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Who was Benedict Arnold?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Benedict Arnold was an American Revolutionary general. Born Norwich, Conn., January 14, 1741. Died London, England, June 14, 1801.

Arnold, remembered primarily for his attempt to betray West Point to the British in 1780, was a courageous American commander in the early years of the Revolution. The soldiers respected Arnold because, as one of them put it, with him "it was 'Come on boys' 'twasn't 'Go boys." He was as brave a man as ever lived."

At the outbreak of the war, Arnold was made a colonel in the Continental Army. He shared command with Ethan Allen in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775. Later that year, Arnold led a force against Quebec. The winter march into Canada was one of great physical hardship. Another force, commanded by General Richard Montgomery, who had captured Montreal, joined Arnold's exhausted soldiers at Quebec. On Dec. 31, 1775, the combined American forces attacked and were defeated. Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded. In spite of the defeat, Arnold maintained a blockade of the city until the spring, when he was forced to retreat to Lake Champlain. There he built a small fleet and battled a superior British naval force. Although defeated, Arnold inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. This action halted the British advance and blocked their plans to split the colonies.

The Quebec campaign, although unsuccessful, indirectly brought about the greatest American victory of the war. The British, fearing future attacks against Canada, dispatched to Quebec a large force led by General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne's attempt to move his troops into New York in 1777 resulted in his defeat at Saratoga. Arnold's daring and brilliant leadership in the Saratoga campaign was an important factor in the great victory over Burgoyne.

In recognition of his bravery at Quebec in 1775, Arnold had been promoted to brigadier general. In February 1777, overlooking Arnold's subsequent valuable service, the Continental Congress promoted five officers, all of them his juniors, to major generalships. This slight was a source of great disappointment to Arnold. Later that year, however, he won his promotion to major general when he stopped the British invasion of Connecticut.

In 1778, Arnold was appointed commander of Philadelphia. The following year he married Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Tory family. He lived extravagantly and soon was deep in debt. Court-martial proceedings were brought against Arnold because of his quarrels with civil authorities. He was cleared of major charges but was mildly reprimanded by General Washington. Arnold, who expected complete acquittal, became embittered and felt that he was once again the victim of injustice. He still tried to keep up with the lavish social life of Philadelphia, and continued to live beyond his means.

During 1779, Arnold began a treasonable correspondence with the British commander Sir Henry Clinton. In 1780, Arnold obtained command of the American stronghold at West Point, and conspired with Clinton for the betrayal of the fort to the British. On Sept. 23, 1780, Major John Andre, Clinton's representative, was captured with incriminating papers while returning from a secret meeting with Arnold. Arnold escaped to the British lines, and was rewarded with 6,315 pounds and the rank of brigadier general.

The following year, he led British raiding forces in Virginia and Connecticut. In December 1781, after the British surrender at Yorktown, Arnold moved to England and for a time served George III as an adviser on American affairs. His request for active service in the army was refused. Arnold spent his last years in England, living in relative poverty.

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