Why Benedict Arnold Did It


Leading his column of scarlet-coated foot-guards—a slash of color against the pale green of a New Englandspring—Capt. Benedict Arnold marched north toward Boston on April 22, 1775. He had scarcely left New Haven before he came upon Samuel Holden Parsons, a New London lawyer and land speculator who had led his company to Boston at the Lexington alarm and who was now on his way back to Connecticut to raise troops. Parsons told Arnold that the patriot army assembling around Boston had neither supplies nor ammunition and, worst of all, no cannon to besiege the heavily armed British. Arnold told Parsons that there were hundreds of good cannon at the dilapidated and weakly held British forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the southern end of Lake Champlain, on the northern New York frontier.

A few days after Arnold and his men arrived at the American camp at Cambridge, he told the same story to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and on May 3 the full Provincial Congress of Massachusetts approved Arnold’s appointment as colonel and commissioned him to raise a regiment of four hundred men in the Berkshires, then seize the forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Issued ten horses and a meager hundred-pound war chest to buy provisions, Arnold and six of his footguards left that night with cartridges in their saddlebags, horses sagging under casks of gunpowder. It took a maddening three days for the party to struggle 110 miles west over sodden roads in heavy spring rains to Williamstown, where Arnold learned that Samuel Parsons had beaten him to the punch; after their meeting Parsons had taken Arnold’s idea to the Connecticut authorities and had organized a rival expedition that was now under the command of Ethan Alien. Furious at what he saw as Parsons’s opportunism, Arnold left behind his recruits and dashed northwest with only an orderly sergeant to overtake Alien and assert his command.

Arnold wrote to Massachusetts authorities that since he had been the very first American officer into Fort Ticonderoga, “I shall keep it, at every hazard.”

At Shoreham, fifty miles north of Bennington, Arnold found Alien. Marching directly up to the green-uniformed Alien, Arnold presented his written orders and said his rival officer had no legitimate authority. Daunted, Alien told his men that Arnold would lead them, but they would still receive their two-dollars-a-day pay. “Damn the pay,” someone muttered, and several announced they would walk home if they couldn’t serve under their own officers. Eager to press the attack, Arnold offered a compromise: Alien would be in charge of his Green Mountain Boys, Arnold of all the Massachusetts troops he could raise. They would lead the first American offensive of the Revolution in a joint command.

That night, 230 men, including 50 from Massachusetts, gathered in the woods across the lake from Ticonderoga, but by the time dawn broke on May 10, 1775, only two 30-foot scows had arrived and the initial attack was made by 83 men. Arnold and Alien led the troops, mostly veterans of the French and Indian War, to the south side of Fort Ticonderoga, where the wall lay ruptured and the main gate would no longer close tight. Just inside, a single sentry dozed. Arnold, on the left, sprinted ahead of Alien and squeezed through the narrow opening and, sword drawn, rushed the guard. The startled redcoat woke, aimed, pulled the trigger; his damp gunpowder misfired. Americans surged into the fort, and four years later, when he published his memoirs, Alien claimed he and he alone had captured the works “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”

Four hundred more Green Mountain Boys arrived from across the cove to crowd into the fort, and Arnold reported to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress that “the greatest confusion and anarchy” broke out. The Boys found a cellar housing ninety gallons of rum, then set about “destroying and plundering private property, committing every enormity and paying no attention to public service.” When Arnold protested, an infuriated Ethan Alien stripped him of his joint command at gunpoint. Confining himself to the officers’ quarters, Arnold wrote to Massachusetts authorities that inasmuch as he had been “the first person who entered and took possession of the Fort, I shall keep it, at every hazard.” For four days, “often insulted by Alien and his officers and often threatened with my life,” Arnold coolly studied the fort, surveyed its guns—nearly eighty usable cannon, six mortars, three howitzers—and waited for more of his own men.

On May 14 Arnold’s regiment arrived with a schooner commandeered at nearby Skenesboro. Arnold named it Liberty , fitted it with four carriage and six swivel guns, and, leaving Ethan Alien and his troops behind, sailed north with fifty Massachusetts men to attack the British base at St. Johns (present-day St. Jean), on the Richelieu River just inside Quebec Province. In a matter of days he took St. Johns, scuttled five British vessels, and came home with four others; he now commanded the first American naval squadron. Arnold’s raid made impossible a British counterattack in 1776 and left him master of the hundred-mile lake.