The name Benedict Arnold has been synonymous throughout American history with the word traitor. You might be surprised to know that Arnold built a very impressive military career, and his generalship during the revolution probably saved America through the year 1776. That’s what made his defection to the British army such a shock, and one that we still talk about over two centuries later.
Born in the British colony of Connecticut in 1741, he was the only child out of 11 to survive to adulthood. He spent his young adulthood as an apothecary and merchant, but served in the militia as well.
Arnold quickly established himself as one of George Washington’s best generals. In 1775 Arnold, along with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, planned and executed an attack on the British at Fort Ticonderoga. The Fort was secured for the patriots, but most importantly, so were the 100 artillery pieces which were quickly transported to the American positions supporting the Siege of Boston.
The overall British strategic plan to end the war was to isolate New England by securing the Hudson River Valley up through Lake Champlain. During 1776, General Arnold engineered a brilliant defense of the lake, frustrating British efforts to take both the lake and the upper Hudson. He would again show his bravery and dedication to the American cause during the Battles of Saratoga in 1777.
Arnold believed the Continental Congress insufficiently rewarded his efforts. But Arnold isn’t the only leader on the American side that had been slighted by Congress. In order to ensure the fledgling union would stay together, Congress tended to make sure each state held an equal number of generalships. So it was obvious that promotion to General or Major General was a political process rather than a meritorious one. This chaffed a number of America’s early military leaders including Daniel Morgan and Nathaniel Greene, both of whom had to be coaxed back into service after being snubbed by Congress.
After being appointed Brigadier General, Arnold watched as Congress passed him over for promotion to the post of Major General five times in favor of subordinates. Arnold had every intention of resigning from military service following these outrages, but stayed on after Washington’s insistence. He was rewarded in 1777 with a promotion to Major General and a post as military commander of Philadelphia.
During his career, Arnold had difficulty getting along with other continental officers and officials, having open feuds with several officers in the continental army. In Philadelphia, Arnold began to associate with British loyalists and became smitten with 18 year old Peggy Shippen. Peggy was the daughter of wealthy Philadelphia loyalist Edward Shippen. Arnold began to live extravagantly and many began to question if his wealth came from covert dealings with the British. Although he successfully secured Peggy’s hand, his extravagance and imprudence ultimately drove him into debt.
Continental officials could not confirm Arnold’s suspected betrayal until 1780, when hard evidence of his treason was uncovered. After receiving command of West Point in 1779, Arnold willingly provided the British with vital information for taking control of it. West Point was one of the most important defensive sites along the Hudson River. Although by this time the British had turned their attention to the southern colonies, West Point was still a critical point along the communications and transportation routes for the Patriots. On September 23, 1780 after meeting with Arnold and receiving documents on West Point’s defenses, British spy, Major John Andre was captured trying to make his way back to the British ship, Vulture. The three unsuspecting New York militiamen John Paulding, David Williams and Eric Van Wert stepped out of the woods, stopped Andre, questioned, undressed him and found the hidden documents in Andres’ stockings beneath his feet. Andre tried to bribe the three to release him, but instead they turned him over to Col. John Jameson – one of the original Culpeper Minutemen – who was commander of the Tarrytown area of New York. Unfortunately, his commanding officer was General Benedict Arnold.
Col. Jameson received and questioned Andre, but Andre convinced Col. Jameson that he should be sent to General Arnold for questioning. Col. Jameson agreed, but soon countermanded the order after discussions with Benjamin Talmadge, George Washington’s spymaster. Col. Jameson instead sent a note to Arnold, unknowingly tipping Arnold off that he was about to be unmasked, and had the papers sent to General Washington. When Arnold realized what had been uncovered, he made haste to get to the Vulture. Arnold successfully escaped. Andre was not as lucky. He was hanged a couple weeks later.
Arnold would go on to lead a British invasion of the Virginia tidewater area in 1781. While his military maneuvers we successful, lack of support from British loyalists and the zeal of the American Patriots would end the war at Yorktown later that year. After that, the British didn’t have much use for Arnold, and sidelined him from military service. He and his family lived alternately between London and New Brunswick. He struggled with poor business decisions, debt and his reputation and ultimately died in London in June 1801.
For his part, Col. Jameson was chastised by General Washington for allowing Arnold to get away. It was later said that Col. Jameson only did what was correct as an officer following the chain of command, so no lasting punishment came from the incident. The important part was that West Point remained safely in American hands thus preventing a disastrous end to the Revolutionary War. This allowed the United States of America to become the country it is today. Alexander Hamilton stated that “the conduct of Andres to that of his captors formed a striking contrast. He tempted then with the offer of his watch, his horse and any sum of money they should name. They rejected his offers with indignation and the gold that could seduce a man high in esteem and confidence of his country who had memories of past exploits the motives of present reputation and future glory to prop his integrity, had no charms on three simple peasants leaning only on their virtue and an honest sense of their duty. While Arnold is handed down with execration to future times posterity will repeat the names of Van Wert, Paulding and Williams.”