6 September 1781
In the late eighteenth century, New London was a small port at the mouth of the river Thames on the Connecticut coast connecting American agricultural communities with the outside world. During the American Revolutionary War, the rebels used it as a base to attack British naval vessels and their supply ships, but after they succeeded in capturing the British merchant vessel Hannah, General Sir Henry Clinton, commanding crown forces, ordered Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to lead a punitive expedition against the town.1
Arnold, an American turncoat officer, who had joined the British after he was court martialed for using his position for financial advantage, was given command of some 2,500 men, comprising British regular troops of the 38th, 40th and 54th regiments, together with a hundred Hanoverian Yagers, American loyalists and ‘a party of artillery,’ embarked on a fleet of 34 ships. He landed approximately 1,700 men on the western bank of the river where the port and town were situated, and the remainder on the eastern side in order to capture Fort Griswold, which lay two miles upstream.2
Arnold had expected to meet only light resistance from the fort, which was garrisoned by 160 militiamen and civilians, but 45 of his men were killed before in the words of an officer of the 54th, ‘at last British bravery succeeded,’ adding proudly that the world would soon learn of ‘the glory our regiment acquired in storming Fort Griswold.’3 He seemingly forgot to mention that, according to several accounts, when the American commander Colonel Ledyard surrendered the fort to a British officer, he was immediately run through with his own sword, and quarter was also refused to 83 others who were simply murdered, while 36 were left severely wounded.4
Meanwhile, on the west bank of the river, Arnold’s men were soon hard at work firing the port and the town, ‘out of resentment’ as one officer put it.5 According to the Caledonian Mercury, the troops burned down ‘140 dwelling houses and 60 warehouses,’ commenting that in so doing they were merely destroying ‘a nest of privateers’ and that the ‘valour of the General and troops hereby rendered great Service to the Crown.’6 It did not describe how one old man begged to no avail that his fishing craft be spared, how St James Episcopal Church was torched and how some of the town’s residents, who were unable or unwilling to vacate, were either dragged out or incinerated in their own homes.7
- Edward Baker, ‘Benedict Arnold Turns and Burns New London,’ ConnecticutHistory.org, 6 September 2019 accessed online at url https://connecticuthistory.org/benedict-arnold-turns-and-burns-new-london/ and Geoffrey Jeans, Massacre at New London: A Look Back, The New York Times, 6 September 1981, p. 24.
- ‘Extract of a letter from New York, September 16,’ Saunders’s News-Letter, 24 November 1781, p. 1 and Edward Baker, op. cit..
- ‘Extract of a letter from an officer of the 54th Regiment to his friend in Edinburgh, dated New York, September 6th,’ Saunders’s News-Letter, 22 November 1781, p. 1.
- Edward Baker, op. cit..
- Saunders’s News-Letter, 22 November 1781, p. 1.
- The Caledonian Mercury, 17 November `781, p. 2.
- Evan Andriopoulos, ‘The Burning of New London,’ accessed online at url http://www.battleofgrotonheights.com/The_Burning_of_New_London.html Andriopoulos cites different figures for the number of different types of building ‘burned to the ground’ totaling 143, including ’65 private dwellings, 31 stores, 18 shops, 20 barns and 9 public and other buildings.’
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