June 1817: On tour with James Monroe

The cornerstone for the Groton Monument was laid on September 6, 1826, exactly 45 years after the Battle of Groton Heights. A monument, similar to the one in progress at Bunker Hill, would be an appropriate memorial to the patriots’ courage on that treacherous day when Benedict Arnold’s forces attacked Fort Griswold. The dedication ceremony was attended by 18 survivors, one reportedly wearing a vest pierced by bullet holes.

As meaningful as that occasion was, nine years earlier there’d been another event at the fort that must been just as poignant. In fact, it was one of the high points of President James Monroe’s 1817 visit to New London County.

Monroe, the last Founding Father to become President of the United States, was inaugurated in March 1817. Once the weather was fit for travel, he began a tour to inspect the country’s coastal fortifications and to build national trust and goodwill.

Monroe left Washington on May 31, and by mid-June, he’d visited Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton and New York City. After a swing up to Boston by way of New Haven and Hartford, he reentered Connecticut at Enfield and made his way south.

Monroe’s entourage arrived on June 25 in New London, where he was welcomed by salutes fired from Fort Trumbull and a procession down State and Bank streets, led by the First Company of Light Dragoons and a host of excited citizens. He surveyed Fort Trumbull and sailed up the Thames to see the location where Stephen Decatur’s ships had been trapped by the British during the War of 1812.

The next stop on the itinerary was Fort Griswold. There, Monroe was greeted with the requisite formalities, but a highly emotional moment occurred when he asked to meet the Groton Heights veterans who were in attendance.

Park Avery and his brother, Ebenezer, stepped forward. Park had lost his teenaged son, Tom, during the battle. Ebenezer’s house, just down the hill from Fort Griswold, had served as a make-shift hospital for the surviving Americans, many of whom bled out on his parlor floor. Both men bore visible marks from the battle: Ebenezer was scarred and deaf, while Park was blind in one eye from a bayonet thrust. When the President saw these battered old veterans, he impulsively put his hands against their faces in a tender gesture of sympathy and respect.

After spending the night at Elijah Bailey’s tavern on Thames Street and being entertained by Anna Warner Bailey, the high-spirited “petticoat patriot” whom we met in last month's column, Monroe headed to Stonington to meet with some of the heroes of the Battle of 1814.

Stonington welcomed Monroe by a salute from one of its cannons and an enthusiastic contingent of villagers. People were still heady from their improbable victory during the War of 1812 when the tiny town faced down the mighty British. The President visited the site where the town’s cannons had been placed during the battle, and he examined one of the cannon balls that had been lobbed into the village from a British warship and was now a sacred souvenir.

That night, Monroe was honored at a special dinner at Captain Thomas Swann’s Inn on Cannon Square. Among the civic leaders present was Enoch Burrows, a ship builder from Old Mystic. Enoch introduced the President to his son, Silas, who’d carried ammunition to Stonington during the 1814 siege. Silas and Monroe struck up a life-long friendship; when Monroe died on July 4, 1831 (yes, July 4th), Silas was at his bedside.

The day after the party at Swann’s, Monroe left for Newport to continue his tour. Although the country’s future must have been foremost on the President’s mind, this backward glance at some of the men who’d made independence possible had a profound impact. Their courage commanded his respect — and inspires ours.

 

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