Tossing Lines: Battle of Groton Heights massacre in 1781 seen as war crime

The cold-blooded massacre of unarmed men and boys at the Battle of Groton Heights by British soldiers on Sept. 6, 1781, may well have been a war crime, a case of “panic forward,” the same human defect that has caused other senseless and brutal killing sprees throughout history.

As ceremonies mark September’s 237th anniversary of the Battle of Groton Heights, let’s consider that there may be more to the bloody rampage than meets the eye. In fact, it might lie behind the eye, in the human brain.

The historic battle at Fort Griswold is ingrained in local psyches, as well it should be, for to know the past is to know ourselves.

In 1781, the British came to punish us for New London’s successful privateering effort and the damage it caused to ships of the crown.

New London was burned, and across the river, 800 British soldiers quickly captured Fort Griswold after a pitched battle.

Upon surrender, the fort’s defenders laid down their arms. Only three locals had been killed in the fight.

Then, with calculated, murderous intent, the British proceeded to hunt down and brutally shoot and bayonet the unarmed colonists until eighty-two more were dead and thirty-five left wounded. Some were mere boys in their teens.

In “September 6, 1781: North Groton’s Story” by Carolyn Smith and Helen Vergason, citizen-soldier Daniel Eldridge recalled that, upon surrender, the colonists “laid down their arms, but the enemy gave no quarter – murdering all they come at.”

The authors write of Eldredge: “He was among those who sought shelter in the entrance of the magazine. The British pursued and fired on them. Some were killed all the time begging for quarter. A platoon had discovered them and, lining up across the wide doorway, got off a volley among the dead, wounded and living. As this squad stepped back, a second replaced them and prepared to fire.”

Some of those killed were mutilated with twenty to thirty wounds. That’s far beyond reason, even in war.

Forty women were made widows, two hundred children lost their fathers, and the enemy needlessly destroyed a schoolhouse, four barns, two shops, two stores and 12 houses.

In “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” author and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker cites widely respected social psychologist Randall Collins, who identified a human psychological condition he calls “panic forward,” when the human mind blocks out all reason and marauders embark on irrational, brutal killing frenzies of defenseless people.

It’s the state of mind that incites war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Collins offers as examples the My Lai massacre, the rape of Nanking, the Rwandan genocide, and there have been many more, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975), Srebenica genocide in Bosnia (1990s), and Darfur (2003).

Collins also asserts that panic forward is evolutionary, hardwired into the minds of human and animal alike.

Researchers have even witnessed chimpanzees exhibiting panic forward, catching a weak opponent and literally tearing him limb from limb.

Having surrendered their weapons and still greatly outnumbered, the colonists were indeed nothing more than weak, defenseless citizens.

In the spirit of panic forward, Britain’s intent on Sept. 6, 1781, was not just defeat, but extermination, a deplorable war crime by today’s standards, right here in our own back yard.

Think of that horror when you visit the fort or see its embankments from across the Thames in New London; or glimpse the Groton monument from the Gold Star Bridge; or pass street signs that commemorate names like Ledyard, Avery, Latham and Allen. All are symbols of great sacrifice.

John Steward lives in Waterford and can be reached at


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