He was a descendent from a distinguished family, a hero of the battle that is known as the ‘Turning Point of the American Revolution’; a man who lost a leg in battle in service to his country; yet a man who let jealously, pride, and greed turn him against the nation he served and into a notoriety that continues today.
Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut. He was the second of six children born to Benedict Arnold III and Hannah Waterman King, and was named after his great-grandfather who was an early, three-time governor of Rhode Island, as well as his brother, who died in infancy. Only two of the Arnold children would survive to adulthood – Benedict and his sister Hannah.
Arnold had several character traits that would follow him throughout his life, hindering his opportunities for advancement and the recognition he desired. Arnold was enrolled in a private school when he was ten with the expectation that he would attend Yale. However, he wasn’t studious and persistent in his studies. A yellow fever epidemic struck a devastating blow to the Connecticut family in 1753 – taking the lives of three of Arnold’s siblings. Soon after that the family fortune began to decline, and by the time Arnold was fourteen there was no more money for a private education – or for Yale.
The outbreak of the French and Indian War when Arnold was fifteen proved to be a lure to the young man, but he was refused enlistment in the provincial militia when his mother would not give her permission. Undaunted, Arnold would enlist when he turned sixteen. His enlistment came when the militia was ready to march toward Albany, New York and Lake George to oppose a French invasion. After hearing about the French massacre of the British and colonial forces at Fort William Henry, the Connecticut militia turned around and marched home. Arnold’s enlistment lasted thirteen days. It became popular after the Revolution to write that Arnold would run away from home to join the militia and had deserted from his militia company.
Because of the financial situation of his family, Arnold was apprenticed to Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, cousins of his mother. They ran an apothecary and general merchandise store in Norwich, Connecticut, where Arnold spent seven years learning the principals of pharmacy and business.
In 1762, the Lanthrop brothers provided financial backing for the 21-year-old Arnold to start his own pharmacy business in New Haven, Connecticut. A year later he had repaid the money borrowed from the Lanthrops. By 1764 he had expanded his business interests through a partnership with Adam Babcock, and purchasing three trading ships in order to engage in the lucrative West Indies trade. Arnold would bring his sister Hannah to New Haven to help manage his apothecary shop while he was sailing on one of his ships. Often he would captain the ship, engaging in trade from the West Indies to Canada.
The British Sugar Act (1764) and Stamp Act (1765) limited the mercantile trade in the American colonies – and many voiced their opposition. Arnold would join the Sons of Liberty as well as engage in smuggling to avoid the customs agents and the taxes that he felt was stifling colonial enterprise and prosperity. His thoughts are perhaps best shown in a comment made after Arnold heard of the Boston Massacre: “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 also was concerned because he had a family to support. He married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of the sheriff of New Haven, in 1767. They would have three children prior to her early death in 1775 – while Arnold was at Fort Ticonderoga during the opening year of the Revolution.
Arnold would move swiftly up the military ladder – but not swiftly enough for him. He was elected as a captain in Connecticut’s militia in March 1775. He proposed an audacious attack on Fort Ticonderoga – which he knew to be lightly defended – and was promoted to Colonel. He arrived in time to participate in an attack on the Fort by Ethan Allen and his ‘Green Mountain Boys’. The fort fell, but Arnold – who had followed the procedures and the chain of command of the fledgling American military structure - felt that the full glory of the idea and the victory should have gone to him.
He was, however, given command of the American forces in the Lake Champlain area, and would use that region as a launching point for an American overland march on Quebec. Arnold had proposed the overland march, which took place during the winter of 1775. He was given the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress, and in the end would be wounded, and be forced to lay siege of Quebec until relieved. The Continental Congress promoted him to Brigadier General for his efforts.
The American army was forced to retreat in 1776 when British reinforcements arrived in Canada. Arnold presided over the American rear-guard actions during the Continental Army’s retreat. He then directed the construction of an impromptu fleet to defend Lake Champlain, New York. The Americans were defeated after a grueling 7-hour battle, but had succeeded in slowing the British advance into New York. As a result of the October 1776 battle, Arnold was called the ‘Father of the American Navy’.
Arnold made a number of enemies in Congress and in the hierarchy of the Continental Army during these first years of the war. He began to feel slighted, not receiving the promotions or the leadership opportunities that he felt he deserved, and for not being given credit for his military ideas. While his accomplishments were notable, others often took credit away from him. He was even charged with stealing military supplies, and was on the verge of being arrested when General Horatio Gates stopped the arrest because he needed Arnold in the field. British General Burgoyne was marching south through New York in the spring of 1777.
Arnold would distinguish himself at Saratoga – and would also see his hopes of command in the American army dashed. On his own initiative he brought his reserve troops into the battle at just the right moment to save the Americans from defeat, and to give them a victory over the British, a victory that became the turning point of the war. He also lost the use of a leg to wounds incurred during the battle. Gates claimed the victory, Arnold was passed over for promotion and the glory he felt he deserved; and – ultimately – would be investigated by Congress for corruption.
While recovering he met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen, daughter of a prominent Loyalist. They married on April 8, 1779. One of her former suitors was British Major Andre – who would become involved with Arnold’s plan to turn West Point over to the British.
Arnold toyed with the idea of supporting the British in this war the colonists had started against the Crown. After some negotiations, he would be given command of West Point, a crucial defense point on the Hudson River. Ultimately, the plans to turn the fort over to the British were discovered – with the final proof being found with the capture of Arnold’s contact, Major Andre.
Arnold fled, would be given the position of Brigadier General by the British, and would lead several raids on colonial cities – briefly capturing Richmond, Virginia and attacking New London, Connecticut. He had a far-reaching goal – to destroy the economic basis of the rebels, driving them to submission or starvation.
As the war ended, Arnold and his family would move to England, then after the war to New Brunswick, Canada. There he reentered the business world and established a thriving trade route with the West Indies. However, his remaining years were bitter ones. Maligned by the Americans, distrusted by the British, he found that many military, political, and economic doors were not open to him.
Arnold died on June 14, 1801, after returning to England.
The name Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with the word traitor to Americans. He was immediately demonized by American writers as soon as his actions became know. All of the contributions to the revolution that he had made – and the injuries he had sistained in that revolution, both physical, economic, and mental, were quickly forgotten. Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions", and that became a common theme through the rest of American history writings up to today.
Archiving Early America
National Park Service
A pen and ink portrait of Arnold, NNDB
Portrait of Arnold in military uniform, National Archives
1780 French map of West Point, Boston Public Library
Peggy Shippen, National Archives
Capture of Major Andre, Library of Congress
Diaries of Fredericksburg Women
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