November 1, 2023 at 3:02 p.m.

Benedict Arnold: Hero Turned Traitor

Many books have been written about America's best known traitor; these are two of them.
Many books have been written about America's best known traitor; these are two of them.

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Benedict Arnold, a hero?

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

When most Americans speak of Benedict Arnold, the first word that comes to mind is traitor. Early in the Revolutionary War, his reputation was much different – in some cases heroic.

The capture of Fort Ticonderoga was the first offensive victory for American forces. It secured the strategic passageway north to Canada and netted the patriots an important cache of artillery. In 1775, Fort Ticonderoga was garrisoned by a small detachment of about 50 men and had fallen into disrepair, but its value—both for its location and the arms it housed—was well known. Patriot Benedict Arnold persuaded the Massachusetts provisional government to give him a commission to command a secret mission to capture the fort. But Arnold soon learned that Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys are already on their way north toward Ticonderoga with the same intention. Arnold was warned that although Allen had no official sanction for his planned attack, his loyal men were unlikely to take orders from anyone else. Arnold felt that he should lead the expedition based on his formal authorization to act from the Massachusetts government. He and Allen came to an agreement about sharing command, despite the objections of some of Allen’s men. Ultimately, their force included about 100 of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and 50 other men recruited throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts.

On May 10th, the lone sentry was quickly pushed aside. Allen, Arnold, and a few other men charged up the stairs toward the officers' quarters. When the British commander asked under whose authority he was acting, Allen allegedly replied, “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” and demanded the British surrender the fort. 

Nobody was killed in the attack. Allen’s men plundered the premises for liquor and other provisions and celebrated their victory by getting drunk. Horrified by their behavior and fearful that they might damage or steal the lucrative armaments, Arnold insisted order be restored, but he had little authority over the Green Mountain Boys. 

Allen and his men eventually left. Arnold stayed behind until he was relieved of command in June 1775, after 1,000 patriots from Connecticut arrived to reinforce the fort,  bringing with them a General who held a commission from Congress. Taking umbrage, Arnold resigned his commission, beginning the long, sour story of his disgruntled relations with Congress and the hierarchy of the Continental Army. The great prize for the American cause was not the fort itself, but rather the vast trove of artillery, which Henry Knox transported to Boston later that year.

On October 11, 1776, a British fleet under Sir Guy Carleton defeated 15 American gunboats under the command of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, in what is now Clinton County, New York. Although nearly all of Arnold’s ships were destroyed, it took more than two days for the British to subdue the Patriot naval force, delaying Carleton’s campaign and giving the Patriot ground forces adequate time to prepare a crucial defense of New York.

One year earlier, during the Patriots’ unsuccessful campaign to take Canada, Carleton, the royal governor general of Canada, had managed to escape Patriot General Richard Montgomery’s early successful attacks during the summer and autumn. He snuck into Quebec City, organized 1,800 men for the city’s defense, and prepared to wait out the Patriot siege. The Patriots, facing a deadline as their troops’ enlistments expired at the end of that year, fired arrows over the city walls on December 7th. The arrows carried letters demanding Carleton’s surrender. When Carleton did not acquiesce, the Americans began a bombardment of the city with Montgomery’s cannon on December 8th. They then attempted a disastrous failed assault on December 31st, in which Montgomery was killed and Arnold seriously wounded. The action around Valcour Island was the final stage of Carleton’s effort to drive Arnold from Canada, once and for all. The Battle of Quebec 1775 was the first major defeat of the Revolutionary War for the Americans.

Arnold was considered a Patriot hero for his bravery in the siege of Quebec, and earlier during the Patriot capture of Fort Ticonderoga, New York, on May 10, 1775. What could have led Arnold to ruin his legacy by betraying his fellow Americans during the Revolutionary War?

Analysis of Arnold’s actions have been simplified over the years to serve a narrative of right and wrong. While Arnold’s betrayal was clear—he offered the British seizure of the military fortress at West Point, NY, in exchange for £20,000 and a British military commission—what led up to that moment of betrayal is more complicated and less political than is often taught.

Some would say the catalyst was Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council President Joseph Reed. He took a personal dislike to Arnold and, in 1779, attempted to prosecute him on a series of treason charges ranging from buying illegal goods to preferring the company of British loyalists. In the build-up of his case, Reed was known to spread rumors about Arnold without offering proof of his allegations.

Another train of thought points out that Arnold was also deeply in debt and newly married to an ambitious woman. His wife, Peggy, was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family with Loyalist leanings that had fared better under the British. Peggy was accustomed to a certain level of living and some historians believe that Peggy steered Arnold to the British in order to maintain that lifestyle. Becoming a traitor to his country could fetch him a handsome payment from the British.

But there were plenty of other reasons, too. Eric D. Lehman, author of :Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London," notes that others at the time had similar circumstances and did not betray their country. Lehman spent time looking over Arnold’s letters and other first-hand accounts. “Some seemed to point to him ‘lacking feeling,’ i.e., sociopathic, but others showed him having too much feeling—he couldn’t control his temper. The number one thing I found across all of them was his selfish ambition, which came from a profound lack of self-esteem as a child and as a young man,” Lehman says.

Traditionally Arnold’s story has been taught with a good-versus-evil simplicity. More recently, Lehman points out, the tendency has been to portray Arnold as a misunderstood heroic figure. “Both simplifications are a mistake in my view,” says Lehman. “He was certainly misunderstood, and he was a hero in the early years of the war. That should always be part of the story. But he also betrayed his close friends, was willing to allow the death of and actually kill former comrades and earned the name ‘traitor’ from both friend and foe. If we leave that out, we simplify the story by omission. If we can’t hold those two ideas in our head at the same time, we are in good company. People like the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington couldn’t either.”

Even the British disparaged Arnold for his turncoat ways. Lehman thinks it’s important to remember the whole story of Arnold—his betrayal wasn’t just treason. The British, who had much to gain from Arnold switching sides, found him dishonorable and untrustworthy. “One thing that has been left out of so many tellings of Arnold’s story is that he didn’t stop after his West Point treason was discovered,” Lehman points out. “He went on to attack Virginia—almost capturing Thomas Jefferson—and then attacking Connecticut, his home state. “Spying was one thing, but his willingness to switch sides in the middle of an armed conflict, and fight against the men who had a year earlier been fighting by his side, was something that people of that time and maybe ours could simply not understand.”

Arnold died in London in 1801. To Americans and British alike, his name is still synonymous with the word “traitor.”


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