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The Great Traitor
Benedict Arnold never quite understood the cause he served superbly and then betrayed
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
Had his plot succeeded, the Revolution really might have failed. West Point controlled the Hudson River crossings; had these been turned over to the British it would have been impossible to feed or supply George Washington’s army.
The conspiracy disintegrated, thanks largely to Arnold’s stupid, prideful insistence that his British contact, Maj. John André, make his way through the American lines to call upon him in person. The British agent was captured with incriminating documents hidden in his stocking. At news of the arrest, Arnold fled to the British at New York City aboard the frigate Vulture (Tom Paine called it “one vulture … receiving another”). Once safely ashore, Arnold began importuning the British commander for an increase in his reward. André’s great charm and his unflinching dignity on the way to the gallows made him a posthumous hero on both sides of the Atlantic. The naked contrast between the ways the two men met their fates had already helped make Arnold almost universally despised. “Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for André,” wrote a Continental Army physician, “not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.”
Arnold suggested that his new allies bribe the revolutionaries and offer a title to Washington.
Empty of ethics himself, Arnold never understood that others might be moved by motives more exalted than his own. “Money, properly applied in America,” would shatter the Revolutionary ranks, he confidently assured the British secretary of state for the colonies after he had deserted his country’s cause; a “title offered to General Washington” himself “might not prove unacceptable.”
He fought alongside the British against his countrymen for a time, even led a fiery seaborne assault on New London, Connecticut, not far from his own hometown of Norwich, that ended with the butchering of the American garrison. Then, in 1782, he sailed for England with his wife and children. It disappointed him, just as America had, and he came to number British statesmen and soldiers, too, among his persecutors. The crown kept its pledge to pay him, though never so much as he had initially demanded, nowhere near enough, as he said, to keep him “in the style of the first people of America, by whom I was beloved and respected and among whom I had many friends.” The future George IV made a point of being seen strolling with him in his gardens. But an anonymous correspondent in the General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer spoke for many when he denounced Arnold as a “mean mercenary, who, having adopted a cause for the sake of plunder, quits it when he is convicted of that charge.” Politicians were careful to walk wide of Benedict Arnold. British officers shunned him as untrustworthy. He was attacked in the House of Lords as the living symbol of treason. British officialdom eventually wearied of his ever-escalating demands for further compensation. His offers to “liberate” much of Latin America from Spain and to fight for England against Napoleon too were ignored. His enemies were even denying him the chance to seek a soldier’s death, he told his wife toward the end. He had finally become, as Brandt writes, “nothing but a man whose papers other men mislaid.”
Arnold died on June 14, 1801, of “dropsy and a disease in the lungs,” brought on his widow said by an “agitation of the mind.” She died three years later. Major André rests with other eminent Britons in Westminster Abbey. The Arnolds lie buried in the dark crypt of tiny St. Mary’s Church in the London suburb of Battersea.
Arnold’s only monument in America marked the spot where he fell wounded at Saratoga. The inscription hailed him as “the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army.” But even those who set it up did not dare chisel onto it his name.