Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 he was the second of six children to Benedict Arnold and Hannah Waterman King in Norwich, Connecticut. Like his father and grandfather, as well as an older brother who died in infancy, he was named after his great-grandfather Benedict Arnold, an early governor of the Colony of Rhode Island.Only Benedict and his sister Hannah survived to adulthood.
Arnold’s father was a successful businessman, and the family moved in the upper levels of Norwich society. When he was ten, Arnold was enrolled in a private school in nearby Canterbury, with the expectation that he would eventually attend Yale. However, the deaths of his siblings two years later may have contributed to a decline in the family fortunes, since his father took up drinking. By the time he was fourteen, there was no money for private education. His father’s alcoholism and ill health kept him from training Arnold in the family mercantile business, but his mother’s family connections secured an apprenticeship for Arnold with two of her cousins, brothers Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, who operated a successful apothecary and general merchandise trade in Norwich and the apprenticeship lasted seven years. Arnold’s mother died in 1759 and his father’s alcoholism worsened after her death, and Arnold had to take on the responsibility of supporting his younger sister and his father until his father’s death in 1761. Arnold and his sister would have a close bond for their entire lives.
In 1762, with the help of the Lathrops, Arnold established himself in business as a pharmacist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut. Arnold was able to rapidly expand his business and in 1763 he repaid money borrowed from the Lathrops, repurchased the family homestead that his father had sold when deeply in debt, and re-sold it a year later for a substantial profit. In 1764 he formed a partnership with Adam Babcock, another young New Haven merchant. Using the profits from the sale of his homestead, they bought three trading ships and established a lucrative West Indies trade. During this time, he brought his sister Hannah to New Haven and established her in his apothecary to manage the business in his absence. He traveled extensively in the course of his business, throughout New England and from Quebec to the West Indies, often in command of one of his own ships.
The Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 severely hurt mercantile trade in the colonies. The Stamp Act prompted Arnold to join the chorus of voices in opposition to those taxes, and also led to his entry into the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization that was not afraid to use violence to oppose implementation of those and other unpopular Parliamentary measures.
On February 22, 1767, Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of Samuel Mansfield, the sheriff of New Haven. Their first son, Benedict, was born the following year, and was followed by Richard in 1769, and Henry in 1772. Arnold’s sister Hannah would continue to run the household even after the marriage. Margaret died on June 19, 1775, while Arnold was at Fort Ticonderoga following its capture.
Arnold began the Revolutionary War as a captain in Connecticut’s militia, a position to which he was elected in March 1775. Following the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord the following month, his company marched northeast to assist in the siege of Boston that followed. Arnold proposed to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety an action to seize Fort Ticonderoga in New York, which he knew was poorly defended. They issued him a colonel’s commission on May 3, 1775, and he immediately rode off to the west, arriving at Castleton in the disputed New Hampshire Grants in time to participate with Ethan Allen and his men in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He followed up that action with a bold raid on Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River north of Lake Champlain.
When the Second Continental Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec, in part on the urging of Arnold, he was passed over for command of the expedition. Arnold then went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and suggested to George Washington a second expedition to attack Quebec City via a wilderness route through present-day Maine. This expedition, for which Arnold received a colonel’s commission in the Continental Army, left Cambridge in September 1775 with 1,100 men. After a difficult passage in which 300 men turned back and another 200 died en route, Arnold arrived before Quebec City in November. Joined by Richard Montgomery’s small army, he participated in the December 31 assault on Quebec City in which Montgomery was killed and Arnold’s leg was shattered. Rev. Samuel Spring, his chaplain, carried him to the makeshift hospital at the Hôtel Dieu. Arnold, who was promoted to brigadier general for his role in reaching Quebec, maintained an siege of the city until he was replaced by Major General David Wooster in April 1776. Arnold then traveled to Montreal, where he served as military commander of the city until forced to retreat by an advancing British army that had arrived at Quebec in May. He presided over the rear of the Continental Army during its retreat from Saint-Jean, where he was reported by James Wilkinson to be the last person to leave before the British arrived.
Arnold made a number of friends and probably a larger number of enemies within the army and in Congress. He had established relationships with George Washington, as well as Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates, both of whom had command of the army’s Northern Department during 1775 and 1776. However, a dispute with Moses Hazen, commander of the 2nd Canadian Regiment, boiled over into a court martial of Hazen at Ticonderoga during the summer of 1776. Action by Gates, prevented Arnold’s own arrest on countercharges leveled by Hazen. He had also had disagreements with John Brown and James Easton, two lower-level officers that resulted in ongoing suggestions of improprieties on his part. Brown was particularly vicious, publishing a handbill that claimed of Arnold, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country”. An ominous statement indeed, especially since we know what eventually happened.
General Washington assigned Arnold to the defense of Rhode Island following the British seizure of Newport in December 1776, where the militia were poorly equipped to consider an attack on the British. In February 1777, he learned that he had been passed over for promotion to major general by Congress. Washington refused his offer to resign, and wrote to members of Congress in an attempt to correct this, noting that “two or three other very good officers” might be lost if they persisted in making politically motivated promotions. Arnold was on his way to Philadelphia to discuss his future when he was alerted that a British force was marching toward a supply depot in Danbury, Connecticut. Along with David Wooster and Connecticut militia General Gold S. Silliman, he organized the militia response. In the Battle of Ridgefield, he led a small contingent of militia attempting to stop or slow the British return to the coast, and was again wounded in his left leg. Arnold continued on to Philadelphia, where he met with members of Congress about his rank. His action at Ridgefield, coupled with the death of Wooster due to wounds sustained in the action, resulted in Arnold’s promotion to major general, although his seniority was not restored over those who had been promoted before him. He attempted to resign again and it was again refused by Washington.
Arnold then returned to the Hudson, where General Gates had taken over command of the American army, which had by then retreated to a camp south of Stillwater. During the fighting in the second battle, Arnold, operating against Gates’ orders, took to the battlefield and led attacks on the British defenses. He was again severely wounded in the left leg late in the fighting. Arnold himself said it would have been better had it been in the chest instead of the leg.Burgoyne surrendered ten days after the second battle, on October 17, 1777. In response to Arnold’s valor at Saratoga, Congress restored his command seniority. However, Arnold interpreted the manner in which they did so as an act of sympathy for his wounds, and not an apology or recognition that they were righting a wrong.
Arnold spent several months recovering from his injuries. Rather than allowing his shattered left leg to be amputated, he had it crudely set, leaving it 2 inches shorter than the right. He returned to the army at Valley Forgein May 1778 to the applause of men who had served under him at Saratoga. There he participated in the first recorded Oath of Allegiance along with many other soldiers, as a sign of loyalty to the United States.
After the British withdrew from Philadelphia in June 1778, Washington appointed Arnold military commander of the city. Even before the Americans reoccupied Philadelphia, Arnold began planning to capitalize financially on the change in power there, engaging in a variety of business deals designed to profit from war-related supply movements and benefiting from the protection of his authority. These schemes, although not exactly uncommon among American officers, were sometimes frustrated by powerful local politicians, who eventually amassed enough evidence to publicly air charges. Arnold demanded a court martial to clear the charges, writing to Washington in May 1779, “Having become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet such ungrateful returns”.
President’s House, Philadelphia. Arnold made the Masters-Penn mansion, as it was then called, his headquarters while military commander of Philadelphia. It later served as the presidential mansion of George Washington and John Adams, 1790–1800. Arnold lived extravagantly in Philadelphia, and was a prominent figure on the social scene. During the summer of 1778 Arnold met Peggy Shippen, the 18-year-old daughter of Judge Edward Shippen, a Loyalist sympathizer who had done business with the British while they occupied the city. The couple married on April 8, 1779.
Around 1778, signs that Arnold was unhappy with his situation and doubts about the country’s future were beginning to show. On November 10, 1778, General Nathanael Greene wrote to General John Cadwalader, “I am told General Arnold is become very unpopular among you oweing to his associating too much with the Tories.” A few days later, Greene received a letter from Arnold, where Arnold lamented over the “deplorable” and “horrid” situation of the country at that particular moment, citing the depreciating currency, disaffection of the army, and internal fighting in Congress for the country’s problems, while predicting “impending ruin” if things would not soon change.
Early in May 1779, Arnold met with Joseph Stansbury. Stansbury said he then “went secretly to New York with a tender of [Arnold’s] services to Sir Henry Clinton.” Ignoring instructions from Arnold to involve no one else in the plot, Stansbury crossed the British lines and went to see Jonathan Odell in New York. Odell was a Loyalist working with William Franklin, the last colonial governor of New Jersey and the son of Benjamin Franklin. On May 9, Franklin introduced Stansbury to Major André, who had just been named the British spy chief.This was the beginning of a secret correspondence between Arnold and André, sometimes using his wife Peggy as a willing intermediary, that lasted over a year later with Arnold eventually changing sides.
André conferred with General Clinton, who gave him authority to pursue Arnold’s offer. André then drafted instructions to Stansbury and Arnold.This letter opened a discussion on the types of assistance and intelligence that Arnold might provide, and included instructions for how to communicate in the future. Letters would be passed through the women’s circle that Peggy Arnold was a part of, but only Peggy would be aware that some letters contained instructions, written in both code and invisible ink, that were to be passed on to André, using Stansbury as the courier.
By July 1779, Arnold was providing the British with troop locations and strengths, as well as the locations of supply depots, all the while negotiating over compensation. At first, he asked for indemnification of his losses and £10,000, an amount that the Continental Congress had given Charles Lee for his services in the Continental Army. General Clinton was pursuing a campaign to gain control of the Hudson River Valley, and was interested in plans and information on the defenses of West Point and other defenses on the Hudson River. He also began to insist on a face-to-face meeting, and suggested to Arnold that he pursue another high-level command.By October 1779, the negotiations had ground to a halt. Furthermore, Patriot mobs were scouring Philadelphia for Loyalists, and Arnold and the Shippen family were being threatened. Arnold was rebuffed by Congress and by local authorities in requests for security details for himself and his in-laws. Angry and frustrated, Arnold finally resigned his military command of Philadelphia in late April after a Congressional inquiry into his expenditures.
Early in April, Philip Schuyler had approached Arnold with the possibility of giving him the command at West Point. Discussions between Schuyler and Washington on the subject had not come to anything by early June. Arnold reopened the secret channels with the British, informing them of Schuyler’s proposals and including Schuyler’s assessment of conditions at West Point. He also provided information on a proposed French-American invasion of Quebec that was to go up the Connecticut River. (Arnold did not know that this proposed invasion was a ruse intended to divert British resources.) On June 16, Arnold inspected West Point while on his way home to Connecticut to take care of personal business, and sent a highly detailed report through the secret channel. When he reached Connecticut, Arnold arranged to sell his home there, and began transferring assets to London through intermediaries in New York. By early July he was back in Philadelphia, where he wrote another secret message to Clinton on July 7, which implied that his appointment to West Point was assured and that he might even provide a “drawing of the works … by which you might take [West Point] without loss”.
General Clinton and Major André, who returned victorious from the Siege of Charleston on June 18, were immediately caught up in this news. Clinton, concerned that Washington’s army and the French fleet would join in Rhode Island, again fixed on West Point as a strategic point to capture. André, who had spies and informers keeping track of Arnold, verified his movements. Excited by the prospects, Clinton informed his superiors of his intelligence coup, but failed to respond to Arnold’s July 7 letter. Arnold next wrote a series of letters to Clinton, even before he might have expected a response to the July 7 letter. In a July 11 letter, he complained that the British did not appear to trust him, and threatened to break off negotiations unless progress was made. On July 12 he wrote again, making explicit the offer to surrender West Point, although his price rose to £20,000, with a £1,000 down payment to be delivered with the response. These letters were delivered not by Stansbury but by Samuel Wallis, another Philadelphia businessman who spied for the British.
On August 3, 1780, Arnold obtained command of West Point. On August 15 he received a coded letter from André with Clinton’s final offer: £20,000, and no indemnification for his losses. Due to difficulties in getting the messages across the lines, neither side knew for some days that the other was in agreement to that offer. Arnold’s letters continued to detail Washington’s troop movements and provide information about French reinforcements that were being organized. On August 25, Peggy finally delivered to him Clinton’s agreement to the terms.
Washington, in assigning Arnold to the command at West Point, also gave him authority over the entire American-controlled Hudson River, from Albany down to the British lines outside New York City. While en route to West Point, Arnold renewed an acquaintance with Joshua Hett Smith, someone Arnold knew had spied for both sides and who owned a house near the western bank of the Hudson about 15 miles south of West Point.
Once he established himself at West Point, Arnold began systematically weakening its defenses and military strength. Needed repairs on the chain across the Hudson were never ordered. Troops were liberally distributed within Arnold’s command area, or furnished to Washington on request. He also peppered Washington with complaints about the lack of supplies, writing, “Everything is wanting.” At the same time, he tried to drain West Point’s supplies, so that a siege would be more likely to succeed. His subordinates, some long-time associates, grumbled about Arnold’s unnecessary distribution of supplies and eventually concluded that Arnold was selling supplies on the black market for personal gain.
On August 30, Arnold sent a letter accepting Clinton’s terms and proposing a meeting to André through yet another intermediary: William Heron, a member of the Connecticut Assembly he thought he could trust. Heron, in a comic twist, went into New York unaware of the significance of the letter, and offered his own services to the British as a spy. He then took the letter back to Connecticut, where, suspicious of Arnold’s actions, he delivered it to the head of the Connecticut militia. General Parsons, seeing a letter written as a coded business discussion, laid it aside. Four days later, Arnold sent a ciphered letter with similar content into New York through the services of the wife of a prisoner-of-war. Eventually, a meeting was set for September 11 near Dobb’s Ferry. This meeting was thwarted when British gunboats in the river, not having been informed of his impending arrival, fired on his boat.
Arnold and André finally met on September 21 at the Joshua Hett Smith House. On the morning of September 22, James Livingston, the colonel in charge of the outpost at Verplanck’s Point, fired on HMS Vulture, the ship that was intended to carry André back to New York. This action did sufficient damage that she retreated downriver, forcing André to return to New York overland. Arnold wrote out passes for André so that he would be able to pass through the lines, and also gave him plans for West Point.
On Saturday, September 23, André was captured, near Tarrytown, by three Westchester militiamen named John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams; the papers exposing the plot to capture West Point were found and sent to Washington, where Arnold’s intentions came to light after Washington examined them. Meanwhile, André convinced the commanding officer to whom he was delivered, Colonel John Jameson, to send him back to Arnold at West Point. However, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a member of Washington’s secret service, insisted Jameson order the prisoner intercepted and brought back. Jameson reluctantly recalled the lieutenant, who had been delivering André into Arnold’s custody, but then sent the same lieutenant as a messenger to notify Arnold of André’s arrest. Arnold learned of André’s capture the following morning, September 24, when he received Jameson’s message that André was in his custody and that the papers André was carrying had been sent to General Washington. Arnold received Jameson’s letter while waiting for Washington, with whom he had planned to have breakfast. He hastened to the shore and ordered bargemen to row him downriver to where HMS Vulture was anchored, which then took him to New York. From the ship, Arnold wrote a letter to Washington, requesting that Peggy be given safe passage to her family in Philadelphia, a request Washington granted.
When presented with evidence of Arnold’s activities, it is reported that Washington remained calm. He did, however, investigate its extent, and suggested in negotiations with General Clinton over the fate of Major André that he was willing to exchange André for Arnold. This suggestion Clinton refused; after a military tribunal, André was hanged at Tappan, New York on October 2. Washington also infiltrated men into New York in an attempt to capture Arnold; this plan, which very nearly succeeded, failed when Arnold changed living quarters prior to sailing for Virginia in December.
Arnold justified his actions in an open letter titled To the Inhabitants of America, published in newspapers in October 1780. In the letter to Washington requesting safe passage for Peggy, he wrote that “Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.
The British gave Arnold a brigadier general’s commission with an annual income of several hundred pounds, but paid him only £6,315 plus an annual pension of £360 because his plot had failed. In December 1780, under orders from Clinton, Arnold led a force of 1,600 troops into Virginia, where he captured Richmond by surprise and then went on a rampage through Virginia, destroying supply houses, foundries, and mills.This activity brought out Virginia’s militia, led by Colonel Sampson Mathews, and Arnold eventually retreated to Portsmouth to either be evacuated or reinforced.
The pursuing American army included the Marquis de Lafayette, who was under orders from Washington to hang Arnold summarily if he was captured. Reinforcements led by William Phillips arrived in late March, and Phillips led further raids across Virginia, including a defeat of Baron von Steuben at Petersburg, until his death of fever on May 12, 1781. Arnold commanded the army only until May 20, when Lord Cornwallis arrived with the southern army and took over. One colonel wrote to Clinton of Arnold, “there are many officers who must wish some other general in command.” Cornwallis ignored advice proffered by Arnold to locate a permanent base away from the coast, advice that might have averted Cornwallis’s later surrender at Yorktown.
On his return to New York in June, Arnold made a variety of proposals for attacks on economic targets to force the Americans to end the war. Clinton was uninterested in most of Arnold’s aggressive ideas, but finally authorized Arnold to raid the port of New London, Connecticut. On September 4, not long after the birth of his and Peggy’s second son, Arnold’s force of over 1,700 men raided and burned New London and captured Fort Griswold, causing damage estimated at $500,000. British casualties were high; nearly one quarter of the force was killed or wounded. Clinton declared he could ill afford any more such victories.
On December 8, 1781, Arnold and his family left New York for England. In London, he aligned himself with the Tories, advising Germain and King George III to renew the fight against the Americans. In the House of Commons, Edmund Burke expressed the hope that the government would not put Arnold “at the head of a part of a British army” lest “the sentiments of true honor, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted.” To Arnold’s detriment, the anti-war Whigs had gotten the upper hand in Parliament, and Germain was forced to resign, with the government of Lord North falling not long after.
Arnold then applied to accompany General Carleton, who was going to New York to replace Clinton as commander-in-chief; this request went nowhere. Other attempts to gain positions within the government or the British East India Company over the next few years all failed, and he was forced to work for a reduced pay of non-wartime service.
Arnold’s health began to decline around January 1801. Gout, from which he had suffered since 1775, attacked his unwounded leg to the point where he was unable to go to sea; the other leg ached constantly, and he walked only with a cane. His physicians diagnosed him as having dropsy. He died after four days of delirium, on June 14, 1801, at the age of 60. He was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, England. As a result of a clerical error in the parish records, his remains were removed to an unmarked mass grave during church renovations a century later. His funeral procession boasted “seven mourning coaches and four state carriages”; the funeral was without military honors. He left a small estate, reduced in size by his debts, which Peggy undertook to clear.
Arnold’s name will always be synonymous with traitor in the United States. Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions”, and Alexander Scammell described Arnold’s actions as “black as hell”. Arnold was understandably bitter by the constant slights he received throughout his military career, but was it a good reason to sell out your country?