Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was an early American hero of the Revolutionary War (1775-83) who later became one of the most infamous traitors in U.S. history after he switched sides and fought for the British. At the outbreak of the war, Arnold participated in the capture of the British garrison of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. In 1776, he hindered a British invasion of New York at the Battle of Lake Champlain. The following year, he played a crucial role in bringing about the surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s (1722-92) army at Saratoga. Yet Arnold never received the recognition he thought he deserved. In 1779, he entered into secret negotiations with the British, agreeing to turn over the U.S. post at West Point in return for money and a command in the British army. The plot was discovered, but Arnold escaped to British lines. His name has since become synonymous with the word “traitor.”
Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut. His mother came from a wealthy family, but his father squandered their estate. As a young man, Arnold apprenticed at an apothecary business and served in the militia during the French and Indian War (1754-63).
In 1767, Arnold, who became a prosperous trader, married Margaret Mansfield. The couple had three children before Margaret’s death in 1775.
Hero of the American Revolution
When the Revolutionary War broke out between Great Britain and its 13 American colonies in April 1775, Arnold joined the Continental Army. Acting under a commission from the revolutionary government of Massachusetts, Arnold partnered with Vermont frontiersman Ethan Allen (1738-89) and Allen’s Green Mountain Boys to capture the unsuspecting British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York on May 10, 1775. Later that year, Arnold led an ill-fated expedition on a harrowing trek from Maine to Quebec. The purpose of the expedition was to rally the inhabitants of Canada behind the Patriot cause and deprive the British government of a northern base from which to mount strikes into the 13 colonies. With the enlistments of many of his men expiring on New Year’s Day, Arnold had no choice but to launch a desperate attack against well-fortified Quebec City through a blizzard on December 31, 1775. Early in the battle, Arnold received a grave wound to his leg and was carried to the back of the battlefield. The assault continued, but failed miserably. Hundreds of American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, and Canada remained in British hands.
By the later part of 1776, Arnold had recovered sufficiently from his wound to once again take the field. He played a crucial role in hindering a British invasion from Canada into New York in the autumn of that year. Correctly predicting that British General Guy Carleton (1724-1808) would sail an invading force down Lake Champlain, Arnold supervised the hasty construction of an American flotilla on that lake to meet Carleton’s fleet. On October 11, 1776, the American fleet surprised its foe near Valcour Bay. Although Carleton’s flotilla drove the Americans away, Arnold’s action delayed Carleton’s approach long enough that, by the time the British general reached New York, the battle season was near an end, and the British had to return to Canada. Arnold’s performance at the Battle of Lake Champlain rescued the Patriot cause from potential disaster.
Despite his heroic service, Arnold felt he did not receive the recognition he deserved. He resigned from the Continental Army in 1777 after Congress promoted five junior officers above him. General George Washington (1732-99), the commander in chief of the Continental Army, urged Arnold to reconsider. Arnold rejoined the army in time to participate in the defense of central New York from an invading British force under General John Burgoyne in the fall of 1777.
In the battles against Burgoyne, Arnold served under General Horatio Gates (1728-1806), an officer whom Arnold came to hold in contempt. The antipathy was mutual, and Gates at one point relieved Arnold of his command. Nonetheless, at the pivotal Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, 1777, Arnold defied Gates’ authority and took command of a group of American soldiers whom he led in an assault against the British line. Arnold’s attack threw the enemy into disarray and contributed greatly to the American victory. Ten days later, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army at Saratoga. News of the surrender convinced France to enter the war on the side of the Americans. Once again, Arnold had brought his country a step closer to independence. However, Gates downplayed Arnold’s contributions in his official reports and claimed most of the credit for himself.
Meanwhile, Arnold seriously wounded the same leg he had injured at Quebec in the battle. Rendered temporarily incapable of a field command, he accepted the position of military governor of Philadelphia in 1778. While there, his loyalties began to change.
A Treacherous Plot
During his term as governor, rumors, not entirely unfounded, circulated through Philadelphia accusing Arnold of abusing his position for his personal profit. Questions were also raised about Arnold’s courtship and marriage to the young Peggy Shippen (1760-1804), the daughter of a man suspected of Loyalist sympathies. Arnold and his second wife, with whom he would have five children, lived a lavish lifestyle in Philadelphia, accumulating substantial debt. The debt and the resentment Arnold felt over not being promoted faster were motivating factors in his choice to become a turncoat. He concluded that his interests would be better served assisting the British than continuing to suffer for an American army he saw as ungrateful.
By the end of 1779, Arnold had begun secret negotiations with the British to surrender the American fort at West Point, New York, in return for money and a command in the British army. Arnold’s chief intermediary was British Major John André (1750-80). André was captured in September 1780, while crossing between British and American lines, disguised in civilian clothes. Papers found on André incriminated Arnold in treason. Learning of André’s capture, Arnold fled to British lines before the Patriots could arrest him. West Point remained in American hands, and Arnold only received a portion of his promised bounty. André was hanged as a spy in October 1780.
Arnold soon became one of the most reviled figures in U.S. history. Ironically, his treason became his final service to the American cause. By 1780, Americans had grown frustrated with the slow progress toward independence and their numerous battlefield defeats. However, word of Arnold’s treachery re-energized the Patriots’ sagging morale.
After fleeing to the enemy side, Arnold received a commission with the British army and served in several minor engagements against the Americans. After the war, which ended in victory for the Americans with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Arnold resided in England. He died in London on June 14, 1801, at age 60. The British regarded him with ambivalence, while his former countrymen despised him. Following his death, Arnold’s memory lived on in the land of his birth, where his name became synonymous with the word “traitor.”