Jess: Within our first week in Connecticut, we managed to visit both of the forts in our area. We first visited Fort Trumbull in New London, and then Fort Griswold in Groton. Both were free to tour, and we were able to bring Charlotte along. They are both unique and definitely worth a visit. We really enjoyed the self-guided tour for Fort Trumbull and reading about how it and its purpose had changed over the years — it reminded us of visiting Fort Moultrie in South Carolina, which actually shows you the different ways that forts have changed over the years. Fort Griswold was less built up as Trumbull, but still fun to wander around, and it also has a tall obelisk that gives great views of New London and Groton.
One of our favorite things about living on the East Coast is learning about the history that took place here, and seeing how it all fits together with other historic sites we’ve visited. Curtis took the time to write the history of these 2 forts while I was away this weekend, so here is a summary of what we’ve learned so far about Southeastern Connecticut!
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Curtis: In the Summer of 1781, General Charles Cornwallis of the British Army took command of British forces in Virginia. General Washington believed that this was his opportunity to strike a critical blow against the British and began planning with his new French Allies and on August 19. French General Rochambeau began a 680 mile march from Newport, RI to Yorktown, VA. But, to prevent the British from realizing their precarious situation, Washington led the British Commander and Chief, General Henry Clinton, to believe that the invasion was towards Manhattan.
Fort Trumbull State Park, New London, Connecticut
The ruse held until the beginning of September when General Clinton realized Washington’s true intentions. Unable and unwilling to abandon Manhattan, Clinton decided to attempt to turn Washington from his objective by launching an attack on the New England coast; specifically the port town of New London, an important port of commerce and a haven for American privateers.
New London wasn’t going to be just a simple raid however, as it was defended on both sides of the Thames River. (A side note on pronunciation. Clearly New London on the Thames River is named for London, also on the Thames River. However, for whatever reason, the CT Thames is pronounced as it is spelled, i.e. rhymes with games, while the UK Thames is pronounced “tems”. I don’t know why, it just is.) In 1775 at the onset of the Revolution, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull recommended the construction of two earthen forts on either side of the river. The fort on the New London side (West) and the smaller of the two was named Fort Trumbull and consisted of little more than an earthen berm with some cannons. The other was named Fort Griswold after the Lt. Governor, and was a much larger piece featuring the traditional earthen star fort and a lower battery.
Clinton chose Connecticut Native and American turncoat to command the expedition. Arnold knew much about the forts and town and devised his assault carefully. On the morning of September 6, Arnold sailed his army of 1700 up the Thames, careful to avoid placing his ships in a crossfire. The militia men defending Fort Griswold fired off two cannon to signal the country side that the enemy was at hand. But, one of the British ships fired off a third shot, a signal welcoming home a successful privateer. This caused confusion among the local militias and delayed their aid.
Arnold landed half of his army on the New London side, commanding them personally as they easily stormed Fort Trumbull. Trumbull’s defenders gave one volley, spiked the guns, and then rowed across the river to aid in the defense of Griswold. With no further impedance, Arnold marched upon New London and set fire to military stores and privateers unable to escape further upriver. At some point in the fray, the fire got out of hand and spread to the town proper burning most of it to the ground.
Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, Groton, Connecticut
On the other bank, the British met with much stiffer resistance. Commanded by Lt. Colonel Eyre, the 800 some British had difficulty navigating to the base of the hill on which Griswold was situated. Once there, Eyre twice asked for the unconditional surrender of the fort. With only 150 some defenders Colonel William Ledyard, the commanding officer of the fort, refused. The battle that followed was short but costly for the British. The British charged twice, and on the second they managed to storm the walls. During one of these assaults, the American’s Flag was shot down, but quickly re-raised. The British however, viewed the falling colors as a sign of surrender and were surprised when the Americans continued to fire upon them. This sadly lead to the massacre of the fort’s defenders. After the British climbed the walls and took the fort, Colonel Ledyard surrendered himself and his command by offering his sword hilt first to the acting British commanding officer (Colonel Eyre had been mortally wounded during the assault). This officer then stabbed Ledyard through the heart with the offered sword and the British Regulars continued firing indiscriminately upon the remaining defenders. Some sources stated that prior to the surrender, only a mere dozen Americans were wounded, but final tallies by General Arnold reported over 85 killed and 60+ wounded.
The British successfully defeated both sides of the river but at a high cost of 48 killed and 145 wounded. The British reembarked and returned to Manhattan. Much to Clinton’s chagrin, the expedition had been costly and had not succeeded in turning Washington’s attentions. Arnold proposed further raids along the coast, but was prevented by Cornwallis’ surrender in mid-October.
New London would eventually rebuild, and many of the citizens who were effected would receive land grants in the Ohio Valley. Along with the rebuilding and growth of the town, so to were both forts.
Fort Trumbull would eventually be built up during the Second System of forts and then again during the Third System. During that stage, it was rebuilt in the “Egyptian Revival” style, a style unique among the Third System. The Army continued to operate out of Trumbull throughout the 19th century. During the Endicott era, the fort was updated but rendered obsolete due to the construction of more modern batteries in Long Island Sound.
From 1910-1915, the Trumbull was the location of the Coast Guard Academy before the academy was moved up the river to its current site. During the 30’s it served as an officer training center for the Merchant Marine Corps, then spent the remainder of its military career as a testing ground for sonar systems.
On the other side of the river, Fort Griswold continued to see minimal use, but mostly functioned as a subpost of Fort Trumbull. The current monument to the battle was built from 1826-1830.