W hen we last left New Havener Benedict Arnold, it was August 1775, not long after the dawn of the Revolutionary War. Following clues contained within newspapers of the day, we got to know the unfamous, not the infamous, Arnold—the merchant, the husband and the exceptionally committed patriot, willing to risk life and limb at a moment’s notice to help secure America’s independence from her British masters.
Over the next few years, his importance as a public figure would grow enormously, and so would the anxiety a keen observer might feel about the true nature of Benedict Arnold. Was he in it for the republic, or for himself? Was he a man of integrity, or of expediency? Was he a patriot, or a profiteer?
The public got a vague, fleeting glimpse of conflict on this score just a few months into the Revolutionary War. The Connecticut Journal, and New Haven Post-Boy, in a note reprinted from the New York Journal hailing Arnold’s victories and virtues, felt it necessary to admonish the man’s “enemies, who have… artfully endeavoured to misrepresent his conduct, and give a blameable aspect to [his] actions.”
According to various accounts, the man’s “enemies” tended to be his fellow officers in the Continental Army, driven to suspicion of Arnold’s character and motives by his headstrong nature, impolitic communication style and tendency to behave in ways easily interpreted as self-serving. After all, if at first he didn’t get his way, he’d find a way to get it anyway; and if he disagreed with someone, he usually wouldn’t mince his own words, or heed theirs.
Fortunately for Arnold, he had already earned the trust of the most important officer of all: George Washington, the commander-in-chief of the rest. In the fall of 1775, Washington gave Colonel Arnold command of about a thousand soldiers, in order to mount an exceptionally perilous sneak attack on Quebec City, the most important British stronghold in Canada. The sneakiness was an intended consequence of the peril: Arnold and his men would be trekking through hundreds of miles of far-northern wilderness “considered impassable” by Americans and British alike—in increasingly cold weather at that—to attack the city from a direction its English guardians wouldn’t see coming (The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André by James Thomas Flexner). Pulling about 675 men through to the other side, with roughly a third of the original battalion lost either to death or desertion along the grueling trip, Arnold himself never wavered—at least, not until he was forced off his feet during the eventual battle for Quebec, when a bullet tore through his leg.
As he was carried to a Catholic hospital outpost nearby, his disarrayed and far outnumbered forces, even having been joined by another, smaller brigade of a few hundred, were easily overwhelmed by the British defenders. With many captured or killed, the remainder of the rebel force, having pulled back and camped outside the city walls, were deprived access to fresh provisions when the British cut off their supply lines. Meanwhile, as 1775 turned to 1776—and as Arnold was promoted to the rank of brigadier general—sickness and harsh cold plagued the men, now forced to go to bed hungry in makeshift ice shelters, under constant threat of attack by a much stronger military force that could simply march out and annihilate them if it wanted to.
Somehow, despite it all, Arnold persuaded the vast majority of the roughly 500 men to stay, mounting a symbolic standoff with the city that saved face for the Continental Army, and for Arnold himself. According to The Traitor and the Spy, Washington considered this persuasion “a truly amazing achievement” in command terms—one that, as the book puts it, “rivals Washington’s own achievement at Valley Forge.” Others, however, could be forgiven for seeing Arnold’s willingness to charge his men into an unwinnable battle, and to manipulate them into enduring awful conditions before and after, as a clear sign that Arnold valued his own interests—in this case, his pride and ambition—more greatly than the interests of both the army at large and the individuals composing it.
Months later, these suspicions would materialize surrounding a different matter altogether. During the rebels’ ultimate retreat from Quebec, Arnold had seized goods from local merchants for the benefit of the army; but the goods mysteriously disappeared en route. Moses Hazen, a colonel who generally disliked Arnold, leveled the accusation that Arnold had flipped the goods for his own profit. Arnold, the ranking officer, went on offense, ordering a court martial of Hazen; but by the end of the proceedings, it was Arnold who was ordered arrested. That arrest was then prevented by General Horatio Gates, who felt Arnold was needed as a commander, regardless of whatever misdeeds may have provoked the ruling against him.
That was the summer of 1776, at Fort Saratoga. A couple years later—after Arnold had been passed over for promotion, later submitting his resignation in response; after Washington had refused Arnold’s resignation; and after Arnold played a crucial role in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1777, during which he would once again be shot in the leg—Hazen’s accusations would be mirrored, and magnified, in the colonial capital of Philadelphia, where Arnold had been appointed military commander.
There, General Arnold would also meet his second wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, an aristocratic Tory sympathizer who would connect him to other influential Tories, altogether softening the man’s stance towards the British; adding fuel to the fire of the percolating resentments he held against his rebel compatriots; and setting the stage for Benedict Arnold’s tragic third act.
But that’s a story for another day.
Written by Dan Mims. Image makes use of “Benedict Arnold,” an engraving by Henry Bryan Hall (1879).