Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies A-F » Benedict Arnold


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Benedict Arnold

      Some of Arnold's biographers have declared that he was a very vicious boy, and have chiefly illustrated this fact by painting him as a ruthless robber of birds'-nests. But a great many boys who began life by robbing birds'-nests have ended it much more creditably. The astonishing and interesting element in Benedict Arnold's career was what one might term the anomaly and incongruity of his treason. Born at Norwich, Conn., in 1741, he was blessed from his earliest years by wholesome parental influences. The education which he received was an excellent one, considering his colonial environment. Tales of his boyish pluck and hardihood cannot be disputed, while others that record his youthful cruelty are doubtless the coinings of slander. It is certain that in 1755, when the conflict known as "the old French war" first broke out, he gave marked proof of patriotism, though as yet the merest lad. Later, at the very beginning of the Revolution, he left his thriving business as a West India merchant in New Haven and headed a company of volunteers. Before the end of 1775 he had been made a commissioned colonel by the authorities of Massachusetts, and had marched through a sally-port, capturing the fortress of Ticonderoga, with tough old Ethan Allen at his side and 83 "Green Mountain Boys" behind him. Later, at the siege of Quebec, he behaved with splendid courage. Through great difficulties and hardships he dauntlessly led his band to the high-perched and almost impregnable town. Pages might be filled in telling how toilsome was this campaign, now requiring canoes and bateaux, now taxing the strength of its resolute little horde with rough rocks, delusive bogs and all those fiercest terrors of famine which lurk in a virgin wilderness. Bitter cold, unmerciful snow-falls, drift-clogged streams, pelting storms, were constant features of Arnold's intrepid march. When we realize the purely unselfish and disinterested motive of this march, which has justly been compared to that of Xenophon with his 10,000, and to the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow as well, we stand aghast at the possibility of its having been planned and executed by one who afterward became the basest of traitors.

      During the siege of Quebec Arnold was severely wounded, and yet he obstinately kept up the blockade even while he lay in the hospital, beset by obstacles, of which bodily pain was doubtless not the least. The arrival of General Wooster from Montreal with reinforcements rid Arnold, however, of all responsibility. Soon afterward the scheme of capturing Quebec and inducing the Canadas to join the cause of the United Colonies, came to an abrupt end. But in his desire to effect this purpose Arnold had identified himself with such lovers of their country as Washington, Schuyler, and Montgomery. And if the gallant Montgomery had then survived and Arnold had been killed, history could not sufficiently have eulogized him as a hero. Soon afterward he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and on October 11, 1776, while commanding a flotilla of small vessels on Lake Champlain, he gained new celebrity for courage. The enemy was greatly superior in number to Arnold's forces. "They had," says Bancroft, "more than twice his weight of metal and twice as many fighting vessels, and skilled seamen and officers against landsmen." Arnold was not victorious in this naval fray, but again we find him full of lion-like valor. He was in the Congress galley, and there with his own hands often aimed the cannon on its bloody decks against the swarming masses of British gunboats. Arnold's popularity was very much augmented by his fine exploits on Lake Champlain. "With consummate address," says Sparks, "he penetrated the enemy's lines and brought off his whole fleet, shattered and disabled as it was, and succeeded in saving six of his vessels, and, it might be added, most of his men." Again, at the battle of Danbury he tempted death countless times; and at Loudon's Ferry and Bemis's Heights his prowess and nerve were the perfection of martial merit. It has been stated by one or two historians of good repute that Arnold was not present at all during the battle of Saratoga; but the latest and most trustworthy researches on this point would seem to indicate that he commanded there with discretion and skill. He was now a major-general, but his irascible spirit had previously been hurt by the tardiness with which this honor was conferred upon him, five of his juniors having received it before himself. He strongly disliked General Gates, too, and quarrelled with him because of what he held to be unfair behavior during the engagement at Bemis's Heights. At Stillwater, a month or so later in the same year (1777), he issued orders without Gates's permission, and conducted himself on the field with a kind of mad frenzy, riding hither and thither and seeking the most dangerous spots. All concur in stating, however, that his disregard of life was admirable, in spite of its foolish rashness. In this action he was also severely wounded.

      One year later he was appointed to the command of Philadelphia, and here he married the daughter of a prominent citizen, Edward Shippen. This was his second marriage; he had been a widower for a number of years before its occurrence, and the father of three sons. Every chance was now afforded Arnold of wise and just rulership. In spite of past disputes and adventures not wholly creditable, he still presented before the world a fairly clean record, and whatever minor blemishes may have spotted his good name, these were obscured by the almost dazzling lustre of his soldierly career. But no sooner was he installed in his new position at Philadelphia than he began to show, with wilful perversity, those evil impulses which thus far had remained relatively latent. Almost as soon as he entered the town he disclosed to its citizens the most offensive traits of arrogance and tyranny. But this was not all. Not merely was he accused on every side of such faults as the improper issuing of passes, the closing of Philadelphia shops on his arrival, the imposition of menial offices upon the sons of freemen performing military duty, the use of wagons furnished by the State for transporting private property; but misdeeds of a far graver nature were traced to him, savoring of the criminality that prisons are built to punish. The scandalous gain with which he sought to fill a spendthrift purse caused wide and vehement rebuke. For a man of such high and peculiar place his commercial dabblings and speculative schemes argued most deplorably against him. There seems to be no doubt that he made personal use of the public moneys with which he was intrusted; that he secured by unworthy and illegal means a naval State prize, brought into port by a Pennsylvanian ship; and that he meditated the fitting up of a privateer, with intent to secure from the foe such loot on the high seas as piratical hazard would permit. His house in Philadelphia was one of the finest that the town possessed; he drove about in a carriage and four; he entertained with excessive luxury and a large retinue of servants; he revelled in all sorts of pompous parade. Such ostentation would have roused adverse comment amid the simple colonial surroundings of a century ago, even if he had merely been a citizen of extraordinary wealth. But being an officer intrusted with the most important dignities in a country both struggling for its freedom and impoverished as to funds, he now played a part of exceptional shame and folly.

      Naturally his arraignment before the authorities of the State soon followed. The Council of Pennsylvania tried him, and though their final verdict was an extremely gentle one, its very mildness of condemnation proved poison to his truculent pride. Washington, the commander-in-chief, reprimanded him, but with language of exquisite lenity. Still, Arnold never forgave the stab that was then so deservingly yet so pityingly dealt him.

      His colossal treason--one of the most monstrous in all the records of history, soon afterward began its wily work. Under the name of Gustavus he opened a correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, an English officer in command at New York. Sir Henry at once scented the sort of villainy which would be of vast use to his cause, however he might loathe and contemn its designer. He instructed his aide-de-camp, Major John Andre, to send cautious and pseudonymic replies. In his letters Arnold showed the burning sense of wrong from which he believed himself (and with a certain amount of justice) to be suffering. He had, when all is told, received harsh treatment from his country, considering how well he had served it in the past. Even Irving, that most dispassionate of historians, has called the action of the court-martial just mentioned an "extraordinary measure to prepossess the public mind against him." Beyond doubt, too, he had been repeatedly assailed by slanders and misstatements. The animosity of party feeling had more than once wrongfully assailed him, and his second marriage to the daughter of a man whose Tory sympathies were widely known had roused political hatreds, unsparing and headstrong.

      But these facts are merely touched upon to make more clear the motive of his infamous plot. Determined to give the enemy a great vantage in return for the pecuniary indemnity that he required of them, this unhappy man stooped low enough to ask and obtain from Washington, the command of West Point. Andre, who had for months written him letters in a disguised hand under the name of John Anderson, finally met him, one night, at the foot of a mountain about six miles below Stony Point, called the Long Clove. Arnold, with infinite cunning, had devised this meeting, and had tempted the adventurous spirit of Andre, who left a British man-of-war called the Vulture in order to hold converse with his fellow-conspirator. But before the unfortunate Andre could return to his ship (having completed his midnight confab and received from Arnold the most damning documentary evidence of treachery) the Vulture was fired upon from Teller's Point by a party of Americans, who had secretly carried cannon thither during the earlier night. Andre was thus deserted by his own countrymen, for the Vulture moved away and left him with a man named Joshua Smith, a minion in Arnold's employ. Of poor Andre's efforts to reach New York, of his capture and final pathetic execution, we need not speak. On his person, at the time of his arrest, was found a complete description of the West Point post and garrison--documentary evidence that scorched with indelible disgrace the name of the man who had supplied it.

      On September 25, 1780, Arnold escaped to a British sloop-of-war anchored below West Point. He was made a colonel in the English army, and is said to have received the sum of #6,315 as the price of his treachery. The command of a body of troops in Connecticut was afterward given him, and he then showed a rapacity and intolerance that well consorted with the new position he had so basely purchased. The odium of his injured countrymen spoke loudly throughout the land he had betrayed. He was burned in effigy countless times, and a growing generation was told with wrath and scorn the abhorrent tale of his turpitude. Meanwhile, as if by defiant self-assurance to wipe away the perfidy of former acts, he issued a proclamation to "the inhabitants of America," in which he strove to cleanse himself from blame. This address, teeming with flimsy protestations of patriotism, reviling Congress, vituperating France as a worthless and sordid ally of the Crown's rebellious subjects, met on all sides the most contemptuous derision. Arnold passed nearly all the remainder of his life--eleven years or thereabouts--in England. He died in London, worn out with a nervous disease, on June 14, 1801. It is a remarkable fact that his second wife, who had till the last remained faithful to him, suffered acutely at his death, and both spoke and wrote of him in accents of strongest bereavement.

      To the psychologic student of human character, Benedict Arnold presents a strangely fascinating picture. Elements of good were unquestionably factors of his mental being. But pride, revenge, jealousy, and an almost superhuman egotism fatally swayed him. He desired to lead in all things, and he had far too much vanity, far too little self-government, and not half enough true morality to lead with success and permanence in any. The wrongs which beyond doubt his country inflicted upon him he was incapable of bearing like a stoic. Virile and patriotic from one point of view, he was childish and weak-fibred from another. He has been likened to Marlborough, though by no means so great a soldier. Yet it is true that John Churchill won his dukedom by deserting his former benefactor, James II, and joining the Whig cause of William of Orange. If the Revolution had been crushed, we cannot blind our eyes to the fact that Arnold's treason would have received from history far milder dealing than is accorded it now. Even the radiant name of Washington would very probably have shone to us dimmed and blurred through a mist of calamity. Posterity may respect the patriot whose star sinks in unmerited failure, but it bows homage to him if he wages against despotism a victorious fight. Supposing that Arnold's surrender of West Point had extinguished that splendid spark of liberty which glowed primarily at Lexington and Bunker Hill, the chances are that he might have received an English peerage and died in all the odor of a distinction as brilliant as it would have been undeserved. The triumph of the American rebellion so soon after he had ignominiously washed his hands of it, sealed forever his own social doom. That, it is certain, was most severe and drastic. The money paid him by the British Government was accursed as were the thirty silver pieces of Iscariot; for his passion to speculate ruined him financially some time before the end of his life, and he breathed his last amid comparative poverty and the dread of still darker reverses.

      Extreme sensitiveness is apt to accompany a spirit of just his high-strung, petulant, and spleenful sort. Beyond doubt he must have suffered keen torments at the disdain with which he was everywhere met in English society, and chiefly among the military officers whom his very conduct, renegade though it was, had in a measure forced to recognize him. When Lord Cornwallis gave his sword to Washington, its point pierced Arnold's breast with a wound rankling and incurable. He had played for high stakes with savage and devilish desperation. Our national independence meant his future slavery; our priceless gain became his irretrievable loss. It is stated that as death approached him he grew excessively anxious about the risky and shattered state of his affairs. His mind wandered, as Mrs. Arnold writes, and he fancied himself once more fighting those battles which had brought him honor and fame. It was then that he would call for his old insignia of an American soldier and would desire to be again clothed in them. "Bring me, I beg of you," he is reported to have said, "the epaulettes and sword-knots which Washington gave me. Let me die in my old American uniform, the uniform in which I fought my battles!" And once, it is declared, he gave vent to these most significant and terrible words: "God forgive me for ever putting on any other!" That country which he forswore in the hour of its direst need can surely afford to forgive Benedict Arnold as well. Grown the greatest republic of which history keeps any record, America need not find it difficult both to forget the wretched frailties of this, her grossly misguided son, and at the same time to remember what services he performed for her while as yet his baleful qualities had not swept beyond all bounds of restraint.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.