The following is the second of two posts on loyalists in the American Revolution (the first, "The Price of Loyalty," is below).
Perhaps no one shows how difficult it was to choose sides in the American Revolution, and the price to be paid for picking the wrong one, than Benedict Arnold. For the entire history of the United States, Arnold’s very name has been a byword for treason. But for most of the Revolution Arnold had been regarded as a hero—in some eyes second only to George Washington in his military accomplishments and the contribution they had made to the Patriot cause. In fact, before he tried to give away the base at West Point in 1780, you could make a pretty good case that Arnold had actually achieved more than Washington had in making material contributions to the cause of American independence.
Like Thomas Hutchinson, George Washington, and other Founding Fathers, Arnold had a blue-blooded colonial background. His great-grandfather, for whom he was named, was an early governor of Rhode Island. His grandfather and father, also named Benedict, were prominent in New England business and politics. But Arnold’s father was also an alcoholic, and family fortunes suffered during his childhood. Though he attended elite private schools, Arnold never went to Yale as expected, and an apprenticeship as a apothecary (pharmacist) with his uncles was interrupted by his decision to run away to the state militia, to which he later returned and served briefly in the French and Indian War. In the years that followed, Arnold built a successful business in eastern Connecticut, much of it based, like that of Massachusetts merchant John Hancock, on smuggling foreign goods illegally and avoiding imperial taxes.
The coming of the Revolution was good for Arnold. He was at the forefront of colonial resistance all through the increasingly escalating fights over tax and economic policy in the 1760s and ’70s, and was elected captain in the Connecticut militia in 1775. He marched his newly formed company to Massachusetts, whereupon he proposed an expedition up the Connecticut River to seize the weakly defended Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, whose artillery could be a valuable asset in the coming struggle. Though he squabbled with Ethan Allen, leader of the famed Green Mountain Boys—one of many disputes that marked Arnold’s military career—the expedition was successful. The artillery at the fort was later moved to Boston, and played an important role in the British army’s decision to withdraw from the city in the aftermath of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a narrow British victory that nevertheless convinced the victorious General Thomas Gage that his besieged position in the city was no longer defensible.
In the early years of the Revolution, even Arnold’s defeats were impressive. When an initial plan to lead an attack on Quebec was rejected and the campaign given to someone else, he formulated an alternative route and was put in charge of it as a second prong of the operation. Though the effort to take the Canadian city in late 1775 ultimately failed—a smallpox outbreak, among other mishaps, hobbled the effort—most observers then and since credit Arnold for his ingenuity and persistence in keeping the operation going. (He was promoted to general for his efforts.) Arnold has also been credited as a founding father of the United States navy. His smuggling experience came in handy when orchestrating American operations on Lake Champlain in 1776. While he fought to a draw at best, his maneuvers were a factor in the British command’s fateful decision to delay further offensive operations until the following year.
Which brings us to Arnold’s finest hour. British grand strategy for 1777 involved a pincer movement whereby one British army would move up the Hudson River from New York, while another moved down from Montreal, cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies. But a lack of coordination among British commanders resulted in the New York contingent heading to Philadelphia instead. Meanwhile the northern British army, its supply lines spread dangerously thin, moved down the Hudson, where it was met by Americans converging from three sides. At the decisive moment of what became known as the Battle of Saratoga, Arnold led an American attack on a fiercely defended British position that turned the tide.
Saratoga is widely considered the turning point of the American Revolution. Not only did the battle take a big British piece off the chessboard, it also convinced a previously skeptical French government that aiding the Americans could be a worthwhile investment in taking their hated enemy, the British, down a peg. French financial and naval support would ultimately be decisive in the outcome of the struggle.
So Arnold had a lot to feel good about. And yet every step of the way he encountered resistance and indifference: promotions that never came; subordinates who were promoted over him; a Congress that failed to recognize his achievements. And, always, there were personal conflicts: Arnold seemed to be perpetually arguing with his fellow officers. At the time of Saratoga he was on such bitter terms with his commanding officer, General Horatio Gates, that he was actually relieved of command before the battle. Arnold’s leading the decisive attack was actually an act of insubordination, and an furious Gates unsuccessfully sent an aide after him to keep his rogue junior officer from reaching the front.
And while Arnold earned himself some glory at Saratoga, it came at a price: he took a bullet in the leg at the battle, and the horse he was riding fell on top of the same leg and broke it, an injury from which he never fully recovered. Nor did he get all the glory he deserved: Gates pointedly omitted mention of Arnold’s achievements in his official account of the battle. (Though his reputation never took the hit Arnold’s did, Gates’s career was persistently marked by a whiff of scandal; he was apparently involved in a plot to replace General Washington early in the war, and may have played a role in the shadowy near-mutiny that took place in Newburgh, New York at the end of it.)
Arnold was no perfect victim. Stories of his arrogance and shady dealings dogged him his entire life, and while it’s safe to say such stories were more likely to be embellished and repeated in the decades after the war, the record is clear that he was a controversial figure even when he was considered one of the military stars of the Revolution. There were persistent rumors that he personally profited from his management of army resources, and was officially reprimanded by General Washington in December of 1779 over his lax approach toward handing out passes and his use of public wagons to save private property. Aggravated by what he regarded as petty haranguing, Arnold considered retiring from the army.
By this point he had been posted to Philadelphia. Arnold had been widowed early in the war; it was there that he met Margaret (“Peggy”) Shippen, who became his second wife. Shippen came from a prominent mercantile family with strong Loyalist ties. She was also was friendly with John Andre, a British officer she introduced to Arnold. Needless to say, the details of what followed are at least partly shrouded in mystery. But Andre and Arnold worked out a plan whereby Arnold, who was to be given command of American operations at West Point in early 1780, would sabotage operations at the base as a prelude to turning it over to British control. As it turned out, Andre was intercepted with incriminating evidence while he was on his way to meet Arnold, and he was eventually executed as a spy. Arnold, tipped off to Andre’s arrest just before he was to meet with Washington, managed to get away, aided by Peggy, who stalled a move against her husband by professing ignorance, shock and outrage when Washington interrogated her at West Point. Washington let her go, and she ultimately joined her husband in London. The couple raised five children and spent much of their subsequent life in Canada.
Why did Arnold betray the American cause? Did he do it for love? Money? A character defect? Probably all three were involved, among other reasons. Actually, Arnold himself offered a bunch himself: “Neglected by Congress below, distressed with the small-pox; want of Generals and discipline in our Army, which may be rather called a great rabble, our credit and reputation lost, and great part of the country; and a powerful foreign enemy advancing upon us, are so many difficulties we cannot surmount them,” he explained of his decision.
Go ahead and call that rationalizing on Arnold’s part. It surely was. But while you can credibly call him slimy or cowardly, one thing you can’t really say about him is that he was stupid. Actually, George Washington could have said exactly the same things Arnold did in 1780, when a major British offensive in the southern colonies showed every sign of succeeding, at least at first. In fact, Washington did say many of the same things in his steady stream of letters cajoling, complaining and lamenting the lack of support the American effort was getting. Like the men who had signed the Declaration of Independence, Washington had pledged his life and honor on the American cause. Noble or not, these people knew they were as good as dead if that cause failed. Arnold knew it too, but he made a different calculation, one that had a certain plausibility to it whether or not he happened to be a nice man, or whether or not you happened to agree with him. Washington made his bet on the outcome of the Revolution and won, thanks to the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, where, as at Saratoga, the Americans bagged an entire British army, convincing the government in London that the war simply wasn’t worth it anymore.
Arnold, by contrast, made his bet and lost. Actually, the outcome Revolution wasn’t a total disaster for him. Unlike Andre, Arnold escaped with his life, and while he never got the big payday he was hoping for in turning over West Point—since he didn’t actually do it, he didn’t get the money—the British government did compensate him for at least some of his pains. He assumed a command in the British army, and fought in Virginia late in the war, capturing Richmond in December of 1780. After the war, he was received by King George the III and resumed his business. He was embroiled in any number of personal disputes, but that had always been the case with him. Still, Arnold who died in 1801, spent the last twenty years of his life with his name as a byword for treachery, and he wasn’t much more liked in Britain than he was in the United States. He clearly regretted his choice, and once said it would have been better had he been shot in the chest rather than the leg at Saratoga. In that scenario, he would have died a hero.
Let’s be clear: the goal here is not to rehabilitate Benedict Arnold. George Washington was more than a lucky gambler—among other things, he was a man who was notably good at working with and mentoring people, like Alexander Hamilton, an arrogant genius who served as Washington personal aide and who Washington as president would shrewdly delegate the job of inventing a modern capitalist economy. (Another man who worked under Washington was Aaron Burr, who would later kill Hamilton.) Washington was exceptionally careful in managing his personal affairs as well as in running an army for which he refused to accept a salary. Of course, he could afford to. Could, and did.
But being a good or nice man is beside the point. Which is this: that major social upheavals like revolutions are not simply difficult experiences because of the death and destruction they rain down on those on those who choose to participate in them. Or that they rain down death and destruction on those who do not choose to participate in them, but nevertheless get caught in the crossfire. It’s also that they create situations where people perceive that they might actually have a choice in the matter, and that their choice may have consequences far beyond their ability to calculate. As Americans we cherish our freedom. But this is a kind of freedom most of us would cheerfully forgo.
As a military event, at least, the American Revolution ended 230 years ago. If you’re like most Americans, you regard yourself as a happy beneficiary of that outcome, which you commemorate with a barbeque, fireworks display, or some other form of celebration every July 4. If pressed, you’d probably concede that the Patriot cause was not entirely noble, and that as with most disputes, there are at least two sides to every story. You might even feel like American victory wasn’t all that deserving, like a team that wins a game on a disputed call or technicality. But you’re still glad your side won.
You should be even more glad that you didn’t have to pick the winning side. Maybe it’s that more than anything that makes being an American so precious: the freedom to not choose. Americans weren’t always that fortunate (life wasn’t much fun in this regard when the Civil War broke out in 1861, or at the height of the Vietnam War). And they won’t be forever. But overall, our history has been one of stability. It may well be that the very definition of a successful society is one that spares its citizens the most painful polarities of politics.