Benedict Arnold:

From Hero to Traitor

By Alan Wakim

What motivated General Benedict Arnold to turn from military hero to the most despised traitor in American history? A look at the events in his life which led to the ultimate betrayal will explain the metamorphosis:

  • Benedict Arnold was a successful Connecticut businessman who co-owned three merchant ships and participated in trade with the West Indies. His frustration with the Sugar Act and Stamp Act compelled Arnold to join the Sons of Liberty.
  • After the commencement of hostilities in Boston, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety tasked Benedict Arnold to capture Ft. Ticonderoga. Taking 400 men with him, he met up with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. Allen refused to submit to Arnold, leading to tensions between the two. They managed to work together well enough to capture Ft. Ticonderoga, but when Allen’s men celebrated their success by getting drunk, Arnold showed disdain towards their lack of discipline when he attempted to restore order. Afterwards, Allen did not acknowledge Arnold’s efforts and received all the credit. This was a blow to Arnold’s prestige. To add to his woes, when Arnold returned home to Connecticut, he discovered that his wife of eight years, Margaret Mansfield, had died in his absence.
  • During the siege of Boston, General George Washington sent Arnold north to capture Quebec. It was considered a reckless, but bold mission that forced Arnold to travel 350 miles of the difficult Maine wilderness in the freezing winter. Washington believed that patriotism and courage could defeat the elements. Arnold linked up with General Richard Montgomery, and together they attacked Quebec on New Year’s Eve - during a heavy snowstorm. During the failed attack, Arnold suffered a serious leg wound. Montgomery fared worse, as he suffered a fatal head wound. The campaign was a humiliating defeat for the Americans.
  • Colonel John Brown slandered Arnold, his bitter enemy: $55,000 of $66,671 were unaccounted for during the Quebec Campaign. Accusations of embezzlement were aimed at Arnold. Arnold testified in front of the Board of War in Philadelphia, with Charles Carroll corroborating, that he lent much of the money to divisional commanders who were later captured with all their records. His own records were lost when the schooner Royal Savage was burned by the British at Valcour Island. Arnold also testified that he spent and lent much of his own money during the campaign. Evidence has been found that Arnold was truthful on this matter. The Board of War reported to Congress that Arnold was not guilty of the charges made against him, and that his character and conduct were sound.
  • Congress created five new major generalships - and offered them to officers that were junior in rank to Arnold, who was a brigadier general at the time. John Adams refused to give Arnold the seniority he desired - even after he defended Philadelphia against the British invasion of that city.  He would eventually receive the promotion, but was still a subordinate to those promoted before him. Arnold was bitter. He did not receive the recognition he rightfully deserved - and submitted his resignation in frustration. Washington, recognizing his skills and talent, requested his services to stop Burgoyne’s invasion of New York from Canada. Arnold accepted – but was forced to serve under Horatio Gates.
  • Gates found Arnold annoying and too aggressive. Their relationship would eventually erupt into a bitter feud. They both succeeded in defeating General Johnny Burgoyne - forcing him to surrender his army (4,000 British and 2,400 Germans) at Saratoga.  Gates, like Ethan Allen before him, took all the credit for the victory. This was a crushing blow to Arnold – who was crippled during the battle. Adding to his bitterness, the victory in Saratoga would be credited as the reason France joined the United States in its war with Great Britain.
  • Arnold once again threatened to resign. This time Washington appointed Arnold as the military governor for Philadelphia after the British army withdrew from the city and marched back to New York.  He had not been paid in three years. Congress had not reimbursed him for loaning a thousand pounds to a New Haven artillery company, nor had they reimbursed him for the 2,500 pounds he spent on the Quebec Campaign. His private ship had been captured and he now walked on crutches. As he arrived in an elegant coach, many speculated that he intended to profit from this new command.
  • During his governorship, Arnold met Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a loyalist, also known as the Tories. They eventually married and lived a life of luxury against the backdrop of a poverty-stricken city that greatly suffered during the British occupation. This caught the attention of Colonel Joseph Reed and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, who wanted the Tories executed and their property seized. Arnold frustrated their plans, and thus became their enemy. Arnold’s luxurious lifestyle also added to their hatred of him. Reed, a close friend of Horatio Gates, was determined to have Arnold removed from office. After an investigation, they indicted him on eight counts. This led to rumors and suspicions. Arnold demanded a court-martial, but Congress referred the charges to a committee headed by William Paca of Maryland, who acquitted Arnold of most charges. The remaining two would fall under a court-martial, Arnold’s preferred method of clearing his name. Reed threatened both Congress and General Washington that if Arnold was cleared of all charges, Pennsylvania would quit the war and secede from the union. To appease Reed, Washington had no choice but to indefinitely postpone the court-martial and publicly reprimand Arnold. A shaken Arnold felt completely betrayed…and turned.

Peggy, ever loyal to the British crown, convinced her husband to reach out to British General Henry Clinton through her friend, Major John Andre, Chief of British Intelligence. Patriot and popular war hero Benedict Arnold was well on his way to sealing his fate as America’s greatest and most despised traitor.

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