Benedict Arnold strove all his life to be recognized as a man of distinction. His brain for business and later, his skill as a military leader would have carved out a glorious place for him in history, but his vanity got the better of him. When Arnold felt unjustly treated by the Americans for his contributions to the Revolutionary War effort, he hoped to fare better with the British. He was dreadfully wrong.
The distinction Arnold ultimately achieved was as a traitor to his people. His name became synonymous with treachery, and his legend remains notorious to this day. Things started out quite differently, though.
Arnold was born in 1741 in Norwich, Conn. to a wealthy family that was part of the upper crust of Colonial society. He became a prosperous businessman and began a lucrative trade that extended from Quebec to the West Indies. He became rabidly anti-British after the 1764 Sugar Act and1765 Stamp Act placed heavy fees and burdens on his businesses. Like many other colonists, Arnold resented the stranglehold Britain had placed on the colonies.
Arnold married Margaret Mansfield in 1767 and they started a family. Their lives were interrupted in 1775, however, when the American Revolution broke out. Arnold joined the war as a militia captain, and in May, with the help of Ethan Allen, captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British in upstate New York. Upon returning home from the campaign, he learned that his wife had died while he was away.
Arnold, now a widower whose children were in the care of relatives, was made a colonel in the Continental Army for his actions at Ticonderoga. He urged an attack on Quebec to prevent the British from using the location as a launching point for attacks on the colonies. Arnold’s expedition met with disaster, and he was severely wounded.
Arnold served with distinction in a series of battles and proved invaluable at the all-important Battle of Saratoga in 1777, but commanding general Horatio Gates, a bitter rival of Arnold’s, reportedly played down Arnold’s contributions.
Arnold, whose temperament was politely described by his fellow field commanders as irascible, was assigned to the military governorship of Philadelphia in 1778. That’s when things started to slip.
He met and married Peggy Shippen, whose family was prominent in Philadelphia and included two mayors and prosperous businessmen. Her father was a loyalist and had connections to the British Army. Arnold reveled in his associations with Philadelphia society. He lived a life of luxury, got into debt, and quietly stewed over being repeatedly passed over for promotion despite his dedicated service to the Revolutionary cause.
In 1779, Arnold concocted a scheme with British Major John Andre to surrender the American fort at West Point, New York in exchange for £20,000 to pay his debts and a command in the British Army. Arnold maneuvered the Continental Army to assign him command of West Point. He systematically weakened its defenses and refused to make necessary repairs, softening up the fort for an impending British attack.
Andre was captured by the Americans in September 1780 with papers that laid out Arnold’s plans for West Point. Arnold fled to the British lines before he could be arrested, and Andre was hanged a month later.
The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission and salary, but he did not receive the money he was promised because his plot to turn over West Point failed. Just the same, Arnold was in command again, which must have pleased him. He led two military expeditions, one in Richmond, Va.,, and another in New London, Conn. near his boyhood home. Both were costly excursions that led to high British casualties and roused patriotic fervor against the British and their new commander, the traitor Arnold.
British officers as a whole were not fond of Arnold, and the high command did not take kindly to his bold military ideas. He was sidelined for the rest of the war, and fled to London with his family when the British surrendered in 1781.
Arnold was the toast of London for a brief time upon arriving in London. He received an audience with King George III and members of Parliament who sought to continue the fight with the Americans. Anti-war sentiment prevailed, however, and Arnold’s fame faded with it.
The British press and polite society shunned Arnold. Even though his actions were meant to aid England, he was still considered a traitor. He was considered an opportunist whose loyalty could be bought for any price.
Arnold tried to get an assignment with the British East India Company, but was turned down. He likewise encountered closed doors in the British government. He returned to the business of trade, relocating to New Brunswick in 1785. A series of bad business deals and accusations of shady practices haunted him during his time there. After being plagued by law suits and burned in effigy, Arnold and his family returned to England in 1791.
Benedict Arnold died in London on June 14, 1801 in obscurity and deeply in debt. Across the ocean, Americans celebrated Arnold’s death, and his legend became one of infamy. His heroic exploits and his personal misfortunes would be forever buried by his treasonous actions and his egotistical personality.