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April 15, 2024

The Hero and the Traitor - a Tale of Selfish Courage

By Van Lee

Part 1, Rise of the Hero

In the course of our nation, one name has become synonymous with treachery and traitorous action: the name of Benedict Arnold. Ironically enough, most people do not know why, only that he was a traitor. More ironic still is that even fewer know that he was at one time a hero of the American Revolution, a man whose actions many claim were more crucial for the Colonists' victory then even those of George Washington.

Even at the time of his betrayal, many had conflicting feelings about him as illustrated by two monuments at Saratoga. One is simply a statue of a leg and the epaulets of a major-general, Arnold's rank. There is no inscription on it, but it was placed at the exact location in which Arnold was wounded in the leg. Another grander one is a 155-foot tall monument on Schulerville Hill, the sight of the British's last stand at Saratoga. On each side there is a niche, three of which have heroes of the battle Gates, Schuler, and Daniel Morgan. The fourth niche is empty, a spot for Benedict Arnold. The monument was made long after Arnold betrayed the colonial cause, but his actions warranted recognition. Not being able to display a traitor, they created the empty spot where if nothing else, his heroic deeds could be remembered if nothing else in spirit. The people wanted to recognize the important role Arnold had played, but at the same time they refused to glorify someone who would ultimately betray them. But to understand Arnold and what he became in the Revolution, you have to know a little about his past.

Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Connecticut to Hannah Waterman King. She had money from her deceased husband but her new husband, the elder Arnold, embarked in business ventures that ultimately left the family down on their luck. While his father turned to local taverns to drown his sorrows, Arnold attended school at Canterbury. While there his siblings contracted yellow fever, some of them dying from it. But with the family financial problems, Arnold was withdrawn from school and with his father's spending time at the tavern, there was little in the way of structure and discipline for Arnold. He was constantly in trouble. His mother, desperate to find help for her child, sent Arnold to stay with cousins Daniel and Joshua Lathrop. They had a fairly successful apothecary business and took Arnold on as an apprentice, a task to which he spent several years minus a couple of short stints in which he joined the military during the French and Indian Wars (a campaign of the larger Seven Years War between Great Britain and France).

Arnold's mother died in 1759 and his father two years later, leaving him with only one surviving immediate family member, his sister Hannah. Arnold would leave the apprenticeship of his cousins and visit Europe to buy supplies to start his own apothecary business in New Haven with his sister as his own apprentice. It was around this time that Arnold began to show his willingness to do whatever it took to further his own goals. He came from a successful apothecary, but on the side he turned to smuggling. Though smuggling was a fairly common practice and many felt the Crown's trade limits were unfair, so most really didn't bother about it.

In 1767 he married Margaret Mansfield and she bore him three sons. During this time he was most successful and happy. His business was doing well and he enlisted in the military once again joining the Governor's Second Company of Guard becoming a Captain with them. After hearing of the battles of Lexington and Concord he took his men and requested permission to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British. This request would begin Arnold on a slide that would see him become a heroic standard of the Colonial cause and also a traitor to the same cause.

Arnold was given permission to try and capture the fort. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys also wanted to capture the fort. The two groups would meet at Bennington and both wanted to command the overall force. Arnold, having official permission to attack the fort, felt he should command. Allen refused and ultimately, Arnold conceded in order to have the two forces combine for the attack. They took the fort (and Arnold would come to be remembered as being the crucial element of that victory) but Arnold had an argument with Colonel Easton who was to carry the announcement of victory to the Massachusetts leadership. Though Arnold had been a key component of the victory, Allen and his people tried to take credit. Having little in common with the Green Mountain Boys not to mention a growing personal dislike, Arnold spent more time with the captured British soldiers then Allen and his men.

Allen and Arnold both agreed that the next step should be an invasion of Canada and began to draw plans for the action. In the meantime, Easton returned to the camp after delivering the news of victory while making a concerted effort to diminish Arnold's role in the victory. Arnold, ever being defiant and a rough-houser, challenged Easton to a duel (a habit that would follow Arnold through the remainder of his life). Easton refused and the argument became physical. Easton and Allen took their men and left. Arnold continued to draw up plans for an invasion of Canada. However, his superiors ordered him to give command to Colonel Benjamin Hinman. Arnold was incensed and rather then follow those orders he resigned and dismissed all his troops. To add insult to injury, Arnold found out that Colonel Easton had recruited his troops, many of whom would go with Easton since they were dismissed by Arnold.

Not content with letting things lay as they were, Arnold sent a dispatch to the Continental Congress to apprise them of the situation at Ticonderoga. Arnold was angry and frustrated. Certainly he had some right to be. Allen and Easton had been given credit for a victory that most would come to recognize as being Arnold's. Then as a final insult, his command was taken away and his troops practically stolen from him. From there Arnold would go to Massachusetts Committee of Safety to present them a bill to cover his expenses from the operation. They only gave him partial payment and he had to go to the Continental Congress. Eventually they would settle the debt, but only after a great deal of persistence.

George Washington was aware of Arnold's role at Ticonderoga and knew his abilities. Washington officially request the Continental Congress to give Arnold command of the invasion of Canada. They agreed and Arnold became a Colonel in the Continental Army. To Arnold, it appeared that he was finally getting the respect he deserved. Arnold began his trek to Quebec with his men. The trip was harsh and weather conditions took its toll. But he and 600 men made it, a feat which in itself was hailed a success due to the hard conditions. Arnold tried to commence his attack, but a steady rain impeded the attack. Also, a message he had sent by an Indian scout to General Schuler had been intercepted by the British so they had warning of the impeding attack and had reinforced their position.

Unable to make progress due to the various situations, Arnold fell back to wait for reinforcements from Colonel Montgomery. However, Montgomery himself was hampered by expiring enlistments. But help did finally arrive and the attack commenced again. Montgomery fell and Arnold himself was wounded in the leg, leaving Danial Morgan to command the troops. The British had the numbers and knew the terrain, plus they were in their fortifications where the Colonists were in the harsh winter weather. Ultimately the British would defeat the Colonial forces. Arnold was still determined to not give up and continued to give orders from his hospital bed, but the damage was done. The invasion had failed. However, Washington recognized that what successes had happened were due to Arnold. It was even believed that if Arnold hadn't been wounded when he was, he was well on the way to leading his men to victory. Washington saw to it that Arnold would be made a Brigadier General. Though the expedition had failed, Arnold was happy as he felt like Washington and the Continental Congress were giving him the benefits and the praise he deserved.

Coming in February
Part 2, Rise of the Traitor

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-01-02
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