Abby, get your gun
History is full of what-ifs. What if Abigail Hinman’s musket hadn’t misfired? What if she’d killed Benedict Arnold on that fateful September day when the British torched New London? The assault was well underway when Abigail took her shot, so the already ravaged city wouldn’t have been spared. Still, Arnold’s death at the hands of a brave New London woman would have been deeply satisfying.
Abigail Dolbeare Hinman (1743-1816) was married to Elisha Hinman, one of the first officially appointed captains in the U.S. Navy. His frequent voyages, as well his detention as a POW in an English prison, often left Abigail alone. He was out of town the day Arnold burned New London. Many residents hastily fled the city ahead of the mayhem, but Abigail didn’t run away. Perhaps the logistics of leaving with her two little girls, one still an infant, were too difficult, or perhaps she stubbornly refused to be driven from her own home.
Abigail must have been shocked when Benedict Arnold, a long-time acquaintance, came riding up as she was watching the plundering and arson from her doorway. Arnold asked her to point out any buildings she and Elisha owned, promising to spare them from fire. Thinking on her feet, Abigail indicated several houses that really belonged to her neighbors. According to one account, Arnold also asked her for directions to the print shop and the post office, but again Abigail misled him.
For much of the day, Arnold situated himself in front of her house, directly in her line of sight. As the destruction continued, Abigail’s fury mounted. She thought she’d known this man, this monster. They’d been childhood friends and he was a frequent guest in the Hinmans’ home, but that didn’t matter now. Grabbing a musket from a closet, she took aim at Arnold’s back and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. When Arnold turned to inquire about the noise, Abigail quickly concealed the musket behind her skirt and attributed the sound to a chair breaking inside the house.
Years later, Harriet Hinman Day, Abigail’s daughter, recounted this story, which she said she’d heard from her mother. However, there are no official chronicles of this event, so historians are cautious about endorsing its authenticity. It’s possible that it’s an especially dramatic piece of family lore, but it strikes me as a strange narrative for a mother and daughter to fabricate. To me, it seems more likely that the incident — if people were even aware of it — was soon forgotten amidst the city’s turmoil. Afterall, Arnold didn’t die. That would have been something to remember!
Around 1850, Thomas Davis Day, Harriet’s son, hired the portrait artist, Daniel Huntington, to memorialize his gutsy grandmother. The result is quite different from the traditional portraits of the times. Abigail is shown looking out a window, musket at the ready, staring at Benedict Arnold’s back. No modest colonial housewife here: her abundant hair is uncapped, she’s wearing an elaborate silk dress, and her expression is fierce. The picture fairly crackles with righteous anger.
Abigail’s portrait is part of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum’s collection, and hangs in their American Perspectives gallery. If you visit the museum between now and January 23, you’ll enjoy the added bonus of seeing miniature portraits of her sister, Hannah Dolbeare Richards, and niece, Mary Avery Smith. Their likenesses are on display along with other charming miniatures, most by the New London sisters Mary and Betsy Way in the exhibition "The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic." It’s a rare opportunity to see what some prominent New Londoners looked like before the advent of photography.
Abigail died in 1816. She and Elisha are buried under a shared monument in Cedar Grove Cemetery in New London. Abigail’s inscription extols her charitable works and her “many amiable qualities and virtues.” I think the engraver should have added, “She had the heart of a lion.”