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Revolutionary War, Part III

Chapter XXXII, pages 545-572
by Frances Caulkins
Published 1860, Second Edition


It was about noon, just at the time when Arnold, form the hill on the opposite side of the river, was taking a survey of the scene, that Col. Eyre sent a flag to demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the fort.  Such a demand on their first taking a position of attack was an inauspicious and barbarous commencement of the siege.  Col. Ledyard summoned a council of war, in which it was decided at once and unanimously, not to surrender.  Captains Elijah Avery, Amos Stanton, and John Williams, three brave volunteers from the neighborhood, all unconsciously wrapped in the awful shadow of coming slaughter, were sent to meet the flag and deliver the reply.  A second summons from the British, accompanied with the assurance, that if obliged to storm the works, martial law should be put in force, was answered in the same decided manner. " We shall not surrender, let the consequences by what they may."  This answer was delivered by Capt. Shapley.

The officers of the fort were not unconscious of the weakness of their works, nor of the surpassing skill and discipline, as well as the great superiority of numbers, about to be brought against them.  But they expected reinforcements, and were confident if they could hold out for a few hours, the country would pour out its thousands to their rescue.  Col. Nathan Gallup, of the Groton militia, had visited the for at an early hour of the day, and left it fully intending to return with what force he could assemble to aid the garrison.  At the moment the attack commenced, the gleam of arms might be seen on the distant hills, from men gathering for the fight.  But it was not easy to persuade the militia to coop themselves up in stone walls, where they might be hemmed in and butchered by an overwhelming force.  Many valiant men, who had shouldered their muskets and hastened forward with full intent to join issue with the enemy, hesitated when they saw the situation of affairs.  Capt. Stanton, who was sent out to draw in volunteers, just before the attack commenced, was met on every side with an urgent appeal for the garrison to quit the fort, one and all, and come out and meet the enemy on the open ground.  "We will fight," they said, "to the last gasp if we can have fair play, but we will not throw away our lives, by fighting against such odds, with no chance to escape."  Col. Gallup was afterward severely censured for not attempting to relieve the garrison, but a court-martial having investigated the charges, exonerated him from blame, and it is therefore manifestly unjust that dishonorable imputations should sully the name of an otherwise estimable officer.

No sooner was the second defiance returned to the summons than both divisions of the enemy's force were put in motion, and advanced with a quick step in solid columns.  A party of Americans posted in the eastern battery, gave them one discharge, and then retired within the fort.  Col. Ledyard ordered his men to reserve their fire until the detachment which came up first had reached the proper distance.  When the word was given, an eighteen-pounder, loaded with two bags of grape shot, and directed by Capt. Elias H. Halsey, an experienced naval officer, was opened upon them, and it was supposed that twenty men fell to the ground, killed or wounded by that first discharge.  " It cleared," said the eye-witness, " a wide space in their column."  Their line being broken, they divided and scattered; and now all the fields were covered with scarlet-coated soldiers, with trailed arms, and in every variety of posture, bending, prostrate, dropping, half-up, rushing forward, and still keeping a kind of order, as goaded on by their officers, in the face of a deadly fire, they came up against the south-west bastion, and the south and west sides of  the fort.  They were met with a steady, quick, obstinate fire; Col. Eyre, mortally wounded, was borne from the field; three other officers of  the fifty-fourth regiment fell.  Major Montgomery, in the mean time, came up in solid column, bearing round toward the north with his division, and threw himself into the redoubt, east of the fort, which had been abandoned.  From thence rushing down with great fury, he effected a lodgment in the ditch, and a second lodgment upon the rampart, or fraising, which was defended by strong inclined pickets, that could with difficulty be forced out or broken, and was so high that the soldiers could not ascend without assisting each other.  The rigor of the attack, and the firmness of the defense, were both admirable.  The Americans, having no better method of opposing them, poured down cold shot, nine-pounders, and every variety of missile, that could be seized, upon the heads of the assailants.  Many a bold man was cut down as he was hoisted up through he pickets, but his place was instantly supplied by another as desperate and determined.  the assailants conquered by numbers.  Arnold, in his report, notices this obstinate contest:

"Here the coolness and bravery of the troops were very conspicuous, as the first who ascended the fraise were obliged to silence a nine-pounder which enfiladed the place on which they stood, until a sufficient body had collected to enter the works, which was done with fixed bayonets, through the embrasures, where they were opposed with great obstinacy by the garrison, with long spears.  On this occasion I have to regret the loss of Major Montgomery, who was killed by a spear in entering the enemy's works; also of Ensign Whitlock, of the fortieth regiment, who was killed in the attack.  Three other officers of the same regiment were wounded."

When Major Montgomery fell, his followers, with terrific cries, rushed in to avenge him.  One after another they poured in through the embrasures, and clearing the path before them, made a desperate attempt to force open the nearest gate.  This was not accomplished without a struggle.  The first man who attempted it, lost his life in a moment.  But the garrison was soon overpowered, the gate opened and the troops from without rushed in, swinging their caps and shouting like madmen.

All the accounts of the battle given by Americans who were in the he fort, agree, that at this point, the north-east bastion being carried, the enemy within the fort, and the gate forced, Col. Ledyard ordered all resistance to cease, and the garrison to throw down their arms.  This was immediately done, but it had no influence in checking the rage of the enemy.  They continued to fire from the parapets upon the disarmed men, and to hew down all they met, as they crossed the enclosure, to unbolt the southern gate.

In the mean time the resistance was still continued at the south-west bastion, by a few brave men who knew not what had taken place on the opposite side of the fort.  Against these the enemy turned the cannon of the north bastion, and giving them two volleys in quick succession, mowed them down like grass.  Capt. Shapley and Lieut. Richard Chapman fell at this point.  Those who survived retreated within the fort and threw down their arms.

The resistance being thus continued in one quarter after the actual surrender of the fort, gives some color to the excuse which has been offered in palliation of the excesses of the British, that the garrison obstinately persisted in fighting after the surrender.  It is said also, that during the attack, an unlucky shot at the flag-staff brought the colors down, and though the flag was instantly remounted on a pike pole, the enemy regarding it as a token of surrender, rushed unguardedly to the gates, expecting them to be opened, and were saluted with a heavy fire.  This seeming deception, it is alleged, exasperated the troops, and led ot the barbarous massacre that followed the reduction of the fort.  No allusion to any such mitigating circumstances is made in the British official accounts of the affair; nor were they pleaded by them in that day.  These excuses seem to be afterthoughts, suggested by the difficulty of accounting for that almost insane thirst of blood displayed by the conquerors.

When the south gate was opened, the enemy marched in, firing in platoons upon those who were retreating to the magazine and barrack rooms for safety.  The officer at the head of this division, supposed by some to have been Major Bromfield, as the superior command had devolved upon him, cried out, as he entered, "Who commands this fort? "   " I did sir, but you do now", replied Col. Ledyard, raising and lowering his sword, in token of submission, and advancing to present it to him.  The ferocious officer received the sword, and plunged it up to the hilt in the owner's bosom; while his attendants rushing upon the falling hero, dispatched him with their bayonets. Capt. Peter Richards, a young man of noble disposition and gallant bearing, who though severely wounded, was standing by Col. Ledyard, leaning on his espontoon, Capt. Youngs Ledyard, the nephew of the commander, and several other brave men, enraged at this barbarous act, and perceiving that not quarter was to be expected from such savage foes, rushed forward to avenge their murdered friend and sell their lives as dearly as possible.  They were all  cut down; some of them were found afterward pierced with twenty or thirty wounds.

There was not block-house to this fort; the parade was open and as the British marched in, company after company, they shot or bayoneted every American they saw standing.  Three platoons, each of ten or twelve, men, fired in succession, into the magazine, amid the confused mass of living men that had fled thither for shelter, the dying and the dead.  This fiend-like sport was terminated by the British commander, as soon as he observed it, not on the plea of humanity, but from fear for their own safety, lest the powder deposited in the magazine, or scattered near, might be fired, and they should all be blown up together.  An explosion, it was thought, might have taken place even earlier than this, had not he scattered powder and every thing around been saturated with human blood.

In the barrack rooms, and other parts of the fort, the butchery still went on.  Those who were killed, seemed to have been killed three or four times over, by the havoc made of them.  A few of the garrison crept under the platforms to conceal themselves, but were ferreted out with bayonets thrust into them; several had their hands mangled by endeavoring to ward off the steel from their faces or bosoms.  Some attempted to leap over the parapets, but were mostly arrested and slain.  One man, by the name of Mallison, escaped in this way; being tall, stout and active, he leaped from the platform over the parapet, and with another bound cleared the pickets and came down in the ditch, and though half a dozen muskets were discharged at him, he escaped unhurt.

William Seymour, of Hartford, a nephew of Col. Ledyard, who being in Groton at the time, ahd gone into the fort as a volunteer, received thirteen bayonet wounds, after his knee had been shattered by a ball.  Ensign Woodmancy was gashed in his arms and hands with strokes of a cutlass, as he lay wounded and partly sheltered by a platform.  Lieut. Parke Avery, after having lost an eye, and had his skull broken, and some of the brains shot out, was bayoneted in the side, as he lay faint and bleeding on the ground.  What is very surprising, he recovered and lived forty years afterward.  Lieut. Stephen Hempstead had his left arm and several of his ribs broken, and a severe bayonet wound in his side.  It was eleven months before he recovered.

Some of the British officers at length exerted themselves to restrain the excited soldiery, and stop the massacre.  The surviving Americans used to relate that an officer ran from place to place with a drawn sword in his hand, exclaiming with agony in his countenance, "Stop!  Stop! in the name of heaven, I say, stop! My Soul can't bear it."  Some have supposed this to have been Capt. Beckwith, while others have branded that officer as the murdered of Ledyard.  It is well, perhaps, that the person who committed that barbarous deed has not been ascertained with certainty.  Let him forever remain unknown and unnamed.

Light and darkness are not more opposed to each other than the views taken by the conquerors and the conquered, of the storming of Fort Griswold.  Arnold observes:

"After a most obstinate defense of near forty minutes the fort was carried by the superior bravery and perseverance of the assailants."

He says also that eighty-five men were found dead in the fort, and sixty wounded.  most of them mortally, ; intimating by this work found, that they were killed in the attack, and not after the surrender.  Sir Henry Clinton, in his dispatch to England, incising Arnold's report, remarks:

"The assault of Fort Griswold, which is represented as a work of very great strength, and the carrying it by coup de main, notwithstanding at the very obstinate resistance of the garrison, will impress the enemy with every apprehension of the ardor of British troops, and will  hereafter be remembered with the greatest honor to the fortieth and fifty-fourth regiments, and their leaders, to whose share the attack fell."

The closing scenes of the tragedy were in keeping with the other acts.  The prisoners, the wounded and the dead, were all alike plundered by the soldiers, till there were left nearly naked.  The wounded lay in the hot sun without water, without medical care, without covering, for two or three hours.  The British were busily engaged in taking care of their own dead and wounded, and disposing of the plunder.  Col. Eyre, and all the other wounded men, were carried on board the transports.  Major Montgomery was interred in the space fronting the gate, not very far from the spot where he fell.  Several other officers were buried near hem.  About forty of their common soldiery were hastily thrown into pits, several together, and scarcely covered with earth.

Of the garrison, eighty-five, who were entirely dead, were stripped and left in the fort.  Those who were regarded as mortally or very dangerously wounded, about thirty-five, in number, were paroled, to be left behind; thirty others, most of them wounded, were marched down to the landing to be carried away as prisoners.

The last thing to be done by the enemy was to set fire to the magazine and blow up the fort.  Preparatory to this, the helpless Americans must be removed.  Every thing was done in the greatest possible haste -- the movements of the enemy show fear and trepidation, as if afraid the hills would fall on them before they could finish their task and get away.  The soldiers ran, rather than walked, hundreds of times up and down the steep declivity, removing their wounded, dragging their plunder, driving their prisoners; and now the heaps of fainting, neglected men, lying upon the ground, are roughly rolled upon boards and tossed into a large ammunitions wagon, one upon another, groaning and bleeding, those below nearly stifled with the weight of those above.  About twenty soldiers wee then employed to drag this wagon down the hill, to a safe distance from the expected explosion.  From the brow of the ridge on which the fort stood, to the brink of the river, was a rapid descent of one hundred rods, uninterrupted except by the roughens of the surface, and by scattered rocks, brushes, and stumps of trees.  The weight of the wagon after it had begun to move, pressing heavily upon the soldiers, they let go their hold, and darting aside, left it to its own impetus.  On it went, with accelerated velocity, surmounting every impediment, till near the foot of the hill, when it came against the trunk of a large apple-tree, with a force that caused it to recoil and sway round.  This arrested its course, but gave a sudden access of torture to the sufferers.  The violence of the shock is said to have caused instant death to some of them; others fainted, and two or three were thrown out to the ground.  The enemy, after q time, gathered up the bleeding men, and carried them into a house near by, belonging to Ensign Avery, who was himself one of the party in the wagon.  The house had been previously set on fire, but they extinguished the flames, and left the wounded men there on parole, taking as hostage for them, Ebenezer Ledyard, brother of the commander of the fort.

The village of Groton consisted of a single street on the bank of the river.  The house of Thomas Mumford was singled out and burnt.  The enemy plundered and burnt several other dwelling-houses and shops, leaving but a few buildings of any kind standing.  About sunset they began to embark on both sides of the river; a delay of two hours would probably have changed the evacuation into a flight, for the militia were gathering under their officers, and all the roads to the town were full of men and boys, with every kind of armor, from club and pitchfork to musket and spontoon, hurrying to the onset.


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