A byword and a hissing
A memorial to Arnold on the Saratoga battlefield does not mention his name, but says, instead: “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”
His name became a slur, an insult. To call someone a Benedict Arnold is to call him a traitor. The name has no other meaning. Such a strange and tragic fate for a brilliant general. Not an undeserved fate – there can be no doubt of his guilt – but tragic nonetheless, because before he became a traitor he was a hero, and the country he betrayed he first suffered for and served well.
His career poses questions that can’t be answered, but should be asked. To attempt to understand is not the same thing as making excuses. The fact is, Arnold betrayed his trust and attempted to betray his country. But why did he do it? That’s a valid question.
Here is his record.
In 1775, he was responsible, with Ethan Allen, for capturing Fort Ticonderoga, which as we have seen, provided the guns that made it possible to force the British to leave Boston (and, nearly all of New England) forever. He successfully urged the Continental Congress to invade Quebec, was denied command, led a second expedition through the wilderness to attack Quebec City (having received permission from Washington himself), had his left leg shattered in the same attack that killed the commander of the other expedition; and nonetheless kept the city under siege for another four months until he was relieved in April, 1776.
When a British army forced the Americans out of the city of Montreal, Arnold directed the rear guard during the army’s retreat, got a fleet constructed on Lake Champlain, and fought a naval action that delayed the British long enough to make it impossible for them to advance farther in 1776.
By now a general, he was on good terms with Washington and with general Schuyler and Gates, but he had made powerful enemies within the Army and within Congress. In February 1777, when he learned that Congress had refused to promote him to major general, he resigned, but Washington refused to accept the resignation. He finally did get the promotion as a result of his crucial role in a battle at Ridgefield, Connecticut. but was dissatisfied because Congress didn’t give him seniority to others who had been promoted earlier. In July he resigned again. Again Washington refused to accept it, and ordered him north to help defend against the British, who had retaken Fort Ticonderoga.
Arnold was responsible for relieving the siege of Fort Stanwix, then distinguished himself – and got himself into trouble – in both battles of Saratoga. In the first, he got into a shouting match with General Gates and was relieved of field command. In the second, he fought against orders, and led attacks which led to his being wounded again in the left leg. (The wound suffered at Saratoga resulted in his left leg being two inches shorter than his right.) Had he died on that field, he would be remembered as a hero of the Revolution, which, to that point, he was. When he returned to the army at Valley Forge in May 1778, the men who had served under him at Saratoga applauded him.
Congress restored Arnold’s seniority when it learned of his actions at Saratoga. However, this was too late to satisfy him. Congress had repeatedly passed him over for promotion, partly because others claimed his credit or accused him of corruption. He seems to have been slow to forget grievances.
When the British withdrew from Philadelphia the month after Arnold rejoined the army, Washington appointed him military commander of the city. There he lived extravagantly and prominently, and met, and the following year married, the daughter of a Loyalist sympathizer.
At some point he decided to turn his coat. By July 1779, Arnold was providing the British with troop locations and strengths, as well as the locations of supply depots, and negotiating with them for compensation. Arnold resigned his military command of Philadelphia in late April, 1780.
As everybody knows, he was given command of West Point, offered to sell the position to the British, was detected, and narrowly escaped with his life. He was made a British brigadier general and served with them until after Yorktown. He died in England in 1801 at age 60.
The question remains. Why?
It’s always risky to generalize, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Arnold would have been better off to have had Washington’s patience, integrity, and willingness to forget or overlook personal grievances for the sake of the common cause. But then, asking anyone to emulate Washington’s gifts of character is asking a lot.
Arnold’s actions are no one’s fault but his own, but people don’t act without reason. The men who repeatedly promoted lesser men over him – are they free of responsibility for his change of heart? Years of experience with an incompetent and ungrateful Confederation government; the fact that Congress rebuffed the Carlisle Peace Commission’s offer of self-rule for the colonies and Parliamentary representation; the alliance with long-hated France – did all this lead him to re-evaluate his position? Marriage to a rich wife from a Loyalist family – did this lead to a changed perspective?
For whatever reasons, when he opened secret negotiations with the British, he moved from a well-deserved fame to eternal infamy – no longer a hero, now a Benedict Arnold.