Benedict Arnold came from a wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. His father’s business failures forced Benedict to leave school at fourteen. He briefly apprenticed in his cousins’ apothecary, but at fifteen he joined the Connecticut Militia to fight in the French and Indian War. Because of his young age, he was released before he saw action, but one event of the war angered and haunted him as an adult. The commander of French troops at the battle of Fort William Henry 1757 had promised their Indian allies guns and booty when the battle ended, but had instead offered mild surrender terms to the British, leaving the Indians with few spoils. Outraged, the Indians massacred as many as 180 British men, women and children while French officers looked on helplessly. Even though young Benedict was well on his way home at the time, he would never forgive the French for the rest of his life.
As a young man he went into business as a bookseller and an apothecary in New Haven, Connecticut. His business expanded, and through several shrewd real estate deals, he made enough money to buy three ships and start a successful trade with the West Indies. He often took command of his own ship, and while on a voyage in the islands, he became a Freemason in a local lodge. He went home and affiliated with Hiram Lodge No. 1 in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1765.
When the British passed the Stamp Act to enforce a protectionist trade policy, Arnold did what most American sea merchants did – he became a smuggler. But the new taxation by Britain soon drove him severely into debt. When he received news of the so-called “Boston Massacre” in 1775, he became outraged and joined the Connecticut Guards. And when the war began at Lexington and Concord, as their captain, he led a march of the militia, fresh with new recruits from Yale University, to join the Revolution in Massachusetts.
He successfully convinced Massachusetts’ military officials to mount an expedition to take Fort Ticonderoga, steal its many cannon and use them to break the British siege of Boston. Arnold was made a colonel in the Massachusetts militia and led his Connecticut troops in the raid, one of the early successes of the war. He had believed himself to be in command of the mission, but Colonel Ethan Allen was the local officer favored by the Massachusetts troops. Arnold and Allen jointly commanded the raid, which was accomplished with just one shot fired. Arnold went on with fifty volunteers to raid more supplies from Fort Saint Johns, farther up the river. But instead of being given command of the forts when the battle ended, Arnold was passed over. In disgust, he resigned his commission.
Arnold was commissioned as a colonel in the Continental Army after he proposed a part of a plan to attack and capture Quebec City and Montreal, and he was given command of the forces headed for Quebec. Just before heading for Maine and the Quebec mission, his wife tragically died in New Haven. The Canadian campaign failed, and Arnold was wounded in the leg. But he managed to assemble 350 volunteers to continue a siege of the city until reinforcements arrived. For his bravery, he was commissioned as a Brigadier General.
The next year he successfully repulsed an attempted invasion from Lake Champlain, and in 1777 he quickly assembled volunteer forces to turn away a surprise attack by the British in Danbury, Connecticut. He went on to Philadelphia, where he briefly became the ranking officer in the city. But command of the forces there was given to a newer, less experienced officer. Again, Arnold had been snubbed for promotion, and again he resigned. Washington still had faith in him and deplored Congress’ treatment of the talented general. He had Arnold reassigned to Massachusetts and the area around Fort Ticonderoga.
Arnold performed yet another daring maneuver at Saratoga when his forces successfully cut off the retreat of General Burgoyne’s British troops and forced his surrender. Arnold’s strategy was better, yet he was snubbed by his own superior, General Horatio Gates, who left him out of the battle plans and refused to acknowledge Arnold’s role in defeating Burgoyne. Arnold’s leg was shot again at Saratoga, this time rendering it useless, but while convalescing in Albany, he refused to have it amputated.
When the British were finally chased from Philadelphia, Washington placed him in command of troops there. But when word came that America had sought an alliance with France, Arnold became enraged. Ironically, it was his own success at Saratoga that finally convinced King Louis XVI to openly ally with the rebels and make a large financial commitment to the American side. Arnold had hated the French for all of his adult life, and their entry into the war changed his outlook. He had believed the Revolution was merely to fight the repressive policies of the Crown, not to declare independence. But the entry of the French made it clear to him that complete separation from England was the American goal. Undoubtedly this was a naive position, or perhaps it was simply his justification for his subsequent treachery. Whatever the justification, he became a Loyalist.
While in Philadelphia, Arnold began cavorting with Loyalists. The British troops had just been driven out, but there was a large Tory population in the city. Arnold began seeing Peggy Shippen, the 18 year-old daughter of a local judge whose loyalties were unclear, and they married after just one month. But Arnold’s lavish new lifestyle drew the suspicion of Congress, who court-martialed him over financial improprieties with military money. Arnold finally had enough of enduring humiliation at the hands of both Congress and the military command.
In July of 1780, he was placed in command of the fort at West Point, after campaigning for the job. He was secretly corresponding with the British general in New York City, using his new wife’s former paramour, British Major John André, as his courier. In his messages, he offered to hand the strategic fort at West Point over to the British, in return for £20,000 and a commission as a brigadier general. André was intercepted by American troops and was hanged, as regulations demanded, although he presented so sympathetic a figure that General Hamilton commented, “He died universally esteemed and universally regretted.” Meanwhile Arnold fled to the protection of the British and fled on an English ship.
As is usually the case with a rat, the British never fully trusted him. They did place him in command of 1,600 troops on a mission to burn Richmond, Virginia, and in 1781 he was part of a diversionary force in Connecticut to draw the Americans' attention from Lord Cornwallis’ invasion. But after the British defeat at Yorktown, he moved to London and tried unsuccessfully to convince King George III to keep fighting. Over the years, he moved to Canada, then back to London in 1792. He died in 1801, destitute, and his wife Peggy and their four children returned to Philadelphia in disgrace.
Arnold was a proud but enigmatic character. Brother Mason Dr. Joseph Warren was widowed in 1773, leaving four children. After the death of Warren at Bunker Hill, his children were orphaned. Benedict Arnold came to their relief, true to his Masonic obligation. He had become friends with Brother Warren while in Massachusetts, and in April, 1778, Arnold contributed $500 towards their education. He also persuaded Congress to apply a pension to support them from the date of the father's death until the youngest child reached the age of consent.
During the time he spent in Canada after the war, he went broke lending money to loyalists and Masons whom he knew would never repay him. Nevertheless, the bonds of Freemasonry are dissolved by the treachery of treason. His name was removed from the record books of Hiram Lodge No. 1 in New Haven where he was a member. And on May 16 , 1781 Solomon Lodge No. 1 in Poughkeepsie, New York passed a resolution that read: “Ordered that the Name of Benedict Arnold be considered as obliterated from the Minutes of this Lodge, a Traitor.” His signature had appeared in the list of visitors to the Lodge on June 12, 1771, and was crossed through. Beside the inked out signature is a small drawing of a hand, with a finger pointing to the word “Traitor.”
As Arnold was on his deathbed, he asked to be buried in the uniform of the American Continental Army, and asked God for forgiveness in betraying the cause of liberty. A captured American soldier had once told Arnold that if he were caught, they would cut off his patriotic right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of his traitorous body on a gibbet. There is no denying his part in victories like the battle of Saratoga. On that battlefield, there stands a curious monument to his bravery. It depicts a single boot, draped over an upturned cannon barrel, with the inscription,
“In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT 7th October, 1777 winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General."
That "most brilliant soldier’s" name is not inscribed.
Arnold's body is entombed in the basement of St. Mary's Church in Battersea, London, and not exactly on the short list of things to see. An article on the Smithsonian website today caught my eye. The Curious London Legacy of Benedict Arnold describes the justifiably ignominious resting place of Arnold–-in a church basement next to a fish tank–-and the efforts of the late Bill Stanley of Norwich, Connecticut to erect a more dignified stone over his remains.
From the article:
Though impressed by the efforts of this determined man from Connecticut to honor his hero, Gabrial, the Concordia professor, for one, wasn’t buying the revisionist perspective on Arnold—nor was he moved to tears by the obscurity of his final resting place. “As an American, I’m quite pleased to see that, in death, Benedict Arnold is hardly a celebrated figure to most Brits,” he said.
And being buried in the basement, next to a fish tank?
“Serves him right.”
Still, as we learned on the Tory Tour, the late Bill Stanley was not alone among his countrymen in his views on Arnold. A magnificent stained-glass tribute to Arnold at St. Mary’s was donated by American Vincent Lindner in 1976; and at the last stop of Sebrell’s tour, Arnold’s home in the fashionable Marylebone neighborhood, another surprise awaited us. On the door of the handsome three-story town house on Gloucester Place, a plaque—not, Sebrell noted, one of the official National Trust plaques usually accorded to historic homes in Britain—identifies Arnold as an “American Patriot.”
A patriot? Without even an acknowledgement of his treachery? “It might be someone’s idea of a joke…or irony,” Sebrell speculated. After all, even the tireless Bill Stanley didn’t try to defend the “second half” of Benedict Arnold’s career. “He knew it was a tough sell,” his son acknowledged. “It was like trying to get people to look at all the great things O.J. did before the Bronco.”
(Parts of this story appeared in Solomon's Builders: Freemasons, Founding Fathers and the Secrets of Washington D.C. by Christopher L. Hodapp)