Born: January 14, 1741
Died: June 14, 1801
American military general
Although he fought with skill and courage in many campaigns during the American Revolution (1775–83), General Benedict Arnold is best known as the man who betrayed his country.
Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut. He was one of only two of his mother's eleven children to survive into adulthood. His mother had been a prosperous widow before marrying Arnold's father, a merchant. However, Arnold's father did not manage the family's money well, and they were financially ruined when Arnold was thirteen. He was forced to leave school and go to work learning to be an apothecary, a position similar to that of a modern-day pharmacist.
As a young man, Arnold was a risk-taker who looked for outlets for his energetic and impulsive (taking action before thinking things through) nature. He volunteered for the French and Indian War (1754–63), a war fought between France and England in America for control of the colonial lands, but at eighteen he deserted in order to be with his mother, who was dying. In the 1760s he traded with Canada and the West Indies as a merchant and a sea captain. He took his hot-headed nature to sea with him, fighting at least two duels while on trading voyages. He was a financial success as a trader, but he was also accused of smuggling. In 1767 he married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of a government official in New Haven, Connecticut.
News of the battles of Lexington and Concord (April 17, 1775) in Massachusetts, the first battles of the Revolution, reached Arnold in April 1775. Upon hearing of these events he set out as the head of a company of Connecticut militia for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where George Washington (1732–1799) was gathering an army to fight the British forces. Although he marched to Massachusetts without military orders to do so, Arnold was soon given an official mission. His first military engagement was the attack the next month on Fort Ticonderoga in northeastern New York, where the British had a supply of artillery, a type of large-caliber weaponry that includes cannons. The attack operation was successful, but Arnold got little of the credit for this success. Credit went mostly to Ethan Allen (1738–1789) and the troops Allen commanded, known as the Green Mountain Boys.
Arnold's second assignment was with an expedition against Canada. Leaving Cambridge on September 19, 1775, he led his troops north through Maine into Canada. By land and water and in snow and storms, he reached Quebec, Canada, in early November. There he was joined by another troop, led by General Richard Montgomery, which had come by way of Lake Champlain and Montreal, Canada. Together the two forces assaulted Quebec on December 31, but the attack failed; Montgomery lost his life and Arnold was left with a severe leg wound. Arnold next went to Lake Champlain to prevent the British from using it as a means of traveling from Canada to New York. He lost two naval battles on the lake in October 1776, but he had effectively delayed the British in their southward movement. In the same month Congress made Arnold a brigadier general (an army officer above a colonel).
The winter of 1776–77 was an unhappy one for Arnold. His hot temper, impulsiveness, and impatience had earned him many enemies who now made all sorts of charges against him. He was accused of misconduct (poor behavior) on the march through Maine, of incompetence (failure to successfully carry out a mission) on Lake Champlain, and more. Worse yet, in February 1777 Congress promoted five other brigadier generals, all Arnold's juniors, to the rank of major general (an army officer who is above a brigadier general). Only Washington's pleas kept Arnold from resigning from the army. Fortunately, the coming of spring gave him the chance for a successful operation. While visiting his home in New Haven, Arnold heard of a British attack on American supply stations in Danbury, Connecticut. He rounded up the local militia and raced to stop the enemy. Although he got there too late to prevent the destruction of the supplies, he did force the British to flee. A grateful Congress promoted him to major general on May 2, but he was still below the other five in rank. Meanwhile, he faced a formal charge of stealing goods and property from Montreal merchants during the Canadian campaign. He was cleared of the charge, but his anger at the accusation moved him to resign from the army in July 1777.
Once again Washington pleaded with him—this time to rejoin the army. Washington needed him for service in northern New York to block a bold British plan. The British hoped to split New England from the other colonies by sending General John Burgoyne from Fort Ticonderoga down the Hudson River to New York City. Burgoyne not only
Arnold's next assignment was command of the military post at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which the British had left in June 1778. In April 1779 he married Margaret Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian. (His first wife had died in 1775.) Moving in wealthy social circles, Arnold lived expensively, spent beyond his means, and soon found himself heavily in debt. At the same time he was being charged with a number of offenses connected to using his military office for private gain. He demanded a trial in Congress, which began in May 1779. The verdict, or decision, handed down in December found him not guilty of most charges but ordered Washington to reprimand him. The general did this, but mildly, in April 1780.
By this time Arnold had already started on the road to treason. Personally hurt by Congress's treatment and badly in need of money, he had begun to pass information on American troop movements and strength of units to the British in exchange for money as early as May or June of 1779. Early in the summer of 1780, he thought up a plan to turn over the important post at West Point, New York, to the English for the sum of ten thousand pounds. He persuaded Washington to place him in command there in order to carry out this scheme. However, Arnold's plan fell through when his contact, the British spy Major John André (1750–1780), was captured on September 21, 1780, with documents that showed Arnold was a traitor. André was hanged and Arnold fled to the British lines.
Arnold spent the rest of the war in a British uniform fighting his own countrymen. He went to London in 1781 and died there twenty years later on June 14, 1801, forgotten in England and despised in America. To this day, calling someone a "Benedict Arnold" in America is a way of saying that person has betrayed his or her side.
Brandt, Clare. The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold. New York: Random House, 1994.
Fritz, Jean. Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold. New York: B. P. Putnam's Sons, 1981.
Martin, James Kirby. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Warrior: An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York: New York University Press, 1997.