Benedict Arnold was born into a well-respected family on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut. He was one of the bravest American generals at the start of the American Revolution. He used his ruthlessness and cunningness to capture British forts one after another and kept the British army out of strategic locations. After twice wounding his leg for America and nearly losing it permanently, Arnold expected more from Congress and his companions only to be left with a feeling of betrayal and abandonment. He reached out to the British and bartered his command point in favor of money and higher posts in the British Army. He would later defect to the Loyalist Army and attack his own Patriot forces with the same ruthlessness and power. He tried to settle in England and Canada later, but he finally died in London as a man without a country.
Arnold was the last of six siblings born to Benedict Arnold III and Hannah Waterman King of Norwich, Connecticut. He was one of the many Benedict Arnold in his family, along with his sister Hannah, who survived to adulthood in those treacherous days of childhood yellow fever. His parents died early. Arnold had to withdraw soon from school at the age of 14 and could not continue their family’s mercantile business.
He served as an apprentice at an apothecary and at the age of fifteen joined the Connecticut militia during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763. The humiliating defeat of the British by the French and the way Indians massacred hundreds of British men, women and children for scalps, arms, and booty left a lasting impression on Arnold and a life-long hatred for the French which influenced his later actions in life.
He tried to become a trader and opened a druggist shop that also sold books. His burning ambition and business skills propelled his international trading activity. He bought their family’s homestead back and re-sold it at high profits to buy a fleet of ships. He got married to Margaret Mansfield on February 22, 1767, who died on June 1775, leaving him with three children.
Though successful in his business career, he was bothered by the oppressive British taxes and stringent policies, Arnold soon decided to devote himself for the Patriot cause of resisting British tyranny by leading the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty.
Patriot of War
When war began in Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, Arnold was still a young apothecary and minor merchant in New Haven, Connecticut. He was also a militia captain and Patriot. After the Boston Massacre, eager to support the American rebellion, Arnold first planned to march to Boston. On the way Arnold wanted to attack Fort Ticonderoga first and grab its cannons. He persuaded the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to accept his plans and make him a colonel. Upon appointment Arnold proved his skills and won the battle without bloodshed. The Patriots marched into the fort with no enemies and captured valuable ammunition. Following the bloodless victory, he vaulted up into the military ranks of Washington as Commander. Though the victory was achieved, Arnold’s inflated expense claims made the legislators suspicious later.
The Unsuccessful Battle of Quebec
During the battle at Fort Ticonderoga, Arnold proved himself as a brave and skillful leader. His heroics continued in September, when he was asked to lead an expedition of 1,150 riflemen against Quebec, then the capital of British Canada. The path to Quebec was treacherous, and 200 men died on the way and more than 200 men defected. Undeterred, Arnold joined later by General Richard Montgomery and his 300 troops attacked the strongly fortified city, only to have the conflict end in a disaster for the Americans. A hundred men were killed, including Montgomery; 400 of them were captured; and many were left wounded, including Arnold, who had a bullet through his leg.
The Battle of Quebec was only the beginning for Arnold. For the next five years or so, he served under Washington with distinction in every battle, including a daring assault against the main center of the British line at Saratoga, New York, where he was wounded in the leg again. During this time, Arnold exhibited his imaginative, daring, and courageous skills better than any other soldier, field officer, or commander.
In January, 1776, Arnold promoted to Brigadier, with ample support from General Gates was asked to march to Lake Champlain against Sir Guy Carleton who commanded a superior force. With brute force, Arnold tried to stomp his authority but failed in the end. He displayed his Patriot colors even in retreat and was nevertheless applauded for his valorous conduct.
In April, 1777, he faced General Tryon and his two thousand strong men who were marching to Danbury, in Connecticut. Arnold met the enemy within few feet and had his horse shot under him. He used his pistols and another horse that was also wounded in the neck to fight the enemies.
In the following May, he was elevated as Major General and marched against General St. Leger at Fort Stanwix in August, 1777. Alarmed at the speed and power of General Arnold’s men, the enemy abandoned the enterprise even before his arrival. In the midst of other conflicts at Bemis’s heights, Arnold got into a serious conflict of opinion with General Gates and asked to be discharged from his command. A repeatedly wounded Arnold left the war-field to report to Washington.
Washington appointed Benedict Arnold as military commander of Philadelphia after the evacuation by the British army in June 1778. He was deemed unfit for field commission due to his injuries. He crossed with Congress again and again on behalf of veterans and families. He slowly started a grudge against the architects of the Revolution.
Lavish Life at Philadelphia
At Philadelphia, Arnold lived a lavish life, much different than before. He was honored and awarded by Washington for his military deeds. He lived in the house of Governor Penn, the best address in the city, and furnished in a rich and splendid style. As a widower, he courted Miss Margaret Shippen, a Tory supporter with clear British ties and half his age. He married her and lived a grand and lavish life.
Legal Tangles and Liaison with the British
Arnold never truly received national recognition for his work. He was left of promotion lists constantly, and many of his inferior military officers leaped over him repeatedly. He felt Congress repeatedly insulted his virtue and his sense of betrayal reached an unbearable pitch. With the help of the French, the British surrendered, but Major General Gates would take credit for all this while Arnold lay wounded at a hospital in Albany. With the popular support for the American Revolution waning, Arnold felt that the country could become worse off than it was before the Revolution.
Soon, he fell out with Congress and the citizens of Philadelphia. Being sent to court-martial for his financial deeds infuriated him constantly. He complained to Washington about his bitterness with the Congress.
By 1779, Arnold started making deals with the British whom he once fought valiantly. He was angry about the court-martial and also wanted more money because he was in debt. The British promised Benedict Arnold a lot of money to turn into a British spy and also promised to make him a British officer though they never fully trusted him.
West Point Command and Arnold’s Defection
Unaware of his deep unhappiness and underlying thoughts, in 1780 Arnold was entrusted with the command of West Point, an important American fort on the Hudson River in New York. With cool and cunning calculation, he initiated secret coded correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, proposing to deliver West Point and its 3,000 men for 20,000 British pounds. John André of the British Army and Arnold exchanged plans for West Point. Later John was caught by the American militia men, who found the secret documents hidden in his shoes. Tipped about the arrest, Benedict Arnold escaped from the Americans on a barge over Hudson River, and he was never caught.
He reached New York and teamed up with the British, serving under King George III with the same skill and daring he showed to the Patriots. He attacked Patriot supply depots, looted Richmond, destroyed munitions, provisions, and grains, and burned ships and warehouses in Connecticut and much of the town of New London. After such acts, his career of wickedness in America was terminated and at the close of the war, he left with the royal army to England.
Life in Britain and Canada
In Britain, he was as much despised as he was in America. The contempt that engulfed him through his life was clear by the public display of hatred by Lord Lauderdale and Lord Surrey. His life of misery continued with him to England. He tried merchandising goods from England at New Brunswick, but the store was brought down by fire. He had nothing else to do, so he lived out the rest of his ailing life in England and Canada.
A Man Without a Country
In the end, Benedict Arnold’s failure lay in his disenchantment with the failed American cause in his opinion and the decline in republican virtue. His allegiance to the British had more to do with personal gain than with the principles of British. Arnold betrayed West Point and the entire American cause just to secure his own wealth. Hated in America, Arnold was treated with the same coldness and even contempt in Britain. He died in 1801 having lived as a man without a country.