The Revolution & Aftermath
When the 1770s dawned, New London’s merchants, wharves, and warehouses were booming with the West Indies trade. The British were happy, too, thanks to the heavy import duties on imports of rum, sugar, tea and other goods. Those stiff taxes were an important source of revenue, helping finance Britain’s expensive wars with France.
Not surprisingly, the Connecticut colonists resented British fingers deep in their wallets. Merchants and mariners alike did their best to skate the heavy tariffs, and smuggling was conducted with something like patriotic fervor. The outbreak of revolutionary sentiment in the next few years only hardened the patriots’ determination to throw off the King’s yoke.
The Revolutionary War, as it turned out, would exact its own terrible toll on New London. But it didn’t start out that way, of course.
“Patriotism burned brightly in the town [of New London],” one historian would later say, with “the constant sight of militia gatherings on the green.” Two companies of New Londoners joined forces with the rebels at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June, 1775.
New London’s maritime talents were quickly pressed into service for the Revolutionary cause. In 1775, the fledgling Continental Congress assigned New London the task of assembling Connecticut’s quota of armed vessels. The town rose to the challenge, fitting up the first naval expedition right there on the Thames in 1776.
New London also furnished sailors for the newly-formed Navy. Some men joined voluntarily; others were pressed into service, or thought better of it soon after joining up. New London Sheriff Joshua Hempstead’s duties included capturing runaway sailors who’d pocketed their enlistment fee but beat feet for the countryside instead. In one colorful tale, Hempstead’s horse was credited with capturing a runaway sailor by grabbing the fleeing man’s collar with its teeth.
Schoolmaster Nathan Hale, a teacher at a boys’ school in New London before the war began, volunteered to spy on British troop movements, managing to make it behind enemy lines before being captured in New York City. Hale was hanged by the British on September 22, 1776, after a final, rousing speech regretting having “but one life to give for my country.”
New London’s patriotic ship owners lent their efforts to the Revolutionary cause as well, converting their ships into “privateers.” These secured a rough imprimatur of legitimacy from the fledgling American government through “letters of marque and reprisal” – essentially a license to pounce on any valuable British merchant ships they might encounter.
The capture of British merchant ships was a lucrative as well as patriotic undertaking. Captains of vessels with such catchy names as the Sturdy Beggar, Wilful Murder, and New Broom posted advertisements seeking “gentlemen seamen and able-bodied landsmen” desiring to “make their fortune in eight weeks’ time.”
There was, of course, no guarantee a rich British prize ship would be taken, and a good deal of danger attended the effort. Still, many New London privateers did indeed sail back into port with an enemy vessel trailing dejectedly behind, its British flag upside down in surrender. New London’s own Maritime Court would then oversee the sale of the goods and disposition of resulting proceeds from the prize.
The British, of course, quickly caught on to such antics. Already on alert for smuggled goods before the war, British patrols in Long Island Sound only accelerated after hostilities had been declared.
New London’s citizens grew justifiably nervous about retaliation. Whenever an enemy vessel was spotted on the horizon, signal fires would be lit, guns would bellow out a warning, and bells rang loudly to sound the alarm. But for several years, no actual attack on the town materialized.
Then in late July, 1781, Capt. Dudley Saltonstall captured an especially valuable British prize ship, the Hannah. Her holds were packed with not only lucrative goods from the West Indies but also a coveted supply of gunpowder. All-told, the Hannah’s value was estimated at £ 80,000 pounds sterling, said to be the largest single prize captured during the War. And her captors escorted her proudly right into New London’s harbor.
That finally did it; the British had had enough. Some 32 vessels were assembled at New York under the command of infamous Norwich native (and former patriot) Benedict Arnold. And on September 5, 1781, this terrifying fleet was spotted at the mouth of New London’s harbor.
The following day, the British attacked Fort Trumbull, a small, poorly-manned battery south of town. The fort’s 23 patriots bravely delivered a single “well-aimed volley” at the British attackers before beating a hasty retreat (as they’d been ordered to do), in the face of the overwhelming British onslaught.
New London’s citizens fled for their lives, abandoning homes and businesses. The British troops seized the town and proceeded to make an example of the upstart community by torching everything in their wake: shops, stores, homes and public buildings. Arnold himself supposedly oversaw the destruction from a lofty vantage point above the town.
Arnold’s soldiers were thorough – and ruthless. By nightfall an estimated 150 buildings had been reduced to ashes. Some 65 homes had been burned. The town’s wharves and warehouses were ruined, along with 18 shops and 20 barns. Nine public buildings had been torched, including the Episcopal Church.
Ships anchored in the harbor were also set a-fire, including the gunpowder-filled Hannah. The resulting explosion must have been terrifying to behold.
Resident Abigail Hinman Kellogg, an acquaintance of Arnold’s and one of the few New London citizens who hadn’t fled when the British arrived, witnessed the horrific destruction. She would later say that she had seized a musket, aimed it carefully at Arnold, and pulled the trigger. But in one of the great ironies of history, her musket mis-fired.
While the town of New London was in flames, a separate tragedy was unfolding across the river at Ft. Griswold. Some 800 British troops debarked on the Groton side, facing off against the 157 militia volunteers holding the fort, led by Col. William Ledyard. The British commander demanded Ledyard’s surrender. Ledyard’s fateful retort: “We shall not surrender, let the consequences be what they may!”
A blood-bath followed. More than half Ledyard’s men were slaughtered on the spot, and many more were critically or fatally wounded. The British, too, took heavy casualties. When Ledyard finally presented his sword to the British officer in defeat, his opponent was so upset by what he felt had been unnecessary carnage that he ran Ledyard through the heart with Ledyard’s own sword.
Although much of New London was left a smoldering ruin when the British finally departed, a few buildings did manage to survive. The Shaw mansion was one.
Shaw’s manor-house had been one of the first buildings in New London to be set a-fire by the British – and probably for good reason. Shaw was a mover and shaker in Revolutionary circles. General Washington had attended a lawn party at the Shaw mansion a few years earlier; Lafayette had visited twice. Shaw also owned a good dozen of the privateer vessels that had been tormenting the British. And as if that weren’t enough, he served as New London’s naval agent, adjudicating proceeds when prize ships were taken.
But although the Shaw mansion was set a-fire, two things allowed it to survive. First, its exterior was made of stone. And second, Shaw’s helpful next-door neighbor came to the rescue, reportedly extinguishing the flames by dousing them with “a vat of vinegar from the roof of his wood-house.”
The Winthrop House and the Manwaring House also escaped the conflagration. And perhaps most significant of all, the Hempstead House, dating back to the town’s founding in 1645, wasn’t burned. But it would take years before the town rebuilt.
Even worse for New London than Arnold’s arson of 1781: commerce remained at a standstill for the next two decades. Hostilities raged on between France and England for years. And although America did its best to remain neutral, it, too, was eventually drawn into war against Great Britain in 1812.
Amidst all the turmoil, New London’s once-busy wharves fell silent. Ships bobbed idly beside their docks; warehouses stood empty. The once-prosperous West Indies trade fueled the town no longer.
But about 1819, New London’s fortunes finally began to brighten. A fresh commercial endeavor began raising spirits and fattening wallets. The formula for success this time?