Benedict Arnold: Hudson Valley Traitor or Misunderstood Hero?

Soldier, spy: Was Benedict Arnold a traitor or a hero? History proves he was both

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Lieutenant Colonel Sherman L. Fleek (Ret.), the Command Historian at the United States Military Academy at West Point, has three books on his nightstand at the moment: A Hero and a Spy, Patriot and Traitor, and Misunderstood Hero. These seemingly contradictory and problematic titles all apply to the same person — a person who — in the view of the American public for the past 232 years — is hardly contradictory or problematic at all. In fact, you could joke that if you looked up the word “traitor” in the dictionary, you’d find his picture.

Benedict Arnold.

How can the words “hero,” “patriot,” and “misunderstood” describe this poster boy for treason? That’s what Fleek is hoping to learn more about. “I have been here for three years, long enough to know the history of West Point generally, but now I know what types of things I don’t know,” he says. “To know the history in depth, you have to start from the beginning, and that’s the Revolution.” And no one personifies the glory, the ignominy, the tragedy, and the confusion of that time better than Benedict Arnold.

Arnold’s army

His basic biography is well known. The Arnolds were one of the first families of the New World. William Arnold emigrated to Providence in 1636 as one of the 54 proprietors in the first settlement of Rhode Island. His son Benedict was governor of the colony for much of the 1660s and ’70s, and his son Benedict was a member of the assembly. The next Benedict — that’s the third, if you’re scoring at home — moved to Connecticut, where he was a prosperous businessman and political leader. His son Benedict, our Benedict, was born in Norwich on January 14, 1741.

The infamous Benedict Arnold has been described as romantic, adventurous, proud, sensitive, impulsive, brave, strong, handsome, good, and evil. All of these traits truly began to come into play when, as a teenager, several of his siblings died and his father fell into alcoholism and lost much of the family fortune. This prompted him to enlist in the Connecticut militia to fight the French invasion at Lake George. He lasted about 13 days and then left, probably as a deserter, though that’s unproven. He marched back to Norwich, where he built his own business empire — druggist, bookseller, landowner — got married, and had three sons. Yes, the first son was named Benedict.

He was also a captain in the militia, and when the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, he jumped in. He was instrumental in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the attack on Quebec, for which his bravery and injury — he was shot in the leg — earned not only a promotion to brigadier general but also the support of big-name generals Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and the commander-in-chief, George Washington. But he also earned the enmity of others, including those in Congress, for his disputatious nature and his constant need for power, recognition, fame, and compensation. One of his rivals, in fact, posted a handbill that read, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”

That would come later, though. First he nearly sacrificed himself to save his fledgling nation.

From hero to turncoat

Feeling slighted because he was passed over for promotion to major general, Arnold remained with the army and distinguished himself in a few more battles. That earned him his promotion, but he still felt abused because he lost his seniority and was considered junior to those he had previously commanded. He resigned his commission, but Washington refused to accept it.

His next post sent him up the Hudson River, and he became a hero of the two battles of Saratoga. But not without irritating more people. Fighting his superiors (he was removed from the first battle by Gen. Gates) and disobeying orders (Gates again), he led reckless but successful attacks against the British, which helped lead to their surrender 10 days later and the first substantive victory by the Continental Army in the war.

Arnold was shot in the leg, again, and severely wounded. He later said he would have been better off had he been hit in the chest. And Fleek agrees. “If that ball had hit his heart instead of his leg, he would have gone down as a great patriot leader like Ethan Allen or Nathan Hale,” he says. But it didn’t, and he didn’t.

“He was a smart guy, very motivated, full of initiative — all the traits of a solid commander,” Fleek says. “But I wouldn’t want him as my brother-in-law”

After Saratoga, Congress restored his seniority, but Arnold interpreted that as sympathy for his injury rather than recognition for his achievements or redemption for his wronged reputation. Pouting, he moved to Philadelphia, where he became even angrier about his treatment and less optimistic about the Revolution; he was even court-martialed for unruly behavior and misuse of government wagons, among other charges. In turn, he fell in with British sympathizers, and courted Peggy Shippen, the 18-year-old daughter of a Loyalist judge, whom he married in 1779. (Arnold’s first wife had died in 1775.) Arnold’s dismay with the Revolution was out in the open, and the British knew he might be willing to turn.

Peggy Shippen Arnold, by most accounts a lovely young lady, had previously been in the eye of a British major and spymaster named John André. And through a series of intermediaries, Arnold and André began to correspond through letters, in secret, sometimes using code and invisible ink, often using Peggy as a runner. By 1779, Arnold had effectively defected, providing the enemy with troop and supply locations (while haggling over money). He also informed the Brits of his impending appointment, by Washington himself, as commander of West Point. This was the key. “If there was a critical piece of terrain in the colonies that would possibly determine the outcome of the war, it would be the Hudson River Valley and West Point,” says Fleek. “He who controlled the Hudson would probably win the war.” Arnold’s price for turning it over to the British: 20,000 pounds sterling. British Gen. Sir Henry Clinton’s answer: deal.

Arnold took command of West Point on August 3, 1780; he took up residence at the well-known Robinson House, across the river in what is now Garrison. The Robinsons were Loyalists who had lost their estate to the Continental Army. Arnold chose to stay there, against orders, because it allowed him an easy escape should he need to flee. (See sidebar.)

He immediately began to plot West Point’s turnover. The famous iron chain across the Hudson, meant to block British ships, was left in disrepair. He kept troop levels and supplies at West Point deliberately low. On September 21, 1780, he presented André with the plans for West Point. Two days later, three Westchester patriots captured André near Tarrytown, and discovered the plans in his boot. On September 24, Arnold learned of André’s capture and that the plans were on their way to Gen. Washington. He fled, leaving his wife and son in the lurch.

André was hanged on October 2 in Tappan. Arnold served in the British army for the remainder of the war, including leading several devastating attacks against the Colonies, but the British never fully trusted him. (André, meanwhile, is still celebrated as a true English patriot.) Following the war, Arnold and his family, since reunited, moved between England and Canada, where he made more money and more enemies — he even fought a bloodless duel; historians have called his life after the war one of “controversy, resentment, and legal entanglements.” In 1801, his health declined, possibly from his many serious leg injuries, and he died on June 14, at age 60. He was buried in London. Many years later, his remains were mistakenly relocated to an unmarked, mass grave.  

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