To most Americans, Benedict Arnold is the nation’s most infamous turncoat, and his name synonymous with treachery. But on Saturday, New Haven celebrated Powder House Day — a local holiday honoring Arnold for his patriotism.
Each year, Arnold plays a central role in Powder House Day, a local remembrance of the Elm City’s early involvement in the Revolutionary War. On April 24, 1775 — 243 years ago — the Elm City received news of the battles fought in Lexington and Concord and responded to a call to action, beginning its involvement in the war against the British. Led by then-Capt. and revolutionary hero Arnold, the Second Company Governor’s Footguard demanded access to the city’s stores of gunpowder and joined fighting in Massachusetts.
On Saturday, the Company, a historical state military organization that now performs a purely ceremonial function, marked the historic moment with a daylong celebration that began with a service at Center Church on the New Haven Green and continued at City Hall with the annual reenactment of the demanding of the keys to the Powder House, which stored the gunpowder the command needed to before it could go fight.
“We commemorate an important day in Connecticut history,” said Commandant Richard Greenalch, Jr. of the Second Company Governor’s Footguard. “Our first commandant of the Second Company was Benedict Arnold … he called for a vote of the foot guard and 58 of the members decided to join their embattled brothers up in Massachusetts.”
Before Arnold’s notorious betrayal, he was a heroic fighter for the rebel cause. Upon hearing news of the battles in Massachusetts, he demanded the keys to the powder house from the city’s selectmen, similar to the city’s current alders, so that his command could come to the aid of Connecticut’s sister colony. The selectmen were more guarded, asking Arnold to wait for more information. In a huff, Arnold threatened that his men would storm the powder house if they were not granted access. The selectmen finally gave Arnold the key, and he and his troops marched off to Cambridge.
Greenalch, who played Arnold in the reenactment, enlisted in the Company in 1980 and has served as Commandant since 2015.
Few New Haveners know of the city’s unique revolutionary history, but Saturday’s celebrations were hard to miss for passersby. The Second Company Governor’s Footguard was composed of about 50 people dressed in tall furry hats and bright red overcoats. The Company marched out of the church after the service and circled the Green before arriving on the steps of City Hall to reenact Arnold’s dialogue with the selectmen on that fateful day in 1775.
As part of the celebrations, an empty cannon was fired. After the reenactment on the steps of City Hall, the Company performed a battalion review on the Green, where the Second Company originally trained. The celebrations this year were part of a larger New Haven event, “Wake Up the Green,” which the Company coordinated with the Greater New Haven Garden Club to celebrate spring’s arrival in the city.
“Putting it together starts tomorrow for next year,” said Capt. Jeff Clark, a member of the Company. “Since 1904, [we have been doing this,] even in inclement weather … I’ve been doing this 17 years now. This is the best one.”
A number of local groups played music for the remainder of the afternoon, including the Yale Precision Marching Band, following the reenactment, battalion review and a presentation of a citizenship award to Gary Bimonte, owner of local eatery Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
“New Haven has all this history,” said Marty Chandler ’21, who attended the celebrations on the Green with a friend. “It’s important to know that, since we’re living here for four years.”
Arnold was a New Haven merchant before his involvement with the war. He lived on Water Street.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org