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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
He had managed to hold on to his money—some £5,000 which he had brought for trading—and he soon put small amounts of it to good use as bribes. He learned that a British fleet was now blockading the harbor; he also heard that he was slated for the gallows. Further bribes to his guards put him in touch with the British flagship Boyne and procured the equipment he needed. On June 29, 1794, as the sultry, tropical evening became night and the tide turned, Arnold placed his money and other valuables in a cask and dropped it overboard—a gamble that worked, for later the cask washed ashore below Pointe-à-Pitre, where a British landing force had encamped.
In the late dark hours, Arnold slid down a rope to a small raft that was waiting for him. On this he made his way to a rowboat that had been anchored in the harbor, and then pulled for the British fleet as fast—and as quietly—as he could. At one point he had to outrow a French cutter that hailed him: clever work with his own smaller, more maneuverable boat got him away in the darkness. At four o’clock in the morning the built-up shoe that Arnold wore on his shrunken wounded leg pounded the deck boards of the Boyne.
Off and on for the next two years he served as a volunteer officer under Sir Charles Grey, the general commanding the British land forces in the West Indies. He organized the supply service and acted as an agent for the British planters affected by the slow British retreat from Guadeloupe and other French West Indian possessions. Once more he tried to obtain a permanent and suitable post in the British Army. Once more his requests met with refusal; he told his wife that the British would not even let him seek a soldier’s death.
Still, his last military efforts did not go unrewarded. A committee of West Indian planters and merchants drew up a resolution, thanking him for “beneficial” services. As a former Loyalist officer on half pay, he was granted 13,400 acres of Crown land in Quebec. This, however, did not provide him with immediate financial returns.
Dwindling finances were not the traitor’s only problem. In 1795 Benedict, the eldest of his sons by his first wife, died in Jamaica of gangrene, after being wounded while fighting with the British. In May of 1800, Sophia, his and Peggy’s only daughter, had a paralytic stroke that left her a semi-invalid for life. A month later Edward, their favorite son, left for India as an officer in the British engineers. “His death,” Peggy told sister Betsy, “could scarcely be a more severe stroke.”
Even before Edward had completed the tedious five-months’ voyage to his post at Cawnpore, Peggy was penning him a long letter, outlining the doleful state into which her husband’s privateering ventures had fallen. Such “insignificant prizes” as Arnold’s captains had taken, she complained, had caused her husband “more trouble than profit” because of the legal formalities involved in their condemnation. She added that the petty officers on her husband’s ships were throwing out “some very broad hints that handsome fortunes have been made by ransoming Ships at sea, but as we have not proof we must sit down quietly with the loss. … [Arnold] is, at present, in the most harassed wretched state that I have ever seen him. Disappointed in his highly raised expectations, harassed by the Sailors who are loudly demanding their prize-money, when in fact their advances have greatly exceeded anything that is due to them, and wishing still to do something, without the health or power of acting, he knows not which way to turn himself.” Peggy herself tended to much of her husband’s business. Her own informed view was that Arnold’s skippers had “done” him out of “about £50,000.”
Most of this unhappy letter was written on January 14, 1801. A few weeks later Arnold’s already broken health took a turn for the worse, following the renewal of a chronic cough contracted in the tropics. Gout attacked his unwounded leg; the other ached constantly, and he walked only with a cane. Overwhelmed by accumulated frustrations, he failed rapidly. His face became deeply wrinkled; only the blue eyes reminded his friends of the old Arnold.
In the early summer Peggy took him to Galleywood, near Chelmsford, to spend a week with her friends Ann and Sarah Fitch. The General seemed to improve in the country air, but following their return to London, he was much worse. His doctors’ diagnosis was dropsy, and on June 10 he became delirious.
Legend has it that as death approached he called for his old American uniform and said he wished he had never removed it. Historians generally discredit this as inconsistent with his conviction that nothing he chose to do could be wrong. Quite possibly his only regrets were that he had failed to deliver West Point to the British, and that his lifelong struggle for fame and fortune had brought him only infamy and debts.