On this day in 1780, Benedict Arnold secretly meets with British Major John André. His act of treason has become notorious. In fact, to modern Americans, the name “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous with “traitor.”
But did you know that Arnold started off as someone that you might admire?
He overcame quite a lot: Several of his siblings had died. His father was an alcoholic who landed the family in debt. Arnold’s dreams of attending Yale were crushed by his family’s problems. Arnold could have wallowed in self-pity, but he instead pulled himself up by his bootstraps and established himself as a successful businessman.
We admire that!
When the American Revolution began, Arnold promptly joined the American cause and became an officer in George Washington’s army.
He had successes and failures, of course. He led more than 1,000 men on a treacherous journey through Maine in 1775. He played an important role in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Quebec. He nearly lost his leg in the Battle of Saratoga. That battle was won largely because of him, yet Horatio Gates managed to snag most of the credit for the victory. Increasingly, Arnold 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.
He became resentful.
Arnold’s injury from Saratoga prevented him from going back out on the battlefield. Instead, he became the military governor of Philadelphia. During this time, he met and married Peggy Shippen, a Loyalist from a prominent family. Shippen would later facilitate his introduction to British Major John André.
It was the beginning of the end for Arnold.
Not that Arnold didn’t undermine himself a bit, too. The new military governor felt short on funds, so he began misappropriating resources. “The way Arnold saw it,” one of his biographers writes, “he had sacrificed his health and most of his fortune for the cause of independence, and Congress had repeatedly failed to treat him with the respect he’d earned. So now he was just paying himself back—just taking what the country owed him.”
He was reprimanded, but largely got off easy. Washington thought his actions “imprudent,” but also remembered Arnold’s “distinguished services to his Country.” In fact, Washington ended up giving Arnold command of West Point in August 1780.
No one knew that Arnold had, by then, already offered his services to the British. In fact, he’d been promised £20,000 if he could deliver West Point! Arnold had asked for a “personal interview with an officer that you can confide in,” declaring it “absolutely necessary to plan matters.”
He meant André. He wanted to meet—in person.
The meeting was a potentially dangerous one for André, but the British major went anyway.
André boarded a British sloop, the Vulture, and awaited a rowboat sent by Arnold. The rowboat was manned by a local, Joshua Smith, who did not know André’s real purpose. Smith brought André to Arnold and the two met in the early morning hours, laying plans for the British capture of West Point. The meeting ended too late for Smith to return André to the Vulture. He’d have to spend the next day at Smith’s house, waiting for nightfall and a new chance to go out to the Vulture.
Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War (2008)
Dave Richard Palmer, George Washington And Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots (2006)
Frank E. Grizzard Jr., George Washington: A Biographical Companion (2002)
George Washington, General Orders (Apr. 6, 1780)
George Washington, General Orders (Aug. 3, 1780)
Paul R. Misencik, The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War (2013)
Steve Sheinkin, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010)