- 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
For six weeks Arnold held Lake Champlain and the New York-Vermont frontier until thousands of reinforcements were sent in by the Continental Congress—and then he was brushed aside. Cutting off money, supplies, and men, Congress and the New England revolutionary governments sent Arnold conflicting orders and then repudiated them. According to his recently discovered expense accounts, Arnold financed the defense of the frontier after the meager hundredpound war chest was gone, borrowing money and pledging slightly less than fourteen hundred pounds of his own cash as he pleaded with Congress to allow him to attack Canada and bring it into the Continental Union before the British had time to reinforce.
Meanwhile, as Ethan Alien and his friends worked to discredit Arnold in Congress, a committee of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress headed by Dr. Benjamin Church (a Cambridge physician soon to be court-martialed for treason) was scrutinizing Arnold’s orders, expenditures, and general bookkeeping at Ticonderoga. Disgusted with his treatment, Arnold resigned his commission, “not being able,” he wrote, “to hold it longer with honor.” Six weeks after storming Ticonderoga, the first significant American military success of the Revolution, Benedict Arnold disbanded his Massachusetts regiment under a cloud of accusations of overstepping his orders and misappropriating money. Stunned and bitter, he headed home, learning on the way that his wife had died.
Fifty-one days after it had swung out of Cambridge, the American army, 40 percent of it lost to death or desertion, stumbled into the huts of St. Georges in Canada.
Just three weeks later he was back in the fight. Before leaving Ticonderoga, Arnold had proposed an invasion of Canada. Congress soon formed a Northern Department under Mai. Gen. Philip Schuyler to achieve that very goal, and Arnold was offered the post of adjutant general. But Arnold wanted a field commission and went instead to Massachusetts to clean up his accounts and offer his services to the Continental Army’s new commander in chief, George Washington. In his saddlebags he carried a detailed plan for a two-pronged invasion of Quebec Province.
In early August 1775 Arnold met Washington and proposed an attack on Quebec City as a diversion in force while Schuyler struck at Montreal. The British, Arnold pointed out, had only six hundred men to hold vast Quebec Province. Schuyler’s attack from the south would draw them to the New York border, allowing Arnold, leading a small army along the old Indian route up the Kennebec River through Maine and down the Chaudière, to take the Canadian capital by surprise. A thousand shock troops appearing suddenly outside an undefended Quebec, Arnold believed, would inspire Canadians already sympathetic to the American cause.
Washington endorsed Arnold’s plan and offered him his pick of eleven hundred men from the Continental Army but also told him to wait for Schuyler’s concurrence before moving ahead. It took two weeks, until almost the end of the short Canadian summer, before Schuyler’s approval came. Meanwhile, Arnold planned every detail of the invasion and traveled to Watertown to unravel his accounts with the Massachusetts Congress.
In an all-day hearing at Watertown, Arnold presented an account of regimental expenditures, arguing that having been so far from Boston, he had had to make decisions on behalf of the state and pay prevailing wages and prices. The Church Committee objected most to his personal expenses, especially "1 Sorrel horse rec’d by order of the Committee- valued at cost when bought 16,” and finally allowed him only three pounds. It also refused nearly forty pounds in wages Arnold had given a wheelwright to make gun carriages to transport cannon. Arnold, Church declared, should have used sol- diers as carpenters. Challenges ranged from the petty (paying an officer’s small out-of-pocket expenses without obtaining a proper receipt) to the more serious (the committee objected to Arnold’s acting as his own commissary and charging the customary 10 percent broker’s fee). In all, the committee refused more than half of Arnold’s claims. Months later, after Church’s arrest for treason, Washington stepped in and asked Congress to clear the account, but by that time Arnold was far north in the Canadian wilderness and had need of more than acquittal.
On August 30, 1775, in Cambridge, the newly commissioned Continental Army colonel Benedict Arnold began to pick his men. Washington and his staff rode the lines with Arnold on that dusty gray Sunday morning. Chaplain William Emerson recalled that “the whole army was paraded in continued line of companies” with “one continued roll of drums.” When his choices reported to Cambridge Common the next day, Arnold and his adjutants asked each man about his experience in the wilderness and at sea. Farmers who had never been in a boat but were bored with camp life lied to get in on the fighting, and by dusk Arnold had 1,050 men he thought could survive a wilderness march. But Washington’s staff had to prepare orders, and not until September 15 did Arnold shake hands with the general and ride north. At Newburyport, where Arnold gathered eleven ships, three more days slipped away before the wind was favorable. Departing the harbor, the overloaded troop transport Swallow ran aground. A storm at sea hid the convoy from British blockades but scattered Arnold’s ships on the 125mile passage to the mouth of the Kennebec. “Our voyage has been very troublesome indeed,” Arnold wrote back.