Major General Benedict Arnold, Continental Army.
Note—History may well have to be revised when all is said and done about the current occupant of the White House. Arnold’s treason may well seem trivial by comparison.
If only he had died of his wounds after the Saratoga Campaign—or better yet, had completely recovered and not fallen for the wiles of a teenage temptress, or nursed the bitterness of a petty jealous grudge Benedict Arnold would be celebrated today as one of the greatest military heroes of the American Revolution on one hand or risen on that reputation to almost any political position he desired after the war, perhaps to the Presidency itself. But he threw it all away to die an un-trusted traitor exile in the lands of his old enemy.
Young Benedict Arnold, the most recent of a long line of that name, was born on January 14, 1741, the eldest surviving son of an old colonial family. His father, also named Benedict was a wealthy merchant and respected citizen of their home town, Norwich, Connecticut. The boy was schooled locally with the intention that he should go to Yale College to prepare to join his father’s business.
But after all but one of his sisters died in childhood in the space of a few years, the elder Arnold took to drink and eventually lost his business and his fortune. Instead of being sent to Yale, his mother arranged for him to be apprenticed to an apothecary to help support the family. He was bound for seven years service.
In 1757 Arnold found relief from the drudgery of shop life when he enlisted in the Connecticut Militia at age 16 for service in the French and Indian Wars. He marched with an untrained Militia column to the front around Albany, New York and Lake George. But the relief force got word that Fort William Henry had fallen after a siege and that French native auxiliaries had been allowed to commit atrocities on the survivors including women and children who had taken refuge there. The Militia fell back in a near panic before ever contacting the enemy.
Muster rolls indicate that Arnold served just 13 days giving rise to unsubstantiated lore that he deserted out of disgust and contempt for the rabble that was the Militia. In likelihood, however, he was released at the request of his mother who had opposed his dreams of military glory, because he was the sole support of his family.
Arnold’s mother, to whom he was devoted, died in 1759 worsening his father’s chronic alcohol abuse—he was arrested for public drunkenness and denied communion in the local church, a sign of complete pariah status. His young son buckled down to support his sister and failing father.
After his father finally died in 1761, Arnold moved to the capital of New Haven where he opened his own successful pharmacy and book shop. The business prospered. Arnold borrowed money from his mother’s wealthy kin the Lanthrops to repurchase the family home that his father had squandered away. Unsentimentally, he turned around and sold the property within a year at a tidy profit. After re-paying the loan he had enough left over to form a trading company with another young merchant, Adam Babcock. They bought three ships and entered the lucrative West Indies Trade.
He brought his surviving sister Hannah to New Haven to manage the apothecary shop while he was often away in command of one of his own trading ships plying waters as far north as Quebec and all of the Colonial ports and rich Caribbean isles.
Until the Sugar and Stamp Acts curtailed his business, Arnold had taken no part in the growing political restiveness with British in the Colonies. Although he joined the Sons of Liberty he took no part in public demonstrations preferring to serve the cause—and his own purse by continuing his trading operations as a smuggler.
Difficulties in dodging the Royal Navy cut into his income and he was soon in debt by £16,000, an enormous sum, and facing bankruptcy and debtors’ prison. On January 27, 1768 Arnold watched, and likely supervised as a mob of Sons of Liberty attacked and roughed up a would-be informant to the British of about his smuggling activities. Arnold was arrested, found guilty of disorderly conduct, and fined 50 schillings. It could have been much worse. And the publicity around the prosecution made Arnold a local celebrity and Patriot hero.
A month later Arnold conveniently married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of Samuel Mansfield, the Sheriff of New Haven. His new father in law provided some shield from prosecution by Arnold’s creditors. The couple had three children, including yet another Benedict, before she died while her husband was away at war during the Revolution.
As tensions rose, Arnold returned to his business only attending a Sons of Liberty meeting while ashore and taking no leading role. He was at sea when the Boston Massacre and the event that came to be called much later the Boston Tea Party happened, but took note of hearing of them in his personal journal.
He was, however home in New Haven when actual fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. Once again he responded to the Militia call and this time as elected the Captain of his company as befitted a man of his station in life. Within a month Connecticut troops were marching to join the army besieging the British in Boston.
Arnold had not been on the scene long before he conceived of an audacious plan and took it to the Committee of Safety which was trying to organize an army. He proposed a surprise attack on Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain, probably the most important inland strategic point in the Colonies, lying on the traditional invasion rout from Canada. The fort had been built by the French but following the settlement of the Seven Years War—the global conflict of which our French and Indian Wars were just a part—the fort and French North America—Quebec and Upper Canada—had been ceded to the British.
A state-of-the-art modern masonry star fort it should have been virtually impregnable. But Arnold somehow had information that it was lightly garrisoned since there was no threat of a French invasion to defend against and troops were need elsewhere to cow the upstart colonists. The fort also housed a substantial arsenal of powder and shot, stands of musket ready to arm militia forces or native auxiliaries, and housed one of the largest concentrations of heavy artillery in the country.
The Committee immediately saw the importance of such a mission and commissioned Arnold to carry it out with the rank of Colonel. They did not however, have troops to spare around Boston for the project. He was sent out to scrounge men how ever he could. He made for Bennington in the wilds of the Hampshire Grants where he knew of an already formed force perfect for his raid.
Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys.
The Hampshire Grants, the territory now known as Vermont (The Green Mountain), was claimed in whole or in part by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. It was settled by hardy pioneer farmers from Massachusetts and Connecticut largely on the basis of questionable land warrants. When New York attempted to assert sovereignty and either oust or tax those who they considered squatters. Firebrand Ethan Allen had organized his Green Mountain Boys for virtual guerilla war against New York surveyors, would-be settlers, Sheriffs, bailiffs, tax assessors, and judges who tried to assert control. The conflict had been ongoing since 1770. The Green Mountain Boys were tough, experienced, relatively well disciplined, and from the point of view of New York as much brigands as militia.
Allen was known to be a fierce Patriot. Less than two weeks before the fighting in Lexington and Concord, he had convened the Winchester Convention which drafted a blustery declaration King.
Arnold found Allen not only amenable to the project, but found that he was already contemplating it. In fact he had gathered a force that included irregular Connecticut and Massachusetts Militia men in addition to his own for the project. The two strong minded men joined forces, each not entirely trusting the other. Allen insisted on command but agreed to Arnold’s plan of operation and to accept his advice.
The combined force moved swiftly and without detection. They surrounded the Fort before dawn on May 10, less than a month after the war broke out. Only 83 men had made a boat crossing before the commanders decided that it was too near dawn to risk further boats being spotted. By agreement Arnold and Allen together marched at the head of a small unit and surprised the lone sentry at the gate, gaining admission into the Fort.
Popular images of the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga published after the American Revolution feature Ethan Allen demanding the surrender but omit Benedict Arnold who conceived of the plan and was at the side of the Green Mountain Boys leader.
They made straight way to the Commander’s quarters where they roused Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham from his slumber. The Lt. challenged their authority to enter the Fort to which Allen famously bellowed that he demanded surrender in the name of “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” Allen would later claim his demand was directed at the commander, but Captain William Delaplace was still groggily struggling into his clothing. He emerged minutes later to surrender his sword and 48 man garrison. Without firing a shot Arnold and Allen had won the most significant Colonial victory of the early months of the war.
The colorful Ethan Allen would claim—and get—most of the credit for the raid. But he and the Green Mountain Boys quickly left the Fort carrying with them a modest amount of small arms and ammunition. The post was left under Arnold’s command of a small garrison of mostly Connecticut militia men. Arnold was concerned that when they discovered what had happened, that the English would mount an attack down Lake Champaign to regain the Fort. He made what preparations he could and pled for reinforcements from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.
But those reinforcements came from an unexpected direction and source. In June 1000 Connecticut troops arrived under the command of Colonel Benjamin Hinman who asserted his authority to relieve Arnold of command at Ticonderoga and the other near-by strong hold of Crown Point. Citing his Massachusetts commission and orders, Arnold refused to be relieved. He denied Hinman and his troops access to the fort except under limited, stringent conditions, interfered with supply columns, and generally harassed Hinman. Finally a delegation from Massachusetts was summoned—and Arnold even impeded their journey when he discovered their mission—to explain that Hinman and the Connecticut troops were acting in concert with Massachusetts. Feeling his honor slighted, Arnold resigned his commission and left in a huff.
The value of Ticonderoga would become apparent in the coming months. Not only did it become a jumping off point for an invasion of Quebec later in the year, but stout Henry Knox arrived from the Siege of Boston to haul many of the Fort’s guns by sledge across the frozen New England landscape. The sight of their deployment on the heights across from the city forced the British to abandon Boston to General George Washington’s new Continental Army.
So that summer Arnold found himself without commission or command as plans were being drawn up to attack Quebec via the traditional Lake Champlain route using Ticonderoga as a jumping off point and supply base. He lobbied Congress in Philadelphia for command of that expedition. But Col. Hinman’s reports of Arnold’s shenanigans, which he reported as bordering on mutiny and treason, soured powerful members of Congress on him. Command of the proposed invasion was given to New York Patroon General Philip Schuyler and Anglo-Irish General Richard Montgomery
Instead, Arnold went to Massachusetts to lay another project before Washington who was settling into command of the Army. He proposed a second expedition against Quebec in support of the main attack. He would lead a force that would drive west across the wilderness of what is now Maine to the St. Lawrence, perhaps provoke an uprising of the French settlers against their new English masters, and lay siege to Quebec City itself in conjunction with Montgomery’s Army. The audacious plan met with the approval of Washington, who always liked daring, surprise maneuvers and coordinated, multi-pronged attacks. He commissioned Arnold a Colonel in the Continental Army and gave him a small force of Continental troops to accomplish the mission.
Arnold had his men marched from Cambridge in several contingents from September 8-11 to Newburyport where a small fleet was assembled to sail with them to the mouth of the Kennebec River hopefully eluding detection by the Royal Navy. Sailing was delayed by fog and bad weather and the ships did not reach their destination until 20th of the month and then spent another two days sailing up the river to Gardinerston where they spent another couple of days transferring their supplies to boats to proceed further. Some of the force had to be put to work building the bateaux, light, flat bottomed French style boats capable of being portaged.
Sending some supplies by boat, Arnold marched some of his men along the banks of the river for 45 miles. From that point he sent out scouts to determine his route and began to hear reports of Mohawk and other English ally native activity ahead. His forces were slowed down by the 12 mile portage known as The Great Carrying Place and then by boggy ground and rain. By now rations were short and the large party was having a hard time feeding itself on game despite the presence of Daniel Morgan’s expert Pennsylvania riflemen.
Arnold dispatched messages to both Washington and Montgomery detailing his slow progress. Unfortunately the letters to Montgomery were intercepted revealing the mission and robbing it of essential surprise.
Ascending the Dead River in October was arduous. Currents were too swift to pole against, then a torrential rain storm flooded their camp. Some of the party went up a tributary by mistake, fooled by the high water. Seven bateaux including those caring most of the remaining food supplies over turned and the stores were lost. The rain and flooding dampened powder as well.
Nearly starving and lagging far behind the main force 450 men under Lt. Col. Enos turned back. Arnold had already sent some sick and starving men from his lead force back to the Maine settlements.
Various sections of the army staggered into Lake Mégantic in the St. Lawrence Highlands over several days at the end of October. Most were starving. Some had been reduced to boiling shoes. Captain Henry Dearborn’s dog was eaten, even his bones crushed to make soup.
At this point they finally made contact with local French residents who supplied the men with food, and told Arnold that his plans had been discovered.
On November 9 Arnold and 600 remaining men of his force, many in wrenched condition finally arrived on the St. Lawrence at a point across the river from the Quebec City. He managed to get his men across in a night crossing between picketing Royal Navy ship two days later and formed on the Plaines of Abraham in front of the city on the 13th. The walled city on the heights above them was defended by a garrison of 150 Royal Highland Emigrants, 400 Royal Marines from the ships patrolling the River, and several hundred untrained and unreliable French speaking militia whose loyalty was suspect. Arnold advanced a Flag of Truce to demand the surrender of the City. Officers there could plainly see the condition of Arnold’s forces and wisely refused. Without any artillery to reduce the walls, Arnold had no choice but to fall back and wait on the arrival of Montgomery who had just taken Montreal.
Montgomery arrived at Pointe-aux-Trembles on December 3 and the combined forces now under Montgomery’s over-all command laid siege to the city. Weather continued to deteriorate through the month of December. The arrival of a major winter storm would make the exposed positions of the besieging army untenable. Finally Montgomery ordered a desperate attack on December 31.
It was a disaster. Montgomery was killed, becoming the first American General to die and becoming something of a folk hero, his death commemorated in a heroic painting. Arnold’s leg was shattered. Morgan and 350 of other men were captured. The army was forced to fall back on Montreal where Arnold assumed command and learned that he had been promoted to Brigadier General. When the British advanced on the city, Arnold led a brilliant rear guard action knowing that the English would not stop short of Ticonderoga.
James Wilkinson, a young officer who in later life would also become a notorious traitor, noted that Arnold was the last man to depart the defenses at Saint Jean as the reinforced Red Coat Army advanced. Then Arnold hastily constructed his mosquito fleet of gun boats on Lake Champlain. The little fleet was overwhelmed by the Royal Navy in October 1776 but by that time the snow was beginning to fall and the English had to scrub plans to attack Ticonderoga for the year.
But in 1777 they would make another try with an even bigger Army under the command of General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne.
Although somewhat overshadowed by the death of the gallant Montgomery, Arnold found himself a national hero and held in high esteem by both Washington and the Commanding General of the North Department, General Schuyler. Of course being Arnold, he not so secretly thought that he should have that new command. Back at Ticonderoga with not much to do Arnold quickly entered controversies with fellow officers narrowly escaping arrest on charge brought by an officer he had brought charges against. Some complained of his lavish spending and suggested to Congress that his accounts were not in order. Then he made particular enemies of two junior officers with significant political connections to Congress.
Washington rescued him from the hot water by giving him a new assignment—the defense of Rhode Island following the British seizure of Newport in December 1776. On the way there he visited his children who had lost their mother while he was away. He wintered mostly in Boston where he learned that he had been passed over for a promotion to Major General. He offered Washington his resignation which was refused and Washington wrote Congress in an attempt to have the decision reversed.
Arnold decided to personally visit Philadelphia to lobby on his own behalf. But on his way south, he learned that a British column was marching on the Continental supply base at Danville, Connecticut. Arnold quickly gathered a force of Militia and Along with General David Wooster and Connecticut militia General Gold S. Silliman met the British at the small but significant Battle of Ridgefield in which they intercepted the enemy column as it attempted to return to the coast. In the sharp engagement Wooster was killed and Arnold was wounded for a second time in his left leg.
At Philadelphia given the vacancy left by Wooster and Arnold’s gallant service, Congress relented and granted him his Major General commission. But he was not granted seniority retroactive to the earlier round of promotions over him. In a snit, he wrote another resignation to Washington, who received it on the same day news arrived that Ticonderoga had fallen. Instead Washington ordered him north to assist in the defense against the advancing British.
On July 24, 1777 Schuyler at Fort Edward ordered him to take a force of 900 men to lift the siege of Fort Stanwix. As Arnold closed in, he dispatched an Indian messenger who spread word among Brigadier General Barry St. Leger’s large force of native auxiliaries that his force was treble its actual size and much nearer than they were. The auxiliaries, who were savvy about picking their fights, melted away leaving St. Leger’s force exposed and forcing him to lift the siege and retreat.
Gilbert Stuart's post-Revolution portrait of Major General Horatio Gates, commander of the forces sent to stop General John Burgoyne's invasion army in Up State New York. Gates and Arnold clashed bitterly.
When Arnold returned to the Hudson, he found that the army had retreated to a camp south of Stillwater and that General Horatio Gates had assumed command. Being Arnold, he once again felt snubbed for being passed over. Washington, from his headquarters, decided to maneuver aggressively to meet the British advance. He sent forces under Arnold and General Benjamin Lincoln north during the summer. When Washington discovered that much of British Commanding General Lord Howe’s forces had been sent by ship to the South rather than being available to drive north up the Hudson to joined up with Burgoyne, he reinforced the army in the north with hundreds of men under General Israel Putnam and the 400 elite men of Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, Morgan having been released from British custody in a prisoner swap.
Gates ordered the now united army north to take up a position astride the route that Burgoyne must take unless he made a long detour. Engineers trained by the Polish officer Thaddeus Kosciusko had time to dig in and erect elaborate field fortifications at Bemis Heights, just north of Stillwater and about 10 miles south of Saratoga. Gates had nearly 9000 troops both Continental Regulars and Militia. Burgoyne who was approaching with only the head of his Army had about 7000. Since the Militia was considered unreliable in open field combat, Gates planned to wait for a frontal attack by the enemy and cut them to pieces from behind his fortifications.
Burgoyne for his part was blind as most of his “eyes”, his native auxiliaries, had deserted after Arnold’s Fort Stanwix ruse. He suspected a trap but could not confirm it.
As the enemy approached on the morning of September 19, Arnold realized that the left of the American line on the heights was vulnerable to a flanking maneuver through the woods. He pleaded with Gates to allow him to take a significant force down from the heights to meet such an attack using the American’s superior skills in fighting from the cover of woods. Gates was reluctant but finally partially relented and allowed Arnold to send out a reconnaissance in force led by Daniel Morgan’s riflemen with support from Henry Dearborn’s light infantry.
As he anticipated, Burgoyne split his forces into three columns and sent his right, under General Simon Frazier to flank the American left. Morgan’s men advanced down to an open field on John Freeman’s farm where they saw advance units from the center column under General James Hamilton which had arrived ahead of the delayed Frazier and were beginning to advance through the thick woods and across a deep ravine. Carefully choosing their targets, the expert riflemen picked off nearly every officer and many non-commissioned officers of this advance guard sending them reeling in confusion. Morgan ordered his men to charge, unaware that Frazier was arriving on the scene and they were attacking the main column. Some of Hamilton’s retreating men were fired on by Frazier’s troops in the confusion. Morgan had to retreat back to the woods where he resumed picking off advancing troops.
The fighting delayed the whole advance and frustrated the flanking plan. After a two hour lull, while Hamilton’s force formed up for an assault and reinforcements in the form of several regiments arrived from Gates. When the attack resumed American fire, especially from Morgan’s riflemen, picked off more British officers, and perhaps even more importantly, artillery crews. Several guns were at least temporarily overrun by the Americans. The English center almost broke. Later in the day the tide of battle turned somewhat and the English were able to threaten both the American right and left, which Arnold defended with additional reinforcements from Gates.
When darkness fell ending the fighting, the Americans fell back on their entrenchments leaving the British in control of the battle field, the traditional definition of a tactical victory. But an extremely costly one.
Instead of renewing the attack, Burgoyne delayed to bury his dead and reorganize. Then he received a days old message from Henry Clinton in New York that he might possibly be able to attack American posts on the Hudson, Fort’s Montgomery and Clinton then proceed north to relieve Burgoyne. Gentleman Jim elected to wait for Clinton. But Clinton dallied in New York then finally took the American Forts on October 6 and his advance guard got no farther north than the Livingston Estate Claremont on the 16th. Clearly Clinton would be no help to Burgoyne.
Meanwhile Benjamin Lincoln and an army from Massachusetts set out to retake Ticonderoga. They rolled up several minor British outposts, spend a few days bombarding the fort, then decided to bypass it and proceed to link up with Gates.
While all of this was going on Gates and Arnold were having a monumental falling out. Gates failed to even mention Arnold in his official report of the battle to New York Governor Henry Clinton despite the fact that Arnold was in effective field command during the entire battle as Gates remained well behind the lines in his tent and the officers of the army all credited him with the de facto victory. The two generals got into a raging shouting match and Gates relieved Arnold of his command. Arnold requested re-assignment to Washington’s main army, which Gates gladly granted. But Arnold did not leave. He kept to his tent, biding his time.
By October 7, with Lincoln’s arrival Gates now had 12,000 men. The unreinforced Burgoyne’s forces were reduced to 6,600, many of them beginning to suffer from hunger as supplies dwindled. Burgoyne, ignoring advice from some senior officers to retreat, decided to test the American left at Bemis Heights again with a reconnaissance in force. With Arnold relieved of duty, Gates took personal command of the left. Fighting began around 2 pm with Morgan’s men once again doing their deadly work. The on the right the Americans repelled a Grenadier bayonet charge with devastating volleys at close range from behind tree cover. Then they counter charged breaking the flank and capturing senior officers. On the left Morgan swept aside Canadian militia and native auxiliaries and engaged the main attacking body under Frazier, who was killed in the action, and Burgoyne’s hat and coat were peppered with Yankee balls. The English fell back in confusion on their own entrenchments.
At this point the enraged Arnold, who had been drinking in camp, could no longer contain himself. He rode out to join the action, chased by an officer sent by Gates to order his return to camp. Arnold arrived in time to ride to the front of Brigadier General Enoch Poor, men who were in pursuit of the English falling back on two redoubts of the British camp and the thin line of Canadian Militia between them. He led an attack on the first redoubt under the command of Lord Balcarres which was repulsed after furious fighting.
Arnold then rode through the Canadians, dodging their bullets to lead men under Brigadier General Ebenezer Learned on an attack on the second redoubt, which was taken and whose commander, Hessian Heinrich von Breymann was killed. In one of the last vollies fired by the defenders before they were overwhelmed, Arnold was shot in the leg and his horse killed. The wounded leg was crushed under the falling horse. As he lay bleeding on the field, Gates’s messenger finally caught up to him with his orders to return to camp. The gravely wounded Arnold was carried there.
As darkness fell Burgoyne’s Army was clearly defeated. An attempted night raid by German troops to retake the fallen redoubt was the last action.
Arnold’s actions that day awed the army. His presence on the field had electrified the troops. And it was undoubtedly the single most extraordinary act of mutinous bravery in American military history. Gates, of course, was unimpressed and unamused.
Burgoyne retreated under cover of darkness later that night. He had lost over 1000 men in the two battles including many of his most capable senior officers. On October 13 the pursuing Americans caught up to him near Saratoga and he had to surrender his army to Gates on the 17th. The cut off troops at Ticonderoga had to negotiate a tricky retreat to Quebec as well.
It was a stunning and complete American victory and considered the turning point of the war. In France news of the victory pushed the King into open alliance with the American’s—and alliance that would be critical to ultimate victory.
Despite Gate’s voracious protests, Arnold was recognized as the hero of the Campaign. As a reward he was restored to seniority as a Major General. But he was gravely wounded and unfit for field command. After months of recovery he rejoined the Army at winter quarters at Valley Forge in May 1778 in advance of the coming campaign season. He was cheered by the Army, particularly those who had served under him in the Saratoga campaign. That spring he participated along with other officers in taking and signing a symbolic Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
He was walking painfully with a limp, his shattered oft-wounded left leg now 2½ inches shorter than the other. He asked Washington for assignment as military commander of Philadelphia after the British retreated from the city in June.
18 year old Philadelphia belle Peggy Shippen, daughter of a wealthy Tory family, won Arnold's heart and put him in contact with British agent Major John Andre, a former suitor.
From the beginning, he planned to use this position to enrich himself. He considered it as no more than due for his sacrificial service. He quietly entered several business deals, took bribes to favor some merchants over others as suppliers to the Army, and may have privately sold Army stores. Meanwhile he lived lavishly and allowed himself to be entertained at the most fashionable homes in the city, including those known to be British sympathizers. At one such home he met lovely 18 year old Peggy Shippen whose father had done business with the British during their occupation of the city. Arnold wooed and won her. The two were married in April 1779.
Meanwhile Arnold’s plundering drew unwelcome attention. Other officers had benefited similarly in their commands, it was even considered, marginally by some, as an acceptable and expected benefit of office. But Arnold’s dealings were more flagrant than most and done under the very nose of Congress which had returned to the city. When charges of impropriety were publicly leveled, Arnold demanded a court martial to clear his name.
By that time, under the influence of the Tory Shippen family the aggrieved Arnold was toying with the idea of changing sides. Peggy was able to put him in touch with a former beau, the dashing Major John André who became a go-between in tricky negotiations with General Clinton in New York. André had just been placed in charge of Clinton’s espionage operations.
By July Arnold was passing along information on American troop deployment and supply depots through the use of codes and invisible ink in letters sent via Peggy and her ladies circle to André. He requested £10,000 for his services. Clinton demurred at that sum, but passed on indications that it might be forthcoming if Arnold could provide information on American defenses and dispositions along the Hudson as he planned another drive to the north hoping to cut New England off from the lower colonies.
Negotiations broke off however. Arnold was stuck in Philadelphia where feeling was rising against Tories like the Shippen family and his own high handed business dealings. His court martial was finally convened in December 1779. Despite prejudice against him by some members of the court, however, he was cleared of all but two minor charges of corruption in January. Arnold launched a letter writing campaign to publicize the results and characterize them as a vindication.
Despite Washington’s personal fondness for Arnold—he sent a private letter congratulating him on the birth of his son that spring—the General was forced to issue a short, public censure:
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.—George Washington, April 9, 1780.
That rebuke was deeply humiliating. Then Congress reopened old charges that he had misspent funds on the Quebec invasion years earlier and concluded that he owed £1,000. Enraged, Arnold resigned his position in Philadelphia but not yet in the Army.
About the same time old friend Philip Schuyler offered him an out—command of the critical American garrison at West Point on the Hudson, the key to defenses to the north. Schuyler took the mater up with Washington who at first would not commit. But on the strength of the possibility, Arnold reopened his channels to André and Clinton. He stopped at West Point to inspect its defenses and sent a detailed report as a sign of good faith along with other intelligence.
He returned to Philadelphia to sell his house and began to arrange the transfer of his assets to London. By July 12 after a flurry of messages Arnold made clear that he would surrender West Point upon taking command for a price of £20,000, £1,000 payable immediately in cash.
On August 3, Washington finally made the appointment to the West Point command. On the 22nd Peggy received word that Clinton had agreed on the terms. Almost comic misadventures followed as the two sides attempted to work out details. One coded letter ended up in the hands of Connecticut authorities, but could not be read.
In this 19th Century engraved illustration, Arnold passes the defensive plans to West Point to Major John Andre and even advises the spy to hide them in his boot where they were discovered when Andre was captured.
Arnold and André finally met secretly face to face to work out the details on October 21. André was in civilian clothes. The boat he was supposed to take back to the city was fired upon and damaged by American troops forcing André to attempt to return overland. Arnold wrote out passes to get him through the lines.
André was captured by a militia patrol near Tarrytown on October 23. Incriminating papers exposing the plot were immediately sent to Washington. Meanwhile André was sent by the officer in charge of him who knew nothing of the content of the papers, back to Arnold at West Point. Washington’s spy chief quickly sent a rider to retrieve him but the escort was inexplicably allowed to proceed to West Point to inform Arnold of the arrest.
Despite Washington’s best efforts, Arnold was able to slip away from West Point and was rowed down river to be picked up the damaged ship HMS Vulcan, which had failed to retrieve André.
Arnold boldly wrote to Washington requesting safe passage out of Philadelphia for Peggy and his family, which the gentlemanly Commander granted, not yet aware of the depth of her own involvement in the plot. Washington wrote to Clinton offering to exchange André for Arnold but the request was rebuffed. André was tied and hung as a spy in early October, his fate sealed by the earlier British execution of Patriot officer Nathan Hale.
Washington sent agents to the city to attempt to kidnap Arnold, and they nearly succeeded but he changed his quarters. Late in October he sailed from New York to take up a British command in the South. About the same time he sent a public letter attempting to defend his actions to the American people. It was not well received.
Arnold was given a commission as a British Brigadier General with an annual income of several hundred Pounds, but paid him only £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 for his treason because his plot had failed.
Arnold as a British Brigadier who captured Williamsburg and sent Governor Thomas Jefferson fleeing. He then played a cat and mouse game with Continental forces under the Marquis de Lafayette until the arrival of the main armies under Lord Cornwallis.
In December 1780 Arnold commanded a force of more than 1,600 men which captured the Virginia capital of Richmond sending the legislature and Governor Thomas Jefferson fleeing. Arnold’s force was pursued by Virginia Militia and Continental troops under the Marquis de Lafayette who was under the personal orders of Washington to summarily hang Arnold if captured. Arnold fell back until reinforced and then raided in Virginia until Lord Cornwallis and the southern army arrived and relieved Arnold of command.
Arnold returned to New York where he proposed various aggressive raids on American economic interests, almost all denied by Clinton. But Clinton finally agreed to a raid on New London Connecticut causing damage estimated at $500,000 when Arnold burned the town and its warehouses and captured Fort Griswold. But Arnold lost a third of his 1,700 man command in the attack. Clinton concluded he could afford no more such victories.
When word of Cornwallis’s surrender reached Clinton in New York in October 1781, he gave leave for Arnold and his family to sail for London.
His active role on both sides of the American Revolution was over.
In England he was celebrated by the Tories, reviled by the Whigs who were in the ascendency, and mistrusted in the Army. Public opinion held him to be a traitor who could not be trusted. Every attempt to gain a new command, a position in the government, or a sinecure in the East India Company was turned down. He had a hard time getting along on a Brigadier’s half pay and pension given Peggy’s lavish spending.
In 1785 leaving Peggy and the younger children in London he and his son Richard from his first marriage emigrated to Saint John, New Brunswick where they speculated in land and Arnold returned to sea as a merchant trader. After a successful first voyage, Arnold retrieved Peggy and the children, settled various law suits in London and Philadelphia and settled them in St. Johns. He was soon embroiled in still more law suits and controversy about his business dealings and was so unpopular that a mob burned him in effigy in front of his home. The family was forced to return to London in 1791.
Controversy and law suits dogged him. He fought a bloodless duel with the Earl of Lauderdale for impugning his honor in the House of Lords.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution he outfitted a privateer to prey on French shipping and their Caribbean islands. He was captured and imprisoned on Guadeloupe charged with spying for the British and avoided hanging in a daring escape to the blockading British ships. Then he organized militias on British held islands to repel French threats. He was rewarded for this service with a large land grant held jointly with son Richard in Upper Canada.
Back in London in 1801 his health began to fail. Gout crippled his good leg and he could no longer go to sea. He suffered dropsy and by summer was lapsing into periods of fever and delirium. Arnold died on June 14, 1801, at the age of 60. He left Peggy a woefully small inheritance and a bad reputation. He was, however, buried with full British military honors.
In America Arnold’s name became literally synonymous with treason. His real contributions to the Revolutionary war effort have been forgotten in the public mind except for military historians and Revolutionary period specialists. Still, there was a lingering affection for their old commander among some of his troops despite it all. And some later admirers thought his contributions deserved some recognition. But it was always dicey.
A boot on a nameless monument commemorates the battlefield heroics of Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Bemis Heights.
On the old Bemis Heights battle ground of the Saratoga Campaign a small monument stands with a carved boot on it. The inscription reads “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.” It omits a name. The monument was paid for by General John Watts DePeyster, a New York Militia officer and noted military historian.