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
Arnold and his remnant of an army besieged Quebec for four more months. By sham and bluff, with the help of French-Canadian volunteers, he menaced Quebec from snow-and-ice forts. “I have no thoughts of leaving this proud town until I first enter it in triumph,” he wrote to his sister. But on May 6, 1776, a British fleet arrived in the St. Lawrence with ten thousand reinforcements, raising the siege and forcing the Americans to retreat. In the weeks that followed, a series of American generals—David Wooster, John Thomas, John Sullivan—were promoted over Arnold’s head, but all of them failed to stem the British counteroffensive. Leading the rear guard, Arnold escaped toward St. Johns with the enemy in sight. Along the way, to slow the British, he burned towns, forts, bridges, ships, and shipyards and successfully evacuated thousands of the sick and wounded. Hotly pursued by British grenadiers, Arnold barely made it into the last boat to leave Canada.
On July 7, 1776, the American generals defending New York and the New England backcountry against the British counteroffensive rendezvoused in the ruins of the old British fort at Crown Point for an emergency council of war. Already, Indians and British light infantry were probing southward through the forests along the shores, attempting to cut off the military roads leading east to the New England coast and south to New York City. At the lake’s northern tip British troops were refitting.
In the holds and lashed to the decks of British warships anchored off Quebec in the St. Lawrence were the planks and masts, guns, rigging, and sails for one hundred landing barges, three men-of-war, one heavy-artillery bomb ketch, and twenty gunboats—an entire fleet prefabricated in England and then disassembled and shipped across an ocean to fight on a mountain lake. Each of the pre-cut men-of-war was bigger than any vessel that had ever sailed on Lake Champlain. With this elite force, Sir Guy Carleton was poised to carry out the British ministry’s strategy to divide and conquer America and extinguish its year-old rebellion.
Carleton’s Northern Army was to plunge down the lake, down Lake George, and on down the Hudson River to Albany to link up with the main thirty-four-thousand-man British force moving northward from New York City. Of the American officers gathered at Crown Point to figure out how to cope with this ambitious offensive, only Benedict Arnold had combat command experience. Although he was pessimistic—his army, he believed, had been “neglected by Congress” and “distressed by the smallpox, want of generals and discipline"—he vowed “one more bout for the honour of Americans.”
Arnold went into the meeting with a bold plan. The only chance to stop the British, he said, was to delay them until the northern winter forced them to halt their operations. With no roads to travel south on, Carleton would have to strike across Lake Champlain, nearly impossible in the fierce winds and heavy seas of winter. Arnold proposed building a fleet to attack the open troop transports as they came across that fall: eight row galleys, thirty gondolas, and a thirty-six-gun frigate. The side that had the larger man-ofwar would control the lake, he argued.
To carry out his plan, Arnold needed a thousand workmen—five hundred experienced shipwrights and ship carpenters and five hundred axmen to cut timber. Most of all, he needed nine hundred experienced seamen. Horatio Gates, in command at Ticonderoga and Arnold’s immediate superior, wrote Washington: “General Arnold, who is perfectly skilled in maritime affairs, has nobly undertaken to command our fleet upon the lake. … I have committed the whole of that department to his care, convinced that he will thereby, add to that brilliant reputation.”
The race was on. “Ship carpenters, gangs of fifteen each,” Arnold sent off to the main shipyard at Skenesboro to expand the barracks and stocks, while others felled thousands of trees to feed the two sawmills that snarled day and night. Arnold also appointed officers to lead them without consulting Gates, overstepping his authority and antagonizing his commanding officer in the opening round of a feud that worsened for two years and earned Arnold many enemies. For his part, Gates wrote a report to Congress that took full credit for all of Arnold’s efforts.
More than two hundred carpenters, armorers, and blacksmiths converged on Skenesboro that first week. They rose early and worked seven days a week despite a brief rebellion by New Englanders against Sunday labor. But nowhere near enough men answered the call for crews to man the fighting ships, and Arnold again refused to work through the proper channels. In a letter to Washington he appealed over Gates’s head for crews. “Without a larger number of seamen, our navigation will be useless.” Arnold also enclosed the first of many lists of supplies he could not obtain from Gates at Ticonderoga and then sent his own purchasing agents and recruiters to Connecticut; Gates hauled them back and sent his own.
The dragnet for men and munitions moved slowly, but by July 24, 1776, 150 more ship carpenters had marched into Skenesboro, tool bags slung over their shoulders. An exhilarated Arnold sent them to work. In a week six row galleys were on the stocks.