The Shaw Mansion
The Shaw Mansion is rich with history. It was built by Captain Nathaniel Shaw beginning in 1756. In that year French refugees from Nova Scotia arrived in New London with few resources and few choices. Captain Shaw put them to work cutting the granite ledge on his property overlooking the Thames River to erect his granite mansion dwelling.
Twenty years later Captain Shaw and his family were hosts to General George Washington, who was moving his army from Cambridge to New York in April 1776, via New London. Shortly after that, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., a major revolutionary and First Selectman of the town at the time, was named as Naval Agent for Connecticut, and the house became naval headquarters for Connecticut’s state navy as well as close to fifty privateers working out of New London.
New London eventually paid for their success at privateering when Benedict Arnold came to town with a force of 1600 British, German and loyalist soldiers in 1781, burning the town and attacking the force of defenders at Fort Griswold overlooking the harbor on the opposite side of the river. The Shaw Mansion was one of the few structures near the harbor to survive the attack.
The house was owned by five generations of that one family — inherited by a great-granddaughter of the builder in 1795, Lucretia Shaw Woodbridge, it became the Perkins house by her marriage to Judge Elias Perkins — the Mansion was sold to be the headquarters of the New London County Historical Society by Jane Perkins in 1907. This is a very early example of historic preservation in the United States and unique, at the time, of being associated with a historical society.
What follows are two chapter from a book written in 1933, Connecticut’s Naval Office at New London: During the War of the American Revolution, by Ernest Rogers. The prose is somewhat stilted and flowery, as might be expected of the time, but the information shared is well researched and useful:
The Shaw Mansion
By Elizabeth Gorton
(Written in 1933)(In September1901 upon urgent solicitation, Miss Elizabeth Gorton became Secretary of the New London County Historical Society. The Society is grateful for the thirty-two years of faithful, devoted and conscientious service continuously rendered as Executive Secretary and also for this article which by reason of her association with the Shaw Mansion and long experience as a writer is so ably produced. E. E. R.)
The Nathaniel Shaw House in New London; Connecticut, commonly known as the Shaw Mansion is an old historic homestead, owned by a public organization, interested in its past, its present and its future. As one enters New London on the post road from New York and drives through the business section, the house is plainly visible across Perkins’ Green, a small parklet separating it from Bank Street. Before the highway was laid out over Long Bridge, the gardens of the Shaw and Perkins families were directly in the street path. Formerly, there was a sandy beach opposite the house and an unobstructed view of Shaw’s Cove and the upper harbor. Now, the building faces a busy street lined with stores and the constant hum of modern traffic resounds through the once quiet neighborhood.
Miss Jane Richards Perkins, who passed away March 26, 1930, at the age of eighty-six years, distinctly remembered the open water front, within a stone’s throw of her front door, where she kept her rowboat, and spent many happy childhood hours. She was the last lineal descendant of the original owner to occupy the ancestral home, and also the last surviving member of a family of fourteen children.
The changes made to the interior of the house, by her father, Dr. Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, which he considered improvements, are deeply deplored by people of a later generation. The wainscoting in the long parlor, and the chimney piece of wood, were taken out; the room was plastered, and a marble mantelpiece was put in place of the original one. The original stairs were narrow, and the mantelpieces were undoubtly high, to allow for the large openings in the chimneys.
Dr. Perkins and his family lived in a house standing a short distance back from Bank Street a little farther up on the same side as the stone house, until he inherited the latter from his father, Judge Elias Perkins. When he moved down to his inheritance, Miss Jane R. Perkins, the youngest member of the family, was carried as a child in her father’s arms. The passing years brought inevitable changes. The one who came to old homestead as a little child lived to witness the passing away of all other members of the immediate family, leaving her and her niece as the sole inheritors of the property and a wealth of valuable material. After the change of ownership, her love for the old home never waned, for it was full of sacred associations, and she never ceased to think of it as her own property. Until the time of her passing, a portion of the house was reserved for her personal use, and she came and went with the freedom of one perfectly at home.
Many times, in a reminiscent mood, she has lingered in her former dining room, now used as a library and office, and revealed intimate touches of family life to the writer of this article as she lived over again, in imagination, many well remembered events of the past connected with life at the Shaw Mansion. Among these was a vivid word picture of one evening in May 1861, when two of her brothers returned from a mass meeting in the old Court House, held in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops to preserve the Union, to their parents they had volunteered. The details were made so real that the listener momentarily seemed to become an eyewitness in the large parlor on that eventful occasion. As a sequel, it is interesting to know that the following year, Lieutenant William W. Perkins, only twenty-one years of age, was killed in action at Kinston, North Carolina. The other brother, Major Benjamin R. Perkins, died at Fort Whipple, Arizona. Their crossed swords and one sash are hanging their portraits in their boyhood home.
The room known to visitors as the Washington room, was always Mother’s room to her. Her graphic descriptions of family events, both of joy and of sorrow, which had occurred there and in other parts of the house, were very realistic. Until failing health prevented her from doing so, she always claimed the happy privilege of arranging flowers in that room, and helping to make other preparations, when there were special social events at the Shaw Mansion. At her own request, made many years ago, her funeral services were held in the old home she loved so well. After her death, it was learned that she had made a very generous financial bequest to the Society, in addition to the family portraits, and some furniture – including that in the Washington room, which, as a loan, had long been among the chief attractions in the house.
Nathaniel Shaw, Sr., ship master and ship owner, during whose life the house was built, and whose name it bears, was a native of Fairfield, Connecticut. He came to New London as a young man and for many years was a sea captain in the Irish trade. The first known local reference to him is that made by a contemporary resident in his diary under date of November 7, 1732:* “Natt Shaw Master of the Norwich Scooner came in from Ireland & have had the Small Pox in their passage, Absolom King Jonathan Douglas (who was Shaw’s mate) & Shaws Brother & two Indians died 5 out of 15.” On August 23, 1741, the following entry was made concerning his wife: “Temperance Shaw took into the Chh.”
In 1734, Shaw purchased from George Denison of Westerly, the land on which the Shaw Mansion stands. It was originally a portion of the Picket house lot. Brewer Street, opened through this lot in 1745, was known as Picket Street. He resided in a frame dwelling, in the rear of the present house until the winter of 1756. On January 21 of that year, a ship arrived from Nova Scotia bringing three hundred French Acadians, including both men and women. In retrospect, this bit of Acadian life within its borders forms a golden link binding together the early history of the Shaw Mansion and that of the primitive town, with the life history of these “simple Acadian farmers” so vividly depicted in Longfellow’s story of Evangeline. At the time, their presence in the town brought the civil authorities face to face with a real problem of unemployment, a fact well authenticated by the following quotation from Joshua Hempstead: “In the evening I was at G. R. with the Rest of the Civil Authority & Selectmen to consider how to Dispose of the French Neutrals.”
It was an inauspicious time for this large band of exiles to earn a livelihood. Captain Shaw graciously came to the rescue allowing them to remove a large portion of the granite ledge from his property, and build him a substantial stone residence. A visit to the cellar reveals the interesting fact that the house, literally, is built upon a rock-hewn foundation. For a century and three quarters, it has withstood the countless storms which have beaten upon it. Mere antiquity, however, does not constitute the only charm of the Shaw Mansion. To enable one to visualize it, some technical details are necessary but they are of secondary importance and will be given simply as a background for the people who have dwelt there and the history which centers in it.
Originally there was a wooden wing on the house. The outside door leading into it was always left unfastened, for according to Captain Shaw’s orders, when the house was built, the original owners of the soil were not to be debarred from entering. A fire was kept burning in the huge fireplace, and the wood was piled high at night. In the morning, it was not unusual to find that several Indians had spread their blankets in front of the open fire and spent the night in comfort.
During Dr. Perkins’ life, the porch was added and the old wooden wing was taken down and one was built of stone, similar to that in the main house. His office, now used as a work room was on the ground floor, adjoining a small, square entry having an outside door, from which a, short pathway leads directly to the street. The wing is quite complete in itself as a place of residence. It contains two stairways, upper and lower halls and three outside entrances, the one in the kitchen, and one in the rear of the hall opening directly into the garden. There are two rooms on the main floor, four in the second story, and a modem bathroom. It is now occupied by resident caretakers, while the main house is open to the public.
The house stands a short distance back from the street, with a broad flight of brown stone steps leading to the main entrance, which is slightly to the left of the center. It is surrounded by a lawn, with spacious grounds in the rear, and is enclosed, in front, by an artistically designed fence of wrought iron. Extending across the entire front of the main structure is a porch one story high, supported by seven square posts of wood, with ornamental iron work between them. The roof, including that of the wing, is surmounted by a balustrade of wood. The front doorway is recessed with long side lights of glass in three panes, and three wide panes above the door. It opens into a central hallway, extending through the house. This is widened in the rear to accommodate the stairs, which ascend on the left side. From the door at the end of the hall a winding path through the garden leads up a gentle slope to an octagonal shaped summer house which, like an ever watchful sentinel, is perched on the highest part of a granite ledge. From this vantage point, in olden times, the incoming and outgoing ships were easily discernible.
Built into a grassy bank near it is an ancient root cellar, called the muggs, formerly used for the preservation of roots and vegetables. This is so tomb-like in appearance that it was used, during a pageant, in August, 1924, to represent the tomb of Washington. Lafayette advancing reverently, laid a wreath upon it as one feature of a century party, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of his visit to the Shaw Mansion. A group of people, impersonating old time residents of the house, who apparently had stepped from their frames in the portrait gallery, welcomed him once again to their home as he arrived in an old-fashioned coach, accompanied by his Secretary.
On the first floor, in the main house, there are four rooms, opening into the central hallway. The main stairway, having a newel post, banisters (two on a tread) and a rail of mahogany, has one quarter turn, with a small landing, and leads into a large square hall, or salon, which was used as a family sitting room. From the large double windows in the rear, there is an extended view of the grounds.
On its walls are ancient portraits of people identified with the early history of the house. Among them is the stately portrait of Lucretia Shaw, heroine of Revolutionary times, and a full length portrait of Judge Elias Perkins, who entertained General Lafayette in 1824. The portrait of Madame Temperance Shaw hangs near the entrance to the room occupied by General Washington when he was a guest in her home. Arrayed in her old time costume, with white neckerchief and cap, she sits with placid expression in a large winged chair, with spectacles in one hand, and the other hand resting upon the open Bible in her lap, the personification of genial hospitality.
Hanging beside that of his mother is a life-size portrait of Thomas Shaw. He is represented as rather stern of visage, sitting by an open window in his home, through which one catches a glimpse of Shaw’s Cove, and the harbor beyond. Tongue’s Rocks, standing like a gateway in the cove. His youthful and attractive sister, Mary Shaw Woodbridge, in her colonial dress of white satin, is pictured standing out-of-doors against a background of sky and foliage. People of a later generation, who also belong in the family group, are represented in portraiture on the same walls. Permanent picture plates of brass, appropriately lettered, have been placed on the frames enabling one to ascertain “who’s who” in this unique and valuable collection of portraits.
Opening into this square hallway, there are five bedrooms, now used for exhibition purposes. The bathroom opens out of a short passage-way connecting the main house with the annex.
On the third floor, in the main house, there are six rooms, including two under the eaves, also a square hall, with a stairway leading to a dark, low attic under the roof, having two skylights of wood. The walls throughout the house are plastered, and most of them are covered with wall paper. Five of the mantels are of black marble and two are of wood. The window sills are deep and the inside shutters fold into the window casings.
At the outbreak of the War of the American Revolution, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., a man of great wealth and influence, had succeeded his father as head of the Shaw Mansion. He was commissioned by John Hancock, President of Continental Congress, to serve as Naval Agent at New London, and had charge of fitting out all war vessels making port there, and of caring for disabled ships and sick and wounded sailors. He was a member of the committee of five appointed to draft resolutions condemning Parliament for closing the port of Boston in 1774. As a member of the Committee of Correspondence he was in constant demand for consultation with the Governor and Council of Safety in frequent sessions at Hartford, for he was an authority on naval affairs.
His home, the Shaw Mansion, was used as a naval office for Connecticut. Locally, it was the center of authority. Most of the distinguished strangers and, official guests visiting the town were entertained there. Governor Trumbull, who was an intimate personal friend of the family, was always the guest of the Shaws when he came to New London from the war office in Lebanon. Much valuable manuscript material relating to the Revolutionary War period, including correspondence with General Washington and others regarding naval affairs was carefully preserved in the family archives. A portion of it has been presented to Yale University, and some of it, including five letters from George Washington to Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., has been given to the New London County Historical Society.
Because of its strategic situation near the entrance of Long Island Sound, New London was able to be of great service to the country. It was on the direct road from Boston to New York and Philadelphia, and people, passing through, would stop at the naval office, the Shaw Mansion, for the latest news and rumors.
In the midst of the busy and turbulent days of the Revolutionary War period, Lucretia Shaw was the constant companion and helpmate of her husband, Nathaniel, sharing with him the experiences of service and sacrifice. The Shaw Mansion, over which she presided, always famous for its hospitality had become an important center of action, and a place where many deep laid plans were made. Large things were required of her. Both Mr. and Mrs. Shaw were in the very prime of life. He was forty years old and she was about two years younger. She was a woman of large wealth and social position, living in the midst of conditions affording unusual opportunities for patriotic service.
When New London was burned one hundred and fifty-two years ago, the Shaw Mansion caught fire, but was saved by a neighbor who poured some vinegar from the scuttle down the roof and extinguished the fire. An article in a local newspaper, late in 1781, paints a graphic word picture of conditions at that time which clearly portrays the devotion of New London people to the victims of war and those sick with gaol fever. It says in part: “The little portion of this town that was preserved from fire on the 6th of September is so crowded with those that have been burned out of house and home, that it is dreadful indeed to take these poor, infectious, dying people in. In short, if there is no redress of this intolerable evil, this town and Groton must be depopulated. It is enough to melt the most obdurate heart to see these miserable objects continually landing here from every flag (of truce) that comes; to see them poured out upon our desolated wharves, sick and dying, and the few rags they have on covered with vermin, their friends, if they have any, at a distance, and no public hospital or provision made to receive them. Thus it is that the compassionate among us are compelled by their dying groans to take them into their families at the expense of their lives, without the least recompense in this world, notwithstanding, whole families have been ruined by this means.”
Despite the danger to herself, Lucretia Shaw took into her hospitable home some of the sick and friendless prisoners landed under her husband’s supervision. She was most impartial in her ministrations to the suffering. “With an open hand for want, a pitying eye for suffering, a loving kindness to solace and a Christian love to comfort,”* she found abundant opportunity for helpfulness. On December 11, 1781, she paid the price of her kind deeds, with her life. It is a most fitting tribute that Lucretia Shaw Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, has chosen her name for their organization.
Her husband’s death occurred the following April, sometime before the welcome news of peace. In the “Towne’s Antientest Buriall Place” they were laid side by side, and the place is marked by a double tomb stone. They lived in stirring and crucial times, and well deserve the local fame they have acquired.
One of the interesting incidents connected with the Shaw Mansion is Washington’s visit to it. He came to New London as a young man 24 years of age, and again, twenty years later. Although holding the office of Commander-in-Chief, he arrived on horseback without ostentation, attended by two officers and his faithful colored servant. He spent the night of April 9, 1776, at the Shaw Mansion as the guest of Captain Nathaniel and Madame Temperance Shaw, also Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., and his wife Lucretia. The room in which he slept is a never ending source of delight to visitors. The chimney end and one entire side of the room are paneled and the floor boards are wide. Antique furnishings of the colonial period, including a mirror which reflected the face of Washington at the time of his memorable visit, add to its attractiveness. Unfortunately, the original mantel was among those replaced by marble.
Nathan Hale was a friend of the family, and a frequent visitor at the home of Mr. Shaw, who was a trustee of the Union School and instrumental in securing Hale as a teacher. There is said to be still in existence a letter written by him to a young woman, who was a guest of the Shaws. In it he invited her to accompany him and watch the sunset from the rocks behind the Shaw house. The letter was found among the possessions of one of her descendants, and was sold to a collector for $975.00.
On Sunday, August 22, 1824, General Lafayette was a guest, for a few hours, in the same home. In the morning, on his way from Saybrook, he was met in Waterford by a committee of citizens from New London, and escorted to the mansion of Judge Elias Perkins, who had offered to entertain him.
Upon his arrival at the house, Lafayette was received with a national salute of twenty-four guns from Fort Trumbull. While there, he was taken to the Washington room. It is said that he knelt at the bed-side in silent prayer, and then withdrew. He attended service at the Congregational Church, where Rev. Mr. McEwen officiated, and at St. James Church, where Rev. Mr. Judd was the rector. He returned to the home of his host, and received a few callers, after which dinner was served at three o’clock. Seated with him at the table was a small circle of friends, including General William North, General Ebenezer Huntington, General Burbeck and Dr. John R. Watrous. After dinner, he departed with his suite for Norwich, on his way to Boston. It was a day never to be forgotten in the history of New London and the old stone house. The plain, substantial dining room table of mahogany, around which Washington, Lafayette and many other persons of distinction have feasted in that home of bounteous hospitality, is treasured as a priceless heritage by the present owners of the property.
It is with a feeling of unusual interest that one acquainted with the history of the Shaw Mansion ascends the brown stone steps and enters the house visited by George Washington, General Lafayette, Nathan Hale, Commodore Hopkins, “Brother Jonathan” Trumbull and many others distinguished in the revolutionary service, and in various walks of life.
It is a significant fact that the house remained in the same family for a period of one hundred and fifty-one years, being occupied continuously by successive generations of the Shaws and Perkins. In 1907, the crucial time arrived when it must change ownership. Its fate was in the balance. Could it possibly be saved, or must it be sold for business purposes? One by one most of the old colonial houses in New London which had escaped the traitor’s torch had been destroyed, until those worthy of preservation were few and far between.
Among the most valuable of the buildings extant was the Shaw Mansion. Certain members of the New London County Historical Society determined to take the initiative in the matter, and attempt to preserve for future generations this place so closely associated with colonial and revolutionary history, and, at the same time, secure a much needed home for the Society. Under the leadership of Hon. Ernest E. Rogers, President of the Society, and largely through his initiative and personal solicitations, the entire purchase price of thirty-three thousand dollars was secured by individual gifts and public subscriptions in less than three months. The prompt and generous response to the appeal for funds was ample proof that the task was undertaken at the psychological moment. Events of the years intervening since the fulfillment of that vision comprise a separate and interesting story.
Rescued from commercialism, the Shaw Mansion, bearing over its entrance the name of the New London County Historical Society, now bids a silent welcome to all visitors. If endowed with the faculty of speech, it could relate many interesting tales of bygone days and reveal many visions for the future. In historical significance and possibilities for future usefulness, this ancient homestead is second to none in the State of Connecticut.
A civilian walking along the waterfront in New London during late August 1781 might have been hard pressed to find visible signs of the hardships occasioned by six long years of war. Three new privateers were fitting out, and the captains were having little difficulty signing on crews of “Gentlemen Seamen and Landsmen, desirous of serving their Country and adding to their fortunes.” Numerous prizes had been brought in during the last two months, and an interested reader would have found the following announcement in the Connecticut Gazette for August 31:
To be sold at Vendue at New London on Thursday the 6th of September next, the fast sailing Prize Sloop Hibernia. Now lying at Edward Hallam’s Wharf-about 70 tons Burthen, mounts 10 Carriage Guns, fit for a Privateer or Letter of Marque, also, a Number of 3 and 4 pound Cannon.1
The most important recent event was the arrival of the prize ship Hannah. On July 31, Captain Dudley Saltonstall, in the brigantine Minerva, captured this vessel, which proved to be the most valuable ship taken by a Connecticut privateer during the war. With its cargo of West Indian goods and gunpowder, appraised at about 80,000 pounds sterling, its capture caused great rejoicing among the merchants, and doubtless many of them treated the lucky crew to a round of flip or hot buttered rum at one of New London’s many taverns. 2
Not everyone in New London was concerned with the profits to be made from the sale of prize goods. A small number of merchants and farmers, lured by the prospects of British gold, engaged in illegal trade with the enemy. The feeding of the British army at New York, the supplying of the towns on Long Island, and the demand for manufactured articles in Connecticut, naturally made good markets. Whaleboats and other small craft slipped out of the harbor and adjoining inlets under cover of darkness to engage in this secret trade. In addition, many traders conveyed the latest intelligence on the state of affairs in the harbor to the British. 3
Ledyard, now holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, was aware of the situation, and had been authorized to maintain several armed boats for patrol duty. But, as usual, he lacked the resources necessary to maintain a proper vigilance, as the following communication indicates:
The illicit trade is of late carried on very briskly for want of men in our garrisons has prevented our keeping out our Boats. One of our Boats from Fort Trumbull last fryday cam athwart a Boat at Plumb Island, belonging to New London Great Neck, with a quantity of flour, two ferkins of Butter, sixty sythes, etc. which we took and brought off, the men made their Escape … 4
Ledyard’s difficulties were further complicated by the activities of those armed boat captains over whom he had no control. Many of these individuals, in addition to their cruising duties, had been authorized to “go on shore on Long Island to act against the enemy there.” They abused their commissions, however, and “under colour and pretext thereof … unjustly and cruelly, plundered many of the friendly inhabitants there,” and brought off their effects. As a result of numerous complaints, the governor and Council of Safety, on January 23, 1781, revoked all armed boat commissions. This act left Colonel Ledyard entirely to his own devices in attempting to stop illicit trade. 5
Prior to the revocation of their commissions, the armed boat crews had conducted numerous raids across Long Island Sound against Loyalist strongholds. One of the largest of these havens for Loyalists was Fort, Franklin, a stockade located on Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island-nearly opposite the Sound from New London. From here organized groups of “loyal militia” conducted raids against the residents of the Connecticut coast. These militia were largely composed of men who desired to aid the King, but declined regular military service. Instead, they chose to fight in their own way, under a loose authorization that instructed them to plunder only “rebels” and allowed them to keep whatever they seized. Because so many of their attacks were launched under cover of night, the slogan “owls and ghosts and thieves and Tories” came to be closely associated among most residents of the Connecticut coastline. 6
In practice, many of the raids were small scale – seizing sheep, poultry, cattle, corn – but that did not lessen the rising hatred between the two parties. In the words of Claude Halstead Van Tyne: “A natural result of this method of attack was to invite retaliation by the Whigs and to help evolve that hatred of the Tory which persisted long after the other wounds :1 of the war were healed.” 7
The activities of the “Board of Associated Loyalists” (as they were called after 1780) at Fort Franklin were a major annoyance, and on two occasions sizeable raids were launched against it. On the evening of September 5, 1779, Major Benjamin Tallmadge led an expedition of 150 dismounted Light Dragoons against the stockade. In the attack he captured most of the garrison without suffering any casualties, but accomplished little else. Two years later, on July 12, 1781, a small force of American and French regulars attacked the fort, but were repulsed. 8
There is some indication that Governor Trumbull had been planning to launch an expeditionary force against Fort Franklin from New London, but the British raid of September 6 abruptly halted the arrangements. At a meeting of the Council of Safety on August 22, 1781, he read a letter he had received from General Samuel H. Parsons, which described the defenses of Lloyd’s Neck in detail. Following this he discussed the possibilities of such an operation, and his proposals met with the approval of Thomas Mumford of Groton, who was in attendance. On September 8, 1781, Trumbull wrote to Mumford:
The Project lately proposed in Council, when you was present, being, on this Occasion, in some Degree revived and brought under Consideration (to return the blow), I have to request you will at your Discretion, somehow with Secrecy discover and communicate Intelligence easily as may be; what suitable shipping may be probably engaged and employed for the Service at New London will not the Commanders of the three Brigantines, and other Armed Vessels be ready to attempt the Enterprise.9
At the time of the British raid, an impressive number of privateers were available in New London for Trumbull’s proposed expedition, including the Hancock (18 guns, 100 men), Mary Ann (12 guns, 30 men), Active (10 guns, 60 men), and the Gamecock (4 guns, 30 men). After the British descended on the town, however, most of these vessels were in no condition to implement Trumbull’s plan, as Mumford’s reply to the goverrnor on September 9 indicated:
I can give your Excellency no encouragement from our privateers, the Two Brig’t I am concerned in are sunk/ to save them/ their Sails and Riggin all consumed in Stores, one other has no guns, so that only one remains fit for duty, unequal to the plan proposed.10
Although the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, had considered raiding New London before, the demands of the campaign farther south had always held a higher priority. In early September 1781, however, conditions changed when Clinton received intelligence that Franco-American naval and land forces were heading for the Chesapeake, clearly indicating an attack on the army of Lord Cornwallis in Virginia. Forced to abandon his preparations for an attack on Newport, Clinton decided to hold his army in New York, but as he “was unwilling that the preparations for that service should be wholly lost, without some attempt being made to annoy the enemy’s coasts and some endeavor to cause a diversion somewhere,” he issued marching orders for the attack on September 2. 11
Clinton’s decision was as much out of a desire to satisfy the demands of his vocal subordinate Benedict Arnold as it was out of any recognition that a military diversion was needed. Arnold had been earnestly seeking an independent command since his defection to the British in September 1780. Egged on by a desire to assert his new loyalties and prove his military merit, the “Dark Eagle” criticized Sir Henry’s inactivity. As early as December 1780 he had volunteered to lead two warships into New London harbor to capture a 500-ton prize vessel, and in subsequent months he urged raids on either New London, Providence, or Boston.  His frustrations were outlined by a friend, William Smith, in his diary on August 25:
I visited Arnold. He is greatly disconcerted. None of his propositions of Service are listened to, and he despairs of anything great or small from Sir H. Clinton, whom he suspects at prolonging the War for his own Interest. He wants me to signify Home his Impatience, his Ideas, and his Overtures … 
Clinton could not have chosen a commander more familiar with his objective, for Arnold, a native of Norwich, Connecticut, had many former friends and acquaintances in New London, including Nathaniel Shaw. Contrary to the belief of many Americans at the time, there is no evidence that Arnold accepted his assignment for reasons of personal vengeance. Apparently, he viewed his new command simply as an opportunity to prove his military skills, and was determined to execute the mission with all his customary zeal.
Although there has been some speculation that Clinton planned to conduct more than a limited raid, his marching orders clearly refute that notion. The troops were to take blankets, kettles, canteens, and two days’ provisions, but were not allowed horses or tents. Clinton’s ultimate objectives were to cut out or destroy the Hannah and other prize vessels, destroy the large cache of naval and other stores located in New London, and to effect the release of dozens of British naval prisoners known to be held there. By the evening of September 2, preparations were underway, and the troops embarked on September 4. Two British officers stationed in New York, Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment of Foot (The Royal Welsh Fusiliers), and Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment of Foot (The Black Watch) both recorded in their diaries some of the details of Arnold’s expedition:
September 1: An Expedition is immediately to go against New London under the command of Arnold, to destroy some shipping, and a quantity of Stores there. It is a remarkable place for Privateers. (Mackenzie)
September 2: A number of the Small vessels belonging to the Quarter Master General’s Department went thro’ Hellgate early this Morning, to Whitestone, where they are to receive the troops going with General Arnold. (Mackenzie)
September 2: An Expedition going on Under Arnold supposed against Connecticut.
The 40th. 54th. & 38th. Regts., Robinson & Buskirks Provincial Corps all assemble at Newtown this day, & Embark tomorrow at Whitestone … (Peebles)
September 3: The Amphion and Recovery went safe thro’ Hellgate at 10 this Morning. Those ships, with the vessels already in the Sound, are to Convoy Arnold’s Expedition. (Mackenzie)
September 4: The Expedition under Arnold sailed this Morning from Whitestone at 5 oClock, with a fair wind. (Mackenzie)
Arnold’s force of 1732 men and officers was transported by 24 vessels, including the warships Amphion, Recovery, Beaumont, and Lively. The bulk of the force was composed of three regular British “Regiments of Foot” -the 38th, 40th, and 54th, and a detachment of Hessian Yagers. The rest of the force was composed of Loyalist units-Arnold’s own” American Legion,” the 3rd Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers, and the Loyal Americans. In addition to those troops that embarked from New York, about 120 men, under the command of Colonel Joshua Upham, joined him at sea. These were part of the Loyalist Refugee Corps stationed at Lloyd’s Neck, and were composed largely of the armed boat crews who had harassed the Connecticut coast so many times before.
Clinton made sure to provide a nucleus of veterans, both regular and loyalist. The 40th Regiment of Foot had seen action at Fort Washington, fought at Princeton, participated at the Brandywine, and held the Chew House at Germantown, the defense of which figured prominently in the American defeat. Most recently much of the regiment had been stationed in the Caribbean, with a tour of duty as marines aboard Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s fleet. The 54th took part in the expedition against Charleston in 1776, fought in the Battle of Brooklyn in August of that year, and participated in the defense of Rhode Island against the attack of the French fleet under Count D’Estaing during July and August of 1778. Perhaps most significantly, the 54th had participated in Governor William Tryon’s raid on the Connecticut coastal towns of New Haven, Fairfield, and Norwalk in July 1779. The 3rd Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers, largely composed of men of Dutch descent from Bergen County, had seen action with Clinton in all his major campaigns since 1778, and had received numerous citations for unit discipline and performance. In the words of Adrian Leiby: “At a time when all too many Tory refugees were content to sit…drinking their ale and complaining of the government, Sir Henry was understandably delighted with his Bergen County Dutch Loyalist troops … who made up a larger number of his provincial soldiers than many a whole colony had supplied, and … acted like veterans.
Arnold’s transports arrived off the harbor about one o’clock on the morning of September 6, but due to a sudden shift of wind to the north, were unable to anchor until about 9:00 A.M. This more than eight-hour delay destroyed the element of surprise for which Arnold had hoped. Sergeant Rufus Avery, who was on sentry duty at Fort Griswold that evening, spotted the fleet about three o’clock, and reported his sighting to Captain William Latham, the fort commander. Latham in turn informed Colonel Ledyard. When Ledyard arrived, he immediately sent off express riders to spread the alarm to the militia companies, and ordered alarm guns to be fired from the fort. Sergeant Avery, who fired one of the cannon, wrote:
Capt. William Latham took charge of one gun that was discharged at the northeast part of the fort, and I took charge of the gun on the west side of the fort, so as to give a “larum” to the country …. We discharged the regular “larum.” Two guns was the regular “larum,” but the enemy understood that, and they discharged a third gun similar to ours and timed it alike, which broke our alarm, which discouraged our troops coming to our assistance.
The effect of Ledyard’s alarm guns was largely eliminated by the British firing of a third cannon. This was a clever stunt, for it was well known that three guns was the signal given when a prize ship arrived-quite a different warning than a hostile fleet! This three-gun signal had been so often heard in the surrounding countryside that it caused little stir among the militia, whose subsequent tardiness in arriving had disastrous results. Avery Downer, a resident of Preston and an assistant surgeon for the 8th Regiment of Connecticut Militia, later recalled its effect: “I well remember the morning of the alarm two guns from the fort in a given time was the alarm. This the enemy well understood, and they fired a third, by which we in Preston were deceived, being fourteen miles distant.”
The sighting of Arnold’s fleet near the Lighthouse (some three miles from town) caused mixed reactions among the townspeople. Many supposed that it was just another plundering party, after livestock on nearby Plumb Island. Others, including the privateer captains, decided to assume the worst, as Arnold’s report indicated:
As soon as the Enemy,were alarmed in the Morning, we could perceive they were busily employed in bending sails, and endeavoring to get their Privateers and other ships up Norwich River [Thames], out of our reach, but the wind being small, and the tide against them, they were obliged to anchor again.
Colonel Ledyard had no doubts about their intentions, as the result of a little known piece of intelligence he received the day before. Captain David Gray, a spy for Washington who had come into the confidence of General Clinton as an “agent,” rode into Fort Griswold on the evening of September 5 and informed Ledyard that “arnol [sic] lay in huntington harbor with a number of men and no dout if the wind Should Bee fair he would visit newlonnon Before morning the next morning. Ledyard had known Gray since 1778, when that agent had informed him of the activities of British spies in the region.
In the seven hours between the sighting of the fleet and the first landing of British troops about 10:00 A.M., hectic preparations were underway to meet the expected attack. Ledyard had decided to concentrate his efforts on a defense of Fort Griswold, and did all in his power to gather recruits. He did not have much to work with, and all the inadequacies heretofore mentioned were painfully clear to him. The regular garrisons of Griswold and Trumbull combined could muster some fifty men. He concentrated his efforts on getting local militia, and seamen from the privateers, into the fort to augment his defenses. Privateersmen were of particular value, for many were trained gunners who could have served the cannon in the fort. Neither would respond in any numbers, and by 9:00 A.M. Ledyard had only about 140 men at Griswold.
Ledyard’s inability to get volunteers was not surprising. In the case of the militia, he had to contend with their fear of being trapped in a closed work, with no avenue of escape. With the seamen, however, his requests were simply ignored, as they chose to look out for their own safety or that of their vessels.
Lacking men to impress recruits, he even resorted to the desperate measure of firing on some of the privateers as they fled up river, but to no avail. Several of New London’s prominent citizens, in a letter to the new commandant of the harbor in April 1782, cited reasons for Ledyard’s difficulties:
if the late worthy Col. Ledyard had only fifty good men in the Fort under his absolute command, he with them might have empressed and compelled into its defense two or three hundred seamen and others…. But instead of this he was as a man without hands, and could get none into the fort only by persuasion. He gave out his positive orders for all seamen to repair over to the Fort…. But he was neglected with impunity. He was disobeyed because the laws are not adequate for the punishment of disobedience of orders….
In addition to his futile attempts to secure recruits, Ledyard had to make up for the lack of powder and supplies by quick “requisitions.” The powder needed by his garrison was available in abundance in New London, but was part of the Continental stores. Acting on Ledyard’s authority, Guy Richards, Commissary at New London, sent over 900 pounds of powder to Fort Griswold. This task was carried out by John Holt, a ship joiner and storekeeper for Captain John Deshon. When Holt arrived at Fort Griswold, he stayed with the garrison, and was killed in the assault that afternoon. Other supplies were also sent, including twenty-four barrels of beef, “well pak’d and pickled.”
At about ten o’clock Arnold’s troops landed in two divisions of about 800 men each, one on each side of the harbor. On the Groton side, where Arnold believed he would meet the stiffest resistance, he sent his best soldiers-the 40th and 54th Regiments of Foot, half of the Hessian Yagers, and the 3rd Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers. The Groton Division was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre, who was also regimental commander of the 54th. The New London Division, under Arnold’s direct command, contained the 38th Regiment of Foot, Colonel Upham’s Refugees, the American Legion, the Loyal Americans, and the rest of the Yagers.
Captain Daniel Lyman map of New London Harbor, 1781.
The British met no resistance to their landing on the Groton side, but in New London, it was a different matter. A mixed force of civilians, militia, and privateersmen drifted down to Brown’s farm, near the Lighthouse, to fire at the soldiers as they put into boats to come ashore. This group, though small, had some distinguished members, including Captain Seth Harding (late captain of the Continental frigate Confederacy), Captain Charles Bulkely (commanding the sloop Active, then in the harbor) and Captain John Deshon. Their bullets were met by a cannonade from the armed vessels Association and Colonel Martin, belonging to Colonel Upham’s command, which Arnold had delegated to cover the landing. One of the sharpshooters, John Hempstead, wrote:
I got there Sometime Before they landed and there was But About forty men arm’d. Wee watted while the enemy was maning there botes. After they were all mand they Opend there brode Sides upon Both Shores, and all landed under ther Cannon whos balls flew over Our heads like hale Stones untill they ware alllanded.
Arnold prudently chose to land his Yagers first, who quickly spread out, took cover, and secured the beach. About 120 of these green coated Hessians accompanied the expedition, and unlike the rest of the troops, carried rifles. These soldiers were expert marksmen, and were generally used in flanking parties or as advanced guards. Using American “frontier” tactics, they exchanged shots with Hempsted and the others, who, being few in numbers and afraid of being trapped, quickly fell back. As they did so, the rest of the British landed, formed in columns, and advanced at the slow march.
The British columns, with Colonel Upham’s Refugees and sixty Yagers in advance, proceeded up the Town Hill Road (now Ocean Avenue) to New London Center, a march of about three miles. They were met along the way by sporadic musket fire from the militia, but nothing as effective as that which the British had faced on their retreat from Concord in 1775. In fact, the militia were notoriously inaccurate, and during the whole afternoon the British only suffered twenty-two casualties, eight of these being men captured. The lack of an organized defense was due to the absence of a central command, and the undisciplined nature of the “soldiers” themselves. One observer, fifteen year old Jonathan Brooks, captured the confusion as the would-be defenders sought a course of action:
At the head of the road we fell in with about one hundred citizens, volunteer soldiers armed and equipped. My father dismounted and joined them. The party then fell into conversation about how they should manage, having no commanding officer. Some who had no experience in war matters were for fighting at any odds … but Captain Nathaniel Saltonstall, who once commanded the ship Putnam, said … “I will not be such a fool as to stand here open breasted and be shot down by the very first volley of the enemy’s fire.”
While the group was talking with Saltonstall, Colonel Joseph Harris, commander of the Independent Militia Companies in New London, rode up. On his appearance the group took heart at the possibility of some kind of leadership. Instead, the Colonel informed them that, “You must excuse me gentlemen, as I have a violent sick-headache this morning, and can hardly sit my horse.” With that, he rode off, and the group, following Saltonstall’s suggestion that “each man take care of himself, and get a shot at the enemy as best he can,” dispersed. So much for organized leadership in New London!
About eleven o’clock the main British column came within half a mile of Fort Trumbull. At this point General Arnold detached four companies of the 38th Foot, under Captain Millet, to attack the fort. Millet was joined by a company of the American Legion commanded by Captain Nathan Frink, a Loyalist from Pomfret, Connecticut. Frink, an aide to General Arnold, was assigned as a guide to the column, for he was well familiar with the town. Had he come under less trying circumstances, he might have spent a pleasant visit with his sister Lucy, who was then residing in New London.
Millet’s column met only token resistance from the men at Fort Trumbull. The fort had not been designed to deal with a rear assault, and in that quarter, only 3-6 pounder guns were mounted. In any event, little could be expected from Captain Adam Shapley with a command of only twenty-three men. Captain Shapley charged his pieces with grape shot, and after firing a single volley at the enemy’s approach, spiked them and took his command to Fort Griswold. During this brief skirmish the British suffered five casualties, and Shapley had a man wounded by musket fire as his command crossed the river.
Concurrent with Millet’s assault on Fort Trumbull was Arnold’s own attack against Town Hill Fort. At the time of the attack, the fort mounted 6-12 pounders, which if properly manned could effectively cover both the rear of Fort Trumbull and the main roads into the town. When Arnold approached, however, only a few militia and townspeople were gathered inside. Their fire, though brisk, was hindered by the presence of their own militia between the enemy and the fort. John Hempsted was near the fort at this time, and later recalled that, “When the forts opened upon the Enemy the Shot fell Short, and wee ware between two fires.” Hempsted continued his retreat, even taking the time to help a friend hide a case of “holland jinn” in a nearby patch of weeds. The rest of the defenders fled, but one remained in the vicinity long enough to yell out, “Wilkom God damyou to fort NonSence” as the British entered the fort.
While Arnold directed the attack on “Fort Nonsense,” Coloonel Upham’s command proceeded to move against Post Hill, on the northern edge of town. The unhindered flight of some of the American ships disturbed Arnold, who hoped that artillery fire from this hill would sufficiently cripple them to enable his soldiers to reach and destroy them. His plan of coordinating the efforts of army and navy in destroying the shipping was foiled by the early alarm, as the report of Captain John Bazely, commander of the frigate Amphion (and commodore of the fleet) indicated:
The armed vessels and boats I immediately afterwards ordered to be put in preparation under the direction of Captain Shepherd of the Recovery, to proceed up the River and act in conjunction with the army, at any moment their assistance was required to and in effecting the destruction of the port of New London … which would have finally taken place, but for the alarm guns … by this means I was deprived of getting hold of their shipping at anchor in the stream, which … proceeded … up the river so far as to prevent by any possible means my taking or destroying of them.
Colonel Upham captured the hill about noon, suffering two casualties in the process. Here his command endured a heavier fire, as his report discloses: “This height being the outpost was left to us and the Yagers. Here we remained, exposed to a constant fire from the rebels on the neighboring hills, and from the fort on the Groton side, until the last was carried by the British troops.” Once situated on the hill, the Colonel directed the fire of a six pounder brought with the column against those ships still in range. This effort, along with the fire from the captured guns at Fort Trumbull, did not succeed, for the wind came up again and the tide changed, thus enabling the vessels to escape upriver.
The entrance of Arnold’s men created a scene of great confusion. Civilians who had not responded to the early alarm now made desperate attempts to gather their valuables and exit as quickly as possible. Jonathan Brooks was caught in their midst:
… when I came to the head of the cove the street was so crowded with the fleeing women and children, all loaded with something, that I had to move slowly. They inquired where the enemy were. I said “they will be among you within five minutes if you delay.” Their loading was soon thrown down, and they started on a quick pace.
Some individuals, however, took advantage of the chaos to plunder the public stores. The warehouses along Water Street, which contained the cargo of the Hannah, were looted. As young Jonathan Brooks stood by his home, waiting for the arrival of the Redcoats, five or six “shabby looking fellows” passed by shouting “by God, we’ll have fine plunder by and by.” Soon after this he heard a great noise from the direction of the warehouses, and upon mounting a nearby fence to get a look at the cause of the commotion, noticed some “thirty or forty people were loading themselves with plunder and scamping [sic] off.”
Americans were responsible for most of the plundering of private property. This was evident to the first historian of the tragedy, Francis Caulkins, who wrote: “It was afterward well understood that most of the spoil and havoc in private houses was the work of a few worthless vagrants of the town, who prowled in the wake of the invaders, hoping in the general confusion not to be detected.” Because of the great destruction wrought by the raid, however, it suited the purposes of American propaganda to charge these crimes on the British. On September 13, the Norwich Packet claimed that, “some houses were plundered; the soldiery seemed to be under no regularity, and everyone was at liberty to commit what devastation he thought proper.”
Arnold expressly forbade his soldiers to plunder private property or to molest the inhabitants. For the most part these orders were obeyed, but the provocation provided by sharpshooters from the houses triggered some incidents of wanton destruction. On Manwaring’s Hill, where the British had been harassed by sharpshooters and the fire of a small fieldpiece, the detachment that captured the position ransacked the nearby home of Robert Manwaring, and set fire to it. Fortunately for the owner, the fire was extinguished by a passerby before any real damage could be done. On other occasions, the Yagers, operating independently of supervision, succumbed to temptation and stuffed their packs with “necessaries.” On September 14 the Connecticut Gazette advertised the contents of the pack of one Hessian who had the misfortune to be captured:
Found in a prisoner’s pack, taken the 6th instant, 3 small pieces Holland, a small piece of scarlet broadcloth, a common prayer book, a cheeked linnen handkerchief, a comb and a pair of scissors. In the same pack were sundry articles of plate and jewelry, for which owners have appeared. Also found … an American Ensign.
With the town secure, Arnold could direct his efforts to destroying all property of military value-the real objective of the raid. In order to accomplish this most effectively, he organized several torch parties, and took care to see that each had at least a few members familiar with the community. He had little difficulty in arranging this, for many Connecticut Loyalists were with the expedition. One of these was Daniel Lyman, a native of New Haven and a Yale graduate, who had served as a local magistrate until the outbreak of the war, when his loyalties forced him to leave his home. His family, like so many others, was divided by the conflict-his sister was the wife of Peter Colt, Assistant Commissary General for the state of Connecticut.
The torch of destruction was first lighted at the north end of town. During the assault on Post Hill, a flanking party from Upham’s column set fire to the house of Captain Picket Lattimer, who commanded one of the Independent Militia Companies from New London. If we can believe John Hempsted, the fact that Lattimer’s house was the first to be burned is rather ironic in light of the following:
I maid my way to quaker hill, and there I found I should say 5 hunderd men, sum arm’d and sum no armes. Whild I was there majer Darrow Came Riding Down, and Said to the men why the Devel don’t yoo Go down and meet the Enemy? Picket Latimer sd as he was there that he would not Resk his life to Save other mens property, tho he was Capt. Of the Endependent Company att that time.
The destruction of Lattimer’s home was soon followed by the burning of the town mill and printing office on the northern edge of Winthrop’s Cove. From here the British went on to Winthrop’s Neck, where they systematically destroyed all the property there save one private residence. Leaving the Neck, the torch parties moved south along present day Main Street, laying waste to several private residences and outbuildings, the most valuable being that of General Gurdon Saltonstall, who lost his house, two stores, a shop and a barn.
Whereas the sparks were kindled on the northern end of town, the real inferno began with the destruction along Water and Bank Streets, where the most important shops and warehouses were located. On Water Street, Arnold personally supervised the incendiary activity, which proved to be the most devastating of all. Here ten or twelve vessels were burned at their moorings, one of which contained a large quantity of gunpowder, unknown to Arnold. The results he outlined in his report: “The explosion of the powder, and change of wind soon after the stores were fired, communicated the flames to part of the town, which was, notwithstanding every effort to prevent in, unfortunately destroyed.”
Arnold’s claim that the firing of part of the town was accidental was not accepted by the townspeople, who looked upon the event as another example of his perfidy. The Norwich Packet captured the sentiments of the time:
There is the greatest absurdity in this part of the narration; for in many instances where houses were situated a great distance from any stores, and contained nothing but household furniture, they were set on fire, notwithstanding the earnest cries and intreaties of the women and children in them; who were threatened with being burnt up in their houses if they did not instantly leave them.
The Packet account clearly goes to extremes, for there is no evidence to show that Arnold personally condoned wanton destruction, or that he viewed the burnings with the apparent satisfaction of a Nero. Contrary to contemporary propaganda, several incidents support Caulkins’ contention that, on the whole, Arnold’s orders were given “with some reference to humanity and the laws of civilized warfare.” Where the residents remained behind to protect their dwellings, they were generally treated well. Such was the case with Molly Colt, daughter of Captain Nathaniel Colt, whose pleas on behalf of her sick father saved the house. Similar pleas by the daughter of Commissary Guy Richards saved his home. On Bradley Street, eight or ten houses were spared because the guide informed the head of the column that, “In this street there are no shops, no stores-it is the Widow’s Row.”
Arnold’s own conduct gives evidence that he tried to supervise the destruction as closely as possible, and did not authorize the burning of any buildings out of personal vengeance. He proceeded with the advance party that reached the north end of town, and from a vantage point near the First Burial Ground, observed the course of the devastation. As the efforts shifted to the town center, he changed his location, using the opportunity to direct that certain houses be spared. One of these was the home of Captain Elisha Hinman, a celebrated privateersman who was a friend of Arnold’s before the war. While in the vicinity of the Hinman house, Arnold may have had his closest brush with death. According to a widely circulated local tradition, Mrs. Abigail Hinman’s indignation over Arnold’s treason outweighed her gratitude, and while viewing the scenes of destruction around her, she became so angry at him that she seized a gun, aimed it and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. This incident prompted 19th century Arnold biographer Isaac Arnold to write: “The Lord did not on that day deliver Sisera into the hands of this modem Jael.
The destruction in New London was largely completed by mid-afternoon, and it was extensive. In the center of town, the market wharf, old magazine and battery, courthouse, jail, Episcopal church, and several neighboring shops were all destroyed. South of town the devastation was just as complete-all the boats and fishing craft, and several houses and shops, were destroyed along Long Bridge Cove. Several prominent merchants suffered heavy losses, including Edward Hallam, Joseph Packwood, and Nathaniel Shaw. Shaw’s own stone mansion was set afire, but the blaze was extinguished by a neighbor before much damage was done. Not even the homes of reputed loyalists were spared, for such an act might have caused patriot reprisals. According to legend, Arnold ate dinner at the home of James Tilley, a Loyalist living on Bank Street, but even before they rose from the table the building was in flames over them. In all, 143 buildings were consumed by the flames, including 65 houses, 37 stores, 18 shops; 20 barns, and 9 public and other structures. Some 97 families were left homeless.
The British left New London about four o’clock. Throughout their stay they had been harassed by musket fire, but the Americans would not interfere with their activities due to lack of numbers. As the British pulled out, they pursued them, encouraged by the prospect of a fleeing enemy. Eight prisoners were taken, mostly Hessians, who were probably stragglers. During the afternoon the Americans lost four killed, and ten or twelve wounded.