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Tossing Lines: Colonel Ledyard kept watch for George Washington

In many ways, southeastern Connecticut’s Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Ledyard remains a shadowy icon, even 240 years after the British ran a sword savagely through his 42-year-old torso.

Other than his struggles preparing Groton and New London fortifications for war and the well-documented tale of his death upon surrender in the Battle of Groton Heights, no one really knows William Ledyard, perhaps understandable since history books pretty much ignore him.

But because I grew up around Fort Griswold in Groton, surrounded by signs of the colonel throughout my hometown, I’ve been searching for a deeper understanding of the man, and I’ve been discovering information that I never knew before, even after decades of reading local histories.

One of the interesting things I briefly touched upon in a Zoom program I presented, through the Connecticut Historical Society in October, is that William Ledyard corresponded directly to General George Washington, and the regally titled General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French forces in America.

Ledyard maintained direct communications with the top military echelon of the American Revolution, all from little Groton Bank.

Letters from the Library of Congress show that Ledyard, besides preparing fortifications in Groton and New London for war, gathered intelligence reports from merchantmen and privateers docking at New London. He also regularly sent reconnaissance boats out past Fishers Island through Long Island Sound to Gardiners Island off the eastern tip of Long Island, and east to Block Island.

Ledyard recorded fleet movements, and enemy troops seen both on Long Island and as far away as the Caribbean islands. Captains would inform Ledyard of activities in foreign ports, and ships identified on the high seas, along with their direction and configuration of sail, all of which he would report directly to Washington and Rochambeau.

For instance, in August 1780, Ledyard reported to Washington that General Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of British forces in America, had arrived on Long Island to join troops already there.

In May 1781, Ledyard relayed to Rochambeau that his nephew, Captain Youngs Ledyard, returned from Guadaloupe in the Caribbean, relaying that near Martinico (Martinique), the French fleet “... went in pursuit of the English Fleet and soon came athwart them, when a severe engagement took place which lasted for some time. After the two fleets engaged some time the English Fleet made off and was pursued by the French Fleet which prevented their getting into St. Lucia, after which a vessel arrived at Guadaloupe and gave an account that the French Fleet had taken two of the British Fleet that fell in the rear and was in pursuit of the others.”

In June 1781, Ledyard reported that Capt. Sage from Martinico, who “arrived here last evening in a ship belonging to this place,” stated that the French Fleet had sailed for St. Lucia “with a large body of Troops which they landed at that Island ... and it was thought the Island would surrender soon to the army of his most Christian Majesty.”

Captain Sage had also captured a ship near South Carolina. Ledyard informed Rochambeau “She is laden with rice, turpentine, etc. A Carolina paper taken in this prize I now inclose for Your Excellency.”

And, Ledyard reported on British warships off southeastern Connecticut, sending Washington a “List of the British Ships in Gardiners Bay” on July 16, 1781, that listed the Adamant (50 guns), Bedford (74 guns), Sandon (90 guns), Royal Oak (74 guns), Robust (74 guns), Prudent (64 guns), America (64 guns), and the frigate Guarda Coupe (28 guns).

This, in spite of a heavy personal burden: his beloved daughter, 16-year old Sarah, was gravely ill at the time. She would die 10 days after this report was sent.

Ledyard often assured both generals that he would “... do all in my favour to give Your Excellency the earliest intelligence regarding the Movements of the Enemy.”

William Ledyard’s entire adult life was shaped by a long chain of seditious events and America’s scuffles with the Crown, beginning 20 years before the British took his life at Fort Griswold on Sept. 6, 1781.

History dwells on just a few links at the end of that chain, yet there’s far more we should know to fully shape our understanding of this Connecticut patriot, for discovering William Ledyard’s life helps us to finally bring his full legacy out of the shadows, so we may one day not only commemorate his death, but celebrate his life, and finally pay full and sincere homage to his great sacrifice, while recognizing the true magnitude of his loss to family, community and state.

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

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