- Historic Sites
Why Benedict Arnold Did It
To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
When Washington arrived from Hartford at Arnold’s headquarters the next morning, September 25, he went upstairs with Lafayette to the rooms reserved for them to await the noonday meal. After they had inspected the defenses, Jameson’s messenger arrived after riding all night with a packet for the commander in chief. As Washington broke open the seal and paged through the documents in Arnold’s handwriting, the incredible truth struck him: Benedict Arnold had gone over to the British.
Remarkably clear-headed under fire, Washington was the only one at West Point that day to act calmly. He immediately ordered Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry to go after Arnold. Amid shouted orders Lafayette came into the dressing room where Washington was sitting, head down, hand trembling with its sheaf of treasonous papers, murmuring to Henry Knox, “Arnold has betrayed me. Whom can we trust now?”
Arnold’s price for changing sides and turning over the Americans at West Point (including some of the very men who had followed him to Quebec) .was twenty thousand pounds, about the amount he reckoned he had lost from Congress, from property he could not sell, and from debts a traitor could not collect. He received less than a third of it, but he was still a wealthy man; he had been transferring money to New York and London and on a brigadier general’s modest pay was able to rent a mansion at 2 Broadway, right next door to British headquarters in New York City. More lucrative than his payment for changing sides was his new post as the ranking general of Loyalist troops, including his own new unit, the American Legion, made up entirely of deserters from the Continental Army.
Arnold’s new compatriots never really warmed to him or trusted him fully, and he finished the war as a retired British colonel on half pay, living out his life in exile.
Clinton unleashed Arnold on two bloody raids of plunder that severely damaged the American war effort and further enriched Arnold. In January 1781 he devastated Virginia at the head of a Loyalist army, sacking and burning the capital at Richmond. According to his own count, his troops destroyed a cannon foundry and arms warehouses and seized “thirty to forty ships loaded with tobacco, West Indies goods, wines, sailcloth.” Arnold’s share of the prize money was two thousand pounds. His second raid was on his native Thames Valley of Connecticut. In an attack on New London, a privateer base that had captured some five hundred British ships during the war, Arnold took ten richly laden prize ships in an assault that was so bloody that Clinton decided he could not afford any more such victories. Arnold’s 1,732man Loyalist army, according to his own meticulous records, destroyed 143 buildings but sustained casualties of almost 25 percent, one of the heaviest British tolls of the war.
Arnold’s new compatriots never really warmed to him or trusted him fully. When he proposed an attack on Philadelphia to capture Congress and destroy military targets, Clinton turned him down. In December 1781 Arnold left the United States on the same ship as Earl Cornwallis, recently vanquished at Yorktown. Arnold finished the war as a retired British colonel on a half-pay pension, living out his life in exile in England, Canada, and the West Indies. He died heavily in debt in 1801.
Arnold never returned to the United States during his twenty-year exile, and he rarely spoke of it. He never ceased to see himself as a hero, but he was content, he wrote a friend shortly before his death, with obscurity in exile; contentment was “the greatest happiness to be expected in the world.” In England, he concluded, he was “comfortable but not sufficiently elevated to be the object of envy and distinction.”