Fort Griswold, Groton, Connecticut (2)

The interior of Fort Griswold facing north toward the Groton Monument, around 1900, Image from The Battle of Groton Heights (1903).

The scene in 2022:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Fort Griswold was the site of one of the last major battles of the American Revolution. The fort was constructed between 1775 and 1778 on a hill near the waterfront in Groton, directly across the harbor from New London. Like most forts of the time period, it was star-shaped, with bastions on the corners to prevent blind spots where attackers could take cover. The walls of the fort were made of stone and earth, and inside the walls was a barracks building, which stood on the far right side of this scene, on a spot that is now marked by a rectangular stone outline. These two photos were taken from the southwest bastion, and they show the interior of the fort facing north. In the distance, the gap in the north wall is where the main entrance to the fort was located.

The fort played a major role in the raid on New London, which occurred on September 6, 1781. It was led by Benedict Arnold, a native of nearby Norwich who had fought in the Continental Army until his treasonous activities were discovered a year earlier. He was subsequently commissioned as a brigadier general in the British army, and he commanded redcoats in several important battles in 1781, including the raid on Richmond in January and the Battle of Blandford in April. His raid here in New London would prove to be his last command, and it was also the last major military action in New England during the war.

Arnold’s forces included about 1,700 men, which he divided roughly in half. One half, which he personally led, conducted the raid of New London on the west side of the Thames River, while the other half, led by Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre, landed in Groton on the east side, and attacked Fort Griswold. They approached the fort from the southeast, behind and to the right of where these photos were taken, and they sustained heavy casualties against a much smaller group of American defenders, which numbered about 160 men commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard.

Because of their much larger numbers, the British eventually managed to get a few men over the walls, who were then able to open the gate on the northern side and allow the rest of the redcoats into the fort. It was at this point that Ledyard, seeing that the battle was clearly lost, attempted to surrender. There is considerable debate about exactly what happened and who did it, but American accounts of the battle generally agree that Ledyard, when asked by a British officer who commanded the fort, responded “I did, sir, but you do now,” and presented him with his sword with the handle facing the British officer and the point facing himself, as a sign of surrender. However, rather than accepting the surrender, the British officer took the sword and stabbed Ledyard with it. The spot where he fell is now marked by a stone marker surrounded by a low fence, as shown in the lower right side of both photos.

After Ledyard’s death, British soldiers continued to attack the American defenders here in the fort. Prior to this point, only about six or seven Americans had been killed, but around 85 would end up being killed, along with others who would later die of their wounds. Once the fighting stopped, many of the survivors were taken prisoner, although those who were badly wounded were generally paroled rather than being transported to New York. On the British side, Arnold reported that 48 were killed in the battle and 145 were wounded, many of whom later died.

Overall, the battle was a British victory, but it proved to be ineffective. They had attempted to destroy the fort by igniting the powder magazine, but this plan failed and they left Groton with the fort still intact. The main purpose of the raid had been to take some pressure off of General Cornwallis in Virginia, since the combined forces of George Washington and Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau were, at the time, making their way south to lay siege to Cornwallis’s army. However, the raid was not enough to divert their attention, and Cornwallis ultimately surrendered his army a little over a month later, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Fort Griswold would remain a part of the harbor defenses here for many years, but in the meantime the battlefield also became the site of the Groton Monument, which is shown in the background of these two photos. Construction began in 1825, with a cornerstone-laying ceremony on 44th anniversary of the battle, which was attended by 18 survivors from the fort. This was only a few months after work began on the Bunker Hill Monument, which was similarly designed as an obelisk. However, the Groton Monument was completed in 1830, while the taller Bunker Hill Monument would not be completed until 1843.

The Groton Monument was originally 127 feet tall and topped with a cupola, but in 1881 the top was reconstructed with a pyramidion, and the monument now stands eight feet taller. This appears to be the reason why the stone blocks near the top are a slightly different shade than the rest of the monument.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, and not much has changed since then. Both the fort and the monument are now part of the Fort Griswold State Park, which was established in 1953. It also includes the Monument House, which is visible just to the right of the monument. It was built in 1830 as the home of the caretaker, but at some point after the first photo was taken it was expanded with a large addition to the back of it, and it now houses a museum that focuses on the battle and the history of the fort. Also visible in both photos, in the distance on the far left side, is the Bill Memorial Library, which was built in 1890. The only significant change here is the Groton Heights School, which once stood beyond and to the left of the monument. This school building was later demolished, and the newer school building is partially visible beyond and to the right of the monument in the present-day scene.

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