Anything But Monotonous: Nine Months of Garrison Duty at Fort Griswold

The harbor of New London as it looks today from Fort Griswold on Groton Heights. (Photo by Tad Sattler)

New London’s harbor was the center of Connecticut’s wartime naval activity for the duration of the eight-year American Revolution.  Because of its recognized importance, its provincial government, as early as 1775, sought ways to protect it.   Sending a military commission to the harbor area, they would eventually order the construction of three earthen fortifications on three sides of the harbor, but only two were fully built: Fort Trumbull protected the western side and Fort Griswold was on the eastern side.

To maintain and garrison the forts, for 1776-1777, the General Assembly had attempted to raise a small battalion of both infantry and matross (artillery) companies.   This appears to have been the plan for the ensuing years.  But as the war progressed, it became more and more difficult to recruit men to fill these companies.  Difficulties at times with delay of pay and food shortages made serving in the harbor for many a dull and sometimes hard service.   Most men preferred serving in the Continental Army or were captivated by the potential riches of serving aboard one of the many privateers operating out of the harbor.  By 1780, the garrison had been greatly downsized to only two matross companies, one serving at Fort Trumbull and the other at Fort Griswold.[1]  At times, they were supported by revolving militia companies drafted from regiments across eastern Connecticut to serve for a period of 1 to 3 months, but for the most part, they were on their own.

That same summer, John Harris, a fourteen-year-old native of Preston, Connecticut, had entered his teenage years eagerly seeking to participate in the war.  This was in despite his father’s wishes to keep him out of it.  Finally, in June, according to his pension application, Harris’s father consented and made the almost twenty-mile trek to New London.  Once there the younger Harris hoped to join the crew of a privateer and because of his age, his father would need to be there to give his consent.   According to the younger Harris, when they arrived in New London, there were no privateers being fitted out. Still wanting to enter the service, he wanted to enlist with the matross company stationed at Fort Griswold.  His father was more than happy to give his permission for him to enlist in what he probably considered the safer option, monotonous garrison duty.[2]  It would prove to be anything but that.

Harris’s narrative of his time serving at Fort Griswold, which occurred between June 1780 and April 1781, is one of the most detailed accounts that are known to exist describing one person’s experiences while living at the fort.   It is often forgotten that prior to Benedict Arnold’s infamous attack on New London in 1781, countless individuals lived and served at the forts and in the harbor area.  Harris’s account gives a rare glimpse into day to day life and events that occurred at a place that was always under the threat of a British attack.

Presenting himself to the commander of the company, Capt. William Latham, Harris was accepted and joined the garrison on or about June 29, 1780.   His term of enlistment was to be for nine months or longer, if he was needed, at the discretion of the commanding officers.  Harris wrote that he expected to perform the “common private soldiers duty.”  This was “to guard the Fort & Battery & publick stores & watch the motions of the enemy when in sight fire the cannon when necessary, make signals with our colours [and] cruise on [Long Island] Sound.” He was instead, however, probably because of his age and inexperience, assigned as a cook for the commissioned officers of Fort Griswold.  During his time, he lived in the wooden barracks building that ran along the east wall of the fort.  When he had joined, he knew no other soldier of the garrison, nor any of the officers, but after some time he became well acquainted with almost everyone.  He wrote that after a time the officers “put great confidence in me, because they thought I was faithful.”

Only a few days into his enlistment, he witnessed one of the garrison’s toughest challenges, managing the illicit trade that was common all across Long Island Sound.  The port’s close proximity to Long Island prompted many to try and do business with the British who held control of it.  In his pension application, Harris recounted, “About the same time that I [en]listed, there was a fellow brought into the fort, put into irons under guard.  He had stolen Colonel Ledyards [the commandant of the post] barge & goods to the amount of considerable value & sailed towards Long island.”  The man’s name was John McHenry.  According to Harris, McHenry had deserted from the British army and joined the Continental Army, from which he deserted when he was in Rhode Island and “after a term of Vagrancy shipped himself abord of a merchant vessel And deserted from her in [the Thames River].  And stole the barge … He was an obstinate villain!”  He was pursued by a detachment from the garrison “the next morning after he sailed away & at last discover[ed] near Gardners Island, & [was] seen to run ashore on it, & then return to the Barge & sail again.  But was overtaken & brought in.”  When interrogated, McHenry told his captors he put some of the stolen goods on Gardner’s Island, which lay at the southern tip of Long Island about twenty miles from New London.

The interior of present-day Fort Griswold, Groton, Connecticut. (Photo by Tad Sattler)
The interior of present-day Fort Griswold, Groton, Connecticut. (Photo by Tad Sattler)

A detachment from the garrison, including Harris, set out across the Sound aboard a barge to search for them.  Upon arriving on the island, the detachment went ashore leaving Harris to guard the barge.  Unable to find the goods, they returned to the barge with “several pails full of guls eggs.”  Pushing off, they stopped at nearby Plum Island before returning to New London, where they “stayed all night.”  Told by an officer, “we were on the enemies ground,” Harris recalled, “Here for the first time in my life I was set on centry [and] I watched vigilantly.”  He was relieved at midnight when a small privateer crew arrived and joined their force.  Before leaving the island they met with sympathetic locals who showed them “4 men who had deserted from the British army at N. York and got as far as there.” They were taken back the next day with them to New London and were later released by Ledyard “to seek their fortune.”

Upon returning to Fort Griswold, Harris learned McHenry was found guilty by a court martial and was ordered to be “flogged 36 [times] on his naked back with a cat o’nine tails for stealing the Barge & goods.”  When “he was brought to the place of flagellation and his name read,” another member of the company recognized the prisoner’s name and after “examining his hand & seeing he had one crooked finger” knew he was member of the same regiment he had served with in Rhode Island.[3]  It was decided after his flogging, he would be returned to the Continental Army to stand trial, again, for desertion.  According to Harris, McHenry “made a great ado when flogged & almost fainted away.”  Watching, Captain Latham decided to call off the punishment, claiming “he could not die for [this].” He was then told “that was nothing to what he would get when he was carried to the Continental army.”  Placed into the New London jail, McHenry somehow broke out that night and escaped.

After the eventful day, Harris was told by a comrade, “you will remember the 3rd of July.”[4]  He was right, as it was the most detailed description of an event during his nine-month term of service that Harris recalled when he applied for a pension five decades later.  But it was not his only memorable experience by any means.

An attack on the harbor during the summer of 1780 was believed to have been a very real possibility.  Both the garrisons of Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull were constantly on high alert.  As New London historian Frances Caulkins explained, “sudden outbreaks of alarm and confusion were thickly scattered over the summer.  Frigates and other vessels were continually passing up and down the Sound, and [British] ships of the line were [seen] hovering near Block Island …”[5]

At the end of July, Governor Trumbull of Connecticut received information from coastal scouts in Fairfield County that a British force under Gen. Sir Henry Clinton with 8,000 troops under an escort of 150 ships were spotted off of Greenwich, near the border with New York.[6]  It was rumored their destination was Rhode Island, but they might also threaten New London along the way.  Upon receiving the report, the governor responded by notifying Ledyard of the threat and then ordered a small militia regiment stationed in the lower Connecticut River valley, numbering around 300 men, “to march to New London, for the defence of that place, and be ready for further orders.”[7]

This militia regiment had been organized earlier that month, from a draft among the Connecticut militia, per a request from George Washington in June.  He requested that Trumbull organize a militia force of 1,500 men to prepare a “large number of fascines and gabions within the state, for the use and opperations of the ensuing campaign.”[8]  The militia under the command of Lt. Col.  Hezekiah Wyllys temporarily put down their tools and marched the approximately thirty miles to New London, where the company at Fort Griswold was, according to Harris, busily preparing their cannon in order to give the British “a handsome reception.”

While the rumored attack under Clinton did not materialize under the expected timeline, it was still a possibility and it was decided to keep extra militia in the harbor area as a precautionary measure.   They would still continue to perform their original task while assisting with keeping watch over the harbor. Ledyard had learned from a group of British deserters that the British did intend to attack Newport, Rhode Island., but they did not know when they intended to make their move.[9]  This was supposedly because they wanted to attack the French army and naval force that had arrived there in June as part of the Franco-American alliance.  The increased presence of the British navy throughout August reinforced this belief.  As Harris noted, during about this time, “there came a Large fleet of British ships of war and [they] anchored in Garderners bay … & [they] lay there the bigger part of the time I [served] there.”  They would “sometimes a part of the time [sail] out & sometimes all of them return’d again” and “we watched the motions of the ships and gave intelligence when necessary.”  He later reasoned that with the French navy so close at Newport that “those fleets were reconnoitering each other and seeking an opportunity to get some advantage.”

At Fort Griswold, Harris kept almost meticulous track of the militia, where according to him, they first “encamped on Winthrop’s point, About a mile from Fort Griswold in plain sight of that fort.  They stayed there about 1 month.”   Then the entire regiment, except two companies, moved upriver to Preston to continue to cut fascines and prepare gabions.  The two remaining companies remained in the immediate harbor area.   Harris wrote, “one of them was quartered in tents between N. London town & Fort Trumbull.  [The] other in a part of the barrack in Fort Griswold & adjacent battery.”[10]   According to Harris, “The militia had no concern with the duty of our company.  They were forbidden to step onto the platform where our cannons were placed, without express leave of our officers.  Those companies kept guard on both sides of the Thames [River] at the harbour’s mouth.”  By the end of the summer, they were all dismissed and sent home.

Harris remembered several other small incidents throughout his time at Fort Griswold that remain largely unknown by historians.  Being only a teenager, Harris shows his youthfulness and excitement all throughout his narrative.

With only a few days of service behind him, he got his first chance to work with the fort’s artillery.  On that day, he “assisted in mounting a heavy cannon & drawing it up onto the platform.”  According to him, “it was hard for acclivity was steep but we succeeded.  When it was placed it was loaded with a heavy charge & The Capt. ordered me to fire it, which I did & he & others acclaimed at my performance.  I had never been within some 20 miles of a heavy cannon when fired till then.” It was the first of many times he would hear the roar of cannon during his time at the fort.

The next time he heard it was, incidentally, the following day, the fourth of July.   Having only declared their independence four years earlier, it was made into a huge celebration in New London.  To commemorate the “Anniversary of our Independence.  We hoisted our flag,” explained Harris.  Then, in honor of each of the thirteen states, they fired one cannon for each of them.  “They fired 7 cannons at Fort Trumbull & 6 at our fort.  And then our Officers went over to Fort Trumbull according to previous arrangements to join the Officers of that Fort in the hilarity of the day.” A thirteen-gun salute was also given to an unnamed French general when he arrived in New London.  Harris wrote, “When a French General visited the place, Col. Ledyard ordered us to fire a salute.  We fired 7 cannon first [then] they fired 6 at Fort Trumbull.”    In addition to ceremonial salutes, cannon were also used to determine if ships entering the harbor were friendly or not.  Harris included in his pension application one such description.  He wrote “A 20 gun Ship came into N. London harbour & brought 4000 bushels of salt.  This was a precious article then.  She came under [Dutch] colours & fired 2 salutes, before she came to anchor … They answered the salute from fort Trumbull – Her case was doubtful –Some thought she might be made a prize – But her officers were pretty free with their presents – And she was not libeled – This ship sailed the next spring.”

As mentioned previously, another constant duty of the garrison was to keep watch over Long Island Sound for the presence of British shipping.  Harris remembered in 1832 one specific incident that he told the pension examiners. During the summer of 1780 as they prepared for an expected attack, he observed “3 large men of war [as they] sailed out of [Gardner’s] bay & sailed round the east end of Long Island out of our sight – A dreadful N.E. storm arose.  On their endeavoring to return to the bay one was [wrecked] & sunk north of the east end of Long Island[.] I think the men nearly or quite all escaped onto L. Island – One cut her masts by the bord & got into Gardners bay – [The] other got in without much damage – When the weather became clear the mastless Ship appeared among the other ships.  I fancied She looked like Noah’s Ark.”

Success of the privateers operating out of New London led to limited retaliation from loyalists on Long Island, though the larger British attack would not come until late 1781.  Harris noted at least one occasion where “Detachments were sent out from our company & from Fort Trumbull to destroy, take, or [drive] off a group of tories who had taken a station on an Island in the sound near Thimble Islands & were harassing our vessels – They succeeded in [driving] them off so [precipitately] that they left a part of their baggage which our men took & brought home.”

As Harris ended his narrative, he stated, “The duty we had to do was not very hard, but the privations we suffered for want of provision[s] was distressing.”  The incident he then describes, one of the food shortages, was one he remembered in great detail.   It was one of the many frustrations that Ledyard endured as commandant of the post, which also included other serious issues such lack of recruits and sometimes his inability to pay his soldiers.  It not only was a problem that Ledyard faced but one that seemed to surface all throughout the new country.

During this particular incident, Harris recalled that the “men talked of mutinying and going home & a number of them went out at the fort gate & were consulting about it.”  They attempted, according to Harris, to coerce him to join them, but he refused.  For a while nothing happened, the men of the garrison remained at their posts.  For “several months … we had been kept on half rations & sometimes no bread at all & sometimes on old sea bread full of worms & hardly fit for dogs to eat – And the men had remonstrated with no effect than to be parried with the promises of back ration which promises had not always been fulfilled.” According to Harris, they became “so hunger starved that they were chagrined.”

Finally one day, tensions boiled over:

Some flower was brought into the Fort & orders given to deal out half allowance – The soldiers insisted on having full allowance and actually refused to do duty if they could not – The officer of the guard (Sergeant H. Mason I think) came & asked The officer of the guard Lieutenant [Enoch] Stanton what he should do[,as] he could not get any body to go on sentry.  Lt. Stanton asked why  he did not confine them – He said that he could not get any body to stand over them. Lt. Stanton told me to go & tell Capt. Latham to come up to the fort (He was at his own house about half mile south of the fort)  I promptly obeyed my order[.] Capt.  L. asked what Lt. Stanton wanted.  I told him they could not get any body to go on sentry – He appeared to be some angry And told me to go & tell Lt. Stanton to confine every one who would not go on sentry.  I told him that he could not get any body to stand over them – He was more in a fit, & bid me to go & said he come pretty soon – So I returned to the fort & he came soon after.[11]

When Latham arrived on the scene, the situation had apparently turned much worse.  Harris recounted that “the men came with their things to take their allowance[,] determined to have full allowance.”  Latham believed, according to Harris, that the men were going to going to take the flour by force and when he came onto the scene he “ran out in a passion with his hat off & kicked John Heminger in the [ass] once or several times.  The soldiers [retired] a few yards – And the Capt. & they had a violent altercation.  At length the Capt.  asked whose turn it was to go on sentry?”

From what Harris remembered, he wrote:

They answered Abram Guiles – And he call’d him & ordered him on sentry.  And ordered Serg Mason to see that he had his charge according to rule.  Abram went on crying, saying “I will be dam’d if I don’t go home, The Capt.  said, “You will go home when you have a furlough, Abram said “I will when I come off sentry.”[12]

After the incident, according to Harris, Latham allowed the men to have full allowance, but only as long as the flour lasted.  The mutiny was then ended.

It is not known how or if this incident impacted Harris’s decision to not re-enlist the following April.  According to him, “The officers importuned me to enlist again & offered me a good chance – But I concluded not to stay any longer at that time.”  A few days before his discharge he gathered “wood & victuals & things so as to leave the place decently.”  Then on “Sunday April 1st 1781 The officers game me a small present for my good behavior & fidelity.  And about 7 or 8 oclock AM. they gave me” my discharge. It read:

To whom it may concern,

This may certify that John Harris a soldier in the matross company has served the term he enlisted for and is hereby discharged with honour to himself and the company he belongs to.

                                                            Per. William Latham Capt.

Fort Griswold April 1 1781

Harris’s discharge not only meant the end of his time at Fort Griswold, but of his military service during the Revolutionary War.   Though his time of service was short, his narrative provides modern readers an opportunity to view an important and often overlooked view of the war.   It shows what garrison life was like at Fort Griswold and New London preceding Benedict Arnold’s attack, which would occur just five months after Harris’s discharge.   The officers he served under, Ledyard, Latham, Stanton, Mason, would all play a role in that raid.  Harris’s descriptions of them give a rare glimpse into their personalities as human beings which are missing from many other narratives and studies of the raid.   The events he recalls and describes weave a tale of enthusiasm and excitement that was important to him during the American Revolution and gives his readers a chance to realize, recognize and appreciate the soldiers who stood guard over New London.  Though Harris’s father had hoped that his time doing garrison duty would be safe and monotonous, it was the adventure of his lifetime.

 

[1] By 1780, another earthen fort had been constructed west of Fort Trumbull, nicknamed by the men who built it “Fort Nonsense,” and the company there was spread out expected to protect and maintain both forts.

[2] John Harris Pension Application, S 10787, National Archives and Record Services, Washington, D.C. All subsequence material is from this source unless otherwise specified.

[3] Harris names Corporal Avery as the man who recognized him, probably Rufus Avery who served at the fort during this time as a corporal. See 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), 558.

[4] Harris names the comrade as Corporal Freeman, probably Peleg Freeman who served at the fort the same time.  See Johnston, Record of Connecticut Men, 558.

[5] Frances Manwaring Caulkins, History of New London (New London, CT: H.D. Utley, 1895), 531.

[6] Charles J. Hoadly, ed., The Records of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1894-1942), 2:135 (hereafter cited as Connecticut State Records).

[7] Hoadly, Connecticut State Records, 2:135.

[8] Ibid, 2:127.  The militia that were ordered to New London were operating along the Connecticut River in the modern day towns of Chester, East Hampton, and East Haddam.

[9] Hoadly, Connecticut State Records, 2:147.  From the intelligence, it was believed by Governor Trumbull that “Gen Clinton with 13 thousand Troops [was] to attack the French … at Newport.”

[10] The specific location he listed was Poquetanuck, a small village within the limits of the modern day town of Preston.  Located within the village is Poquetanuck Cove that opens to the Thames River about eight miles north of New London.

[11] The “H. Mason” is Henry Mason.  See Johnston, Record of Connecticut Men, 558.

[12] Being the officer’s cook, Harris had the ability to witness and take part in suppressing the mutiny at the fort.  Though his dialogue should be subject to scrutiny, as it was written down five decades later, it does reveal the tensions at that moment.

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6 Comments

  • Thank you for this article. It provides context that has fleshed out my understanding of Fort Griswold during this time. I have two family members who served there, Thelus Todd and Rev. Aaron Kinne. Thelus was a teenager who was drafted into the militia that summer. I have read that he served only a short time, but was furloughed because he was sickened by the rations they received and sent home in hopes of regaining his health. He therefore escaped the carnage of Arnold’s attack on the fort and was never recalled to duty before the war ended. I am in search of any primary evidence of Thelus’ service.
    Rev. Aaron Kinne was Chaplain at Fort Griswold. His congregation lost so many members in the attack it could not support his position as minister.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Susan! It was really fun to write about Harris. When I found it, I knew that I had to get this out there.

      Rev. Kinne will be featured in my upcoming book on the raid. I found some things on him and was so surprised that he has been left out of the story all these years. What he did after the battle, crossing enemy lines to help the wounded, probably saved a lot of lives.

      • Matt,

        I also am a descendent of Aaron Kinne and would love to know more about him.

        Where should I look for more information?

        Tim.

        • Rev. Kinne was not really the chaplain of Fort Griswold. Rather, he was chaplain of the 8th Regiment of Connecticut Militia. During the war, several companies of the 8th Regiment served at Fort Griswold and Kinne’s meetinghouse was only a mile or two away from it. So it’s probably just a mistaken interpretation to think he was the chaplain of the fort.

          During the battle of Groton Heights, Kinne’s meetinghouse was the assembly point for the 8th Regiment as they attempted to relieve Fort Griswold. In the subsequent fighting along the Post Road, the church was converted into a field hospital where Kinne is said to have assisted with the wounded. The church no longer stands. I think it was torn down sometime during the 19th century. There is a bowling alley on the site today. This is from a history book published by the Groton Congregational Church.

  • Matt,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    I had heard that Rev. Kinne was the main religious presence at Fort Griswold so your information was enlightening.

    My forebear, Edwin Taylor of Glastonbury, Ct. married Nancy Jane Kinne who was the daughter of Aaron Kinne Jr. and Amelia Hale.

    Thanks again, Tim.

  • Matt, Great article. Gives wonderful insight as to the conditions that were faced at the fort. Was wondering if you came across any information on Jabez Pendleton/Pembleton in your research. He was a fifth great grandfather of mine. He was a matross at the fort and was wounded in the hand in the battle. He describes some of the fighting in his pension papers. He was taken prisoner and returned a few days/weeks later. Signed on for another year after his return.

    Thank you, Bob.

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