offices, stores, merchandise, and the fortifications on both sides of the river, with such expedition as to be able to depart before any considerable force could be collected against him. Candor in judging forbids the supposition that the burning of the town and the massacre at Groton fort, entered into his original design, though at the time, such cruelty of purpose was charged upon him, and currently believed. As flowing from his measures and taking place under his command, they stand to his account; and this responsibility is heavy enough, without adding to it the criminal forethought.
Late in the evening of the 5th of September, information was received in town that a British fleet was lurking under the shore of Long Island, nearly opposite the mouth of the river. So many false demonstrations of attack had been made during the war, that this intelligence caused by little alarm. No public notice was given of it, and no unusual precautions were taken against surprise; soldiers and citizens alike retired to rest. As soon as it was dark, the hostile fleet got under way, and arriving on the coast at one o'clock, would undoubtedly have accomplished their design and made themselves masters of the town and forts, without opposition, had they not been counteracted by Providence. The wind suddenly shifted to the northward, blowing directly out of the mouth of the river, so that the larger vessels were obliged to stand off, and the transports to beat in.
According to the uniform testimony of eye-witnesses, the British fleet consisted of thirty-two sail of all classes of vessels; and the troops were landed from twenty-four transports -- eight hundred on the Groton side, and nine hundred or a thousand on the New London side. Arnold, in his report of the expedition, says:
" At ten o'clock, the troops in two divisions and in four debarkations, were landed, one on each side the harbor, about three miles from New London; that on the Groton side consisting of the 40th and 54th regiments, and the third battalion of New Jersey volunteers, with a detachment of yagers and artillery, were under the command of Lieut. Col. Eyre. The division on the New London side, consisted of the 38th regiment, the loyal Americans, the American Legion, refugees, and a detachment of sixty yagers, who were immediately on their landing, put in motion."
In the mean time, confused and hasty preparations had been made to receive them. At early dawn the fleet had been discovered, lying off becalmed, but the transports making preparations to beat in to the mouth of the river. Col. William Ledyard was the military commander of the district which comprised the two forts, the harbor, and the towns of New London and Groton. Capt. Adam Shapley commanded at Fort Trumbull and the Town Hill Battery; Capt. William Latham at Fort Griswold. An alarm was immediately fired from Fort Griswold; it consisted of two regular guns at fixed intervals -- this was the signal to call in assistance from the neighboring country, while three guns was the signal of rejoicing, to give notice of a victory or a prize. It was evident that these signals had been communicated to the enemy, for when the two distress guns were fired, one of the large ships in the fleet added a third, so as to alter the import. This stratagem had some influence in retarding the arrival of militia.
In the town, consternation and fright were suddenly let loose. No sooner were the terrible alarm guns heard, than the startled citizens, leaping from their beds, made to send their families and their portable and most valuable goods. Throngs of women and children were dismissed into the fields and woods, some without food, and others with a piece of bread or a biscuit in their hands. Women laden with bags and pillow-cases, or driving a cow before them, with an infant in their arms, or perhaps on horseback with a bed under them, and various utensils dangling at the side; boys with stockings slung like wallets over their shoulders, containing the money, the papers, and other small valuables of the family; carts laden with furniture; dogs and other household animals, looking strange and panic-struck; pallid faces and trembling limbs -- such were the scenes presented on all the roads leading into the country. Many of these groups wandered all day in the woods, and at night found shelter in the scattered farm-houses and barns.
Amid the bustle of these scenes, when each one was laden with what was nearest at hand, or dearest to his to his heart, one man was seen hastening alone to the burial-ground, with a small coffin under his arm. His child had died the day before, and he could not leave it unburied. In haste and trepidation he threw up the mold, and deposited his precious burden; then covering it quickly, and setting up a stone to mark the place, he hurried away, to secure other beloved ones from a more cruel spoiler.
Such was the confusion of the scene, that families, in many cases, were scattered upon different roads; and children, eight or ten years of age, were sent off alone into the country, their parents lingering perhaps to bury or conceal some of their effects. Yet no one was lost, no one was hurt. The farm-houses were full, and unbounded hospitality was shown by their occupants. At Gen. Miller's, a little off from the Norwich road, orders were given to open the dairy and the larder, to prepare food constantly, and to feed every body that came. When the house was overflowing, the servants carried out milk, cheese and bread, or porringers of corn-beans to the children, who sat under the trees and ate. This will serve as an example of the general hospitality. A number of families found shelter among friends and relatives in the North Parish. Groups of fugitives gathered on the high hills afar off, watching with intense interest the movements of the enemy, whose course might be traced by their gleaming arms and scarlet coats, until clouds of smoke hid them from their view.
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Some sick persons where removed from town with great difficulty, and at the hazard of their lives; others who could not be removed were guarded with solicitous care by wife, daughter or mother, who resolved to remain with them, and depend on Providence to soften the heart of the foe, and protect them from danger.
Col. Ledyard, having visited the town and Fort Trumbull, and made the best disposition of what force he could find, and having dispatched expresses to Governor Trumbull at Lebanon, and to commanders of militia in the neighborhood, returned to Fort Griswold.
As he stepped into the boat to cross the ferry, he said to some friends whose hands he pressed at parting, in a firm tone:
"If I must lose to-day, honor or life, you who know me, can tell which it will be."
The garrisons under Col. Ledyard were small; barely sufficient to keep the posts in order; and in cases of emergency they depended on volunteers from the neighborhood, or details of militia. These were now coming in, and the commander confidently anticipated the arrival of sufficient aid to warrant a defense.
In the mean time great efforts were made to secure the shipping in the harbor, by getting it up the river, but at first neither wind nor tide favored the attempt. Toward noon, however, before the enemy had got possession of the town, a favorable breeze came in from the water, and a considerable number of vessels escaped. The warehouses were full of merchandise, only a small proportion of which could be sent off. Shaw's warehouse on Water Street, in particular, was packed with goods, and among them was a rich cargo of the Hannah. A sloop load of there were saved.
Such confusion reigned in the town -- every householder being engaged in the care of his family and effects that it was difficult to form any concerted plan of action. But when the women and children had departed, the men began to gather in groups, and consult respecting the course to be pursued. They could muster but few effective men, and flight and concealment seemed the only prudent and indignant at the thought of abandoning their homesteads without a blow, collected on Town Hill, with a view of obstructing the course of the enemy. They were without a commander, and as the advancing files of regular soldiers, in firm array, with glistening steel, appeared in sight, they saw the rashness of their design, and scattering into the fields, concealed themselves behind rocks and fences, and annoyed the troops whenever they could find a chance.
Arnold had debarked his forces a little west of the light-house, and came up in a straight course, through what is called Brown's Gate, into the Town Hill road. The division under his command, as already stated, consisted of the thirty-eight British regiment, and the regiment of loyal Americans, (Col. Beverly Robinson's), with several companies from other refugee regiments, among whom were one hundred and twenty New Jersey loyalists, under the command of Lieut. Col. Upham, and a band of sixty yagers, (Hessian light-infantry).
"The armed vessels Association and colonel Martin went close into the shore, and covered the landing on the New London side." (Upham's Report.)
When the troops arrived at the crossroad, leading down to the shore, which Arnold says was at 11 o'clock, Capt. Millett, of the thirty-eighth, with four companies, was detached to march that way and attack the fort, and at the foot of this cross-road, he was joined by Capt. Frink with a company of refugees, who had marched up by a different route, nearer the shore.
Fort Trumbull was a work of very little strength; a mere block of batteries facing the water on three sides; open behind, and only designed to act against a naval force. Capt. Shapley had with him twenty-three men; and his orders were in case of a direct attack, to retreat to Fort Griswold. He saluted the invaders with one volley, well discharged, and then, having spiked the guns, retreated to the shore, where he embarked his men in three boats to cross the river. The enemy's fleet was so near, that they reached and over-shot them with their muskets; seven men were wounded, and one of the boats captured.
In the meantime, Gen. Arnold, pressing forward with the main body of troops, arrived at the breastwork of earth and sods, whose insignificance had obtained for it the name of Fort Nonsense, but of which in his dispatch, he speaks with great exaggeration, as a redoubt that kept up a brisk fire upon them for some time, but was evacuated at their approach. "In it," he says, " we found six pieces of cannon mounted, and two dismounted." On this commanding height Arnold paused to survey the scene on which he was about to operate -- a scene familiar to his eyes in early life -- with houses and shops compact, and sails spread in the offing, all indicative of thrift, enterprise and comfort; but which he was now, with sword and fire-brand, about to scathe and blacken. His thoughts, however, were intent on the present object, and not discoursing with the past or future. He observes in his report:
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"I had the pleasure to see Capt. Millett march into Fort Trumbull, under a shower of grape-shot from a number of cannon which the enemy had turned upon him, and by the sudden attack and determined bravery of the troops, the fort was carried with only the loss of four or five men killed and wounded."
So well it sounds in official language, for five companies of fresh, well-armed British soldiers, to drive twenty-three Americans from an open, defenseless fortress!
It was from this point that Arnold dispatched an order to Lieut. Col. Eyre, who had landed on the Groton side, to attack the fort as soon as possible, in order to prevent the escape of the shipping up the river. The general continues:
"No time on my part was lost in gaining the town of New London. We were opposed by a small body of the enemy by with one field-piece, who were so hard pressed, that they were obliged to leave the piece, which being iron, was spiked and left."
This field-piece, which figures thus largely in the report, was a
four or six-pounder, which stood on the common, upon Manwaring's Hill,
where it had been used for rejoicings, trainings and alarms. It
not at this time manned, but some three or four resolute persons,
it several times upon the advancing foe, as they came down Town Hill,
then fled. A detachment of the British was sent up Blackhall
to silence this solitary gun, which in truth they effected, but were
annoyed by random shot from behind the rocks and fences.
house was then the only dwelling in that quarter, This they ransacked,
and having wantonly destroyed some of the furniture, set fire to it, by
leaving heaps of burning brands and combustibles upon the floor.
One of the town's people entering the house soon after they left it,
the flames with a barrel of soap. When the owner returned to his
house that night, he found lying on one of the beds a dying British
piteously calling for water. He had been left for dead by his
on the road-side, and being found by some of the returning citizens,
in his blood, they had carried him into the house. He lived
hours, and was able to give his name, and to request that intelligence
might be sent to his parents of his death. He was about eighteen
years of age, a refugee, and the son of refugees then in Nova
He was interred in a corner of the lot on the opposite side of the
two or three other soldiers found dead on the hill, were buried on the
side of the road in Williams Street.
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