New London streets in flames

It takes a lot to make the past come alive. It rarely happens for me even when I'm watching a reenactment or reading a good book. Once I read a riveting biography of that colorful president, Andrew Jackson, but he didn't seem real until I saw his photograph at the very back of the book. It was an odd "wow" moment.

I told the young son of one of my friends about Benedict Arnold's attack on New London during the Revolution. I asked him to imagine how scary it would be to look out his bedroom window and see enemy soldiers with muskets and bayonets marching down his street. His eyes got big and he seemed to think it was a pretty good story, but I couldn't convince him that it actually happened.

On Sept. 6, 1781, when the British attacked New London - a day so horrific it must have felt unreal even at the time - the privateering port was vulnerable. "Fort Nonsense," an improvised earthwork, and Fort Trumbull were both inadequate. Because of the war, many men were out of town, leaving so little manpower that it was a challenge just to harvest the crops. When Arnold's troops came ashore near the lighthouse, they walked right in.

Residents initially tried to defend Fort Trumbull, then spiked the guns and regrouped at Fort Griswold in Groton. Women and children fled town, driving cows in front of them and carrying whatever they could grab. One frantic father stayed back to hastily bury his child who'd died just the day before. Others remained behind with the ill and elderly who couldn't be moved.

The British strategy was to split into two groups and burn the city from both ends. Afterwards the Connecticut Gazette attempted an inventory of the destruction.

Along Main Street (now Eugene O'Neil Drive), Richards & Son's slaughterhouse, several barns and two coopers' shops were burned. The homes of three widows were torched, as were those of numerous families including the Latimers, Gibsons, Powers, Pitmans, Greens, Saltonstalls, Byrnes, Deshons and Hurlbuts.

On Beach Street (today's Water Street) houses belonging to Mrs. Potter, Mrs. Elliot and Mrs. Skinner were burned. All three women were widows. A barbershop, a distillery, warehouses and many other businesses were destroyed. In some places stored gunpowder ignited, further spreading the conflagration.

On Bank Street two coopers' shops, a tannery, a slaughterhouse, a ropewalk and a dozen other businesses were burned. Private homes weren't spared, including those of the Widows Hancock, Bulkley, McNeil, Fosdick, Short and Leete.

Along Long Bridge Cove (Truman, Coit, and Blinman streets) the British set fire to Deshon & Christopher's tannery and Nathaniel Shaw's mansion. Neighbors were able to extinguish the blaze at Shaw's by dousing the roof with vinegar from a nearby container. Redcoats marched down other streets including Blackhall, Lewis, Hog Neck (Howard Street), Cape Ann Lane (Jefferson Avenue), and the old Colchester Road (Vauxhall Street).

When it was over, Arnold's men had burned 65 houses, 49 businesses, numerous barns and nine public buildings including the mill, the printing office, the court house, the jail, the wharf, the Custom House and the Episcopal Church. Irreplaceable public records were lost.

Except for a few schooners and sloops that had escaped up the Thames toward Norwich, every ship in the harbor was burned. For years charred ship carcasses lay rotting along the shoreline.

Ninety-seven families faced ruin and, in many cases, the loss of fathers, sons and husbands at Fort Griswold. Their shock and suffering are impossible to imagine.

Recovery took time, but by 1784 New London was growing again with the opening of Golden, Pearl and Federal streets, quickly followed by Church, Union and Masonic streets. Soon whaling and sealing would bring new opportunities and prosperity, demonstrating that it takes more than arson and betrayal to keep a good city down.

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