If someone happens to mention the words “treason” or “traitor,” the thoughts of many Americans automatically go to Benedict Arnold. It’s only natural, the man did try to sell West Point to the British and actually fought against America and that’s why his name is synonymous with betraying one’s country.
We think of him as the United States’ first traitor, but do you realize that, in the earlier years of the Revolutionary War, Arnold was a hero to the American people?
He was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in January of 1741. His father was a wealthy merchant but he took to drink, squandered the family’s fortune and Arnold served a seven-year apprenticeship to a firm of apothecaries and merchants.
It seemed that the young Arnold had a head for business. By the time he was 21, he’d set himself up as a pharmacist and bookseller. Within a year he paid back the money he’d borrowed to open the business. A year later he owned three ships and was busy trading with the West Indies.
He was becoming prosperous but then the British parliament passed acts to curb trade and suddenly his business was considered smuggling and his profits dropped. Recognizing the way things were going, he joined the Connecticut militia and was elected as Captain, a position he held when, on April 19, 1775, the Revolutionary War started.
Arnold’s company marched north to join the siege of Boston and, soon after arriving, he approached the Massachusetts Committee of Safety with a plan to attack Fort Ticonderoga. The committee gave him a colonel’s commission and authorized him to go capture the strategic outpost and its artillery.
Arnold set off, but learned that a force led by Ethan Allen was already on its way to the fort. He raced after and caught up with them. Afterward, he claimed he was in joint command of the expedition while others say he was just allowed to accompany them. Whichever is true, the fort, its guns and supplies fell easily.
Allen went on to capture Crown Point while Arnold loaded his men into bateaux and proceeded up Lake Champlain to raid Fort Saint-Jean. Here he captured more supplies and seized a 70-ton sloop called HMS Royal George, renaming it Enterprise.
Ethan Allen’s men began to drift away from Ticonderoga soon after its capture and the artillery was transferred to Boston, where it was instrumental in forcing the British evacuation of the city. Arnold remained in command but Massachusetts sent a force to garrison the fort and said Arnold was to serve under its commander. Not happy with that, he resigned his commission and set off for home.
He wasn’t finished with the war, however; he petitioned Congress to lead a raid on Quebec and, when he wasn’t given command, he approached George Washington with a proposal to capture Quebec City. Washington liked the idea and Arnold was given 1,100 men and Colonel’s commission in the Continental Army.
The journey was arduous. The expedition was short of food, marched through uncharted territory and lost nearly half their number through desertion and sickness but, on Dec. 31, 1775, they mounted an assault on the city’s defenses.
It did not go well. Arnold received a bad wound in his leg from a musket ball and had to be carried to the rear while the attack faltered and was beaten back. The Americans laid siege to the city for the next four months and Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General before moving on to be military governor of Montreal.
His stay here was short; the British sent reinforcements and were advancing on the city. Hastily, Arnold had a makeshift fleet constructed in an effort to delay the enemy advance.
His plan succeeded. Sir Guy Carleton, commanding the British forces, had to build ships of his own to combat Arnold’s and, although many of the American ships were lost in the Battle of Valcour Island and the subsequent retreat, by the time it was over, it was too late for the Redcoats to proceed that year.
Arnold’s delaying tactics may well have saved the revolution because, had the British reached New York, they would have split the colonies in two.
He’d done well but he had enemies on his own side. Five junior officers were promoted above him and again he offered to resign his commission.
He was on his way to Philadelphia to discuss this when he heard a British force was in Connecticut. Rounding up some militia, he led them in forcing the Redcoats to withdraw during the Battle of Ridgefield, injuring his previously wounded leg in the process. After the action, he met with members of Congress and received his promotion to Major General.
He still wanted to resign, but Washington wouldn’t hear of it and ordered him north where the British had just recaptured Ticonderoga and were marching south.
Here, Arnold took command of 900 men and raised the siege of Fort Stanwix before returning to the main army, now commanded by General Gates. Gates and Arnold had once been on good terms but Arnold now held the older man in contempt.
Their animosity came to a head after the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on Sept. 19, 1777. Most of the fighting was on the American left where Arnold commanded, but when reporting the action to Congress, Gates failed to mention him at all.
The two got into a shouting argument and Gates relieved Arnold of his command.
That should have been it, but Arnold stayed with the army and, at the Battle of Bemis Heights, he defied Gates’ orders, left camp and, showing great bravery, led a charge that succeeded in taking a British redoubt, suffering a further wound in the same leg in the process.
Despite the effectiveness of his actions, Gates ordered him back to camp and failed to mention him in his report of the battle.
The British army surrendered 10 days later.
Arnold’s injury prevented him from active duty for months and so he was appointed military governor of Philadelphia. It was there that his loyalties changed. He’d fought and bled for his country for over four years but now he met and married a girl whose family was loyal to King George and began secretly talking to the British. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a post-script, there are statues of the American commanders where the British surrendered at Saratoga. Arnold’s stands empty but in the place where he was shot there is a monument with no name. It shows just a boot and the stars of a major-general.