Today, I’m pleased to interview Becky Akers, whom I previously interviewed about her novel Halestorm, which told the story of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale. Today, she’s here to talk about her new novel Abducting Arnold about Revolutionary War General Benedict Arnold.
When I asked Becky how to introduce her, she told me, “I’m a freelance writer and historian who’s outta here for the eighteenth century the instant someone invents a time machine.”
Welcome, Becky. For starters, what first got you interested in Benedict Arnold?
Every writer loves his characters, but I positively adore the subject of my first novel, Nathan Hale. So I was miserable when I finished work on Halestorm: I missed Nathan so much! Maintaining a one-sided relationship with a guy who died nearly 250 years ago isn’t easy; I needed another plot featuring him, and fast.
I’d discovered during my research for Halestorm that Nathan’s buddy from college, Ben Tallmadge, had detected Benedict Arnold’s treason in the nick of time, just before Arnold could pull it off. I was intrigued as well with the coincidence that this happened on September 23, 1780, four years almost to the day that Nathan Hale hanged (September 22, 1776). Aha, I thought, maybe I can write about Nathan as a ghost guiding Tallmadge to discover Arnold’s plot! A paranormal sequel!
And what made you decide you wanted to write a novel about Arnold instead of Tallmadge?
The more I researched Benedict Arnold and his treason, the more intrigued I grew. I knew almost nothing about Arnold when I began studying him: I didn’t know he’d been the Patriots’ greatest hero, winning battles against horrific odds by the sheer strength of his personality, determination and brilliance. Nor did I realize that his treason remains one of history’s most bewildering mysteries: why did this man, who had shed his blood and bankrupted himself for the Patriots’ Cause, who had fought brilliantly, courageously, even recklessly in its behalf, suddenly turn his coat to side with the enemy?
The traditional solution to this problem is facile: Arnold was the greediest guy ever, and he sold his country for a fortune. It’s also completely unsatisfying. Even preliminary research shows that Arnold was an extremely generous man who lost money switching sides.
So, does that mean there’s no ghost or anything paranormal in this novel? Did you decide to stick only with realism and historical facts?
No ghosts, unfortunately for readers who relish a good haunting! I do indeed stick to realism and facts — though the legions who despise Benedict Arnold will scoff at that claim.
So what gives? Why do you think Arnold committed treason?
The key lies with a political party of immense power at the time but one that historians have totally ignored: the Radical Patriots. Unlike most eighteenth-century Americans, especially those who were battling Redcoats, the Radicals craved a strong, central government of almost unlimited authority — with themselves firmly in control thereof. And they were well on the way to achieving that goal when they crossed swords — literally — with Benedict Arnold. He was one of the few to recognize that the Radicals had pulled off an internal coup, that they were hoping to expel the British Empire from the colonies not so that Americans could live free but so that the Radicals could tyrannize them instead. And he fought these despots every bit as courageously as he had once fought Redcoats.
The Radicals responded with slander and savage lies — which historians have repeated as fact ever since and which comprise most of what we “know” about Arnold. If I wanted to write accurately about this amazing hero, I’d have to dig deep and penetrate the Radicals’ smokescreen to discover the real man. No simplistic smears would do.
Did you approach the book with the idea that you were going to redeem a traitor?
Not at all! At first, I considered Arnold a repellant Judas who sold out the Cause for which Nathan Hale had died. My earliest draft reflects that.
But the facts soon changed my mind — and the book — entirely. Rather than the cardboard turncoat everyone loves to hate, Arnold was a huge hero struggling to save the country from home-grown tyranny.
History has been extremely kind to the Radicals by forgetting them. So virtually no one knows that before their reign of terror ended, the Radicals had hanged several of their opponents and fought a battle, complete with cannon, against others, including Benedict Arnold. They confiscated people’s homes for themselves and established dozens of “committees” (we call them “bureaucracies” now) to regulate citizens’ lives. The Radicals first rose to power in Philadelphia; under their thumb, the city — and, as their grip widened, all of Pennsylvania — resembled modern America under Washington DC.
Arnold appealed to the Continental Congress for help in halting this oppression. But because Pennsylvania contributed so many men and supplies to the American army, Congress dared not upset its Radical rulers. Finally, Arnold turned to the only entity willing and able to thwart these despots: the British government.
I’ve never heard this explanation of the treason before.
Nope, I daresay you haven’t! It’s my own, original interpretation. And I probably should have published it in a stodgy, academic journal, complete with jargon and footnotes; scholars’ reputations have been built on less.
Instead, I unveiled this new theory in a novel. I wanted the drama, the oomph, the excitement and thrills — and readers! — that only historical fiction provides. Arnold’s story deserves no less: it’s absolutely riveting as he single-handedly defies bullies, convention, and the platitudes of the day!
What about Arnold’s character did you find most complicated to understand or define?
His dickering with the Redcoats over the price of his treason.
We have Arnold’s correspondence with officers in the British Army during the months that he considered joining them. In these letters, he negotiates the compensation he expects for delivering the fortress and 3000 troops at West Point to them. And no, he doesn’t sound high-minded and principled as he bargains.
However, there were mitigating factors, which I dramatize in the novel.
Tell us about the book’s narrator. You have chosen quite an unusual person to tell us the story.
Ah, Clem! Another character I cherish — and this one I invented. Several readers have asked if Clem is me (quite a compliment! I can only aspire to her spunk and courage). She isn’t, except in one respect: she was born from my speculations about how I would have reacted had I lived during the Revolution and witnessed Nathan Hale’s execution. What would I have felt watching this magnificent hero die? How would that horror have inspired me? What lessons would I have learned from it? The first scene I wrote for what would eventually become Abducting Arnold was Clem — me — at Nathan’s hanging.
Oh, and I cooked professionally for a while, just as Clem does. And I love popcorn! But I was never in an actual battle, as Clem is in the book.
I understand Clem also has a mission in regards to Arnold which helps to explain the book’s title. Will you explain that and how it allows the book’s structure to provide flashbacks to tell the story?
The Redcoats longed to capture that arch-traitor, General George Washington: not only could they then execute him for treason, but taking him out would pretty much end the war with a resounding victory for the British Empire. So when Washington announced rather suddenly that he would inspect West Point, Arnold may have indicated to the Redcoats that if they attacked the fort at the right moment, they could also seize Washington.
Well. Washington was not only an admirer of Arnold, he was a friend. You can imagine the depth of Washington’s sorrow and rage upon learning that his beloved Arnold had betrayed him.
Perhaps that’s why Washington immediately conceived a cloak-and-dagger plot to kidnap his former ally from behind British lines, where Arnold had fled as soon as his treason came to light. Once Arnold was back in American territory, Washington would try him for treason and then hang him. The Commander-in-Chief turned to Colonel Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee (father of General Robert E. Lee) to carry out this scheme. Lee recruited a Sergeant John Champe from his regiment of cavalry to perform the actual abduction. In my novel, Champe still has the job, but I added Clem to the mix: she heads behind British lines to infiltrate Arnold’s household. There she supervises the abduction and advises Champe of conditions from inside.
Tell us a little about how Clem infiltrates the household. Especially in regards to her relationship with Arnold’s wife.
Clem has an automatic in with Arnold when he marries her cousin.
Along with his greed, Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, is supposed to have inspired his treason. Peggy was allegedly a “Loyalist,” one of those Americans devoted to King George III. Actually, she and many girls her age were far more devoted to the handsome officers in the British Army than to His Majesty. No matter: the humorless Radical Patriots equated their flirtations with trying to overthrow the nascent American republic.
Then, too, all Shippens were suspect because of Peggy’s father. He’d held many sinecures and political positions in the colony’s royal government prior to the Revolution.
At any rate, Clem’s dysfunctional mother sends her to live with the Shippens when Peggy is 11 and Clem 14 (a common occurrence then: many children bunked with relatives, often to further their schooling or opportunities). So Peggy and her husband not only intimately know but very much trust Clem when she arrives to abduct Arnold.
Do you think it’s true that Peggy was partially responsible for Arnold’s treason?
Certainly! All spouses influence one another to some extent.
Arnold would have witnessed first-hand the various indignities the Radicals heaped on “Loyalists” in general and on the Shippens in particular. This can only have strengthened his aversion to their governance. Was Peggy a little demon sitting on his shoulder whispering “Treason!”, as some historians aver? I doubt it, though to further my plot, I had to draw an unflattering portrait of her in the novel.
Becky, I’m curious what kind of a readership you expected to find for the book. I think Arnold’s name is well-known, but his story isn’t. In fact, I hate to confess this, but I think everything I knew about him before I read your book I learned from an episode of The Brady Bunch where Peter played Arnold in a school play. I don’t remember ever hearing him mentioned in American history classes — maybe he was intentionally erased from the curriculum, so I’m wondering what kinds of responses you got from people when you told people you were writing a book about Arnold. Did the average person who wasn’t a historian respond with a look of “who”?
Yeah, I had a little help from the thesaurus as far as folks’ being familiar with Arnold’s name: it’s listed as a synonym for “traitor”!
But you’re right: Arnold and many other American Revolutionary officers seldom receive their due — because of George Washington! For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the study of the American Revolution was a study of the stellar Washington: his principles, integrity, and character.
And, of course, his battles. But that translated to virtually ignoring other actions and campaigns. If Washington wasn’t there on the field, popular historians and public-school curricula didn’t bother with it. And because Arnold was so very talented as a military commander, Washington sent him far afield. Arnold never fought under Washington and was seldom even in the same neighborhood.
Then, too, thanks to the Radicals’ propaganda, Arnold was never anyone’s favorite officer. Nathaniel Greene, Dan Morgan, John Glover, etc, always had their fans, but no one publicized Arnold.
Until recently. You’ve heard of Edward Snowden? A surprising number of headlines obligingly label him a “Benedict Arnold.” And they’re absolutely correct, though not in the way they mean.
When readers finish the book, what impression of Arnold are you hoping people will have, or at least, what do you hope they will have learned about him?
I hope they will understand and applaud the thirst for freedom, the devotion to human liberty, that inspired Benedict Arnold in particular and the Revolution in general.
Should there be a monument to Arnold somewhere as an American hero, or would that be going too far?
Such monuments are usually built at taxpayers’ expense. Arnold himself would be the first to say that politicians have no right to citizens’ money, however “good,” commendatory, or vainglorious their plans.
Do you hope, perhaps, that your book will result in a new evaluation of Arnold and changes to our history books? Are there any good non-fiction biographies already about Arnold that you would recommend for people who want to read more?
Unless the reader is proficient at filtering facts from propaganda, I can’t recommend any of the existing biographies on Arnold. They range from mildly hostile to outright hatred and vilification of him. They embody something I call the “old-people syndrome.” Watch the next time an elderly person forgets a name in conversation: many listeners will assume he’s approaching senility rather than temporarily unable to recall it, as happens to us all. Historians approach Arnold similarly. They imbue even his most innocent or praiseworthy actions with sinister motives.
Fiction has been gentler to him. Ken Roberts paints a sympathetic portrait in Rabble in Arms; he believes Congress’ gross abuse precipitated Arnold’s treason, and you come away from the novel thinking, “Yeah, I’d commit treason, too, if they treated me like that!” But neither he nor anyone else has reported that the Radical Patriots inspired Arnold’s actions.
Where can people purchase or find more information about Abducting Arnold and Halestorm?
Both novels are available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon; you can also enter my name, Becky Akers, in the search engine to locate my books. Anyone desiring them in a format for other e-readers should email me directly at libertatem[at]aol.com.
Thanks so much!