The Fort Griswold Massacre: Benedict Arnold’s Final Treachery?

Fort Griswold in Groton, Conn. was the scene of Benedict’s Arnold’s final act of treason against his fellow Connecticut countrymen – the little remembered Fort Griswold massacre.

It was September 6, 1781. The American army under George Washington was intent on trapping English General Charles Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Virginia – setting the stage for the decisive victory that would end the American Revolution.

The commander of English forces for the colonies, Henry Clinton, was in New York. Upon realizing Washington’s strategy, he wanted to distract the American army from its pursuit of General Cornwallis in Virginia.

fort griswold massacre

British sketch of Fort Griswold, 1781

Clinton turned to Benedict Arnold. By this time Arnold, a one-time officer in the Connecticut militia, had joined the British side and been given the rank of brigadier general. Clinton ordered Arnold to attack Connecticut forces at New London and capture the city. Clinton hoped to make the port a useful base of operation for future fighting.

On September 6, at Fort Griswold in Groton, the battle came to a conclusion. The British committed 1700 soldiers to the campaign. Eight hundred soldiers had surrounded Fort Griswold. Connecticut forces totaled about 150. Of that, about 75 remained trapped in the fort as the British surrounded it.

Connecticut Colonel William Ledyard, in command at the fort, knew he was hopelessly outnumbered. There was no assistance coming from Washington’s army in the south.

Ledyard ordered the American flag struck and stepped outside the fort to parley with his British counterpart, who asked him who commanded the fort. Ledyard’s answer:  “I did, but you do now.”

Ledyard offered his sword to the British officer in charge, a symbolic gesture marking the surrender. At that moment, Ledyard could have expected one of two responses dictated by military custom. The British officer might acknowledge the surrender and then return the sword, if the battle had been honorable. If there were harsh feelings about the conduct of the fighting, the conquering officer might take the sword and keep it, as a sign of contempt for his enemy.

But the British officer in this instance chose a third option. He took Ledyard’s sword and then stabbed him to death with it. The details of the event have been muddied by time. Some claim the Americans then stabbed the British officer. Others say they did not succeed in avenging his death.

What followed was the slaughter of many of the remaining American troops at Fort Griswold (estimates of the dead vary from as few as 30 to more than 80). Arnold was in command of the British forces in Connecticut during the fighting, but not directly in a position stop the massacre. Still, some have suggested his hostility toward his former compatriots contributed to the incident.

In his report on the fighting, Arnold did not mention the incident. War historian William Gordon noted: “a severe execution took place after resistance ceased.”

Historians have been puzzled about why the Fort Griswold Massacre took place. Some suggested that earlier in the fighting the American flag had been shot down. British soldiers mistook it as a sign of surrender and some had been killed when they lowered their guard.

Rhode Island soldier Joseph Wood gave an account of the incident:

When Colonel Ledyard found that he was not able to withstand the attack upon the fort, he opened the gate to surrender.  As he did so, the British commander asked, ‘Who commands this fort?’

Colonel Ledyard answered, ‘I did, but you do now,’ and presented to the British commander his sword.

The British commander took the sword and thrust it through Colonel Ledyard.  This I heard and saw.  Upon that, Captain Allen, who was standing nearby in the act of presenting his sword to surrender, drew it back and thrust it through the British officer who had thus killed Colonel Ledyard.  Captain Allen was then immediately killed by the British.  This I also saw.  I then leaped the walls and made my escape.

In the aftermath, much of New London lay in ruins as the British plundered the town. Clinton praised Arnold for his success, but complained about the number of British casualties that had occurred during the fighting.

The battle marked the one of the last major British victories of the American Revolution as it was followed shortly by Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.

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