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By 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.
At the conclusion of a two-act outdoor play, role players parade an effigy of Benedict Arnold through downtown New London, Conn., to the docks as part of the Flock Theatre's Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival. The drama reenacts historical events. Photo: Fred Swegles
A two-faced effigy of Benedict Arnold is the centerpiece of the Flock Theatre's annual Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival in New London, Conn. Photo: Fred Swegles
After dark, role players and local residents parade an effigy of Benedict Arnold to a pier for the fiery conclusion of a historical reenactment, the Flock Theatre's Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival. Photo: Fred Swegles
In an annual outdoor drama presented at New London, Conn., role players from the Flock Theatre describe horrific scenes remembered by townspeople from Sept. 6, 1781, when their former neighbor, one-time Revolutionary War hero Benedict Arnold, depicted at right, burned New London as a turncoat British general. Photo: Fred Swegles
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!
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!
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of reporting experience in the city. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.