Making sense of Fort Nonsense
Editor’s note: In addition to sources cited, this story was drawn from “The Battle of Groton Heights” by William W. Harris, “Rosemary” by Mary E. Benjamin, and research by Mary Beth Baker and Tom Schuch.
You probably know about Fort Griswold. That’s where British troops committed a massacre while their boss, Benedict Arnold, was busy lighting fires across the river.
You may also know about Fort Trumbull. Not the one that’s there now, but the first one, whose defenders fled upon finding themselves outnumbered by the enemy.
But unless you’ve done some deep reading on local history, you may not be aware a third fort was in play on Sept. 6, 1781, when Arnold burned New London. And it had a funny name.
“Arnold and the British Army first attacked and took control of Fort Nonsense in New London,” reader Bob Mish wrote to The Day’s CuriousCT project. “… Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold still exist, but exactly where in New London was Fort Nonsense located?”
Mish, who lives on Willetts Avenue near Ocean Avenue, says he’s heard Fort Nonsense was near his home.
The oddly named fortification is well-documented, though its moment on the stage was brief. Some sources say it was in the general area of Willetts and Ocean. But Mish asked where it was exactly.
Let’s see what we can figure out.
* * *
When the American Revolution began in 1775, New London’s only defense was a fort on the Parade that dated back to 1691. This was soon replaced by two earthwork fortifications, one on each bank of the Thames River.
But Fort Trumbull, on the New London side, was built only to repel an invasion from the water. Its rear or westward end was open and vulnerable to an assault by land. So in 1779, militiamen constructed a third fort on high ground to its west. From there, troops approaching Fort Trumbull could be fired on.
As forts go, this one was nothing special. Frances Manwaring Caulkins’ “History of New London” says it was constructed of timber and sod.
“The inhabitants showed their appreciation of the work,” she wrote, “by the name which they bestowed on it, Fort Nonsense, the only name it ever received.”
Eric Lehman, whose 2014 book “Homegrown Terror” is about Arnold’s invasion, said Fort Nonsense had dubious military value, partly because its construction wasn’t funded.
“There was no state or town funding in those days, so everything had to be funded by whoever wanted to help,” Lehman said by email.
The man who helped most was William Ledyard, military commander of New London and Groton. The building of Fort Nonsense, which took six months, was under his direction, and records show he billed the state legislature for the work.
When the invading British landed troops on both sides of the river in 1781, Arnold was in command in New London. Fort Nonsense was the first defense his troops encountered and the only one the traitor attacked himself.
Just before he reached it, Arnold detached four companies to secure Fort Trumbull, manned by only 23 men. After firing one volley, the defenders escaped across the river to Fort Griswold.
In his report, Arnold described Fort Nonsense as “a redoubt which had kept up a brisk fire on us for some time, but which the enemy evacuated on our approach.” Eight cannons were left behind.
From this spot, Arnold dispatched a messenger to Groton, fatefully ordering an attack on Fort Griswold. That set in motion the massacre of 88 Americans, including Ledyard.
Arnold’s troops continued north into New London, bringing one of the abandoned cannons with them. He left two companies to occupy Forts Nonsense and Trumbull.
John Hempstead, who fought in New London, recalled that he had fallen in with a group of 40 armed men who harassed the British from a distance as they advanced from the shore. At one point he was caught in crossfire between Fort Nonsense and the British.
He wrote that he retreated into the fort after its evacuation and was almost hit by fire as he left it. Then, as the British entered, they received a defiant greeting that Hempstead, who heard it, preserved for posterity with creative spelling.
From behind a tree, an American called out: “Wilkom God damyou to fort Non Sence!”
* * *
So where did all this happen?
According to Caulkins, the area around Fort Nonsense was notable for two things: a large windmill and the gallows used in New London’s first public execution in 1738. By some accounts, the land had been seized from a British officer.
Arnold’s troops landed west of the where the harbor lighthouse is, passed through a place called Brown’s Gate and marched north on Town Hill Road, now Ocean Avenue.
A map drawn by loyalist Daniel Lyman shows the fort on the west side of Town Hill Road. It appears as a square with one south-facing bastion and is labeled “Fort Folly,” another indication of its uselessness.
At least three versions of the map exist, and in each, Fort Nonsense’s position relative to Fort Trumbull is slightly different: due west in one, a little south of that in another, and farther south in the third.
Mish said a Rhode Island man he met a few years ago compared one of the maps to a present-day map and concluded Fort Nonsense was between Squire and Linden streets, north of Willetts Avenue.
Scott Ritter, The Day’s graphics editor, digitally superimposed all three on a current map, though they probably weren’t drawn to scale. In the two credited to Lyman, the fort somehow ends up east of Montauk Avenue, between Denison Avenue and Robinson Street. But in the third, by John Hills, a British surveyor and engineer, it’s a couple of blocks south of Ocean and Willetts.
An intriguing bit of circumstantial evidence is also worth considering. In 1905, a baseball field was laid out west of Ocean and Willetts and called Cannonball Park.
“The name was suggested by the finding of a 17½ pound shot in the ground about six feet from the surface,” The Day reported. What happened to it isn’t known.
Cannonball Park is now Mercer Field. Is that where Fort Nonsense was? If not, where did the cannonball come from? Here’s one possibility.
Just before the British attacked Fort Griswold, but after Arnold’s troops had seized Fort Trumbull, the Americans in Groton and the British in New London traded fire.
“We could heave a shot into Fort Trumbull among the enemy without difficulty,” recalled Rufus Avery, a member of Fort Griswold’s garrison.
Did a stray shot land on the future baseball diamond? We’ll never know.
* * *
The Day began publishing just in time to chronicle the centennial of Arnold’s invasion, a major event that included a “sham battle” recreating the fight on both sides of the river.
On Sept. 6, 1881, Civil War veterans as the Americans and National Guardsmen as the British skirmished on Ocean Avenue at the site of Fort Nonsense, though even the reenactment location is unclear. The Day reported it was on the east side of the street and near the home of Mrs. C.C. Alger. Fifty years later, a participant recalled the site was near Bellevue Place. Those three descriptions appear to contradict one another.
For the next 40 years, writers in The Day regularly referred to Fort Nonsense’s location with an air of certainty despite sometimes talking about different places.
But here’s the thing: Those places were clustered in close proximity, all on or near the property of Mrs. Alger, which was later owned by Fleming Smith.
By the time Smith died in 1913, New London’s streets had been renumbered as they are now, so we know where he lived: 233 Ocean Ave. If that’s where the fort had been, as seems likely, there’s irony in the fact that its location has been forgotten, because the site might have become a public park.
Smith’s widow willed lifetime use of the property to a nephew, after which the city could have had it if it created what she wanted called “Helena Park.” But in 1929 the place became embroiled in a tax dispute, and the next year a judge ordered it sold.
By then known as the New London West property, it was to be subdivided, but the plan stalled amid the Depression. For a few years, the land hosted home garden plots for public relief. Houses were finally built after World War II, and the spot where the Smith house had stood is now right where Longview Street starts. That’s on the west side of Ocean, two blocks south of Willetts, as on the Hills map.
Next door, at the corner of Ocean and Longview, is a Colonial Revival house built in 1870 by Douglas Gardner to replace his family homestead, which had burned down. In 1898 Fleming Smith bought the property, according to a New London Landmarks document.
Mish found a footnote in a 1903 booklet about Arnold’s invasion that concerns Gardner’s grandfather, Walter Harris, who had lived in the previous house “on Town Hill, near Fort Nonsense.”
“When Arnold came by he recognized him, hailed him as a traitor, and further relieved his mind regarding his conduct,” the note says, “for which he was taken prisoner and sent off with the rest.”
A footnote in a different book links the Smith house to the fort. “The Battle of Groton Heights,” published in 1870, says this about the house’s construction at an unspecified date:
“When the excavation was being made for the cellar, several relics of its revolutionary history in the shape of round and grape shot, deeply eaten by rust, were exhumed.”
The most specific reference to the fort’s location is by The Day’s history writer R.B. Wall. In 1918 he said the fort was on the “west side of Ocean avenue, west end of lot south of the Fleming Smith house,” which would put it on high ground behind the Gardner house.
No one was more surprised to hear that than Andrea Brooke, who bought the house in January. A native of England, she’s new to the region and its history but eager to learn more about the fort.
“I can’t stop talking about it to people,” she said.
Barely a decade after Wall placed the fort behind what’s now Brooke’s home, reports about the tax dispute next door don’t mention it once. By then it had apparently faded from public consciousness.
But if we assume the earlier consensus about the location was the heir of living memory, we can say, with a little more precision, that Fort Nonsense stood not at Ocean and Willetts, but somewhere near Ocean and Longview.
In 1908, Wall ventured a suggestion: “Some citizen, or the city, should mark the spot on which the fort stood while its exact location can still be pointed out.”
Yes, that sure would have been a good idea.
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