Oliver Ellsworth Homestead, Windsor, Connecticut (2)

The Oliver Ellsworth Homestead at 778 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1900. Image from Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI.

The house in 2023:

As explained in an earlier post, this house was the home of Oliver Ellsworth, a prominent Connecticut politician in the post-Revolution era. The main part of the house was built in 1781, but it was later expanded in 1788 with an addition on the right side, and later in the 19th century with the addition of the columns and porch on the right side. The house is located on the east side of Palisado Avenue in the northeastern part of modern-day Windsor, a few hundred yards to the west of the Connecticut River.

Oliver Ellsworth was born in Windsor in 1745, and he grew up in an earlier house on this site. As a young man he attended Yale and the College of New Jersey (modern-day Princeton), and after graduation he became a lawyer. In 1772 he married Abigail Wolcott, and they had nine children who were born between 1774 and 1791: Abigail, Oliver, Oliver, Martin, William, Frances, Delia, William, and Henry. Ellsworth inherited the family house in the early 1780s, and the original house was evidently demolished in order to build the current one in 1781, although it is possible that a portion of the old one was incorporated into the newer structure. He named the house Elmwood, and planted 13 elm trees in the front yard, representing the original 13 states.

In the meantime, Oliver Ellsworth became involved in politics during the American Revolution, including serving as a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress throughout most of the war. After the war he became a state judge, but in 1787 he was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which drafted the current United States Constitution. There, he worked with fellow Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman to create the Connecticut Compromise, establishing the current bicameral federal legislature with proportional representation in the House and equal representation for each state in the Senate.

Ellsworth had to leave the Philadelphia convention before the Constitution was finished, so he did not sign the final draft of it. However, once the Constitution was ratified, he played several important roles in the new government. He was one of Connecticut’s first two senators, serving from 1789 to 1796, and during this time perhaps his most significant contribution was writing the Judiciary Act of 1789. In the Constitution, the structure of the judicial branch was intentionally left vague, to allow Congress to establish courts as they saw fit. This act set the size of the Supreme Court, and it also established a system of lower federal courts and judicial districts.

The first Chief Justice of the United States was John Jay, who served from 1789 to 1795, when he resigned to become governor of New York. George Washington then nominated John Rutledge as the next Chief Justice, and Rutledge served for a few months as a recess appointment. However, the Senate ultimately rejected his appointment, so Washington instead nominated Ellsworth, who was unanimously approved by the Senate. He became Chief Justice on March 8, 1796, and he served in that role for the next four years. At the time, the Supreme Court was not generally seen as being anywhere near as important as the other two branches of the federal government, so there were no landmark cases during Ellsworth’s time, although he did institute the practice of justices issuing a single majority opinion, rather than each justice writing an individual opinion.

In 1799, while Ellsworth was still serving as Chief Justice, President John Adams sent him to France as an envoy, where he negotiated with Napoleon in order to prevent war between the two countries. However, the trip to Europe left Ellsworth in poor health, and he ultimately retired from the court in December 1800. This decision would prove to have far-reaching effects; it came in the closing months of Adams’s presidency, after he had already been defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson. However, Adams was still president until March 1801, and as such he nominated John Marshall as Ellsworth’s replacement. Confirmed by the Senate in 1801, Marshall would go on to serve as Chief Justice for the next 34 years, where he played a crucial role in establishing key precedents and upholding Federalist ideals, long after the Federalist party itself had faded into obscurity. Had Ellsworth not retired when he did, his successor would likely have been someone appointed by Thomas Jefferson, which would likely have radically altered the course of American history.

This house remained Oliver Ellsworth’s home throughout his political career, and during this time he entertained visitors such as George Washington and John Adams. Washington’s visit came on October 21, 1789, when he stopped here during his tour of the New England states. He spent an hour here on his way from Hartford to Springfield, writing in his diary:

By promise I was to have Breakfasted at Mr. Ellsworths at Windsor on my way to Springfield, but the Morning proving very wet and the rain not ceasing till past 10 Oclock I did not set out till half after that hour; I called however on Mr. Ellsworth and stay’d there near an hour.

A decade later, on October 3, 1799, John Adams became the second sitting president to visit this house. This occurred exactly a month before Ellsworth departed for France, so it seems likely that much of their visit involved conversation about diplomatic issues and the potential for war with France.

Following his return to America and his retirement from the Supreme Court, Ellsworth came back here to his home in Windsor, where he lived for the rest of his life, until his death in 1807 at the age of 62. The house would remain in his family for nearly a century after his death, and it was still owned by his descendants when the first photo was taken around 1900.

The first photo shows several exterior alterations that had occurred during the 19th century, including the columns and portico on the right side, along with exterior shutters on the windows. Overall, though, it still looked much the same as it did when Oliver Ellsworth lived here a century earlier. There were also many large elm trees in the front yard in the first photo, which were likely the same ones that Ellsworth had planted here.

In 1903, shortly after the first photo was taken, the Ellsworth family donated the house to the Connecticut chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was then preserved as a museum, and over the years it has seen few exterior changes, aside from removing the exterior shutters. The elm trees that Ellsworth had planted are now long gone, having probably fallen victim to Dutch Elm Disease in the early 20th century, but the house itself still stands as an important Connecticut landmark. It is still owned by the DAR, and it is open periodically for public tours.

Groton Monument, Groton, Connecticut

The Groton Monument, seen from the southwest around 1900. Image from The Battle of Groton Heights (1903).

The monument in 2022:

These two photos show the Groton Monument, a 135-foot obelisk that memorializes the American soldiers who died at nearby Fort Griswold during the Battle of Groton Heights. It resembles the more famous Bunker Hill Monument, and these two monuments were actually built around the same time. The cornerstone for Bunker Hill was laid several months earlier, but the Groton Monument was completed in 1830, 13 years before Bunker Hill was completed.

Aside from similar designs, the two monuments also commemorate similar battles that, in many ways, bookend the American Revolution in New England. Bunker Hill was the first major battle of the war in the region, and Groton Heights was the last. Both involved relatively small numbers of Americans fighting from an elevated position against a much larger British force, and both ultimately ended as British victories, but not before the Americans inflicted heavy casualties on them. And, both were essentially pyrrhic victories; the British took substantial losses, and were unable to exploit any real strategic advantages from the battles.

In the end, about 85 American soldiers were killed here at the Battle of Groton Heights, and about 48 British soldiers. In addition, about 35 Americans were wounded, and about 145 British, and many of these wounded men on both sides subsequently died of their injuries. Making this battle particularly controversial was the fact that, according to many American accounts of the battle, most of the American losses occurred after they attempted to surrender once the British breached the walls of the fort. There are different theories about exactly what led to this, including the possibility that the British had mistakenly interpreted a flag being shot down in the midst of the battle as a signal of surrender, which then made them wary of the actual surrender later in the battle. Either way, the 160 American defenders suffered extremely high casualty rates. As a result, the battle is also sometimes referred to as the Fort Griswold Massacre.

This battle would prove to be one of the last major land battles of the war. Less than a month and a half later, the combined forces of George Washington and Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau forced the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, which effectively ended the war. As a result, Fort Griswold had essentially no bearing on the outcome of the war, and it was soon overshadowed by Yorktown, which might explain why it is not as well-known as some of the other major battles that occurred in New England during the war.

For many years after the war, there were very few monuments of any kind at any of the battlefields. However, this started to change somewhat by the 1820s, around the time that the surviving veterans of the war were reaching advanced ages. Over the next few decades, a handful of monuments were dedicated, ranging from relatively modest ones like the obelisk at the site of Old North Bridge in Concord, to far more ambitious ones like the 221-foot Bunker Hill Monument.

Here in Groton, there was a similar desire to memorialize the defenders of Fort Griswold. On September 6, 1825, on the 44th anniversary of the battle, the cornerstone was laid for this monument. The ceremony drew a crowd of an estimated 8,000-10,000 people, and the guests of honor included 18 survivors of the battle. One of them wore the same vest that he had worn during the battle, which still had two bullet holes in it.

The keynote speaker for the ceremony was William F. Brainard, a New London lawyer. His address, as described in the New London Gazette, “was at once patriotic, vehement, animated, original and in short most eloquent.” He covered a range of topics, including highlighting the many ways in which European powers have harmed the Americans before transitioning into discussing the specifics of this battle. Along the way, he also emphasized the many wrongs that had been committed—and were still being committed—against Native Americans. He identified it as a sin committed by their forefathers, and he also criticized Americans of his own time period for their hypocrisy in supporting missionary work in faraway places, rather than using their money to help support Native Americans here in this country.

To emphasize this last point, Brainard noted the irony of “sending to a distant land, small and pitiful donations, the spare change from the produce of farms, all of which were wrested from Indians, and some of which are cultivated by slaves.” Brainard then acknowledged that, while the topic was only partially related to his address on the American Revolution, he believed that it was important to mention the memory of the Pequots, “whose land we occupy.”

Brainard then spent the second half of his speech describing the events of the battle, and he concluded on a confident note, believing that the monument would have a long future ahead of it. He declared:

In such hands, whatever structure may be here raised, the keeping of it will be safe. The relatives and decendants of the dead may be presumed to inherit a portion of their spirit, and will defend the sepulchres of their fathers.

Never again, it may be fairly predicted, never again will this spot be invaded with success. We owe this assurance to the dead defenders of this place.

Yonder are their graves—peace to their memories!

Following the ceremony, some newspapers noted that some critics had derided the monument as merely being a copy of the Bunker Hill Monument, which had likewise just begun construction. However, as noted earlier, the Groton Monument would be completed much sooner than Bunker Hill. It was finished in 1830, although its appearance was different from these two photos. It originally stood 127 feet high, and it was topped by a cupola.

The monument would have that design throughout most of the 19th century, but in 1881 the upper part was reconstructed, with a pyramidion replacing the original cupola. As part of this project, the height of the monument was raised eight feet, bringing it to its present-day height of 135 feet.

The 1881 alterations coincided with the centennial of the battle, which was celebrated on September 6, 1881. This event was well attended, with various estimates ranging from 30,000 to 100,000 people here. It featured a reenactment of the battle, along with a speech by Senator Joseph R. Hawley of Connecticut. Prominent guests included General William T. Sherman, along with Chief Justice Morrison Waite, who was a Connecticut native.

Sherman gave a short speech at the request of the audience, and he somehow ended up talking about Native Americans, just as Brainard had almost 60 years ago. However, Sherman was not as progressive in his views as Brainard had been. He began his speech by praising the people of Connecticut, and he noted that his ancestors came from the state. However, as the Springfield Republican noted in its coverage, “[t]hen Sherman took occasion to advocate the extermination of the Indians.” He spent most of the remainder of his speech defending this reasoning, while also reminding Connecticut residents who might sympathize with the western Indians that it was Connecticut that had set this precedent by killing the Pequots early in the colonial era. This tirade does not seem to have had much direct connection to the subject at hand, although Sherman did make an attempt to compare the massacre of the fort’s defenders to the deaths of George Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

After Sherman, the next speaker was Congressman John T. Wait, the cousin of the Chief Justice. He was followed by the Rev. Leonard W. Bacon, who recited a poem, “The Lay of Groton Height,” that he had composed about the battle. Next was a military parade on State Street in New London, and then the day’s festivities were concluded with an elaborate fireworks display in the evening.

The first photo was taken only about 20 years after this centennial celebration, and the scene still looks largely the same as it did in the first photo, aside from more trees in the landscape today. The monument itself has not seen any significant exterior changes since then, and it is still open to the public seasonally, for those who are willing to climb the narrow 166-foot spiral staircase to the top. It is part of the Fort Griswold State Park, which also includes a small museum in the old caretaker’s house to the right, along with the preserved fort itself.

Lower Battery of Fort Griswold, Groton, Connecticut

The Lower Battery of Fort Griswold, seen from the southwest corner of the upper fort around 1900. Image from The Battle of Groton Heights (1903).

The scene in 2022:

As explained in more detail in an earlier post, Fort Griswold was built during the American Revolution, on a hill overlooking New London Harbor. It was completed in 1778, and it was the focal point of the Battle of Groton Heights on September 6, 1781, when British forces under the command of Benedict Arnold captured the fort and killed around 85 American soldiers in the process.

The main part of the fort was designed as a typical star fortress, with a roughly pentagonal shape that had bastions on each corner. However, it also had a lower battery, which was located just to the southwest of the fort, between the fort and the river. It was connected to the fort via a trench and a sally port in the southern wall of the fort. This battery did not see any significant action during the battle, since the British approached the fort from the southeast, rather than on the southwestern side.

After capturing the fort during the battle, the British attempted to ignite the powder magazine and destroy the fort. However, this plan failed and the fort ultimately survived. It remained in use for many years as a part of the harbor defenses, although it played a secondary role to Fort Trumbull in New London, which became the main fortification in the harbor.

Unlike Fort Trumbull, which was reconstructed several times after the Revolution, the main part of Fort Griswold would remain well preserved in its 18th century appearance. The only significant changes to Fort Griswold were at the lower battery, which is shown here in these two photos. This part of the fort was reconstructed in the early 1840s, with new emplacements for 20 guns, along with a shot furnace and a powder magazine. Both of these structures were built in 1843, with the powder magazine being used to store gunpowder and the shot furnace for heating cannonballs, in order to set wooden ships on fire upon impact.

The fort’s guns would be upgraded to Rodman guns around the time of the Civil War, and these appear to have been the types of guns that are visible in the first photo, which was taken around the turn of the 20th century. Fort Griswold would continue to be used as an active military installation until after World War II, although for much of this time it was only lightly garrisoned.

The state of Connecticut subsequently acquired the property, and in 1953 the fort and battlefield became the Fort Griswold State Park. As shown in these two photos, the lower battery has remained well preserved, with the only significant difference being the lack of guns in the present-day scene. The upper part of the fort, where these two photos were taken, is similarly preserved, and the facility is open to the public for self-guided tours, along with the nearby Groton Monument, which honors those who died in the battle.

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.

Fort Griswold, Groton, Connecticut

The view of Fort Griswold from the top of the Groton Monument in Groton, around 1900. Image from The Battle of Groton Heights (1903).

The scene in 2022:

These two photos show Fort Griswold, which was built during the American Revolution on the east side of New London Harbor. Most significantly, the fort was the site of the Battle of Groton Heights on September 6, 1781. This battle is often overlooked, perhaps because it was a British victory that ultimately had little bearing on the outcome of the war. However, it was the largest battle to be fought in Connecticut during the Revolution, and it was also the last major battle in the northern states.

Fort Griswold was built between 1775 and 1778 on Groton Heights, a hill immediately to the east of New London Harbor. The site is less than a thousand feet from the water, yet it rises to about 125 feet in elevation, making it an ideal place for a fort to defend New London, which is located directly across the harbor. It was named in honor of Matthew Griswold, who was at the time the lieutenant governor and would eventually become governor of Connecticut. Aside from this fort, the harbor defenses also included Fort Trumbull in New London, which was named for Jonathan Trumbull, who served as governor from 1769 to 1784. Fort Trumbull is visible in the distance of both of these photos, across the harbor on the far right side of the scene.

Fort Griswold was laid out as a star fort, roughly pentagonal in shape, with bastions projecting outward to enable enfilading fire against attackers. The walls, which were made of stone topped with earth, were thick and relatively low, in order to protect against enemy artillery, and it was surrounded by a ditch to make it more difficult for the enemy to scale the walls. This was a typical fort design for the 18th century, although much smaller in scale than more notable ones of the era, such as Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point. The main entrance was on the north side, as shown here in the foreground of these two photos, but there was also a sally port on the south side of the fort that led to ditch connecting the fort to the lower battery. On the inside of the fort were the barracks, which were located on the east side, on the spot now marked by a large rectangular outline in the second photo.

Stephen Hempstead, who was one of the fort’s defenders during the battle, provided the following description of Fort Griswold in his subsequent account of the battle:

The fort was an oblong square, with bastions at opposite angles, its longest side fronting the river in a northwest and southeast direction. Its walls were of stone, and were ten or twelve feet high on the lower side, and surrounded by a ditch. On the wall were pickets, projecting over twelve feet; above this was a parapet with embrasures, and within a platform for the cannon, and a step to mount upon to shoot over the parapet with small arms. In the southwest bastion was a flag-staff, and in the side, near the opposite angle, was the gate, in front of which was a triangular breast-work to protect the gate; and to the right of this was a redoubt, with a three-pounder in it, which was about 120 yards from the gate. Between the fort and the river was another battery, with a covered way, but which could not be used in this attack, as the enemy appeared in a different quarter.

These defenses would be put to the test on September 6, 1781, when Benedict Arnold landed around 1,700 British soldiers here in the New London area. By this point the war in the north was winding down, and most of the focus had shifted south, where Lord Cornwallis had taken up a vulnerable position on a peninsula in Virginia. George Washington and Rochambeau had begun marching their army south in the summer of 1781, but Arnold hoped that a raid on New London would distract Washington and take pressure off of Cornwallis.

In conducting the raid, Arnold divided his force of about 1,700 men into two groups of roughly equal numbers. One group, commanded by Arnold himself, landed on the west side of the Thames River in New London. They met with minimal resistance at Fort Trumbull, which had been lightly garrisoned, and the 23 defenders who had been positioned there abandoned the fort after spiking the guns. Those defenders then crossed the harbor to join the American soldiers at Fort Griswold, which was a much more substantial fortification. In the meantime, Arnold had free reign of New London, and he burned a significant portion of it, including over 140 buildings. Adding insult to this injury was the fact that Arnold was a local, having been born and raised in nearby Norwich.

While Arnold was burning New London, the other group of about 800 British soldiers landed in Groton, on the east side of the Thames River. They were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre, who had been given the task of capturing Fort Griswold. Rather than attempting a frontal assault directly from the river, Eyre instead landed his men further to the south, at the entrance to the harbor in the distant left side of these two photos. This spot is marked by a small “4” in the first photo. This route of attack enabled him to approach the fort from the southeast, which, as noted in Stephen Hempstead’s account, rendered the lower battery ineffective against them.

According to Arnold’s post-battle report, his orders to Eyre were at least partially based on information that he had received from a Loyalist resident of New London, who informed him that the fort was only partially complete and was only defended by 20 or 30 men. However, in reality the fort had about 160 defenders, and Arnold would soon discover that it was definitely not incomplete. From a vantage point at the old burial ground in New London, Arnold surveyed the fort’s defenses, and subsequently wrote in his report that he “found it much more formidable than I expected, or than I had formed an idea of, from the information I had before received.” This led him to countermand his original orders to Eyre, but the message arrived after the battle had already started.

Prior to the battle, Eyre had demanded the unconditional surrender of the fort. With about 800 soldiers, he had a significant numerical advantage, but the fort’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard, refused to surrender. Throughout the war, the British tended to avoid assaulting fortified, elevated American positions, likely in part because of their experiences early in the war at Bunker Hill. Ledyard may have had Bunker Hill in mind on this day, but he also believed that there were reinforcements who would arrive momentarily, so he held his position.

After the rejected surrender demand, Colonel Eyre concentrated his attack on the southwest bastion of the fort, located in the far right-hand side of the fort from the perspective of these two photos. They suffered heavy casualties in the process, including Major William Montgomery, who was impaled with a pike by Jordan Freeman, a formerly enslaved man who was subsequently killed in the battle.

According to Stephen Hempstead’s account, at one point in the battle the fort’s flagpole was shot down. The flag was quickly raised on a pike, but Hempstead believed that the British had interpreted the initial falling of the flag as a sign of surrender. This, he asserted, had given them the added motivation to get over the walls because they believed victory was at hand. It is also possible that the British may have seen the action as a feigned surrender designed to draw them into a vulnerable position. If that was the case, it may explain their subsequent actions once they breached the fort.

Regardless of exactly how the fallen flag may have influenced the British, they managed to get some of their soldiers over the walls. They then opened the gate from the inside, allowing the rest of the soldiers to enter the fort. It was at this point that Colonel Ledyard recognized that the battle was lost. Stephen Hempstead, who had been wounded by a musket ball in his left arm in the fighting right before this, described the ensuing events in his narrative:

Colonel Ledyard, seeing the enemy within the fort, gave orders to cease firing, and to throw down our arms, as the fort had surrendered. We did so, but they continued firing upon us, crossed the fort and opened the gate, when they marched in, firing in platoons upon those who were retreating to the magazine and barrack-rooms for safety. At this moment the renegade Colonel Beckwith commanding, cried out “Who commands this garrison?” Colonel Ledyard, who was standing near me, answered “I did, sir, but you do now,” at the same time stepping forward, handed him his sword with the point towards himself. At this instant I perceived a soldier in the act of bayonetting me from behind. I turned suddenly round and grasped his bayonet, endeavoring to unship it, and knock off the thrust, but in vain. Having but one hand, he succeeded in forcing it into my right hip, above the joint, and just below the abdomen, and crushed me to the ground. The first person I saw afterwards was my brave commander, a corpse by my side, having been run through the body with his own sword, by the savage renegade.

Over the years there has been debate and speculation about exactly who killed Colonel Ledyard, but American accounts of the battle generally agree on what happened next. Up to this point, only about six or seven Americans had been killed in the battle, according to Hempstead’s estimate. However, many more would be killed here in the fort after this attempted surrender. Hempstead continued by writing:

Never was a scene of more brutal wanton carnage witnessed than now took place. The enemy were still firing upon us in platoons, and in the barrack-rooms, which were continued for some minutes, when they discovered they were in danger of being blown up, by communicating fire to the powder scattered at the mouth of the magazine while delivering out cartridges; nor did it then cease in the rooms for some minutes longer. All this time the bayonet was “freely used,” even on those who were helplessly wounded and in the agonies of death. I recollect Captain William Seymour, a volunteer from Hartford, had thirteen bayonet wounds, although his knee had previously been shattered by a ball, so much so, that it was obliged to be amputated the next day. But I need not mention particular cases. I have already said that we had six killed and eighteen wounded previous to their storming our lines; eighty-five were killed in all, thirty-five mortally and dangerously wounded, and forty taken prisoners to New York, most of them slightly hurt.

Another American soldier, Rufus Avery, gave a similar account in his own description of the battle:

They killed and wounded nearly every man in the fort as quick as they could, which was done in about one minute. I expected my time to come with the rest. One mad-looking fellow put his bayonet to my side, and swore, “bejasus, he would skipper me.” I looked him very earnestly in the face and eyes, and asked for mercy and to spare my life. He attempted three times to put the bayonet in me, but I must say I believe God forbade him, for I was completely in his power, as well as others that was present with the enemy. The enemy at the same time massacred Lieut. Enoch Stanton within four or five feet of me. A platoon of about ten men marched up near where I stood, where two large outer doors to the magazine made a space wide enough for ten men to stand in one rank. They discharged their guns into the magazine among the dead and wounded, and some well ones, and some they killed and wounded.

Like Hempstead, Avery also commented on how the British became concerned that they would ignite the powder magazine. He wrote:

That platoon fell back, and another platoon came forward to discharge their guns into the outer part of the magazine, where the others did. As they made ready to fire, Capt. Bloomfield came suddenly round the corner of the magazine, and very quickly raised his sword, exclaiming, “Stop firing! You’ll send us all to hell together ! ” Their language was bad as well as their conduct. I was near him when he spoke. Bloomfield knew there must be, of course, much powder scattered about the magazine, and a great quantity deposited there, but I expect the reason it did not take fire was that there was so much human blood to put it out. They did not bayonet many after they ceased firing their guns. I was amongst them all the time, and they very soon left off killing, and then went stripping and robbing the dead and wounded, and also those that were not wounded.

As the battle came to an end, the British began taking prisoners. They also attempted to destroy the fort itself, but they were not successful. In his official report to his commanding officer, Sir Henry Clinton, Arnold described how:

A very considerable Magazine of Powder, and Barracks to contain 300 men, were found in Fort Griswold, which Captain 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 reason why it was not done Captain Lemoine will have the honor to explain to your Excellency.

Arnold’s report did not specify exactly why the first attempt failed, or why the second one was not carried out, although his tone clearly indicated frustration with Lemoine’s inaction. However, Lemoine did subsequently offer his explanation to Clinton, who indicated that he was satisfied with the reason.

Based on other accounts, the reason for the failure of the first attempt appears to have been due to interference by Americans who disrupted the trail of powder that was supposed to ignite the magazine. Another American who was present at the battle, John Hempsted, described the incident in a narrative that was somewhat less polished than Arnold’s report:

But the Enemy Intended to blow up the fort for they Stroed a train of powder from the gate to the magesean & itt burnt from the gate about half way to the magesean, and the Comunication was cut of by a mans fingers which Sean in the durt.

The Americans ultimately managed to save the fort itself, but overall they had sustained heavy losses in the battle. Different sources give somewhat different figures for the total number killed, wounded, and captured, but Stephen Hempstead’s estimates, which were quoted earlier, seem to be reasonably correct, with about 85 killed, 35 wounded, and 40 taken prisoner. The wounded figure included those who would subsequently die of their wounds, along with those who were deemed to be too injured to be taken prisoner, including Stephen Hempstead. Among the prisoners was Rufus Avery, who was subsequently transported to New York.

In his report, Benedict Arnold also stated that 85 Americans had been killed, although he also estimated that 60 were wounded (“most of them mortally”), and 70 captured. These latter two figures are likely inflated, since that would put the total number killed, wounded, and captured at 215, which was significantly higher than the total number of defenders who were present in the fort. As for the British, Arnold reported 48 killed and 145 wounded, and also noted that three of the wounded officers had since died. Other wounded British soldiers appear to have died of their wounds while making the voyage back across the Atlantic.

Based on these numbers, both sides had similar numbers of casualties, although for the Americans these represented a much higher percentage of their total force. With at least 85 dead in the battle, plus others who were mortally wounded, it meant that well over half of the fort’s defenders died during or soon after the battle. And, with nearly all of the remaining American soldiers either wounded or taken prisoner, it meant that they had a casualty rate of nearly 100%. Because of this, and because so many of the Americans were killed after they attempted to surrender, the battle is sometimes referred to as the Fort Griswold Massacre. At least one modern historian, Jerald P. Hurwitz, has even taken this a step further, declaring it to be the “Alamo of the Revolution” in his 2020 book of the same name.

For the British, the battle probably brought back memories of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which had been fought six years earlier at the start of the Revolution. Like Fort Griswold, it was a battle that they technically won, but it was largely a pyrrhic victory that involved heavy losses without gaining any significant strategic advantage. It would also prove to be their last major victory of the war. The goal of distracting Washington’s army did not succeed, and they continued on their way to Virginia despite the raid on New London and Groton.

Just 22 days after the battle here in Groton, the combined French and American armies began laying siege to General Cornwallis on the Yorktown Peninsula. This ultimately led to his surrender on October 19, 1781, which effectively ended the American Revolution. Interestingly, the total number of American and French soldiers killed in the three-week siege was about 88, which was approximately the same number who were killed here in Fort Griswold in the span of 40 minutes.

Following the was, Fort Griswold would continue to be used as a harbor defense fort for many years, although primarily in a supporting role, with Fort Trumbull becoming the main fort here in New London. Fort Griswold saw use during the War of 1812, and then in the early 1840s the lower batter was rebuilt, as shown on the right side of these photos. This work included emplacements for 20 guns, along with a powder magazine and a shot furnace. The latter was used to heat cannonballs before firing them, in order to start fires when they struck wooden warships. Both structures were built in 1843, and they are still standing today, with the magazine visible on the far right and the furnace a little to the left of it.

In the meantime, the battlefield also became the site of one of the earliest large-scale monuments to the American Revolution. In 1825, work began on a 127-foot monument just to the north of the fort. The cornerstone was laid on September 6, 1781, on the 44th anniversary of the battle, and approximately 8,000-10,000 people attended the ceremony, including 18 survivors of the battle. One of them even wore the same vest that he had worn during the battle, complete with a musket ball hole and other damage from the battle.

This event occurred less than three months after the cornerstone was laid for the more famous Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts. It had a design that was similar to the Bunker Hill Monument, although it was topped with a cupola rather than a traditional obelisk point. It was much shorter than Bunker Hill, standing at 127 feet compared to 221 feet. However, it also took much less time to build; it was completed in 1830, compared to 1843 for the Bunker Hill Monument.

The design of the Groton Monument was later modified for the centennial of the battle in 1881. The original cupola was removed, and the top of the monument was reconstructed to make it a true obelisk. This project added eight feet to the monument’s height, which now rises 135 feet above the battlefield.

The interior of the monument has a spiral staircase that leads to an observation platform with one window on each side of the monument. These windows provide expansive views of New London, the harbor, and the surrounding countryside, along with a birds-eye view of Fort Griswold, as shown in these two photos. From here, it is easy to get a sense of the layout of the fort and the topography around it, and also to visualize how the battle unfolded.

Even after the completion of the monument, the fort itself would remain an active military installation for many years. The lower battery, which had been reconstructed in the 1840s, was upgraded again around the time of the Civil War, including the installation of Rodman guns. It would ultimately continue to be used until after World War II, although for most of this time it was only lightly garrisoned, and never saw any other combat.

The site of the fort was subsequently transferred to the state, which established the Fort Griswold State Park here in 1953. Today, the park includes the fort itself, along with the monument and a small museum adjacent to it in the Monument House. Visitors can climb up the 166 steps to the top of the monument, and they can also explore the fort, which is open for self-guided tours.

Overall, the battlefield has not changed much in the 120 years or so since the first photo was taken. Although the battle is often overlooked when compared to the other major battles of the war, the site here has remained well-preserved, even as the surrounding area has been extensively developed over the years. There are now far more houses on the other side of the battlefield than there were in the first photo, and probably the most significant change is the large General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in the distance. This facility specializes in building nuclear-powered submarines for the U.S. Navy, so its proximity to Fort Griswold provides for an interesting contrast to the Revolutionary-era fort in the foreground.

First Church of Christ, Farmington, Connecticut

The First Church of Christ, Congregational, on Main Street in Farmington, on July 29, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The church in 2021:

Farmington’s First Church of Christ, shown here in these two photos, stands as one of the best surviving examples of a colonial-era meetinghouse in Connecticut. It was completed in 1772, and it was designed and constructed by Judah Woodruff, a local builder who was responsible for many houses in Farmington during this period. As was the case for other meetinghouses of the era, it served as the religious, social, and political center of the town, functioning as a place not only for church services, but also for town meetings and other gatherings.

The church was established in 1652, and it occupied two earlier meetinghouses. The details of the first one are unclear, but the second one was completed in 1714, and it stood here in the vicinity of the present-day structure. This second meetinghouse was small and poorly built, and it had to serve the needs of a growing town. At the time, Farmington was significantly larger geographically, and included present-day towns such as Avon, Berlin, Bristol, Burlington, New Britain, Plainville, and Southington. Many of these places had their own parish churches by the mid-1700s, but their inhabitants still had to come here to Farmington for the town meetings.

By the late 1760s, the town had begun the process of planning for a new meetinghouse, and the construction work began in 1771, as indicated by the “July AD 1771” inscribed on one of the foundation stones. It was completed a little over a year later, and the dedication ceremony occurred on November 25, 1772. The architecture of the building is typical for colonial meetinghouses of its era, with a main entrance on the long side of the building and a steeple that is set off to the side. It would not be until the late 18th century that this trend shifted, and it became more common for meetinghouses to have main entrances on the gabled end of the building, and a steeple that rises from the roof above that entrance.

The interior of the Farmington meeting house likewise reflected colonial-era styles. The pulpit was located in the middle of the long side of the building, so that the interior was much wider than it was long, in contrast to later church designs. On the main floor were a series of box pews that were rented by families, and there were more pews on the gallery, along with rows of benches in front of them. As was the case in most colonial meetinghouses, seating reflected social status, and the more prominent families generally occupied the pews closer to the front, while young unmarried people, along with people of color, were usually in the less desirable seats in the gallery.

When the current meetinghouse was constructed, the pastor of the church was Timothy Pitkin. A 1747 graduate of Yale, Pitkin had subsequently married Temperance Clap, daughter of Yale president Thomas Clap, and then became the pastor here in Farmington in 1752. He came from a prominent Connecticut family; his father, William Pitkin, was the colonial governor from 1766 to 1769, and Timothy’s son, also named Timothy, was in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1805 to 1819. Aside from serving as pastor, Pitkin was also a benefactor of the new meetinghouse; he contributed 20 pounds toward its construction, which was a significant part of his 125 pound annual salary.

The meetinghouse was completed right around the time when Connecticut and the other colonies were dealing with questions relating to British authority. Here in Farmington, residents condemned the so-called Intolerable Acts, which Parliament had passed in response to the Boston Tea Party. At a June 1774 town meeting here, the voters of Farmington declared their opposition to “such arbitrary and tyrannical acts,” and they approved a measure to gather food and transport it to Boston to aid the beleaguered residents there.

Then, in September the town approved the purchase of stockpiles of lead, flints, and powder, and in December it indicated its support for the resolutions of the First Continental Congress. However, not everyone in the town was apparently united in their support. The town records also indicate that, at the December meeting, Matthias Loaming, and Nehemiah Royce were declared to be “Open Enemies to their country” for refusing to vote on the measure. As a result, the town voted to “withdraw all connection from them, untill they shall make Public Retraction of their Principles and Sentiments in the matters aforesaid.”

Once the Revolution started, Farmington supported the Patriot cause. At a town meeting here in March 1777, voters approved a bonus system to encourage residents to enlist in the Continental Army. Soldiers would receive five pounds upon enlistment, followed by another five pounds after completing one year of service. Then, in September the town approved providing two shirts and two pairs of stockings to those who were in the army.

Aside from approving expenditures to fight against British rule, another matter that came up here in the meetinghouse was the need to maintain decorum during worship services. In December 1772, soon after the meetinghouse opened, the town addressed the issue. As quoted in Noah Porter’s 1872 Historical Discourse on the church, the complaint was that:

[I]t is suggested by many members of this society that indecencies are practiced by the young people upon the Sabbath in time of public worship by frequently passing and repassing by one another in the galleries, and intermingling sexes to the great disturbance of many serious and well minded people.

Naturally, such scandalous behavior as unmarried people sitting with members of the opposite sex could not be tolerated here, so the town designated separate gallery staircases for men and women. However, it does not seem to have had the desired effect, because it was still an issue over 40 years later when, in a similar issue was raised in 1813. As quoted by Porter, the church declared:

that the practice of certain young gentlemen in themselves in the pews on the female side of the gallery in times of public worship is disorderly, and ought to be, and is, by this society, wholly disapproved of.

This issue was eventually resolved in the mid-1820s, when the pews in the galleries were replaced with slip pews, and young people were encouraged to sit with their families, rather than being largely unsupervised in the galleries. The old pews on the main floor were later replaced in 1836, and around this same time the original high pulpit was also removed. Another sign of changing times came in 1824, when the first stoves were installed. Prior to this time, as was typical for colonial-era meetinghouses, people would have to bring their own foot stoves if they wanted heat.

Perhaps the single most notable event in the history of this building is its involvement in the Amistad case. Farmington was one stop in the long odyssey of the survivors from La Amistad, as they traveled from Africa to Cuba to Connecticut, before ultimately returning to Africa. It began when a group of Mende people from Sierra Leone were captured and transported to Cuba. From there, 53 of them were sold in Havana and then transported on the schooner La Amistad. During this trip the Mendes, led by Cinqué, overpowered the small crew, killed the captain and cook, and forced the others to sail to Africa. However, the navigators deliberately kept the ship off course, and it was intercepted by U.S. authorities off the coast of New York City in August 1839.

This incident occurred in the midst of rising tensions in the United States surrounding the future of slavery, and it led to several important questions that the courts had to address. These included the issues of whether or not the Mendes had been legally enslaved, since the international slave trade was illegal in the United States, and also whether or not their mutiny had been a justifiable act of self defense. President Martin Van Buren, under pressure from Spanish authorities and from southern slave owners, favored returning them to Cuba. They were ultimately put on trial in Connecticut, with two different court cases in Hartford and New Haven. The court found in their favor, but the Van Buren administration appealed it to the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling in 1841.

With this decision, the Mendes were free, but they still had to get back home. They would end up spending much of 1841 in Farmington, where the abolitionist-minded community provided them with places to live while also working to raise money for their return trip to Africa. There were 36 survivors by the time they arrived in Farmington, with the rest having died at sea or while in prison. One more, a man named Foone, drowned while swimming in the Farmington Canal in August, but the other 35 remained here until November. Throughout this time, they regularly attended church services here in this building.

The town held a farewell service for them on November 17, here in the meetinghouse. The Reverend Joel Hawes of the First Church in Hartford preached a sermon for the occasion, based on the verse “And hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth” from Acts 17:26. In his sermon, Hawes praised African culture, denounced the effects of slavery on the people of Africa, emphasized the sinfulness of racism, and reminded Christians about how all humans are a part of the same family. After the sermon, several of the Mendes spoke and sang, and then Cinqué delivered a narrative of their captivity. He spoke in his native language, and one of the other Amistad captives, Kinna, translated it into English for the crowd. They departed Farmington two days later on a canal boat, headed for New York. There, they attended another farewell service, and then boarded a ship to Sierra Leone, where they arrived in 1842.

In the years that followed, the old meetinghouse continued to stand here in the center of Farmington as an important town landmark. After 1830 it was no longer used for town meetings, a move that reflected changing attitudes surrounding the relationship between church and state, but it continued to be used by the First Church for its worship services. By the time the first photo was taken in 1940, the building was nearly 170 years old, yet its exterior had largely retained its architectural integrity.

Today, the First Church is still an active church congregation, and this building stands as a well-preserved example of a colonial-era New England meetinghouse. From this angle, there have been few changes aside from the addition of several windows and the removal of the shutters. These shutters would not have been original to the building, so they were probably removed in order to reflect its 18th century appearance. In 1972, the building was named as a contributing property in the Farmington Historic District, and then in 1975 it was individually designated as a National Historic Landmark.