Booing Benedict Arnold

A small group came marching down the Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg: a couple of colonial militiamen, followed by a fife and drum, followed by a civilian.   The group made their way to the front of the courthouse.  The soldiers and musicians waited below as the civilian climbed the steps.  He had a message for us, the good citizens of Williamsburg, from our governor, Patrick Henry.

Through the summer and fall, Colonial Williamsburg – the 103 acre restoration and recreation of Virginia’s 18th century capital – runs a street theater program called The Revolutionary City.  At various points in the day at various places around town, costumed actors engage each other and visitors in scripted scenes about the lives of the people of Williamsburg during the Revolutionary War.  I had wandered into the middle of a segment called The War Comes Home, the British Invade Virginia.  It was May 1779 and the townspeople were discussing the British invasion of Portsmouth, about 50 miles to the south.  Will they come to Williamsburg?  What should we do if they do?  The governor says, the town crier told us over his wireless face mike, that we should be prepared.

The objective of The Revolutionary City is to give tourists a You-Are-There experience.  But the realities of modern entertainment impede the vision: headsets are clearly visible and there’s an odd Japanese-Godzilla-movie effect to the sound delay from the speakers.  The I-Am-There experience that I had was not that I was in Williamsburg in the middle of the American Revolution, but that I was in an episode of a science fiction television show — one of those that drops the cast on a planet populated with creatures who have adopted 18th century American sets and attire, but with 21st century technology.

The other tourists seemed unsure of the situation as well.  Let’s hear it for General Washington:  huzzah?  Colonial militia victory: huzzah?  Patrick Henry: huzzah?

Each segment takes about 15 minutes, and I wanted to avoid the mass migration that was bound to occur when The War Comes Home ended.  So I left while the crier was still trying to get a huzzah out of the crowd and walked a few hundred feet east to Raleigh Tavern, where the schedule said that the next event would take place.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, actors were leading the mob down the road and through time, to July 1779.

There was a wooden stage built in front of Raleigh Tavern, but the actors mounted the porch of the King’s Arms Tavern, across the street, instead.  This segment, called The Cost of Freedom, had townspeople complaining about inflation.  As Phil Collins sings: some things will never change.    The audience gave the actors a wide berth and Williamsburg crowd control tried to push us closer.  I think they were trying to get people to feel more a part of the scene but it was a steamy morning, with that closed-in feeling that still, humid air gives, and no one was about to press into a crowd.

I’d had enough of rabble rousing anyway, so I made my escape to the location of the next scene.   It starred Benedict Arnold and I was hoping that the bad guys would be more fun than the righteously indignant, speechifying patriots.

Arnold was the baddest of the Revolutionary War bad guys.  He had been one of America’s most brilliant strategists and the hero of several Revolutionary War battles but, feeling unappreciated and unloved, had gone over to the enemy.  For £20,000 and the rank of brigadier general, he sold the plans of the U.S. military fort at West Point to the British and made his name synonymous with “traitor” in popular American culture forevermore.

By the time the mob reached Benedict Arnold at the Capitol building on the east end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, it was July 4, 1781.  Williamsburg has been captured by the British and Arnold was there to deliver the terms of occupation.  An Arnold flunky riled up the crowd.  “People of Williamsburg, the insurrection is over for Williamsburg and Virginia.  Peace is at hand.  You will now pay your respects to General Benedict Arnold. ”


The mob was better at booing than huzzahing.

“Traitor,” called an actor in the crowd.

“Are you calling me a traitor, Madam?” asked Arnold.

“Yes I do. “  Into the stocks with her!

No.  Williamsburg’s Arnold is more a politician.  He tells her that in 1777, during the misery that was Valley Forge, Congress decided to hold a sumptuous end-of-year feast for themselves.  “And what was it that they gave your boys? … Each and every man was given a half a cup of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar.  Who is your traitor?  It is Congress.”


I was disappointed that Arnold seemed so reasonable.  Where was the drama?

It came in the form of a man in a hat, a hat that turned Arnold more into his reputed ego-driven self.  “How dare you remain covered in the presence of a general?” he shouted at the man. “Uncover, Sir!”

Hang him!

The man uncovered but when Arnold and his horse returned after a trip around the cul-de-sac, he had put his hat back on.  Arnold turned purple.  “I SAID UNCOVER, SIR!”

Flog him!  No? Darn.


Arnold turned toward the Capitol building behind him.  “Raise the King’s flag.”  The Union Jack went up above the Capitol building.


Arrest them all!

I’m usually not so violent but I was tired of all the talking.  Colonials are a wordy bunch.   Was a little tar and feather action too much to ask?  It was.  The segment ended with no more than a final booooo as Arnold rode away.

The Revolutionary City plays through November 4th, then starts up again in spring.

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10 Responses to Booing Benedict Arnold

  1. Hmm. It’s all a bit like recreating historical sites as to what they should have looked like when there are only a few piles of stones left.

    Do people have no imagination these days? Don’t answer that.

    Arnold sounds quite cool to me. No-one likes to be unloved and unappreciated.

    Incidentally that first photo looks pretty much like our re-enactment society marches on Saturday, must try and grab a decent pic. maybe tomorrow?

    • Arnold was a very interesting man, a rising star in the colonial army who didn’t think that his star was rising fast enough. He did have legitimate complaints though — other people did take credit for some of his victories.

      Would love to see what a Gib reenactment society looks like.

  2. I have a great interest in Arnold and his unfortunate contact John Andre, but I think I’d have to pass this up. If there’s one thing I don’t care for it’s science fiction 😉

  3. Kathie Shattuck says:

    Benedict Arnold had so much going for him. He could have been remembered as a leading member of our founding generation. But I have thought of him as something of a whiner, and his achievements more for his personal glory than sacrifices for a cause he believed in. All it took was a teenaged Tory bride and a sackful of cash to flip him. Pretty short-sighted of him, as his new British allies despised and distrusted him for the rest of his life.

  4. historylover says:

    As someone who has been to Colonial Williamsburg many times I have to say that I completely disagree with you. Yes, the point of the Revolutionary City is to attempt to give guests a “you are there” experience. However, like anything else, the experience is only what you make of it. If you are watching a scene unfold and all you do is stand there picking apart every single detail and silently complaining about the weather, the microphones, or that no one is demanding for others to be flogged, then yeah, you are going to have a terrible time. But if you allow yourself to be transported back to the time of the Revolution and really become involved it what the actors are saying and doing, then it really is a great experience. Sure, the audience may not be crying,”Huzzah!” at every moment, but why should that translate into “this scene sucks, where is the violence?”. And FYI, there is a scene called ” A Court of Tar and Feathers”. Also, you have to realize that the actors are doing these scenes two or three, maybe even more, times a week for most of the year. If they did not use microphones then they would have absolutely no voice an would not even be able to do the re-enactments. As an actress myself I am well aware that this is something that occurs very easily and is extremely common. It is not only for the actor’s benefit, but for the audience as well as that everyone can hear what is being said. Also, if you are at the Raleigh Tavern and you hear something coming from the courthouse you are going to head that way, so it is also a way to draw in a larger crowd. Unfortunately there are no invisible microphones so the fact that you can see them if you are close to them is something that people just have to get over. Plus if you truly allow yourself to get involved in the scene that is unfolding you don’t even notice them. Finally Williamsburg is a family-oriented attraction. The actors are not going to be shouting “hang him!” or “flog him!” every time another actor disagrees with what is being said. That is not the point of Williamsburg at all. The point is to give guests the best experience that they can. The actors definitely do their part of the deal and it is up to you to make the most out of your experience.

    • Thanks for your comments. The post was written a little tongue-in-cheek. Regular readers know that I adore Colonial Williamsburg and I’m there several times a years. But you’re absolutely right — everyone gets out of the experience what they’re willing to give. I’m just not a interactive experience loving tourist. And I try to have fun with that fact in my posts.

  5. This is an old post but as a former constant at Colonial Williamsburg it was fun to read your various blogs. I shall return to read more (not to switch centuries and wars) . . Glad that your observations were tongue-in-cheek as I am one of those interactives so I used to have a great deal of fun at Williamsburg – I was afraid maybe they had gotten even more politically-correct than they were drifting at times and had lost some of the passion.

    I got castigated more than once for being “bold” and threatened with prison – not that they weren’t egging it on. I made the accused witch fall to the ground in her trial, resulting in a guilty verdict , which had me leaving the chapel somewhat unnerved (no doubt she WAS a witch!) . I’ve been admonished by John Randolph, and my son was absolutely humiliated by Thomas Jefferson for daring to ask him a question about the Jeffersonian Bible (he jumped the gun there time-wise and Jefferson took him to task.. The child never recovered from Thomas’ racy retort; ) The bailiff in the court was called for my testimony about the quality of goods in the market and I barely avoided punishment. All in all, I’d say I was a participant more than a bystander. Oh, I miss those rabble rousing days.

    Actually, looking at current events, it could have been advanced training. Big wide grin.

    • Sounds like you’ve had some terrific fun at Williamsburg. That I’d been “admonished by John Randolph” is a phrase I’d like to be able to say. I’ve already got two trips to Williamsburg planned for spring, so maybe I’ll try some rabblerousing. If I do, I’ll report back.

      Thanks for visiting, and for the comments.

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