Whenever the name Benedict Arnold is spoken, it immediately conjures up derision. In the United States, that name has become synonymous with traitor. Before his treachery, Arnold was a general in the Continental Army and a hero who was victorious in early battles.
Arnold was dismayed because he was passed over for promotion in favor of officers junior to him. He was also thoroughly detested by many of his peers in the officer ranks of the fledgling American Army. So, he began to drift away from the cause and consort with the British long before his treachery came to light.
Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741. His family was initially wealthy, but after his father squandered the family fortune they struggled for a while. However, by the start of the Revolutionary War, Arnold was a merchant. He and a partner bought three ships and he developed a lucrative West Indies trade.
His first wife, Margaret Mansfield, whom he married in 1767, bore him three children. She died in 1775 during the opening acts of the Revolution. When the war began, Arnold was a captain in the Connecticut Militia. He went north and assisted in the siege of Boston following the “shots heard round the world” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. He submitted a plan to take Fort Ticonderoga, which was lightly defended. He was a colonel’s commission and he set off.
On the way, he met up with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys from Vermont and they took Fort Ticonderoga. After a dispute with follow-on troops from the Connecticut Militia commander (something that would happen again and again), he resigned his Massachusetts Commission.
General Washington gave him a Colonel’s commission in the Continental Army and Arnold led an expedition to besiege Quebec City in Canada. Arnold was severely wounded in the leg and while in the hospital was promoted to Brigadier General.
He was commended for his delaying actions in the Continental Army’s retreat from Canada, but it was then that he began developing many enemies amongst his own officer corps. One officer, John Brown, went so far as to take their feud public. Brown published a handbill that would prove prophetic and claimed of Arnold, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”
Assigned to the defense of Connecticut he was again wounded. He was promoted to Major General when his superior was killed in a battle with the British. He tried resigning from the army when he wasn’t given seniority over those promoted before him. During the battle of Saratoga, he distinguished himself on the battlefield despite his deteriorating reputation with General Horatio Gates. The two had had a shouting match and Gates temporarily removed him from command. In the battle, was wounded again in the same leg, which left it permanently two inches shorter than the other.
It was then that General Washington made the biggest mistake of his career and it altered the events that would unfold with Arnold. Following the British withdrawal from the city of Philadelphia, Washington assigned Arnold, in June of 1778, as the military commander of the city.
Arnold immediately began to plan to capitalize on his new position. He made plans on starting businesses to profit from war-related supply chains. He once again fell into the habit of making enemies, who later amassed charges against him. Once in Philadelphia, Arnold began to live a lavish lifestyle — perhaps too lavish. He met the young Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a British loyalist sympathizer. Shippen had been briefly engaged to a British officer, Major John André, who later became the British spy chief in America.
Arnold married Shippen on April 8, 1779, and he fell under her influence and that of the Tories. A year before, General Nathaniel Greene wrote to another general, “I am told General Arnold is become very unpopular among you owing to his associating too much with the Tories.”
In May of 1779, after Arnold’s meeting with loyalist merchant William Stansbury, Stansbury went straight to British General Henry Clinton with a tender of services for Arnold. The die was cast. Stansbury then met with Major André and this set about the events that would take place.
André would frequently use Arnold’s wife and his former lover, Peggy, as an intermediary. Letters were passed written in code and with invisible ink through Peggy’s female circle of friends from Arnold to André. Soon, Arnold was giving the British his demands for compensation along with troop locations and strengths, as well as the locations of supply depots.
Arnold was charged with war profiteering and was court-martialed in December 1779 by a jury of officers who overall detested him. However, he was cleared of all but two minor offenses, which drew a mild rebuke from Washington.
In early April of 1780, Arnold learned that he may be given command of the American base at West Point. He visited the base on his way home to Connecticut and prepared a detailed report of the defenses and dispositions for the British. Arriving in New England, he sold his home and sent the proceeds and much of his assets to England through intermediaries in New York.
Arnold was given formal command of West Point on August 3rd. At that time, André sent a coded message to Arnold that if he were to turn over the fort to the British, they’d pay him £20,000 (which would be worth $4,200,000 today).
Arnold immediately began the systematic weakening of West Point’s defenses and draining the supplies of the fort. Some of his subordinates believed that he was selling the fort’s supplies on the black market.
On August 30, Arnold accepted Clinton’s offer and he tried to set up a meeting with André. When the two finally met on September 21, a British ship carried André there and was supposed to return him safely to the British command. But unsuspecting Colonials fired on the ship, and the captain retreated, forcing André to go overland and return through the Colonial lines, complete with a copy of the fort’s defenses, courtesy of Arnold.
André was captured. Arnold, learning of this, fled to the British on the morning he was supposed to meet Washington for breakfast. Washington offered the British the return of Major André in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton declined. André was sentenced by a military court and hanged as a spy on October 2. Washington sent his own spies to New York to capture Arnold. They nearly succeeded but Arnold had switched houses just prior to his leaving for Virginia.
Arnold was given a Brigadier’s commission and led British troops in Virginia and later New York and Connecticut. He burned New London and later after Continental militia troops surrendered at Fort Griswold and Groton Heights, he ordered the slaughter of prisoners.
After the war, he moved to England with his wife. He settled in London and later moved for a time to Saint John, New Brunswick where he started a business with his son. He died on June 14, 1801, aged 60, and was buried in London.
The gravestones of his family in Connecticut were desecrated.
Benedict Arnold was not remembered fondly in America. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three million.”