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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 makeshift navy barely survived its first fight, and disappeared after its second; but it ruined British plans to divide and conquer America in 1776.
It was Washington who intervened on Arnold’s behalf, sending him to Rhode Island to raise militia and oust the British from Newport, which had just fallen. In his absence, on February 19, 1777, the Continental Congress issued Arnold the rebuff that almost certainly touched off the long fuse of bitterness that led to his defection. Without consulting Washington, Congress promoted five officers over Arnold’s head to major general, all of them junior to him in both length of service and distinction. Arnold wrote Washington that Congress must have intended passing him over as “a very civil way of requesting my resignation.” Despite Washington’s urging that he remain in the service, Arnold resigned.
On May 2, 1777, Congress finally relented after a yearlong struggle with Washington and his generals over promotions and gave Arnold a new commission as major general. In the meantime, despite his growing hatred of revolutionary politicians, Arnold had raised a militia to fight the two thousand British regulars and Connecticut Loyalists attempting to destroy the huge Danbury munitions depot.
Washington sent his new major general to do what he did best—raise, train, and lead militia—to meet another invasion. As the British again invaded from Canada, the man who had shocked them into withdrawing twice before now led a relief expedition up the Mohawk River that raised the siege of Fort Stanwix, ending the threat to the American rear. Rejoining the main force, which had lost Ticonderoga and retreated almost all the way to Albany, Arnold found it in the command of Horatio Gates, whom he disliked and who promptly stripped him of his divisional command and barred him from staff meetings.
Instead of leaving or staying in his tent, Arnold defied Gates during the second Battle of Saratoga; he led the crucial charge that broke Breymann Redoubt, precipitating Gen. John Burgoyne’s surrender and leaving Arnold critically wounded again, his right thigh shattered. “I wish it had been my heart,” Arnold told an officer bending over him before he lost consciousness.
Although Gates, like Ethan Alien, omitted Arnold’s name from official reports of the decisive victory at Saratoga, Washington learned of his bravery and honored him with a gold epaulet and sword knot. And Congress, finally forced to acknowledge Arnold’s contribution to the revolutionary cause, resolved that Washington should adjust his date of rank and restore his seniority. Benedict Arnold’s slate seemed clean.
Seven months later, in May 1778, at the end of the Continental Army’s brutal winter at Valley Forge, Benedict Arnold, his leg only partially healed, was helped from a carriage at Washington’s headquarters west of Philadelphia. No longer able to ride a horse, Arnold hobbled inside, wearing a built-up boot and leaning on a cane. Washington urged Arnold to take more time to mend but was eventually persuaded to assign him what was supposed to be a safe rear-area command as military governor of Philadelphia, with orders to reclaim the capital after the British evacuation. Philadelphia proved the stormiest post of Arnold’s stormy career.
As governor, Arnold was considered haughty, arbitrary, and inflexible by rival Pennsylvania politicians, led by Joseph Reed, who became president of the Supreme Executive Council at a time when it was stronger than the Continental Confederation government. Reed, who was purging hundreds of suspected Loyalists, found Arnold’s open friendship with Loyalists and his public courtship of Peggy Shippen, daughter of a purportedly Loyalist judge, especially objectionable.
As the capital city’s presiding officer, Arnold insisted on asserting the federal prerogative and the prestige of the Continental Army in ways small, large, and invariably controversial. He closed the city’s shops while he took an inventory of all captured goods and decided which should be requisitioned by army quartermasters, a move that earned him the enmity of many influential revolutionaries, who insinuated that, as at Montreal, he did so to line his own pockets. Later he was to insist that he stocked the basement of his headquarters in the Penn mansion only to provide for the governor’s table, but there were lingering accusations that with the collusion of the clothier general, James Mease, and his deputy, William West, Arnold pillaged the shops for a week and then made a fortune on the black market. The mere closing of the shops created shortages and drove up prices in a technique known as engrossing, a practice despised by George Washington.
Arnold’s actions brought him into open confrontation with Philadelphia revolutionaries in October 1778, when he issued orders for the army’s wagon master general to take twelve military wagons to Chestnut Neck, New Jersey, which was inside his jurisdiction, and haul a large quantity of goods to safety in Philadelphia. Arnold later tried to pay the man 553 for his services, but after the goods went on sale in a Philadelphia storefront, Pennsylvania authorities alleged that Arnold’s private use of army wagons was an abuse of power.