This week in history: Benedict Arnold defected to the British
On Sept. 24, 1780, American Revolutionary War Gen. Benedict Arnold defected to the British when his plot to surrender the fort of West Point became exposed.
When the American Revolution broke out Arnold was a Connecticut businessman who raced to join the growing assembly of Continental militias besieging British-held Boston. Together with Ethan Allen, Arnold led a party that captured Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point in May 1775. Subsequently, Arnold was involved in several major engagements, including the Saratoga battles of 1777, which proved decisive in convincing the French to ally themselves with America.
In his book, “Washington: A Life,” biographer Ron Chernow offers a character sketch of Arnold: “Impetuous and overbearing, Benedict Arnold was a short man with a powerful, compact body. His penetrating eyes, aquiline nose, dusky complexion, and thick, unruly hair lent him a dashing but restless air. Commercial success did not cool his temperament. He was pugnacious, often resorted to duels, and was litigious when libeled.”
By all accounts Arnold proved a first-class general. A fighting soldier who led from the front, Arnold could perhaps be compared to George S. Patton or Erwin Rommel, World War II generals who were never content to sit behind a desk when battle was engaged. Arnold was wounded several times, including a crippling injury to his left leg at Saratoga. Despite advice from surgeons, Arnold refused to have it amputated.
After the British quit the city of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, Arnold became the commander of American forces within the city. There he met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen, 20 years his junior, who became his second wife the following April, (his first wife had died in 1775).
Despite his rank, allegations of misconduct and corruption continually dogged Arnold, and the general had cause to be bitter against his fellow countrymen. In early 1777, Congress had promoted five brigadier generals junior to Arnold to the rank of major general, passing him over. Arnold never forgave the fact that those five generals had seniority over him, even after he was elevated to major general. Additionally, Arnold was perhaps angry at the fact that Gen. Horatio Gates took much of the credit for the victory at Saratoga, a military achievement that the British commander, John Burgoyne, had attributed to Arnold. Additionally, army pay remained meager and irregular.
Increasingly, Arnold found himself at odds with members of Congress, many of whom weren't happy that he had married into a family known to have entertained British soldiers during the occupation of Philadelphia. There was legitimate criticism of the general however, as it came to light that he had used army wagons to transport private goods for profit, which Arnold pocketed. Demanding a court-martial to clear his name, Arnold was found guilty only of minor infractions.
Despite his acquittal of major charges, Arnold considered his treatment a rebuke, stating, “Having made every sacrifice for my country of fortune and blood and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”
Feeling badly used by Congress and his superiors, Arnold established contact with John André, a major in the British army and adjutant to Gen. Henry Clinton. In his book, “The American Revolution,” historian Bruce Lancaster wrote about the beginning of a conspiracy in 1779:
“Codes were devised, fresh channels opened, and the Major found at once that he had no starry-eyed dreamer to deal with, but a hardheaded businessman ... who wanted substantial monetary rewards figured down to the last farthing, rank in the British army, and possibly a title for his services. Correspondence became animated, then acid, and André reluctantly closed the file.”
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