The History of Fort Trumbull

Researched and Written by:

John Duchesneau

Fort Trumbull by Seth Eastman

American Revolution (1775 - 1781)

Fort Trumbull occupies a key site in the approaches to New London Harbor. From its position it could fire upon any ship entering the Thames River and work in coordination with Fort Griswold on the Groton side of the river. Work was started on the present site of Fort Trumbull prior to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775. On October 2nd, 1775 the Connecticut General Assembly ordered that the fort be completed in response to the outbreak of the Revolution. The superintendent of construction was Colonel Erastus Wolcott.

On April 10th, 1776 Commodore Esek Hopkins of the fledgeling United States Navy was asked to emplace cannon at Fort Trumbull. These guns were captured at by the U.S. Marines at Nassau in the Bahama Islands earlier in the war.

Governor Jonathan Trumbull

On July 18th, 1777 Governor Trumbull ordered completion of the fort at New London (which the colony's assembly named after the governor). On March 25th, 1778 Major William Ledyard was placed in command of both Fort Trumbull and Fort Griswold.

Fort Trumbull in 1781 from a map made by a British officer.

The only combat in Fort Trumbull's history happened on September 6th, 1781. This was a diversionary raid to distract American and French forces from Yorktown where the British army surrendered the next month.

Fort Trumbull was garrisoned by only 23 men under the command of Captain Adam Shapley when it was attacked by British forces under the command of the infamous Benedict Arnold. In obedience to Colonel Ledyard's orders "Shapley fired one well-aimed volley, spiked the six guns, and withdrew his men in good order to several whale boats that were tied at the shore. Shapley's men rowed furiously, but by now two British ships were so far up the harbor that the men on their decks could reach the whale boats with musket shot. In fact seven of the men were wounded and one of the boats captured." (From the Connecticut History Series in the New London Historical Society Collection.)

Shapley was later severly wounded defending Fort Griswold and died on February 14th, 1782 at the age of 43.

After seizing Fort Trumbull, the British attacked Fort Griswold on Groton Heights. After a valiant defense, most of the defenders of Fort Griswold were massacered by the British. Letter from Benedict Arnold describeing his attack on Fort Trumbull.

Arnold's forces then attacked on the Groton side of the river and captured Fort Griswold.

Detailed Account of the Attack on Fort Trumbull.

Pension application of a soldier who served at Fort Trumbull during the revolution.

Post Revoultion through War of 1812

Fort Trumbull in 1830

In the 1790's Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Rochfontaine, chief engineer of the United States Army, toured the defenses of New London and recommended that both forts Trumbull and Griswold be retained by the US Army for the defense of New London.

In 1812 the old fort was leveled and replaced by a much stronger work. The second Fort Trumbull was a "second system" fort.

New Fort Trumbull (1839 - 1852)

Fort Trumbull in the Late 1800s.

In 1839 work was begun on a newer "3rd System" fort which stands today. It was primarily constructed of granite (as was the the case of most 3rd system forts in the northern states). The new Fort Trumbulll is five sided but, oddly enough, only has four bastions.

George Washington Cullum
(Steel Engraving by A.H. Ritchie)

The engineer in charge of the Fort's construction was Captain George Washington Cullum (1809 - 1892) of the Army Corps of Engineers. Cullum was a West Point graduate and had previously served as an assistant engineer at Fort Adams under the tutelage of Colonel Joseph Totten.

Cullum, like his contemporaries in the Corps of Engineers, was a man of many talents and interests. His military career spanned five decades during which he served as both a civil and military engineer and as chief of staff to Major General Henry Halleck who had served as Commanding General of the Army from 1862 to 1864. He served as Superintendent of West Point from 1864 to 1866.

The new fort was completed in 1852 and still stands today. It is a small but significant example of fortification architecture and engineering.

Civil War (1861 - 1865)

On July 14th, 1861 the 14th Infantry Regiment was organized at Fort Trumbull. The 14th Infantry was a "super sized" Regular Army regiment with 24 companies instead of the usual 10. Fort Trumbull served as the regiment's recruiting depot where troops were trained and organized before being sent to the front.

During the war units of the 14th Infantry served mostly in Virginia and fought in numerous battles and campaigns. Among the most noteworthy were the Peninsular Campaign, Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness Campaign, the siege of Petersburg. More about the 14th Infantry. History of the 14th Infantry "Golden Dragons".

Major General John F. Reynolds

Early in the war the fort was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John F. Reynolds of the 14th Infantry. Reynolds was later promoted to the rank of major general and fell at the battle of Gettysburg on July 1st, 1863.

Of course, adjustment to military life by new recruits was not easy for some. The letter below, from 1862, tells of the difficulties faced by them.

Fort Trumbull, Conn.,
November 9.

To the Editor of the Hartford Courant – Sir – Cannot something be done whereby the men now remaining at this post can get their town bounties without so much delay and difficulty? They enlist in the old regiments, and come here expecting to get their money as soon as they have been examined by the surgeon. They are examined and passed, and then they are told they must wait a little while. Well, they wait. Meantime their families are needing money. By-and-by they get a furlough to go home for three days and see about it. When they get there they learn that they must have a certificate, and they must occupy several days more in getting this and sending it on. Others learning this carry a certificate with them. But now the mode of procuring the bounty is changed. They must wait until rolls are sent on to Hartford to the Adjutant General. All this takes time, and a great deal of time too. I know of the wife of one of our recruits being turned from her boarding place while her husband was waiting for his bounty. Is not there some way by which the men can be paid their bounty more promptly? I wish you would speak about it in your paper. q. e. s

(Hartford Courant; November 12, 1862; pg. 2, col. 4.)

Colonel William Gates

From 1863 to 1864 the fort was under the nominal command of retired colonel William Gates of the 3rd Artillery Regiment. Gates graduated West Point in 1806 and had a military career lasting over half a century. Gates had retired from the Army prior to the outbreak of the war but, as the army had no pension plan in those days, he was probably given a command in honor of his previous service and to provide him with an income.

It should also be mentioned that Mark Twain's short story "A Curious Experience" was set at Fort Trumbull during the Civil War.

Post Civil War (1866 - 1915)

Fort Trumbull, Circa 1900

After the Civil War Fort Trumbull was modified to accomodate more modern weapons which were developed during the Civil War. These included 15-inch Rodman columbiads which could fire a 464 pound cannonball to a range of five miles. A "water battery" was built near the main fort to accomodate these weapons. Later on the fort recieved 8-inch converted rifles - two of which are still present at the fort.

In 1885 Secretary of War Endicott established a board of officers to study the future needs of the coast defenses of the country. The board recommended that modern breech loading rifles be installed to protect key coastal cities in the United States. As the new plans were to take advantage of the new guns longer ranges, Fort Trumbull's days as a coast defense fort were numbered.

Instead of having only two forts to guard New London, the Endicott Board envisioned a line of forts guarding the entire entrance to Long Island Sound. The forts would stretch from Watch Hill, Rhode Island to Orient Point on Long Island. They were mostly completed between 1900 and 1910.

Battery Clinton at Fort H.G. Wright

In 1901 the 2nd Coast Artillery Company was transfered from Fort Trumbull to Fort H.G. Wright on Fisher's Island. Fort Wright was a new fort armed with the modern gun batteries envisioned by the Endicott Board. This marked the end of Fort Trumbull as a coast defense fort due to the rise of more modern fortifications.

By 1902 Fort Trumbull was the headquarters post for Forts Wright on Fishers Island, Terry on Plum Island, Michie on Great Gull Island and Mansfield at Watch Hill, Rhode Island. (Fort Trumbull was chosen as the headquarters post as it was near to a telegraph station.)

After a few years, the headquarters for the Long Island defenses was moved to Fort Wright and, in 1910, Fort Trumbull was turned over to the Treasury Department for use as the U.S. Revenue Cutter Academy.

Coast Guard Academy (1915 - 1932)

Coast Guard Cadets at Fort Trumbull in 1915

Fort Trumbull was the site of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Academy until 1915 when its name was changed to the United States Coast Guard Academy. The Coast Guard Academy was important as it provided the Coast Guard with a professional officer corps to lead the Coast Guard in its diverse missions and responsibilities. The academy was moved to its current location in New London in 1932.

Merchant Marine Training Center (1939 - 1946)

Training Boats off Fort Trumbull, Circa 1940's.

From 1939 to 1946 Fort Trumbull was home to the Merchant Marine Officer Training School (OTS) program.

As this was during the second world war, the fort's service cannot be understated. Merchant ships were critical to the war effort and needed competent officers to operate them safely and effciently. Fort Trumbull helped to meet this need.

Actor Jack Lord of "Hawaii Five O" fame was a graduate. Another noteworthy attendee at Fort Trumbull was Captain Hugh Mulzac, an Afro-American Master Mariner aboard the SS Booker T. Washington (a ship with a racially intergrated crew), took refresher work at Fort Trumbull.

College Campus (1946 - 1950)

From September 16th, 1946 unitl its closing in June 1950 Fort Trumbull served as the the Fort Tumbull Campus of the University of Connecticut. This campus primarilly served World War Two veterans attending college under the GI Bill.

Naval Under Water Sound Laboratory (c. 1950 - c. 1990)

The next phase of Fort Trumbull's life would be as the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory. Being on the Thames river along with Electric Boat and the Naval Sumbmarine Base made Fort Trumbull an ideal loacation from which to develop sonar and related systems for submarines.

The book Fort Trumbull and the Submarine by John Merrill describes this period in the Fort's history in detail.

A New Beginning

8-Inch Coverted Rifles at Fort Trumbull, installed in the late 1800's.
(Image Courtesy of Fort Trumbull State Park.)

The Underwater Sound Laboratory was closed in the mid-1990's. In April of 1999 work began to redevelop Fort Trumbull as a state park. While this transformation was welcome by most, some local residents did not like the redevelopment of Fort Trumbull as this Fort Trumbull Eulogy attests.

Apparently, most of the protesters did not object to the Fort becomming a park but more to the fact that much of the surrounding neighborhood was being acquired and redeveloped with little consultation with the local residents.

Webpages related to this controversy can be found at these links -

New London Development Corporation's Description of the Fort Trumbull Project.

A tour of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood.

Newspaper Article.

A New Beginning

Fort Trumbull Hosts Operation Sail in July 2000

With renovations were completed Fort Trumbull came back to life as a public park and tourist attraction. The Fort's first major event was a reception for Operation Sail in July 2000 and in the spring of 2001 it was opened to the public for tours. Interpretive signs illustrate the major periods in the Fort's history.

On May 22nd, 2003 a memorial was dedicated at Fort Trumbull in honor the servicemen from Connecticut who served as part of the armed guard on merchant ships during World War Two.

Throughout its history, Fort Trumbull has been owned by the public for the public's benefit. This tradition continues to this day.

Operation Sail's reception at Fort Trumbull.

Fort Trumbull host Revolutionary War reenactors.

Related Sites

Commanding Officers of Fort Trumbull

Coast Defense Forts in New England

Military History of Fisher's Island


Jacob Kingsbury Records

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