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  • James Houser

September 21, 1780 - The Treason of Benedict Arnold

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 21, 1780. At a small farmhouse in upstate New York, two men from opposing sides of the Revolutionary War meet in secret. One man is Major John Andre of the British Army. The other is the most famous traitor in American history: a war hero and decorated combat veteran, wounded twice serving the country he is about to betray. How did Benedict Arnold, at long last, come to this?

For being such an infamous name in American history, I think few folks know why Benedict Arnold was such a big deal. What made Arnold unique was his stature. If he hadn’t made that fateful series of decisions in 1780, he would likely be one of the great Revolutionary heroes today, mentioned in the same breath as Alexander Hamilton or Nathanael Greene. There is a strong argument that Arnold was one of America’s most legitimate military heroes in 1780, and that makes his downfall all the more surprising and tragic.

And his story is a tragedy. As much as American history villainizes him and makes him out to be a scheming, wicked man, Arnold’s tale is ultimately a sad one rather than a morality play. When the Revolution was over, he lived out the rest of his years a sad, regretful, broken man. Benedict Arnold was not the villain we wanted him to be, or the hero he could have been.

Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1741, in the upper levels of Connecticut society. His family fell on hard times due to his father’s drinking, though, and young Benedict (the second of six children, they were straight breeding like rabbits in Colonial times) wound up as a merchant’s apprentice. During his teenage years, Arnold enlisted in the militia during the French and Indian Wars for a brief time, but never saw combat.

Before the Revolution, Arnold had become a successful merchant in Connecticut, recovered his now-deceased father’s debts, and reestablished the family name that his dad had driven into the ground. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which put a heavy hand on colonial trade. Since Arnold’s business was directly threatened, he joined the Sons of Liberty, a guerrilla movement that opposed growing British power in the colonies. This made him a target for British reprisals, and his business soon suffered. Arnold was willing to sacrifice his financial well-being for the Revolution.

In 1775, Arnold was one of the first men to raise troops after the Revolution began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. During his first campaigns, though, Arnold experienced two blows that would help shape his Revolutionary career. First, he got in an argument with the new commander at Ticonderoga, which cost him his command; second, he learned that his wife had passed away while he was at war. Arnold’s disputes with his commanders – as well as his loneliness after the death of his wife – would do much to shape future events.

Late in 1775, after the British had been cornered in Boston by George Washington’s fledgling army, Arnold proposed to Congress that the Americans invade Canada. He was convinced that the French Canadians would rise up in support of the American invasion. Much to his anger, though, he was passed over for command; the Quebec Expedition went first to Philip Schuyler, then to Richard Montgomery. Arnold went to George Washington and suggested that he lead a second force to invade Canada through Maine. Receiving a colonel’s commission, Arnold led his force through hell, starting out with 1,100 men of which 200 died on the way and 300 just turned back. With his bedraggled, starving remnant, Arnold staggered into the lines around Quebec to join General Montgomery.

Of course, we all know that the Americans never successfully invaded Canada, so it was a foregone conclusion. In an assault on the city in December 1775, Montgomery was killed and Arnold’s leg was broken by a bullet. Arnold was promoted to general for his courage at Quebec, and managed to hold a loose defense near the city until he was driven back to Montreal in early 1776, and then out of that city. Arnold was the man in charge of American forces in Canada, successfully delaying and resisting the British advance down the St. Lawrence River. He led the rear guard during the retreat into New York, and was reported to be the last man to leave before the British arrived. So Arnold was not just willing to sacrifice his well-being for the revolution – he put his blood and life on the line.

His greatest moment came in late 1776, when the British were preparing to invade upstate New York. He built a small navy from scratch in order to hold Lake Champlain, and though this navy was defeated at Valcour Island in October, Arnold’s energy and determination kept the British from moving forward for the rest of the year. Arnold was holding the line in the north when no one else was, and his name was on the lips of many in the Continental Congress.

But he was still the argumentative subordinate he had always been, and barely escaped court-martial in 1776. Arnold argued with everyone – his subordinates, peers, and superiors. Though he made friends in the upper circles of the Continental Congress, he made even more enemies. Benedict Arnold was a man of immense talent and intelligence, bravery and character, but equally great pride and temper. He never felt like his contributions to the Revolution were sufficiently recognized, and felt that the rewards went to everyone else. His perilous financial state caused further anxiety, prompting one critic to remark that “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”

Throughout 1777, Arnold spent most of his time badgering Congress into promoting him to Major General. Though Washington advocated for him, Arnold only got his promotion after leading a militia force to repel a British raid at Ridgefield, Connecticut. When he learned that he was still ranked junior to men he considered to be beneath him, he attempted to resign, but Washington (not for the first time) refused to let him quit. Instead, he sent him north to New York once again, where Arnold would have his finest hour.

Arnold ended up under the command of General Horatio Gates, a political backstabber who tried on more than one occasion to unseat Washington and liked to take credit for others’ accomplishments. Gates commanded the Continental Army that faced a large British force advancing down the Hudson River through upstate New York. Under the command of John Burgoyne, this force’s mission was to split the new United States down the middle. Arnold once again distinguished himself in the early stages of the campaign, evacuating fortresses and deceiving British officers while he delayed Burgoyne’s advance. Soon militia were pouring in from all over New York and New England to stop the British, and they would achieve their goal at Saratoga.

Gates’ army blocked Burgoyne’s advance at Saratoga, and it was here that Arnold truly proved his worth to the Revolutionary cause – but not without getting into another argument. Arnold detested Gates, and turned the American camp into a festering pot of intrigue against the commanding general. He was in the process of turning his peers against their commander when Burgoyne launched his first attack at Freeman’s Farm. At this encounter on September 19, 1777, Arnold directed the American troops and led multiple charges that threw back Burgoyne’s advance.

Due to Arnold’s growing insubordination and scheming, though, Gates relieved the young hothead of command after Freeman’s Farm after a series of escalating encounters leading to a shouting match. When a second battle broke out, though, Arnold ignored orders and rode out to lead the Americans once again. At this second battle at Bemis Heights on October 7, Arnold’s leadership was once again critical – even though he was wounded for a third time in his left leg. In response to this show of valor and leadership, Congress officially pardoned him of all charges and promoted him – but Arnold was still not happy, since he felt it was out of pity rather than genuine appreciation.

So we see a pattern here, right? Benedict Arnold’s ego, temper, and self-esteem kept getting in the way of his own genuine talents and bravery. I think the term we can safely use here is “asshole.” It didn’t MATTER that Arnold was often right, that he fought amazingly and led troops well, that he was one of America’s best generals. None of that matters if you’re an ASSHOLE.

Washington looked for assignments that would allow Arnold to recuperate from his injuries, and made him Military Governor of Philadelphia in 1777 after the British left. It was one of the worst misjudgments of Washington’s career. The position called for political subtlety, patience, and a cool head, which was everything Arnold was not. Worse, Arnold was soon accused (probably accurately) of embezzling, and was publicly charged with the crime. This only made him more bitter and jealous of his rivals who were still out there winning fortune and glory. He complained to Washington that “Having become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet ungrateful returns.”

Let’s look at what happened next through motive, means, and opportunity.

Arnold’s bitterness had only grown in recent years. By 1778, he had been wounded three times in battle and lost his business in Connecticut. He was jealous of multiple rivals who had been promoted over him. By 1779, he was on board to be court-martialed for war profiteering, which seemed like a shitty reward for all the sacrifices he had made. He was distrusted and disliked by most of his former superiors and peers; his only advocate was George Washington, but in his paranoia and suspicion, Arnold believed Washington had betrayed him. So we have motive.

Arnold’s service in Philadelphia laid the groundwork for his demise. First, he finally fell in love again after the death of his wife three years previously. Her name was Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a British loyalist and former love interest of a young British officer, Major John Andre. Arnold married Shippen in 1779, and soon learned that she and her circle of friends definitely ran in the Loyalist circle rather than the Patriot circle – and that she had very close ties with British friends on the other side. One historian has even said that the best explanation of Arnold’s treason was that he “married the wrong person.” So we have means.

Through this means, in early May 1779, Arnold met with Peggy’s friend Joseph Stansbury, who communicated with British General Henry Clinton that Arnold was offering information and assistance. Soon Arnold was in correspondence with Major John Andre, Peggy’s former suitor, and at least by July 1779 was sending information about troop strengths, movements, and supplies. In exchange, Arnold was promised the repayment of his business losses and an additional reward.

After his court martial finally went through, Arnold was briefly in disgrace, further cementing his antipathy to Washington and the American cause. Soon, though, Major Andre was pressing him for information about the key American fort at West Point, New York, which dominated the Hudson River. Arnold began to oh-so-innocently angle for command of the fort at West Point, which Washington decided would be a good posting to get the young firebrand back into the fold. Arnold was given command of West Point in August 1780, after which time he had already been in correspondence with the British for over a year and had passed along the fort’s plans and future American campaign orders. And NOW we have opportunity.

On August 25, Peggy delivered Benedict Arnold his final offer from the British: a lump sum and no repayment of his losses. Arnold, in command of West Point now, began to deliberately weaken its defenses and troop morale, draining the supplies and holding back on much-needed repairs. Now the British demands were not just espionage, but out-and-out treason: the surrender of West Point to a British strike force. To arrange the terms, General Clinton sent Andre to meet personally with Arnold in a small house near West Point. On September 21, 1780, the two men met, arranged for the surrender of the fort – basically giving up the whole Hudson River to the British, and possibly splitting America apart.

It might have all worked out for Benedict Arnold if fate had not intervened. On his way back to British lines, Andre was arrested by New York militia and interrogated by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a member of Washington’s famous spy ring. The letters Andre carried on his person revealed the plot, as well as Arnold’s treason, and the jig was immediately up. As soon as Benedict Arnold learned of Andre’s capture, he fled West Point, linking up with a British ship on the Hudson and vanishing down the river to New York and the safety of General Clinton’s garrison. Before departing, though, he wrote a note to Washington asking that Peggy be given safe passage.

Washington granted Arnold’s wife safety – he was a gentleman, after all – but bore no such mercy for Andre, who he had hanged as a spy. Washington even tried to kidnap Arnold in New York, but the traitor escaped. Throughout the rest of the Revolution, Arnold would serve as a general for the *British*, including the invasion of Virginia in 1781 where he sparred with Lafayette and Baron von Steuben – an American fighting for the British, leading troops against a Frenchman and Prussian fighting for the Americans. When Cornwallis took charge of this army in May 1781, he ignored Arnold’s good advice and placed his base at Yorktown. And we all know what happened after that.

But Arnold was a man broken. Though he tried to justify his conduct to his fellow Americans in a serial letter, he nevertheless fled to Britain in exile in 1781 and would never go home again. He appealed to the British government for a posting as a general after the war, only to be rebuked; Edmund Burke remarked that having betrayed one army, it would be foolish to give Arnold another. Arnold would linger in London, taking part in various failed enterprises and business ventures, until his ultimate death in 1801.

Benedict Arnold’s name became synonymous with “traitor” in his home country, with Benjamin Franklin even saying that “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions.” All of his family’s gravestones were destroyed. The victory monument at Saratoga has four places for statues, but only three stand there; the fourth remains empty. When it comes to Arnold’s entry, a plaque at West Point that commemorates all the Revolutionary Generals (which I have seen) reads only “Major General…born 1740.” The name was removed, scratched out. He is literally burned in effigy every year in his home state of Connecticut. Arnold’s legacy in America is one of hatred.

Arnold regretted his choice to the end of his days. When the French diplomat Talleyrand met Arnold in Britain in 1794, he asked this “famous American general” for letters of introduction to his friends in America. I quote:

“’No,’ he replied, and after a few moments of silence, noticing my surprise, he added, ‘I am perhaps the only American who cannot give you letters for his own country … all the relations I had there are now broken … I must never return to the States.’ He dared not tell me his name. It was General Arnold. I must confess that I felt much pity for him, for which political puritans will perhaps blame me, but with which I do not reproach myself, for I witnessed his agony.”

It is reported – though never proven – that Arnold requested to be dressed in his old Continental uniform on his deathbed, saying "Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”

So Arnold’s story is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. For all his talents – bravery, intelligence, leadership, a willingness to sacrifice – he allowed his character flaws to send them all to waste. Greed, ambition, envy, and ego ruined Benedict Arnold, not some villainous cruelty or evil, or even a commitment to King George. Arnold’s story is familiar, even if it seems strange to us. All the genuine and very admirable sacrifices he made for his country were destroyed from his envy. It’s not one of the Seven Deadly Sins for nothing.

He could have been great, a patriot, a Founding Father, a hero – but he is, and remains, Benedict Arnold.

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