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By Fred Swegles

Fred Swegles

How do you react, upon learning you are a distant cousin to the most notorious traitor in U.S. history?

Tell no one? Run to the bathroom in shame? I did neither. I owned it.

I devoured four books about Benedict Arnold. Purchased a movie. Googled him, YouTubed him. Visited places he lived, worked, fought and betrayed after switching sides in the Revolutionary War. I traveled to his final residence and burial place in London.

Then I put together a song about him, reflecting the complexities of Benedict Arnold’s story—circumstances we kids didn’t learn in school.

To us, he was just the turncoat. “You Benedict Arnold!” we kids would playfully taunt each other. Now I know his side of the story—his sacrifices, grievances and disillusionment—alongside documented agonies felt by the many victims of his betrayal.

In September, I attended the seventh annual Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival in New London, Connecticut.

New London is a seaport whose privateers (pirates) harassed British shipping during the Revolutionary War. It’s a town where traitor Arnold is not fondly remembered by his former neighbors. He was born nearby, upriver in Norwich, emerging as a patriot leader and a war hero. On Sept. 6, 1781, as a British general, he burned New London to the ground while, across the river, other British troops in his party massacred Fort Griswold’s defenders.

For 100 years, New London remembered with an annual burning of Benedict effigy. Then it fell by the wayside.

In 2013, New London’s Flock Theatre revived it, scripting a two-act outdoor play in which role players relate townspeople’s personal horrors of Arnold’s inferno. An Arnold role player tries to explain himself. The verdict? For this audience, it’s always, “Burn the traitor!”

This year, two picketers showed up with signs, “Free Benedict Arnold. . . . Before he was a traitor, he was a HERO!!!” The picketers did not prevail.

From New London, I traveled to Philadelphia for the 2019 conference of the Fuller Society, a group of Mayflower descendants. My ninth-generation great-grandfather, Edward Fuller, sailed to America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower.

Photo Gallery

Each year, Fuller Society members meet in some historic venue and do history tours together.

Our 2019 meeting in Philadelphia focused on Benedict Arnold. He’s distantly related to some of us. His plot with the Brits took root in Philadelphia

Dressed in a Redcoat costume, I recited a lyrical monologue that I’d scripted, explaining how hero Arnold became disillusioned with the patriot cause and sold out for money.

Then I sang my song, a spoof on Elton John’s iconic “Bennie & the Jets.”

Fuller Society members Debbie and John Yingst, wearing period outfits, accompanied me, calling ourselves Bennie & the Yingsts.

I asked the audience: Wouldn’t it be cool if Broadway could produce a lively, stirring musical about Benedict Arnold? And who better to portray dear Bennie than flamboyant Sir Elton John, or an Elton John actor? Can’t you picture Elton, behind his piano, beneath flashing multicolored lights, singing “Bennie,” wearing a bright red King George III Army uniform?

It’s been fun, since joining the Fuller Society in 2013, pondering, every November at Thanksgiving, how my ancestors had made a very risky move to America for religious freedom, 399 years ago.

Now I also can count Bennie as part of my American heritage.

My genealogy-savvy sisters Barbara and Valerie recently discovered that our family also is descended from Edward Wightman, the last soul burned at the stake in England as an alleged heretic, in 1612.

One of our Wightmans, Abraham, was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1761, 20 years after Bennie’s birth there. Married to a distant cousin of Arnold, Abraham served in a militia that rushed to try to assist the New Londoners battling Arnold’s 1781 inferno.

How’s that for a twisty family tree?

With that said, and with apologies to Sir Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, here is my heretical parody of their song:

 

BENNIE’S WEARING RED

Headlines! Headlines! Read all about it

It’s the biggest news of the day, let’s all shout it

American history’s about to turn around

Benedict Arnold’s defected to the crown

 

George Washington, have you seen him yet?

Ooh, but he’s all decked out

Bennie’s wearing Red!

 

He looks so wild in that Red turncoat

Bennie he’s really … a sight to be seen

He’s got his British boots

He’s in cahoots

You know I read his saddlebags are full of British currency

Oh, no, B-b-b-Bennie’s wearing Red!

 

It’s me, I’m Bennie, I never got the credit

For saving Saratoga, I made those Redcoats dread it

I took a bullet … General Gates took the glory

The colonies have forsaken me, now I’ve found true love

She’s a Tory!

 

George Washington, can you see me now

Ooh, such a turnabout

Proudly wearing Red!

Oh, oh just wait, till I burn Richmond, Philadelphia will not stand

Your army’s in collapse, I’ll save your hides, perhaps

I’ll bring back law and order to this troubled land

 

Oh, oh, you’ll thank me, Bennie’s wearing Red!

 

As a brigadier general, I earned my British pay,

After burning Richmond, it’s my neighbors I betrayed

I burned New London, it’s the county where I’d frolicked in my youth

My former friends can’t stand me, but burning me in effigy’s SO UNCOUTH!

 

(pause)

 

War’s over now, and I’m London-bound

A royal welcome will be there for me

But I can’t get no respect

Brits say I’m no hero, Yanks say I’m a zero

Connecticut my home despises me

I burnt my bridges there

Betrayed my homeland where

I grew up championing this land of liberty

 

Oh, no, Bennie’s face is red

 

Bennie, Bennie, Bennie, Bennie’s face is red!

 

Bennie, Bennie, Bennie, Bennie’s face is red!

 

BENNIE!

 

Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at fswegles@picketfencemedia.com.

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comments (3)

  • I’m not sure you’re doing your relative justice, Fred, when you say Benedict Arnold did it for money (in fact, he died broke). We just republished a book by Isaac. N Arnold, who was also a descendent. In his book BENEDICT ARNOLD: HIS PATRIOTISM AND HIS TREASON Isaac Arnold suggests Arnold felt the war was a lost cause and switched sides to end the bloodshed. He later regretted his decision, saying on his deathbed, “Let me die in my old American uniform! God forgive me for putting on any other.” If you’d like to know more visit
    http://www.hvapress.com/?978-1-948697-05-7

    • Hi Gavin, thanks for the dialogue. Indeed, there is a complex set of circumstances and motivations. As I point out in the song, Bennie felt he could be a hero again, bring an end to the Contintentals’ tenuous rebellion, bring back law and order to this troubled land. That said, I am convinced he wouldn’t have done it without the money. The book “Treacherous Beauty” that focuses on the Peggy Shippen/Benedict Arnold relationship describes how Arnold became desperate for money in Philly, and when his secret negotiations with the Brits in New York broke down, he asked George for a Naval command. What if Washington had arranged it? History might be quite different. It didn’t come to be, and after six months or so, Arnold reached out again to New York asking to reopen negotiations. If he didn’t do it for the money, if it was just to end the bloodshed, why not just defect? What if Arnold’s renewed outreach hadn’t led to an agreement, which in the end was substantial, though not all he’d held out for? Afterward, in England, then in Canada and in the Caribbean, Arnold was able to attempt business ventures that for a variety of reasons failed. It’s certainly a fascinating story, difficult to try to encapsulate in a few lines. If Broadway actors were ever to do a musical, maybe they would have the space to do all of this more justice in a full-length play.

  • Here is the little rhyme that I presented in Philadelphia, dressed as Redcoat Benedict Arnold, before singing my parody song “Benny’s Wearing Red” … for readers who’d like to hear a little more from “Bennie!” It’s sort of Bennie, explaining himself, before we went into the song. My cohort Debbie Yingst of the Fuller Society had earlier presented a talk to our group on the life of Benedict Arnold and several “what ifs” that could easily have changed history.

    If I’d been killed, not just crippled, at Saratoga
    I’d be a hero across America

    Parks and schools would be named for me
    Instead, you all deplore me

    In battle, on horseback, I was peerless
    Pressing the attack, defying death, I was fearless

    I fought on with devotion
    While being passed over for promotion

    My friend George Washington did support me
    Petty politicians only tried to thwart me

    I sacrificed my business
    Then I lost my missus.

    With my mangled leg in pain
    I was asked to serve again

    George brought me into Philly
    As military governor I lived lavishly, beyond accountability

    Charges of profiteering caused me scandal
    As did my marriage to a ravishing young damsel

    My Tory wife did soothe me
    As they tried to prosecute me

    In the end I was mostly acquitted
    A reprimand left me embittered

    By then Peggy and I had reached out, Brits said they’d pay me
    So George, God help us all, I now I betray ye …

    (Then the song)

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