The Heroic Benedict Arnold

The most important element in the triumph of the American colonies in their attempt to break free from Britain was their alliance with France. Britain’s historic enemy, France provided men, matériel and a distraction far more immediate and important than the annoying, insolent colonists across the Atlantic Ocean. This indispensable alliance with France can be traced back to the delaying actions on Lake Champlain in 1776 and the stunning victory over the British at Saratoga, New York in 1777, and these military successes can be traced back to one man — Benedict Arnold.

These and Arnold’s earlier efforts at Fort Ticonderoga, his March to Quebec and various other patriotic deeds reveal nothing so much as a willing, sincere, gung-ho warrior for liberty willing to risk everything for his nascent country. He went beyond the call of duty to engage the British at Ridgefield and cleverly scared away the British besieging Fort Stanwix, not to mention his other, less significant actions and his talent for recruiting and inspiring citizens to gamble their very lives for liberty.

When viewed in total, Benedict Arnold’s accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable. It is this writer’s opinion that no single man save Washington did more for the rebellion, or was a more important factor in its success.

Why, then, is his name so instantly reviled, even today? “Because he turned traitor!” most people will knee-jerkingly say. More educated folks might add that “he tried to turn West Point over to the British — and for money!” While those might be the facts, they beg the question: why? Why did Arnold — idolized by the men under his various commands and venerated by the public as a hero in 1777 — why did he switch sides and become the most hated man in the colonies by the autumn of 1780?

The answer is not as simple as “he did it for money” or “he wanted to be on (he thought) the winning side” or “he had no character.” That is the stuff of grade school teachers who lack the knowledge or time to explore the subject. No, the reasons for Arnold’s betrayal are not so facile.

A Difficult Childhood

Here was a man who had a somewhat traumatic childhood. Born in 1741 to a respectable and prosperous Norwich, Connecticut family, Arnold would lose four of five siblings to disease by his early teens, and both parents by the time he reached twenty years of age. His father (also named Benedict), a prosperous seafaring merchant, undoubtedly became depressed over the losses; his business dealings fell on bad times, as well, and he soon become the town drunk and laughingstock. The family homestead was sold to satisfy some of the family’s many debts, and the young Benedict felt humiliated by what he perceived as unfair and unwarranted treatment by his neighbors and the townsfolk. Thus, throughout his life Arnold was quick to take offense at any aspersions cast against his family and his own character (insult him and you’d risk being challenged to a duel on the spot) as well as feel outrage against injustice of any sort.

Forced to forgo his planned college education, Arnold was sent to live with industrious and successful relatives. He apprenticed and became an apothecary, occasionally sailing to the West Indies and England to purchase various inventory items. He later opened his own shop in New Haven, selling medications, books and other various and sundry items.

Later, he co-owned a few merchant ships and expanded his business ventures by trading goods between the Caribbean, American colonies and Canada. In the process, he became familiar with the rivers and lakes of New York and New England, which served him well during his later military activities in the northern theater of war. Within a decade he would build himself into one of the most prosperous men in New Haven.

Political Naiveté

By May, 1775, then-colonel Arnold had already made political enemies, starting with Ethan Allen and his cronies during the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, prevaricators with axes to grind who ran to Congress to tell their distorted versions of events long before Arnold had his chance.

Unfortunately, Arnold had few allies in the Continental Congress, whose members often believed his adversaries’ mendacious tales. Eventually, Arnold became fed up with it. He also attempted to resign his military commission on two occasions due to being unjustly passed over for promotion and the repudiation of his rightful seniority. On top of this, Arnold had to practically beg Congress to reimburse him for money paid out of pocket for supplies and other expenses which were duly owed to him. During his time in the military, Arnold had lost practically everything he owned in the service of the revolution, and he was never even close to being fully compensated by Congress (or later, by the British). Injustice piled upon injustice.

No Kudos and a Ruined Leg

After his heroic performance at Saratoga (British general Burgoyne credited Arnold for his own surrender), he got no credit whatsoever from his commander Horatio Gates, who somehow became the “hero” of the battles despite staying in his tent the whole time and letting his subordinates run the show. Then Arnold spent five painful months on his back, recuperating from his shattered (nearly amputated) leg, doubtless brooding over the many abuses he’d endured. The wounded limb ended up two inches shorter than its companion, and Arnold walked with a pronounced limp the rest of his life.

Disillusioned by all of the above, Arnold sent a letter to George Washington in March, 1778, implying that from then on he would be “looking out for Number One” — placing himself and his personal matters at the top of his list. In June of that year Washington, eager to keep his best fighting general in the war, even if he wasn’t yet fit for combat, appointed Arnold the military governor of Philadelphia, the most populous city in the colonies and their unofficial capital. Clashes with Congress as well as Pennsylvania state government officials soon followed. A major source of conflict was that the latter group wanted to punish loyalists who had consorted with the British while they were in control of the city, whereas Arnold felt that no such vendetta was warranted and he would not allow it.

By the time of his appointment to Philadelphia, Arnold had become seriously unhappy with the war effort. Aside from his concerns of a personal nature, he was distressed by the waning support of the general public, the colonies’ deteriorating currency, dissatisfaction within the army, and above all a Congress of petty, selfish and tyrannical Radical Patriots who had lost sight of the revolution’s very principles and goals. A year later, he will conclude that living under an American government would have worse consequences for liberty than under the British, which many believe was his major reason for renouncing the patriot cause.

In May, 1779, Arnold wrote in another letter to Washington, “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received of my countrymen; but, as Congress have stamped ingratitude as a current coin, I must take it. I wish your Excellency, for your long and eminent services, may not be paid in the same coin.” Arnold sent feelers to the British, offering his services, a few days later. His strong conviction was that the colonies were not yet ready for independence, and that Congress would grant considerably less freedom than the British crown. Negotiations went back and forth for over a year; this was not an easy decision.

I suspect the ultimate blow for Arnold occurred after his court-martial for largely trumped-up and spiteful “transgressions” brought by Pennsylvania’s quasi-governor Joseph Reed. He was cleared of all the accusations except for two minor charges, and Congress instructed George Washington to reprimand Arnold. Washington put off the chastisement for three months, and made it as insignificant as he could, but he issued this statement in April, 1780:

Washington’s Rebuke: the Last Straw?

“The Commander-in-Chief would have been much happier in an occasion of bestowing commendations on an officer who had rendered such distinguished services to his country as Major General Arnold; but in the present case, a sense of duty and a regard to candor oblige him to declare that he considers his conduct [in the convicted actions] as imprudent and improper.”

It was a slap on the wrist, but it is easy to understand Arnold’s dismay. One of the few major players who had always stood by him and appreciated him, who had valued all the efforts and sacrifices he’d made, who had always extolled his accomplishments and contributions — the commander-in-chief himself — even Washington had abandoned him. To Arnold, it was an “Et tu, Brute?”event….

Modern research indicates that about twenty percent of the population at the time was loyalist — faithful to Britain and opposed to the revolution. Certainly many others switched their allegiance back and forth, depending upon which side was currently in power locally. Philadelphia residents were prime examples of this, with many leaning toward the British when they occupied the city and toward the Americans when they were in charge. The country was simply in a state of flux, and one’s loyalties were often modified to help ensure survival. It was a tenuous time.

So why is Benedict Arnold alone remembered so stubbornly as the traitor to the revolutionary cause when there were countless others, including every loyalist? (By the way, every patriot was, ipso facto, a traitor to mother country England. If the revolution had failed, Washington, his high command and the most active founders would certainly have been hanged.)

The Answer

The answer is that Arnold had achieved a towering degree of fame fighting for the patriot cause, second only to Washington. If someone of his military stature and dedication could switch his loyalty to the British, who knew how many ordinary people might follow his example? To nullify the shock and sadness of Arnold’s defection and prevent a massive loss of support for the revolution, Arnold had to be vilified. So he was burned in effigy. Absurd stories were invented about him: he tortured animals as a child, was dangerously reckless and a bully in his youth, considered money his god, consorted with the devil, etc. The proof of this pudding is that the emotions which would have made sense at the time are anxiety and sorrow. In fact, this is what Washington expressed when he learned of Arnold’s defection. “Whom can we trust now?” he cried out.

Yes, Arnold betrayed the revolution (although technically not his country, since it didn’t exist until the Articles of Confederation were ratified in March, 1781). Yes, his plan to turn over the critical fort at West Point, New York (named Fort Arnold until his betrayal, by the way) to the British was worse than merely switching sides.

However, considering all that Arnold accomplished as a patriot during the revolution, considering all the slights, insinuations, accusations and hardships he endured, and considering everything he had honestly earned prior to the conflict which he sacrificed in the service of liberty, I wonder how many of his contemporaries — and how many of us living today — would do other than what Arnold chose to do, which was to reject the rebellion against, and once again pledge allegiance to, his mother country.

(By the way, Arnold the so-called “characterless traitor” published a newspaper piece on October 11th, 1780, explaining his decision, entitled “To The Inhabitants of America.” Also, as a brigadier general in the field for the British, he knew he would be hanged if captured in battle. This was not a man who lacked the courage of his convictions.)

The Most Brilliant Soldier

At the Saratoga National Historical Park in New York, there is a small stone monument behind an iron fence. On its front is a boot, symbolizing Arnold’s left leg which was crushed during the battle. The other side reads, in part:

In Memory of the “most brilliant soldier” of the Continental Army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, the sally port of Burgoyne’s Great Western Redoubt, 7th October, 1777 winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution….

Arnold was indeed the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army. If he hadn’t been injured at Saratoga, he would have likely defeated Burgoyne’s army right then and there, instantly attaining heroic status (no matter what lies Gates might have spun). If he had died at Saratoga, his legacy would have been legendary. In either case, today cities, counties and perhaps even a state would be named after him. Statues of Arnold would be standing in parks nationwide and his monument would be visited by throngs of people in the District of Columbia every day. Paintings of his exploits would be hanging in museums, parents would still be naming their sons Benedict, and tales of his bravery would be told as object lessons to young children. Arnold would be remembered as the second most important and revered figure of the American Revolution. Without him, it would not have succeeded.