An Interview with Don Elder: Benedict Arnold—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the American Revolution

Jul 24, 2020 by

Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution |  History | Smithsonian Magazine
Benedict Arnold

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Almost all Americans know Benedict Arnold as a traitor to America. Where was he born, and what do we know about his early life that may give us some clues as to his treachery?

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741. For the first few years of his life, Benedict Arnold enjoyed a privileged existence, as his father ran a successful business in Norwich. His family’s wealth allowed Benedict Arnold to attend a private school in Canterbury, Connecticut, and the family planned for him to become a student at Yale after he finished his primary and secondary schooling.

Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck his family, as three of his siblings died in a five-year span in the early 1750s. These deaths had a deleterious effect on his father, causing him to drink to excess. His father’s consumption of alcohol and health troubles resulted in his neglecting the family business, and as a result Benedict Arnold had to leave school.

Although his father became a social pariah, Benedict Arnold’s mother proved able to arrange for him to become an apprentice during his teenage years. Soon after he assumed that role, the French and Indian War widened into the conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years War. Connecticut began to recruit soldiers to fight the French and their Native American allies, and in 1757 Benedict Arnold answered the call. Soon, he and his comrades received orders to proceed to New York to relieve the siege of a British-held fort. Once on the march, however, they received the news that the garrison had surrendered, and that Native Americans had killed many of the defenders after the French had guaranteed them safe passage after they laid down their arms.

When they learned of this turn of events, Arnold and his fellow volunteers turned around and went home. During the American Revolution, Arnold would show great bravery on the field of battle, but his willingness to give up without a fight during the French and Indian War may have presaged his abandonment of the American cause in 1780.

  1. What did his early military endeavors involve?

Sensing that hostilities with Great Britain might begin at any moment, in March of 1775 the Connecticut community of New Haven recruited a company of militia, naming Benedict Arnold the captain. In the next few weeks, he threw his energies into training his unit. When he learned of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Arnold decided to take his militia unit to join the Patriot force besieging the British in Boston. As he journeyed northward, Arnold had a meeting with a member of the Connecticut legislature in which the two talked about the lack of cannon among the forces gathered outside Boston.

During their discussion, the two noted that Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York had a significant number of cannon, and they agreed that Connecticut should send a force there to capture those weapons. The legislator left to arrange for volunteers to accomplish that task, and Arnold resumed his march to Boston. When he reached his destination, Arnold talked to Massachusetts officials about sending another force to Fort Ticonderoga to reinforce the detachment already headed there.

Impressed with his proposal, Massachusetts gave him a commission as a colonel of its militia, and gave him permission to recruit volunteers to participate in his campaign. When he reached western Massachusetts, sources informed him that an individual named Ethan Allen had already reached Fort Ticonderoga, planning a mission similar to Arnold’s.

Quickly making his way to upstate New York, Arnold found Allen poised to launch an attack the following day. At first, Arnold tried to assume command of the operation, based on his instructions from the authorities in Massachusetts. But Allen’s men, known as the Green Mountain Boys, refused to follow Arnold’s orders. Arnold countered with a request for a joint command, which everyone then agreed to.

Accordingly, Allen and Arnold both led an attack on Fort Ticonderoga on the night of May 10. Catching the British completely by surprise, the Americans captured Fort Ticonderoga without suffering a single casualty. This victory gave the Patriots cannon that George Washington would use to force the British to evacuate Boston in March of 1776.

  1. In his early revolutionary battles, what were his greatest accomplishments?

After helping capture Fort Ticonderoga, Arnold remained there to administer the installation. Soon, however, a force sent to garrison the fort arrived, led by a colonel who bore orders giving him command of Fort Ticonderoga.

Angered by this, Arnold resigned his commission and returned to Connecticut. Unable to remain inactive, Arnold went to Washington’s camp to propose a campaign. Recognizing the strategic value of Canada, in the summer of 1775 the Continental Congress had authorized an expedition to secure that region. In his meeting with Washington, Arnold suggested that he could provide a second prong for the Canadian campaign by moving overland through present-day Maine.

Impressed by the proposal, Washington made Arnold a colonel in the Continental Army and gave him a force of 1,100 soldiers. After a harrowing march similar to that of George Rogers Clark in the American hinterland, Arnold reached Canada in November of 1775 after losing half his men. Linking up with the main American force under the command of General Richard Montgomery, Arnold and his men participated in an assault on Quebec on December 31, 1775. Leading a charge, Arnold received a serious leg wound. Refusing evacuation, Arnold remained on the battlefield to direct the assault until it became obvious that the attack had failed. He then allowed his men to carry him to safety.

Although the American attack had failed and General Montgomery had died in the process, Arnold kept his depleted force in the vicinity of Quebec, hoping to resume his efforts to capture the city. The arrival of British reinforcements in Canada made this impossible. Indeed, Arnold found it necessary to abandon Canada altogether. As he retreated south, a large British force pursued him. Knowing that the British would use Lake Champlain to transport their troops, Arnold ordered the construction of a small fleet to stymie the British. Responding in kind, the British built their own flotilla, and sallied forth to meet Arnold’s fleet.

At the Battle of Valcour Island in October of 1776, the British decisively defeated Arnold, but the naval activities had so delayed the British advance that their troops had to retreat to Canada before winter set in. Promoted to brigadier general, Arnold received orders to report for duty in his home state of Connecticut. There, he received another leg wound while leading his men into action at the Battle of Ridgefield in April of 1777.

Fortunately for Arnold, this wound healed quickly, and did not prevent him from accepting an assignment to the Northern Army gathering to oppose the combined British-Hessian force that had invaded New York in the summer of 1777. Once again, Arnold provided inspiring leadership in battle, especially in spearheading a charge at Bemis Heights on October 7, but once again his bravery led to a leg wound. Of his three leg wounds, this one proved the most serious. As a result of it, Arnold lost two inches of his left leg, and he would walk with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.

  1. Apparently, he had some disagreements with Washington. What were some of the issues?

Enlisted men serving under Arnold gave him their adulation, but he had conflicted relationships with many of his fellow officers. In addition, a number of powerful civilian leaders found Arnold vainglorious. Some of his personal interactions proved so toxic that he had to face courts of inquiry. Throughout all of the turmoil, George Washington remained steadfast in his defense of Arnold. Indeed, when Arnold resigned after Congress passed him over for promotion to major general, Washington personally intervened with the legislative body to rectify the situation. But events that took place in 1778 placed Washington into an awkward situation regarding Arnold. Because of the wound that he had suffered at Bemis Heights, Arnold could not command troops in the field, and so after the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778 Washington gave him command of the reoccupation process. As the military governor, Arnold became involved in some highly questionable financial ventures involving confiscated Loyalist property, and in February 1779, he learned that he would face a court of inquiry regarding these transactions.

When the military tribunal found him guilty on two charges, Washington felt compelled to give him a rebuke in writing. Carefully phrased to accentuate his meritorious service and couched in mild terms, the reprimand nonetheless stung Arnold to the quick, and forever altered the relationship between the two.

  1. Major John Andre and, of course, Peggy Shippen were key figures in his treason. What part did each play?

During the British occupation of Philadelphia, British Major John Andre had become acquainted with Peggy Shippen, the beautiful daughter of a merchant with Loyalist sympathies. Questions about their level of intimacy exist, but it seems clear that the two held great affection for each other, as upon her death it turned out that she had kept a lock of Andre’s hair. After the British evacuated the city, Arnold courted and wed Peggy Shippen, but she kept in touch with Andre through a middleman named Joseph Stansbury.

This connection proved beneficial to Arnold when he made his decision in the spring of 1779 to betray his country, as he conveyed his intentions to the British through that go-between.

  1. West Point is a place that really needs no introduction, but what role did it play in this entire nefarious affair?

After his rebuke from Washington, Arnold resigned his position as the military governor of Philadelphia. Hoping to once again make use of Arnold’s talents in battle, Washington offered him the opportunity to command troops in the field. But Arnold declined, asking instead for the command of the American fort at West Point, north of New York City on the Hudson River.

Established to prevent easy passage of a British force either up or down the river, many considered it the most important American fort. Puzzled by Arnold’s request for a stationary assignment, Washington nonetheless granted it in August of 1780. A month later, Washington received a communique from Arnold, inviting him to inspect the fort’s defenses. Washington agreed, and arranged a visit with Arnold. Upon his arrival at West Point, Washington found the fort in a dilapidated condition and Arnold missing.

Soon, Washington learned that Arnold had deliberately allowed the defenses to deteriorate, as he had promised the British that he would do that to make its capture easy for them. In addition, he had arranged for Washington to visit at the same time that the British would attack West Point, thus giving them the most important fort and leader in one fell swoop. John Andre had served as the intermediary between Arnold and the British military, but three American militiamen had captured him with the plans on his person. They then took Andre to Arnold at West Point. Recognizing that the plan would no longer work and that Andre could tell the Americans of his treachery, Arnold ordered him imprisoned and immediately left West Point. After alerting his wife to the fact that he had to leave, he had himself rowed to a British warship lying in wait on the Hudson. By the time Washington got to the bottom of the situation, Arnold was far beyond his reach.

  1. Apparently he escaped to England with Peggy Shippen. What were his later years like?

In return for betraying his country, Arnold received an appointment as a brigadier general in the British Army and a large sum of money. In 1781, he led British troops in action against his former countrymen in Virginia and Connecticut.

After the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, it became obvious that the British would not be able to militarily subdue the Americans. For that reason, Arnold and his wife (whom Washington had magnanimously allowed to join Arnold after his treachery became known) sailed to Great Britain. They would live there for the rest of their lives.

  1. Obviously, his early years were filled with some positive accomplishments, but his betrayal will live forever, as they say, in infamy. But what have we learned from the life and betrayal of Benedict Arnold? And what ever happened to John Andre?

After meeting with Arnold at West Point to arrange the capture of the fort and the visiting George Washington, Arnold had convinced John Andre to make his way back to the British lines in civilian clothing. This proved fatal for Andre when the militiamen captured him, because it meant that the Americans considered him a spy instead of a captured enemy officer. The military tribunal that tried Andre sentenced him to death by hanging. Learning of this, the British military pleaded with Washington to spare the popular major’s life. Washington replied that he would gladly do so—if the British returned Benedict Arnold.

This the British refused to do, and Washington then ordered Andre’s execution by hanging. Many British officers had a distaste for Benedict Arnold for betraying his comrades, and the fact that he had lived while a British officer died in his stead only worsened things for Arnold. After the war ended, Arnold never received an important military assignment, and all of his post-war business ventures failed. Few therefore seemed distraught when he died in 1801.

  1. In sum, what can we say about this person?

It is extremely hard for Americans to come to terms with the treason of Benedict Arnold. How could a man who fought so valiantly for a cause suddenly betray it? Was his treachery due to the fact that he never felt sufficiently recognized for his contributions, or from his anger over the legal challenges that he faced throughout his military career?

Did Peggy Shippen cause him to abandon his loyalty to the United States, or did she merely facilitate his betrayal? Perhaps the only thing certain about Benedict Arnold is that if he had died of his wound at Bemis Heights, he would have gone down in history as the greatest of all of Washington’s generals.

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