Benedict Arnold

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Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold
For other people of the same name, see Benedict Arnold (disambiguation).

Benedict Arnold (January 14, 1741June 14, 1801) is America's most notorious traitor. A general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, he defected to the British side when he became disaffected due to perceived grievances he had suffered at the hands of the Continental Congress and the military. Corruption charges filed against him by Pennsylvania civil authorities and his mounting debts also contributed to his decision to switch sides. He strongly opposed and was very indignant at the decision by the Continental Congress to form an alliance with France, having experienced a bitter defeat at the hands of the French and their Indian allies during the French and Indian War.

In 1780 he formed a plot to take control of the fort at West Point, New York and hand it over to the British. This would have given the Tory forces control of the Hudson River valley and split the colonies in half. The plot was thwarted, but Arnold successfully evaded capture by Continental forces. As a reward he was given a commission as Brigadier General in the British Army, along with a reduced award of £6000 sterling.

The name Benedict Arnold has become an eponym for "traitor" in the United States.


Early life

Benedict Arnold V was born the second of six children to Benedict Arnold III and Hannah Waterman King in Norwich, Connecticut. He was named after his great-grandfather, an early colonial governor of Rhode Island. His parents had another son, named Benedict Arnold IV, who died in infancy before Benedict Arnold V was born. Only Benedict and his sister Hannah survived to adulthood, the other three siblings succumbed to yellow fever while still children.

The Arnold family was financially well-to-do until Arnold's father made several bad business deals that plunged the family into debt. When this happened Arnold senior turned to alcohol for solace. At age fourteen Benedict was forced to withdraw from school because the family could no longer afford the cost.

His father's abuse of alcohol and his ill health prevented him from training his son in the family mercantile business, but his mother's family connections secured an apprenticeship for him with two of her cousins, the brothers Daniel and Joshua Lathrop. The two ran a successful apothecary and general merchandise trade in Norwich.

At age fifteen Benedict ran away and enlisted in the Connecticut militia, marching to Albany and Lake George to resist the French invasion from Canada during the French and Indian War. (See Battle of Fort William Henry).

It is not clear if Benedict Arnold took part in the battle. Some sources claim he deserted and made his way home alone through the wilderness. Another source states his mother used her influence to obtain his discharge based on his young age.

In any case the British suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the French under the command of Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm. Subsequent to the British surrender, the native warrior allies of the French were filled with outrage by the easy terms offered to the British and Colonial forces. They had been promised scalps, arms and booty, and none was forthcoming. They fell upon the prisoners as they were being escorted away and as many as 180 were massacred. The French regulars were powerless to stop them. See Fort William Henry Massacre[1]. It is mere speculation, but this event may have created an abiding hatred for the French on a young and impressionable Arnold that influenced his actions later in life.

Benedict's mother, to whom he was especially close, died in 1759. The youth took on the responsibility of supporting his ailing father and younger sister. His father's alcoholism became worse after the death of his wife and he was arrested on several occasions for public drunkeness, and also refused communion by his church. With his father's death in 1761, the then twenty-one year old Benedict Arnold resolved to return his family name to the elevated status it had once enjoyed.

Pre-Revolutionary activities

In 1762, with the help of the Lathrops, Arnold established himself in business as druggist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut.

Arnold was ambitious and aggressive, quickly expanding his business. In 1763 he repurchased the family homestead that his father had sold when deeply in debt. One year later he re-sold it for a substantial profit. In 1764 he formed a partnership with Adam Babcock another young New Haven merchant. Using the profits from the sale of his homestead he and Babcock bought three trading ships. By 1765 they had established a lucrative West Indies trade. During this time he brought his sister Hannah to New Haven and established her in his apothecary to manage the business in his absence. He traveled extensively in the course of his business, throughout New England and from Quebec to the West Indies, often in command of one of his own ships.

The Stamp Act of 1765 severely curtailed mercantile trade in the colonies. Arnold initially took no part in any public demonstrations, but like many merchants by 1766 conducted trade as if the Stamp Act did not exist, in effect becoming a smuggler in defiance of the act.

On the night of January 31, 1767 Arnold took part in a demonstration denouncing the acts of the British Parliament and their oppressive colonial policy. Local crown officials were burned in effigy. He and members of his crew roughed up a man suspected of being a smuggling informant. Arnold was arrested and fined fifty shillings for disturbing the peace.

The oppressive taxes levied by parliament forced many New England merchants out of business. Arnold himself came near to personal ruin, falling £15,000 sterling in debt.

Arnold fought a duel in Honduras with a British sea captain, who called Arnold a "Dammed Yankee, destitute of good manners or those of a gentleman". Arnold was shocked by the rudeness and challenged him to a duel. The captain was wounded and forced to apologize.

Arnold was in the West Indies when the Boston Massacre occurred on March 15, 1770, but later wrote that he was "very much shocked" and wrote "good God; are the Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers, that they don't take immediate vengeance on such miscreants". He was himself very much aware of the growing British presence in the colonies. This statement shows his original sentiment as an American patriot and his unwillingness to allow the mother country to meddle in American affairs.

On 22 February 1767, he married Margaret, daughter of Samuel Mansfield. They had three sons, Benedict, Richard, and Henry. She died 19 June 1775.

Wartime career


In March 1775 a group of sixty-five New Haven residents were formed into the Governor’s 2nd Company of Connecticut Guards. Arnold was chosen as their captain. As such he organized training and exercises in preparation for war. On Friday, April 21, 1775 news reached New Haven of the opening battles of the revolution at Lexington and Concord, A few Yale student volunteers were admitted into the guard to boost their numbers and they began a march to Massachusetts to join the revolution.

Enroute Arnold met with Colonel Samuel Holden Parsons, a Connecticut legislator. They discussed the shortage of cannons possessed by the revolutionary forces and, knowing of the large number of cannon located at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, agreed that an expedition should be formed to capture the fort. Parsons continued on to Hartford where he raised funds to establish a force under the command of Captain Edward Mott. Mott was instructed to link up with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys at Bennington, Vermont. Meanwhile Arnold and his Connecticut militia continued on to Cambridge where Arnold convinced the Massachusetts Committee of Safety[2] to fund an expedition to take the fort. They appointed him a Colonel in the Massachusetts militia and dispatched him, along with several captains under his command to raise an army in Massachusetts. As his captains mustered troops, Arnold rode north to rendezvous with Allen and take command of the operation.

By early May the army was assembled. On May 10, 1775 Fort Ticonderoga was assaulted in a dawn attack and taken without a battle, the colonial forces having surprised the outnumbered British garrison. (See Battle of Ticonderoga (1775)). Expeditions to Crown Point and Fort George were likewise successful as was another foray to Fort St Johns (now named Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec). But this fort was abandoned when British troops arrived from Montreal. Throughout the campaign Arnold and Allen disputed over who would be in overall command. Allen eventually withdrew his troops, leaving Arnold in sole command of the garrisons of the three forts. However, a Connecticut force of 1,000 men under a Colonel Benjamin Hinman arrived with orders placing him in command with Arnold to serve under him. This act by the Continental Congress incensed Arnold who felt his efforts on behalf of the revolution were not being recognized. The end result was that Arnold resigned his commission and returned to Massachusetts. [3]

The Ticonderoga expedition was considered an overall success. Together Crown Point and Ticonderoga yielded 201 cannons, 100 of which were sent back to Boston where they were positioned on the Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The presence of these weapons forced the British army under General Thomas Gage to evacuate Boston. The force retreated by sea to Nova Scotia in March 1776.

The Quebec expedition

See: Invasion of Canada (1775); Arnold expedition

Shortly after the formation of the Continental Army in June of 1775, Major General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, developed a plan to invade Canada overland from Fort St. Johns at the northern end of Lake Champlain, down the Richelieu River to Montreal. The objective was to deprive the Loyalist's of an important base from which they could attack upper New York. General Richard Montgomery was assigned the leadership of this force.

Benedict Arnold, on hearing of these plans proposed that a second force, in unison with Schuyler’s, attack by travelling up the Kennebec River in Maine, portaging over the height of land, then descending the Chaudiere river to Quebec City. With the capture of both Montreal and Quebec City, he believed, the French speaking colonists of Canada would join the revolution against their British masters. The Commander in Chief, General George Washington, and the Continenetal Congress, approved this amendment to the plan and charged Arnold with the task of carrying it out. Benedict Arnold was commissioned a Colonel in the Continental Army to lead the Quebec City attack.

Just prior to leaving for Maine, Arnold learned of the death of his wife Margaret. He was forced to make a stop in New Haven to ensure the welfare of his children. His sister Hannah took over the role of surrogate mother at his request.

The force of 1100 recruits embarked from Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 19, 1775 arriving at Gardinerston, Maine on September 22, where Arnold had made prior arrangements with Major Rueben Colburn to construct 200 bateaux to be used to transport the troops up the Kennebec and Dead Rivers, over the height of land, then down the Chaudiere river to Quebec City. A lengthy portage was required over the Appalachian range height of land between the upper Dead and Chaudiere rivers.

The expedition was beset with problems from the start. The bateaux had been constructed out of green wood and shortly started to fall apart, the weather was extremely foul, much of their food was spoiled and had to be abandoned along the trail, and they suffered an outbreak of smallpox that decimated their ranks. By the time they finally reached the Saint Lawrence River across from Quebec City on November 9, the half starved force had been reduced to less than 700 by death from smallpox and desertion. Furthermore, the habitant settlers were not supportive of their cause, as expected, and for the most part openly opposed the invasion.

The British were aware of Arnold’s approach and destroyed most of the serviceable watercraft on the southern shore. Two warships, the frigate Lizard (twenty-six guns) and the sloop-of-war Hunter (sixteen guns) kept constant patrol to prevent a river crossing. Even so, Arnold was able to procure sufficient water craft, crossing to the Quebec City side on November 11. Arnold, realizing his force did not have enough strength to capture the city sent dispatches to Montgomery requesting reinforcement.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1700 militiamen on September 16, 1775. He captured Montreal on November 13. Montgomery joined Arnold in early December and with their combined force of about 1,325 soldiers attacked the city on December 31, 1775. The colonial forces suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of General Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada and commander of the British forces. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, many casualties occurred (killed or wounded) and hundreds more were taken prisoner. See Battle of Quebec (1775).

The remnants of the colonials, reduced to some 350 volunteers and now under the command of Colonel Arnold (after the death of General Montgomery) continued an ineffective siege of the city until the spring of 1776 when reinforcements under Brigadier General David Wooster arrived. Upon being relieved of command, Arnold retreated to Montreal with what remained of the volunteer rebel forces. [4] [5]

Retreat from Canada and the Battle of Valcour Island

Following the failure of the Quebec expedition the British launched a counteroffensive in the latter part of 1776 intended to gain control of the Hudson River Valley. Control of the upper Hudson would have enabled the British to link their Canadian forces with those in British occupied New York City, dividing the American colonies of New England from those in the South, potentially defeating the revolution.

Colonel Arnold received a promotion to Brigadier General after the Quebec invasion and was assigned the task of preventing a British invasion from the north. For details of the ensuing campaign see Battle of Valcour Island and [6]

Eastern Department

Late in 1776 Arnold received orders to report to Major General Joseph Spencer, newly appointed commander of the Eastern Department of the Continental Army. On December 8, 1776, a sizeable British force under Lieutenant General Henry Clinton captured Newport, Rhode Island. Arnold spent a week with his family (who he had not seen for over a year) in New Haven, Connecticut, and arrived at Providence, Rhode Island, on January 12, 1777 to take up his duties in the defense of Rhode Island as Deputy Commander, Eastern Department . Unfortunately, the ranks of the Rhode Island force had been depleted to about 2000 troops in order to support Washington’s assault on Trenton New Jersey. Since Arnold was facing 15,000 redcoats he was forced to employ defensive measures only, not having enough troops to form an attack.

On April 26, 1777 Arnold was on his way to Philadelphia to meet with the Continental Congress and had stopped in New Haven to visit his family once again when a courier arrived with a dispatch that a British force of 2,000 troops under the command of Major General William Tryon, British Military Governor of New York, had landed at Norwalk, Connecticut. Tryon marched his force to Fairfield on Long Island Sound, and inland to Danbury, a major supply depot for the Continental Army, destroying both towns by fire. He also torched the seaport of Norwalk as his forces retreated by sea.

Arnold hurriedly recruited about 100 volunteers locally and was joined by Major General Gold S. Silliman [7]and Major General David Wooster of the Connecticut militia, who together had mustered a force of 500 volunteers from eastern Connecticut.

Arnold and his fellow officers moved their small force near to Danbury so they could intercept and harass the British retreat. By 11 a.m. on April 27, General Wooster’s column had caught up with and engaged Tryon’s rear guard. Arnold moved his force to a farm outside Ridgefield, Connecticut, in an attempt to block the British retreat. During the skirmishes that followed, General Wooster was killed. General Arnold injured his leg when his horse fell on him after it was shot.


After the Danbury raid Arnold continued his journey to Philadelphia to meet with congressional members, arriving on May 16. General Schuyler was also in Philadelphia at this time but soon left for his headquarters at Albany, New York. This meant that General Arnold was the ranking officer in the Philadelphia region so he assumed command of the forces there. But Congress preferred Pennsylvania's newly promoted Major General Thomas Mifflin. (Brigadier General Arnold had earlier been passed over for promotion). This caused further resentment and it appeared to Arnold that Congress did not want him, no matter how determined he was to fight for the cause of liberty or what his achievements were. Consequently Arnold resigned his commission on July 11, 1777. But very shortly a message was received from General Washington urgently requesting Benedict be posted to the Northern Department because Fort Ticonderoga had fallen to the British. See Battle of Ticonderoga (1777). This request demonstrated Washington's faith in Arnold as a military commander, and Congress complied with his request.

Saratoga Campaign

See Saratoga Campaign

The summer of 1777 marked a turning point in the American War of Independence. The Saratoga campaign was a series of battles fought in upper New York that culminated in the victory achieved by the Americans at the Battle of Saratoga, and the capture of a large contingent of the British army led by Lieutenant General John Burgoyne on October 17, 1777. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold played a decisive role in several of these battles. The battles are listed below with links to the main articles. The operations in which Arnold participated are flagged.

Date Battle British


American Commander Result General Arnold's Role
July 5 Fort Ticonderoga Lieutenant General

John Burgoyne

Major General

Arthur St. Clair

Americans ceded the fort without engaging battle none
July 7 Battle of Hubbardton Brigadier General

Simon Fraser


Seth Warner

British victory, (Considered American tactical victory) none
Aug 6-21 The Siege of Fort Stanwix Lieutenant Colonel

Barry St. Leger


Peter Gansevoort

Standoff, but failure by British to advance neutralized Mohawk expedition Employed subterfuge that lifted the siege
Aug 6 Battle of Oriskany Sir John Johnson General

Nicholas Herkimer

British victory none
Aug 15 The Battle of Bennington Lieutenant Colonel

Friedrich Baum. (Hessian Mercenary)


John Stark.

American Victory none
Sep 19 Battle of Freeman's Farm Lieutenant General

John Burgoyne

Major General

Horatio Gates

Indecisive battle result, American tactical victory Initiated the battle which prevented British advance on main American force
Oct 7 Battle of Bemis Heights Lieutenant General

John Burgoyne

Major General

Horatio Gates

British defeat ending in capitulation No command, but jumped into the fray without orders and played important role in rallying troops (wounded)

The Battle of Bemis Heights was the final battle of the Saratoga Campaign. Outnumbered, out of supplies, and cut off from retreat(largely Arnold's doing,) General Burgoyne was forced to surrender. On October 17, 1777 he accepted terms, surrendered his army and laid down his arms.

General Arnold suffered a wound to the same leg as he had at Quebec during the fray.

Historians agree that Arnold played an instrumental role in the outcome of the Saratoga campaign, showing courage, initiative and military brilliance. He is said to have almost singlehandedly cut off Burgoyne's attempt to escape in the decisive Battle of Bemis Heights. However, because of bad feelings between him and General Gates, he received no credit. (Gates had deliberately left him out of the command structure of the final battle plan). Instead he was vilified for exceeding his authority and disobeying orders. Arnold, always an innovator, made no secret of his contempt for Gates' military tactics, (before, during, and after the battle), which he considered too cautious and conventional.

Military command of Philadelphia

By mid-October 1777 Arnold lay in an Albany hospital convalescing from the wound he had received at Saratoga. His left leg was ruined, but Arnold would not allow it to be amputated. Several agonizing months of recovery would leave it two inches shorter than the right. He spent the winter of 1777-1778 with the army at Valley Forge recovering from the injury.

After the evacuation of the British from Philadelphia in June, 1778, Washington appointed Arnold military commander of the city. It was in June that he learned of the Franco-American alliance, but due to his experiences fighting the French in the Seven Years' War Arnold strongly opposed the alliance. Ironically, it was victory over the British at Saratoga, of which Arnold's actions played a decisive part, that convinced France's King Louis XVI to sign the alliance and aid the Americans in their war against the British.

By then Arnold was an embittered man, resentful toward Congress for not approving his wartime expenses and bypassing him for promotion. A widower, he threw himself into the social life of the city, holding grand parties, and falling deeply into debt. Arnold's extravagance drew him into shady financial schemes and into further disrepute with Congress, which investigated his accounts. On June 1, 1779 he was court-martialed for malfeasance. "Having ... become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet (such) ungrateful returns," he complained to Washington.

At the end of March, 1779 he met Peggy Shippen, the boisterous 18 year old daughter of Judge Edward Shippen. [8] Arnold and Shippen wed quickly on April 8, 1779. It is interesting to note that Peggy had previously been courted by British Major John André during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

West Point and later

In July 1780, Arnold sought and obtained command of the fort at West Point. He had already begun a treasonable correspondence with General Sir Henry Clinton in New York City through Major John André (the same Major André who previously was a friend of his young bride). Arnold offered to hand over the American fort to the British for £20,000 sterling and a brigadier's commission. His plans were thwarted when André was captured with documents that disclosed the plot and incriminated Arnold. Major André was later convicted and hung as a spy.

Arnold learned of the capture of André and fled to the British. They made him a Brigadier General but only paid him some £6,000 sterling because his plot had failed. The British never really trusted him, although he saw some command in the American theater. In December, under orders from Clinton, Arnold led a force of 1,600 troops into Virginia and succeeded in capturing Richmond and cutting off the major artery of material to the southern patriot effort. In the Southern theater, Lord Cornwallis was able to march northwards towards Yorktown, which he moved into in May 1781. Arnold meanwhile had been sent north to capture the town of New London, Connecticut in hopes that it would divert Washington away from Cornwallis. While in Connecticut, his force captured Fort Griswold and murdered dozens of captured rebel soldiers on September 8. In December, Arnold was recalled to England with various other officers as the crown deemphasized the American theater over more probable wins in others.

Arnold’s goal in England was to convince imperial leaders to not give up the fight in spite of the loss of Cornwallis at Yorktown. While in London, he met with various cabinet officers and King George III to try to convince them to carry on the war effort. He was, as at Quebec, too late. The Crown was already sending peace feelers out to end the American conflict. Arnold, distraught, moved to Canada with Peggy in an attempt to reestablish his earlier maritime successes. He loaned out great amounts of money to various loyalist families that had relocated from the colonies, but when he ran into financial hardship no one would pay him back. He was forced to move back to London with Peggy and their four sons in 1792. Arnold spent his time in London attempting to make a successful go at West Indies trade, and with the coming of the French Revolution, a command. Despite having backing from Clinton and Cornwallis, Arnold lacked the social connections to make a command a reality. He died on June 14, 1801 a pauper and with almost no fanfare. While on his deathbed it is said that he asked God for his forgiveness in betraying the Patriot cause. He was dressed in his Continental uniform and buried in the crypt of St. Mary's Church, Middlesex, London.


Arnold attempted to justify his actions in an open letter entitled To the Inhabitants of America. In a letter to his former friend Washington, he stated, "love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions."

Benedict Arnold is a paradoxical figure in American history. While there can be no doubt as to his venality and treason, neither can there be doubt as to his crucial role in the Battle of Saratoga, and thus the Revolution. It was Saratoga which persuaded the French, who had been skeptical of the colonists' effectiveness as a military force, to intervene in the war on the American side. This alliance tipped the balance of arms and ensured the ultimate American victory.


  1. ^ Fort William Henry Massacre

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