Benedict Arnold was a U.S military leader in the Continental Army who initially fought for America but later sold out his country by joining the British Army. This happened in 1780...
Category: Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with the term “traitor” in American history. Yet, the complexity of his life, marked by extraordinary military successes and profound personal disappointments, paints a more nuanced picture.
Born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut, and dying on June 14, 1801, in London, England, Arnold’s life journey was one of dramatic highs and lows.
Benedict Arnold was born into a relatively well-off family, but the early deaths of several siblings and the collapse of the family’s business fortunes meant a reduced circumstance for young Arnold. Though initially apprenticed to an apothecary, Arnold’s restless spirit led him to leave home and eventually start a successful pharmacy and general goods business in New Haven, Connecticut.
With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, Arnold was quick to join the Revolutionary cause. He played a pivotal role in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, a key strategic point. However, tensions between Arnold and Ethan Allen, who also claimed credit for the capture, marked the beginning of Arnold’s disputes with fellow officers and superiors—a recurring theme in his military career.
In 1775, Arnold proposed and led the daring Quebec Expedition, a trek through the wilderness of Maine to attack British-held Quebec. Despite facing starvation, disease, and harsh conditions, Arnold’s men reached Quebec City, but the subsequent battle was a failure.
Hero at Saratoga
Arnold’s military prowess truly shone at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. While not in command, Arnold’s actions on the battlefield were instrumental in achieving a significant American victory, which helped bring France into the war on the side of the colonies. However, his continuous disagreements with superiors resulted in him being relieved of command just days before the final battle. Despite this, Arnold took to the field, leading troops to key victories, but also sustaining a severe leg injury.
Philadelphia and Discontent
Following Saratoga, Arnold was appointed the military commander of Philadelphia after the British evacuated. His tenure was marred by accusations of profiteering, as well as a growing resentment towards the Continental Congress due to perceived slights, including delays in promotions and recognition. It was here that he met and married the loyalist-sympathizing Peggy Shippen, who would play a role in his later decisions.
The Turn to Treason
By the late 1770s, Arnold felt both politically and financially aggrieved. Frustrated with what he saw as a lack of appreciation from fellow Americans and seduced by British promises of wealth and rank, Arnold entered into correspondence with British Major John André. His plan was audacious: to surrender the critical American fort at West Point to the British in exchange for £20,000 and a commission in the British army.
However, the plot unraveled when André was captured with incriminating papers. Arnold fled to the British side, narrowly evading capture. In the subsequent years, he led British troops in raids against American targets, further vilifying his reputation among former compatriots.
Life in England
After the war, Arnold and his family settled in England. The British were ambivalent about their new compatriot. While he was granted a general’s pension and given several business opportunities, he was never truly trusted or embraced by British society. Arnold’s ventures in Canada and the West Indies were mostly unsuccessful.
His final years in London were marked by poor health and increasing financial difficulties. He died in 1801 at the age of 60.
Benedict Arnold’s legacy is fraught. To many, he is the archetypal traitor, a man who betrayed his country for personal gain. However, before his defection, he was one of the most successful and important generals in the Continental Army. His contributions, especially at Saratoga, were pivotal for the American cause.
Some historians argue that his decision to switch allegiances was not purely motivated by greed, but by a genuine disillusionment with the American Revolutionary leaders and a belief that the British offered a better future for the American colonies.
Regardless of interpretations, Arnold’s name endures as a byword for betrayal. Yet, his life story serves as a reminder of the deeply personal and multifaceted nature of historical events, where individual decisions can change the trajectory of nations.