Arnold’s Warship Diplomacy
In 1781, the British sent a major force under the command of the American traitor, Benedict Arnold, to attack New London, Connecticut. What happened on that day explains why, more than 230 years later, Benedict Arnold remains one of the most reviled individuals in American history. Richard Radune’s Sound Rising describes the event in great detail:
“Whatever the reason, thirty British ships with 1,700 troops departed Huntington Harbor, Long Island on the evening of September 5 and appeared outside New London Harbor at daybreak the next morning. They proceeded to disembark 800 troops on the New London side and 900 troops on the Groton side of the harbor entrance. General Arnold’s goal was to destroy the ships in the harbor and burn the town and warehouses along the river.” (1)
Benedict Arnold personally led the New London side of the attack, where the British quickly overwhelmed Fort Trumbull. From the fort, Arnold was able to direct the sinking of several American ships; only 16 escaped upriver to safety. At the same time, he oversaw his soldiers’ destruction of the town, systematically burning as many buildings as they could. Arnold seemed unwilling to control his men, who looted the abandoned houses before they were burned. Hardly anyone escaped unscathed. A Boston newspaper reported that Arnold stopped for refreshments at a friend’s house, then had his soldiers torch the building.
As New London burned, about 150 Americans under the command of a Colonel Ledyard attempted to defend Fort Griswold on the Groton side. After three vicious attacks, in which many British were killed or injured, the fort surrendered. The Massachussetts Spy reported that the British officer who led the attack demanded to know who commanded the fort. As retold by Radune:
“Colonel Ledyard replied, ‘I did, Sir, but you do now.’ His sword, presented hilt first, was accepted by the (British) officer, who took it and angrily thrust it through Ledyard’s body. A vicious massacre of the defenders ensued…”(2)
During the attack, the British killed 88 people and wounded another 45. Fearing that local militia would arrive, Arnold quickly boarded his men on their ships and returned to Huntington Harbor.
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At about 10:00 a.m., an officer commanding a group of Connecticut militia received a report of the attack, but they could not reach New London until 6:00 p.m. By then, the British were gone.
They found the charred remains of 143 buildings and hundreds of homeless townspeople. The American commanding officer ordered his soldiers to do what they could to help. Some men set up tents to provide food and water. Others began digging graves.
Eliza Pool, a resident of New London at the time of the attack, had also witnessed the aftermath of the 1779 British attack on New Haven. In 1779, Eliza had written her brother in New Jersey that the enemy’s “unparrelled (sic) cruelty to women is beyond expression horrible. – I think I should feel no forgiving tenderness to see them Villains Butchered by the most relentless hand of Vengeance.”(3) In her letters regarding the attack on New London, Eliza would speak of the ‘wanton barbarity’ of the British soldiers, saying that “their shocking inhumanity at Fort Griswold surpassed all conception…never ’till those merciless Butchers suffer retaliated vengeance can my blood be cool or my resentment calm.”(4)
Benedict Arnold remained a loyal British officer throughout the remainder of the War. After the War, he moved his family to England, where he requested a commission in the British army. He was refused. (5) Arnold died in England in 1801, at the age of 60.
1. Radune, Richard: Sound Rising, Research in Time Publications,Branford, Ct., 2011, page 188. This is the book that inspired me to focus my model building on the ships that sailed Long Island Sound during the Revolutionary War. You can find a copy at Books & Books in Westhampton, New York.
2. Ibid., page 190.
3. Pool, J. Lawrence: Fighting Ships of the revolution on Long Island Sound, Rainbow Press, Torrington, Ct., 1990, page 3.
4. Ibid., page 105.
5. Ibid., page 110.