At 8 p.m., the bomb ship Terror opened fire on the Borough of Stonington. The small group of men at the Grasshopper Fort responded with the two 18 pounders. Bombs and rockets rained down on the town. The 16-star banner flew defiantly over the small Grasshopper Fort lit by the light of the red glare of Congreve rockets. The bombardment continued until midnight. The men of Stonington not at the fort created a fire brigade and were able to extinguish all the fires that the incendiary rockets and bombs had started. That night the men slept on the ground by their guns awaiting the dawn.
The following morning the British again opened fire on the town. This was the beginning of a major British offensive. The Pactolus crept up the east side of the point while the Dispatch moved straight in to within half a mile of the shore. The American defenders quickly moved one of the cannon to the east side of the point to ward off any attempted landing. At this point, reinforcements arrived from Mystic led by Jeremiah Holmes who had been schooled in gunnery by the British after he had impressed into the Royal Navy.
On arrival at the Grasshopper Fort Holmes saw the Dispatch close to shore. This was his chance to get his revenge against the hated British. He immediately ordered one of the 18 pounders to be double-loaded. Aiming carefully, using a heavy iron bar to move the gun carriage to where he wanted it, he lit the fuse. The cannon jumped back with a roar, the two shells traveling at over 800 feet a second. They struck the Dispatch about 3 seconds later with tremendous impact, one above the waterline, and the other below. The defenders cheered.
But the Dispatch with its ten port cannon now loaded loosed a powerful broadside. Shells from the Dispatch’s guns blasted the 16-star flag from its pole and it fluttered to the ground. Dirt from the breastworks exploded as shells struck the Grasshopper Fort. Yet the small group of defenders fought on until they ran out of gunpowder. The men rescued their downed flag, spiked the cannon, rendering them inoperable and retreated amidst the taunts of the British Navy carrying across the water: “We want balls; can’t you spare us a few?” The defenders, their clothes begrimed with powder and dirt, their eyes burning, and face blackened shouted back, “When the powder comes, you shall have enough.”
One of the men suggested that they take the flag with them to protect it from British capture. Jeremiah Holmes objected, “No. That flag don’t come down while I’m alive.” He shouted. Grabbing a hammer and some nails he’d used to spike the cannon he hoisted little Dean Gallup onto his shoulders. The two men stood nailing the flag to the pole as shrapnel flew around them.
For more than an hour, the British fired unimpeded on the defenseless town until fresh gunpowder was found. Then Holmes and his men returned to the barricade and drilled out the cannon. The firing between shore and ship continued nonstop for four hours. The Dispatch was hit many times, started to list. Her hull was leaking below the waterline and she was forced to retire. In the meantime, the Pactolus had run aground with Commander Hardy on board and she was forced to throw tons of ammunition and supplies overboard to lighten the ship. The British assault had failed.
Although this was not the end of the battle, the young defenders celebrated as though they had already won, waving their hats in exultation their brave hearts filled with pride. The 16-star banner shot through seven times by British cannon fire still waved in defiance over the Grasshopper Fort.
During this lull in the fighting two town magistrates, in an attempt to find out Hardy’s intentions, rowed out to the Pactolus. Hardy welcomed them politely, even pointing out the couch where, he said, “Lord Nelson lay in his death after I had given him my parting embrace.” Hardy then told the men of Stonington that they had been accused of manufacturing torpedoes which had been used against British ships. He also demanded the release of the wife of the British vice-consul James Stewart in New London. Hardy gave the town until 8:00 the next morning to deliver Mrs. Stewart or else. Discouraged the men rowed back to the town with the news to prepare for another attack.
But the next morning came and again Hardy seemed reluctant to resume the attack. The town magistrates, under another flag of truce, informed Hardy at 8 a.m. that they could not affect a release of Mrs. Stewart and Hardy extended the ceasefire until noon, saying that if the authorities did not bring Mrs. Stewart on board by then, he would destroy the town.
At noon, the British launched a renewed assault with bombs from the Terror. This time she was able to launch her bombs from so far offshore that fire from the Stonington cannon couldn’t reach her. The defenders were once again forced to retreat from the Grasshopper Fort and worked as a fire brigade in the village.
After a few hours, the British bombardment stopped. It seemed that the battle might be winding down. But the next morning before dawn the bomb ship Terror opened fire as both the Pactolus and Ramillies worked their way in closer to the Point. The two ships then fired three tremendous broadsides at the town. The broadsides were so badly aimed that almost all the shells flew over the town to land in a marsh. The two ships then drew away from the shore and again anchored in deeper water. The bomb ship Terror fired an occasional shell until noon when the firing stopped.
On Saturday morning the enemy ships one by one hosted sails, weighed anchor, and proceeded up Fisher’s Island Sound. The citizenry of the town watched as the British warships disappeared over the horizon. The Battle of Stonington was over.
The Battle of Stonington has become so imbued with the myth that now over two hundred years later many of the mysteries surrounding the event are still unresolved. None of the Stonington defenders were killed during the battle although one man died later from an infected wound. Only a few houses in the Borough were destroyed while the British suffered a number of causalities. The battle itself had little strategic importance to the war but none the less was a great boost to American morale.
American poet, essayist, and editor, Philip Freneau known as the “poet of the American Revolution wrote this poem about the Battle of Stonington.
Four gallant ships from England came,
Freighted deep with fire and flame,
And other things we need not name,
To have a dash at Stonington.
Now safely moor’d, their work begun,
They thought to make the Yankees run,
And have a mighty deal of fun,
In stealing sheep at Stonington.
A deacon then popp’d up his head,
And Parson Jones’s sermon read,
In which the reverend doctor said,
That they must fight for Stonington.
A townsman bade them, next, attend
To sundry resolutions penn’d,
By which they promised to defend,
With sword and gun old Stonington.
The ships advancing different ways,
The Britons soon began to blaze,
And put th’ old women in amaze,
Who feared the loss of Stonington.
The Yankees to their fort repair’d,
And made as though they little cared,
For all that came–though very hard,
The cannon play’d on Stonington.
The Ramillies began the attack, Despatch came forward–bold and black–
And none can tell what kept them back,
From setting fire to Stonington.
The bombardiers with bomb and ball,
Soon made a farmer’s barrack fall,
And did a cow-house sadly maul,
That stood a mile from Stonington.
They kill’d a goose, they kill’d a hen,
Three hogs they wounded in a pen–
They dash’d away,–and pray what then? This was not taking Stonington.
The shells were thrown, the rockets flew,
But not a shell, of all they threw,
Though every house was full in view,
Could burn a house at Stonington.
To have their turn, they thought but fair;–
The Yankees brought two guns to bear,
And, sir, it would have made you stare,
This smoke of smokes at Stonington.
They bor’d Pactolus through and through,
And kill’d and wounded of her crew
So many, that she bade adieu
T’ the gallant boys of Stonington.
The brig Despatch was hull’d and torn–
So crippled, riddled, so forlorn–
No more she cast an eye of scorn
On the little fort at Stonington.
The Ramillies gave up th’ affray,
And, with her comrades sneaked away.
Such was the valor on that day,
Of British tars, near Stonington.
But some assert, on certain grounds,
(Besides the damage and the wounds,)
It cost the King ten thousand pounds
To have a dash at Stonington.