Turning Points

Turning Points

The procession was attended with a numerous concourse of people, who after expressing their abhorrence of the treason and the traitor, committed him to the flames, and left both the effigy and the original to sink into ashes and oblivion.

The Pennsylvania Packet, on October 3, 1780, describing a public rally in Philadelphia

* * *

The second Battle of Saratoga arrived less than three weeks after the first, on October 7, 1777, and led to the surrender of British general John Burgoyne and his several thousand troops. Commonly regarded as the moment that turned the tide in the Revolutionary War, this rebel victory convinced France that the Americans stood a real chance, leading to a formal alliance against the British and material support—soldiers, supplies, capital—the Americans desperately needed. Meanwhile, it turned a continental conflict into a global one, forcing the British to shore up their homeland and other colonies against the French threat, stretching the empire’s resources ever thinner.

The man history credits more than any other with forcing Burgoyne’s surrender was an individual of great ambition and intemperance, whose story we’ve followed in two previous installments (1 and 2)—the same man whose effigy those angry Philadelphians would burn (and hang) a mere three years later: New Havener Benedict Arnold. Having irretrievably offended General Horatio Gates, his former ally and commanding officer, following the first Battle of Saratoga, Arnold was ordered to sit out the second. Instead, seeing an opportunity to win more decisively than Gates’s conservative strategy would have allowed, Arnold defied the order and rode out to battle by himself, rallied the scattered rebels there and led them on a series of ferocious, fearless charges, breaking the enemy’s lines and overtaking several key battlefield positions along the way.

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As nightfall descended, and as Gates dallied back at camp, Arnold was leading the last charge of the battle when the odds finally caught up with him. His horse was shot; so was his leg—the same one that’d been shot at Quebec two years earlier. Not a moment later, the dying horse landed on the limb, mangling it beyond what the musket ball had already achieved. Between the bullet and the steed, Arnold’s leg was shattered, destroyed for a second time in service to America.

Four days later, after being carted 30 miles to a hospital in Albany, New York, Arnold, now incapacitated and more agitated than ever, had months of recovery time to stew on the various perceived indignities, inequities and losses he’d suffered for the cause. Aside from the great dissatisfaction at losing the use of his leg, which exacerbated everything else, Arnold’s primary resentment at that time appears to have stemmed from two related circumstances: the tendency among other officers to steal or downplay the credit owed for his extraordinary efforts; and the Continental Congress’s promotion of less deserving officers above him.

Yet even Arnold’s many detractors couldn’t deny his heroism at Saratoga. Three months later, at the end of January, 1778, the Congress “voted to let George Washington ‘regulate the rank of Major General Arnold’” (George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots, Dave R. Palmer, 2006), allowing the commander-in-chief to “restore” to Arnold the seniority he’d long contended should already have been his.

In May, with lingering mistrust of the revolutionary authorities and still unable to stand on his leg, Arnold made his way back to New Haven, where “he was given a hero’s welcome… met on the road by the cadet corps and ‘a number of respectable inhabitants;’ thirteen cannon were fired” (The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André, James Thomas Flexner, 1953). But he wouldn’t be home for long; Washington valued him too much. After a few days, Arnold was summoned to Valley Forge, where he was given orders to lead the capital of the colonies, Philadelphia.

Officially, he was the city’s military commander. Unofficially, Arnold would use his military power to amass the socioeconomic kind. Having spent a lot of his own money advancing the fight for independence along with many other sacrifices, Arnold decided to use his new position to pay himself back, engaging in a spate of shady trade activities. He helped merchants smuggle their goods through American blockades; used military property for private ends; and personally profited from the sale of goods seized from British loyalists. Meanwhile, he adopted an openly extravagant lifestyle, residing in lavish quarters and getting around town in “an especially ostentatious carriage” (Palmer). He openly fraternized with Philadelphia’s conservative high society—especially Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent judge with Tory sympathies, whom he would almost immediately begin courting for marriage.

But while Arnold was using his grievances to rationalize his graft, he was creating grievances among the city’s radical revolutionaries. Suspicions about Arnold’s actions and character, which had been floated many times and many ways before members of Congress in the preceding years, became easier to believe. Local politicians, most notably a man named Joseph Reed, began to grumble. Reed eventually leveled formal charges, prompting Arnold to take to the newspapers with a preemptive and not very honest strike, reading in part:

…the present attack upon me is as gross a prostitution of power as ever disgraced a weak and wicked Administration and manifests a spirit of persecution against a man (who has endeavoured to deserve well of this country) which would discredit the private resentments of an individual, and which ought to render any public body who could be influenced by it, contemptible.

Soon after, on April 8, 1779, Arnold and Shippen married, and, with new kinds of independence to fight for—financial, for one, and legal, for another, both of which the British could provide—“treason flowered almost instantly” (Flexner).

The idea of it did, anyway. The actual intrigue was yet to come, as is our telling of it.

Written by Dan Mims. Image depicts “Benedict Arnold,” an 1879 engraving by Henry Bryan Hall. This lightly revised story was originally published on May 20, 2014.

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