O n paper, Benedict Arnold is America’s most infamous traitor.
In the papers, he was so much more.
And less. In the December 1, 1769, edition of The Connecticut Journal, and New Haven Post-Boy, a weekly four-page newspaper, Benedict Arnold appears in a simple, wholesome form, as a New Havener of means with a flighty equine problem. He commissioned a notice regarding “two old Dutch horses”—one “dark gray,” the other “dark brown,” with a “handsome neck”—that had run away. “Whoever shall take up said horses, and return them to me,” Arnold wrote, “shall be reasonably rewarded.”
In a listing printed in the September 27, 1771, edition of the Journal/Post-Boy, Arnold, a successful importer, was in a mood to barter, offering “fine Liverpool salt” to be “exchang’d for flax seed, by Samuel Mansfield and Benedict Arnold, who will give one bushel and a half of salt for one bushel of seed, and as much more as any others will give.” Mansfield was Arnold’s business partner; he was also Arnold’s father-in-law and the high sheriff of New Haven County.
After that innocently salty and seedy advert, Arnold’s paper trail in the Journal goes cold until winter’s end in 1775, when it roars back with a vengeance. By then, the situation in America had changed considerably, and so had Arnold’s driving purpose. As a maritime trader, he’d been frustrated by more than a decade’s worth of taxes, tariffs and other obstacles to prosperity imposed by the British crown; now, a bonafide independence movement was accelerating at a furious clip, and Arnold was ready to put his own shoulders to the yoke. He paid for three consecutive newspaper notices, published on March 1, 8 and 15, expressing his desire “to purchase sixty muskets, with bayonets, etc. as soon as they can be made in this colony; any person who will engage for part or the whole, will meet with proper incouragement [sic]…” That same month, he was chosen to captain Connecticut’s Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, the New Haven wing of the state militia.
War would break out within weeks. On April 19, the first military confrontations of the Revolutionary War took place in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord, about 130 miles away; by April 21, news of the battles had reached New Haven. After debating what to do in response, the town selectmen decided to hold off on any formal action in support of their northern neighbors.
But Arnold, the captain itching for revolution, wouldn’t have it. The next day, he marched his men to the powder house, which held the town’s ammunition stores, and over the objections of prominent townsfolk forced its possessor to hand over the key. “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching,” he said, according to Charles H. Levermore’s The Republic of New Haven.
On May 10, as the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, there was still no unified American military force. Yet, for the support he’d provided to Massachusetts during the ongoing “siege of Boston” that began in nearby Lexington and Concord, Arnold had been promoted to the rank of colonel by the revolutionary authority of the state. Leading a team of patriots, he planned and executed takeovers of Ticonderoga and Crown Point—remote British-held forts near Lake Champlain in New York, strategically significant for their placement along a major supply line from Boston to Canada. At Ticonderoga, Arnold also secured an advanced weapons cache critical to matching the firepower of the British.
These victories didn’t escape the Journal/Post-Boy’s attention. Months afterward, on August 9, 1775, the paper celebrated its hometown hero and printed what reads like an exchange of love letters between Benedict Arnold and the residents of the Lake Champlain area. In their public letter addressed to Arnold, they hailed the “humanity and benevolence,” “elevation and generosity of soul” and “vigilance and good conduct” he exhibited while stationed there; in Arnold’s response, he characterized them as “polite and obliging,” and as exercising “vigilance and spirited conduct in the public cause,” earning his “greatest respect and esteem.” They referred to themselves as Arnold’s “most obliged, and most obedient servants;” he referred to himself as their “most obedient, humble servant.”
When Arnold was writing that letter, dated July 4, 1775, he was about to receive word of a great personal loss that occurred in late June: his wife, who’d stayed back in New Haven, died “without any known cause.” The June 26 edition of The Connecticut Courant, and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer printed this unceremonious blurb, buried amidst unrelated news: “A few days since died suddenly at New Haven Mrs. Margaret Arnold, consort of Colonel Benedict Arnold.” And yet, less than three months after her death, that very colonel would be marching a battalion northward to invade British Quebec, with the blessing of George Washington himself.
Respectable community member… successful merchant… beloved, gracious and trusted military commander… grieving husband determined to fight on. Does any of that sound like the Benedict Arnold you know?
No? Don’t worry. We’ll get to that Benedict Arnold at a later date.
Written by Dan Mims. Image depicts “Benedict Arnold,” an engraving by Henry Bryan Hall (1879).