Benedict Arnold was a general in the Continental Army that defected to the British side during the American Revolutionary War. Serving with the American Patriots he became well known for leading successful campaigns and winning battles, but he gradually became disgruntled beginning with his not receiving what he felt was due credit in a raid on Fort Ticonderoga. Some five years later, in 1780, he plotted with the British to take control of the fort at West Point, New York, which would have given the British control of the Hudson River and split the colonies in half. The plot was thwarted, but Arnold successfully avoided capture by Continental forces. Shortly thereafter, he was given a commission in the British Army, and was eventually elevated to the rank of general. His name is a colloquial synonym for traitor in the United States, much like Quisling in Norway, or Pétain in France.
Born in Norwich, Connecticut, a descendant of a namesake colonial governor of Rhode Island, Arnold grew up in a well-to-do Connecticut family that had hit hard times by the time he became an adult. In 1762 he moved to New Haven, Connecticut and established himself in business as an apothecary and bookseller. He acquired considerable property, and engaged in the West Indies trade, sometimes commanding his own ships, as his father had done. Some of his business dealings drifted into smuggling - in contempt of the customs laws of the Crown. He married Margaret Mansfield on February 22, 1767. They had three sons; Margaret died June 19, 1775.
When the fighting began at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Arnold was thirty-four, had fought in the French and Indian War, was a militia captain in the (Connecticut) Governor's Second Company of Guards, and an ardent patriot. When word spread of the rebellion, Arnold's troops broke into the New Haven powder house on April 23, 1775, to arm themselves, marched off to Massachusetts eager for action, and requested permission from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to capture Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. They appointed him a colonel in the Massachusetts's militia to undertake the first entirely offensive military expedition by the colonists against the British. At Bennington, Vermont, Arnold met up with Ethan Allen, who had a commission from Connecticut to capture the same fort and who did not care that Arnold had orders from Massachusetts. Arnold could not talk Allen out of relinquishing command, and had to concede to accompanying Allen and his Green Mountain Boys. In a dawn attack on May 10, 1775, Ticonderoga was taken from the 22 British troops that held it and who were not aware that a war was in progress.
The victory achieved, Allen's second in command, Colonel James Easton of the Massachusetts militia and a boyhood friend of Allen, delivered the letter announcing the victory to Massachusetts, doing his best to diminish Arnold's participation and enhance the role of the Green Mountain Boys and the Connecticut militia. Upon discovering this, Arnold challenged Easton to a duel, but Easton refused. Benedict Arnold remained with some Connecticut replacements in command at Ticonderoga, but when a regiment under Colonel Benjamin Hinman arrived and Arnold learned that he was second to Hinman, he resigned his commission (later changing his mind) and headed to Albany, New York. Arnold submitted an inflated claim for expenses and protested vehemently when the suspicious legislators closely examined each item. In June he became a widower.
Late in 1775, Allen and Arnold led separate coordinated invasions of Canada. Allen's forces successfully attacked Montreal (but Allen was himself captured), while Arnold led an expeditionary force from Boston on an easternly route to Quebec City, and participated in the unsuccessful Battle of Quebec, where Arnold was shot in the leg December 31, 1775. He refused to end the siege and gave orders for the attack from his sickbed until relieved in April of 1776. Arnold was put in command of Montreal while he recuperated there, until all American forces were forced to withdraw from Canada in June of 1776.
Arnold was eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general and in 1776 oversaw the construction of America's first gunships on Lake Champlain, in the town of Whitehall, New York. This earned Whitehall the nickname "Birthplace of the U.S. Navy." Under his command, this naval force engaged a British force near Valcour Island, New York on October 11, 1776. Though the American flotilla was forced to beach its surviving ships in the ensuing battle, the British were delayed by this campaign such that they were unable to launch their planned offensive on Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga until the following spring.
In 1777, Arnold was passed over by the Continental Congress for a promotion to a major generalship. Under the command of General Horatio Gates (a contender to replace General George Washington as commander-in-chief), Arnold played a vital role in winning the Battle of Saratoga by first rallying the troops necessary to win the battle. Arnold hit on the idea of having scouts go to each frontier settlement and spread the story of the murder of Jane McCrae, a young woman reportedly butchered by Iroquois allies of the British. As the word of this outrage spread, thousands of volunteers who had not heretofore fought in the revolution rallied to protect their homes and families. These militia troops played a vital role at Saratoga. Having raised sufficient troops to win the battle, Arnold then (according to some but not all accounts) won it personally, leading a charge through the British line at the turning point of the engagement; though he did so without orders, and again had trouble getting along with other officers. While he was rallying troops, his horse was shot and fell on his bad leg, rendering him partially crippled. He was given a new horse by the Continental Congress, but the lack of recognition for his role at Saratoga festered in his mind.
General George Washington put the recuperating Arnold in charge of Philadelphia after the British had evacuated it, and it was there that he met the young socialite, Peggy Shippen, a member of a family well known for its Loyalist sympathies. On April 9, 1779 he married 18 year-old Peggy, by whom he would have four sons and a daughter.
Disputes and betrayal
Some contend that as a friend of General Washington, Arnold was an easier target for those who did not approve of the way Washington was conducting the war. Arnold was court-martialed several times, notably on June 1, 1779, because of disputes with civil authorities. He was cleared of all except minor charges and was merely reprimanded by Washington. Arnold was resentful even of this reprimand, though historians would later discover that Arnold's financial dealings in Philadelphia were even more corrupt than his detractors had suspected.
Following the American victory at Saratoga, General Washington and the Continental Congress made an alliance with France against Britain. Arnold disagreed strongly with this. Having fought against the French in the French and Indian War, Arnold was mistrustful of French Catholics, and felt that the Revolutionary War should be a dispute between Britain and her colonies without French intervention. He was also convinced that the British had already and were prepared to again offer the colonists all they had asked for prior to the Declaration of Independence. He had also spent money extravagantly on his new wife, had debts to pay, and had engaged in some questionable transactions, including overcharging Congress for expenses incurred. Arnold corresponded with British Major John André, likely through his wife, who had been courted by André during the British occupation of Philadelphia earlier in the war.
In 1780, Arnold negotiated with British General Henry Clinton to hand over the American fort at West Point, New York to the British for £20,000 (about $1,000,000 today). Partially incapacitated, Arnold had used his leg injuries to secure a position as head of the fort at West Point. His plans were discovered when Major André was captured on September 23, 1780 with incriminating documents in his boot. The capture of John André was considered so significant that a special award, known as the Fidelity Medallion, was created by the Continental Congress for those who had participated in his capture.
Learning of André's capture, Arnold escaped and joined the British forces. Arnold's wife feigned innocence in the whole affair and, with George Washington's permission, was sent to Philadelphia. However, Arnold's two aides-de-camp at West Point, Richard Varick and David Franks, fell under suspicion for complicity. Both were subsequently cleared and continued to serve the American cause.
Arnold was appointed brigadier general in the British Army and engaged Continental forces on a few occasions. One significant battle occurred on January 5, 1781, when Richmond, Virginia, was burned by British naval forces led by Arnold. In Connecticut, his home colony, he burned ships, warehouses, and much of the town of New London, a major port for patriot privateers.
After the war, Arnold moved with his wife and family to London, but was never fully trusted there and, with West Point never captured, received only £6,000. Arnold died in 1801 and is buried, with his wife and his daughter, in the crypt of St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, in the uniform of a Continental soldier.
Within the United States, the name of Benedict Arnold is synonymous with "traitor." Outside the United States, he is thought of in more neutral terms. Arnold attempted to justify his actions in an open letter entitled "To the Inhabitants of America". In a letter to his former friend Washington, he stated, "love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions."