|Picture Credit: Public Domain File: Benedict Arnold 1color.jpg Thomas Hart – From the Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University. URL at time of upload: http://dl.lib.brown.edu/repository2/repoman.php? The picture is a color mezzo-tint of American Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold, captioned as follows: Colonel Arnold who commanded the Provincial Troops sent against Quebec, through the wilderness of Canada and was wounded in that city, under General Montgomery. London. Published as the Act directs 26th March 1776 by Thos. Hart.|
From Hero to Traitor
I tested something the other day. I asked a few of my colleagues and acquaintances a simple enough question: “Who was Benedict Arnold?”
One or two suggested he was the fellow who invented the American breakfast or brunch dish, consisting of two halves of an English muffin, each topped with bacon, a poached egg, and hollandaise sauce.
Others freely admitted they’d vaguely heard of the name but couldn’t remember anything more. Hopefully, this paper will explain who he was and why he is so hated.
Arnold, the Hero
Benedict Arnold was born on 14th January 1741, a British subject, the second of six children. Arnold was descended from a Rhode Island founding family. The subsequent generations had helped establish the Arnolds as solid and respected citizens. But Arnold’s father, who had settled in Norwich, Connecticut, proved to be a drunkard; only after his son moved to New Haven could he begin to free himself from the disgrace of his childhood. By his mid-30s, he had had enough success as an apothecary and a seagoing merchant to start building one of the finest homes in town. But he remained hypersensitive to any slight, and like many gentlemen of his time, he had challenged more than one man to a duel.
Arnold, the Soldier
He was an American military officer who served during the Revolutionary War. He fought with distinction in the American War of Independence for the American Continental Army, rising to the rank of major general. He led and served with honour at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Saratoga.
He was seriously wounded at Saratoga, and Washington put him in charge of the city of Philadelphia after the British ended their occupation.
When Washington asked Arnold to rejoin his Army as a top commander, Arnold instead requested command of the Hudson Valley region and the facility at West Point, New York. Benedict Arnold often fought with other officers and Congress. Arnold had a fatal tendency to criticise and even ridicule those with whom he disagreed.
George Washington understood Arnold’s shortcomings but valued Arnold’s usefulness on the battlefield. Arnold’s request was granted, and General George Washington gave Arnold his full backing.
The Battle of Saratoga
Perhaps Benedict Arnold’s most outstanding military achievement came later that Autumn in two conflicts (on 19th September and 7th October 1777) referred to as the Battle of Saratoga. Once again, Arnold’s propensity for action led him into the thick of the battle where he received a wound in the same leg injured in Quebec, but not before he helped rally troops in defeat of General John Burgoyne’s British forces as they attempted to sever New England from the rest of the colonies. The victories at Saratoga influenced the French decision to join the war against the British.
Arnold, the most hated man in America
Benedict Arnold was an enthusiastic patriot who believed passionately in the cause of American liberty. It is what happened after 1775 that began to wear him down and bring on his disillusionment. In his martial success, he became the target of jealous mediocrities. Two examples: After Arnold pulled off a magnificent defense of Lake Champlain in October 1776 that caused the British to call off their invasion from Canada that year, Gen. William Maxwell of New Jersey publically faulted Arnold for wasting the naval fleet, as if the idea was to save the vessels and let the British invade.
On 21st September 1780, Revolutionary War hero Benedict Arnold turned his back on his country after a secret meeting near the Hudson River with a top British official – Major John André. It was not the first time they had met, but it was the last, and it was a disaster for both men. Major John André was a top aide to British commander Sir Henry Clinton. The young, popular major also led the British spy network and had been in secret talks with Arnold for some time.
The plan was that Arnold would arrange for the British Army to take over the American facility of West Point. The British believed the acquisition of West Point would give their military control of the Hudson Valley, a potentially important blow to American independence. The price was said to be £20,000 plus a British military command for Arnold.
The secret face-to-face meeting, took place after a months-long conspiracy communicated through coded letters. Benedict Arnold gave André plans of the colonial military base at West Point — making Arnold one of America’s most notorious traitors. But fate conspired against both men. The British ship HMS Vulture, which had taken André to the meeting, was forced from the scene by American gunfire. André was captured as he attempted to rejoin British lines on foot.
Within a month of their meeting, Major André was executed under Washington’s orders for espionage, while Arnold fled to a British side that barely bade him welcome. The British and many Americans saw Arnold as an unprincipled mercenary and blamed him for the death of the popular Major André. Many people resented that it was André, not Arnold, who swung from the gallows.
Arnold was able to flee to Britain after the war was concluded. Although well-received by King George III and the Tories, he was frowned upon by the Whigs and most Army officers. He was criticised in the English press and blocked from taking up positions in the Army and the East India Company. In 1787, he moved to Canada to a merchant business with his sons Richard and Henry, but he was extremely unpopular there and returned to London permanently in 1791.
Having failed in several business ventures in Britain and Canada, he died in England in 1801, age 60. He was buried without military honours.
In the Wall Street Journal, it records that Ms Joyce Lee Malcolm, a historian at George Mason University’s law school, described how tensions between George Washington and the Continental Congress, whose members had adopted this wary civilian view of the military, fuelled ever-greater discontent within the Continental Army. With low pay and poor supplies compounding the problem, many officers resigned. Ms Malcolm suggests that Arnold—helped along by his prickly personality and the trauma of a crippling wound—reacted by switching sides.
Why did Benedict Arnold defect to the British?
Historians have expressed several theories about why Benedict Arnold became a traitor, citing greed, mounting debt, resentment of other officers, a hatred of the Continental Congress, and a desire for the colonies to remain under British rule. Arnold had been badly wounded twice in battle and had lost his business in Connecticut, which made him profoundly bitter. It’s certain he grew resentful of several rival and younger generals who had been promoted ahead of him and given honours which he thought he deserved. Especially galling was a long feud with the civil authorities in Philadelphia which led to his court-martial.
He was also convicted of two minor charges of using his authority to make a profit. General Washington gave him a light reprimand, but it merely heightened Arnold’s sense of betrayal. Nonetheless, he had already opened negotiations with the British before his court-martial even began. He later said in his own defence that he was loyal to his true beliefs. Arnold was extremely ambitious and had a jealous personality. He knew that he was distrusted and disliked by senior military officers on both sides. Washington was one of the few who genuinely liked and admired him, but it looks as if Arnold thought that even General Washington betrayed him. The most likely reason Arnold betrayed his country was that he was in dire financial straits. Whatever the reason, the words “Benedict Arnold” became synonymous with treason or becoming a traitor. At West Point, Arnold’s name was erased from a series of monuments that honour the Revolutionary War generals.
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: Benedict Arnold – America’s Greatest Traitor, https://youtu.be/PEcd7eOnLIU
- YouTube Video: Was Benedict Arnold a Traitor or a Hapless Pawn – https://youtu.be/uMGYkCItLb4
Picture Credit: Arnold’s Oath of Allegiance, 30 May 1778, This work is ineligible for copyright and therefore is in the public domain because it consists entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship.
In 1781, Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis De Lafayette about Arnold’s treason, after American agents seized a letter that said Arnold only received £5,000 for his acts. Franklin compared Arnold to Judas and said it was “a miserable bargain especially when one considers the quantity of infamy he has acquired to himself and entailed on his family.” The History.com website (here) suggests that Arnold received £6,000 for switching sides. ↑