Almost every American school kid remembers (when they actually still taught history) the name of Benedict Arnold. He was roundly reviled in the American Revolution as a traitor and his name will, in American folklore be used as a synonym for being a turncoat.
But there was more to Arnold’s treachery than meets the eye. He was, at the start of the Revolution, a fervent Patriot. But later events, partly of his own doing, would cause him to eschew the cause and go over to the British.
Arnold was born in the Colonies in Rhode Island in 1741. He was as close as one could get to being royalty in New England. His grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the colony and his family were considered respected upper crust there. But his father, was a drunkard and an embarrassment to the family, having moved them to Norwich, Connecticut.
Arnold moved away at first chance and became a very successful apothecary and seagoing merchant. But ever aware of any slight due to his childhood, he was extremely petty and overly sensitive, taking umbrage to anything, he fought more than a few duels because of it. It would cause him much heartburn later in life.
Arnold was outraged over the Boston Massacre and when he heard of the fighting in Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, he seized some of the gunpowder of New Haven and quickly assembled a group of volunteers and marched north.
Arnold met with and convinced Dr. Joseph Warren in Massachusetts, one of the leaders of the nascent revolution, that the revolution needed to capture Fort Ticonderoga in New York State. It was a formidable star-shaped target with 80 cannons. Arnold and Warren knew the Revolution could use those cannons. But since the end of the French-Indian War, the British let the amount of troops lag and by 1775, the garrison contained only about 50 men.
Arnold and his troops met up with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys and marched to the fort on the shores of Lake Champlain. There they surprised the British garrison that was still sleeping. It was the first victory for the Revolution and the cannons would be well used during the upcoming siege of Boston.
There would be controversy when Allen’s men were busy consuming the fort’s rum supply while Arnold, would capture and take command of a small fleet of warships on Lake Champlain giving the Colonials control of the lake and fight a battle there in 1776.
One of the Colonial leaders, Colonel James Easton dared to ridicule Arnold for his self-styling name as “Commodore of the American Navy” at Lake Champlain, something the thin-skinned Arnold wouldn’t tolerate and he proceeded to “kick him very heartily.”
It would forever burn his bridges with Easton, as he and a number of other American officers would ostracize and eventually drive him away.
Despite this, Arnold’s men and even many of his detractors would characterize him as an excellent officer and leader. His men always had confidence in his abilities.
Arnold’s first wife died in 1775 and he was grief-stricken and couldn’t bear to remain in New Haven alone. He left his children with a relative and threw himself into the workings of the Revolution. And for the next three years, he was a model officer and became an indispensable member of General Washington’s staff.
He met his second wife, Peggy Shipton, daughter of Philadelphia aristocracy and British loyalists in 1778. While stationed there, he was living well above his means, trying to keep his new wife in the standard of living that she was used to.
Another enemy Arnold made during his time in Philadelphia was that of Joseph Reed, who had been a close friend of General Washington but had burned his bridges there with his annoying habit of antagonizing everyone around him including his friends. Reed as a member of the Supreme Executive Council began documenting a case against Arnold as the military governor.
Reed made a flimsy, eight charge indictment of Arnold that had zero chance of ever getting a conviction. Washington knew this and took neither side but Reed persisted, despite lacking any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Arnold.
By the spring of 1779, with Reed refusing to let go of his vendetta against him, Arnold began to have second thoughts on the revolution. With the court-martial and the digging of Reed’s barbs hanging over his head, Arnold read where the British newspapers were speaking more highly of his talents than his own were. The Royal Gazette of London wrote, “General Arnold heretofore had been styled another Hannibal, but losing a leg in the service of the Congress, the latter considering him unfit for any further exercise of his military talents, permit him thus to fall into the unmerciful fangs of the executive council of Pennsylvania.”
Arnold then saw his betrayal to the Revolution as a way out of his predicament. In financial trouble as well as his legal issues hanging over his head with Reed. A British captain, John Andre knew his wife and was living in New York City. Arnold sent him a letter to feel out the British and wondering how much they would compensate him for his services.
Washington finally ended the court-martial with a reprimand and gave Arnold the command of the fort of West Point. In 1780, Arnold made plans with Andre to turn over West Point to British General Henry Clinton. Andre was caught with the documents and executed. Arnold himself narrowly eluded capture by Washington and escaped on the British sloop Vulture down the Hudson River.
The British made Arnold a Brigadier General with an annual pension of £360, and a lump sum of over £6,000. He led British troops in Virginia and conducted raids in both Groton and New London, Connecticut. After the British defeat at Yorktown, he and his wife moved to London, where incidentally, Arnold never received the full amount of money due him.
He and his sons briefly ran a business in New Brunswick, but he soon returned to London and there he remained until his death in 1791.
While the incessant poking of Reed and the jealousy of seeing several junior officers to himself get promoted ahead of him weighed heavily on him, in the end it was money that was the driving force that caused Arnold to betray the revolution.
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia