In 1781, George Washington was on the march toward Virginia, and the British devised a plan to draw him back to New England. General Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of the British forces, ordered General Benedict Arnold to sail around Long Island and up the Thames River in Connecticut. The plan: burn and sack New London and Groton, Connecticut taking them for their own usage, and specifically seizing Fort Griswold. They would then continue on up the river to sack Norwich, Connecticut.
On September 5, 1781, the British fleet of thirty-two ships were thirty miles west of New London, preparing to attack1. They planned a night siege of the two towns, but crosswinds delayed their arrival. The fleet arrived around 3:00 a.m. and was spotted by the colonial forces in Groton. The fort fired off two cannon shots to warn of the attack. But a British ship also fired and confused the gathering militia. The meaning of the signal had changed from “gather troops” to “arrival of a victorious friend.”
The British troops landed at 10:00 a.m. on both sides of the Thames River. General Arnold, in lead of the attack on New London, met little resistance from the evacuated town. On the other side, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre with 800 regulars assaulted Fort Griswold. Arnold’s plan was to stop ships from escaping the river by using the fort’s prominent location overlooking the harbor. However, with Fort Griswold putting up a bigger fight than he’d expected, he tried to call off the attack. His messenger arrived too late as Eyre had begun his offensive.
Eight hundred men attacked the 160 defenders behind the fortified dirt walls. Eyre was wounded during the assault when the Americans fired grape shot. Major William Montgomery led the second assault capturing part of a bastion and was killed.
Once the British were inside the fort, most of the Americans were either wounded or killed, and Colonel Ledyard of the colonial forces surrendered.
General Benedict Arnold’s forces withdrew from Groton and New London. General George Washington’s army continued its march to Yorktown, Virginia.
The fort was reconstructed and used during the War of 1812, but the British blockaded the port in 1814 limiting its usefulness. The fort’s lower cannon wall was reconstructed and was used during the Civil War but mostly as a sub-post for Fort Trumbull. With the construction of Fort H.G. Wright on Fisher Island, New York, in 1898, Fort Griswold was decommissioned.
The battlefield is now a state park and was added to the U.S. National Registry of Historical places in 19702. The rising grass walls look more like a rocky outcrop then a fort. A granite monument was built in 1830 to commemorate the defenders. The fort is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The Ebenezer Avery House3, a place where many wounded were brought, was moved to the state park and is open to visitors on the weekends during the summer. The grounds are open year round4.
1. Harris, William Wallace, and Allyn, Charles. The Battle of Groton Heights: A Collection of Narratives, Official Reports, Records, Etc., of the Storming of Fort Griswold, the Massacre of Its Garrison, and the Burning of New London by British Troops under the Command of Brig.-Gen. Benedict Arnold, on the Sixth of September, 1781. Rev. and Enl., ed. New London, CT: C. Allyn. 1882.
2. “National Registry of Historic Places Inventory.” National Park Service, n.d. Web. 20 Jan 2015.
3. Lantiere, Joe. “The Ebenezer Avery House.” The Ebenezer Avery House. Web. 20 Jan 2015.
4. “DEEP: State Parks.” DEEP: State Parks. Web. 20 Jan 2015.