To try to defend Benedict Arnold is a lot like being the defense lawyer at the Nuremburg trials. Somebody has to do it, even though you know the guy’s guilty as sin.
I’m not going to sweep Arnold’s treachery under the rug–the guy did sell out the country he was defending, after all. Yet I don’t want to paint this guy as entirely evil. Prior to his treachery, Arnold was the most able, successful commander in the Continental Army. Some would say he was even better than George Washington. What Arnold did has to viewed in the lens of his times and compared to other “traitors” of the Revolution–people who’s acts do not seem that treasonous today.
Here’s the Law and Order, CSI-esque lowdown of what happened. Since the spring of 1779, Arnold was in communication with the British forces of Sir Henry Clinton about offering his services to the Crown. The strategic chokepoint of West Point, NY was about to be given to Arnold to command. He gained command of the fortress on August 3, 1780, and received the offer he was negotiating for a year: the British were offering £20,000 in exchange for the fortress. The deal was sealed with Arnold meeting Major John Andre on Sept. 21. However, Andre was captured two days later and the plot unraveled. Arnold managed to slip to the British lines–even getting Washington’s permission to allow his mistress safe passage to England. Andre was tried and hanged as a spy. America develops a new definition for a two-timing, snake-in-the-grass son-of-a-bitch.
There’s no doubt that Arnold’s actions were a complete dick move. West Point was the strategic point in the Hudson that opened it to Lake George, then Lake Champlain and into Canada, where British reinforcements were waiting. His motives, too, seem to denote the whiff of an insufferable asshole. He was pissed at being passed over for commands, and he spent his dough like a rapper at the Source Awards, which got him deep in the hole. Yet does Arnold deserve his eternal shitpile?
Yes, but with a little less shit than was piled on before. Also, the shit has to spread to other people. I’m sorry, George, but you should’ve seen this coming.
The biggest charge is that Arnold committed treason against the country he defended, even suffering wounds in the service. While I don’t doubt his brilliant service prior to the West Point affair–his actions in Saratoga saved the Revolution, for Christ’s sake–I do question his patriotism, or his commitment to the cause. In my opinion, Arnold was never a real patriot, but rather a voraciously ambitious opportunist.
Arnold, being a good Connecticut boy, made his living at the mercantile trade. He made a pretty good living up until the crises of the 1760s, the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. Arnold continued to smuggle goods in defiance of the act, even attending local Sons of Liberty meetings. Yet it’s hard to see this as more than self-serving: Arnold was hurt in his pockets, and his subsequent actions in the Continental Army bear out his monetary concerns.
His military career was a quest for glory–not for liberty. He took on daring assignments to boost his resume. Taking Fort Ticonderoga without a shot and engineering a brilliant retreat from a failed Canadian invasion in 1776 definitely add to Arnold’s skill set.
Then came his big project, Saratoga, a job he lobbied for relentlessly. Washington went with Horatio Gates, against the wishes of Arnold and others who saw Gates as a British-trained sissy. The battle bore this out: Gates was playing safe with a fortified position against British, Canadian and German mercenary forces. Arnold defied Gates by leading a headlong charge into the British lines with three regiments at a dead run, a bold move that broke the lines and bust open a gap to the Canadian and German reinforcements. The lobsterbacks didn’t have a chance: John Burgoyne and the entire northern British army surrenders to Gates.
So why the beef with the Continentals? Money and glory. Arnold was constantly getting passed over for promotions he felt he deserved–including Saratoga, which he actually did deserve. Furthermore, he was owed money from the Continental Congress since his expeditions were paid mostly out of his own pocket–but many of the generals did the same thing, including Washington. It also didn’t help that as military governor of Philadelphia in 1778, he lived high on the hog and took on a high-maintenance mistress with Loyalist sympathies.
If Arnold was a true patriot from the beginning, I could see the treason much clearer. The fact is, the military victories blinded the Continental commanders to Arnold’s clear personality flaws. He was an overachieving prick with a lust for money and power. No one should have given him command of a pisspot, let alone West Point. Since the 1760s, his quest was for personal fame and fortune, and he showed absolutely no inclination that the patriot cause meshed with his own philosophy.
Arnold was not the only traitor with a need for cash. Benjamin Church was the doctor for the Massachusetts militia, later the Continental army, during the opening months of the Revolution in 1775. During that time, and also to get out of a hole, he was sending secret information to British general Thomas Gage, including troop movements. He was caught and managed to slip on a ship, never to be seen again.
Robert Rogers, an American ranger who served brilliantly during the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763, offered his services to the Continentals. It didn’t help that the Congress offered him a commission and was rebuffed, stating that he was a British officer. His drinking didn’t help, either. Washington had him arrested rather than risk his person causing havoc. Rogers would subsequently raise a gang of loyalist guerrillas that would capture American spy Nathan Hale in 1776, obstentsibly by pretending that Rogers was a patriot spy, too. Even today, the US Army names its pioneer divisions Rangers, after Rogers, who worked against the Americans.
So it’s probably best to cut Arnold some slack, but not a whole lot. His treachery succeeded not because of some inherent feeling of loyalty to Great Britain, but because the people around him could not see the amoral nature of his actions. He was but one of many American turncoats in the Revolutionary period, and most of them were turncoats for reasons far more reasoned than Arnold.
In short, Arnold’s story teaches us that it’s good to tolerate a bastard if he’s an earner. If he gets a little grabby, though, it’s time to cut him loose.
George Washington’s kicking himself right now.
This Day in History 10/17: Burgoyne Surrenders at Saratoga
Image via Wikipedia
Everything about the Battle of Saratoga–including its name–has been scrubbed clean by scores of textbooks.
On October 17, 1777, after a punishing four-month campaign, British general John Burgoyne surrendered almost 6,000 British, Hessian and Canadian troops to the Northern Department of the Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates and (they should get all the credit for victory) Generals Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan.
It was a stunning victory, one that would have widespread effects on the Revolutionary War. Yet many of the details have been lost to the chest-thumping.
Burgoyne left Canada in June of 1777 with a force that was designed to connect with two other British forces: Barry St. Leger‘s mixed army of British, Hessian and Native troops from the west, and Sir William Howe‘s main British force from New York City. They were supposed to meet near Albany, dividing the colonies in two and effectively ending the war and the American Revolution.
It didn’t exactly go as planned.
First to punk out was Howe. It was, on the surface, an easy choice: George Washington’s army was being driven from Pennsylvania, and the rebel capital, Philadelphia was poised for the taking. To him, it made more sense. Never mind that the plan to effectively end the war was fucked up from the very beginning–Washington was the bigger prize. It would be a prize Howe would never get, and would soon be relieved by Sir Henry Clinton.
St. Leger had an even worse time. He never had any intention of backing out: his mixed force of 2000 Loyalists, British and natives crossed Lake Ontario and landed at Oswego on July 25. The brutal campaigns of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix–where American militiamen and native allies slugged it out with St. Leger’s forces to a stalemate–changed the story. It drained the morale of St. Leger’s native allies, who took their supplies and took off. It didn’t help that Benedict Arnold tricked St. Leger into thinking a larger colonial force was coming to relieve Fort Stanwix. By the time St. Leger shows up at Fort Ticonderoga on September 27, his feeble force was no help to Burgoyne.
Of the three prongs on the British plan, it was Burgoyne, funny enough, who was most successful. By July he had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, an important strategic and symbolic fortification on the foot of Lake Champlain. Yet from then on, his campaign slowed to a crawl, as the wagons crating the supplies–including Burgoyne’s luggage, china and furniture–got bogged down in the Hudson highlands.
In the meantime, a quick American victory over Burgoyne’s advance cavalry at Bennington boosted morale to the point that American forces would swell to close to 15,000. It included Daniel Morgan’s Virginia sharpshooters, Benedict Arnold’s force sent to relieve Fort Stanwix, as well as the main force under Benjamin Lincoln and a new commander, British trained Horatio Gates.
Gates thought he could do a better job than Washington. Arnold thought he could do a better job than Gates. Both hated each other.
So how was Saratoga won?
Saratoga was not one battle, but rather a series of maneuvers and two battles over on month. The first, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the British technically won, but at the cost of 600 casualties. On October 7, the British attacked American fortified positions at Bemis Heights. In the two actions–the second punctuated by a daring attack by Arnold who was probably drunk–the British suffered a total of 1000 casualties.
Outnumber three to one, with the Americans controlling the high ground and surrounding him at the town of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his forces. When he discussed the terms with General Gates, Burgoyne insisted on calling the surrender a “convention” rather than a “capitulation.”
He fooled no one.
On the final ceremony, after Burgoyne offered his sword to Gates (who refused–a move that further infuriated Arnold), 6000 soldiers laid down their arms as the band played “Yankee Doodle.”
It was very clear to everyone this was no “convention.”
Saratoga would invoke the first day of Thanksgiving, decreed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777. It convinced France and Spain that the Americans could actually win the war–given the right support. Soon, both countries would sign treaties of alliance with the United States, transforming a colonial rebellion into a world war.
Below is a two-part short documentary about Saratoga narrated by Dan Roberts.
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