January 14, 1741 Turncoat

Dying and delirious on his deathbed in 1801, Benedict Arnold is reputed to have said “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles.  May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”

An ordained minister of the Church of England, Reverend John Lothropp renounced his orders and joined the cause of religious independence, in 1623.  Lothropp was arrested and jailed for his apostasy, pardoned only on condition that he leave and never come back.  He accepted the terms of his exile, arriving in Plymouth Massachusetts a short fourteen years after the original pilgrims.  Today, John Lothropp is mostly forgotten, but that his home on Cape Cod houses the oldest public library, in America.

That, and a host of famous relatives, including both George Bushes, Franklin Roosevelt, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Millard Fillmore.  Oh, and a General from the Revolution.  Benedict Arnold.

Born this day in 1741, Benedict Arnold was named after his great-grandfather, an early governor of the Rhode Island Colony.  Arnold was the second of six children born to Benedict Arnold and Hannah Waterman King, destined for the upper reaches of Connecticut society.

That future wasn’t meant to be.

Arnold’s father took up drinking when the boy was twelve, following the yellow fever epidemic which killed two daughters and a son.  Ill health and alcoholism kept the elder Arnold from training his son in the family mercantile business.  By the time the boy turned fourteen, the family fortune was squandered.

The elder Benedict’s drinking became worse following the death of his wife.  There were frequent arrests for public intoxication.  By age 19, Benedict Arnold was fully supporting his father and younger sister.

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By age 21, Arnold established himself as a pharmacist and New Haven bookseller.  Hard work and shrewd decisions led to business success. Within two years, Arnold had repaid his loans and re-purchased the family homestead, which his father had sold while deeply in debt.  In 1764, Arnold partnered with Adam Babcock, another young New Haven merchant, in a lucrative trade ranging from Quebec to the Caribbean basin.

The Sugar Act and the Stamp Acts of 1764-’65 effectively converted honest merchants to smugglers.  Arnold continued his trade as if these revenue acts didn’t exist.  Within three years he was deeply in debt, aligning himself with a secret organization called the “Sons of Liberty”.

Arnold was “very much shocked” on hearing of the Boston Massacre in 1770.  “Good God” he wrote from the West Indies, “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?”

Benedict Arnold entered the Revolution following the British attacks on Lexington and Concord, marching east to take part in the siege of Boston, as Captain of the Connecticut militia.

Seemingly everywhere, it was Arnold who first proposed to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety an assault on Fort Ticonderoga.  Arnold was granted a Colonelcy in the Massachusetts militia, recruiting a force of some 400 and riding west and meeting up with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys”, bent on the same purpose.

Colonel Henry Knox would retrieve the guns of Ticonderoga the following January, returning them east to end the British occupation of Boston.

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Audacious as he was, Arnold was a prideful man, hot tempered and quick to take offense. Let his own words, spoken to the insolent Congressman Joseph Reed, give a sense of the man.  “If your great umbrage would care to meet my high dudgeon at 12 paces, I would be happy to entertain you at dawn.”

Having spent £1,000 of his own money on their successful capture, the Massachusetts Colonel styled himself “Commander in Chief” of the 250-odd force in control of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.  The clash was inevitable, when Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull sent Benjamin Hinman north with ten companies (1,000 men) to take command of the installations.

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Fort Ticonderoga

Ordered to subordinate his command to that of Hinman, Arnold instead resigned his commission and urged his men to follow suit.  Heading for home that June, it was then that Arnold learned of the death of his wife and mother to his three sons, Margaret Mansfield.

Later that year, the 2nd Continental Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec, largely at Arnold’s insistence, but he was passed over for command of the expedition.  Thus insulted by the Continental Congress, Arnold traveled to Cambridge that September, persuading General George Washington to mount an assault on Quebec City with himself in charge.

The winter passage north through the Maine wilderness was so brutal that 200 of the 1,100-man force died en route, and another 300 turned back.  Meanwhile, General Richard Montgomery was making his own difficult passage through Montreal eastward up the St. Lawrence, with a force of 300.

The two small forces combined in a heavy snowstorm on December 31, to assault Quebec City.  Montgomery himself was killed in the assault and Benedict Arnold shot, his leg shattered by a British bullet.

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For four months, Arnold directed the siege of Quebec from a makeshift hospital bed in the Hôtel Dieu.  Promoted to Brigadier General, he briefly acted as military governor of Montreal, later presiding over the rear of the Continental Army, on its retreat through Saint-Jean.  It was said that General Arnold was the last man to leave, before the British arrived.

In the summer and fall of 1776, massive British forces were building along the upper reaches of Lake Champlain.  The Americans were building a fleet of their own that summer, on the New York side of the lake.    It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water.  14 ships under the command of Benedict Arnold met a vastly superior British fleet in October 1776, near Valcour Island.  The outcome was never in doubt.  After two days’ fighting, Benedict Arnold ran his flagship aground and torched it with his own hand, lest it fall into British hands.  Once again, he was the last man to leave.

Though victorious, sir Guy Carleton’s fleet had taken a beating and returned north for rest and refit.  Benedict Arnold had bought another year, for the Patriot cause.

Always prickly, Arnold was making friends during this period, but he was making more enemies.  One subordinate officer, John Brown of Pittsfield, was particularly scathing,  publishing a handbill in which he claimed, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country”.

Battle-monument

In 1777, Arnold participated in the unsuccessful defense of Rhode Island, when he learned that Congress had passed him over for promotion to Major-General.  On his way to Philadelphia to argue his cause, he learned that a British force was on the march, headed for an American supply depot, in Danbury CT.  Arnold organized a militia response along with General David Wooster and Connecticut militia General Gold Silliman.  The two sides met that April at the Battle of Ridgefield, where Wooster was killed and Arnold wounded, in that same left leg.

The British had by this time retaken Fort Ticonderoga. British General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was leading a joint land/water invasion of 7,000 British and Hessian troops south along the New York side of Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River valley.

Arnold received his promotion (without seniority), but not without first threatening to resign.  Washington refused the resignation, instead sending now Major-General Arnold north to a place called Saratoga.  The second and decisive battle for Saratoga, the Battle of Bemis Heights, was a brilliant victory for the Patriot cause, finally bringing the French in on the American side.

Possessed of physical courage bordering on recklessness, Arnold was everywhere on that battlefield.  Many of his men credit him with their successes, that day.  Arnold was shot once again, shattering that same left leg, in the closing moments of the battle.  It would have been better in the chest, he said.  Modern medicine would have been powerless to fix that thing.  As it was he refused amputation.  The leg was crudely set, healing 2″ shorter than the right.  He would remain lame, for the rest of his life.

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As military commander of Philadelphia, Arnold became increasingly disillusioned with the Patriot cause. General Nathanael Greene wrote to General John Cadwalader in November 1778, “I am told General Arnold is become very unpopular among you oweing to his associateing too much with the Tories.”

Arnold was engaged in a variety of business deals at the time, designed to enrich himself. Such schemes were not exactly uncommon among American officers, but he ‘d collected more than his share of detractors in political and military circles, alike. In May of 1779, Arnold wrote to General Washington, in response to such charges. “Having become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet [such] ungrateful returns.”

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Peggy Shippen

Arnold lived beyond his means in Philadelphia, moving in society circles where he met and later married  Peggy Shippen, the beautiful 18-year old daughter of a prominent Philadelphia loyalist.

Despite military bans on communication with the enemy, Peggy and her friends had long figured out ways to carry on with social lives, across battle lines.  It is Peggy Shippen who formed the link between her husband, and British major John André.

In August of 1780, Benedict Arnold agreed to betray the American fortifications at West Point to major André, for £20,000. The name of one of our top tier of Revolution-era Generals, became the name of Traitor.

One of Arnold’s contemporaries said that they would hang him if they ever caught him, and then they would bury his leg with full military honors.

Statue of legIf you visit the battlefield at Saratoga, you’ll find a statue, of a leg.  It’s a boot, actually, a man’s riding boot, with an epaulet and a cannon barrel pointing down, denoting the death of a General.  It seems the loneliest place on earth out there in the woods, with nothing but a footpath worn into the forest floor, to lead you there.

The statue bears no name.  Only this inscription:  “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT…”

A man who did as much as any to win the American Revolution remained the subject of hatred and distrust on both sides, for the rest of his life.  Dying and delirious on his deathbed in 1801, Benedict Arnold is reputed to have said “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles.  May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”

Benedict Arnold’s funeral was without military honors.  He was buried at St. Mary’s Church in London, his remains removed a century later to an unmarked mass grave.

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I’ve written about 450. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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