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Revolutionary War, Part IV

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

A rear-guard was left at Groton fort, with orders after all had decamped, to take the necessary measure, to blow up the magazine, burn the barracks, and entirely destroy the works, from which all but the mournful heaps of dead had been removed.

Gen. Arnold's report states:

"A very considerable magazine of powder, and barracks to contain 300 men, were found in Fort Griswold, which Capt. Lemoine, of the Royal Artillery, had my positive directions to destroy; an attempt was made by him, but unfortunately failed.  He had my orders to make a second attempt; the reasons why it was not done, Capt. Lemoine will have the honor to explain to your Excellency."

It is supposed to have been late in the evening when Capt. Lemoine and his men, having laid a train of powder from the barracks to the magazine, kindled a fire in the barracks, and retreated to the ships.  Without doubt Arnold and his officers gazed intently on the fort, as they slowly sailed down the river, expecting every moment the fatal explosion, and were keenly disappointed at the result.  No explosion followed, but the failure was not owing to remises or want of skill in the royal artillerist.

Under cover of the night, a number of Americans had cautiously approached the fort, even before it was evacuated by the conquerors; and as soon as the rear-guard of the enemy had retreated down the hill, and the dip of their ors was heard in the water, they hastened to the gate of the fort.  Major Peters, of Norwich, is understood to have first reached the spot.  Perceiving the barracks on fire and the train laid, without a moment's hesitation he periled life by entering the gate, and being well acquainted with the interior arrangements, rushed to the pump for water to extinguish the fire.  Hew he found nothing that would hold water but an old cartridge-box; the spout of the pump likewise had been removed; but notwithstanding there disadvantages, he succeeded in interrupting the communication between the burning barracks and the powder.  The heroism of this act can not be too highly applauded.  Others were soon on the spot, and the fire was entirely subdued.  These adventurous men supposed that the wounded as well as the dead had been left by the enemy to be blown into the air, and it was to preserve them from this awful fate that they hazarded their lives by entering the fort.  The fire being quenched, they hastened to examine the heaps of human forms that lay around, but found no lingering warmth, no sign to indicate that life yet hovered in the frame, and might be recalled to consciousness.  Major Peters easily selected the lifeless remains of his friend Col. Ledyard.  His strongly marked features, calm and serene in death, could not be mistaken.

As soon as it was known that he British had re-embarked all Groton was moved, inquiring for her sons.  Women and children assembled before the morning dawn, with torches in their hands, examining the dead and wounded in search of their friends.  They passed the light from face to face, but so bloody and mangled were they - their features so distorted with the energy of resistance, or the convulsion of pain, that in many cases the wife could not identify her husband or the mother her son.  When a mournful recognition did take place, piteous were the groans and lamentations that succeeded.  Forty widows ahd been made that day, all residing near the scene of action.  A woman, searching for her husband among the slain, cleansed the gore from more than thirty faces before she found the remains she sought.

The wounded men, left in that lonely house at the foot of the hill, passed a night of inexpressible pain and anguish.  Morning at last came, and gentle forms began to flit before their eyes.  To these poor, exhausted men, the females who raised their heads from the bare floor, and held cordials and warm chocolate to heir lips, seemed ministering angles sent from another world to their relief.

Dr. Joshua Downer, of Preston, surgeon of the regiment on that side of the river, with his son, came early to the relief of the sufferers, dressing their wounds with skill and tenderness.  Two had died during the night, but most of the others finally recovered.  Capt. Adam Shapley was an exception; he languished for five months, enduring great pain from his wounds, and died February 14th, 1782.

Fourteen among the dead, and three among the wounded, bore the title of Captain.  Captains Elisha Avery and Henry Williams had served in the continental army; the others bore that rank in the militia, or were commanders of vessels.  Of the killed, sixty belonged to Groton and twelve to New London.  Eleven bore the name of Avery, six that of Perkins.  When Ledyard gave up his sword, few of the garrison had fallen; at least three-fourths of the killed were sacrificed after the surrender.  Among them were several of such tender age, that they could not be called men.  Daniel Williams, of Saybrook, was perhaps the youngest; his gravestone bears an inscription which, though brief and simple, is full of pathetic meaning.

"Fell in the action at Fort Griswold, on Groton Hill, in the fifteenth year of his age."

One boy of sixteen, escaped unhurt.  Thomas, son of Lieut. Parks Avery, aged seventeen, was killed fighting by the side of his father.  Just before he fell, his father, finding the battle growing hot, turned and said, "Tom, my son, do your duty."  "Never fear, father," was the reply, and the next minute he was stretched upon the ground.  "Tis in a good cause,"  said the father, and remained firm at his post.

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The loss of the British, according to Arnold's report, was forty-eight killed and one hundred and forty-five wounded.  Many of the latter died before they returned to New York, and were buried in the sea, or on the shores of Plum and Gardiner's Islands, near which the fleet anchored.  They were eight days absent on the expedition.  Some of the British officers estimated that the number of sound men with which they returned was two hundred and twenty less than that with which they started.  On the New London side of the river, the havoc of human life was nearly equal in the British and American ranks; about half a dozen killed and a dozen wounded on each side.  A Hessian officer and seven men were taken prisoners by the Americans.  A number of the inhabitants of New London and Groton were taken and carried away by the British.   They had remained too adventurously to take care of their property, or lingered too long in removing effects, or were suddenly seized by some flanking party.  These, together with the captives from Fort Griswold, were treated with great severity; more like cattle than men.  On the way to New York, they suffered every indignity that language could impose in the way of scorn, contempt and execration; and being driven into the city with their hands bound, were confined in the noted Sugar-house.

The next morning, at daylight, the fleet of the enemy was seen at anchor off the mouth of the harbor.  They made sail at 8 o'clock, but were in sight an hour to two longer.  By this time, the whole surrounding country was in motion.  All the militia, all who had friends on the sea-board, all who hated the British, all who were impelled by curiosity, came rushing to the scene of desolation, mingled with the fugitives returning after a dismal night of terror and anxiety, to their forlorn homes.  On the heights in view of the town, they paused and gave vent to lamentations and cries of anguish over the smoking ruins.

That the enemy suffered so little annoyance on the New London side, and were allowed to retire unmolested to their ships, has been attributed to the want of an efficient leader to concentrate and direct their force.  But even under the ablest commander, no position of attack or defense could have been sustained.  What could be effected by a motley assemblage of two hundred citizens, against a compact army of one thousand disciplined soldiers!  It was well that no daring leader came forward to germinate and encourage rash attempts, whose only result must have been a duplicate of the slaughter on the other side of the river.  A single spark more, to kindle indignation to a flame, and the inhabitants had come rushing down on the enemy to pour out their blood like water.

A single anecdote will suffice to show the spirit of the inhabitants, male and female.  A farmer, whose residence was a couple of miles from he town-plot, on hearing the alarm-guns in the morning, started from his bed and made instant preparations to hasten to the scene of action.  He secreted his papers, took gun and cartridge-box, bade farewell to his family, and mounted and put spurs to his horse.  When about four or five rods from the doors, his wife called after him -- he turned to receive her last commands-- "John!  John!  " she exclaimed, "don't get shot in the back!"

The loss of New London from this predatory visit, can only be given in its main items; sixty-five dwelling-houses were burnt, occupied by ninety-seven families; thirty-one mercantile stores and warehouse, eighteen mechanic's shops, twenty barns, and nine other buildings for public use, including the Episcopal church, court-house, jail, market, custom-house, etc.  Nearly all the wharfing of the town was destroyed, and all the shipping in port, except sixteen sloops and schooners which escaped up the river.

" Ten or twelve ships were burned, among them three or four armed vessels, and one loaded with naval stores; an immense quantity of European and West India goods were found in the stores -- among the former the cargo of the Hannah, Capt. Watson, from London, lately captured by the enemy, the whole of  which was burnt with the stores.  Upward of fifty pieces of iron cannon were destroyed in the different works, exclusive of the guns of the ships."  (Arnold's report)

The General Assembly of the state, in 1793, compensated the sufferers in part, by grants of land in the western reservation, belonging to the state, on Lake Erie, which were called, from this circumstance, the fire lands.  But this late attempt on recompense was in most instances nugatory; very few of the real sufferers ever received any benefit from it.  The losses of individuals cannot be estimated.  Nathaniel Shaw stated his personal loss at more than 12,000 pounds sterling.

On the 15th of May, 1782, Mr. Greene Plumbe, rate-collector, came into the town-meeting, and asked and abstained an abatement on the rate-bill of 1780, stating that a sum of money which he had collected on said bill, was plundered from his house when the British invaded the town, August 16th, 1781.  this is the only allusion to the great event on the town records, of a date any where near the time, and in this there is a misstatement of the month, which was sixth of  September, no sixth of August.

Ten years after the conflagration, it is referred to again:

"April 18th, 1791."
"Voted, that John Deshon, Esq., is chosen agent for this town, to attend the Committee appointed by the General Assembly to ascertain the losses of the sufferers at the fire in this town in the year 1781."

The probate records are not thus silent.  A portion of these records was destroyed, and in consequence, some estates were obliged to be settled anew, and several wills were legalized the the legislature from copies of them which had been made.  It is not known where lodged, either the part destroyed, or the part saved.  It is probable, however, that those preserved were with the town record in Waterford.  A not made a few years later by the clerk specifies the particular portion lost:

"On the 6th of September., 1781, were burnt the records of will, etc., from the beginning -- files since the years 1777, and journals from April, 1763; so that there are remaining before September 6th, 1781, the Journals from the first to the 22nd of April, 1763, and files from the beginning to the year 1777 inclusive -- unless scattering ones missing."
"Certified January 28th, 1788, Joshua Coit, Clerk of the Probate District of New London"

The anniversary of the massacre at Groton fort was celebrated for many years with sad solemnity.  Within the enclosure of the old wall of the fortress, where the victims had been heaped up and the blood flowed around in rivulets, sermons were annually preached and all the details of the terrible event rehearsed.  In 1784 the preacher was Rev. Solomon Morgan of Canterbury; in 1785, Rev. Samuel Nott of Norwich; (that part of Norwich which is now Franklin, where the preacher died May 26th, 1852, aged ninety-eight years and four months;) and in 1786, Rev. Paul Parke of Preston.

In the year 1789, Rev. Henry Channing of New London delivered the annual sermon.  His text was __ " If thine enemy hunger, give him bread to eat; if he thirst, give him drink."  Unlike the usual tone of such discourses, which had served to keep alive the remembrance of the country's wrongs, the speaker recommended forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.  The British were no longer our declared enemies; why cherish this envenomed spirit?  The actors in that awful tragedy were passing away to their final award; does it become Christians to follow them with their reproaches to another world?  Should they nourish the bitter root of hatred in the heart, and attribute to a whole nation, the crimes of a few exasperated soldiers?

Through the effect of this sermon, or the diversion of public sentiment from some other cause, the celebrations were discontinued for many years.  In the course of time, however, a desire became prevalent -- not to revive the embittered feeling of Revolutionary days -- but to erect some enduring memorial of the heroism and unfortunate end of the Groton victims.  A general spontaneous utterance of this wish led to a celebration of the anniversary of the battle day in the year 1825.  The orator was William F. Brainerd.  A grand military parade and a large assemblage of citizens gave effect tot he unanimous sentiment then expressed, that a monument to the memory of the slain should be erected near  the scene of the fatal assault.  A lottery for the purpose of raising funds was granted by the legislature; the corner-stone laid September 6th, 1826, and at the monument completed in 1830.  It is built of native rock, quarried not far from the place where it stands; is twenty-six feet square at the base, twelve at the top and 127 feet in height.  In the interior a circular flight of 168 steps leads to the platform, from whence a fine view is obtained, particularly toward the west and south, where lie New London and the river Thames, the Sound and its islands.

On the west side of the monument is engraved a list of the names of the victims, eighty-three in number, and on the south side is the following inscription:

"This Monument was erected under the patronage of the State of Connecticut, A. D. 1830, and in the 55th year of the Independence of the U.S.A., in memory of the patriots who fell in the massacre at Fort Griswold, near this spot, on the 6th of September, A. D. 1781, when the British under the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold, burnt the towns of New London and Groton, and spread desolation and woe throughout this region.
"'Zebulon and Napthali were a people that jeopardized their lives unto death in the high places of the field.  Judges, 5th chap., 18th ver.'"

Since the erection of the monument, the anniversary day has been usually noticed by gatherings on the spot of individuals, and sometimes by prayers and addresses, but not often by a public celebration.  Mr. Jonathan Brooks of New London, who died in 1848, took a special interest in this anniversary.  For many years before his death, he resorted annually on this day to Groton Heights, and whether his auditors were few or many, delivered an address, which was always rendered interesting by graphic pictures and reminiscences connected with the Revolution.  On one occasion when he found himself almost without an audience, he exclaimed with sudden fever "attention! universe!"   


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