Remember Groton Heights! History worth preserving

One of the most dramatic and significant days in Connecticut’s history occurred right here in the state’s southeastern corner. Sept. 6, 1781 had many elements of intrigue that set it apart. There was plenty of bloodshed, the traitorous treachery of a native son, a determined group of underdogs and a leader who tried to do right by his troops only to be reportedly killed by his own weapon.

This was the American Revolutionary War Battle of Groton Heights, fought at Fort Griswold overlooking the mouth of the Thames River. Norwich native Benedict Arnold led the British troops. The greatly outnumbered Colonial militiamen fought to keep the fort out of British hands even as New London burned. Col. William Ledyard sought to save his troops’ lives by surrendering to the British, but legend says Ledyard then was killed with his own sword by the British.

Despite its relative obscurity, the battle was the last win for the British before Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis ended the war by surrendering at Yorktown, Virginia on Oct. 19, 1781. The Battle of Groton Heights also was the last battle of the Revolution fought in the North and, while the British succeeded in overtaking the Groton fort and burning New London on that September day, the campaign’s goal to divert Continental troops away from Virginia, was unsuccessful.

Despite all this, the significance of the fort and the battle remains relatively little known, even among locals. This is unfortunate as Fort Griswold’s potential as a major draw for visitors to the area has not been met, a fact that means unrealized revenue for the region.

“People who know about it, are passionate about it,” Hali Keeler, the retired director of the Bill Memorial Library who now leads the non-profit group Friends of Fort Griswold, said of the fort. She quickly adds that many more people should know about and appreciate this small state park.

It is in this atmosphere that the Friends have quietly and steadily worked within the group’s means to support and improve the fort. The Friends deserve much credit for efforts that are helping both to maintain and stabilize what exists, as well as adding features that make it easier to visualize the area as a significant battlefield and as a fort instead of just a hilly, grassy open space with a great view of the river and Fishers Island Sound.

Through grants and other fundraising efforts, the Friends paid for the recently completed $18,000 project to add interpretive signs and outline with granite blocks the site of the original barracks. In the spring, a platform will be built in the spot where an original platform stood within this fort. That project, complete with reproduction cannons, is expected to be complete by Memorial Day 2018 and will provide a space to conduct school group lessons, as well as improved views of the river. Labor will be provided by the state for the $10,000 project.

Keeler said the Friends’ work is done thanks to a core group of about a dozen local residents, history-appreciative financial supporters from throughout the country and grants from groups such as the Society of the Cincinnati. That group seeks to preserve the ideals of the Revolution’s Continental Army.

In the future, the Friends would like to buy the equipment needed to play, on a loop, a video of a Battle of Groton Heights re-enactment. The video might be displayed in a way to make it visible to visitors even when the small on-site museum is closed, she said.

All of this is worthy work and the Friends of Fort Griswold deserve much credit and thanks for their efforts. The group deserves expanded support so this important historical treasure can become as well-known as the Revolutionary battlefields at Concord, Massachusetts or Saratoga, New York.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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