B efore he was the dictionary definition of “traitor,” Benedict Arnold was a headstrong patriot, a much-admired war hero. As a New Haven businessman in the 1760s, Arnold bristled against the British tax laws, and in 1775 he personally hastened Connecticut’s participation in what rapidly became the American Revolutionary War.
The incident is commemorated locally as Powder House Day. It’s certainly not the biggest moment in Arnold’s extraordinary life, but certainly deserves more than the two pages it gets in David Palmer’s 425-page study George Washington & Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots (2006, Regnery Publishing Inc.), or the one sentence it’s granted in eminent historian Carl Van Doren’s 1940 tome Secret History of the American Revolution: “As soon as he heard of Lexington, he assembled his New Haven company, forced the reluctant selectmen to give them ammunition, and marched off to Cambridge.”
Fortunately, the Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard—a volunteer militia unit which is an official part of the state military—offers a yearly reminder of the altercation. The unit’s Publicity Officer, Capt. Richard Keenan Greenalch Jr., declares that “this is an important part of history for Connecticut and New Haven. It marks the first time that Connecticut
Powder House Day
On and around New Haven Green.
Saturday, April 21, 2012.
Events kick off at 10:40am.
decided to join what became the American Revolution. We demanded the keys to the Powder House. The selectmen wouldn’t give them to us; they had decided the night before not to help Lexington. So the Foot Guard just took the powder. It was the first act of support [for the revolutionary movement] outside of Massachusetts. At that point, it wasn’t a choice—as far as England was concerned, New Haven was in revolt. The Foot Guard kind of edged the state in the right direction.”
This year’s commemorative march steps off on Saturday, April 21. “We’ve been doing it since 1904,” Greenalch says of the Powder House Day march, then laughs, “I wasn’t at that one.” He has, however, taken part in the annual ceremony over 30 times, and some members of the Foot Guard go back for generations. The unit itself has been in existence since March, 1775. Benedict Arnold was its first Commandant, and the Powder House incident occurred just a month after the Foot Guard’s formation. (It’s called the Second Company because until the 1870s Connecticut had two capitol buildings, one in Hartford and one in New
For years, the march began from the armory on Goffe Street, where the Foot Guard had their headquarters and even a museum space. That armory was closed a few years ago and the Foot Guard was transferred to Branford. They now do the Powder House Day march from the former site of New Haven Coliseum over to New Haven Green. That’s where the ceremony—actually a playlet, with scripted dialogue, cast with Foot Guard members and local civic leaders—takes place. The exchange includes this inspired bit of waffling from Colonel David Wooster (1711-1777), after whom New Haven’s Wooster neighborhood is named:
“Colonel Arnold, we admire your spirit, and the spirit of the men who are gathered out in front. It is an exhibition of patriotism that will be long remembered in our Colony. We believe that the same spirit exists in all our Colonies and that this spirit will carry our cause to ultimate victory. Would it not, however, be better to wait for a few days, until our General Court, now in session, can appoint the proper officers and see that the regiments already authorized are properly assembled, equipped, and ready to defend our Colony, or march to the defense of our sister Colony, which is now being attacked?
“The Foot Guard duties are largely ceremonial,” Greenalch says, “but we also offer veteran support, providing manpower for veteran funerals… one year I did 82 events.”
“Mostly, we’re involved in preserving the history of the Foot Guard, which is also the history of Connecticut.” And once every year, recalling a time when the Guard and its first Commandant were among the early firebrands of the American Revolution.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Painting above is “Benedict Arnold Demands the Powder House Key” by Morton Kunstler.