A military commander during the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) felt that he had been insufficiently rewarded for his service. In revenge and in order to advance his own flagging career, Arnold conspired with the loyalists to betray General Washington by surrendering West Point to the British in September 1780, but the plot was foiled.
Son of a prominent Connecticut and Rhode Island founding family, Benedict Arnold had the advantages of a sound Latin education and family support to establish him in a druggist and bookselling business, as well as a good marriage to Margaret Mansfield, the daughter of a prosperous neighbor.
Arnold, however, evidenced a wild streak, running away at age fifteen to join Connecticut troops fighting the French in the Seven Years’ War, and engaging in Caribbean trade as the master of a cargo ship. Arnold also served as the captain of the governor of Connecticut’s guard, a position he held when news of Lexington and Concord reached him in 1775.
Against the advice of the governor, Arnold assembled volunteers, armed them from colony stores, and marched them to Boston to aid in the struggle. With the support of Dr. Benjamin Warren, Arnold secured a colonel’s commission from Massachusetts and raised more than 400 men for an assault on Fort Ticonderoga.
En route, he joined with Ethan Allen and his Vermont men and tried to assume command over both groups. When Allen refused, Arnold rankled, but went along as a volunteer. He was particularly upset that the Connecticut legislature rewarded Allen for this success by giving him command of the captured fort.
Arnold then proposed a daring winter raid on Quebec, and led a force of approximately 1,000 men across northern Maine with few supplies, an achievement that soured when the force proved unable to take Quebec, even with reinforcements from American-captured Montreal. Although badly wounded in the leg, Arnold oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Canada, and in a brilliant delaying tactic, engaged the British in the Battle of Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, preventing a British invasion of New England that year.
Although promoted to brigadier for his actions, Arnold resented the politics of the revolution, which demanded men of less ability but from more powerful colonies be given commands. As a supporter of Washington, Arnold also ran afoul of the members of the Conway cabal, who stalled his promotion and accused him of misusing army property.
Learning of a British army marching south into New York, Washington dispatched Arnold to join Generals Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates. Arnold commanded the left wing at the Battle of Saratoga, and, acting against the more cautious Gates’s orders, broke the British advance by rushing onto the field to rally his men, and was again wounded in the leg.
Washington rewarded the now crippled Arnold with command of the recently recaptured city of Philadelphia, where he quickly gathered a willing audience of British loyalists and disgruntled rebels to hear his complaints against the Continental Congress and fellow commanders: no recognition for his heroic service, the promotion of junior and less competent men, and endless politics and petty gestures.
Living beyond his means, Arnold courted the daughter of William Shippen, a prominent loyalist, and picked fights with the executive council of Pennsylvania. Joseph Reed, the head of the council, twice brought Arnold to court-martial, and although Arnold was acquitted of all but two trivial charges and praised by Washington, he felt betrayed by the government he had served at such great cost to himself.
While in Philadelphia, Arnold met Beverly Robinson and made contact with British officer John André, a former suitor of Arnold’s fiancée (and later second wife), Margaret Shippen. Arnold saw an opportunity to salvage his own career and the failing cause of the revolution by aiding a British victory, for which he expected lavish rewards and a peace treaty that would offer the colonies the privileges they demanded in the negotiations of 1775.
Citing historical instances, including that of General Monck, who engineered the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Arnold convinced himself that his motives were of the highest order. He then asked for and received command of the key Hudson River fortress of West Point, with the object of betraying it to the British. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, promised Arnold 50,000 dollars in gold, and the commission of a British brigadier-general.
André conferred with Arnold near West Point on the night of 20 September 1780, and the two men agreed that the fort should fall as General Washington returned from Hartford, where he was scheduled to meet with the French commander Rochambeau.
The West Point garrison should be deployed inefficiently and the British allowed to take control with as few casualties as possible. Clinton’s men were to attack as Washington approached, with the aim of possibly capturing the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary army and his forces.
Unfortunately, André had to leave this meeting by land, carrying written reports of the fort’s defenses in his boots, and using a false pass in the name of “John Anderton.” Going against his instructions from Clinton, André exchanged his officer’s greatcoat and scarlet uniform coat for a borrowed American jacket (this disguise ultimately led to André being hanged as a spy, rather than as a British officer).
At Tarrytown, three militiamen stopped André, and captured him after André wrongly assumed them to be loyalists and identified himself. André then attempted to convince them he was a double agent, acting on a pass from Arnold, but the militiamen, flushed with their triumphant capture, searched him enthusiastically, revealing the West Point plans.
The local commander, sensing a conspiracy, refused to send André to Arnold, but sent a letter to West Point asking for instructions. Meanwhile, Washington’s entourage arrived and was eating breakfast with the Arnolds when the warning letter arrived.
Arnold paused to say goodbye to his wife before taking one of his guest’s horses and escaping to the barge Vulture, moored down the river, which rowed him to New York City and the safety of Clinton’s headquarters. Margaret Shippen Arnold stalled Washington by falling into hysterics when he arrived, having received a letter from André himself fully confessing the plan.
Arnold was stunned to be treated shabbily by Clinton, who disliked Arnold personally and blamed him for the death of André, Clinton’s adjutant, and did not reward him for the failed venture. Now in British pay, and with the rank of brigadier, Arnold led a raid into Virginia in 1781, but accomplished little.
In 1782, he arranged to reunite with his wife and spent the winter in London, where he was reviled as a turncoat despite being praised by King George III. After the revolution ended, Arnold attempted to start a trading business in New Brunswick, but this failed, and he retired permanently to London on his army pension. Arnold’s last years were spent in bitterness at his treatment by the British and resentment at the failure of his plan to emerge as the savior of America.