The Treason of Benedict Arnold
In the last days of September 1781, news broke that shocked America. “Treason! treason! treason! black as hell,”1 wrote Alexander Scammell, the Continental Army’s Adjutant General. Benedict Arnold, one of the young nation’s leading generals had gone over to the British! The desertion was unexpected. Just months before George Washington had noted Arnold’s “distinguished services to his Country.”2 But in just a few hours the name of Benedict Arnold fell from one of the nation’s most patriotic heroes, to a term synonymous with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.
Benedict Arnold was an American – born in Connecticut in 1741. He became a prosperous merchant. At the coming of the Revolution he sided with the patriots and raised a company of militia. Very ambitions, he concocted daring schemes for the advancement of the American cause, and his own career. He joined Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, and followed up with an expedition against Quebec, Canada. He was wounded in the fighting and unable to take the city, but gained fame throughout the United States, and the commendation of George Washington as “active, judicious and brave….”3
Arnold was recognized for his achievements – he was promoted to Brigadier General for his service in Canada. But for him, that was not enough. He was constantly embroiled in disputes over rank. When other generals were promoted to Major General before him, he sent in his resignation, but Washington refused to accept it. Arnold eventually received the sought-for promotion, and was assigned to the army opposing Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada. Quarreling with Horatio Gates, he was removed from command. But against orders, he took to the field in the Battle of Saratoga. Leading an American contingent in the capture of the British redoubt, a ball shattered his left leg.
Unable to take the field command because of his wound, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia. There he continued to look for ways to advance himself, but some of his methods brought him into controversy. He used government wagons to transport his personal goods, and in 1779 this earned him a court-martial and a mild rebuke from George Washington. He had obtained high praise for his exploits, but was not content with the rank he had received. The wealth he sought eluded his grasp, and his extravagant lifestyle outran his resources. While in Philadelphia, he married Peggy Shippen, a British sympathizer. Brought into association with the Tory population of Philadelphia, it wasn’t long before the he began communicating with Major John André, one of his wife’s former suitors, about going over to the British. Arnold planned to deliver over the American position at West Point, over which he had obtained the command. It may have spelled death to the American cause, but the plot was uncovered after a year, just as it was reaching its fruition. Arnold was able to make his escape, but André was caught and hung as a spy.
Safe behind British lines, Arnold denied changing his principles. “I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country,” he wrote to Washington, “the same principle … actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”4 In his letter, To the Inhabitants of America, he said when the United States allied with the French, he decided that America had begun to hold the people “in vassalage and chains.” To prevent the effusion of blood, he said he had no choice but to go over to the British. This was false. He was cold and calculating in his treason. He had spent sixteen months negotiating with the British the price they would pay for his betrayal of the fortress at West Point. He had finally agreed to do it for £20,000. When the plot fell through, he was still paid £6,000, plus expenses. He may have made more money off the war than any other American officer.5
1. The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, concerning the Antiquities History and Biography of America (Morrisania, NY: Henry B. Dawson, 1870) second series, vol. VIII p. 145.
2. George Washington, General Orders, April 6, 1780.
3. American State Trials edt. John D. Lawson (St. Louis: F. H. Thomas Book Co., 1916) vol. 6, p. 444.
4. The American Generals, from the Founding of the Republic to the Present Time by John Frost (Columbus, OH: William and Thomas Miller, 1855) p. 157.
5. “The Nature of Treason”: Revolutionary Virtue and American Reactions to Benedict Arnold by Charles Royster The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), p. 186.