“We’ll take him down and cut off his head, And then we’ll say the traitor is dead, And burn him to the ground, And burn him to the ground.”
— A popular Guy Fawkes tune reworded for Benedict Arnold as recounted in Home Grown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London by Eric D. Lehman
Benedict Arnold’s effigy is paraded through New London on a cart. A cardboard placard hanging from his neck has the word “traitor” printed in bold letters. The sound of fife and drums fills the air. Behind him walks a man on stilts dressed as the devil.
At the New London pier, the effigy’s leg, the leg wounded while he fought bravely for Revolutionary troops at the Battle of Saratoga, is removed and pardoned. Then, the effigy, which is dressed in a British red coat, is lit on fire.
It’s a scene that has played out dozens of times in the city, as Connecticut’s most infamous native son continues to suffer in spirit for his sins. This year’s Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival is Sept. 9. It starts around 6 p.m. at the historic Shaw Mansion. From there, Arnold’s effigy will be paraded to the pier by about 9 p.m., so that it is dark when the burning takes place.
The festival of retribution was first held in 1782, one year after Arnold, who was from nearby Norwich, led a contingent of British, Hessian and Loyalist troops on a brutal raid on New London and Groton.
The attack resulted in the burning of New London — more than 140 homes, buildings and businesses were destroyed — and the taking of Fort Griswold across the river in Groton. More than 80 Americans were killed at the fort, many in cold blood after having surrendered to the attacking British forces.
Arnold’s burning was likely inspired by the Guy Fawkes Day celebrations New Londoners had previously observed when they were British subjects, and which included the burning of an effigy of Fawkes, Britain’s most notorious renegade.
The annual burning of Arnold spread from New London to other New England cities and towns including Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It died out at the time of the American Civil War, says Derron Wood, artistic director of the Flock Theatre, a New London theater company that has revived the tradition in New London in recent years.
Wood and his company were inspired to recreate the celebration after coming across a historical account of it and a group who helped organize it called the “Mustache Fusiliers.” After extensive research, he and the Flock Theatre performers recreated many of the elements of the traditional Connecticut festival, including the pardoning of Arnold’s wounded leg. The “Mustache Fusiliers” are recreated by Flock Theatre actors who follow the effigy of Arnold through the streets with colorful customs and cartoonish masks.
“Hundreds of people show up to watch Arnold go up in flames. The parade is very short but it feels like you’re watching a New Orleans parade,” Wood says. He adds that, as the effigy is wheeled through the town, “people come out of restaurants and they follow it in the streets.”
Born in 1741 in Norwich, Arnold was a successful Connecticut merchant captain when the Revolutionary War began. A dedicated patriot at that time, he quickly earned recognition as a skilled commander.
As the war went on, Arnold was passed over for promotions, and charged with corruption thanks to the many enemies his sometimes abrasive personality engendered. Though he was cleared of most charges, the slights against him and perhaps the influence of his loyalist-leaning second wife, Margaret Shippen Arnold, seem to have turned his heart against the cause for which he once fought so fiercely.
In 1780, he endeavored to surrender West Point to the British, a move that would have been a devastating loss for Revolutionary forces. The plot was unearthed before it could be implemented, but Arnold was able to escape with his life and served the British for the remainder of the war. As news of his betrayal spread, his name became a synonym for treachery. When he led the brutal raid in his home state at New London and Groton, his reputation was tarnished even further.
“There was a lot of hatred, especially after New London and Groton,” Wood says. “These were folks he knew. These were his friends. These were people he had grown up with. It was a backstab. The battle cry for the remainder of the Revolutionary War was ‘Remember New London.’”
Wood says Arnold’s raid left New London devastated for decades. “It really wasn’t until the whaling industry [emerged] in the 1840s that New London had a revitalization.”
Arnold survived the war and lived the rest of his life in England and its colonies. He died in London in 1801. He was 60.
In Connecticut, at least, his soul isn’t resting easy.
Each September his effigy burns yellow and white against the black backdrop of the river’s darkened water.
For more information, contact the Flock Theatre at 860-443-3119 or flocktheatre.org.