What’s the Deal With Colonel Ledyard?

Lieutenant Colonel William Ledyard: Revolutionary War hero, namesake of a town, and an integral part of Connecticut’s history. Today, he’s mostly known for getting stabbed.  If you were to look up Colonel Ledyard online, you’d find one sparse Wikipedia page and several sites listing the road that runs by our high school. The aforementioned Wikipedia page is only a few paragraphs long: two sentences regarding his parents, John Ledyard, Esquire, and Deborah Ledyard (also listed as the name of his wife, strangely) and a short section detailing the Battle of Groton Heights. From what little there is to read about him, you can glean that the most significant thing he did was, well, die. But fortunately for anyone trying to write an article about him, there’s more to Ledyard’s demise than meets the eye.

To understand the circumstances surrounding Colonel Ledyard’s death, one would need to know what happened during the Battle of Groton Heights. On September 6th, 1781, British troops led by General Benedict Arnold launched an attack on the city of New London. As Arnold and his soldiers approached, two warning shots- signaling an imminent attack- were sounded from Fort Griswold. However, a third shot from a British vessel changed the meaning of the signal, and it was misconstrued as a notice that a privateer ship was returning to port. The colonial militia took longer to arrive as a result.

Arnold’s first target was Fort Trumbull. The captain of the fort had orders to retreat to Fort Griswold in the case of a direct attack, so he and the twenty-three men under his command fled across the Thames River. The British sent two demands for Fort Griswold’s surrender, both of which were denied by Colonel Ledyard. The colonel’s response was allegedly (and quite ironically), “We shall not surrender, let the consequences be what they may.” 

The initial attack by the fort’s defenders broke the British troops into two units: one led by Major William Montgomery and the other led by Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Eyre. Montgomery’s unit attacked the fort from the east, while Eyre’s unit struck from the southwest. Montgomery was impaled and died during the attack, but his forces managed to enter Fort Griswold and open its gates from the inside. Ledyard called for a cease-fire and prepared to surrender the fort.

Now that all the exposition is out of the way, it’s time to talk about the whole stabbed-with-his-own-sword thing. American soldier Jonathan Rathbun described the incident in his account of the Battle of Groton Heights and the subsequent burning of New London. His description was dramatic enough to put Shakespearean characters to shame: “The wretch who murdered him [Ledyard] exclaimed, as he came near, “Who commands this fort?” Ledyard handsomely replied, “I did, but you do now,” at the same moment handing him his sword, which the unfeeling villain buried in his breast! Oh, the hellish spite and madness of a man that will murder a reasonable and noble-hearted officer, in the act of submitting and surrendering!” There is some debate over who exactly “the wretch who murdered him” is: Some accounts state that Ledyard was killed by Major (listed as Captain in another article) Stephen Bromfield, who took over Montgomery’s command after his death. Others state that the killer was Captain George Beckwith. A few things are agreed upon, however: the British continued to fire upon the troops despite Ledyard’s clear signs of surrender and initiated a massacre after his death, and the common consensus seems to be that the circumstances surrounding Ledyard’s death were murky at best. It’s believed that no one who witnessed his death survived the battle. Some who claimed to have seen him on his way to surrender did not see the actual murder take place, and many accounts (such as Rathbun’s) were recorded nearly seventy-five years after the incident.

But that’s not the end of Colonel Ledyard’s story. In 2020, an article was published in The Day newspaper revisiting the circumstances of his death. The article’s author visited the Connecticut Historical Society, which is in possession of the waistcoat that Ledyard wore at the time of his death, and came to the conclusion that many local history buffs have: Colonel Ledyard did not die from a stab wound to the chest. He died from a stab wound to the side. That might not seem like it makes much of a difference- his goose was cooked either way- but it calls the time-honored tale of the colonel into question. If he didn’t die surrendering, what happened?

There are multiple theories regarding the real cause of his death. One is that he died defending himself, which his waistcoat seems to corroborate: there’s a tear in the fabric along his lower back that isn’t matched in the front, suggesting that he was in motion when he was stabbed. Another is that the murder weapon wasn’t his sword, but rather a bayonet. The holes in the waistcoat are similar to those that would be made by the bayonets carried by the British on their ‘Brown Bess’ variety of muskets. Ledyard may also have been killed in the massacre that followed the surrender of the fort.

Whatever the case may be, the story of Colonel Ledyard is more complex– and perhaps more interesting– than it seems.

Senior Erin Wilkinson is a staff writer for the 2021-2022 yearbook. When she isn’t drawing or writing, she enjoys listening to music and spending time with her friends.

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