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Arnold Benedict, a Hero of the Revolution...

Updated on January 2, 2011

This is the second article in my series about Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and politics...

Both Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold were lauded as Heroes of the Revolution, yet both were also called traitors at one time or another! A bit confusing, perhaps... They had remarkably parallel life stories, up to a certain point that is. What was it that made the outcome so different?

I realize that the figure of Benedict Arnold is rather controversial in a country with a great patriotic history. Nevertheless, the similarities are intellectually challenging, so don't shoot the pianist!

Hero of the Revolution

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was, like Ethan Allen, born in Connecticut. He preferred the military life over his father's pharmacy, and took an active part on the British side of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). During this very cruel and bloody war he witnessed some atrocities that were committed by the French, and these forever changed his opinion about them.

After his father's death, he expanded his business and founded a profitable commercial fleet for trade with Canada and West Indies. This commercial success earned him the title of militia captain.

In the beginning of the American Revolution (1775-1783) he was ordered, together with another freedom fighter Ethan Allen, to conquer Fort Ticonderoga in New York from the British. However, the two were fierce rivals and dead set against each other. Eventually it was decided that Ethan Allen would attack on land, and Benedict Arnold would attack by sea.

The joint attack succeeded, but nevertheless only Ethan Allen received the credit, and Arnold's just as essential part in the victory was completely played down. The captured supplies helped George Washington's troops in their siege of Boston.

Nevertheless, Benedict Arnold in his turn became a Hero of the Revolution when he managed to capture a few British ships, and with them defeated the rest of the British fleet in the north of Lake Champlain! The Americans now completely went overboard, and immediately decided to invade Canada and add it to the list of their "God-given lands"...

Arnold was called "the great helmsman" (der Führer?...), and an attack was launched on Quebec! This romantic but rather impractical initiative went sour, because meanwhile the British had landed an army of 10,000 men and several warships in Canada. Not only was the American invasion promptly halted, but their troops quickly beat the retreat to Lake Champlain.

Benedict Arnold asked the General Staff sailors for experienced soldiers, competent officers, equipment and food, but that seemed too much to ask for. More military successes would undoubtedly have increased his popular influence and political standing and, and as it was, he was already a thorn in the side of other parties. So instead he was just given the fancy title of Brigadier-General...

The British war machine had now reached cruising speed, and their troops in turn crossed the border and took positions around the lake. The remainder of Benedict Arnold's navy fought valiantly against far superior British numbers, but it was almost completely cut to pieces in October 1776. Nothing more stood in the way of a British invasion, and if they had continued on their momentum, history might have been very different. They planned the conquest of New York, which would have totally divided the colonies.

However, the British admirals feared the winter and they pulled their forces back to Quebec, to overwinter comfortably and without any losses. In hindsight, this military decision not only gave the Americans the time to reorganize, but meanwhile major French naval and land forces arrived to reinforce their heavily damaged numbers.

When the British army attacked the next year, they suffered heavy defeats. In 1777, Arnold led his forces to further victories in the battles at Ridgefield (Connecticut) and Saratoga (New York), and he recaptured Fort Stanwix. His military successes and his steadily increasing popularity, however, were a thorn in the side of the clan around George Washington.

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold

Traitorous contacts - or not?

In 1778 he was sidelined, and deliberately kept away from the battlefield. Instead he was appointed commander of Philadelphia, an administrative function that did not at all reflect his outstanding military capabilities. He met the pretty 18-year-old Margaret Shippen, and fell in love with her. The next year they were married, and led a fairly extravagant life.

The underhanded sabotage by Washington's clan of the career and popularity of this formidable rival, however, just went on. Several junior officers were promoted over his head, the Pennsylvania authorities accused him of "violating military rules", and he had to appear before a military tribunal. Though he was a brilliant military general, he was rather outspoken and not at all skilled in diplomacy.

Furthermore, he hated the French ally and never forgot their former excesses in the French and Indian War.

Finally, his lavish lifestyle cost him large amounts of money, and he was deeply in debt. Given the fact that his situation continuously deteriorated and that he was thwarted every step of the way, during 16 months, he led a secret and treacherous correspondence with the commander of the British army, Sir Henry Clinton.

This was actually not so different from what his rival Ethan Allen did with the Governor of Canada...

But here the stories start to diverge!...

Completely frustrated, deeply in debt, and without any guidance, Arnold gave up his ideals and made an unethical choice. In 1780 he agreed that he would surrender Fort West Point, which he commanded, to the British in exchange for an appointment in the British Army and a sum of money.

However, Clinton's courier Major John Andre, was arrested, the plot came to light, and Arnold fled to the British.

As a Brigadier-General in the British army he made successful attacks near Richmond and Petersburg (Virginia), and New London (Connecticut). His new military successes made his name even more hated by the Americans. Now his military activities for the British were portrayed as "inhuman", where previously completely similar military operations had been applauded, as long as they were American...

In 1781 Arnold and his family traveled to England, where he advised the staff on the war's progress. When finally the British lost the war, he again became a scapegoat, and was discharged from the army.

His epitaph continues the same sad story. His later commercial activities remained without success, he received only one third of the agreed amount for his betrayal, and was held in contempt by the British for the remainder of his life, until his death in 1801.

It is sad to learn how a decidedly brilliant military strategist, in almost similar conditions as folk hero Ethan Allen, went from bad to worse and from one disaster into the next. Maybe a little more  appreciation and guidance from his friends could have influenced his choices and their sad results.

Ethan Allen

Read my article about the life of Ethan Allen, and you will be able to compare their histories and draw your conclusions.


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