Benedict Arnold: Hero and Traitor
Benedict Arnold. To most of us, he is recognized as the most famous traitor in American history. While it’s easy to simply remember Arnold by his defection to the British in the Revolutionary War, there is much more to his story.
Had it not been for his later betrayal, Arnold’s early accomplishments in the War of Independence would have been enough to immortalize him as an American hero. In the opening year of the conflict, he participated in the capture of an important British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. That same year, Arnold helped lead an expedition from Maine to Quebec with the purpose of depriving the British of a northern base to launch attacks on the 13 colonies. The American assault on Quebec City failed and Arnold suffered a serious leg wound while leading his men.
A painting of British and Canadian forces attacking Benedict Arnold's column of American troops during the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775. Painting by C.W. Jefferys. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)
In 1776, Arnold supervised the construction of an American flotilla and helped hinder a British invasion from Canada at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. The American cause was in a fragile state at this time and it could have been dealt a great blow if the invasion succeeded. Because of Arnold’s initiative, bravery, and leadership, that did not happen.
A painting of Arnold's battered ship during the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. (Photo: historynet.com)
Arnold shined brightest at the Battles of Saratoga in 1777. During the engagements that would become the turning point of the American Revolution, Arnold served under General Horatio Gates. The two men had contempt for each other and at one point, Gates relieved Arnold of his command. On October 7, Arnold defied Gates’ authority and led a group of American soldiers in a daring assault against an enemy redoubt. His attack threw British forces into disarray and forced them back. Ten days later, British General John Burgoyne surrendered what was left of his army.
Benedict Arnold leading American troops during the pivotal attack on October 7, 1777. (Photo: britishbattles.com)
Arnold was fearless on the battlefield. He was a fighter and had the respect of his men. One of his soldiers later wrote that Arnold was “the very genius of the war.” His attack against the Breymann Redoubt directly contributed to the American victory at Saratoga. Arnold did not walk away unscathed and was shot in the leg during the assault. The nameless “Boot Monument” at Saratoga National Historical Park sits on the spot where he fell wounded during the battle.
The "Boot Monument" at Saratoga National Historical Park.
Arnold’s name is not mentioned on the monument and this serves to honor his bravery during the engagement while also symbolizing his subsequent treason. The back of the monument reads, “In memory of the “most brilliant soldier” of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT 7th October, 1777 winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General.”
From the beginning of the war in 1775 to the turning point of the conflict in 1777, Benedict Arnold was just as important to the American cause as anyone. George Washington once wrote of him, “The Merit of this Gentleman is certainly great and I heartily wish that Fortune may distinguish him as one of her Favorites.” Washington considered Arnold his “fighting general” and fully understood his prowess on the battlefield. Arnold was originally an enthusiastic patriot who fought with passion for the cause of American liberty. Washington’s own words echoed that, but expressions of praise would change to those of revulsion. After Arnold’s treachery was discovered, Washington and other leaders in the Continental Army used the words, “Treason of the blackest dye” to spread the message of his deceit.
General George Washington at Princeton by Charles Wilson Peale. James Kirby Martin, author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered writes, "One wonders if Benedict Arnold had served directly under George Washington’s command instead of detached operations whether his rejection of the American cause might have taken place." (Photo: mountvernon.org)
Arnold’s decision to betray the American cause stemmed greatly from what he considered a lack of recognition for his sacrifices and accomplishments on the part of Congress and the Continental Army. He felt that fellow soldiers such as Ethan Allen and Horatio Gates had tried to smear his reputation and claim credit for his rightful success on the battlefield. As Arnold recovered from his second leg wound at Saratoga, he was particularly embittered by the news that the Congress had cast a medal to Horatio Gates as the alleged “hero of Saratoga.” After all, Arnold had provided the field leadership in both critical battles of Saratoga that led to American victory. Arnold was not totally wrong in his suspicions. In his official reports, Gates did in fact downplay Arnold’s contributions at Saratoga while claiming most of the credit for himself.
Benedict Arnold at the Second Battle of Saratoga. (Photo: history.com)
In 1777, the Continental Congress passed over Arnold for promotion in favor of five junior officers. Arnold held seniority over these men and had unquestionably proven that he was worthy of promotion. This decision greatly stung Arnold and is another element that led to his ultimate betrayal.
An engraving of Benedict Arnold handing papers to British Major John Andre. Arnold told Andre in correspondence that the American cause was in its death throes and that he hoped to lead the rebels back into the British fold. Andre was eventually captured and hanged as a spy by the Continental Army. (Photo: history.com)
On September 25, 1780, Arnold defected to the British. He became a field general in the British army and lead attacks on Richmond, Virginia and New London, Connecticut. After these engagements, he sailed for England with his wife. Although he had switched sides, Arnold was not well received by his new countrymen. He could have been a hero in America, but because of his betrayal, honor would never be associated with his name.
Benedict Arnold depicted in a British uniform. (Photo: mountvernon.org)
Benedict Arnold’s story is far more complex than most people are taught or told. While nothing will ever excuse his treachery, it’s important to remember that he played a major role in helping pave the way for American victory in the Revolutionary War. Arnold was a hero and he turned into a traitor. Regardless of how history wants to remember him, American independence would not have been achieved without him.