By Walker Joyce
His name is synonymous with Traitor, and he’s remembered as the most notorious turncoat in American lore. But he was also one of the Revolution’s heroes, the greatest field commander of the war. Had he died of his wounds he’d be regarded as second only to George Washington today.
I refer to Benedict Arnold, a name schoolchildren still know, even in our era of impoverished history curricula. He was a multi-faceted, gifted, contradictory man of Shakespearean proportions, tragically flawed. His story is epic, and I’m still waiting for a dramatist or a film-maker to render a proper treatment of it.
Of course, it climaxed at West Point, but that treachery might never have happened but for events during Christmastime in 1779. For it was during that December that Arnold was formally court-martialed in our most historic city.
Those proceedings brought a long-simmering bitterness to a full boil, and set the final act of his betrayal in motion. But let’s back up a bit, and as Paul Harvey used to say, tell the rest of the story.
We’ll begin in the spring of 1775. Newly commissioned as a colonel in Connecticut’s militia, Arnold set out on a quest of his own devising, a march to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Though it was a key location, Arnold correctly deduced it was inadequately defended.
Along the way he met up with another head-strong leader, Ethan Allen, who fronted a rough bunch of volunteers known as the Green Mountain Boys. The two men reluctantly agreed to share command, and on May 10th they captured the redoubt without firing a shot. Given the fort’s placement and its supplies this was a strategic victory, but it also gave a huge boost to the morale and confidence of the Continentals.
It was the first big notch in Arnold’s figurative gun. Alas, it was also the first of a series of successes in which his credit was diminished by a rival, setting up an ominous pattern.
That September, Arnold began a much more perilous mission, an assault on Quebec. Now a colonel in Washington’s army, he and his men blazed a trail through the Maine wilderness, arriving at the city’s gates in the dead of winter.
On New Year’s Eve, in the midst of a storm, Arnold attacked and was grievously wounded in the leg. He was carried to an improvised hospital, thus depriving his troops of his crucial, real-time leadership. But for a shattered limb, Arnold might have annexed Canada!
The autumn of 1776 found him morphing into a navel hero. Prior to the war Arnold was a prosperous merchant with experience as a sea captain. He returned to Lake Champlain and oversaw the construction of ships, made from the timbers of local forests.
That October he and his makeshift fleet fought the Battle of Valcour Island, a technical victory for the English navy but another big-picture win for the Americans: by delaying the Brits for an entire winter, Arnold foiled the redcoats’ plan to join their southern and northern troops in the Hudson Valley, thus cutting the colonies in half.
A year later, Arnold forged his greatest triumph, turning the tide in the epochal battles of Saratoga. Defying an order to stand down from his superior, General Horatio Gates, he rode to the front and rallied the ranks. His ability to inspire men in battle was extraordinary.
This unambiguous win cut off yet another enemy merge, forcing the British commander, General Burgoyne, to surrender his entire army. When word reached Paris, Benjamin Franklin was finally able to convince the French to join our side.
Thus, Arnold secured the most important victory prior to Yorktown, and saved the Revolution—perhaps for a second time.
However, he was also wounded again—in the same leg. As he was taken to yet another surgeon’s tent he supposedly said he wished the shot had pierced his heart. Me too, for had it done so, he would be as celebrated as George Patton today.
Instead, Gates grabbed the glory, vindictively slighting Arnold’s role in his official report. This may have caused Arnold more pain than the bullets.
Washington made him the commandant of Philadelphia, so he could recuperate. But as his body slowly healed, his ego continued to fester over Gates’ perfidy, promotions denied, and some foes in Congress, who accused him of malfeasance.
While it may be true that he did some profiteering in Philly, such transactions were common, even winked at back then. Not to mention the considerable sums Arnold lent to the cause that were never repaid.
Which brings us to Morristown.
To Be Continued.