Monday, January 15, 2007
Benedict Arnold Born, January 14, 1741
Today in 1741, Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut. Even now, in the 21st century, most Americans associate his name with traitorous conduct. But his path to treason was not straight, nor were his actions entirely unilateral, at least in his eyes. His life remains one of the dark chapters of his generation, the first generation of people who would call themselves citizens of the United States.
Benedict Arnold was the fifth male in his family to hold the name. The family ran a highly successful mercantile business and the Arnold name was held in high regard. This began to change when Arnold's father became involved in several bad business ventures which left the family deep in debt. Arnold left school at 14 because his family could not longer afford to pay his tuition. His mother secured him an apprenticeship with two of her cousins, who ran an apothecary in Norwich. He had worked there one year when, at 15, he enlisted in the Connecticut militia.
Arnold's interest in military life came to the fore because England, to which the colonies still belonged, was at war with France over control of the eastern half of the North American continent. The fighting was well underway by the time Arnold enlisted, and so it didn't take long until he was on the move. The militia marched to meet the invading French army near Lake George, New York, site of Fort William Henry. The French laid siege to the fort and negotiated a British surrender of the area. As the British troops marched from their fort under a flag of truce, they were attacked by some of France's Native American allies. 180 men, women and children were massacred. Most likely, this resulted from poor communication between the French officers and their native allies. Young Benedict Arnold witnessed the massacre, and it has been theorized that his future actions may have at least been partly influenced by a hatred of the French, who, 20 years later, would ally themselves with the struggling colonies.
After the war, Arnold worked hard to restore his family name. He became a very successful merchant, so much so that he eventually owned a small fleet of trading ships that plied the waters between New England and the West Indies. His fortune, however, was not to last; British taxes such as the Stamp Act of 1765 eventually drove his business into the ground. He struggled on and married Margaret Mansfield in February, 1767. They would have three sons.
In the spring of 1775, Arnold was chosen as the captain of the Governor's Second Company of Connecticut Guards. In April of that year, news reached Arnold and his men that the battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought. The War for Independence had begun, so the Guards set out for Massachusetts.
When Arnold reached Cambridge, Massachusetts, he set out to convince the colony's legislature to fund a campaign to take Fort Ticonderoga in New York, which was known to house a large number of cannons that the colonial forces could desperately use. He was appointed a colonel in the Massachusetts militia and sent to muster troops. The Massachusetts men linked up with elements of the Connecticut militia and Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys, an infantry unit made up of men from the area that is today the state of Vermont. The unified force took the fort without a fight.
It was in the aftermath of the taking of Ticonderoga that Arnold's frustrations with the colonial cause began. After the battle, Arnold was left in command of the fort's garrison, as well as the garrisons of two of other forts taken during the campaign. Soon, however, a force of 1,000 Connecticut militia arrived with a colonel whose orders placed him in a position senior to Arnold's. The orders had been generated by the Continental Congress. Arnold, believing his accomplishments were not being properly recognized, resigned his commission and left for Massachusetts.
Arnold didn't stay out of the fight for very long, however. He was commissioned a colonel in the Continental Army and given the task of taking Quebec City in Canada as one-half of a two-pronged attack that was to overrun Montreal as well. With both cities in colonial hands, it was believed that the French-speaking citizens in the area would rise up against the British and join the war. While planning for the campaign, he learned of the death of his wife. His sister Hannah took in the three Arnold children while their father continued the fight.
The foray into Canada was, in the end, unsuccessful. While Montreal was taken, Quebec City was another matter. Out of 1,325 soldiers that attacked the city on December 31, 1775, only 350 ever returned to the colonies. Arnold continued a siege of the city until early in 1776, but was never able to control the area. He was eventually recalled to Montreal when reinforcements arrived. He received a promotion to Brigadier General for his displays of personal courage during the operation.
Arnold once again felt the sting of Congressional favoritism when command of the colonial forces in and around Philadelphia was given to Major General Thomas Mifflin, who was newly promoted into a slot Arnold felt he deserved. On July 11, 1777, he again resigned his commission. This might have been the end of Arnold's military career had it not been for George Washington, who respected Arnold's abilities as a military commander. Washington petitioned Congress to reinstate Arnold's commission and promote him to the rank of major general. Fort Ticonderoga in New York had fallen to the British, and Arnold's experience was needed there.
What followed next became known as the Saratoga campaign. The campaign was a series of battles fought near Albany, New York that resulted in the capture of a large number of troops under the command of British General John Burgoyne. Arnold's strategic and tactical brilliance was on full display, as was his personal courage. But he received little credit for his efforts. The overall colonial commander, General Horatio Gates, disliked Arnold and left him out of his command structure when planning for the campaign. Thus, any actions Arnold took were in excess of his authority; even though his leadership was essential to the victory, he was rebuked by Gates. For his part, Arnold believed that Gates was too timid and publicly expressed this opinion whenever the opportunity arose.
Arnold received a severe leg injury at Saratoga and spent the winter of 1777-78 recovering. In June, 1778, he was made military commander of Philadelphia. It was there that he learned of the new alliance between France and the colonies. Considering his experience as a teenager during the French and Indian War, this likely increased his bitterness. In addition, Congress refused to reimburse Arnold for personal money he spent to help equip the colonial militias before the failed Canadian incursion of 1776. Philadelphia offered avenues of escape for Arnold and he spent his time there holding large parties and involving himself with risky and disreputable business schemes. He also met Peggy Shippen, an 18-year old socialite. They were married in April, 1779. Shippen had previously been engaged to a British major, John Andre'. She was also an avowed loyalist.
Because of his behavior in Philadelphia, Arnold was court-martialed for malfeasance in June, 1779. He wrote to General Washington, saying in part, "Having become a cripple in service of my country, I little expected to meet such ungrateful returns." Washington must have retained at least some faith in Arnold, for in July, 1780, he was given command of West Point, a fort 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. It would be General Arnold's last command in the Continental Army.
By this point, Arnold's bitterness towards his circumstances had turned to treason. Around the time he was given the command at West Point, Arnold began writing to General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander of the New York City area. His conduit for these communications was Major Andre', the same British officer who had once been engaged to Arnold's wife. In his letters, Arnold offered to hand West Point over to the British in exchange for 20,000 pounds and a commission as a brigadier general in their army. General Clinton agreed to Arnold's demands, but the plan was foiled when Major Andre' was captured with papers signed by Arnold. Condemned as a spy, Andre' was hanged.
When Arnold learned of Andre's capture, he fled to the British lines. He was made a brigadier general as promised, but was only paid 6,000 pounds because the plan for handing over West Point was not successful. Had West Point indeed been compromised, the northern colonies could very well have been cut off from the rest of the struggling nation and brought under total British control. The War of Independence could very well have been lost.
Arnold commanded British troops against the Continental Army, but his contribution was minimal. He was ordered back to England at the end of 1781 after the British defeat at Yorktown. He later sent an open letter entitled "To the Inhabitants of America" in which he tried to justify his actions, but it was too late; whatever credit Arnold had been given as a war hero was dashed by his selfish attempt at treason. He died in 1801 in England.
Today, two monuments to Benedict Arnold stand in the United States; neither contains his name. The monument at Saratoga refers to him as "a most brilliant soldier" and credits him with helping to win the battle. The other monument resides at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It contains only his rank and date of birth.