Fort Trumbull State Park is a state park in the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. The park preserves the site of the former Fort Trumbull military installation and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Fort Trumbull Military Reservation. It includes land that was once part of the Noyes Estate, which was given to General William Ledyard when he joined the British Army during the American Revolutionary War.
Fort Trumbull Historical Society operates a museum featuring exhibits covering the events of the siege, including a scale model of the fort, dioramas, antique weapons, uniforms, books, period photos, and audio presentations. Admission is charged, and guided tours are offered daily. The park offers trails for hiking and cross-country skiing, picnicking facilities, and access to the Long Island Sound shoreline for fishing and boating. There are plans to add a maritime museum to the complex.
The park is located at the intersection of Route 254 and the Wilbur Cross Parkway, south of the city of Bridgeport. Its main entrance is accessible via Exit 38N of the latter highway, and provides access points for the Shoreline Greenway Trail, the Southeastern Connecticut Greenway, and the Metropolitan Bike Path. The park lies within walking distance of Fairfield University’s Sturtevant Campus, and is easily accessible from the Metro North/Amtrak station serving the Fairfield branch line. The park’s principal feature is Fort Trumbull itself, a large irregularly shaped brick fortress surrounded by moats and containing numerous gun emplacements.
In 1781, just prior to William Ledyard death at the age of 62, Ledyard willed “to my friend Mr. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, and to such other friends as are interested in the welfare of our country” all of his real estate not already disposed of by his will. Among the properties so devised were two plantations with 500 acres each in Groton, Connecticut, one-third of the area known today as Grassy Hill, and an adjacent 1000 acre parcel known as Bethany Farms. One hundred years later, in 1821, these holdings were sold to Robert Noyes for $10,000 who then built upon this land the large stone mansion known as Ravensworth Castle.
After his death, the castle passed into the hands of his son Edward Charles Noyes (1803-1941), whose descendants lived there until 1941. At about that time, the property came up for sale again. This time it was purchased by the state of Connecticut for use as a military reservation named after Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Trumbull, Jr., for whom Fort Trumbull is also named. Although little documentation exists today, Fort Trumbull’s history can be traced back to its origins in 1776.
That year, following the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress had authorized the creation of a continental army. George Washington called for volunteers from the thirteen colonies to serve in what would become the largest army in U.S. history. Units of the new army were stationed throughout the Thirteen Colonies. While exact locations are uncertain, evidence suggests that some troops may have been temporarily assigned to protect the coastlines of southern New England. A camp near present-day Danbury, Connecticut, known as Camp Trumbull, was specifically set up to guard against raids by Patriots intent on disrupting trade with Canada, India, and Europe. Located along the Thames River, the post consisted primarily of soldiers engaged in building fortifications designed to resist bombardment by ships.
Other duties included hunting down deserters and enforcing discipline among the men. Following the resignation of Sir Guy Carleton, commander-in-chief of the forces in America, in December 1778, responsibility for defending the northeastern frontier devolved upon Major Generals Timothy Dwight, Jr., and Henry Knox. They were ordered to take charge of all troops in northern Maine, including those at Camp Trumbull. With only 644 officers and men under their command, they were outnumbered more than ten to one. To make matters worse, most of them were ill equipped for winter warfare; many did not even have shoes. Nevertheless, between them, Dwight and Knox managed to organize nearly 1,200 men into eight companies of infantry and three cavalry units.
On February 11, 1779, the force marched out of Camp Trumbull and headed north toward Presque Isle where they fought off a small party of French and Indians. Returning to Camp Trumbull, they found it occupied by over 2,400 men, mostly Hessians, under the command of Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Despite heavy snowfall, the troops managed to complete construction of Fort Griffin across the river from Presque Isle. Two days later, while crossing the frozen Peacock River, four men fell through the ice and were killed. Fearing for their safety, the rest of the force crossed the river the next day and established a temporary encampment. Three months later, however, the fort still lacked guns or powder magazines, and the men were suffering from scurvy. As a result, on October 25, 1780, less than half the original garrison remained behind when the rest of the army departed for Quebec.
Shortly thereafter, news reached headquarters that a large body of Patriots had taken up residence in the fort. Believing the threat imminent, Knyphausen led several hundred men from his depleted force around the rear of the fortress in order to prevent any escape by water. When this maneuver proved unsuccessful, he decided to attack the fort head-on, setting fire to buildings as he advanced. His men succeeded in entering the fort, but soon ran into strong resistance from the entrenched Patriots, fighting hand-to-hand combat in the streets of the city. Realizing that he could not capture the fort, Knyphausen withdrew, leaving the wounded and dead behind. Of the approximately 200 men who started the battle, less than 60 survived, many of them severely injured. The loss of life resulted in a high rate of casualties among the ranks, especially in the early stages of the conflict, which helped prompt the rapid decline of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-1778.
For these reasons, Fort Trumbull has come to be viewed as one of the major battles of the American revolution. Modern historians generally concur that Fort Trumbull was never directly threatened by the Patriot forces, although there is debate over whether it was ever actually attacked. Instead, the British used the fort as a base for operations in southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, hoping to draw Patriots away from Boston by creating a diversionary tactic. Ultimately, though, the British failed to gain control of Narragansett Bay, and the effort ended in failure. What exactly happened inside Fort Trumbull during the battle is still being debated, but it seems clear that both sides committed atrocities.
According to contemporary reports, British soldiers entered the fort and “committed every variety of horrid deed… butchering infants, slicing open pregnant women, committing acts of arson and rape.” These accounts were confirmed by Benedict Arnold, who, as a prisoner of war, spent five weeks in the fort in late 1781. He described in detail the torture and execution of nine prisoners of rank, and the widespread practice of using civilians to enhance their own survival. Contemporary newspaper advertisements promised rewards for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible for atrocities committed during the siege. By the twentieth century, concern grew that historical documents related to the battle had been lost or destroyed. In response, citizens and public school teachers in the region formed the Fort Trumbull Historical Society, which began preserving materials relating to the event in the mid-1950s. Preservation efforts intensified in 1957 when local businessman Edwin Lanthrop bequeathed his collection of Civil War artifacts to the society.