Military History Monday: Traitor!

BenedictArnoldHis name is synonymous with the term “traitor” and he was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741.  Benedict Arnold was named (as was an older brother who died in infancy) for his great-grandfather Benedict Arnold who had been one of the early governors of Rhode Island.  His father (also named Benedict) was married to Hannah Waterman King, a wealthy widow.  For a time the family prospered and maintained the holdings Hannah brought to the marriage until some poor business decisions resulted in financial struggles for the family.

Young Benedict was taken out of school, but his mother was able to secure an apprenticeship in her cousins’ apothecary.  He left the apprenticeship, briefly, to join the army a couple of times to fight the French and Indian War (one source indicates that he deserted both times).  His mother died in 1759 and his father died two years later.  Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Benedict traveled to Europe to buy supplies for his own apothecary in New Haven, Connecticut.

The British won the French and Indian War, but it was an expensive victory and England decided that the colonists should bear some of the cost of paying for it.  New taxes were levied and the colonists were only allowed to trade with the mother country.  Benedict was furious since these new policies and taxes would have a devastating effect on his business.  He wrote articles for the Connecticut Gazette and joined the Sons of Liberty.

He was determined to find a way around the strict trade policies imposed on the colonists, so Benedict, along with others, entered into the illegal business of smuggling.  The smuggling trade was fraught with danger as British ships patrolled the waters off the coast of America, and anyone caught smuggling would be severely punished.   Benedict had encounters with the authorities and one of the sailors on an illegal smuggling expedition threatened to “tell all” to the authorities.

Benedict Arnold “persuaded” the sailor to sign a statement saying he would not turn Benedict in and would instead leave town.  However, the sailor did not leave town and Arnold gathered a mob to convince the sailor to leave town, after beating him almost to death.  Arnold was arrested and found guilty, ordered to pay a small fine, then became a hero to the local residents of New Haven – he had stood up to the British bullying.

Benedict married Margaret Mansfield in 1767 and they had three sons before she died after eight years of marriage.  Before the Revolutionary War broke out, Benedict had already joined the Governor’s Second Company of Guards as a Captain.  After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Arnold was eager to join the fight and he insisted that he be given command of Fort Ticonderoga and be promoted to Colonel.

Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, however, had the exact same idea.  The two groups met at the fort and Allen refused to relinquish command, but invited Arnold’s troops to join them.  The two commanders were victorious at St. Johns, Canada, but Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery failed at the Battle of Quebec – Montgomery was killed and Arnold was wounded.  When Arnold recovered, he was promoted to Brigadier General and served at Lake Champlain where gunboats were built that were later instrumental in delaying the advance of British troops in 1776.

At the Battle of Saratoga, Arnold (although disobeying a commanding officer) helped secured a patriot victory which forced the British to surrender.  This victory was pivotal because it also convinced the French to join the determined Americans.  In May of 1777, Arnold was promoted to Major General and received the command of Philadelphia.  Arnold (38), a widower now, met 18-year old Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of Judge Edward Shippen – a British loyalist who had done business with the British while they occupied Philadelphia.   They were married on April 8, 1779.

The Shippen family was wealthy and in attempting to “keep up with the Shippens”, Benedict Arnold entered into a lifestyle that he really couldn’t afford.  He was part of some shady business dealings and used government supplies for his personal use, all of which resulted in a court martial.  Although he fought vigorously to defend himself, he was found guilty of two charges.  Over the years, Benedict Arnold had suffered what he considered to be slights and lack of proper recognition for his accomplishments.  Perhaps these sentiments, combined with his precarious financial position, prompted him to bargain with the other side.

To the British, Benedict Arnold offered West Point, for which he was t0 be paid the handsome sum of twenty thousand pounds.  Arnold had already been assigned to West Point by George Washington and well-established himself before the final agreement.  He began deliberately weakening the defenses at West Point by neglecting to make needed repairs – he also constantly complained to Washington of a lack of supplies, all the while himself drawing down the supplies in order to make the siege an easy British victory.

British intermediary Major John André was captured after meeting with Arnold (with the papers which would expose the plot) and later hanged.  Washington sent troops to capture Arnold but he narrowly escaped to Virginia.  The British made him a brigadier general, but paid him less than originally offered since the plot had failed.  In December of 1780 he led British troops in Virginia which resulted in the capture of Richmond, and then continued pillaging homes and businesses.  The Virginia militia responded and Arnold and his army went into retreat.

The American Army was now under orders by George Washington to hang Benedict Arnold if he was captured.  In May of 1781 Lord Cornwallis arrived and took over command of the troops in Virginia and Arnold returned to New York in June.  Arnold proposed to General Clinton a series of economic attacks to weaken the Americans – he was finally allowed to raid the port of New London, Connecticut, capturing Fort Griswold and inflicting some $500,000 in damages.  The toll on the British forces was high as approximately one-fourth were wounded or killed.

Even before Cornwallis surrendered in October of 1781, Benedict Arnold had already made arrangements to travel to England.  When he repeated his request it was immediately granted and Arnold and his family departed for England on December 8, 1781.  In the years immediately following his departure from America he attempted to convince Parliament to renew its fight with the colonies, but everywhere he turned he was rebuffed.

In 1785, Benedict and his son Richard went to Saint John, New Brunswick to engage in land speculation and establish a trade business with the West Indies.  In 1787 he returned to England and took the rest of his family back with him to New Brunswick, but he again became entangled in poorly conceived business dealings and lawsuits.  So serious was one slander lawsuit that the townspeople burned him in effigy while his family watched.  In December 1791 the family returned to London.

In 1801 his health declined and he was no longer able to conduct his business travel by sea.  He died on June 14, 1801 at the age of 60.  He was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, but due to a parish clerical error in the early 1900’s, his remains were moved to an unmarked mass grave when the church was renovated.

While Benedict Arnold had once been a fiery patriot who had helped the Americans win significant battles prior to his betrayal, his name will forever be associated with that of a treasonous person.  Soon after his treason was made public the public commentary began – Benjamin Franklin remarked, “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions.”  In 1865 he was depicted in a political cartoon with Jefferson Davis in hell.


Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.

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