In 1762, Benedict Arnold opened a shop on New Haven’s Chapel Street. With supplies imported from England, the 21-year-old hoped to make his fortune. The odds were against him - and the rest of Connecticut’s residents – as Britain stifled business owners with harsh economic policies.
By 1764, Connecticut was on the brink of a depression. With the end of the French Indian War, demand for Connecticut’s resources drastically declined, and a credit crunch threatened local farmers and merchants with bankruptcy.
According to “Connecticut: A History” by David Roth, “Farmers who no longer had a market for their products could not pay outstanding debts to merchants, who in turn were unable to meet their own obligations to importers of manufactured goods in New York, Boston and Providence.”
“Colonial society was very agriculturally-based,” said David Valone, associate professor of history at Quinnipiac University. “The City of New Haven was a small city, recognizable as a town today but nothing more than that.”
Britain’s oppressive policies, such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and the controversial Stamp Act exacerbated the problem. The seeds of rebellion were planted, and the New Haven area – from Stratford to West Haven and beyond - had a hand to play in the Revolutionary War. At the center of it all was Arnold, the famed traitor.
At the time, Connecticut was split ideologically in the east and the west, writes Roth. The eastern part of the state had little interaction with Britain over the years, and had long been relatively independent. Western Connecticut, from New Haven to Greenwich, was more pre-disposed to the crown, but that did not last after a series of oppressive economic policies, such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act.
According to Roth’s “Connecticut: A History,” about 6 percent of the population of Western Connecticut, from New Haven to Greenwich, were loyalists to the crown during the war. Many of them fled, while others were “quickly identified, disarmed, subjected to loss of property, and in some cases imprisoned.”
Before the war started, Arnold’s debts, some caused by British policy, nearly ruined him, according to the biography “Benedict Arnold: From Patriot to Traitor” by Pamela Dell. Soon after, he joined the revolution and quickly rose through the ranks before switching sides to join the British.
In 1777, Arnold, now a brigadier general in the Continental Army, he was visiting family in New Haven. Word of a British attack on Danbury reached, and Arnold quickly mobilized volunteers and raced across what is now New Haven County. He had two horses shot from under him but “gave no quarter” writes Roth. Arnold was promoted to major general.
Two years later, the mettle of the areas surrounding towns were tested when the British raided with thousands of troops. On July 4, 1779, the British sailed passed Stratford en route to the New Haven harbor. At midnight, the British ships anchored and prepared for the attack.
“The British Invasion of New Haven,” written in 1889 by Charles Hervey Townshend, chronicles the attack. As soon as the boats were in range, about 50 East Haven patriots opened fire but could not prevent the troops from landing.
“Disperse, ye rebels,” shouted a British officer. A moment later he was shot dead.
The rebels fell back, and other groups pluckily resisted the British invasion. Some buildings were burned, but the area escaped the mass destruction that was inflicted on Fairfield County.
More than a year after the attack, a traitorous plot by Arnold to forfeit the army post at West Point to the British was revealed. In 1781, he returned to Connecticut to lead a raid on New London. The Battle of Groton Heights is considered one of the last British victories in the Revolutionary War.