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Burned Into Memory

230 years after the burning of New London, reminders of that day are everywhere, if you’re inclined to look.

I once took a writing class as part of a study abroad program. I remember little about it now, except for one comment by another student, a stereotypical slacking rich boy sent away by desperate parents in a last-ditch attempt to correct his unpromising behavior. After reading an assignment of mine, which contained the sentence “I keep thinking about the Peloponnesian War,” he remarked that people who thought about history were doing so to avoid thinking of more important things, or were losers. I thought that was peculiar. Partly because everyone should think about the Peloponnesian War on occasion, but mostly because I didn’t see how could anyone could go through life without sometimes being reminded of history.

Recently, I keep thinking about Benedict Arnold. It’s not just the date; so many things seem to relate to his devastating September 6, 1781 raid on New London and Groton. Of course there is the fact that this anniversary coincides with that of another, more recent attack on America. As I watch the 9/11 coverage and commemoration, I think that while the two events were not alike, both involved surprise, confusion, and resolve. Both, too, employed the deadly combination of an onslaught from without with knowledge of vulnerabilities gained from within.

It isn’t only acts of war that recall the terror of that day so long ago. In Texas, as enormous wildfires spread, the stories of homes burned to the ground evoke our own 18th century destruction and homelessness. The current news reports show the aftermath, but the old accounts describe anticipation: New London families escaping into the countryside, women and children becoming separated in the rush, some carrying hastily gathered valuables in sacks, some holding a piece of bread.

There are other small details that stick. The scattered stores of coffee and sugar, the burning rum and butter running through the streets. The laconic command of a woman to her farmer husband as he rode off to answer the alarm: “John! Don’t get shot in the back!” (There’s the Peloponnesian War again!) The thought that Arnold, consummate traitor, used his familiarity with the alarm guns of his home turf to trick and delay the local militia, and that he had lunch with a friend in his Bank Street house before setting the building on fire. The split-second instances of enemy kindness or cruelty and local resourcefulness. I will always remember that you can douse your burning dwelling with soap, or vinegar.

The map of the paths of destruction Arnold’s British, Hessian, and Loyalist troops blazed through New London reinforces just how small this city is and how overwhelmed it must have been by around 1,000 troops, well-trained and visible everywhere with their red coats and shining weapons. I drove part of the route of the invaders the other day, but if I’d had more time I could easily have walked. Reading current street names on the old map, little New London suddenly seemed vulnerable again.

Today New London’s heights become important only when it snows, but throughout the accounts of that day people look down from high vantage points or fight while running from hill to hill. To read them is to lay a transparent sheet of battle over today’s streets. So many places still bear the sometimes invisible mark of September 6th. , where Arnold stood and watched his men wreaking havoc below. The lighthouse, near where the British began their march to the town. The small cannon on Manwaring Street, representing the earlier field-piece with which a few determined locals attempted to repel the attackers. Williams Street, nearby, where several British soldiers were buried.

Every building with a story here retains as part of that story whether it was spared the torch, rebuilt, or constructed later to replacing what was destroyed. When I first moved to New London I was taken with its unique look, half old New England port and half later, more westerly city. This, of course, is due to Benedict Arnold’s fires. I suppose, whenever I admire the endurance of one building and the improbability of its neighbor, I am unconsciously thinking of him still.

Michael Fitzgerald July 19, 2012 at 12:47 AM
Nicely written. Thank you.

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