Had he been killed in one of the numerous military encounters of his career as a Revolutionary War patriot, he would have gone down, undoubtedly, as one of the 3 or 4 greatest heroes of the Cause. But, surviving – though crippled from his wounds as he was – he instead became the most reviled soldiers in American history. The journey from the most celebrated of patriots to the very name his countrymen use, even to this day, to condemn the most vile acts of cowardice and betrayal is one that, unfortunately for those seeking the truth of his motives, will forever be shrouded in mystery. But, far from a story of simple villainy, it is a prism that, when subjected to the light of scrutiny, emits a spectrum of light that commands deeper inspection and scrutiny. As his infamy lurks even in the scant treatment of history in our schools today, all should appreciate by now I am referring to Benedict Arnold.
His ancestors can be traced back to 1635 when his namesake sailed with other Puritans, led by Roger Williams, and settled in Rhode Island in the Pawtucket River region. While the first iteration of the name Benedict Arnold rose to succeed Williams as governor of Rhode Island and served several terms until his death in 1678, subsequent Arnolds found progressively less prosperity. By the time of the birth of the fifth in the line of this once-esteemed name, fortune and esteem had passed from the Arnold family. Benedict V, the subject at hand, was born on January 14, 1741 to Benedict and Hannah Arnold in Norwich, Connecticut. He was the second child to the marriage; the first, also christened Benedict, had died in infancy, as so many of this time did.
Tragedy seemed to reside in the lives of the Arnolds, steadfastly anchored with the death of their first male child. Its dark cloak, all told, took three (Mary, Elizabeth and Absalom King) of the four children born subsequent to young Benedict. Only his oldest sibling, his mother’s namesake, Hannah, remained in the once-happy Arnold home by the time Benedict reached the age of 13.
The psychological impact on the oldest child was clear to those who knew and wrote of Benedict in adulthood. Young Benedict’s parents instructed him in the Calvinist doctrine, specifically, a vengeful, omniscient, but sometimes-capricious God whose wrath was not so much directed against the sinner but to those innocents whose death might serve as a more powerful warning. For if God will take an innocent, what might He do to those who would truly offend?
With the tragedies of his siblings, the eldest child of the family disavowed any such arbitrary power, heavenly or earthbound, and continued to challenge it as an adult.
Adding fuel to his personal fires, was his father’s subsequent alcoholism and fall from social grace after the death of the majority of his offspring. Shunned by the church (whether or not he was formally excommunicated is unclear) and in financial ruin, Benedict’s parents were both disgraced, dead and penniless by the time the boy reached 20 years old. Witness, as he was, to the Norwich community’s abandonment and dismissal of his parents in their sorrow, one might see how the young man would come to despise those who were so unforgiving of human frailty.
With a little insight, one can imagine the anger the young man could harbor for those he would encounter later in his life. Those who, holding themselves aloft – buttressed only by artificial social or, more relevantly, political status – could abandon those of lesser standing with such sorrowful consequences as befell his parents. These are the experiences of youth that so often, for good and bad, chart the path of the adult life.
As he sought to salvage his family name, young Arnold rose from apprentice (with his late mother’s brothers) to a prosperous New Haven merchant and owner of his own small, but active, West Indies merchant fleet. Driven by a passion to reclaim his family name from indignity, he became a true American success story. As available history recounts, he suffered no man impugn his name and was not one to avoid confrontation if honor was in question. As fate and the times would fall into place, Arnold was among the first to challenge New Haven’s loyalists “old guard” when British taxation and disregard of the New World’s colonies’ began to boil in the late 1760s.
But, even with the demands of a growing mercantile and his constant feuding, driven by Benedict’s disdain for the “establishment,” a young man’s nature will find its way through all distractions. Benedict married Peggy Mansfield on February 27, 1767. The young couple had three children before tragedy again fell at Arnold’s doorstep. Peggy’s untimely death in June, 1775 set her widowed husband on his fateful path in American history.
At the word of the disastrous day in April, 1775 of the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, it was Benedict Arnold who organized 64 men into a militia company in New Haven. Arming and supplying themselves, they were, through the exhortations of their leader, formally established as the Governor’s 2ns Company of Guards. Allowed to vote on their own officers, the group elected Arnold, known throughout their ranks as a champion of American liberties, as their Captain.
Later in the month when Arnold proposed to march to Massachusetts’ aid, the loyalist “elders” forbid the Footguards access to the town’s magazine and arms store. Arnold delivered the retort, “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching.” Delivering a 5 minute ultimatum, Arnold and his men were promptly given the keys to the armory and, weapons secured, his band were off to help the Bostonians confront His Majesty’s General Gage in Boston.
That is was Arnold’s idea to confront the British at Fort Ticonderoga and secure the precious cannons there is of little historical dispute. That the idea was also acted upon by Vermont’s Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys virtually simultaneously is also a matter of historical record. Regardless of the timeline, Arnold’s idea was accepted by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety upon his arrival in Boston and he was granted a colonel’s commission. He left his new Haven Footguards and rode west in early May, 1775, recruiting his assault forces as he went. Within 10 days, joined by Ethan Allen’s forces, the audacity and boldness of Arnold’s plan was substantiated. Fort Ticonderoga fell in less than 10 minutes.
The some 200 artillery pieces captured there were subsequently part of the grand saga of Henry Knox and his amazing caravan of the precious cargo eastward to the Boston. The story of their “miraculous” appearance of these same cannon on Dorchester Heights in March, 1776 led to the British evacuation of Boston, retreat to Nova Scotia, and their triumphant reappearance in New York harbor months later.
As the rebels took command of the Fort and it’s surprised British forces, he took one of the first of many steps in defense of his principles of honor that would bring him continued confrontations with others less chivalrous. As Ethan Allen’s rowdy mountain men began to loot Fort Ticonderoga, Arnold stood against this unmilitary and most ungentlemanly behavior. He was, standing with a much smaller force of troops, roundly and aggressively shouted down, to the point of being shot at by drunken Vermont troops at least twice. It was Arnold’s first but not last experience with louder voices and higher placed civilian patrons.
While Allen and his ‘Boys dispersed back into the hills that were their homes, all the way telling all who would listen including the Continental Congress, how it was their initiative and bravery that conquered the British, Arnold had grander plans. His eyes were on Lake Champlain and, ultimately, the British fortress of Quebec. He moved decisively onto Quebec not knowing that his initiative was frowned on by the tentative Continental Congress who disavowed any offensive actions, especially into Canada. Though Arnold’s name was bandied about as a renegade, a “loose cannon,” he forged ahead. His disregard for his “betters” in the civilian sector were to be the seeds in Arnold that grew his doubts in the incompetence of those who would lead the new country.
Arnold, unaware for the most part of those working behind the scenes (including Ethan Allen) to minimize his martial talents, wrote a letter outlining his proposed campaign on Quebec to the Congress in June, 1775. After several months of personal lobbying, not the least of which was dedicated to convincing George Washington himself of the worthiness of the northern assault, Arnold was given command, from Washington, of around 1000 volunteers and set off across the treacherous wilds of Maine for Quebec. The journey would earn Benedict Arnold the title “America’s Hannibal.” The “famine proof” force of Arnold has lost too many men from disease and dissertion to attack the city when he finally scaled Abraham’s Heights outside the city in November, 1775.
Nevertheless, Arnold, wisely, steadfastly laid siege to the city and its military leader, Sir Guy Carleton. He effectively bottled up the city and the British forces it contained, even though commanding an inferior (in almost all senses of the word) force, for nearly 2 months. With the arrival of General Montgomery, flush from his conquest of Montreal, the combined forces finally assaulted the city on New Year’s eve, 1775. It was a disaster. Montgomery was killed in the first charge and Arnold was shot in his left ankle soon after. Leaderless and thoroughly undisciplined, the assault forces retreated. The great northern adventure was eventually abandoned. As he retreated from the failed Quebec campaign, Arnold further claimed widespread fame at the Battle of Valcour Bay where, with little more than canoes and rowboats, he kept the British fleet on Lake Champaign from proceeding south to trap Washington in New York.
Of course, in the halls of the civilian leadership, there must be someone to blame, as it always must be. And, as it would be throughout the remainder of his career as a citizen soldier – one not in leadership by wealth or land but by commitment and passion – it would be Benedict Arnold. Those who served with him – the honorable and the truly patriotic including Washington – would speak only of his passion and leadership. Those who would bring him to heel, the infant government with its petty power struggles and inconstant purpose, would constantly deny Arnold the recognition and acceptance he so passionately desired.
It was to remain so even after he almost single-handedly saved the day at the Battle of Saratoga for General Gates by leading the charge at Bemis Heights, Arnold was to still find no glory or appreciation. At the very moment the pompous Gates (who would, later in the war, be recalled from South Carolina by Washington himself for incompetence at the Battle of Camden) accepted British General Johnny Burgoyne’s sword in surrender, Benedict Arnold lay near death in a field hospital with a left thigh completely shattered by British grapeshot. He would never physically nor, as history infamously reports, psychologically recover.
I do seek to change history. One cannot dismiss the significance of the act of ultimate treason Arnold committed. However, neither should we dismiss the life of Benedict Arnold as one of simple treachery and betrayal. His truly is one of the most complex and fascinating lives ever lived. It deserves all Americans’ inspection. The contradictions – fervent patriotism versus heinous treason, military genius versus self-serving egotist, endurance through immense personal tragedy versus greedy perfidiousness and deceit – are many and will remain inexplicable in the haze of 250 years past. However, he – and the lessons his life teach us – cannot be simplified as some would have us believe. He suffered much for the Cause of Liberty and he cannot be dismissed, simply, as a ungrateful traitor.
Ironically, when all is examined, the name and fate of Benedict Arnold lay solely with a single misplaced bullet on the scorching fields of Saratoga. For if the bullet had been true to its mark, the death of its recipient would have undoubtedly secured his place in the esteemed pantheon of Revolutionary War heroes. But, striking as it did, sparing life but securing infamy, it did it’s victim no service. I wonder if Benedict Arnold, as his lonely final years passed in London’s exile, ever wished the bullet had been truer to the mark? I suspect, in my heart, he did.
On the Saratoga battlefield there is a monument consisting of only the left boot of an unnamed officer. The inscription, which fails to identify the boot’s owner, poignantly reads:
“In memory of the ‘most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, the sally port of Burgoyne’s ‘Great Western Redoubt’, 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive battle of the American Revolution.”