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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
Shortly after noon on Thursday, April 20, 1775, a weary postrider swung out of the saddle at Hunt’s Tavern in New Haven, Connecticut, with an urgent message from the Massachusetts Committee of Cor- respondence. At dawn the day before, British light infantry had killed six militiamen on Lexington Green. Anxious New Haven citizens crowded into an emergency town meeting and voted to maintain a policy of neutrality despite Massachusetts’s plea for troops and supplies.
Nevertheless, Benedict Arnold, the thirty-four-year-old captain of New Haven’s elite 2d Company of Governor’s Footguards and head of the town’s Son’s of Liberty, mustered his men and prepared to march on Boston. First, though, he led his company of militia, several of them Yale undergraduates, to Hunt’s Tavern, where the community’s selectmen were deliberating, and demanded keys to the town’s powder magazine. David Wooster, a colonel in the militia and also New Haven’s justice of the peace, refused. Arnold, he said, would have to wait for regular orders from the colonial legislature in Hartford. “Regular orders be damned!” Arnold retorted; a war had begun. Again Wooster refused, but Arnold’s band of radicals threatened to tear down the doors to the powder magazine. “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching,” shouted Arnold. Wooster handed him the keys.
Benedict Arnold’s confrontation with the New Haven authorities and his quick march to Boston were typical of a stormy military career that culminated in the most celebrated betrayal in American history. In the seven clamorous years between 1775 and 1782, Arnold may well have won a greater number of important battles than any other officer on either side. He rose to be the third-highest-ranking American general before deserting to the British. Many historians have believed Arnold turned traitor simply for money, but like the man himself, the motives were complex.
The man whose name is the very eponym for treason was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741, a fifth-generation New Englander whose great-grandfather, also named Benedict Ar- nold, had been the first governor of Rhode Island. He lived with his pious Puritan mother and his devoted sister in a big gambrel-roofed white frame house on the outskirts of town. Arnold’s father, who had owned and sailed ships in the Caribbean trade, was an alcoholic. As his father’s business slipped toward bankruptcy, Benedict was sent off at eleven to a relative’s church school, where he learned Greek and Latin. At thirteen, after his father’s arrest for public drunkenness, he was yanked out of school and briefly roamed the Norwich waterfront, distinguishing himself for feats of strength and public pranks. Five feet ten, barrel-chested and muscular, with dark hair and gray eyes, proud despite his father’s disgrace—and perhaps the fiercer because of it—Arnold was often in trouble until, in 1754, he was consigned to an eight-year apprenticeship with his mother’s cousin, Dr. Daniel Lathrop.
Lathrop, a Yale graduate trained in medicine in London, operated the only apothecary shop between Boston and New York City. He was a cultivated man who lived opulently in a mansion surrounded by formal gardens, owned liveried slaves, and sent his young apprentice on errands in a fancy yellow carriage. He also taught Arnold about gardening, growing herbs, breeding horses, sailing, hunting, accounting, literature, and music, but he could not quench the apprentice’s restlessness.
Benedict twice ran away to join the militia in the French and Indian War. Both times he was hauled back, and by the age of eighteen he had become Lathrop’s trusted chief clerk, sailing to England, Canada, and the West Indies on buying and selling trips. When Dr. Lathrop landed the lucrative contract to provide medical supplies for the British Northern Army, it was Arnold who delivered them to British forces besieging Quebec. He learned that businessmen could make huge—and perfectly legal—profits in wartime.
When his apprenticeship ended in 1762, Arnold turned down Dr. Lathrop’s offer to remain in his business but accepted his generous gift of five hundred pounds to set up his own apothecary shop in New Haven. It was more like a general store, offering books for students across the green at Yale College and cosmetics, jewelry, and what Arnold called “a very elegant assortment of Metzotinto Pictures, Prints, Maps, Stationery-Ware and Paper-Hangings for rooms.” Arnold had a knack for selling. He soon opened a larger shop overlooking the harbor and bought a sloop. By the time he was twenty-six, Arnold had three ships trading lumber and “large, fat, genteel horses” he bought from Canada for sugar and cotton from the Caribbean.
As Americans began to resist British imperial trade regulations, Arnold emerged as New Haven’s leading smuggler of rum, sugar, and molasses. He also became its leading patriot but from the outset was an outsider in Revolutionary politics. Considered an interloper by New Haven’s landed society, Arnold was also excluded from the upper echelons of Connecticut politics by the Revolutionary clique around Gov. Jonathan Trumbull that governed the colony from Hartford. All his life an outsider, he became more and more a maverick in business and politics.
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.
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.
The troubles were just beginning. At Gardinerstown on the lower Kennebec, he found the two hundred lightweight bateaux he had ordered only three weeks earlier, but they were built from uncaulked green wood, and each weighed about four hundred pounds. Loaded with gear, they would be half a ton, terribly heavy for four men to carry over long portages. But with winter hard on the heels of fall, there wasn’t time to rebuild. Continuing north on September 22, Arnold’s men pulled and poled up the Kennebec to Fort Western. The boats proved to be ‘Very leaky” and took a beating from river-bottom rocks exposed by a long drought. Moving slowly, the inexperienced soldiers had to carry the waterlogged bateaux up the slippery and almost perpendicular hundred-foot-high slopes beside Ticonic Falls near Skowhegan. “You would have taken the men for amphibious animals,” Arnold wrote to Washington, “as they were a great part of the time under water.”
Arnold had estimated the distance through the wilderness at two hundred miles. Actually it was nearly double that. By the beginning of October men who had thrashed through foaming rapids all day slept on the ground in clothing “frozen a pane of glass thick.” On October 3 Arnold, inspecting the boats, found cracked barrels of beef swarming with maggots, rotted fish, and containers of flour and peas turned into putty. By now the army had reached the Dead River and was bogged down in nightmarish swamps.
Toward the end of the month, a hurricane struck the troops at four in the morning, driving a twelve-foot wall of water down the Dead River and scattering food, guns, and boats over two miles. One division after another became lost in the flooded swamps, wading all night through raging cold water. When rain turned to six inches of wet snow, the rear-guard division, under Col. Roger Enos of Connecticut, decided to go home, taking most of the remaining food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Arnold left his army behind and made a dash for the first settlement in Canada to find food. He “paddled on briskly,” sending back three Maine guides—maps provided for the march by an unsuspected Loyalist surveyor had proved treacherously inaccurate—and orders to jettison the heavy boats and to cram all food and gunpowder into knapsacks. The army was down to eating roots and bark and broth from boiling shoes, candles, cartridge boxes.
Six days after Arnold’s departure, the forward troops spotted “men and horses and cattle making toward us” as they staggered along beside the Chaudiµre into Canada. Arnold had reached the French settlement at St. Georges, Quebec, bought all the available livestock, and sent it back. Fifty-one days after swinging out of Cambridge, the American army, 40 percent of it lost to death or desertion, stumbled into the huts of St. Georges. When word of Arnold’s survival reached Washington, he hailed Arnold as an officer of “great merit and trust.” In the Continental Congress a North Carolina delegate praised “that little army” as equal to “Hannibal’s over the Alps.”
Arnold could not salvage enough equipment or men from the wreckage to make an immediate attack on Quebec. Not one of the two hundred bateaux remained, and all the gunpowder was ruined. With the help of Indians he was able to round up enough birchbark canoes to face the fast-moving mile-wide St. Lawrence, whipped into whitecaps by a winter storm. Through three days of snow squalls, Arnold waited for a moonless night, when his men could slip past British patrol boats. During that wait tough Loyalist veterans of the French and Indian War who made up the Royal Highland Emigrants marched into Quebec, fortifying the city’s defenses. Arnold was too late.
Outnumbered by more than two to one, and without artillery, Arnold had to wait until reinforcements arrived. The Americans did not attack until New Year’s Eve. On the last day of American enlistments, Arnold led the main push on the Lower Town while Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery stormed the barricades below Cape Diamond in a blinding blizzard, his column of three hundred New Yorkers slithering over great chunks of river ice for an hour just to get there. Arriving at the first palisades, they sawed off timbers, and Montgomery stepped through a gap, leading his officers toward a silent two-story blockhouse. When he was within forty feet, three cannons fired at once, killing Montgomery and several of his officers. His second-in-command led a precipitous retreat of the entire New York division, freeing the Quebec garrison to pour “a tremendous fire of musketry” into Arnold’s thin column as it snaked through deep snow toward the Lower Town.
Arnold led the charge up to a log barricade, where he ordered Capt. Daniel Morgan and his riflemen to jam their rifles into gun slits and fire pointblank at the defenders. As Arnold waved his men over the barricade, he felt his right leg go numb. He tried to run on but pitched forward into the snow. He got up and hopped through volley after volley from houses close in on both sides. The bullet had missed Arnold’s boot top, ricocheting from the shin onto the inner bone of his leg and then lodging in the Achilles’ tendon. Dragged to a hospital, where a surgeon probed his leg, he learned the grim news: Morgan had taken over Arnold’s 500-man force and kept fighting houseto-house for another three hours. About 80 men were killed or wounded, and 426 had been forced to surrender. Of the 300 men who had survived the trip up the Kennebec, 100 remained.
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.
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.”
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.
When Arnold bankrolled a Connecticut captain and his privateering crew in a lawsuit against the state, he pushed the Pennsylvania authorities to their limit. The sloop Active had been captured by the British, recaptured by its own crew, and then captured again by Pennsylvania privateers. Arnold considered the Connecticut sailors his countrymen and fed and housed them and paid their legal fees in a long battle with Pennsylvania authorities; had they won, he would have pocketed half the forty-five-thousand-pound value of the ship and cargo.
Beginning in November 1778, anonymous Pennsylvania radicals vilified Arnold almost weekly in the Pennsylvania Packet . Arnold repeatedly counterattacked in print, and in February 1779 the Council of Pennsylvania brought eight charges against him, alleging abuse of power, misuse of military authority, and self-aggrandizing business dealings. Some charges were petty; others raised constitutional questions. He was accused of malfeasance in office for forcing shop closures and of misappropriating military property by using army wagons to haul private goods to Philadelphia.
Angered, Arnold wrote to Washington on May 5, 1779: “If your Excellency thinks me criminal, for heaven’s sake let me be immediately tried and, if found guilty, executed.” He despaired, he said, of ever receiving justice from Congress or the Pennsylvania Council, a “set of artful, unprincipled men” who had come to power and “misrepresent the most innocent actions.” He had, he reminded Washington, “made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country.” He had “little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”
In April 1779 Arnold married Peggy Shippen, who, at nineteen, was exactly half his age. A month later he sent word secretly through a Philadelphia Loyalist that he was ready to so over to the British army, and on May 10 he opened negotiations with Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief. That summer Arnold resigned as military governor and with his new wife moved into a smaller house owned by his father-in-law. In late December 1779 Arnold faced a court-martial at Dickerson’s Tavern in Morristown, New Jersey. He indignantly denied all charges and opened his own defense with an impassioned speech.
“When the present necessary war against Great Britain commenced,” he said, "1 was in easy circumstances and enjoyed a fair prospect of improving them. I was happy in domestic connections and blessed with a rising family, who claimed my care and attention. … I sacrificed domestic ease and happiness to the service of my country, and in her service I sacrificed a great part of a handsome fortune. 1 was one of the first who appeared in the field and, from that time to the present hour, have not abandoned her service.” Insisting that he was being persecuted by Pennsylvania authorities for his open associations with accused Loyalists, he argued, “It is enough for me to contend with men on the field.”
Although there were those on the court-martial board who thought that Arnold should be cashiered from the army—and although documents discovered years later showed him to have been considerably more dishonest than the authorities suspected— its presiding officer, Maj. Gen. Robert Howe, who himself had clashed with revolutionary civilians as the military governor of Charleston, concluded that there was insufficient evidence on most counts. Arnold was convicted of only two misdemeanors: granting an illegal pass for the cargo vessel Charming Nancy and misappropriating public wagons. The board further recommended that Congress instruct Washington officially to reprimand Arnold.
The commander in chief did rebuke Arnold, characterizing his conduct in the Charming Nancy affair as “peculiarly reprehensible,” but in fact, Washington’s chiding was as mild as it could be without openly insulting the court-martial board, and he did not exclude Arnold from his plans for the coming campaign. Washington would soon offer Arnold a post of honor, command of the left wing of the main Continental Army. Arnold, however, was angry and dispirited.
Two more blows came almost immediately from Congress. On April 27, 1780, two weeks after Arnold’s official reprimand, the Board of Treasury ruled that, despite the fact that Arnold had never been paid as a Continental officer and that he had pressed for his back wages for more than a year, he owed Congress more than three thousand pounds.
One month later, in May 1780, Arnold’s request to be appointed to a naval command in the Caribbean was discouraged by Washington and rejected by Congress. Meanwhile, Arnold’s negotiations with the British had broken down when Clinton refused to pay him a flat fee of ten thousand pounds no matter what services Arnold was to render. Now he resumed his secret correspondence, filling coded letters with military intelligence and with predictions that the Revolution would soon collapse because Congress had ruined the economy. He noted the rap²d depreciation of Continental currency and scarcities of such basic commodities as flour as well as Congress’s failure to obtain vital loans because “their time is taken up in trifles.”
Arnold now asked Clinton for command of a Loyalist army as well as for financial compensation for the losses he said he had sustained as a result of Congress’s refusal to settle his accounts. He also suggested a way to bring about the surrender of the vital American fortress at West Point. By mid-June 1780, when he rode north to join Washington on the Hudson, Arnold wrote to Maj. John André, Clinton’s adjutant general and head of his secret service, “I expect soon to command West Point.”
Never losing faith in his troublesome field officer, Washington was perplexed by Arnold’s reluctance to accept his left wing but nevertheless changed his command assignments and gave Arnold West Point, augmenting it with responsibility for all works and men between Albany and New York City.
From his new headquarters on the Hudson, Benedict Arnold began systematically to weaken West Point’s defenses. On September 16 he learned that Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Knox, and their combined staffs would be crossing the Hudson at Peekskill en route to Hartford for secret talks with the French command. “I shall be at Peekskill on Sunday evening,” Washington wrote confidentially to Arnold. Arnold was to hand-pick fifty guards and forty spare horses to escort them. “You will keep this to yourself, as I want to make my journey a secret.” Arnold knew how rarely Washington traveled without his army and how vulnerable he would be. At once he sent off his most trusted courier to Clinton under an illegal flag of truce. If the message arrived in time and the British chose to move quickly, they could easily capture Washington as he crossed the Hudson on September 18. Arnold also informed Clinton that Washington would be spending the night at an inn at Peekskill within an easy ride of the nearest British dragoons.
Although Arnold personally led his hand-picked guards to meet Washington on the eighteenth, ostensibly to deliver a memo on conditions at West Point, his message did not reach Clinton in time, and the British raid never came. Instead, a solitary vessel, the three-masted sloop of war Vulture , arrived in Haverstraw Bay, twelve miles south of West Point. Aboard was Maj. John André, Arnold’s inexperienced twenty-nine-year-old spymaster, who, like Arnold, had insisted to Clinton that a face-to-face meeting between Arnold and André was needed to confirm Arnold’s identity and to plan in detail the surrender of the key American stronghold. The British commander had reluctantly acquiesced to sending André on the mission, and he had given three orders intended to safeguard the young officer: He was not to go behind enemy lines; he was not to disguise himself but was to wear his British uniform; and he was to carry no compromising papers. If he violated any of these rules of war, he could be hanged as a spy.
André violated all three. Shortly after midnight on September 23, he landed at the foot of Long Clove Mountain, two miles below Haverstraw and well behind American lines. He concealed his British uniform under a dark caped coat. After talking with Arnold until first light, André left carrying Arnold’s pass, made out under a false identity, “John Anderson,” and five documents in Arnold’s undisguised handwriting, among them a summary of the American army’s strength and displacement and a report of the troops and ordnance at West Point and their weak spots. Concealing the messages between a sock and a conspicuously English boot, he changed his uniform for an old claret coat, a yellow waistcoat, and breeches.
Arnold then made arrangements for André to be rowed back to the Vulture , but the oarsman, up all night and increasingly suspicious, refused to take him, and André wound up riding south through the American lines and hiding for the night in a farmhouse. The next morning, as he approached a British outpost near Tarrytown, André mistook three men who sprang out into his path as Loyalists; one of them wore a captured green and red Hessian uniform. André identified himself as a British officer and then foolishly presented Arnold’s pass, which said he was a civilian. The three American militiamen, who were absent without leave from their unit and had intended to rob him, now searched the oddly dressed spy and found the compromising documents. They decided they would receive a reward if they turned their captive over to the nearest American outpost.
At nearby North Castle, John Jameson, the American colonel in charge, had earlier received instructions from Arnold that a John Anderson might cross the lines from New York City. But although he did not recognize the handwriting, Jameson was puzzled by the papers “Anderson” carried and by the fact that he had been found behind the lines. He rushed word to Arnold of Andr»’s capture but dispatched the confiscated papers, which he characterized as being of “a very dangerous tendency,” to Washington. The messenger, unable to find the general that night, returned to North Castle. Only Jameson’s unintentional warning allowed Arnold to escape in his barge to the Vulture .
When Washington arrived from Hartford at Arnold’s headquarters the next morning, September 25, he went upstairs with Lafayette to the rooms reserved for them to await the noonday meal. After they had inspected the defenses, Jameson’s messenger arrived after riding all night with a packet for the commander in chief. As Washington broke open the seal and paged through the documents in Arnold’s handwriting, the incredible truth struck him: Benedict Arnold had gone over to the British.
Remarkably clear-headed under fire, Washington was the only one at West Point that day to act calmly. He immediately ordered Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry to go after Arnold. Amid shouted orders Lafayette came into the dressing room where Washington was sitting, head down, hand trembling with its sheaf of treasonous papers, murmuring to Henry Knox, “Arnold has betrayed me. Whom can we trust now?”
Arnold’s price for changing sides and turning over the Americans at West Point (including some of the very men who had followed him to Quebec) .was twenty thousand pounds, about the amount he reckoned he had lost from Congress, from property he could not sell, and from debts a traitor could not collect. He received less than a third of it, but he was still a wealthy man; he had been transferring money to New York and London and on a brigadier general’s modest pay was able to rent a mansion at 2 Broadway, right next door to British headquarters in New York City. More lucrative than his payment for changing sides was his new post as the ranking general of Loyalist troops, including his own new unit, the American Legion, made up entirely of deserters from the Continental Army.
Arnold’s new compatriots never really warmed to him or trusted him fully, and he finished the war as a retired British colonel on half pay, living out his life in exile.
Clinton unleashed Arnold on two bloody raids of plunder that severely damaged the American war effort and further enriched Arnold. In January 1781 he devastated Virginia at the head of a Loyalist army, sacking and burning the capital at Richmond. According to his own count, his troops destroyed a cannon foundry and arms warehouses and seized “thirty to forty ships loaded with tobacco, West Indies goods, wines, sailcloth.” Arnold’s share of the prize money was two thousand pounds. His second raid was on his native Thames Valley of Connecticut. In an attack on New London, a privateer base that had captured some five hundred British ships during the war, Arnold took ten richly laden prize ships in an assault that was so bloody that Clinton decided he could not afford any more such victories. Arnold’s 1,732man Loyalist army, according to his own meticulous records, destroyed 143 buildings but sustained casualties of almost 25 percent, one of the heaviest British tolls of the war.
Arnold’s new compatriots never really warmed to him or trusted him fully. When he proposed an attack on Philadelphia to capture Congress and destroy military targets, Clinton turned him down. In December 1781 Arnold left the United States on the same ship as Earl Cornwallis, recently vanquished at Yorktown. Arnold finished the war as a retired British colonel on a half-pay pension, living out his life in exile in England, Canada, and the West Indies. He died heavily in debt in 1801.
Arnold never returned to the United States during his twenty-year exile, and he rarely spoke of it. He never ceased to see himself as a hero, but he was content, he wrote a friend shortly before his death, with obscurity in exile; contentment was “the greatest happiness to be expected in the world.” In England, he concluded, he was “comfortable but not sufficiently elevated to be the object of envy and distinction.”