Paper Trail

Paper Trail

On paper, New Havener Benedict Arnold is America’s most infamous traitor.

In the papers, he was more.

In the December 1, 1769, edition of the weekly four-pager The Connecticut Journal, and New Haven Post-Boy, Arnold placed a notice regarding “two old Dutch horses” that had run away, one “dark gray” and the other “dark brown” with a “handsome neck.” “Whoever shall take up said horses, and return them to me,” Arnold promised, “shall be reasonably rewarded.”

In the September 27, 1771, edition of the 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 and father-in-law as well as the high sheriff of New Haven County.

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Arnold’s trail in the Post-Boy goes cold until winter’s end in 1775. By then, the situation in America had changed considerably, and so had Arnold’s driving purpose. As a merchant and pharmacist, 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, an independence movement was accelerating at a furious clip, and Arnold was eager to put his shoulder to the yoke. He bought three consecutive newspaper notices, published March 1, 8 and 15, expressing a 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 …” 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 American Revolution took place in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord, about 130 miles away. By April 21, news of the battles had reached New Haven. The next day, Arnold, the captain itching for self-government, marched his men to the New Haven Green, leading them loudly through their drills near the tavern where town selectmen had convened to consider their options. When Arnold demanded the keys to the town’s ammunition stores, the selectmen, having agreed to hold off on any military engagement, declined.

But Arnold wouldn’t have it. “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching,” he said, according to Charles H. Levermore’s The Republic of New Haven (1886), and, soon enough, the selectmen handed over the key. Arnold then led his well-supplied men north, joining the fight against the British during the “siege of Boston.”

By May 10, as the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, there was still no unified American military force. Yet, for the immediate, unflinching support he was providing to Massachusetts, Arnold had already been promoted to the rank of colonel by the revolutionary authority of the state. Leading a team of patriots, he then planned and executed takeovers of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, remote British-held forts near Lake Champlain in New York that were significant for their placement along a major supply line between Boston and Canada. At Ticonderoga, Arnold also secured an advanced weapons cache critical to matching the firepower of the British.

These impressive early victories didn’t escape the 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 letter addressed to Arnold, the lakers hailed his “humanity and benevolence,” “elevation and generosity of soul” and “vigilance and good conduct.” Arnold, in response, extolled them as “polite and obliging,” praising their “vigilance and spirited conduct in the public cause” with his “greatest respect and esteem.” They were his “most obliged, and most obedient servants;” he, in turn, was their “most obedient, humble servant.”

At the time Arnold wrote those words, dated July 4, 1775, he was about to receive word of a great personal loss that occurred in late June: His wife had died in New Haven “without any known cause.” The June 26 edition of The Connecticut Courant, and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer printed this unceremonious blurb, buried amid 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 colonel would march a battalion northward to invade British Quebec, with the full esteem and confidence of George Washington himself.

Respectable citizen… successful merchant… beloved, gracious and respected 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 1879 engraving by Henry Bryan Hall. This updated story was originally published on May 2, 2014.

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