On The Trail Of Benedict Arnold

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An hour’s drive south of Whitehall, where Route 4 pinches in toward a narrow Hudson River, is the battlefield at Saratoga—for me, one of the most moving of American places. Here, in the autumn of 1777, were fought the two furious battles that stopped Gen. John Burgoyne’s invasion and proved vital in persuading France to ally itself with our cause. The most evocative spot in this remarkably unspoiled landscape may well be the gentle meadow that during the battle was known as the Breymann Redoubt, for the Hessian commander whose troops faced a furious American charge late on the decisive day of October 7.

At a corner of the meadow, shaded by trees and not obvious at first, is one of the strangest battlefield monuments ever erected, a beautifully sculpted left leg, elegantly booted, standing by itself on what appears to be a cannon, beneath which a short inscription explains—and doesn’t explain—what it commemorates: “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.”

Arnold had been far from idle since Valcour Island. He had been dispatched to the west to deal with the right side of the British pincers, turning it back at Fort Stanwix, and now here he was back at Saratoga, under the command of Horatio Gates. No two men ever hated each other more; it didn’t help that in the first of the two Saratoga battles, Freeman’s Farm on September 19, Arnold won most of the glory for himself (and how often Arnold fought in foliage season!). Now, as fighting broke out on October 7, Arnold had been effectively relieved of his command, forced to stand idle as a spectator while his best troops came up against stiff British resistance and the battle’s outcome seemed suddenly in doubt.

This is a key moment in Arnold’s life, and it’s important to try to understand what was in his heart as he rode back and forth on his charger, forbidden to take part in the battle yet compelled by a fury he was powerless to stop. The fury came from so many sources, so much hurt and so much courage, that it’s almost impossible for us to comprehend, but surely part of it was his overwhelming sense that this landscape, this corridor, this waterway was his . Hadn’t he won it for himself on the excruciating portage over the Height of Land, or on the dark snowy streets of Quebec, or on the brilliantly whitecapped water off Valcour Island? This was his land, to defend to the last drop of his being, his to win for his country, his, ultimately, to one day sell for good British gold.

Arnold finds it impossible to resist his own courage. He gathers up some men, leads the vital charge that wins the Breymann Redoubt for the Americans, seals the victory, and, just as he crashes into the redoubt, is shot in the same leg that was wounded at Quebec.

Historians for years have always insisted that it would have been better for Arnold’s reputation if he had been killed at the peak of his glory in Saratoga, yet perhaps they miss the point. In a very real sense he was killed at Saratoga: the good Arnold, the one that for three brilliant years courageously overrode all his demons. Almost certainly Arnold sensed this himself.

Henry Dearborn rushes up to him, asks where he’s been shot. “In the leg,” Arnold tells him, then, in what is surely one of the saddest lines from American history, adds, “I wish it had been my heart.”

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