New Haven

Elm City rebellion

New Haven’s Powder House Day has an unlikely hero.

Robbie Short ’19

Robbie Short ’19

Richard K. Greenalch (center) plays Benedict Arnold in the 2016 Powder House Day commemoration. View full image

The centerpiece of Powder House Day in New Haven is a historic reenactment. That might make you think of a battle. There are uniforms and weapons involved, but what’s being reenacted is not a battle so much as a slightly heated bureaucratic dispute.

Oh, and Benedict Arnold is the hero.

It’s been an annual event in New Haven since 1904. Every April, members of the Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard gather at Center Church on the Green for a memorial service. Afterward, still clad in bright red coats, white pants, and tall bearskin hats, they spill out of the church and march to the music of fife and drums down Temple Street, down Chapel Street past a Chipotle and a Starbucks, then up Church Street to City Hall.

At the front door of City Hall, the drama begins. Two Foot Guard members, playing local militia leader Benedict Arnold and one of his lieutenants, discuss the need to stock their company with “powder and ball and flint” so they can join the rebels in Massachusetts, where the first battles of the Revolution have just been fought at Lexington and Concord. Arnold sends the lieutenant to ask the town selectmen for the keys to the powder house, where the ammunition is stored. The lieutenant returns with the news that the selectmen refuse to give up the powder, preferring to take more of a wait-and-see attitude. After a couple of increasingly testy exchanges, the first selectman (most often played by the mayor of New Haven, currently Toni Harp ’78MEnvD) appears in the doorway and explains that the powder “belongs to the Colony, and we cannot give it up without a regular order.”

“Regular order be damned,” Arnold replies. “Give it to me or I’ll take it.”

The first selectman relents. “We believe you are acting hastily,” she says, “but as you are determined to go, rather than have any further unseemly proceedings at this time when all men should stand together, we give you the keys.” She then produces a large set of keys and hands them over, to much huzzahing from the Foot Guard. Across the Green, a cannon is fired to represent the beginning of the war.

Richard K. Greenalch, an assistant state’s attorney who serves as the 67th commandant of the Second Company and plays Arnold on Powder House Day, says the Foot Guard does dozens of parades and other events throughout the year. But this one, he adds, is “central to us, because it’s such an important part of our history. It’s actually the day Connecticut joined the American Revolution.”

The real story may have been less genteel than the script suggests. “There’s the sanitized version, and there’s the tying-people-up version,” says Greenalch. “Let’s just say some of the town officials were detained.”

And how does Greenalch feel about the fact that Benedict Arnold—whose name is known almost exclusively as a synonym for treason—is the man of the hour at Powder House Day? He acknowledges that many find it strange. But he’s quick to point out that Arnold did much good for the patriots’ cause before he was passed over for promotion, became embittered, and turned to the British side. “There’s no question that he betrayed his country,” says Greenalch. “But he wasn’t a traitor when he was a member of the Foot Guard.”

This year’s commemoration will take place on Saturday, April 21. If you attend, you might well be able to raise a pint afterward with the Foot Guard. You see, the original demand for the keys didn’t take place on Church Street. The selectmen were meeting that day at Beers Tavern on Chapel Street. So, after the ceremony, the reenactors like to gather on that site, which now houses the Taft Hotel and a pub called Ordinary.

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