Supply and Demand

Supply and Demand

Today is Powder House Day in New Haven, but unless you already knew that, you wouldn’t know it.

It was 247 years ago, on April 22, 1775—though some accounts have it a day or two later—when Captain Benedict Arnold, a Son of Liberty dressed in the scarlet red coat and ruffled white shirt of the Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, reddened some cheeks and ruffled some feathers. Sparked by news of war with the British in Lexington, Massachusetts, Arnold and his men paraded to the Green, halting near the tavern where the town selectmen had convened to decide New Haven’s loyalties. There the militiamen drilled to the sounds of drums and fifes, a show of revolutionary spirit intended to inspire or more likely pressure New Haven’s risk-averse leaders into joining this budding fight for independence.

That effort was, at first, a failure, and upon hearing the council’s decision to put off a decision, Arnold became enraged. With the persuasive power of some 60 trained soldiers at his back—and, as legend has it, a moment of grand eloquence: “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching!”—he demanded and soon obtained the key to the town’s store of ammunition, or powder house; equipped his men for the march to Massachusetts, which they summarily commenced; and joined both New Haven and Connecticut to the American Revolution.

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Thus was born, among so many other things, a holiday unique to New Haven. According to Harris Elwood Starr’s 1950 “souvenir history,” the Second Company—whose duties are now largely ceremonial, even while remaining “the constitutionally authorized State Militia of the State of Connecticut”—has been marking Powder House Day with marching, drilling, demanding reenactments since 1905. A New York Times report on the 1978 celebration frames the occasion as a kind of provincial curiosity, noting spectators’ tendency to settle down on the Green with a picnic.

As the Times did, A&E’s 2002 TV special Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor could have related Arnold’s powder house moment to a more national audience. Instead, the moment is left out entirely. My personal disappointment at that omission has been part of a larger feeling of gloominess this week (and not just about the special’s overall quality. Leafy green trees in wintertime Quebec? Kelsey Grammer in the role of George Washington? Come on). Since the Second Company’s recent habit has been to stage the reenactment as near as possible to the day itself, and since my attempts to reach the Company this week were unsuccessful, I was beginning to think there wouldn’t be a celebration at all this year.

But then, last night, I reloaded the events section of the Second Company’s website, and, even more suddenly than that 1775 bulletin from Lexington, it arrived: news of a Powder House Day ceremony scheduled for May 14, albeit on the Branford Town Green.

Good thing, too. I was just about ready to march somewhere and make a demand.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image features Morton Kunstler’s painting Benedict Arnold Demands the Powder House Key, which hangs in New Haven City Hall.

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