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Benedict Arnold: The Aftermath Of Treason
The traitor was not destitute, but his family's life was not comfortable after the Revolutionary War.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
During the Arnolds’ last year in St. John, 1791, the long-standing dislike of the General assumed violent form. In the spring a mob overran the front lawn of his home. The angrily shouting citizens were burning an effigy labeled “traitor” when the troops arrived to disperse them. A few weeks later the Arnolds signalled their imminent departure for England with an advertisement in the Royal Gazette offering their New Brunswick properties for sale. The household items listed in the newspaper included “a set of elegant cabriole chairs covered with blue damask, sopha to correspond,” a “desert set of Wedgewood Gilt Ware,” “a Terrestrial Globe,” and “a Lady’s elegant Saddle and Bridle.” They sailed on New Year’s day. On the following February 26 Arnold wrote his agent in St. John, Jonathan Bliss, that their reception in London had “been very pleasant … and I cannot help viewing your great city as a shipwreck from which I have escaped.”
Actually little in the way of better fortune awaited him in England. In the spring of 1792 the Earl of Lauderdale made a slighting remark about him in the House of Lords. Arnold challenged, and on June 26 Peggy wrote her father to ignore a “paragraph” in the “public Papers of a few days back … mentioning that Genl. A is killed in a Duel with the Earl of Lauderdale. This was for some time so generally believed, that our friends were flocking to the house, to condole. …” In fact, Peggy revealed, the duel was still in the offing and her “situation” remained “a very unhappy one, till the Affair is settled; but I call all my fortitude to my aid, to prevent my sinking under it, which would unman him [Arnold] and prevent his acting himself—I am perfectly silent on the subject; for weak Woman as I am, I would not wish to prevent what would be deemed necessary to preserve his honor.”
Fortunately, on July 6 Peggy could write her father that the duel had come and gone with nobody the worse. “The time appointed,” she reported, “was seven o’clock on Sunday morning last—Mr. Charles Fox, as second to Lord Lauderdale; Lord Hawke, the General’s. It was agreed that they should fire at the same time, upon a word given, which the General did without effect.” Then Lord Lauderdale “refused to fire,” and after a short parley apologized to Arnold’s satisfaction. Peggy added that it “has been highly gratifying to find the General’s conduct so much applauded.”
Encouraged by the favorable publicity arising from his encounter with Lauderdale, Arnold renewed his pleas for a government post, preferably military. A recommendation from Sir Henry Clinton, a string of letters from Arnold—nothing availed, and in 1794 he returned to his old trade on the high seas.
England and France were at war. French privateers were roaming the English Channel. While Arnold was waiting to embark in Falmouth, a storm-beaten ship heading for America came in to port. Among its passengers was Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, later to win fame as Napoleon’s foreign minister, then a refugee from the Jacobin rulers of republican France. That night Talleyrand had an experience worth noting: it records Arnold’s only known mention in conversation, following his departure from America, of the country he had betrayed. Talleyrand wrote in his memoirs:
The innkeeper at whose place I had my meals informed me that one of his lodgers was an American general. Thereupon I expressed the desire of seeing that gentleman, and, shortly after, I was introduced to him. After the usual exchange of greetings … I ventured to request from him some letters of introduction to his friends in America. “No,” he replied, and after a few moments of silence, noticing my surprise, he added, “I am perhaps the only American who cannot give you letters for his own country … all the relations I had there are now broken … I must never return to the States.” He dared not tell me his name. It was General Arnold. I must confess that I felt much pity for him, for which political puritans will perhaps blame me, but with which I do not reproach myself, for I witnessed his agony.
Late June of 1794 found Arnold approaching Pointe-a-Pitre on the Guadeloupe island of GrandeTerre, unaware that this busy West Indian trading center, recently seized by the British, had been even more recently recovered by the French. Arnold assumed the ships in its narrow harbor to be British. Discovering his mistake too late to turn back, he landed boldly and identified himself as an American merchant named John Anderson—an interesting touch since “John Anderson” was the fictional name Major André had used in the treason negotiations.
His masquerade was unsuccessful. Suspecting him of being English, the French hustled him aboard a prison ship in the harbor, thus setting in train the sequence of adventures that gives a last thrilling glimpse of the old Arnold, the daring, resourceful, and valiant Arnold of Quebec and Bemis Heights.