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Tossing Lines: The curious death of Colonel William Ledyard

As we topple statues of Columbus and others throughout the land in our demand for historical truth, we’d all be hypocrites if we failed to reconsider the curious death of Colonel William Ledyard.

Sept. 6 marks the 239th anniversary of the Battle of Groton Heights, and our fervent outcry for historical accuracy begs the question: How did Colonel William Ledyard really die in the Battle of Groton Heights at Fort Griswold on Sept. 6, 1781? Did the British officer really shout “Who commands this fort? And did Ledyard really reply “I did, sir, but you do now,” and was Ledyard really run through the chest with his own sword?

Of all the things that may have happened that day, this long-revered belief seems the least plausible.

Author William Wallace Harris noted in his introduction to Charles Allyn’s “The Battle of Groton Heights” (1882), that “No person who actually may have witnessed the deed (Ledyard’s death) survived the battle.”

Some claimed to have seen Ledyard marching toward surrender, but they didn’t see his murder due to distractions.

No narratives provide reliable eyewitness accounts.

In depositions taken after the battle, few even mention Ledyard’s death. Contradiction, inconsistency, and innuendo abound.

Some narratives were recorded up to 75 years after the battle, and time seemed to have glorified memories of the chaotic battle environment, particularly those self-serving embellishments provided by Fort Griswold soldiers seeking military pensions long after the battle.

Even historian Allyn admitted that time had caused “careless” renditions to corrupt the truth.

Soldiers’ desire to lionize their commander may taint testimony, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the white linen vest, or waistcoat, worn by Colonel Ledyard during the battle. The vest remains the only steadfast witness to the event.

I spent time recently with Ledyard’s vest and shirt displayed before me at the Connecticut Historical Society. Having grown up with the colonel’s tall gravesite obelisk visible from my backyard, not far from Fort Griswold, it was moving to be so close to the garment once worn by the living, breathing patriot; to imagine the beating heart of the shipping merchant, congressional representative, and father of seven children. A heart so violently stilled for freedom.

It was also impossible to realistically reconcile the vest’s wounds with the folk tale we celebrate.

The vest suffered only two jagged holes, one on the left, and one on the right side, below and just forward of the arm holes. There is no evidence of a wound on the front, nor on the back.

The shirt displays faint, large blood stains on either side, not on the front.

Harris surmised that, based on their differing size, the lacerations were caused by a saber, narrow at the tip and wider at the hilt. Whoever wielded the saber stood to Ledyard’s left.

Dr. Walter Powell, author of “Murder or Mayhem? Benedict Arnold’s New London, Connecticut Raid in 1781,” agrees that Ledyard was stabbed through the side, not the front.

In a 2001 Hartford Courant article, the Connecticut Historical Society also agreed Ledyard was stabbed side-to-side, not front to back. The shirt Ledyard wore has a tear toward the lower back, but not in the front, leading Lynne Z. Bassett, historical society costume specialist, to conclude that the shirt was twisted under the waistcoat, and Ledyard was “very active when he was run through, probably defending himself.”

Powell adds that the slits “equally suggest that he might have been killed by a thrust from a triangular bladed bayonet, of the type carried by most British soldiers on their ‘Brown Bess’ muskets.”

Both Richard Malley, head of collections at the Connecticut Historical Society, and authors Smith and Vergason in “September 6, 1781, North Groton’s Story,” acknowledge that evidence suggests Ledyard may have died from a bayonet wound instead.

Various scenarios might have occurred on the bloody ground of Fort Griswold that day. The good colonel may have gone down fighting (a conclusion supported by Powell, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the vest); or he may have been killed in the indiscriminate massacre that occurred (some depositions support this); or he may have surrendered and been ambushed from the side (Harris believed this, and the vest supports it).

The vest clearly asserts that Colonel Ledyard did not die from a sword through the chest.

Local historian and forensics expert Jim Streeter has wondered what a “forensic fracture analysis reconstruction examination” of Ledyard’s sword might reveal. Microscopic blood residue on the blade could remain, proving whether this is the sword that sliced through the patriot’s vest.

There would be no harm in listening to the sword’s tale, for no matter how he fell, our beloved local patriot who defended American freedom to the death remains a hero.

Colonel Ledyard, as much as Columbus, deserves the truth.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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