Although he fought with skill and courage in many campaigns during the American Revolution, Gen. Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is best known as the man who betrayed his country.
Benedict Arnold was born on Jan. 14, 1741, in Norwich, Conn., of a prominent family. As a young man, he worked for a druggist, fought in the French and Indian War, and engaged in trade with the West Indies. In 1767 he married Margaret Mansfield.
Career as a Soldier
When news of the battles of Lexington and Concord reached Arnold in April 1775, he set out at the head of a company of Connecticut militia for Cambridge, Mass., where George Washington was gathering an army to fight the British forces. His first engagement was the attack the next month on Fort Ticonderoga, where the British had a concentration of artillery. The operation was successful but Arnold got little of the credit, which went mostly to Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. His second assignment was with an expedition against Canada. Leaving Cambridge on Sept. 19, 1775, Arnold led his troops the length of Maine, by land and water and in snow and storms, reaching Quebec in early November. There he was joined by another column under Gen. Richard Montgomery, which had come by way of Lake Champlain and Montreal. Together the two forces assaulted Quebec on December 31, but the attack failed, costing Montgomery his life and Arnold a severe leg wound. Arnold next went to Lake Champlain to prevent the British from using it as a highway from Canada to New York. He lost two naval battles on the lake in October 1776, but he had effectively delayed the British in their southward advance. In the same month Congress made Arnold brigadier general.
The winter of 1776-1777 was an unhappy one for Arnold. His hot temper, impulsiveness, and impatience had earned him many enemies, who now made all sorts of accusations against him—of misconduct on the march through Maine, of incompetence on Lake Champlain, and more. Worse yet, Congress in February 1777 promoted five brigadier generals, all Arnold's juniors, to major general. Only Washington's pleas kept Arnold from resigning from the army. Fortunately, the coming of spring gave him the chance for a successful operation. While visiting his home in New Haven, Arnold heard of a British attack on American supply depots in Danbury, Conn. He rounded up the local militia and raced to stop the enemy. Although he got there too late to prevent the destruction of the supplies, he did rout the British. A grateful Congress advanced him to major general on May 2, but he was still below the other five in seniority. Meanwhile, he faced a formal charge of stealing goods and property from Montreal merchants during the Canadian campaign. He was exonerated, but his anger at the charges moved him to resign his commission in July 1777.
Once again Washington pleaded with him, and Arnold reconsidered. Washington needed him for service in northern New York to block a bold British plan to split New England from the other colonies by sending Gen. John Burgoyne from Ticonderoga down the Hudson River to New York City. Burgoyne not only failed in his mission; he lost his whole army, which he surrendered at Saratoga, N.Y., in October 1777. Arnold played a major role in the two battles that culminated in the British defeat. Burgoyne himself said of Arnold that "it was his doing." Congress rewarded Arnold by restoring his seniority among the major generals.
Arnold's next assignment was command of the garrison at Philadelphia, which the British had evacuated in June 1778. He married Margaret Shippen, daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian, in April 1779. (His first wife had died some years earlier.) Moving in aristocratic circles, Arnold lived lavishly and beyond his means, and he soon found himself heavily in debt. At the same time he was being charged with a number of offenses connected with using his military office for private gain. He demanded a court-martial, which Congress convened in May. The verdict handed down in December found him not guilty of most charges but ordered Washington to reprimand him. The general did this, but mildly, in April 1780.
End as a Traitor
By this time, however, Arnold had already started on the road to treason. Personally hurt by Congress's treatment and sorely in need of money, he had begun to funnel information on troop movements and strength of units to the British in exchange for money as early as May or June 1779. Early in the summer of 1780, he conceived the idea of turning over the strategic post at West Point, N.Y., to the English for £10,000. He persuaded Washington to place him in command there, but Arnold's plan fell through when his contact, Maj. John André, was captured on September 21 with incriminating documents. André was executed and Arnold fled to the British lines.
Arnold spent the rest of the war in a British uniform fighting his own countrymen. In 1781 he went to London, where he died 20 years later on June 14, despised in America and forgotten in England.
Further Reading on Benedict Arnold
The best biography of Arnold is Willard M. Wallace, Traitorous Hero (1954). Arnold's Canadian campaign is well presented by Justin H. Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada, and the American Revolution (2 vols., 1907). For his role in Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga see Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution (1928; rev. ed. 1967). Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (1941), discusses Arnold's treason.