Friday, August 10, 2012

Intern's Corner: August in the Revolution

Defection of Benedict Arnold
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern

          The son of British immigrants, Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich Connecticut.  His early life was fraught with deaths in the family, his mother and father in 1759 and 1761 respectively due to ill health and only one sibling of five surviving to adulthood.  As a youth, Arnold was reckless and thrill-seeking, often endangering himself to perform acrobatic stunts and solving his personal conflicts with violence.  His daring was coupled with intelligence and ambition, which made him a natural leader.  To start his professional life, Arnold was apprenticed to his cousins who ran an apothecary, where he gained valuable business experience to later start his own drug and book trade in New Haven.  During his career, Arnold became a Free Mason, and expanded his business greatly to include numerous ventures from the West Indies to Canada. 

          As tensions grew with Britain, Arnold sided with the Revolutionaries, beginning formal military service in 1774.  Arnold proved himself a fine military commander, serving with great distinction during an invasion of Canada, the Battle of Valcour Island, and the Saratoga Campaign.  Unfortunately for him, his political skill was nowhere near equal to his military successes.  Throughout his career, Arnold was continually at odds with those around him, both fellow officers and civilian political authorities.  He was brought to trial several times for financial irregularities, had his character ruthlessly attacked by fellow officers, and quarreled enough with Horatio Gates that he was only able to participate in later actions of the Saratoga campaign by directly disobeying Gates’ orders. 

          Arnold’s dissatisfaction with the Revolutionary cause reached its peak during his tenure as military governor of Philadelphia, when financial struggles and embitterment over his treatment in the Continental forces sowed the seeds of treason.  Corresponding through John Andre with General Clinton, Arnold plotted to seek command of an important post and the deliver it to the British.  At this time, Washington wanted to get Arnold back into the mainstream of American military service, and called him from his post in Philadelphia to take command of West Point, a perfect prize to offer the British, on August 3, 1780.  His treachery went awry, however, as Andre was captured while carrying details of West Point’s defenses to the British from Arnold, and the plot was exposed.  Instead of delivering West Point to the British, Arnold was only able to defect himself, in what Washington called “treachery of the blackest dye.” 

          Arnold was appointed local Brigadier General of the British forces and served with some note, raiding through Virginia and igniting intense hatred and a bounty of 5,000 on his head from Governor Thomas Jefferson.  In 1781, Arnold left for England, ingratiating himself with the Tories before the King’s party fell from power and Arnold was again sidetracked by those he served.  Arnold retired as a colonel on half pay, securing pensions and half pay commissions for his wife and children, though he would never see active service again.  He travelled, fought a duel with the Earl of Louderdale, and eventually secured a grant of 13,400 acres in Canada for his sister and sons.  At the age of 60, Arnold died in 1801 of dropsy and gout, and his wife Peggy died three years later. 

          Despite his popular mythos, Arnold was not quite the despicable traitor as he has often been portrayed.  Arnold was an extremely talented military commander, but was unable to deal with the stresses of command off the battlefield.  The constant attacks on his character and the petty squabbles that sidetracked his career fostered deep resentment with the Revolutionary cause.  While it may be too much to say that Arnold was totally vindicated in his betrayal, he was not completely unjustified and malicious either.  Had he not chosen to “return to his former loyalty,” as he would have put it, Arnold would be remembered for his many decisive victories and the vital role he played in securing Independence, but due to his actions his name still lives on as synonymous with treachery.
Blanco, Richard L., and Paul J. Sanborn. The American Revolution: 1775-1783 : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Print. p. 46-56.

Hall, H.B.  Benedict Arnold.  1879.