Egotism and thirst for power are strong temptations for so many people throughout history. Submission to these urges are often at the root of events and trials of nations and the actions of notorious or famous men and women. During the American Revolutionary War, the same was true for Benedict Arnold.
We are usually only given a quick historical sketch about Arnold’s treason against the Continental Army, but rarely much background about the man and the events leading up to his infamy.
Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1747 the second of six children of Benedict Arnold and Hannah King. He was named after his great-grandfather Benedict Arnold who was an early colonial governor of Rhode Island.
By 1762, Arnold became an established pharmacist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut. Two years later, he formed a partnership with another merchant, Adam Babcock. They purchased three ships and went into the West Indies trade. In 1797, he married Margaret Mansfield, a daughter of the New Haven sheriff. His first son, another Benedict, was born about a year later, then two more children later on. Margaret passed away in June of 1775.
At the outbreak of the revolution, Benedict Arnold was a captain of the American militia. Arnold began his plan to acquire more fame and respect. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he forced officials to appoint him colonel in exchange for his promise to enlist recruits and train them in the effort to take Fort Ticonderoga.
Colonel Arnold and General Richard Montgomery later led an attack on Quebec in December, 1775. In the failed attempt, General Montgomery was killed and Arnold terribly wounded. Following his recovery, Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General. His fleet of ships battled the British on Lake Champlain.
After victories over the British in 1777, Arnold received an appointment to Major General. However, he was jealous that five men were appointed ahead of him. Arnold had a lower rank under all of them. Finally, after wins in the Battles of Saratoga, Arnold was promoted to seniority over the other generals due to the distinguished command of his men.
Because he had been wounded at Saratoga, Arnold was given command of the recently reclaimed forts at Philadelphia. He led an extravagant lifestyle and was prominent in social circles. In 1778, he met Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a loyalist sympathizer. The couple married in April of 1779.
The combination of his marriage to a Tory sympathizer and Arnold’s own growing disaffection with the colonies’ future helped incubate his decision to change sides in the war. He had become unhappy with army in-fighting, devalued money, and partisan disputes within the Continental Congress. The final straw was Congress, acting against Arnold’s advice, to form an alliance with France. Soon, Arnold began a correspondence with British General Sir Henry Clinton of New York City.
By early summer of 1780, Benedict Arnold requested and obtained the command of the colonial fort at West Point, New York. The fort was important because of its location on the Hudson River. It’s strategic position allowed cannon fire over the river to control all river traffic. It was an important possession of the colonies because the river was needed for commerce, travel, and military movements.
Furthermore, General George Washington’s forces were stationed in New York, ready to unite with the French army. They were planning an attack on General Clinton’s forces near Long Island.
In his communications with Clinton, Benedict Arnold offered to surrender the West Point fort to Britain for a fee of £20,000 and a brigadier general’s commission. A surrender of the fort would mean that Washington would have to retreat and be unable to meet up with the French. The French army would be exposed on Long Island to a probable defeat. The battle would be pivotal in the ultimate outcome of the revolution.
Arnold maintained communication with General Clinton via the efforts of British Major John André, who was an associate of Arnold’s second wife. André met with Arnold 233 years ago, today, September 21, 1780 to finalize plans for the turnover of the fort. Less than a week later, the colonial army captured André. On his person, André held a pass signed by General Arnold. He also had documents that detailed the plot and incriminated Arnold.
After Arnold heard of André’s capture, he escaped and defected to the British forces. He was made a Brigadier General. But because the plot was foiled, Arnold was only paid about £6,000.
As a British officer, Arnold acted in several important battles, including his part in capturing Richmond, Virginia for the British. As the revolutionary war dragged on, Arnold was recalled to Britain so he could be used in other British wars that had a better chance of victory for the Crown. After a stormy post-war existance in Canada, Arnold moved to London. He died there in poor health, impoverished, and with no social status at all, on June 14, 1801.
Benedict Arnold is now a name that comes to mind when thinking about betrayal, defection, and especially treason. Instead of becoming the distinguished, famous hero of his youthful dreams, he ended up as the polar opposite.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ironically notes, that without Benedict Arnold’s earlier American contributions, the revolution could very well have been lost.