A month before the British surrender at Yorktown ended major fighting during the American Revolution, the traitor Benedict Arnold led a force of Redcoats on a last raid in his home state of Connecticut, burning most of the small coastal city of New London to the ground.
It has been 242 years, but New London still hasn’t forgotten.
A crowd of several hundred revelers, some in period costume, marched through the city’s streets Saturday evening chanting, “Burn the traitor!” before watching as officials set Arnold’s effigy ablaze for the Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival, recreating a tradition that was once practiced in many American cities.
“I like to jokingly refer to it as the original Burning Man festival,” said organizer Derron Wood, referencing the annual gathering in the Nevada desert.
For decades after the Revolutionary War, cities including New York, Boston and Philadelphia held yearly traitor-burning events. They were an alternative to Britain’s raucous and fiery Guy Fawkes Night celebrations commemorating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when Fawkes was executed for conspiring with others to blow up King James I of England and both Houses of Parliament.
Residents “still wanted to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, but they weren’t English, so they created a very unique American version,” Wood said.
The celebrations died out during the Civil War, but Wood, the artistic director of New London’s Flock Theatre, revived it a decade ago as a piece of street theater and a way to celebrate the city’s history using reenactors in period costumes.
Anyone can join the march down city streets behind the paper mache Arnold to New London’s Waterfront Park, where the mayor on Saturday cried, “Remember New London,” and put a torch to the effigy. The crowd chanted “U-S-A” as the life-sized Arnold burned.
Ellen Warfield, of Mystic, brought her 9-year-old son, Lucian Bace, because she said their ancestors fought in the Revolution and she hoped to get her son excited about the history that surrounds him.
“It’s wild to show the kids something like this,” she said. “You get to see it in real life, rather than see it play out on TV. They spend too much time on their screens today.”
Lucian had a singular focus.
“I just can’t wait to see them burn that man,” he said. “Burn that turncoat!”
Arnold, a native of nearby Norwich, was initially a major general on the American side of the war, playing important roles in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Saratoga in New York.
In 1779, though, he secretly began feeding information to the British. A year later, he offered to surrender the American garrison at West Point in exchange for a bribe, but the plot was uncovered when an accomplice was captured. Arnold fled and became a brigadier general for the British.
On Sept. 6, 1781, he led a force that attacked and burned New London and captured a lightly defended fort across the Thames River in Groton.
After the American victory at Yorktown a month later, Arnold left for London. He died in 1801 at age 60, forever remembered in the United States as the young nation’s biggest traitor.
New London’s Burning Benedict Arnold Festival, which has become part of the state’s Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, was growing in popularity before it was halted in 2020 because of the pandemic. The theater group brought the festival back last year.
“This project and specifically the reaction, the sort of hunger for its return, has been huge and the interest in it has been huge,” said Victor Chiburis, the Flock Theatre’s associate artistic director and the festival’s co-organizer.
The only time things got a little political, Chiburis said, is the year a group of Arnold supporters showed up in powdered wigs to defend his honor. But that was all tongue-in-cheek and anything that gets people interested in the Revolutionary War history of the city, the state and Arnold is positive, he said.
In one of the early years after the festival first returned, Mayor Michael Passero forgot to notify the police, who were less than pleased with the yelling, burning and muskets firing, he said.
But those issues, he said, were soon resolved and now he can only be happy that the celebration of one of the worst days in the history of New London brings a mob of people to the city every year.
A mob that included a very satisfied 9-year-old.
The coolest part was “probably the head falling off,” Bace said. “I really liked it.”