Let’s play the word association game. Benedict Arnold. If the first word that came to your mind wasn’t traitor, you probably weren’t paying attention in history class. Or life in general, really. Benedict Arnold’s name has become synonymous with treason; history remembers him as a class-A scumbag. Why? Well, let me give you the history in a nutshell and then I’ll get to what really irks me about him.
Benedict Arnold was a pretty awesome guy during the first part of the American Revolution. He was born in Connecticut, and joined the American Continental Army after the Revolutionary war began. He created quite a resume for himself, capturing Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, stalling the British’s progression to the Hudson River Valley during the Battle of Valcour Bay on Lake Champlain in 1776, promotion to major general after the Battle of Ridgefield, assisting in the relief of American forces during the Siege of Fort Stanwix (here he tricked the foe into believing that a much larger relief company was coming to the American’s aid), and playing a major part in the enormously important and successful Battles of Saratoga in 1777.
Wow. Good job, soldier. Continue fighting the good fight because you believe in your cause and your countrymen. Or not.
The trouble started when Benedict Arnold decided that he believed more in his ego and money problems. He became a bit of a sourpuss after being passed over too many times (in his eyes) for promotions by the Continental Congress. He was doing a good job and wanted to be rewarded. Boo hoo. He even resigned from the continental army in 1777, but George Washington himself urged him to rejoin, which he did.
Also, there was the issue of money. Arnold and his second wife, Peggy Shippen, lived a lavish lifestyle that they couldn’t pay for. Arnold needed money. Enter the enticement of selling out your country. According to http://www.ushistory.org, Arnold was offered in excess of 10,000 pounds and a commission in the British military to switch sides.
A tempting offer to a man that is already angry and bitter. In addition, Arnold was court martialed and convicted of using government owned wagons for his personal gain. He was growing increasingly unlikeable in Philadelphia, where George Washington had made him military commander of the city. Cause for hostility toward Arnold was magnified due to his young wife with loyalist roots and all of her Tory (British loyalist) friends. It is believed that Shippen introduced Arnold to John André, the British spy who assisted Arnold in his attempted betrayal (and was executed after his capture). Resentful and embittered, Arnold resigned his military position in Philadelphia in 1779, and hopped on the train to Traitorsville.
Arnold’s specific act of treason was in his offer to surrender West Point to the British. He had been put in command of West Point on August 3, 1780. West Point was considered to be the most important strategic position in America at that time. Its location near the Hudson River made it invaluable to military operations; whichever side controlled West Point was at a huge advantage militarily. Arnold was ultimately unsuccessful in handing over west point and was exposed as a traitor in September, 1780.
Now you know the (very oversimplified) background, let’s chat about what really makes this guy a goon. No one likes a traitor, we can all agree on this one. But, there have been throughout history, those who have turned their back on those to whom they have proclaimed some sort of allegiance for noble reasons. One such case is that of Sophie Scholl, a person so interesting and honorable that her name should really not be marred by a comparison to Benedict Arnold, but I have mentioned her here because she was, technically, a traitor. I’ll explain why and tell you her story in my next post.
Back to Arnold. This man turned his back on his country for money and ego. His pride was injured; he was insulted because he felt he wasn’t appreciated. He wasn’t liked. Many of his peers thought he was a jerk. They accused him of being corrupt and sneaky. Hmmm. I guess he proved them right.
Many in history have found themselves in situations that are terrible beyond comprehension. They have suffered through or perished in these situations because of a belief in something. Made a choice to put something bigger before their own struggle, and face whatever the consequences might be. Arnold just turned tail and ran the other way. Like a coward. Like a traitor.
It’s really a shame because, like I said, he was a pretty awesome military leader at the beginning of the revolution, and his legacy could’ve been entirely different. His story makes me want to go back in time, grab him by the shoulders, and shake some sense into him. But if I did that, he would probably just hand me over to the British for being a time traveling American spy. He could have been one of America’s revolutionary heroes. But for all his military prowess, his heart and loyalty were never heroic.
At Saratoga National Historical Park, there is a monument to Benedict Arnold, although you won’t find his name anywhere on it. Or his likeness, for that matter. The monument is of a boot, Arnold’s boot, with the words:
“Erected 1887 By JOHN WATTS de PEYSTER Brev: Maj: Gen: S.N.Y. 2nd V. Pres’t Saratoga Mon’t Ass’t’n:
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.”
How sad that a man that perhaps the revolution could not have been won without has nothing more to mark his contribution than a nameless boot honoring his injured leg. I wonder if he had known what his legacy would be, this man so concerned with reputation and respect, if he would’ve made different choices. Legend has it, that on his death bed, Arnold spoke the words:
“Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”
Forgiven or not, as it is, all American history can offer him is the boot.