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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’s personal enemies were busy too. In the midst of his naval preparation, he found himself facing a hostile court of inquiry at Ticonderoga investigating charges of looting in Canada. During the siege of Quebec, Loyalist merchants and captured British officers had been robbed. In fact, it was Arnold who had discovered the thefts, complained about them to the congressional commissioners in Canada, and received their permission to punish several looters severely. There was no evidence that Arnold was guilty of any wrongdoing; nonetheless, the court-martial, run by friends of Ethan Alien, dragged on. Arnold’s anger boiled over. He entered a formal protest on the court record and appealed to Congress for a hearing. Then he challenged each officer on the court to a duel.
Nevertheless, on August 24, just seven weeks after the emergency council of war at Crown Point, Arnold sailed north with the ten small ships of his naval squadron, their new-made sails fluttering and filling, sunlight glinting on their barn-red sides. Two schooners, two sloops, and six gondolas crowded with untrained men headed up the lake to face a formidable enemy that had also been building ships at an amazing rate. Carleton already had a fleet equal the size of Arnold’s on the stocks at St. Johns, plus a fullrigged eighteen-gun three-masted sloop of war, the Inflexible.
October 11 dawned with Arnold’s fleet—now fifteen strong—drawn up in an arc in the narrows between Valcour Island and the New York shore, five miles south of presentday Plattsburgh. The British fleet had to sail into the wind to engage the American squadron. In a brutal seven-hour battle, Arnold sank two British gunboats and crippled the schooner Carleton , while losing his own largest craft, the schooner Royal Savage , and one gondola, the Philadelphia .
Almost out of ammunition, Arnold escaped that night by sailing silently through the British fleet, making it halfway down the lake with his badly damaged squadron before the British overtook him on October 13. After a second fight, which lasted five hours and permitted five ships to escape, Arnold scuttled his rear guard of five vessels, their rattlesnake flags flying as they sank, then led his men on a nightlong twenty-mile march through the forests to Ticonderoga, carrying the wounded in sails and twice eluding Indian ambushes.
Benedict Arnold’s makeshift navy had ruined the invaders’ plans to divide and conquer America in 1776. Winter had set in, and the British expeditionary force had to return to Canada, giving the Americans another year. With troops freed from the northern frontier, Arnold and Gates rushed reinforcements to the beleaguered Washington, making possible the crucial surprise attack at Trenton. More than a century passed before the most influential of all American naval historians gave Arnold proper credit for keeping the Revolution alive. “Save for Arnold’s flotilla,” wrote Alfred Thayer Mahan, the British would have “settled the business. The little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small, lived to better purpose.”
Leading the rear guard, Arnold escaped toward St. Johns with the enemy in sight. Pausing to burn forts and ships, he barely made it aboard the last boat to leave Canada.
At the time, few people could see the importance of Arnold’s efforts in Canada and on Lake Champlain. The British praised him in dispatches, but many Americans saw Arnold simply as the man who had engineered a disastrous defeat in Canada and overseen the destruction of the first American fleet. Gen. William Maxwell wrote from Ticonderoga to New Jersey’s governor, William Livingston, to explain that “Arnold, our evil genius to the north, has, with a good deal of industry, got us clear of all our fine fleet.” From Congress, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, member of the Marine Committee, decried Arnold to Gov. Thomas Jefferson as “fiery, hot and impetuous [and] without discretion.” At Ticonderoga, Ethan Alien’s former aide Maj. John Brown demanded that Gates arrest Arnold for thirteen “crimes” adding up to “great misconduct” in Canada.
Arnold soon found that Ethan Alien’s friends had petitioned Congress for a court of inquiry into his affairs, but it was becoming more difficult for Arnold to defend himself: Witnesses were scattered, and many of his records and private papers had been burned or lost at Valcour Bay and during the retreat from Quebec. Now found, the papers include his missing accounts with French-Canadian and revolutionary Canadian commissaries who bought supplies from him in the winter of 1775-76, documents that could have saved Arnold endless trouble and that might even have prevented his treason. As one Canadian historian put it, “To give the invading devil his due, he paid his way.”