What was the deal with Benedict Arnold?


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Dear Straight Dope: I have two questions about Benedict Arnold. First, how did his plot to turn over West Point become known? Was it discovered by three highwaymen who captured the British spy Major John André, whose identity was later uncovered by Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s intelligence chief? Or did it become known to Sally Townsend, a teenage woman in whose house Major André was living? (A story has it that she came across the plot in a note that Major André had left around and that she passed it along to her brother, who ran a spy ring for Washington, and he passed it along to Washington). Which is true? Second, I’ve come across one or two accounts saying that Benedict Arnold, just before he died in 1801, asked to die in bed wearing his old Continental Army uniform, and that he said, “God forgive me for ever putting on any other.” Is this story true? Steven L. Schaefer

SDStaff Elendil’s Heir replies:

The man whose name has become American shorthand for betrayal was once one of the most respected officers of the Continental Army, his treachery all the more shocking for how trusted he had once been.

First some background. Benedict Arnold was born to a prosperous Connecticut family on January 14, 1741. His father’s alcoholism led to the family’s bankruptcy when Arnold was fourteen. He was apprenticed to a pharmacist relative; his mother died four years later. He opened his own pharmacy in New Haven, became a ship captain and, in time, a highly successful businessman. He joined the patriot cause at the outbreak of the American Revolution, signed up as an officer of the Connecticut militia and rose swiftly through the ranks. After helping Ethan Allen capture Ft. Ticonderoga in May 1775, he came to the attention of Gen. George Washington.

As historian Ron Chernow wrote, Arnold was “impetuous and overbearing … a short man with a powerful, compact body … penetrating eyes, aquiline nose, dusky complexion, and thick, unruly hair [with] a dashing but restless air … In an officer corps with the usual quota of shirkers, braggarts, and mediocrities, Washington valued Arnold’s derring-do and keen taste for combat, and treated this touchy man with untiring respect.”

In late 1775, Washington entrusted Gen. Richard Montgomery and Arnold with a risky invasion of Canada. Montgomery was killed at the gates of Quebec City and the invasion failed miserably, but through no fault of Arnold’s, who was credited with great courage and determination throughout.

During the Saratoga campaign of late 1777, Washington commended Arnold to the American general on the scene, Horatio Gates, as an “active, spirited officer … judicious and brave, and an officer in whom the militia will repose great confidence.” Many historians give more credit to Arnold than Gates for the stunning American victory at Saratoga but, in light of later events, Arnold today isn’t mentioned by name on a single battlefield monument there.

Arnold provided invaluable service on Lake Champlain, building a fleet from scratch that delayed the British advance for crucial months. He later served as military governor of Philadelphia after the British evacuated in June 1778. Over the course of the war he was wounded several times. He nearly lost a leg, refused amputation as “damned nonsense” and was thereby left hobbled, but refused to quit the Continental Army.

Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for America, grudgingly praised Arnold as “the most enterprising and dangerous” of Washington’s generals.

But the thin-skinned Arnold wasn’t a happy man. He didn’t take well to criticism of his service in Philadelphia – there were widespread rumors that he had abused his authority and lined his pockets. The court-martial on which he insisted to clear his name found him guilty of two petty offenses and reprimanded him.

Arnold seethed when Congress passed him over in appointing five new generals, all of whom were junior to him. He griped to Washington, “having made every sacrifice 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.”

Arnold had wooed and won the much younger, rich and beautiful Peggy Shippen, daughter of a prominent Tory, during his stint in Philadelphia; they were wed in April 1779. She helped him nurse his grudges against what he saw as an ungrateful Congress and army. Even before his court-martial, deeply indebted and probably convinced the American cause was doomed, he made secret contact with Major John André, the charming, erudite adjutant general of the King’s forces in New York (and a friend of his wife’s), to see how much the British would be willing to pay him if he switched sides.

Washington, unaware of this but mindful of Arnold’s touchy pride, in July 1780 offered him a “post of honor” as commander of the Continental Army’s light infantry, but Arnold said that his injuries would keep him from the field. Washington instead appointed him to command the garrison at West Point, N.Y., a key strategic redoubt. This post was much more to Arnold’s liking. He demanded that André’s superiors give him cash and a commission in the British Army for handing over West Point.

In late September 1780, Washington and his staff came to visit the fortifications at West Point. Arnold wrote another secret letter to André, explaining where Washington would be staying along the way. However, the letter was delayed en route and the British missed their chance to bag the top American general.

Arnold then secretly met with André and gave him papers about West Point’s troop strength and fortifications, the minutes of a meeting of Washington’s senior officers, and a safe-conduct pass identifying the British spy as a “Mr. John Anderson [who is] on public business by my direction.” André wore civilian clothes and concealed the papers in his stocking, under his boots.

Unfortunately for him, André was stopped by three American militiamen, John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, on a Westchester County road near Tarrytown, New York, on September 23, 1780. (Some accounts describe the three as highwaymen, and in those days it could sometimes be hard to tell the difference.)

André made the mistake of assuming the men were loyalists and initially identified himself as a British officer, but then said otherwise and showed them Arnold’s pass.

The soldiers, understandably suspicious, searched him and found the hidden papers. They arrested André and passed the papers up the chain of command until they reached Washington himself, but not before the general and a small group of aides had reached the Arnold house at West Point.

Arnold, knowing the jig was up, had fled just minutes earlier to a British warship on the Hudson River – HMS Vulture, appropriately enough – leaving his wife Peggy behind. She feigned madness at her husband’s abandonment, and it was not until much later that her deceit was revealed. (Benjamin Tallmadge and Betty Townsend, about whom you asked, appear to have had nothing directly to do with Arnold’s exposure.)

Washington was appalled. “Arnold has betrayed us!” he exclaimed to his aide Alexander Hamilton. “Whom can we trust now?” Washington offered to return Major André in exchange for Arnold, but the British refused. André was tried by an American military tribunal for spying, convicted and, on October 2, 1780, duly hanged “according to the stern code of war,” as a British admirer later wrote. He was, by all accounts, a gentleman to the end.

Arnold got a commission as a brigadier general in His Majesty’s army, but just six thousand of his promised ten thousand pounds of reward money. Benjamin Franklin wrote scornfully, “Judas only sold one man, Arnold three millions [of Americans]. Judas got … 30 pieces of silver, Arnold got not a half-penny a head. A miserable bargain!” Arnold went on to lead redcoat forces in raids along the Atlantic coast, burning New London, Connecticut and putting Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson to flight during a sortie towards Richmond and Monticello.

Arnold tried to induce other soldiers of the Continental Army to come over, but few did. Washington authorized a secret kidnapping mission to get him back, but it fizzled. Peggy, still thought innocent by many despite her husband’s betrayal, was permitted to cross the lines and join him in British-occupied New York City.

After the American victory in the Revolutionary War in 1783, Arnold and his family settled in London. He was formally received by King George III and awarded a pension. For a time he thought he might find a place in British high society, but he was widely resented for the gallant André’s death, frequently snubbed, and even hissed when he attended the theater. Horace Walpole described him as “that man of wretched fame.”

After fighting an abortive duel with a nobleman who insulted him, Arnold moved to the British colony of New Brunswick in what is now Canada in 1785. He tried to make a living as a merchant and ship-owner but failed, becoming mired in lawsuits.

After six years he returned to Great Britain, but made several bad investments and was again shunned. “He found himself more or less isolated in a land where he was neither fully trusted or liked,” one biographer wrote. Arnold died on June 14, 1801 at age 60, in poor health and deeply in debt.

His widow Peggy told their firstborn son Edward that Arnold’s “numerous vexations and mortifications … had broken his spirits and destroyed his nerves.” The former American general was buried, without military honors and with few in attendance, in the crypt of St. Mary’s Battersea church in London. Peggy was buried by his side just three years later after her death from cancer.

It was indeed said afterward that Arnold, on his deathbed, asked to see or even be buried in his old Continental Army uniform, at last regretting his treachery, but there is no reliable evidence that this actually happened. As Canadian historian Barry K. Wilson wrote, “without attribution and with little credibility … the story does not admit the scent of truth but rather the tarnish of propaganda masquerading as history.” Another author called it “pure fiction.”

To this day, Benedict Arnold remains synonymous with treachery. His name lives on, but not in any way that would please him.

SDStaff Elendil’s Heir, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.