A name synonymous with treachery and treason, Benedict Arnold’s heroic efforts are remembered by few. Even fewer realize that without him the War of Independence could have been prolonged or even lost.
Born in Norwich, CT on January 14, 1741, Benedict was the second born son of a wealthy businessman. Although he was one of six children, only he and his younger sister Hannah lived past the age of 5. He served in the French and Indian war for 13 days, not even making it near the front lines.
After the war, he became an extremely successful businessman like his father. Many people from the period have commented on Arnold’s greed, with an officer named John Brown correctly asserting that “Money is the man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”
When war broke out against the British in 1775, Arnold became a captain in the Connecticut Militia. He participated in the opening battles at Lexington and Concord, as well as opposing the British in the Siege of Boston. After being promoted to Colonel, Arnold proposed an attack on Fort Ticonderoga, an action which many historians agree may have saved the revolutionaries from an early defeat. He then marched to Vermont where he arrived unannounced, to the surprise of folk-hero Ethan Allen. Arnold claimed that he was going to lead the expedition to capture the fort. However, Allen’s men refused to listen to Arnold, so Allen and Arnold came to an agreement that they would both be in charge of the attack. As history has shown, Arnold’s participation in the event has been nearly forgotten.
Following the attack at Ticonderoga, he marched north to Canada where he was involved in a series of unfortunate and humiliating defeats in Canada. In Quebec his leg was shattered by a British musket ball, and he was continuously beaten back south. He was promoted to Brigadier General for his noble actions in delaying the British advance. After several of his peers were promoted to Major General, Arnold was so furious that he attempted to resign, which was refused. Then he was finally promoted, but not given equal status to those who were promoted earlier, which caused him to resign again.
During the Battles of Saratoga (widely considered to be the turning point in the Revolution), Arnold was second in command to Major General Horatio Gates. After a huge argument and screaming match, Arnold was removed from command during the first battle. However, during the second battle, he suddenly appeared on the battlefield on his horse, directly defying the orders of Gates. Witnesses claim he was “Betraying great agitation and wrath.” In a charge that was almost stereotypically heroic and idealized, Arnold led his men to the British lines where they immediately decimated the British force and killed their commander. In one of the final volleys of the battle Arnold was shot in the leg and his horse was killed, which fell on top of his wounded leg, crushing it further.
After the battle, he was finally awarded seniority, which further enraged him as he considered it was an act of pity. Soon he began plotting to switch sides after marrying Peggy Shippen, a British sympathizer.
On August 3, 1780, he was given command of West Point. Arnold drew detailed sketches instructing the British on the best way to take the fort. He began planning secret meetings with John Andre, a British spy. However, when they finally met on September 21, the ship that Andre was to make his escape in, the HMS Vulture, was seriously damaged by cannons on the shore. It was forced to retreat, which forced Andre to make his escape overland. Arnold quickly wrote papers to assist Andre in getting past American guards. Two days into his journey, Andre approached a group of Americans in the road. One of them was wearing a Hessian coat (Hessians were German mercenaries hired by the British), and he thought that they were a British patrol. After telling his entire story to them, he was informed that they were in fact not British but Americans, and that he was now their prisoner. The papers found on Andre confirmed that Arnold was a traitor, and were immediately sent to George Washington. Arnold hastily grabbed his belongings and left his wife and child behind as he raced to a barge and paid the men aboard to row him to the Vulture. Although Arnold escaped, Andre was taken into custody and hanged on October 2.
His military career for the British was rather lackluster. First he pillaged Virginia, burning fields and houses and razing everything in sight. The local militia drove him off however, and he went north to attack Connecticut. He led a vicious attack on New London, CT where his men destroyed the port and then captured Fort Griswold. After the capture of the fort, the fort’s commander gave his sword to one of the British officers as an offer of peace, but was immediately stabbed to death by his own sword seconds later. Once the commander was killed, the British massacred 80 surrendered revolutionaries in the fort. The massacre caused the Americans to hate Arnold even more, and even his fellow British officers regarded him in low esteem until the war’s end.
Temporarily moving to London after the war, Arnold attempted to gain favor in various departments in the British government and military, to no avail. Many British people regarded him as a traitor who switched allegiances due to his insatiable greed. One British critic called him a “mean mercenary, who, having adopted a cause for the sake of plunder, quits it when convicted of that charge.”
By his late 50’s his health had worsened significantly due to his injuries sustained during the war and a host of other ailments. He died at the age sixty after four days of being completely delusional. He received no military honors at his funeral, and died greatly in debt.
Although Arnold was an extremely flawed man, his name is not worthy of the infamy it wallows in, as his contributions to the war on the American side were massive, while his impact while under the British flag was negligible.