On this day in 1741, Benedict Arnold is born. You know him as a traitor to the American cause, but do you know the rest of his story? Arnold started off as someone that you might admire.
Arnold overcome quite a lot: Several of his siblings had died. His father sought comfort in alcohol and was soon a drunkard who landed the family in debt. Arnold’s dreams of attending Yale were crushed when circumstances forced him to be apprenticed to an apothecary instead.
Arnold pulled himself up by his bootstraps and established himself as a successful businessman.
We admire that kind of perseverance.
Arnold’s business interests suffered when the British Parliament enacted its controversial tax acts. Like patriots such as John Hancock, Arnold refused to cooperate with a British taxing scheme that was generally seen as illegitimate. Instead, he began smuggling items into the country, without paying the taxes. He soon also joined the American cause and became an officer in George Washington’s army.
He saw both success and failure in the army. Ironically, it was the successes that would be the beginning of his undoing.
Arnold was fearless during the first year of the war. He helped in the early capture of Fort Ticonderoga and took the lead in other actions on Lake Champlain. Shortly afterwards, he proposed a dangerous mission overland through Maine—and George Washington let him give it a try! The resolute Arnold led more than 1,000 men on the treacherous journey through Maine toward Canada. Not everyone survived. When some of the men finally made it to Canada, they were half frozen and starving. The bedraggled state of his men didn’t stop Arnold from launching an attack on Quebec.
Arnold and his men did their best, but the Americans were eventually forced to retreat.
Later, Arnold was with Horatio Gates both before and during the Battles of Saratoga. The two men bickered throughout the process. In the end, though, Arnold’s bravery and determination ensured that two redoubts were seized at a critical moment. Americans won an important victory that would ultimately encourage France to join in the Revolution as American allies. Unfortunately. Arnold was also badly injured during the battle—he nearly lost his leg.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Arnold was angry when he discovered that Gates was trying to snag credit for the victory. Arnold felt that his contributions had been vital to the effort.
In fact, Arnold had long felt that he wasn’t getting proper credit for his triumphs. He was passed over for promotions that he felt he’d earned, and he even faced a few charges for misconduct. Saratoga made things worse. (Marrying a Loyalist soon afterwards couldn’t have helped matters!) Arnold became resentful. And this resentment soon translated into a decision to help the British.
You know what happened next: Arnold, then in charge of West Point, got caught helping the British army. Washington wanted him captured so he could be publicly punished. Instead, Arnold barely escaped. He served as a British officer for a while, but he ended up living in both Canada and England after the war.
Ironically, he was never really accepted among the British, either, despite the sacrifice that he’d made for them.
He passed away, apparently never really obtaining the acclaim that he craved.
Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold's Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War (2008)
Dave R. Palmer, George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots (2006)
James K. Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (1997)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (Sept. 21, 1775)
Steve Sheinkin, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010)