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Benedict Arnold - Part I - The Road to Saratoga

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A portrait of Benedict Arnold.
Part I - The Road to Saratoga | Part II- Patriot, War Hero and Traitor

The story of Benedict Arnold, one of the most despised men in American history, is far more complex than the one action for which he is remembered. One single event removed his entire career from the records. His monument at Saratoga is the only war memorial in the US that does not mention the name of the person honoured1.

Early Life

Benedict Arnold was from a well-established family who had first emigrated to the colony of Rhode Island in 1636. His great-grandfather Benedict had served as governor of the colony. He also began a tradition of naming the firstborn sons of the family Benedict. His grandson, another Benedict, was a cooper by trade. After moving to Norwich, Connecticut, he expanded his business into general merchandise. To provide products at a competitive cost he obtained a ship and made several trading voyages to the West Indies, learning to command his own ship. He married attractive widow Hannah Waterman King, who brought a large sum of money into the family.

Their firstborn son was, of course, named Benedict, but he died in infancy. When their second son was born on 14 January, 1741, he was also named Benedict. Four more children would follow. The family had sufficient resources to provide a proper education for their children and young Benedict was sent away to school. When Benedict reached his 13th year the family's fortunes suffered. First the family were struck by a severe attack of Yellow fever, taking some of his siblings. Only Benedict and his sister Hannah would live to reach adulthood. At almost the same time much of the family's funds were lost through a series of bad investments, so, unable to pay his tuition, young Benedict was forced to leave school.

Without the discipline of school Benedict soon found less-than-desirable ways to pass his time. The bad and disagreeable youthful acts of Benedict Arnold were embellished by 19th Century writers to vilify him, in the same fashion that the good and honourable acts of George Washington's youth were expanded to glorify him. It cannot be denied that he had a quick temper and sometimes acted rashly. His mother, Hannah, arranged for him to enter an apprenticeship with his cousins in their successful apothecary2 business.

French and Indian War

At the age of 15, Benedict ran away to join the colonial forces preparing to fight the French Invasion of the New York Colony, but his adventure would not last long. His mother enlisted a prominent clergyman to secure his release due to his young age. The troops he had accompanied went on to fight in the Battle of Lake George on 8 September, 1755. Although the battle itself had no conclusive outcome, when the French withdrew they established a new military post, Fort Carillon, on Ticonderoga Point, near the southern end of Lake Champlain. When the British took control of this fortification in 1759 it would be renamed Fort Ticonderoga.

While Benedict returned to his duties at the apothecary shop, he still yearned for adventure with the army. Eventually he enlisted a second time, and joined the troops on the frontier. Rather than marching into the glory of battle he found himself on garrison duty at a few of the isolated posts. He may have even served at Fort Ticonderoga itself.

While he was away with the army Benedict's mother became gravely ill. Benedict ran away, deserting from the army and returning to his duties at the apothecary. Whether it was loyalty to his mother, or just having tired of obeying the army's regulations, we will never know. On at least one occasion a British officer arrived in town looking for deserters. Benedict was hidden by his family, and was given an isolated place to stay in until the soldier left.

Independent Businessman

At last Benedict completed his apprenticeship. The family provided him with the means to establish his own shop as a druggist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut, far enough away to prevent competition. Like his father before him, he soon expanded his enterprises. He made several trips to Quebec, Canada, to purchase goods and several trading voyages to the West Indies. Also like his father he learned to sail and command his own ships. As his business prospered, Benedict became a prominent citizen of New Haven. He married the high sheriff's daughter, Margaret Mansfield, on 22 February, 1767. They had three children together, Benedict (born 1768), Richard (born 1769) and Henry (born 1772).

The years following the French and Indian War saw the relationship between the American colonies and the British Government become strained. New taxes to cover the cost of the late war were implemented, protested and replaced by others. The tensions grew violent on 5 March, 1770. A squad of British soldiers found themselves surrounded by an agitated mob who began throwing objects3 at the soldiers. One of the soldiers fired his musket into the crowd, without any order to do so, and several of his comrades followed suit. Five colonials lay dead before order was restored. This event became known as The Boston Massacre.

Captain Benedict

The Boston Massacre occurred while Benedict was at sea in the West Indies. When he first received an account of the incident he flew into a rage against the Mother Country and her troops. It was the first time anyone had seen his patriotic passion for the colonies. Benedict was elected captain of the local militia unit soon after his return. As relations deteriorated, the militia units and the committees to whom they reported began accumulating weapons and ammunition, storing them in secure buildings against the day they might be needed.

On 19 April, 1775, a unit of the British Army was sent to confiscate the arms in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from the city of Boston. As they passed through the outlying village of Lexington they were confronted by colonial militia troops. At some point a weapon was fired. The British continued their march to Concord after the ensuing skirmish. A large group of militia blocked the bridge while others began firing into the soldiers from cover on both sides. The British began their long retreat to Boston, under harassing fire all the way.

When word of the conflict reached New Haven, Captain Arnold assembled his troops and marched on the Committee of Correspondence, demanding they issue him their arms and ammunition. The committee at first refused, maintaining the arms were for local defence only, not to support the dissidents in a neighbouring colony. Captain Arnold convinced them to release the military stores by threatening to break into the storehouse by force, then he led his armed company to Boston. By the time they arrived, the city had become a British compound defended by a hastily-built defence across the narrow causeway that allowed land access to the city.

Fort Ticonderoga

Soon after his arrival at Cambridge, just outside Boston, and his assessment of the situation, Captain Arnold approached the Massachusetts' Committee of Safety with a daring plan. He would cross the length of the colony and attack Fort Ticonderoga, which was in disrepair but still fully armed. The waterways of the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River formed a pathway through the mountains from the Canadian city of Montreal to the American port of New York with few barriers along the way. One of Captain Arnold's major goals was to bring the captured artillery back to Boston to form a siege on the British troops in the city.

Colonel Arnold

Captain Arnold's offer was accepted, he was given a commission as colonel and ordered to lead his men on the mission, recruiting additional troops after he had crossed the colony. While crossing the wilderness of western Massachusetts, Colonel Arnold learned that another force was underway with the same mission, led by Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. The two men joined in an uneasy alliance. Colonel Arnold claimed it was a joint command, while the Green Mountain Boys maintained that Colonel Arnold and his troops were merely allowed to accompany them on the mission.

The small British garrison at Ticonderoga were overwhelmed by the joint colonial force and quickly surrendered the fort. The militia followed up with the far smaller detachment at Crown Point. Colonel Arnold then decided to take his troops farther north to Fort Saint-Jean4 in Canada, having also captured a pair of sailing vessels on the lake. Not to be overshadowed, Ethan Allen followed with his troops in some captured bateaux5. Colonel Arnold, having the advantage of sail, easily arrived at the fort first and captured it. Learning that reinforcements were already marching from Quebec, Colonel Arnold quickly stripped the post of all valuable items, sank the boats he could not man and returned south with the largest vessel in the area at the time, a 70-ton sloop, loaded with the fort's cannon. On his way south he passed Ethan Allen and his troops still heading north. After reaching Fort Saint-Jean, Colonel Allen returned south and took command of Fort Ticonderoga. Colonel Arnold commanded at Crown Point.

Realizing the danger of an invasion along the waterways, the men at Lake Champlain received orders to maintain their fortifications against any possible invasion from the north. Colonel Arnold remained in command of the fort at Crown Point until the Massachusetts committee sent Colonel Benjamin Hinman to take over the command in June. Colonel Hinman had also been instructed to investigate the expenditures and status of captured arms that occurred under Colonel Arnold's command. Upon learning that he was no longer in overall command, and insulted by the questioning of his judgement, Colonel Arnold resigned his commission and released his troops from their service. When he returned to Cambridge, Arnold received word that his wife had passed away on 19 June while he was away serving the rebellion. His sister Hannah assumed the role of caretaker of the children and mistress of his household.

Invasion of Canada

In early autumn an American army, commanded by Generals Schuyler and Montgomery, arrived at Lake Champlain with the intention of invading Canada. Colonel Ethan Allen joined them and was captured by the British in his rash attempt to capture the city of Montreal before the arrival of the main army. During the winter of 1775-6 Colonel Henry Knox travelled to Fort Ticonderoga and painstakingly moved the cannons to Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston and her harbour. When the guns opened fire the British were forced to abandon the city, completing Arnold's original goal.

General George Washington, who had taken command of the forces outside Boston on 3 July, 1775, felt Arnold had been poorly treated by circumstances and the Massachusetts committee. They would share respect and friendship for each other until it was shattered by Arnold's later treachery. The two men discussed the invasion of Canada. Arnold proposed that an expedition up the Kennebec River in the territory of Maine, and then overland through the wilderness, could arrive at the city of Quebec before they were detected by the enemy. The expectation was that General Schuyler's army in Montreal and Arnold's troops in Quebec would put the Canadians between into an untenable position, and might hopefully entice them to join the revolution. Arnold was again commissioned as colonel. He proceeded with 1,100 soldiers, ten companies armed with muskets and three others equipped with rifles. They departed for Canada on 11 September, 1775.

The passage of Colonel Arnold's troops through the wilderness was fraught with hardship and danger. Death from fatigue and hunger were all too common along the journey. One division under the command of Colonel Enos turned back at this stage, returning with more than their fair share of the remaining provisions, according to some sources. Upon his arrival at Cambridge Colonel Enos was charged with desertion, but he was acquitted, perhaps because most of the witnesses against him were too involved in activities in Canada to give their testimony at the hearing. The troops who remained with Colonel Arnold on his quest saw acts of compassion and generosity from his own funds. These endeared him to the troops under his command, a mark of what is considered to be a great military leader.

Colonel Arnold's troops began to gather in early November near the city of Quebec. The French settlers and a tribe of friendly Native Americans shared their food with the starving army 'from Boston'. This delay, although necessary, spoiled the intended element of surprise. The British in Quebec learned of the approaching colonial army and burned all the boats on the river within 20 miles of the city and its fortress. Built on the St Lawrence River with high cliffs below, Quebec City has been referred to as 'the Gibraltar of the West'. Colonel Arnold's troops and their allies purchased birchbark canoes and carried them overland, 20 miles or more, and assembled them for the assault. The fall6 weather grew bitter and violent, preventing the frail canoes from crossing. However, the better-equipped British were able to bring in reinforcements to defend against the expected attack.

The Battle of Quebec

When the storm abated enough to allow the crossing, Colonel Arnold landed on the island with 500 troops on 13 November, 1775. Another 150 men waited on the opposite shore without the means to cross. This was all that remained from the 1,100 men who had set out on the mission. A third of the force had deserted, the remainder lay dead or disabled along the trail. Colonel Arnold assembled his soldiers on a plain above the cliff edge where, only 16 years earlier, British General James Wolfe had captured the city from the French, at the cost of his own life.

While the British force was far larger, with about 1,800 men, than the colonial force assembled before them, they refused to leave the protection of the fort's walls. When Colonel Arnold boldly sent a man forward to demand the surrender of the city, the British replied by firing their muskets. With an in-pass at the fort, and having learned that more British reinforcements were about to arrive, Colonel Arnold withdrew his troops. He set up camp about 20 miles (32km) above the city to await General Montgomery7 and his troops.

General Montgomery arrived at Colonel Arnold's camp on 3 December, 1775. His army had shrunk to only 300 men, the rest were garrisoning the captured cities, or returned home having fulfilled their terms of enlistment. With Colonel Arnold's remaining 675 men, there were slightly less than a thousand men available to capture Quebec. In the early morning hours of 31 December, 1775, Colonel Arnold and General Montgomery each led a body of troops to attack the city in a two-prong attack. Many of the troop's enlistments would expire at the year's end, so this was the last day the army could be compelled to attack before its strength would be greatly reduced. Even so the troops attacked eagerly, ready to win glory and fame upon the battlefield. Due to the army's battle inexperience, both leaders chose to lead their men into battle, exposing themselves to the full force of the enemy's fire.

General Montgomery led his troops along the southern side of the city, along the river bank to a stockade at Diamond Point at the southeastern corner of the city. They chopped their way through a stockade wall and faced a blockhouse armed with cannon. As General Montgomery organized his line of about 60 men, the cannon opened fire with grapeshot8. General Montgomery and several of his officers were killed instantly. The troops, left leaderless, broke and ran. This left the garrison to concentrate on Colonel Arnold's force attacking from the northeast. A storm formed over the city as the battle continued.

As Colonel Arnold reached the city's gate, the alarm bells were ringing. The men were shielding their musket locks from the storm's rain, and the defenders opened fire. One of the early musket shots struck Colonel Arnold, breaking his left leg. He insisted upon remaining at the front until his troops were in position, then he shouted encouragement to the men as he was carried to the rear. The troops were inevitably repulsed by the superior British force, but again the British did not leave the safety of their fortifications to attack the colonial army. When word of the battle and the death of General Montgomery reached Congress they promoted Benedict Arnold to the rank of Brigadier General. From his hospital bed General Arnold still kept command of his troops who blockaded the city of Quebec. Chafing with inaction, even though only partially recovered from his wound, General Arnold asked for and was given command of the city of Montreal.


By June the colonial presence in Canada was becoming untenable due to the shortage of supplies, diseases such as smallpox and fever, and the increased number of British troops in the theater. Congress decided to recall the continental forces then in Canada. General Gates was sent to take command of all forces in northern New York Colony. He met up with Generals Schuyler and Arnold at Crown Point. With the advancing threat they abandoned Crown Point so they could reinforce the troops at Ticonderoga.


In the aftermath of the Canadian campaign several charges and replies were made between General Arnold and his junior officers over the seizure and use of private supplies. A military court-martial was formed. After this court refused to hear General Arnold's major witness, he protested and the court demanded that General Gates have General Arnold arrested. General Gates responded by dissolving the court. The whole affair was placed before Congress; several of the congressmen became prejudiced against General Arnold and that would affect later events.

Battle of Valcour Island

Following the recapture of Saint-Jean by the British, they began a massive shipbuilding program to win control of Lake Champlain. Sir Guy Carleton took charge of the British efforts, not only building vessels locally, but having ships too large to negotiate the rapids of the Richelieu River broken down, transported overland and reassembled at the lake. Many of the vast resources of the British Navy were placed at his command. His largest vessel, the Inflexible, had three masts and mounted 30 guns.

General Arnold, with the experience gained in his West Indies trade, took command of the American naval forces on the lake by late July. With the ratification of The Declaration of Independence the forces in America were no longer colonial. Unlike the British, the Americans were forced to build whatever vessels they could from local material with an unskilled labour force. Most of the American fleet were gondolas and galleys propelled primarily by oars, although they did have sails available. The ships taken by General Arnold during the capture of Fort Ticonderoga were also in his fleet. He deployed his fleet behind Valcour Island, near the town of Plattsburgh, NY. The British fleet consisted of 25 vessels, 697 sailors, 1,000 soldiers and 650 Native Americans. General Arnold's forces were limited to 15 armed vessels and 650 sailors.

The ensuing Battle of Valcour Island would last from 11 October to 13 October, 1776. The result can only be classified as a British victory with the loss of 11 American vessels, 80 men killed and 120 captured. The British lost 3 small gunboats and 40 men killed or wounded. The statistics of the battle do not reflect the brave and desperate actions of the Americans under General Arnold. Ships whose decks were littered with the dead and wounded, their hulls mortally shattered, continued to fight with their colours flying. The Battle of Valcour Island is still studied as an example of how to fight a delaying action against overwhelming opposition. On more than one occasion General Arnold placed himself, aboard the shattered Congress, before the British fleet to allow the others to escape. When it was clear that further resistance was impossible, General Arnold ran his few remaining vessels up a creek, ordering the crews to wade ashore. He then set fire to the wrecks, preventing even such a poor prize from falling into enemy hands.

Although the British fleet were almost totally victorious against the Americans, the delay prevented an invasion before the following spring due to the decline in the weather. This gave the Americans a chance to reinforce the troops defending New York State.

Winter 1776-7

General Arnold was allowed to visit his children and sister before taking up duties in New England organizing militia troops. Congress issued five promotions to the rank of Major General on 19 February, 1777. Not only was General Arnold's name not on the list, all five had been his junior in seniority! This slight has been attributed to both questions about his actions in Montreal and his failure to pander to the politicians. General Washington was almost as upset at this slight as was General Arnold himself. General Washington sent several letters to his friends in high places asking them to correct this inequity. The answer from Congress was that they were trying to balance the number of Major Generals to be equal for each state, and Connecticut already had its allotment filled. While not satisfied, the explanation was enough to prevent General Arnold's resignation. It was not uncommon for officers in the American army to resign when passed over for a promotion they thought themselves entitled to.

General Arnold determined to visit Congress and request an enquiry to clear his name of the rumours that had been circulated about him. While passing through New Haven he stopped to visit with his family. While there General Arnold received word that a British force had landed in Connecticut and were destroying American supplies. With his reputation for glory he quickly assembled a militia force of 500 men. On 27 April, 1777, he formed his men into a line, with a hastily-built barricade, across the path of the British army at the town of Ridgefield. Having been stopped by the fire of General Arnold's troops, the British sent out a flanking force to turn the American line. General Arnold found himself exposed between the British force and his own men. The first volley from the British killed his horse under him with nine musket balls. While he was entangled in the stirrups of his former mount, a soldier ran up to him with a fixed bayonet and demanded his surrender. General Arnold calmly drew his pistol and shot the soldier dead. He then managed to extract himself and fled into a nearby wood.

General Arnold had reformed his troops by morning and began harassing fire on the retreating British, not unlike their retreat from Concord at the start of the war. When the reports of General Arnold's actions in Connecticut reached Congress, they immediately began the investigation he had requested about his conduct. He was totally exonerated for misconduct and finally promoted to Major General, though at the bottom of the list in seniority.

Benedict Arnold's Story Continues

In part two General Arnold will soon travel to New York State, where he will earn even more honours and the ultimate disgrace in the years that follow.

1With the exception of The Tomb of the Unknowns, but for far different reasons.2An early type of pharmacy.3Principally snowballs, many containing rocks. 4Also called St John or St John's in period accounts.5A flat-bottomed boat powered by oars.6Autumn.7General Montgomery had taken command of the Army due to General Schuyler having been taken ill. They had marched north from Lake Champlain and besieged Fort Saint-Jean. After capturing the outpost they proceeded to Montreal, which fell without a fight.8Several small iron cannonballs fired together from each cannon.

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