On Sept. 24, 1780, American Revolutionary War Gen. Benedict Arnold defected to the British when his plot to surrender the fort of West Point became exposed.
When the American Revolution broke out Arnold was a Connecticut businessman who raced to join the growing assembly of Continental militias besieging British-held Boston. Together with Ethan Allen, Arnold led a party that captured Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point in May 1775. Subsequently, Arnold was involved in several major engagements, including the Saratoga battles of 1777, which proved decisive in convincing the French to ally themselves with America.
In his book, “Washington: A Life,” biographer Ron Chernow offers a character sketch of Arnold: “Impetuous and overbearing, Benedict Arnold was a short man with a powerful, compact body. His penetrating eyes, aquiline nose, dusky complexion, and thick, unruly hair lent him a dashing but restless air. Commercial success did not cool his temperament. He was pugnacious, often resorted to duels, and was litigious when libeled.”
By all accounts Arnold proved a first-class general. A fighting soldier who led from the front, Arnold could perhaps be compared to George S. Patton or Erwin Rommel, World War II generals who were never content to sit behind a desk when battle was engaged. Arnold was wounded several times, including a crippling injury to his left leg at Saratoga. Despite advice from surgeons, Arnold refused to have it amputated.
After the British quit the city of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, Arnold became the commander of American forces within the city. There he met and fell in love with Peggy Shippen, 20 years his junior, who became his second wife the following April, (his first wife had died in 1775).
Despite his rank, allegations of misconduct and corruption continually dogged Arnold, and the general had cause to be bitter against his fellow countrymen. In early 1777, Congress had promoted five brigadier generals junior to Arnold to the rank of major general, passing him over. Arnold never forgave the fact that those five generals had seniority over him, even after he was elevated to major general. Additionally, Arnold was perhaps angry at the fact that Gen. Horatio Gates took much of the credit for the victory at Saratoga, a military achievement that the British commander, John Burgoyne, had attributed to Arnold. Additionally, army pay remained meager and irregular.
Increasingly, Arnold found himself at odds with members of Congress, many of whom weren't happy that he had married into a family known to have entertained British soldiers during the occupation of Philadelphia. There was legitimate criticism of the general however, as it came to light that he had used army wagons to transport private goods for profit, which Arnold pocketed. Demanding a court-martial to clear his name, Arnold was found guilty only of minor infractions.
Despite his acquittal of major charges, Arnold considered his treatment a rebuke, stating, “Having made every sacrifice for my country of fortune and blood and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.”
Feeling badly used by Congress and his superiors, Arnold established contact with John André, a major in the British army and adjutant to Gen. Henry Clinton. In his book, “The American Revolution,” historian Bruce Lancaster wrote about the beginning of a conspiracy in 1779:
“Codes were devised, fresh channels opened, and the Major found at once that he had no starry-eyed dreamer to deal with, but a hardheaded businessman ... who wanted substantial monetary rewards figured down to the last farthing, rank in the British army, and possibly a title for his services. Correspondence became animated, then acid, and André reluctantly closed the file.”
In the summer of 1780 their correspondence resumed, and Arnold offered something concrete to the British — the strategic fort of West Point. Situated upon the turn of the Hudson River, the fort held a commanding position that barred British warships, anchored in occupied New York City, from sailing too far up the river. If that fort could be taken by subterfuge and without casualties, the British were prepared to offer Arnold anything he wanted.
After a brief stint commanding forces in the field directly under George Washington, Arnold lobbied the general to be appointed commandant of West Point. Washington charged Arnold with improving the fort's defenses, and Arnold proceeded to do just the opposite. In mid-September, Washington himself began to tour the area near West Point, and Arnold felt the time had come to put his plot in motion or risk exposure.
Arnold and André met for the first time at a farmhouse not far from West Point. André had made his way behind American lines in civilian dress, and traveling under the name John Anderson. At their meeting Arnold handed over intelligence, including the battle readiness of the fort and the minutes from Washington's war council from a few weeks earlier.
Arnold then signed a paper that proved his undoing: “Permit Mr. John Anderson to pass the guards to the White Plains, or below, if he choose. He being on public business at my direction.” On Sept. 23, suspicious sentries detained André, however, as he attempted to flee to the British lines, and the intelligence that Arnold had given him was discovered. When Arnold learned of the incident, he ordered “Anderson” returned to him, and Lt. Col. John Jameson obliged.
When Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a member of Washington's intelligence section, learned of the incident, he ordered that the prisoner be returned to Jameson's custody under Washington's authority. Jameson sent for “Anderson” to be returned, though he sent a letter explaining his actions to Arnold. Tallmadge also sent a letter, this one detailing Arnold's suspicious actions to Washington.
It was now a race to see who would receive the letters first. The courier dispatched to find Washington missed him completely, and another two days would pass before the great general fully understood the implications of his subordinate’s actions. While breakfasting on the morning of Sept. 24, Arnold received Jameson's letter, and he knew the game was up.
Lancaster wrote: “The letter (the courier) bore must have been a fearful shock to Benedict Arnold, but he masked it completely, excused himself, bade a hurried farewell to Peggy, and plunged off down the slope to the Hudson where his official barge was, as usual, waiting for him. He boarded it, ordered the crew to tow him not across to West Point but downstream where H.M.S. Vulture rode at anchor, waiting for the return of the passenger it had brought north, Major John André.”
The Vulture returned to New York City, the British hopes of taking West Point now dashed. Peggy Shippen Arnold feigned madness when it became apparent that her husband's plans had been exposed, and Washington allowed her to join her husband in New York. She had no doubt been privy to her husband's plans, if not the instigator of them. Indeed, it had most likely been Peggy who had introduced her husband to André, whom she had met in Philadelphia during the occupation.
The British attempted to negotiate the release of André, though Washington refused. The British major had been caught in American territory in civilian dress under a false name — a textbook case of spying. Under the rules of war, André could be legally executed for his actions. Washington offered only one possibility of reprieve for the 30-year-old major — he would exchange André for Arnold. The British refused and André went to the gallows on Oct. 2.
In subsequent years, the British attempted to use Arnold as best they could. After recruiting American loyalists, Arnold participated in several raids in Virginia and his native Connecticut, though accomplished little of note. After Washington's victory at Yorktown signaled the virtual end of hostilities, Arnold and his family settled in London. Though he had hoped for further military employment, Arnold never again put on a uniform in the service of Britain. His business interests would take him to Canada and the Caribbean, and in line with his contentious nature his final years are marked with a litany of lawsuits and duels.
For his betrayal against his country and people, Arnold's name has become synonymous with the word “traitor.” In the decades following the American Revolution, as George Washington came to symbolize the virtues of sacrifice, duty, and honor, so did Benedict Arnold come to symbolize the negative traits of greed, selfishness, corruption and disloyalty.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org