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This Day in History: Benedict Arnold, a hero before he was a traitor

On this day in 1775, Benedict Arnold and his company of foot guards demand the keys to the New Haven powder house. They’d heard about the action at Lexington and Concord, and they wanted to join the fight.

Yes, this is the same Benedict Arnold who later became a traitor to the American cause. During the early stages of the American Revolution, he was anything but a traitor. To the contrary, he was a genuine American hero! If he’d been killed early in the war, his reputation would undoubtedly be quite different from the one you are used to hearing.

Arnold was commanding the Second Company, Governor’s Foot Guard when news of the Battle of Lexington reached New Haven. Fifty-eight of his Guard immediately voted to help the Patriot effort outside Boston. The next day, April 22, the men gathered on the New Haven Green. They were ready to go!

The assembled men received a blessing from the Reverend Jonathan Edwards. They were in full dress and prepared to depart, except for one thing: They needed gunpowder and other supplies. Unfortunately, the town selectmen had already voted not to offer military assistance in Massachusetts.

Arnold would need to get around these timid town leaders. He marched to the door of Beer’s Tavern, where the town selectmen were then gathered.

The details of what happened next have become a little muddled over time, but the selectmen apparently decided to send David Wooster, the head of the New Haven militia, out to meet with Arnold (his fellow Mason).

Wooster would later die a hero during the war. But at this point in 1775, he was not yet ready to give the powder house keys to Arnold. He thought that Arnold should wait for regular orders.

Arnold, however, was never one to wait around. He reportedly shouted at Wooster: “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” He insisted that he would break down the door in five minutes if Wooster did not hand him the keys. The town leaders finally relented. Arnold’s men let themselves into the Powder House, where they armed themselves before embarking upon their three-day march to Cambridge.

The anniversary of Arnold’s action is still celebrated in New Haven, Connecticut. Happy Powder House Day to those of you in the Elm City!

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