NEW LONDON, Conn. — They don’t take treason lightly here in this modest seaport city. Each year around Sept. 6, the town marks the anniversary of that black day in 1781 when the traitor Benedict Arnold ordered the burning of New London, just a few miles downriver from his hometown of Norwich.
Following Philadelphia’s lead, New Londoners first burned Arnold in effigy the year after his British troops attacked the city. The public spectacle inspired annual “Burning of Benedict Arnold” events in cities across the country. Derron Wood likes to call it “the original Burning Man festival.”
Wood, the artistic director of New London’s Flock Theatre, was researching local history when he came across stories about these Benedict Arnold street festivals, which were popular through much of the 19th century. This year Wood’s theater company presents its sixth annual “Burning of Benedict Arnold” festival on City Pier, as part of the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival.
The procession itself takes all of 15 minutes or so, with costumed townspeople parading the traitor’s likeness — which is literally two-faced — to the waterfront site where they torch it. But locals come streaming out of the bars to join the revel, and there’s a big party afterward.
If you can’t make it to the burn, you can join the Flock Theatre actors later in September, when they travel to Norwich to present the one part of their Arnold puppet worth saving — its leg — to the historical society for a ceremonial burial. (While still fighting on the American side, Arnold was wounded in the second Battle of Saratoga. There’s a “Boot Monument” at Saratoga National Historical Park, which celebrates the valor of “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army,” without naming him.)
There are plenty of other reasons, at any time of year, to visit the New London area in search of Arnold’s dark legacy. The British attack on the city is described in a smart exhibit in the museum at Fort Trumbull State Park, near the mouth of the Thames River on Long Island Sound. Across the river, on a steep hill in the city of Groton, the 135-foot-tall Groton Monument — a granite obelisk that predates the Bunker Hill Monument – stands in memory of the dozens of patriots who died in a brutal bloodbath while defending Fort Griswold.
The Flock Theatre began as a street theater troupe in Cambridge in the late 1980s. A few years later Wood moved to New London to teach, and he brought the Flock with him. Next year will mark the theater company’s 25th year in Connecticut, producing annual Shakespeare festivals, unique tributes to the playwright (and New London cottage owner) Eugene O’Neill, and more. After years of free-floating, it is moving into its new home as the resident theater company of Mitchell College.
Until Wood hit upon the idea of reviving the Benedict Arnold festival, recent generations of local students knew little about the history, says Victor Chiburis.
“Now I’m a junkie,” says Chiburis, who has been a Flock actor since childhood. At 26, he’s the company’s assistant artistic director.
The area still has plenty of reminders, if you know where to look. There are tributes to a 14-year-old boy soldier, the youngest American to die at Fort Griswold, and the family that lost 11 members during the British attack on New London.
“It’s not just dates and figures. You learn about the emotional elements of history,” says Wood. “Who’s telling these stories nowadays?”
If Arnold’s name remains shorthand for treason, few contemporary Americans realize that he was a genuine war hero before he became a turncoat. His ingenious tactics during the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776 kept the British from gaining control of the waterways from Quebec to Manhattan, which would have isolated New England from the rest of the colonies.
But Arnold “lived in the messy and highly emotional moment,” as Nathaniel Philbrick has written. Angry about being slighted for promotion by the Continental Congress, desperate for money, and influenced by his loyalist second wife, he switched sides and became the enduring poster boy for treason.
Norwich native Regan Miner recently created the Benedict Arnold Walking Trail, a self-guided tour of nearly two dozen sites of historical interest. Arnold’s father, who bankrupted his family’s legacy and became the town drunk, frequented the Leffingwell Inn, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the state. The small Norwich cemetery where Arnold’s mother and other family members are buried once had a gravestone for a Benedict Arnold — the name of an older brother who died in infancy. It was destroyed by angry townspeople soon after the surviving Benedict defected.
Miner, who works with both the Norwich Historical Society and the New London County Historical Society, calls herself “the weird kid who loved history.” Of her efforts to step up her hometown’s history game, “I have a lot of goals,” she says.
Among other things, she organizes an occasional “History and Hops” pub crawl, and she recently convinced a local brewery, Epicure, to create an IPA in Arnold’s memory. It’s called “Damned Yankee.”