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Benedict Arnold’s Raid on New London - September 6, 1781

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

On September 6, 1781, a British force of 1,700 men under the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold, raided the towns of Groton and New London, Connecticut. The British left the towns in ashes, killing or wounding nearly 150 Americans in the process. One of the American’s killed was Henry Halsey of Southampton.

The connection between Connecticut and the Eastern End of Long Island has deep roots, dating back to early colonial times. Easy trading across the Long Island Sound further deepened those ties. After the British had driven the Colonial Army out of Long Island in late 1776, approximately 5,000 patriots from Long Island took refuge in Connecticut’s coastal towns. New London, with a large and deep harbor, was an ideal destination. There were also family connections to New London. One such connection was Miss Fanny Ledyard of Southold, whose uncle, Colonel William Ledyard, was living in Groton. Twenty-seven-year-old Fanny had just been evacuated to Connecticut after British troops threatened to burn down her mother’s home.

New London was also an ideal port for American privateers, which harassed British supply ships sailing in the Long Island Sound. The privateers were so successful that the British called New London “the most detestable nest of pirates on the continent”. One of those privateers was Elias Henry Halsey, a Captain of a ship operating out of New London. Elias, (known as Henry), was born in Bridgehampton. He and his older brother Jesse rowed across the Long Island Sound to enlist in the Continental Army after the Battle of Lexington. Jesse went on to become a Captain in the Army while Henry turned to privateering.

Benedict Arnold, now a General in the British Army, arrived off the New London coast early in the morning, hoping to land his troops before dawn and catch the town unprepared. However, the wind was against him, and the fleet was spotted. Arnold was finally able to land at 9 that morning, leading half his army on the New London side of the Thames River. His objective was to destroy the warehouses and any ships in port. The remainder of the British, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Eyre, landed on the Groton side, its objective the fort on Groton Heights called Fort Griswold. Commanding the American militia at the fort was Fanny’s uncle, Colonel Ledyard.

On the New London side, Arnold's men quickly advanced through the town, setting fire to as many warehouses, shops, and ships as they could. Arnold knew the town well from his childhood, growing up in nearby Norwich. The British advance on the Groton side was much slower. By noon, Eyre's men were in position, and he sent a flag to Fort Griswold demanding its surrender. Ledyard considered surrendering, having only 150 men in the fort. But, expecting Militia reinforcements at any moment, Ledyard decided to make a stand. With Ledyard's refusal to surrender, Eyre ordered immediate assault.

When Arnold arrived in New London, Henry Halsey’s ship was in port. With his ship useless against the superior British fleet, Henry volunteered to command a cannon crew at Fort Griswold, a skill he learned while privateering. As Eyre’s men advanced on Fort Griswold, Captain Halsey took aim and fired his cannon. Loaded with grape shot, his gun was comparable to a large shot gun. Halsey’s aim was excellent, striking the British column, killing or wounding twenty assailants. The British regulars staggered for a moment, but regaining their composure, continued their advance and overwhelmed the American defenders. Realizing the further resistance was futile, Colonel Ledyard offered his sword to a British officer in surrender. The British officer took the sword and promptly ran Ledyard through with it, killing him instantly. That despicable act prompted the other British soldiers to shoot and stab the remaining Americans in the fort. The murder and destruction inflected on that September day further established Benedict Arnold’s reputation as a traitor to his nation.

When Fanny Ledyard, heard about the fighting at Fort Griswold, she went to help. On entering the Fort, her first sight was the body of her dead uncle. Never-the-less, she ministered to the wounded and dying long after the enemy had gone. The next morning, she brought wine, water and chocolate to cheer the wounded who were still within the Fort. Of the approximately 150 defenders of the Fort, 85 were dead and 60 more were wounded, some mortally. The British losses were significant, given the limited opposition. Approximately 20% of the British force were casualties, including Colonel Eyre. Just one month later, the British Army at Yorktown surrendered, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.

For her devotion to helping the suffering patriots at Fort Trumbull, the Mystic, Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution named their Chapter after Fanny Ledyard. A monument to the battle at Fort Griswold was completed in 1830 on which is a memorial plaque listing the men who fell defending their freedom. It is unknown if Henry Halsey was killed while manning his gun or during the ensuing massacre. He is among the patriots who lost their lives and whose names are enshrined on that plaque.

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