In early September 1781, General Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander in Chief in America, found himself facing a combined Franco-American force poised to attack his stronghold in New York. Or so he believed. Purposely deceived by the allies that an attack was forthcoming, he eventually decided that his only option was to make a diversionary attack against the Connecticut coastline. This was an effort to draw away attention, anticipated reinforcements, and supplies that would come from the neighboring state. His eventual target would be New London. Located nearly ninety miles to the east of New York, its harbor was a thriving American seaport that had earned the reputation of being “the most detestable nest of pirates on the continent,” due to the number of American privateers that operated out of it. Clinton dispatched a British force of 1,700 men under the command of Brig. General Benedict Arnold which appeared offshore on the morning of September 6th and were able to land then marched inland, secured the town, set it ablaze and then returned back to their shipping almost uncontested.
Now, nearly a year later, in August 1782, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull ordered a court martial to be convened in the towns of New London and nearby Groton to investigate the actions of ten local militia officers. He wanted answers regarding their decisions and actions during the raid. They needed to be held accountable for what had happened. Called to trial were two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, one major, three captains, one lieutenant, and one ensign, all belonging to the two local militia regiments. Only four officers would be found guilty of the charges against them, the highest ranking and most well known locally was forty-one year old, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Harris Jr, the second-in-command of the Third Connecticut Militia. Harris’ decisions and actions led him to take the fall for the actions of the militia who served under his command for much of the morning phase of the fighting on the west bank of the Thames River.
He has been most often remembered to historians as a coward. This is partly because of the description given by Jonathan Brooks, a twelve-year old participant of the fighting, who penned a narrative of the events that day later in his life. In it, Brooks claimed that as they were gathering to resist the British approach towards New London, Harris rode up to them and when asked for orders, replied that he had “a violent sick-headache” and could not sit on his horse. He then promptly rode off abandoning them.
Harris “came [as a] prisoner before the Court, when the following charges were exhibited against him: That on the day when the British burned the town he was shamefully negligent in his military duty, and guilty of acting a cowardly part.” He was then brought up on five underlying charges, all dealing with his own incompetence on the battlefield.
Unfortunately, no surviving records of the court martial are known to still exist. Very little has been known about Harris’ orders, decisions or actions, except what was written by Brooks or a few other penned narratives. However, a recently discovered letter, written by Harris himself, about five months before the trial concluded, provides these additional valuable details into understanding his decisions and actions. The letter was published in the New London based Connecticut Gazette on May 2, 1783, over a year after the court passed its ruling. Harris had written the letter much earlier as he attempted to publically defend himself and his reputation in front of the courts eventual ruling, but it is not known why it took so long for his letter to be released to the public.
Born into a prominent New London family, Harris, a very well-known and active lawyer, had served for several decades in the local militia, just like his father had before him. At the outset of the war, he held the rank of captain and commanded the First Company in the local Third Connecticut Militia, which was comprised of companies from New London and nearby Lyme.
He received no formal militia training, and unlike many other officers in the regiment did not see any active service during the French and Indian War. In October, 1776, while many in his regiment were drafted and sent to New York to assist George Washington’s Continental Army, he remained home and received promotion to Major in the regiment, based primarily on the former major being promoted to active field command. In 1779, he was drafted by the Governor and Council of Safety to serve in a Connecticut militia battalion sent to Rhode Island, but saw no combat. Seven months before the raid on New London, he was again promoted, this time to lieutenant colonel, again based only on his seniority.
The morning of the British approach, Harris was at his home atop Town Hill, located along a main road which approached New London from the south and nearly a mile and a half from the center of town. Awoken by the same alarm guns that alerted the rest of the town to the British, he like most of the town was not prepared for it. In his letter, he claimed, “I anticipate the question of every one, whether or not the surprise was not so compleat…”
He then asserted that just after daybreak, he received orders from Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard, the commandant of the harbor’s defenses, “to immediately procure some suitable person to send express to Col. [Jonathan] Latimer.” The fifty-seven year old Latimer was a hero of the Battle of Saratoga and also the colonel of the Third Regiment, Harris’ commanding officer. This seemingly simple task, for reasons not revealed publicly at the time, proved to be very difficult for him. Later found guilty of “not notifying his chief colonel of the enemy’s approach,” Harris attempted to explain that he had asked others to send word for him, but all had failed him, including the now deceased commander of Fort Trumbull, the main fortification on the New London side of the river. It would be almost two hours after receiving his initial order that a courier would finally be sent to bring the colonel, who lived in its North Parish (today’s Montville) almost ten miles away, to New London. However, by then the military situation had already deteriorated beyond quick correction due to Harris’ mismanagement.
Harris’ next mistake that morning was to not rely on the already established alarm system for gathering militia. In the event of an alarm, the militia and other volunteers were to assemble on Manwaring Hill in the western end of town. Harris changed the gathering point early on. He ordered what militia had gathered to instead assemble near the courthouse in the center of town. He did this without communicating it to the other members or officers of the regiment. A militia captain who went to the pre-established alarm post a short time later, expected to find his company and others gathered but “found nobody thare.” Instead, he wandered around looking for information and did not find members of his company until just prior to the British landing.
When Harris moved the assembly point, he also appointed Captain Richard Deshon, an officer in the regiment, to gather what volunteers he could and march them to the beach; about three miles south of town, where the British were expected to come ashore. But he again did this without telling the other officers of the regiment. To make matters worse, he never followed through to make sure the task had been completed. This failure led to the second charge of “Not opposing the entrance of the enemy into town” to be brought against him. While it was common practice during the time period for commanding officers not to directly lead their troops into combat, but rather to play an active role from behind, Harris failed at even this task. When approached just prior to the British landing, he was witnessed telling a party of volunteers to simply “go Down [to the beach] & make the best Defence you Can with what men you Can gitt.” He did not provide them any other orders.
According to Captain John Hempsted, another officer in the regiment, when Hempsted passed over Town Hill with two other volunteers, they were to finally able to persuade Harris to ride down with them to the beach to oversee his men. But as soon as the British naval vessels began to shell the beach, Harris panicked and abruptly left his men behind. During his withdrawal, he met with the group mentioned in Jonathan Brooks’ narrative, referred to above. Excusing himself from the group, he rode back to Town Hill, which was also the site of a fort, known by the militia as Fort Nonsense. It had been given that name by the militia companies who had constructed it and who did not understand its purpose, which was to protect both the south and western land approaches to New London, but to also protect the rear of Fort Trumbull, a water battery protruding out into the Thames River.
As the British approached the hill, Harris ordered the evacuation of the fort, but again did not communicate this to the militia attempting to protect it, a short distance to the south. Withdrawing again, but this time with a twelve-pounder field piece, he had ordered out of the fort, he rode this time to Manwaring Hill. When the British eventually approached this position about an hour later, Harris hid in the rear of the hill while they attacked, despite claiming in his letter, “that I was one of the three last [on the hill], and the other two were taken prisoners.”
After retreating for the third time and having lost possession of the town, he was met with orders from Latimer at around noontime, who realizing the chaos that had ensued in his absence, ordered Harris to the rear to perform a support role. For the duration of the battle, Harris remained content under Latimer’s orders, he wrote that he was “to equip the men and send them forward, and no orders for me to proceed.” After the British occupied and began to set New London afire, Latimer would be able to establish a new command structure by creating a line of makeshift companies, headed by officers in the regiment. He then placed them along the hills north of New London. There they were to harass the British, but not to enter the town, until Latimer was able to gather more strength or he was presented with a favorable opportunity to attack.
Harris’ new role was now only to direct forward newly arriving militia and other volunteers to Latimer’s newly established sectors. His actions here led to the third and fourth set of charges brought against him, of which he would be found guilty. These mainly dealt with him being accused of “not supporting a part of [his] regiment, and others engaged in battle with the enemy at the north end of the town” and allowing “the militia to remain strolling and unembodied upon the hill near to the place of action, in fair view of the enemy.” According to Harris, at this point, he was met with resistance by several members of his own regiment. At first, he delegated Major Christopher Darrow, a veteran of the First Connecticut Continental Regiment, who had resigned his commission the previous summer and returned home, to ride down and organize the militia and other volunteers to send them forward. But after seeing it was not getting done, Harris, according to his letter, rode down in person. Again he was met with stiff resistance. It is not known why they refused, whether they were demoralized because they lost the town or faith in their officers, but many, according to Harris, who refused to obey orders, had to be disarmed.
The last charge, “In not falling upon and attacking the enemy at the favourable moment of their retreat,” Harris, in his defense, fell back to being under Latimer’s order with no orders from him to advance forward. Survivors, including Captain Robert Hallam, contended that they did not see Harris until the British had long retreated from New London.
When the trial ended, the court found him guilty on all five charges. But they carefully worded their verdict to protect the public image of Harris, mindful of the possible public backlash if he were accused of neglect of duty due to secret loyalist sympathies. It “unanimously gave it as their opinion that Lieutenant-Colonel Harris has been and is a worthy member of society, and a good citizen in private life, but not suitably qualified for military service [and] that he was not guilty of any neglect of duty…from enmity or disaffection to the independence of the American states.” However, it was also “unanimously of opinion that he was and is guilty of the matter charged against him in [all five charges] and that the whole are proved and supported against him.” Harris was “cashiered as being a person unsuitable to sustain [his commission]” and summarily dismissed from the militia.
The court’s ruling was entirely justified. Harris was unsuitable to maintaining his command, especially since there was always the fear that the British could return to New London and he would again assume a leadership role. His inexperience actively commanding troops, despite holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, led him to make many tragic errors throughout the morning phase of the Battle of New London that would ultimately result in the almost complete destruction of the town. His failure to send quick word to Latimer denied the local militia a badly needed, battle tested and capable leader. Latimer’s worth would be proven later as he was eventually able to bring order to the chaos that had ensued in his absence. Harris’ failure to recognize the importance of the established alarm system, by moving the assembly point into town without much communication challenged the ability for the militia to gain sufficient numbers earlier on in the fighting. His poor choice of tasking a subordinate officer to coordinate the initial defense of New London without any direct support from him would lead to its quick demise. His failure to coordinate and give direction to arriving militia and other volunteers led to the easy capture of the town. Harris had shown complete incompetence and should have never held command that day.
Stripped of his rank near the close of the war, Harris returned to civilian life and resumed practicing law. Even though he was at fault, Harris remained defiant and refused to take responsibility for his actions. In his letter, he blames everyone except himself. He even went as far as to blame the entire command structure of his regiment for not assisting him. Reminding the public that “even if I had had a body of troops immediately at my command; however that may be, such was our situation at this point, that the chief colonel of the regiment, the major, the adjutant, the sergeant-major, the quarter-master and surgeon, were all out of town, and not one lived within nine miles of me.” The public never bought his reasoning.
Believing that he was being made into the scapegoat, Harris was furious when he had been asked during the proceedings, if he had been intimidated at all that day. He answered, “that I was much engaged-acted with resolution-my conduct steady-not the least stuttered-and not more intimidated that any one of their honours then on the beach. All the above truths established in court by in contestable evidence, and at least prove to me that those against me are founded in malice entirely.” Though he believed his actions were honorable that day, the results showed otherwise.
 Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of his Campaigns, 1775-1782, ed. William B. Wilcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 330.  Connecticut Gazette. September 21, 1781. The report was originally published in the New York based loyalist newspaper Rivington’s Royal Gazette.  William W. Harris, The Battle of Groton Heights: A Collection of Narratives, Official Reports, Records, etc. of the Storming of Fort Griswold, the Massacre of its Garrison, and the burning of New London by British Troops under the Command of Brig. General Benedict Arnold, on the Sixth of Sept., 1781, rev. Charles Allyn (New London, CT: Charles Allyn, 1882), 76. Harris, Groton Heights, 114.  Charles J. Hoadly, ed., The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 15 vols. (Hartford: Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1890), 10:318. Harris served as captain of the first company between 1754-1775.  Charles J. Hoadly, ed., The Records of the State of Connecticut, 4 vols. (Hartford: Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1894-1942) 1:28. (Hereafter cited as Connecticut State Records.)  Connecticut State Records, 2:399-401. The proclamation cited here states that a major for the militia regiment being raised will come from the Third State Militia Regiment. Harris is revealed as the officer drafted through Revolutionary War Records, XIII: 414-415, Connecticut State Library.  Henry P. Johnston, ed., The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783. (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1889), 432.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.  Captain Adam Shapley, the commander of Fort Trumbull, was mortally wounded during the fighting at Fort Griswold on the east bank of the Thames River and had succumbed to his wounds on February 14, 1782.  Harris, Groton Heights, 62.  Harris, Groton Heights, 116.  John Hempsted narrative, cited in Harris, Groton Heights, 62.  Ibid, 62.  Connecticut Gazette. May 2, 1783. Harris, Groton Heights, 66. Hempsted who was present during the attack on Manwaring Hill, later wrote that when he escaped to the rear of the hill, he was called over by a man, who turned out to be Harris. The request came as a surprise to him because he had not seen Harris since earlier that morning and did not even know he was there.  Connecticut Gazette. May 2, 1783.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.  Robert Hallam account of Sept. 6, 1781, undated, New London County Historical Society.  Harris, Groton Heights, 117.  Harris, Groton Heights, 117.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.  Connecticut Gazette, May 2, 1783.