- Historic Sites
On The Trail Of Benedict Arnold
April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
Some of the infuriating questions surrounding the great hero-traitor can be answered by visiting the fields where he fought. The trip will also take you to many of the most beautiful places in the Northeast.No one has ever fully explored the inner geography of Benedict Arnold’s heart. The springs whence flowed his mad, desperate courage lie so close to the sources of his cynical, calculated treachery that the channels quickly merge, making it impossible to follow the bravery without being overwhelmed by the darkness—which leaves him, to our lasting fascination and bewilderment, among the hardest human beings to understand in American history.
Did he become a traitor because of all the injustice he suffered, real and imagined, at the hands of the Continental Congress and his jealous fellow generals? Because of the constant agony of two battlefield wounds in an already gout-ridden leg? From psychological wounds received in his Connecticut childhood when his alcoholic father squandered the family’s fortunes? Or was it a kind of extreme midlife crisis, swerving from radical political beliefs to reactionary ones, a change accelerated by his marriage to the very young, very pretty, very Tory Peggy Shippen?
Again, the inner geography is complex and extraordinarily murky. But there is another, fresher way to come at an understanding of Benedict Arnold—not so much by worrying about his inner geography as by viewing him against his “outer” geography, the American landscape he fought through during the three glorious years when his reputation rocketed up as steep and glorious a trajectory as any American military leader has ever known.
I may have been the last American ever to feel personally betrayed by Benedict Arnold.
Arnold, the “ferocious and ubiquitous Arnold,” the “best battlefield commander on either side during the Revolution”—the man who no less an authority than Lord Germaine, the British secretary of state, warned was “of all the Americans, the most enterprising and dangerous”—managed between the autumn of 1775 and the autumn of 1777 to accomplish feats that can only be described as astonishing: leading in person one of the most daring wilderness marches in the history of warfare; building the first American navy and using that navy in a battle that held off a British invasion for a crucial season; playing, a year later, a key role in what is generally agreed was one of the most important battles not only of the American Revolution but of world history.
Following Arnold through the landscape where these exploits took place is as good a way as any to approach the man in the light cast by his heroism. And since the “Arnold” landscape remains among the most lovely and unspoiled on the continent, a week or two spent following his path through the wilds of Maine, the drama of Quebec, and the splendors of Lake Champlain is a journey that, for pastoral beauty and historic interest, can scarcely be bettered.
Because geography played such a powerful role in Arnold’s rise to fame, it’s best to get a clear idea of the very specific corridor that obsessed him, the geographic puzzle he sought time and time again to solve.
The St. Lawrence–Richelieu–Lake Champlain–Hudson northern waterway leads from Quebec City, for so many years the Gibraltar of North America, into the deep, strategic heart of New York and New England. The military historian John Keegan refers to this as “the blood-stained warpath,” and well he might. From Samuel de Champlain’s first battle with the Iroquois in 1608 to Thomas Macdonough’s naval victory at Plattsburgh in the War of 1812, this was the scene of almost constant back-and-forth fighting.
The best—and worst—years of Benedict Arnold’s life were spent here. He had been traveling back and forth to Quebec ever since he was a teenage trader (and smuggler), and even his eventual treachery, the selling to the British of West Point with its command of the Hudson, was an attempt to unlock this corridor by yet another means.
When Colonel Arnold arrived at Washington’s headquarters outside the besieged Boston in the late summer of 1775, he had already done his share of fighting along Lake Champlain; it was he who along with the equally courageous and quarrelsome Ethan Allen had surprised Fort Ticonderoga on the night of May 10 and won for the colonies its urgently needed cannon. Now here he was back in Cambridge, ready to carry out an audacious plan in what would be the first American offensive of the war.
While Gen. Richard Montgomery led an army up the “traditional” Lake Champlain route to the St. Lawrence toward Quebec, Arnold would lead his own army on a daring, surprise march through the trackless wilderness of Maine (then part of Massachusetts), forming the right flank of a pincers that would win Quebec—and Canada—for the rebel cause.