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Who was Benedict Arnold?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Prelude to Treason

In May 1778, Arnold joined Washington at Valley Forge, Pa. When the British evacuated Philadelphia, he was assigned as military commander of the city.

His extravagant style of living and his friendliness toward the city Loyalists, however, disgusted the patriots and aroused suspicions. Arnold had a passion for money, which he needed to give him the social standing his psychological insecurity demanded. He secretly entered a partnership to profit from the temporary closing of shops in Philadelphia. He even sought a forfeited Loyalist estate in New York.

Arnold's reputation was not improved by his marriage in April 1779 to Margaret (Peggy) Shippen, 18-year-old daughter of a Loyalist. Meanwhile he had resigned his command at Philadelphia in the face of accusations that he had misused public property and authority. Washington's delay in setting the date for his court-martial made him violent and unreasonable. Early in May he sent an emissary to New York to offer his services to the British. His motives were personal rather than political and appear to have been a lust for money, a piqued vanity, an urge to avenge himself on Congress and Pennsylvania for slights and grievances, and a desire for glory. After his treason, Arnold published his motives for changing sides: fear of the French alliance, dislike of independence, and objection to the tyranny of Congress. But these, the usual Loyalist arguments, were rationalizations after the fact.

In British Service

Arnold's offer of services were accepted with enthusiasm and promises of reward by Maj. John Andre, aide to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief. For five months Arnold supplied British headquarters with military intelligence, usually written in code. It is clear that Peggy Arnold knew of the correspondence and abetted her husband. Arnold was soon asking for £10,000 advance indemnification for the expected loss of his property and other assets when he openly joined the British. Andre boldly suggested "a little exertion," and Clinton refused to fix a sum for indemnification, preferring to pay on the basis of the importance of the services rendered.

Meanwhile Arnold had his long-delayed court-martial in December. The verdict was given in January 1780 and approved by Congress. Arnold was found guilty of using army wagons to haul private goods and of illegally granting a pass to a trading ship. He was sentenced to receive a reprimand from Washington. His public accounts were so entangled that Congress reported no decision on them;  they were, in fact, never to be settled.

To have something of value to offer the British, Arnold now sought a naval command and, when refused, asked Schuyler and other friends to suggest him for the command of West Point, N.Y. At the same time (May 1780) he began converting his assets into cash that could be shifted to London.

On July 15, Arnold wrote to Andre that he had the command of West Point and its garrison and asked £20,000 for its surrender. Clinton agreed. After courier delays, an interview with Andre was arranged under a flag of truce and took place below King's Ferry, N.Y., on the night of September 21-22. Returning overland at Arnold's direction, Andre was captured in disguise, and incriminating papers were found in his boot. The intelligence was forwarded to Arnold on the 25th. Knowing the plot would be exposed, he immediately escaped down the Hudson, while Mrs. Arnold feigned hysterics to convince Washington, who had arrived on an inspection tour, of her innocence. She was allowed to join her husband in New York. Andre was executed on October 2 as a spy.

Arnold issued a proclamation attempting to justify his treason and urging other soldiers to follow his example. He was made a British brigadier but was able to muster only 28 deserters by December when Clinton ordered him into Virginia on a raiding expedition. After a successful campaign of destruction that further blackened his name, Arnold returned to New York in June 1781. In September he was sent to New London, Conn., where he destroyed Forts Gris-wold and Trumbull.

Later Life

After the surrender of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va., in October 1781, Arnold and his family sailed to England with Cornwallis in December. In England, Arnold was offered no appointment and was ostracized socially. Gradually he realized he was not to be entrusted with another command anywhere. He attempted some unsuccessful commercial ventures in New Brunswick, Canada, and the West Indies, living in New Brunswick from 1787 to 1791. Repeatedly he tried to get more money from the British government and did obtain a grant of land in Canada, although it is difficult to believe he was in dire need. He had received £6,525 for his treason and was getting the half pay of a British colonel, £225 per year. Mrs. Arnold was receiving a pension of £500 a year minus commissions.

Arnold remained restless, grasping, and improvident until his death in London on June 14, 1801. His wife died in 1804. Both are buried in St. Mary's Church, Battersea (London). Besides the three sons by his first marriage, Arnold had four sons and a daughter by Peggy; all the sons held commissions in the British army.

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