Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
ARNOLD, BENEDICT, army officer and merchant; b. 14 Jan. 1741/42 in Norwich, Conn., son of Benedict Arnold, a merchant, and Hannah King, née Waterman; m. first 22 Feb. 1767 Margaret Mansfield of New Haven, Conn., and they had three sons; m. secondly 8 April 1779 Margaret (Peggy) Shippen of Philadelphia, Pa, and they had four sons and one daughter; d. 14 June 1801 in London, England.
The infamy that clings to Benedict Arnold in the American popular mind has obscured the remarkable life of a man who after George Washington was the ablest general in the Continental Army. Born into an old and distinguished New England family – an ancestor of the same name had been governor of Rhode Island in the previous century – Arnold watched his once prosperous father console himself for business failures with increasingly heavy drinking. A spirited and restless boy, he began an apprenticeship as an apothecary under two of his mother’s cousins, but in 1758 he ran away from home to enlist with a New York company serving in the Seven Years’ War. Although soon brought back at his mother’s request, he enlisted again in early 1760 and served in upper New York. With the conclusion of hostilities he returned to Norwich, only to find his family on the verge of ruin as a result of his father’s alcoholism. Resuming his training as an apothecary, he remained in Norwich until his father’s death in 1761. He then moved to New Haven, where, in addition to running an apothecary shop, he established a trading business. In the years before the revolution he travelled along the American coast and in the West Indies, trading lumber and horses for European manufactured goods, molasses, sugar, and rum. He also made several trips to Quebec, where he became well known as a “horse jockey.”
When the revolution broke out in 1775 Arnold was eager to defend colonial liberties against what he regarded as the oppressive policies of the British government. He reacted to news of the battle of Lexington in April by calling up his company of local militia – he had been elected captain a few months previously – and marching to Cambridge, Mass., to offer his services to his fellow patriots. There he proposed to the Massachusetts committee of safety that an attack be launched against Fort Ticonderoga (N.Y.) on Lake Champlain, arguing that “the place could not hold out an hour against a vigorous onset.” Convinced by Arnold that a successful assault on the fort would serve the twin purposes of capturing badly needed gunpowder and artillery and preventing a British advance along the lake and the Hudson River route, the committee accepted his proposal, gave him a commission as a colonel, and authorized him to raise 400 men for the expedition. Arnold then set out immediately for upper New York, leaving the job of recruiting to his subordinates.
Although successful in its objectives, the campaign against the British positions on Lake Champlain was a comic-opera affair. When Arnold arrived at Castleton (Vt) on 9 May, he met Ethan Allen and a group of his Green Mountain Boys. Shocked to learn that these “wild people” were also headed for Ticonderoga, engaged in an operation that had been sanctioned by Connecticut, Arnold insisted that Allen and his men place themselves under his command. After much squabbling, a compromise was worked out whereby Allen and Arnold agreed to become joint commanders of the expedition, with the understanding that Arnold would gradually assume sole authority as his recruits began arriving. The two rivals, leading a small band of roughly 100 men, then set out for Ticonderoga. Reaching their destination on the early morning of 10 May when the garrison was still sound asleep, Allen and Arnold simply walked into the fort and, without a shot being fired, received its surrender.
Immediately after the capture of Ticonderoga, small parties of men sent out by Arnold and Allen forced the surrender, again without resistance, of Crown Point (N.Y.) and Fort George (Lake George, N.Y.). By now, however, the two leaders were once more at each other’s throats, partly because of Arnold’s renewed attempts to acquire overall command and partly because of his efforts to halt plundering by Allen’s men. The turning-point in the dispute came on 18 May, when Arnold and some of his Massachusetts recruits raided Fort St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.). On his way back to Ticonderoga Arnold met Allen, who was going to the fort to conduct a raid of his own. Unlike Arnold, however, Allen was forced to retreat when British troops arrived from Montreal. Following this inglorious episode, Allen, his force dwindling rapidly, relinquished the command to Arnold. Soon afterwards a Connecticut force of 1,000 men under Colonel Benjamin Hinman arrived to reinforce Ticonderoga, and there then followed a predictable quarrel between Hinman and Arnold over who was in charge. Exasperated with the whole business, the Massachusetts authorities sent a committee to the region with instructions to transfer the command to Hinman and to investigate Arnold’s “spirit, capacity, and conduct.” Arnold’s response was prompt. Declaring that “he would not be second to any man” and that the committee’s instructions were “a most disgraceful reflection on him and the body of troops he commands,” on 24 June he resigned his commission and a couple of weeks later returned to Massachusetts.
Another opportunity to serve the colonial cause was not long in coming. In June 1775, while he was still on Lake Champlain, Arnold had crossed into Quebec to determine the strength of British defences. Upon his return he informed Congress that an army of 2,000 men could mount a successful invasion of the colony, and that according to a friend in Montreal “great numbers of Canadians . . . are determined to join us whenever we appear in the Country with any force to support them.” This report and similar ones from sympathizers and agents inside Quebec produced results. Congress, which had earlier opposed proposals for an invasion of Quebec, now embraced the view that such an invasion would strike a severe blow at the British position in North America and at the same time block any attempt on the part of the enemy to advance down the Hudson. On 27 June, accordingly, Major-General Philip John Schuyler, commander of the troops in upper New York, was instructed to proceed into Quebec by way of Lake Champlain and the Rivière Richelieu. Later that summer, when Schuyler’s army was preparing to depart, Arnold received orders from George Washington to lead another expedition along the Kennebec and Dead rivers (Maine) and then along the Rivière Chaudière to the town of Quebec, which he was to attempt to surprise.
Arnold’s famous march to Quebec should more accurately be called the swim through Maine. On 19 September an army of about 1,100 men embarked in transports from Newburyport, Mass., for the mouth of the Kennebec. Reaching the river the next day, the little fleet then sailed to Fort Western (Augusta, Maine), where 200 boats had been built for the expedition by a local inhabitant. Arnold thought that these boats had been “badly, very badly built,” and one of his officers described them as “little better than common rafts.” Late in September the long journey up the Kennebec began. By the time the soldiers reached the Norridgewock Falls in early October, many of the boats were “nothing but wrecks” and a large part of the provisions had been damaged. By 20 October the Great Carrying Place between the Kennebec and Dead rivers had been crossed, but the men now had to contend with a violent storm and severe flood waters, and a part of the force turned back. Towards the end of the month the others, so hungry that dogs, candles, and shoes were being eaten, reached the Chaudière. A number of boats were soon lost in this turbulent, rock-strewn river, but the men persevered and on 30 October, when they reached the Rivière Famine, signs of civilization were again seen. During the following week Arnold’s force, now reduced to under 700 men, plodded steadily onwards, reaching Sainte-Marie on 6 November and Pointe-Lévy (Lauzon and Lévis), just opposite Quebec, two days later. Abner Stocking, one of many individuals who had somehow found time to keep a journal on the trip, wrote that on arriving at Quebec the men’s clothes “were torn in pieces by the bushes, and hung in strings – few of us had any shoes, but moggasons made of raw skins – many of us without hats – and beards long and visages thin and meagre. I thought we much resembled the animals which inhabit New Spain, called the Ourang-Outang.” Still, thanks largely to Arnold’s determination and inspiring leadership, the journey had been completed. In a letter written in late November Arnold asserted that the march was “not to be paralleled in history.”
Despite the tattered condition of his force, Arnold was convinced that the fall of Quebec was inevitable. His confidence was not entirely misplaced, since Governor Guy Carleton and most of the regular troops of the Quebec garrison had left to meet the American army advancing from the south. However, strong winds prevented Arnold from crossing the St Lawrence until the night of 13 November, and by that time a small force of Royal Highland Emigrants under Allan Maclean* had returned to Quebec to reinforce the garrison. Undeterred, Arnold quartered his troops in farm buildings belonging to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Caldwell, commander of the British militia at Quebec. During the next few days, Arnold reported to Washington, the American troops “marched up several times near the walls, in hopes of drawing them out but to no effect.” Twice an officer bearing a flag of truce was sent to the town with a letter demanding immediate surrender, but each time this messenger was fired upon as he approached the walls – an action that Arnold denounced as “contrary to humanity and the laws of nations.” On the 18th Arnold inspected his supply of arms and ammunition, and to his surprise discovered that a large number of the cartridges were unusable and that there were no more than five pounds of ammunition for each man. Learning that Maclean was planning an attack, and this at a time when many of the Americans were “invalids, and almost naked and wanting every thing to make them comfortable,” Arnold decided to retire to Pointe-aux-Trembles (Neuville), about 20 miles west of Quebec. Here he planned to await reinforcements from the south before taking any further action.
Within the town itself, countering disaffection amongst the local population was as serious a problem as guarding against an enemy attack. Disappointed by the Quebec Act of 1774, the English-speaking merchants of the colony were inclined to sympathize with the American cause, and the very group that the act had been designed to benefit – the Canadians – showed only lukewarm loyalty. When Carleton, slipping unnoticed past the American forces, returned to Quebec on 19 November, he criticized “the blind Perverseness of this People, who frustrate all His Paternal Intentions for their own Protection, Interest, and Happiness, by an unprecedented Defection without even pretending the least Cause of Complaint.” As for the town of Quebec, Carleton feared that its fate, because of the “many Enemies within,” was “extremely doubtful, to say nothing worse.” To eliminate this fifth column, he issued a proclamation ordering those who refused to perform their militia duties to “quit the Town in four Days.”
The situation improved somewhat in the American camp with the arrival on 3 December of Richard Montgomery*, who had replaced Schuyler as commander of the other invasion force. During the preceding two months Montgomery had achieved everything expected of him, capturing in succession Fort Chambly, Fort St Johns, Montreal, and Sorel. Yet not everything had gone well. Leading an army that had been reduced in size from 2,000 to 800 men by the expiry of terms of enlistment, Montgomery had been forced to march to Quebec with only 300 soldiers, the remainder having been left behind to garrison Montreal. The result was that Montgomery and Arnold could muster an army which, with reinforcements of some 200 Canadian volunteers, numbered only 1,200 men; in contrast, by the end of November Quebec was defended by a force of roughly 1,800. Together Arnold and Montgomery – with Montgomery in command – led their army from Pointe-aux-Trembles to Quebec on 4 December. Taking up a position near the town, Montgomery sent an address to Carleton urging him to surrender. Predictably, this overture was ignored. A confident Arnold informed Washington that the American army was “making all possible preparation to attack the city, which has a wretched motley garrison of disaffected seamen, marines and inhabitants; the walls in a ruinous situation, and cannot hold out long.” Several factors militated against a prolonged siege of Quebec: a smallpox epidemic was wreaking havoc in the American ranks; the enlistment term of Arnold’s troops was due to expire on 31 December; the small size of the American force made it seem unlikely that an effective blockade of the town could be maintained; and, most important, British reinforcements would undoubtedly arrive as soon as the spring thaw permitted navigation of the St Lawrence. All these considerations convinced Montgomery that his army should storm Quebec as soon as possible, and a council of war held on 16 December settled on precisely this course of action. The original plan called for simultaneous attacks on the Upper and Lower towns, but it was soon decided, after some Americans had deserted to the enemy, to abandon this plan in favour of a two-pronged assault on Lower Town. According to the new strategy, diversionary attacks were to be made against Upper Town, while Montgomery and Arnold proceeded into Lower Town from Cap Diamant and Saint-Roch respectively. Upon joining forces, they would attempt to fight their way along Rue de la Montague into Upper Town. Alternatively, and preferable from the American point of view, the presence of enemy troops inside the city would lead Carleton to move out of the strong fortifications of Upper Town and give battle in the streets below.
The attack on Quebec was planned for the first stormy night, but for the next two weeks clear weather prevented the Americans from making their move. Finally, on the night of 30–31 December, a blinding snowstorm gave them their opportunity. Leading about 200 men, Montgomery advanced from Cap Diamant to Près-de-Ville, while Arnold and a force of 600 marched from Saint-Roch to the Rue du Sault-au-Matelot. What followed can only be described as a complete rout of the American army. Thanks to information supplied by deserters, the defenders of Quebec had known of American intentions for some time, and they turned out in force when the enemy was seen advancing. At Près-de-Ville a body of British seamen and Canadian militia which included John Coffin surprised Montgomery’s troops, killing several Americans, including Montgomery himself, and forcing the invaders to retreat. Arnold’s division was no more successful. After passing Porte du Palais, where they were fired upon by sailors positioned on the bluffs above, the troops continued on to a battery. Here Arnold was wounded in the leg, and Daniel Morgan assumed command. While Arnold, urging his men to press on, was carried back to the Hôpital Général, Morgan fought his way past the battery and entered Lower Town. Dissension now broke out amongst the American officers over what course to follow, with Morgan in favour of an immediate advance and other officers wanting to move no farther until Montgomery arrived with reinforcements. Morgan eventually won and the attack was renewed, but by then the defenders had turned back the Americans at Près-de-Ville and were able to concentrate their force at the other end of Lower Town. After encountering a second barrier, defended by forces under Caldwell and John Nairne, Morgan’s men decided to retreat, but a body of troops attacked them from the rear and forced them to surrender. As Carleton said, the Americans had been “compleatly ruined . . . caught as it were in a Trap.” Rebel casualties numbered between 60 and 100 killed and wounded, and about 400 soldiers had been captured; the defenders of Quebec lost only about 20 men.
Luckily for the Americans, Carleton was too cautious a commander to press on and attack the American position outside Quebec. As for Arnold, he was only too aware of his army’s vulnerable position. Although he boasted that “I have no thoughts of leaving this proud town, until I first enter it in triumph,” he also informed Brigadier-General David Wooster, the American commander at Montreal, that the troops at Quebec were in a “miserable condition” to receive a counter-attack. This situation was to change little in the months ahead. In late January and early February 1776 about 200 troops arrived from Montreal, and by April 1,700 more reinforcements had crossed the border into Quebec. But because of desertions and expiring enlistments, the total strength of Arnold’s army remained under 2,000, of whom only half were fit for duty. With such a small force, a second attack on Quebec was out of the question; Arnold himself had told Congress on 11 January that at least 3,000 more troops would be needed for a siege, or 5,000 more for an assault. Yet surprisingly, even with the pathetically small army under his command, Arnold kept up a bombardment of the city and at the same time cut off the garrison from the surrounding countryside. Admittedly, the damage caused by American cannon was minimal, but the blockade was a success by any standard. In March a worried Carleton informed the home government that fuel was “much wanted,” provisions were scarce, and some people in the city were “in great Distress.”
In recognition of Arnold’s services during the assault on Quebec, Congress had appointed him a brigadier-general on 10 Jan. 1776. That April Wooster assumed the command at Quebec and Arnold was transferred to Montreal. Just over a month later British reinforcements under Charles Douglas* reached Quebec, and the American troops, now led by Major-General John Thomas, retreated hastily to Sorel. At Montreal, meanwhile, Arnold had more than his share of problems. On 29 April three commissioners of Congress – Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, and Benjamin Franklin – arrived with instructions to win the support of the Canadian population. This task was hopeless from the start. After the débâcle of 31 December, the Canadians had grown noticeably less enthusiastic about the invasion, and in the next few months their attitude changed to one of open hostility as the American army began commandeering supplies and insisting on the use of paper currency. The situation was particularly bad in Montreal, for here Wooster had conducted an idiotic crusade to overawe the populace by closing “Mass Houses” and by arresting a number of prominent Canadians whom he thought to be pro-British. The fruits of this policy were noted by Colonel Moses Hazen, who observed that the Canadian peasantry in the Montreal area were “waiting an opportunity to join our enemies,” while the “better sort of people . . . would wish to see our throats cut, and perhaps would readily assist in doing it.” The congressional commissioners attempted to rectify matters by cultivating the good will of the nobility and clergy and by establishing a printing press to spread the American message [see Fleury Mesplet*], but their efforts were in vain – as were those of Arnold himself. At first Arnold had adopted a lenient policy towards the Canadians, releasing the persons whom Wooster had imprisoned and respecting property rights whenever possible. However, he too soon gave up all hope that the local population could be won to the American side. Arguing that the Canadians should be “coerced, as I am convinced that they are in general our bitter enemies,” Arnold secured from the commissioners authority to seize property and to pay for it in paper currency. In the event that his troops had to evacuate Montreal and were hindered from doing so by the populace, Arnold intended to burn the city to the ground.
Arnold had other problems as well. On 19 May the American garrison at Les Cèdres, a post located west of Montreal between Lake St Francis and Lac Saint-Louis, surrendered to a force of Indians, Canadians, and British regulars under Captain George Forster, the commander at Fort Oswegatchie (Ogdensburg, N.Y.). The following day a band of Indians and Canadians, the latter led by Jean-Baptiste-Jérémie Testard de Montigny, captured a detachment of American troops whom Arnold had sent to reinforce Les Cèdres. With his prisoners in tow, Forster began to march towards Montreal, but he was compelled to retreat when he learned that Arnold and 600 troops had entrenched themselves at Lachine. Setting off in pursuit, Arnold came within sight of the enemy just outside Vaudreuil. Here he discovered not only that the captured American officers had arranged an exchange of prisoners with the British, but also that under the terms of this “cartel” the freed Americans were prohibited from taking up arms again – a restriction that was not to apply to the British side. What was even more galling, when Arnold warned that he would punish the Indians severely if they refused to give up their prisoners, the Indians retorted that in the event of an American attack “they would immediately kill every prisoner, and give no quarter to any who should fall into their hands hereafter.” Backed into a corner, Arnold agreed to sign the cartel on the condition, which Forster accepted, that the clause relating to the military service of the freed soldiers was deleted. He then left for Montreal, while Forster made his way back to Oswegatchie.
The American army was now in desperate straits. “Neglected by Congress below . . . ,” Arnold wrote in a letter of 31 May, “distressed with the small-pox; want of Generals and discipline in our Army, which may rather be called a great rabble . . . our credit and reputation lost, and great part of the country; and a powerful foreign enemy advancing upon us, – are so many difficulties we cannot surmount them.” By this time more than 5,000 reinforcements had arrived under Brigadier-General John Sullivan, but it was all too little too late. Soon after Sullivan reached Sorel and assumed command of the American army, some 10,000 British and German regulars under Carleton began advancing southwards. Determined to mount a counter-offensive, Sullivan sent 2,200 troops against Trois-Rivières, which it was thought was defended by only 800 regulars and Canadians; however, when the Americans reached the town they discovered that the garrison there had been reinforced by 7,000 soldiers from Carleton’s army. A short battle ensued in which the Americans were badly beaten, losing more than 200 men as prisoners and about 50 dead and wounded. When Arnold heard that Sullivan wanted to remain in Sorel until the British were upon him, he urged his superior to reconsider: “I am fully of the opinion not one minute ought to be lost in securing our retreat. . . . Let us quit [Quebec], and secure our own country before it is too late.” After some hesitation, Sullivan accepted Arnold’s advice and withdrew from Sorel on 14 June. A day or two later Arnold evacuated Montreal upon learning that a British fleet commanded by Carleton was approaching the city. By the 17th both Sullivan and Arnold had arrived at Fort St Johns. Here, with the British hard on their heels, the two officers decided to retreat to Crown Point. Characteristically, Arnold stayed behind until the very last moment. After all the troops had set off, Arnold and an aide, Captain James Wilkinson, rode out on horseback to determine the position of the British. When they spotted John Burgoyne*’s soldiers, they hurried back to the fort, shot their horses, and boarded the last remaining boat. Arnold’s insistence on pushing off this boat himself led Wilkinson to comment tersely on his general’s determination to be “the last man who embarked from the shores of the enemy.”
So ended the American struggle for the “fourteenth colony.” In studying the invasion, American historians have generally concentrated on matters of detail: the small size of the army, the ravages of smallpox, the unwillingness of the Canadians to commit themselves to the revolutionary cause. A more crucial matter has been ignored: the fuzzy thinking that surrounded the campaign as a whole. The overall objective had been clear from the outset. The campaign had been intended to strike a blow at Britain’s position in North America and to block any British attempt to use Quebec as a base from which to invade the Thirteen Colonies. Yet congressional and military leaders had never assessed the problems that would be faced by an American army in Quebec. Predictions about the reaction of the local population were always wildly optimistic. Moreover, the results of an anticipated British counter-offensive were not seriously considered. If their army had been larger, and better supplied, the Americans might have performed more effectively against Burgoyne and Carleton than they did; but in the end a superior British force would have prevailed. All that the campaign accomplished – and perhaps the importance of this should not be underestimated – was to give the Thirteen Colonies some valuable breathing-space before Britain launched an attack on them from the north.
Arnold did not have time to ruminate over the mistakes of the past. Immediately after the Americans had been driven across the border, Carleton set his sights on regaining control of Lake Champlain, and to achieve this objective he instructed Charles Douglas and other naval officers to supervise the construction of a fleet at Fort St Johns. On the American side, Major-General Horatio Gates gave Arnold the task of building a navy on Lake Champlain capable of blocking the British offensive. Throughout the summer of 1776 Arnold, from a base at the southern end of the lake, worked tirelessly to create a navy from nothing. Despite his complaint that “we have a wretched motley Crew, in the Fleet; the Marines the Refuse of every Regiment, and the Seamen, few of them, ever wet with salt Water,” he did succeed in building up a respectable little force consisting of two schooners, four galleys, eight gondolas, and several smaller vessels.
In early September, ignoring Gates’s orders to conduct a purely defensive campaign, Arnold sailed with a number of his boats to the upper end of the lake, eventually anchoring 25 miles above Fort St Johns. Enemy batteries soon forced him to retreat southwards, and on 23 September he took up a position off Valcour Island (N.Y.). Things then remained quiet until 11 October, when a large British fleet of more than 20 vessels, commanded by Carleton himself, rounded the southern tip of Valcour Island and detected the American force. Believing that he could never outsail the faster British fleet, Arnold resolved to give battle. In the ensuing engagement the Americans fared badly, and that night Arnold executed a daring retreat under cover of darkness. The next day, Carleton, furious to learn that the Americans were nowhere in sight, set off in chase and caught up with Arnold’s flotilla at Split Rock Point (near Essex, N.Y.), about 14 miles from Valcour Island. After a short battle during which the American force continued to retreat gradually, Arnold ran his boats ashore and set them ablaze; he then led his men to Crown Point. Without question, the Americans had suffered a serious defeat, losing virtually their entire fleet. Yet the British victory was a hollow one, for the time spent in constructing a navy meant that an offensive into the northern colonies would have to be postponed until the following year. As for Arnold, his superiors were almost speechless when they heard of his exploits. Gates wrote to Schuyler: “It has pleased Providence to preserve General Arnold. Few men ever met with so many hairbreadth escapes in so short a time.”
Arnold did not see further action until 1777, when he assisted in repulsing a British raid against Danbury, Conn. Here he again displayed the courage for which he was by now famous, and in appreciation of his “gallant conduct” Congress presented him with a horse, “properly caparisoned.” That July he resigned his commission because of a quarrel with Congress over his rank, but on the urging of Washington he withdrew his resignation and proceeded north to help deal with Burgoyne’s invasion force, then advancing through northern New York. Upon reaching Schuyler’s base at Stillwater, N.Y., Arnold learned that an expedition sent to relieve Fort Stanwix (Rome, N.Y.), which was besieged by an army of British regulars, loyalists, and Indians under Barrimore Matthew St Leger*, had been turned back at Oriskany. Well aware of the importance of Fort Stanwix – its capture would lead the loyalists of the area to join forces with Burgoyne – Arnold volunteered to lead a second relief expedition. On 10 August he set out from Stillwater, and by the 21st he had arrived at Fort Dayton (Herkimer, N.Y.). Assuring Gates that “you will hear of my being victorious, or no more,” he issued a proclamation denouncing St Leger’s “banditti of robbers, murderers, and traitors” and promising a pardon to all loyalists who surrendered within ten days. This offer was ignored, but Arnold then employed a ruse which, in the end, made battle unnecessary. On the suggestion of one of his officers, he instructed a simpleton by the name of Hon Yost Schuyler to mingle with St Leger’s Indians and spread rumours of the vast size of the American army. Hon Yost played his part to the hilt, and the panic he caused forced a general retreat by St Leger and his allies.
Fresh from this triumph, Arnold rejoined the northern army, now commanded by Gates, at Bemis Heights. As eager as ever for battle, he urged Gates to attack Burgoyne’s force, which in mid September crossed the Hudson River and began marching southwards along the western bank. Gates, however, preferred to conduct a defensive campaign and ordered Arnold to remain at headquarters. Despite his cautious strategy, the two armies did clash on 19 September at Freeman’s Farm. Arnold’s detachment took part in this battle, but historians are divided as to whether Arnold himself was present. Whatever the case, there can be no doubt about his role in the next, decisive engagement of the campaign. On the morning of 7 October Burgoyne’s troops launched another attack against the American lines. Ignoring Gates’s orders – by now they were not even on speaking terms – Arnold rode out to join the battle. In a striking display of courage, he personally led an assault that resulted in the capture of an enemy redoubt. Shot in the same leg that had been wounded at Quebec, Arnold was taken back to the military hospital at Albany, where he promptly began denouncing the surgeons “as a set of ignorant pretenders.” Yet, though he was in a mood to complain, his spirits must have been lightened by the knowledge of what he had accomplished. With the taking of the redoubt the British had been placed in an impossible position and Burgoyne had opened negotiations for surrender. On the 17th the British laid down their arms and the Saratoga campaign – probably the most important in the Revolutionary War – came to an end. Burgoyne himself blamed his defeat on Arnold, and many military historians take the same view.
As it happened, Arnold was never again to see action in an American uniform. The story of his treason is well known, and only a brief summary of the facts can be presented here. In 1780, just after joining the British, Arnold published an address to the American public in which he put forward two arguments to justify his decision to change sides: first, that he had never supported the idea of independence but merely had wished for a redress of legitimate colonial grievances; and second, that he was simply not able to continue supporting the American cause once an alliance with France, “the enemy of the Protestant faith,” had been concluded. This apologia, however, cannot be taken seriously, for prior to 1780 Arnold had not given the slightest indication that he was opposed either to colonial independence or to the French alliance. A more convincing explanation for his treason can be found if attention is paid to some of the personal problems he experienced during the war. From an early date Arnold’s arrogance had made him a number of enemies, and in 1776 he had had to defend himself publicly against accusations of misconduct levelled by two lower-ranking officers, Moses Hazen and John Brown. Congress eventually cleared Arnold of these charges, but in other ways it too proved to be a thorn in his side. In February 1777 Arnold’s pride was deeply wounded when Congress appointed five of his fellow brigadiers-general to the rank of major-general; soon afterwards, following the engagement at Danbury, Arnold also received the long-awaited promotion to major-general, but it was only in January 1778 that his seniority was restored above the other five officers. Later that year Arnold was made commander at Philadelphia, recently evacuated by British forces. Here he married the young Margaret Shippen, daughter of a former chief justice of Pennsylvania and a woman whose beauty was allegedly to dazzle George III. But in Philadelphia he again incurred the enmity of many important people, and in early 1779 the Pennsylvania Council charged him with using his military office for private gain. Although a committee of Congress exonerated him, Congress itself ignored the committee’s report and proceeded with a court martial. This body found evidence to substantiate two of the charges and suggested to Washington that Arnold be reprimanded. Reluctantly, Washington complied.
For Arnold, the Philadelphia imbroglio was the last straw. Convinced that a man of his talents deserved better treatment, in May 1779 he began sending military intelligence to the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, using as intermediaries the loyalists Joseph Stansbury and Jonathan Odell. By the following year the game had advanced one stage farther, with Arnold’s request for command of the strategically important garrison at West Point, N.Y. An unsuspecting Washington granted his wish in August 1780, and shortly afterwards Clinton agreed to pay Arnold £20,000 if he were able to arrange the surrender of West Point. At a clandestine meeting on 22 September, Arnold and Major John André, Clinton’s aide-de-camp, conferred over how the surrender was to be accomplished. The following day André was captured by a rebel patrol and the incriminating papers in his possession were forwarded to Washington, who was on his way to West Point to meet with Arnold! Incredibly, Arnold too had learned of André’s capture and, a mere hour before Washington’s arrival, he fled down the Hudson aboard his personal barge. Washington, shocked and cruelly disappointed at the treason of a man he greatly admired, sent an aide-de-camp after Arnold, but it was too late: the former American officer reached the safety of the armed sloop Vulture and made his way to New York City. André, however, was not so fortunate, being hanged as a spy on 2 October. Following the execution Washington wrote: “I am mistaken if Arnold is not undergoing at this time the torments of a mental hell.”
For his defection, Arnold was awarded a lump sum of £6,315 and an annual pension of £360; he was made a brigadier-general in the British forces, with an annual income of several hundred pounds; and he was authorized to raise a loyalist battalion, in which his sons also received commissions. The next couple of years gave him little opportunity to display his military abilities, but he and his unit, the American Legion, did participate in marauding expeditions into Virginia and Connecticut. In December 1781, having abandoned all hope of a future for himself in the colonies, he moved with his family to England. There, although he was consulted on the course of the war, he was unable to obtain the military employment he wanted so badly. In 1785 he submitted a memorial to the loyalist claims commission, recounting why he had decided to join the British army and requesting compensation for the £30,000 he claimed he had lost as a result of this decision. He soon asked that his memorial be withdrawn, mainly because his wife had just received a pension of £360. By now Arnold was determined to make a large fortune that would guarantee his family’s future, and either in late 1785 or early 1786 he immigrated to New Brunswick with the intention of resuming the occupation of a West Indian trader. From his point of view this move had much to offer, since with the closing of the West Indies to American shipping after 1783 the trade of British North America with that market had increased significantly.
“Give you joy of the acquisition,” wrote Sampson Salter Blowers* in a letter informing Ward Chipman* that Arnold had landed in Halifax and was on his way to Saint John, This comment was typical of the reception Arnold was to receive in his new home. Shortly after arriving in Saint John he established a trading partnership with his son Richard and Monson Hayt, a former loyalist officer whom he had met in New York. Using a ship constructed by Nehemiah Beckwith of Maugerville, the firm conducted a profitable trade with the West Indies, and Arnold was soon secure enough financially to send home for his wife. As before, however, he continued to be enmeshed in controversy. Widely unpopular amongst the loyalists because of the honours that had been showered upon him, Arnold did nothing to improve matters by provoking a storm of litigation in the small, tightly knit community of Saint John. His firm launched several suits against its debtors, and Arnold himself sued Edward Winslow in 1789. At about the same time Hayt and Arnold dissolved their partnership and became involved in a complicated series of legal actions. The most significant of these concerned Hayt’s charge that a fire which destroyed the firm’s store in July 1788 had been deliberately set by Arnold for the sake of the insurance money. Arnold promptly sued for slander and the case went to trial before judges Isaac Allan and Joshua Upham in September 1791, with Hayt being represented by Elias Hardy* and Arnold by Chipman and Jonathan Bliss*. The jury found Hayt guilty but, reflecting the prevalent animosity towards Arnold, awarded damages of only 20 shillings. Thus insulted, Arnold soon afterwards returned to England.
This was not the end of Arnold’s connection with British North America. In 1794 Arnold and three of his sons petitioned the Executive Council of Upper Canada for a township grant. The council set aside this request, noting that the grant would be awarded when the petitioners took up residence in the colony. By the late 1790s Arnold’s sons Richard and Henry had moved to Upper Canada and taken up lands in Wolford and Augusta townships. Arnold himself never considered venturing into “that Inhospitable Wilderness,” but he continued none the less to petition far sizeable chunks of Upper Canadian land as a reward for past services. Convinced that “there is no other Man in England, who has made so great Sacrifices as I have done of Property, Rank, Prospects &c., in support of Government, and no Man who has received less in Return!,” Arnold petitioned in 1797 for a grant to his family of 50,000 acres. When told that such demands were excessive, he replied that he would be satisfied with 5,000 acres for himself and 1,200 acres for each member of his family. At this point the Home Department turned for advice to John Graves Simcoe, the former lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. In a letter of 26 March 1798, Simcoe warned the Home secretary, the Duke of Portland, that Arnold was “a character extremely obnoxious to the original Loyalists of America,” but he also observed that there was no legal impediment to granting his petition – provided his demands were scaled down considerably. Soon afterwards Simcoe wrote another letter to Portland in which he argued that to avoid setting a dangerous precedent – other individuals with no intention of settling in the colony might be encouraged by Arnold’s example – the petition should be granted at the behest of the crown rather than by the colonial authorities alone. Portland accepted this advice and on 12 June 1798 instructed Peter Russell, the administrator of Upper Canada, to award Arnold a grant of 13,400 acres “on the usual terms and conditions, that of residence alone excepted.” On 29 October of the following year these lands – situated in the townships of Gwillimbury East and Gwillimbury North – were granted to Arnold by order in council.
Arnold’s last years in England were miserable ones. He still was unable to obtain a military command, and in July 1792 he had to fight a duel with the Earl of Lauderdale after the latter had impugned his honour in the House of Lords. In 1793, in a bid to improve his financial position, he again established a West Indian trading company. The following year he was captured on Guadeloupe by French forces but soon escaped. He then worked for a time as a volunteer under Sir Charles Grey, the British army commander in the West Indies, acting as an agent of West Indian commercial interests and assisting in the supply service; his conduct during this period was responsible for Portland’s decision to grant his request for land in Upper Canada. Returning to England in 1795, he tried his hand at privateering but suffered heavy losses. Towards the end of his life he was plagued with ill health. When he died on 14 June 1801, his wife Margaret offered a sad comment on his last years: “For his own sake the change is a most happy one, as the disappointment of all his [pecuniary] expectations, with the numerous vexations and mortifications he has endured, had so broken his spirits and destroyed his nerves, that he has been for a long time past incapable of the smallest enjoyment.” Arnold was buried in the crypt of St Mary’s, Battersea (London), where his wife was also buried three years later. In his will he bequeathed his estate to Margaret, though he also made provision for his sister Hannah and his sons Richard and Henry; John Sage, an illegitimate son he had fathered (apparently in New Brunswick), was left 1,200 acres of land in Upper Canada and a small annuity. The claims against the estate were so great, however, that Margaret had little left over after paying the debts.
Benedict Arnold certainly had his flaws. A vain, arrogant, and stubborn man, he was not capable of the tact that was important in both civilian and military life. He also was sensitive and proud, so proud in fact that he could not rise above his misfortunes by taking a lofty, stoical attitude; instead, as his treason demonstrated perfectly, he agonized over insults and slights to his honour, waiting for the day when revenge would be his. Yet, if Arnold was not a great man, there can be no doubt concerning his abilities as a military officer. He was an inspiring leader of men, whether he was conducting his troops through the Maine wilderness or mounting a charge against a British redoubt at Bemis Heights. In addition, he was brave to the point of recklessness. During the Quebec invasion, the naval engagement on Lake Champlain, the Saratoga campaign, the battle at Danbury – at all these times Arnold showed how remarkably courageous he really was, and his men admired him for it. Unfortunately, because of his treason, Arnold’s accomplishments on the field of battle were quickly forgotten. In one sense, this was unfair, for Arnold was only one of many to change sides during the course of the war. Moreover, since the revolutionary government was too young a creature to have acquired any genuine legitimacy before 1783, Arnold, and others like him, could easily defend their treason by arguing that they were simply returning to their original allegiance. But of course, Arnold was not an ordinary traitor – he was Washington’s ablest general, admired by Americans and British alike. He was also a traitor who compounded his crime with treachery, accepting money in exchange for military intelligence and the surrender of an American garrison. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, in the American popular mind, Arnold’s name has become a byword for treason and deceit. Every revolution needs a villain, or set of villains, who somehow personify disloyalty to the national cause, and in Benedict Arnold the American people found what they were looking for.
PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 11–12; RG 1, L3, 1: A1/28–29, 45; 3: A5/24. PRO, CO 42/285: 195–205, 218–34; 42/321: 206–19, 222–26, 232. Ainslie, Canada preserved (Cohen). American arch. (Clarke and Force), 4th ser., vols.2–6; 5th ser., 1–3. [Charles Carroll], Journal of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, during his visit to Canada in 1776, as one of the commissioners from Congress, ed. Brantz Mayer (Baltimore, Md., 1845). Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter), vol.2. [Jacob Danford], “Quebec under siege, 1775–1776: the ‘memorandums’ of Jacob Danford,” ed. J. F. Roche, CHR, 50 (1969): 68–85. [Hugh Finlay], “Journal of the siege and blockade of Quebec by the American rebels, in autumn 1775 and winter 1776,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Hist. Docs. (Quebec), 4th ser. (1875): –25. Letters of members of the Continental Congress, ed. E. C. Burnett (8v., Washington, 1921–36), 1–2. March to Quebec: journals of the members of Arnold’s expedition, ed. K. L. Roberts (New York, 1938). U.S., Continental Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford et al. (34v., Washington, 1904–37), 4–5, 7. M. M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American revolution (rev. ed., New York, 1974). DAB. DCB, vol.4 (biogs. of Sir Charles Douglas and Richard Montgomery). DNB. Reid, Loyalists in Ont. I. N. Arnold, The life of Benedict Arnold; his patriotism and his treason (Chicago, 1888). B. R. Boylan, Benedict Arnold: the dark eagle (New York, 1973). J. T. Flexner, The traitor and the spy: Benedict Arnold and John André (New York, 1953). D. S. Freeman, George Washington: a biography (7v., New York, 1948–), 3–5. C. G. Robinson, Pioneer profiles of New Brunswick settlers (Belleville, Ont., 1980). J. H. Smith, Our struggle for the fourteenth colony: Canada and the American revolution (2v., New York, 1907). Stanley, Canada invaded. J. G. Taylor, Some new light on the later life and last resting place of Benedict Arnold and of his wife Margaret Shippen (London, 1931). Carl Van Doren, Secret history of the American revolution . . . (New York, 1941). W. M. Wallace, Traitorous hero; the life and fortunes of Benedict Arnold (New York, ). A. T. Mahan, “The naval campaign of 1776 on Lake Champlain,” Scribner’s Magazine (New York and London), 23 (January–June 1898): 147–60. E. L. Teed, “Footprints of Benedict Arnold, late major-general congressional army of the American colonies, late brigadier-general British army,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., no.20 (1971): 57–97. L. B. Walker, “Life of Margaret Shippen, wife of Benedict Arnold,” Pa. Magazine of Hist. and Biog. (Philadelphia), 24 (1900): 257–66, 401–29; 25 (1901): 20–46, 145–90, 289–302, 457–97; 26 (1902): 71–80, 224–44, 322–34, 464–68.
© 1983–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Curtis Fahey, “ARNOLD, BENEDICT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/arnold_benedict_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Curtis Fahey|
|Title of Article:||ARNOLD, BENEDICT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|