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America’s Hannibal

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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.”

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About Diet Doc

  • dietdoc

    My fellow BC’ers:

    I am sorry this commentary didn’t have any comments. Clearly, I didn’t express what I set out to do. I said what was in my heart and the contradictions I had learned made up this complex man’s live.

    Though he betrayed his county, I wish Benedict Arnold’s soul peace and a deaf ear to those who, even today, speak his name as only one of disgrace. There is much virture and patriotism to be found in his country’s service and he deserves a more (God, I hate to use this phrase!) fair and balanced account of his perplexing life.

    I will try and do better next go around.
    I don’t mind when my essays fall flat on BlogCritics for I know I have been judged by the very best critics on the Internet.



  • Eric Berlin

    Ron — Don’t sweat it too much, man. Every writer who has been around a while will tell you that quite often the posts you work hardest on (and/or care most about) get the least response. And then a quick blurt about a breaking news story or a list (people love the lists) will garner hopping chatter for days.

    It’s just one of them things…

  • Duane

    Dear dietdoc,

    There are many, many circumstances that determine how many comments you get. Some of the stupidest posts get loads of comments. You laid out a full seven-course meal, and most people here want fast food. It depends on the day of the week, the time of day, and lots of other variables. Don’t worry about it. Just keep plugging away.

    If you want a lot of comments, write a post based on the theme “Slash Sucks Eggs.” You will get at least 100 responses.

  • Tao Jonez

    a real wise man laid some Knowledge on me once, he said “we are defined by our choices”
    problem with Ben A here is the biggest choice he made, he fucked up royally
    yer shit was well written, and some hard eatin’ of words fer the reader, add to it the spicy enchilada of the subject, and what’s been happinin around here lately
    are ya suprised so few talked on it?

    at least ya ain’t all about the hatin’ like some around here lately, rock on dietdoc

  • dietdoc

    Eric, Duance and Tao:

    Not sweatin’, my brothers. Just digesting your very interesting observations about what “takes” and what doesn’t in our world today. The subject here was a little tame and I didn’t throw any wild arrows toward any hot button topics, so I shouldn’t ask for anything more.

    I need to re-read my “Joys of Age” posting. Every time I read it, I understand its not so much what you say as why you say it.

    I will work on something like “Dog escapes Gitmo pound and bites genitals off prisoners (or guard)” for the next post. Then we can get into all the important issues of the day. (broad grin)

    As I mentioned in “Joys of Age,” I don’t stress anymore; it’s an age thing. I just understand what the hot buttons are and try to steer clear. There is just too much venom spewing (and very little logic) whenever someone tries to make a point. I just get so tired of the same folks slugging it out over the same issues. The blog falls to the background – almost irrelevant – while the libs and neo-cons verbally attack each other. It gets kind of old.

    But, that’s what gets the locals replying!

    Your guys have been great, thanks. I will remain undaunted.



  • Shark

    Dear Dietdoc,

    You mean I’m not alone?!

    Actually, amigo, it might have been any number of factors:

    * the title is a bit obscure; I was thinkin’ “lecter” — not a figure from early american history. I would have gone with something like: “Benedict Arnold: hero or traitor” — at least identify the subject so one can decide (and google can find your essay in the future!)

    * most people hereabouts think ancient history is what happened in the 1980s; they can tell you who Ally Sheedy was bangin’ on a given day, but couldn’t place George Washington anywhere beyond the face on a dollar bill.

    — comment: I noticed that in your Benny Arnold makeover, you didn’t include the episode of his treason — for me, the most interesting aspect of his story. I’ve read it from G. Washington’s ‘viewpoint’ — but I wanted to see summary of another detailed exposition of that incident, but alas…

    Anyway, I have a deal for ya: I’ll comment on your old greatest hits if you go comment on mine.

    Checks in the mail!

  • Shark

    re: spewing venom vs joys of age —

    Jeez, aren’t they two sides of the same coin?

    : )

  • dietdoc

    Shark writes: “ Jeez, aren’t they two sides of the same coin?

    Reply: There are, indeed, sir, but so far diverse in their intent and tone as to make for a very thick coin. With what I see usually exchanged on BC, it is as if two crowds, seperated by a soundproof wall, are both given the same issue to consider. Then, the groups are allowed to yell – at the top of their lungs – for a day, maybe longer. Their conversations are then spliced together and that is called “a blog.” Uusually, none of the comments are the least bit civil and, seldom, are even on the same line of thought.

    It is if two deaf men are asked to debate (pick one): the war in Iraq, the Presidency of George Bush, the ACLU, the rights of individuals vs. the benefits of the many, etc. Nothing is ever accomplished, save an inconstant line in the sand of discourse. What’s the point, really? Is anyone likely to change their opinion on such passionate and heartfelt issues, forged as they are over a lifetime? I doubt it.

    Flipping over this massive coin, there are those of us, we aged few, who observe ii bemusement at people bashing away at their keyboards in order to be “heard.” No one ever is. The discussions are read, fumed about, chewed to bits and then discarded. If this is an “intellectual exercise,” I fear the only objects being exercised are the digitori profundus longus.

    But, then, such is entertainment in the 21st century.

    Cheers, my friend,


  • Tao Jonez

    thas why we be needin’ more old farts like Gonzo, not less. old dude had his head on right, spoke to the heart, and laughed when we wuz dumb about shit.
    more of that luv, and less of the hatin
    word ta da world.

  • Bennett

    Ron – I read this when you first published it, and I appologise for not letting you know that I did indeed enjoy it greatly.

    Something came up, I had to log off, and then the distractions took over. But like Eric B said, sometimes the posts you work the hardest on garner little comment.


  • dietdoc

    Bennet writes: “Ron – I read this when you first published it, and I appologise for not letting you know that I did indeed enjoy it greatly.

    Reply: I appreciate it, Bennett. You are one of the ones I was refering to when I was mentioning the quality of the critics on this site. I appreciate your feedback.

    Tao, dude, I agree. More calm and less bomb is what we need, my homie. Peace out!

  • Shark


    Ever spend time with two elderly men hangin’ out in a coffee shop?

    I have, (being one of ’em — sometimes) — and I suggest that what you describe above is just a digital extension of a phenomenon that’s been going on ever since aged males began to meet to flap their gums around campfires.

    “What’s the point, really?”

    Alas, sir, that question can be asked of every human endeavor — no matter how noble and uplifting it might appear at the moment.


    Venting the spleen keeps the mind active and the bloodstream clear.

    And best of all:

    I make me laugh.

    PS: I notice you didn’t take my “title of essay” advice. In a previous life, sir, I was a Marketing Guru, one of the most admired and sought after in the Southwestern United Stats. Such counsel would have cost you dearly back then — but I have offer it gratis. Take it, man!


    Benedict Arnold: Hero or Traitor?

    Benedict Arnold: A Complex Life

    Benedict Arnold: Why Did He Do It?

    and my favorite…

    Benedict Arnold: Blame His Parents!

  • dietdoc

    Shark: would you email me at bariatrics -at- aol -dot- com? I have several (non-marketing) questions I would like to ask you about the operations of BC and other matters. I could use your advice.