Benedict Arnold - Part II - Patriot, War Hero and Traitor Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Benedict Arnold - Part II - Patriot, War Hero and Traitor

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Part I - The Road to Saratoga | Part II - Patriot, War Hero and Traitor

In part one, Benedict Arnold earns the respect of the American rebels during the early years of the conflict.

General Arnold travelled to Philadelphia in the spring of 1777 to present his personal protest to Congress about his poor treatment by them. When the body refused to consider his protest he presented them with his formal resignation. On the same day a letter was received from General Washington reporting that a large army was approaching the State of New York from Canada, led by General Burgoyne. He requested the services of Benedict Arnold by name. Even though he knew the army in northern New York was under the command of General St Clair, one of the men who had been promoted over him, Arnold asked that his resignation be put on hold until the impending action be completed. He then headed north, resigned to serving his country in whatever capacity they saw fit to place him.

The British followed the old path through Lake Champlain. General St Clair was commanding the American forces from Fort Ticonderoga. In early July the British managed to place a battery of cannon on the mountains overlooking the fort. With his defences now useless, General St Clair abandoned the post with as many guns and stores as the men could carry away. Although the retreating Americans tried to conceal their movements, the British soon spotted them and attacked with disastrous results. The British managed to capture most of the war supplies the Americans had tried to save. With the abandonment of Ticonderoga, the other American troops on the lake also abandoned their positions, destroying all that they could not carry with them. Both General Schuyler and General St Clair were blamed for the fall of the lake.

Emboldened by the British success, their Native American allies began a reign of terror over the Mohawk Valley. Desperate to protect the settlers and the isolated army post Fort Stanwix, General Schuyler assembled his officers and begged them that a Brigadier General volunteer to lead a party to the relief of the Valley. When no one would come forward, Arnold volunteered his own services, even though such a command was below his present rank. As soon as the men learned that they would be led by Arnold, over 800 men volunteered for the mission. Without enumerating the details, Arnold's success in the Mohawk Valley was bold and daring, and it crippled the right wing of General Burgoyne's army.

While he was away the command of the army in upper New York was transferred to General Gates. He saw himself as a rival to both Generals Schuyler and Washington and he considered Arnold to be an ally of both these men. He was concerned that Arnold would try to undermine his command; the friendship the two men had shared on these same fields only a year earlier had become strained by the politics and hardships of war. The style of command used by each of the two men also varied greatly, while Arnold was bold and rash, General Gates was cautious and reserved. He was referred to by the men as 'Granny Gates' behind his back.

Battles of Saratoga

On the morning of 19 September, 1777, the two armies clashed at Freeman's Farm near Saratoga, New York. General Gates commanded the army's right wing and Arnold the left. Arnold sent two of his units forward early in the battle. The British tried to turn his flank1 but Arnold managed to swing his troops around and defended his position. His request for additional troops to reinforce his position was refused by General Gates. At the end of the day the Americans had managed to hold the field. General Burgoyne and his troops fell back to their camp, which they began to fortify as a defensive position. In their efforts to vilify Arnold, some historians claim there were no American general officers on the field during this battle, as unlikely as it is. Most contemporary reports place him on the field.

After seeing his name omitted from the official report of the battle, Arnold requested permission for leave to visit his old friend General Washington. General Gates quickly jumped at the opportunity and transferred Arnold's command to Major General Lincoln, another of the generals who had been promoted over him. Arnold soon overcame his rash desire to leave his troops in the face of an enemy army. General Gates however refused to restore his command, and Arnold became a Major General without anyone to command.

On the morning of 7 October, as the British troops were running low on supplies, they decided to make another attempt at the American line. The Americans formed their own line and advanced to meet the enemy. The British centre stood firm when Arnold came riding at the gallop into the fray. His speed was not so much to reach the battle as quickly as possible, but to prevent General Gates from ordering him back to the rear. As Arnold reached his troops they all cheered and surged forward into the British line. On their second surge the British centre broke to the rear. Spotting the British General Fraser mounted near the head of his troops, Arnold pointed him out to one of his officers. Soon a company of riflemen were all firing at a single target and General Fraser fell mortally wounded. With the loss of their general the British line quivered and began to fall apart. The British fell back to their fortified camp. Arnold, spotting the enemy's sally port2 to his left, rode across to lead a company into the Hessian's camp. As he rode through the opening in the wall and into the German camp, a shot hit and killed his horse, having first passed through his left leg, near the wound he had carried from Quebec. Here at the head of his victorious troops, halted only by his wound, General Gates' messenger overtook him with the order to return to his camp. A few days later, General Burgoyne was forced to surrender his command. When a report of this action reached Congress, and with another appeal from General Washington, Benedict Arnold was granted the seniority3 of rank he had so long requested.

Winter Quarters

Arnold was carried from the battlefield to hospital in Albany, there he would spend most of the fall and winter of 1777-8. Some of the doctors felt that his leg was so badly broken that amputation was the best option, but he refused to let them perform the procedure. By spring he was allowed to return to his home in New Haven, but he was still confined to a litter.

While most of the army spent the winter encamped at Valley Forge, PA, freezing and starving, Arnold's confinement may have seemed a blessing. The other more important event at Valley Forge was the forging of an army. With the arrival of Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the army learned to act and fight as a unit. The soldiers and their officers gained confidence and respect for each other. This may have been the true turning point of the American Revolution.


While the American forces had prevailed in upper New York, the capital at Philadelphia had fallen to the British on 26 September, 1777. They set up their headquarters in the Governor's mansion. Throughout the winter and spring they held parties and extravaganzas for the prominent and wealthy citizens of the city. On 18 June, 1778, the British withdrew from Philadelphia. On the following day Major General Benedict Arnold, under the direction of General George Washington, took command of the city for the Americans.

Philadelphia was the largest and most important city in the Americas. Arnold began entertaining the wealthy and powerful families of the city, many who had, until his arrival, been entertained by his British counterpart. One of the prominent families was headed by Edward Shippen. His youngest daughter Margaret, more commonly called Peggy, was young and beautiful. She had been courted by a young dashing British Officer, Major André, throughout the British occupation. Peggy Shippen soon caught the attention of the widowed American Major General. In early April 1779 they were married. At the ceremony Arnold was still so disabled as to require support while standing, and a stool to support his leg while seated.

Arnold purchased a country home, a stately mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River that defines the western border of Philadelphia. Entertaining the elite of Philadelphia, Arnold's expenses again came into question. Although acquitted on almost all charges, the accusation of trading with a vessel that had traded with the enemy remained, as well as the improper use of wagons belonging to the state. The court ordered on 3 February, 1780, that Arnold be censured. General Washington provided the most lenient censure possible. Arnold's first son with Peggy, Edward Shippen Arnold, was born on 19 March, 1780. At some time during this period Arnold made the fateful decision to abandon the fight for Independence and betray that which he had fought for with all his spirit and for which he had shed his blood.

In July 1780 Arnold travelled to visit his home in New Haven. While returning to Philadelphia he paused to visit his old friend General Washington. The two met on horseback watching the Army crossing the Hudson River. Arnold asked Washington if he had any plans for his next position. Washington replied that Arnold was to command the left wing of his own army, second in command of all the American forces! Arnold did not reply until the two men had returned to the army's headquarters. Arnold then complained that his wound was still not healed enough for field service, and he requested that he be given command of the fortifications at West Point, New York instead.

West Point

The last major obstruction between the the British forces in Canada, and those who had occupied the city of New York for most of the war, was a fortification on the Hudson River known as West Point, about 140 miles south of Saratoga and 50 miles north of the city of New York. Although best known today as the site of the US Army's Military Academy, in the 18th Century it guarded a sharp turn in the river that would delay the passage of sailing vessels. On 3 August, 1780, Arnold was given command of the troops and fortifications at West Point. He established his headquarters in a mansion on the east side of the river, a little below the fortification. Peggy and their infant son joined him in September. As the commander of the main post in northern New York, the Arnolds found themselves entertaining the American generals on a regular basis.

Arnold began a major 'improvement' on the defences of West Point. This involved removing most of the cannon from key batteries to a storage area, so the walls and decks could be reinforced. Some of the junior officers became concerned that their defences were being weakened, but none dared to question the war hero in command. On 21 September Arnold sent a boat down the river to meet the HMS Vulture. The boat returned with a handsome man in a British Major's uniform. He and Arnold met privately. As dawn approached they had not yet concluded their business, so they went to the home of a neighbour, Joshua Smith, to share a breakfast. While they were dining an American officer spotted the Vulture and ordered a battery of field guns to open fire on her. The sloop weighed anchor and proceeded down river without her passenger.

The two men completed their negotiations soon after and the handsome stranger, who would be revealed as Major John André, placed a roll of papers inside his stocking, concealed by his boot. With the departure of the sloop, Arnold arranged to borrow a horse and gave his guest a pass along the road as far as the settlement of White Plains, just outside the British held city of New York, under his own signature. Arnold then returned to his home and family.

After waiting until almost sunset André borrowed a civilian overcoat from Smith and proceeded south for New York City. Only eight miles from their starting point André was stopped by an American patrol. Arnold's pass was presented and honoured, however he was warned that he was entering into a lawless area and should wait for daybreak. André camped for the night. He resumed his journey at dawn, proceeding into the neutral area between the American and British lines. He was stopped by three men soon after he set off. One of the men appeared to be wearing a British uniform, and rather than being cautious and presenting his American pass, André demanded he be allowed to pass through to the British lines. The three men proved to be Americans, and a quick search found the damning papers in his boot. André was taken to the nearest American commander in the hope of a reward. The commander, a Lieutenant Colonel, found the papers suspicious and forwarded them to General Washington. André requested that a note be sent to Major General Arnold at West Point that 'John Anderson', the false name Arnold had placed on the pass, was being held unjustly, and request that he help clear up the misunderstanding. The message was sent to West Point.

André was then taken to Colonel Sheldon who informed him that his papers had been forwarded to Washington and he would be held until they had been thoroughly examined. He knew the papers contained maps, sketches and details about the weaknesses at West Point, and as soon as they had been examined he would be put on trial for his life. Having been captured wearing a civilian coat he could be accused of acting as a spy. André wrote a detailed letter to General Washington confessing his true name and position as Adjutant General of the British Army. He requested word be sent to his commander, General Clinton, of his plight. André did all he could to restore himself to his former position of an honourable uniformed officer of the military. He did not, however, reveal the duplicity of Benedict Arnold.

Breakfast at West Point

On the morning of 25 September, 1780, General Washington and his staff decided to honour Arnold and his wife by joining them for breakfast at their home near West Point. In a strange twist of fate this was the very day that Arnold had planned to scatter his troops while the British squadron would attack and overwhelm the fort. General Washington and Major General Lafayette paused to examine the fortification while the junior officers arrived for their meal. While they were eating, a messenger arrived at the home. Arnold was handed the message that 'John Anderson' had sent regarding his capture. He knew that André was in custody, and it was only a matter of time before he himself would be implicated. Calmly he rose from the table, ordered a horse saddled, and asked for his wife to have a private word with him. Confessing his peril to Peggy, he left her very distraught. He returned to his guests and excused himself, saying he must return to West Point to complete arrangements for the general's visit. He then galloped down to the landing below and ordered his boat crew to row him down river. Armed with his horse pistols he ordered them to come alongside HMS Vulture, still lying in the river just beyond cannon range. Arnold abandoned his country, wife and baby son to request sanctuary from his former enemy.

The officers at Arnold's home had no indication that anything was amiss. Their host had ended the meal rather suddenly to return to his duty, not unusual in an army at war. The hostess had not returned from their private quarters, but again it could have been only that other matters demanded her attention. The men were rejoined by Washington and Lafayette and they told them Arnold was preparing for Washington's formal arrival. Washington and his staff were disappointed when they entered the fort without the required cannon salute. Arnold's second-in-command rushed forward and explained apologetically that he did not know that the Commander-in-Chief and his staff were coming. When Washington asked about Arnold, he was told that he had not been seen at the post for at least two days. The alarm was raised and patrols sent out to seize the missing general. No one yet knew he was already safe behind the enemy's line, or the extent of the reason for his absence.

Long before nightfall Washington had several documents before him:

  • The documents from André's boot, clearly noting the weakened points on the batteries under Arnold's command. The notations clearly in Arnold's own handwriting.

  • André's own confession about his true identity and plea to be treated as an officer and a gentleman, rather than a common spy.

  • A letter from Arnold himself, written aboard HMS Vulture, which was perhaps most disturbing of all. He started by explaining all his actions had been in the best interest of his American countrymen. He did add that he did not expect Washington to either understand or agree. He then went on to beg the general to see that his wife Peggy and their son were protected from the retaliation that was sure to follow. He asked only for their safety, and that they be allowed to rejoin her family in Philadelphia, or to join him in exile if that was her desire. He swore that she had no knowledge, or participation in, his dealings with the British.

The Fate of Major John André

On 29 September, 1780, Major John André, Adjutant General to the British Army, was brought before a military court in Tappan, New York. The documents found while he was wearing a civilian coat, and his letter of confession to General Washington, would have been enough to convict him on their own merit. The treachery of Arnold, and his escape, did not leave the court with any sympathy for his accomplice. Even after having been condemned to death, André only requested he be shot by a firing squad, which would be a death worthy of a gentleman. The court was firm:

Spies are hanged.
On 2 October, 1780, André was led from his cell to the waiting gallows. When he hesitated at the sight of his doom, one on the officers escorting asked him if he paused from his fear of death. André replied: 'No, only the means.' Soon he was dead. Many who study history look back to the martyred André as an honourable man who died for his country, and the disgraced Arnold as a vile traitor, contrary to what both men expected at the time. André was originally buried beneath the gallows but following a request in 1821 by HRH The Duke of York and Albany, heir presumptive to the British throne, his remains were exhumed and shipped to England to be reburied at Westminster Abbey4. Major John André is interred in Poets' Corner, which is also the resting place of luminaries such as Charles Dickens, George Frideric Handel and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Life in Exile

On the evening of 25 September, 1780, HMS Vulture sailed for the city of New York, carrying Benedict Arnold to his first meeting with British General Clinton. His first report to his new commanding general was that André's mission had failed. Nevertheless Arnold was established in the British Army with the rank of Brigadier General. He was also paid a sum of £6,315 for his attempt to aid them. Rumours were circulated behind British lines that Arnold had offered himself to be exchanged for André, but was refused by General Clinton. There is no evidence that this is true. While in New York Arnold published several messages to the Americans asking them to follow his example and return their loyalty to the King, as the cause was now hopeless. These were read with contempt by the patriotic rebels.

Arnold's wife Peggy briefly returned to her father's home in Philadelphia. She was ordered to leave the Commonwealth under the belief that she had been involved with the treachery from the beginning. She had no choice but to join her husband in exile. In December 1780, Arnold was given command to 1,600 men and sent to Portsmouth, Virginia, accompanied by two officers who were to review and approve his every move.

In early January 1781 Arnold led his troops to Richmond, Virginia, burning and plundering households and public buildings along the way. He captured several tobacco warehouses. He sent a message to the Governor, offering not to burn the city if British ships be allowed to enter the city and remove the stores. When the offer was refused, he put the torch to the warehouses, and also a few foundries and a powder magazine5 Arnold then returned to Portsmouth, Virginia and fortified his camp as the winter quarters of his army.

General Washington sent a large force into Virginia under Lafayette with specific instructions to capture Arnold should an opportunity arise, or could be arranged. In March General Clinton decided to reinforce his troops in Virginia. He sent down several units and placed Major General Phillips in command, placing Arnold under Phillips' overall command due to his superior rank. Two months later Arnold sent a dispatch to General Clinton stating that Phillips had been infected by fever on 2 May. He had conducted several raids along the Virginia Peninsula6. After they had retreated down the river on 7 May, Phillips received a request from British General Cornwallis to advance again and distract the Americans, while his army approached from the north. By the next day Phillips was so incapacitated by the fever that he could no longer ride his horse. A carriage was obtained for Phillips to continue with the troops, but command evolved once more to Arnold, as his second-in-command. The Virginia Governor offered a reward of 5,000 guineas (a guinea was an Old English coin worth 21 shillings) for the capture or death of Arnold. Phillips lost his battle with the fever and passed away in mid-May.

Lord Cornwallis and his army were still headed for Virginia when Arnold was recalled to New York City in early June. On 27 August Peggy gave birth to their second son, James Robertson Arnold. Only a few days later, in early September, Arnold was ordered to conduct a raid against New London, Connecticut. The official rationale for ordering Arnold to attack the state of his birth and youth was his invaluable local knowledge, others speculate it was another test of his loyalty to the King and his forces. The main intention of the attack was to divert General Washington from reinforcing his troops in Virginia and the coming conflict with Lord Cornwallis and his army.

New London lies on the east bank of the appropriately-named Thames River of Connecticut. It was defended by the incomplete Fort Trumbull. On the west bank the town of Groton was protected by the almost-complete Fort Griswold. As events unfolded shortly before noon on 6 September, 1781, this became one of the most disturbing and controversial events of the American Revolution. Arnold split his force into a two-pronged attack, with him commanding the forces on the east bank. The American forces at Fort Trumbull fired a single volley at the British troops approaching the fort, killing or wounding less than half-a-dozen men. They then disabled their guns by spiking the touch-holes, and abandoned their post. Arnold quickly proceeded to the town centre, where he ordered his troops to destroy the storehouses that were filled with supplies which could help the colonials extend the war. Unfortunately a building that was being used to store gunpowder was also put to the torch. Almost 150 homes and buildings were destroyed in the ensuing explosion and fire. Arnold maintained that this was an accident. His former countrymen, who longed for any excuse to vilify Arnold, questioned his simple explanation.

The second column, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Eyre, landed on the west bank below Fort Griswold. After blundering through the heavily-wooded, swampy area, they arrived at the wall. Eyre sent a party forward under a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the fort. The American commander Colonel Ledyard refused to surrender without a fight. Eyre declared that if he was forced to fight, there would be no quarter given when the post surrendered. The British sent their forces against the fort at several places. Eyre himself led the attack on the south west corner of the fort. Repulsed by heavy artillery fire loaded with grapeshot, Eyre was badly wounded and his troops withdrew.

Major Montgomery led another group who managed to gain entry to the compound. Although the Major was killed in hand-to-hand combat his men managed to open the gate, the British troops entered and overwhelmed the defending American troops. According to American accounts as soon as Colonel Ledyard surrendered his sword it was used to slay him. This was followed by the wholesale slaughter of the surviving troops. British accounts make no reference to these events, however, this event is known locally as 'The Fort Griswold Massacre'. Although it seems clear from the records that Arnold remained on the east bank throughout the day, the alleged atrocities at Fort Griswold were added to his list of crimes by his former countrymen.

After the French naval victory over the British fleet at the battle of the Virginia Capes, Lord Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army at Yorktown, Virginia on 19 October, 1781, to the American Army. Although it would be several years before the final terms of peace would be signed, this was effectively the last major action action between the forces of King George III and the newly-declared United States. The following December Benedict Arnold and his family crossed the Atlantic and set up a household in London. On 3 September, 1783, the final treaty was signed, the British Empire officially recognized the Independence of the United States. Arnold's reaction to the success of the cause he had declared hopeless and betrayed is not recorded.

Unable to obtain an active military position, and with his expenses exceeding his income, Arnold returned to trade. He moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, to trade with the West Indies. While away on a trip to England, one of his warehouses in Canada caught fire and was destroyed, along with its contents. Even though his own son was guarding the building and almost died in the fire, Arnold was accused of insurance fraud and was forced to go to court to receive compensation for his losses. This is but another example of the distrust of Arnold after his treasonous act. In the summer of 1791 Arnold and his family returned to London. Benedict Arnold died on 14 June, 1801, he was 60 years old. For the next two centuries or more, one of the greatest insults one American schoolboy could call another was: 'You are a regular Benedict Arnold!' There was no proper reply, except to resort to fisticuffs, or remain insulted until another classmate made another, even more embarrassing gaffe.


The primary question about the treason of Benedict Arnold is 'Why did he do it'? After over two centuries of debate the definitive answer will not be found here!

  • The simplest and most often given reason is that Arnold was so smitten by the charms of young Peggy Shippen that he gave up all he had spent his adult life fighting for to win her affection. If Peggy's frenetic reaction to Arnold's flight from West Point was not an award-worthy performance of fiction, it alone dispels this theory.

  • There is no doubt that many of the prominent citizens of Philadelphia, with allegiance to the King, urged Arnold to denounce his support for the American Revolution. Many letters and notes to this effect remain in Arnold's published papers.

  • The United States government was controlled by a Congress that consisted of delegates from the various states. Much time was spent bickering over seemingly trivial matters while the army was in the field without proper supplies and adequate food. The Articles of Confederation were not adapted until 1781 by all the States, and it was found so inadequate that it was replaced by the Constitution by 1789.

  • It is a possibility that Arnold considered his own retarded advancement in rank, the promotion of men he saw as incompetent and the poor judgement of Congress as the doom of the Revolution.

  • If Arnold truly believed that victory was impossible and that any future lives lost would be wasted for a hopeless cause, then Arnold's most patriotic move might well have been to end the conflict without the loss of more American lives.

  • No matter how noble or sincere Arnold's motives might have been, the end of hostilities in the American's favour so soon after his betrayal could not be overlooked.

In retrospect many of Benedict Arnold's admirers have stated that if only the bullet which killed his horse during the Battle of Saratoga had struck him in the heart rather than the leg, he would have remained one of the United States best-loved heroes.

1Attack his line from the side, allowing their fire to rake down the length of his line.2A small opening in the wall that allowed a limited number of units to enter the battlefield.3When officers of equal rank are assigned at the same place, the one in overall command is the one with the most time of service at that rank (Arnold had maintained that his seniority should have been counted from the time he was unjustly passed over).4The Royal Family do not send such requests lightly. It's the highest honour the British government can bestow upon a deceased person, to have their remains buried in Westminster Abbey.5A structure built specifically to store military supplies.6The land between the Potomac and James rivers.

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