Who Was Benedict Arnold?
Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was an American officer in the Revolutionary War who betrayed military secrets to the British and plotted to surrender an army base to the enemy. He changed sides partly for money, partly in revenge for being reprimanded and partly, perhaps, because of the influence of his second wife, who had no sympathy for the rebellion.
Before war broke out between the Americans and the British, Arnold had served in the French and Indian wars and become a druggist and bookseller as well as being active in the West Indian trade. He was an early hero of the Revolution, taking part as a captain in the Connecticut militia in Ethan Allen’s successful attack on Fort Ticonderoga, New York State, in 1775.
The following year he was wounded at Quebec and promoted to brigadier-general in recognition of his brave leadership. After other acts of valour, which resulted in his being crippled, he was appointed military commander of Philadelphia in 1778.
He enjoyed the city’s social life but his extravagance and association with Loyalist members of the community disgusted the patriots and aroused their suspicions. He was accused of misusing public property and authority for personal profit and was awaiting court martial when he married Margaret Shippen, 18-year-old daughter of a Loyalist. Even before the court martial was held Arnold offered his services to the British forces as an informer.
When in December 1779, he was found guilty of two minor offences and reprimanded gently by George Washington; he again entered with his wife into treasonable correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in Chief. He sent news of the proposed invasion of Canada and later offered for £20,000-to surrender the strategic military base at West Point on the Hudson River where he expected to be appointed commander.
Clinton agreed and sent his aide, Major John André, to meet him under a flag of truce on the night of September 21, 1780. Returning overland in disguise, André was captured and incriminating papers were found in his boot. Arnold escaped along the Hudson to the British Army, but André was hanged as a spy.
Arnold received a commission as a brigadier general in the British Army, an annual pension of £360, and a lump sum of over £6,000. He led British forces on raids in Virginia and against New London and Groton, Connecticut before the war effectively ended with the American victory at Yorktown. In the winter of 1782, he moved to London with his second wife Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold.
He was well received by King George III and the Tories, but frowned upon by the Whigs. In 1787, he returned to the merchant business with his sons Richard and Henry in Saint John, New Brunswick. He returned to London to settle permanently in 1791, where he was treated with scorn and distrust, and ostracized by society. He died an embittered man in London on 1801. His wife survived him by only three years.
The name “Benedict Arnold” quickly became a byword in the United States for treason or betrayal because he betrayed his countrymen by leading the British army in battle against the men whom he once commanded. His earlier legacy is recalled in the ambiguous nature of some of the memorials that have been placed in his honor.