Benedict Arnold 1741-1801

Early Life

Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut. Arnold was one of a number of Benedict Arnolds including an early governor of Rhode Island and his father. Arnold’s mother was Hannah Waterman King, a wealthy widow, before her marriage to the elder Arnold. The family fortunes were well for a while, however some poor business deals caused some financial problems for the family. Arnold’s father turned to the local taverns for solace. Arnold attended school at Canterbury. While there, some of his siblings died from the Yellow Fever. Without money, Benedict Arnold was withdrawn from school. Arnold was young, full of energy and willing to try and do anything. With the lack of the structure of the school regime, and lax parental control, Arnold was often in trouble. His mother finally found help in the form of family: cousins Daniel and Joshua Lathrop took Arnold in as an apprentice to their large and successful apothecary business. He left his apprenticeship a couple of times to join the army for periods of time during the French and Indian War, but remained in the employ of his cousins for years.

Arnold’s mother died in 1759, and his father followed his wife in death two years later. After leaving the apprenticeship, Arnold traveled to Europe, buying supplies for his own apothecary which he established in New Haven. The only surviving member of his immediate family was Hannah, his sister, and she became his assistant. His business dealings drifted into smuggling…in contempt of the customs laws of the Crown.


Margaret Mansfield became the bride of Benedict Arnold in 1767. They had three sons. Prior to the official outbreak of war, Arnold became a Captain in the Governor’s Second Company of Guards. When the word spread of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Arnold marched off to the action with his troop. He was eager for action and at Cambridge he requested permission of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to capture Ft. Ticonderoga.

Revolutionary War

Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were as equally eager to capture such a prize and the two groups met up with each other at Bennington. Arnold was surprised and a little angered because Ethan Allen did not care if Arnold had permission from the Committee of Safety and Arnold couldn’t talk Allen out of relinquishing command. Arnold had to concede to accompanying Allen and his rowdy, rough and tumble fighters. On May 10, they surprised the British garrison and the Green Mountain Boys celebrated by invading the rum stores of the British and getting totally sloshed. They virtually ignored Benedict Arnold except when they were teasing and jeering him. Arnold had an argument with Colonel Easton, who was to deliver the missive announcing the victory of the capture to Massachusetts…which doesn’t make it surprising that Arnold spent time with the captured enemy officers than his fellow countrymen.

Arnold in Canada

Arnold eventually gained some control by way of his sailing experience, however he and Allen really never could see things the same way…except for the essential need of an invasion of Canada. Easton returned from his mission to Massachusetts while Arnold and Allen were planning the Canadian Invasion. Easton had done his best to diminish Arnold’s participation in the capture of Ticonderoga and the two were arguing once more. Arnold challenged him to a duel and Easton refused. When the fight got physical, Allen and Easton both left. He proceeded with his own plans, but soon a Massachusetts Committee commanded him to place himself under Colonel Benjamin Hinman. With his quick temper, he immediately dismissed all his troops after resigning his commission. He was not any happier when he found out his men had been recruited by his nemesis, Colonel Easton. Completely affronted, he went to Albany and there sent off a statement of the situation at Ticonderoga to Continental Congress.

His experiences in the North were not very happy ones, and while his own behavior was not exemplary in any fashion, he still had the right to feel angry over the his treatment by the other men. He had been caught in the middle of the political machinations of Connecticut and Massachusetts, both vying for the kudos of the accomplishment of the capture of the British stores at Fort Ticonderoga. When Massachusetts acquiesced to Connecticut’s preeminence in the territory, Arnold most certainly felt abandoned.

After the illness of his wife, and succumbing to a bout of gout himself, Arnold traveled to Cambridge to settle up his accounts with the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. There, he again received shabby treatment and was given only a small portion of his expenses, no where near his total bill. Piqued, he turned the accounting over to Silas Deane, who in turn presented them to the Continental Congress, and he was finally repaid the balance of the account.

The Canadian invasion plans were still in the works and it was George Washington who proposed the name of Benedict Arnold to the Continental Congress. He was commissioned a Colonel, and began to implement his plans. Arnold was given pretty much a free hand by General Schuyler and enjoyed his independence. The subsequent wilderness march is one the examples of the incredible stamina and daring these men had. It will remain a very important American military feat for ages.

Washington had placed a great deal of trust in Arnold and he solidly backed that trust. However, the weather conditions due to the lateness of the season would present a problem for Arnold and his men. The terrain was difficult and rocky and the water supplies were not adequate due to the severe rainfall. A letter from Arnold to Schuyler was given to a trustworthy Indian scout who ended up not to be so trustworthy. It was placed into the hands of the British.

Arnold was zealous and encouraging, but the conditions were hard. Some of his men deserted, taken much-needed supplies with them. Snow, rain, mud, hunger were just some of the conditions the troops had to endure while pressing on to Quebec. Arnold finally reached the St. Lawrence with six hundred men and Arnold was commended for his success.

Benedict Arnold tried to take Quebec, however a rainstorm prevented any movement for three days and in the interim, the intercepted letter allowed the British to bring reinforcements to add more protection. Arnold fell back to wait for more men by the coming of Colonel Montgomery. He, however had lost a number of his due to the expiration of their subscription. Arnold was soon to lose a number of his own men for the same reason and smallpox broke out at the same time among the American forces. Snow began to fall and on December 31, 1775 a battle ensued, but things went poorly for the Americans. Montgomery fell and Benedict Arnold was wounded with a bullet in his leg. Daniel Morgan was forced to take over and did so fiercely. They were trapped, however, by their lack of knowledge of the area and were forced to surrender. Arnold was in command and refused to end the siege, bellowing orders from his sickbed. He did not want to leave unless he was triumphant. He requested reinforcements which he received only in small amounts. He was given high praise by Washington and others and made a Brigadier General which he was happy about, but the expedition failed anyway.

Arnold went to Montreal where he received a delegation of members of Congress to deal with Canada. The diplomatic acts failed and eventually Arnold checked an attack by the British and Indians and successfully evacuated Montreal. Seizures of stores were ordered for the severely lacking troops and Arnold plundered efficiently and “legally”. Arnold ended up to be one of the last to leave Canada shoreline on the retreat south.

Legal Problems and Personal Conflict

Benedict Arnold’s summer battles of 1776 involved legal matters, not tactical warfare. He was being taken to court for the plundering of Montreal’s stores. Major arguments ensued where Arnold accused another officer, Hazen, of not taking control, and as a result, he had to. The arguments between to the two were hot and heavy and Hazen eventually insisted to be court-martialed in order to clear his name. The court took the brunt of Arnold’s anger and they demanded an apology which, Arnold, of course, refused to do. Instead, he challenged them. The court demanded his arrest. The task of ending the quarrel fell to General Horatio Gates who knew a man of Arnold’s ability and acumen was needed in the growing heat between the British and the Americans in the North. Arnold was exonerated. He was soon in charge of a small fleet of ships and ordered to Ticonderoga.

Here again, Arnold was successful, but found his critics willing to point fingers and pass blame. The Americans lost ten of their fifteen ships and Arnold was blamed. While not a victory, the battle showed the British the stamina and tenacity the Americans had.

The following winter was trying for Arnold. Some of his old Army nemesis’ rose up once more to bring charges against him. He spent most of the winter defending himself. He saw a number of junior officers receive promotions to Brigadier General above him, leaving him behind. Here again, political machinations, robbed him of his due, he felt. Washington was upset over the situation and spent time trying to calm his friend and find out what happened in Congress, especially for the fact that he was not consulted over the promotions. Washington was not completely successful at either task and Arnold ended up traveling to Philadelphia to get answers for himself. Because of an action that took place on the way–he successfully routed the British after they burned Danbury–he was appointed a major general, but without his seniority. This fact rankled Arnold, as well as the outstanding account which he was due repayment for his expenses. Congress tried to be affable with Arnold, but still refused to restore his seniority. Washington went to bat for Arnold and submitted a letter to Congress commending Arnold. With nothing being done, even with the aid of the Commander-in-Chief, Arnold resigned in July 1777.

That same day, Washington had recommended Arnold to aid Schuyler near Ticonderoga. Arnold felt the opportunity too great, and asked to put his resignation on hold. He immediately took off for the north. This was an opportunity he could not miss! At the same time, Congress voted not to reinstate Arnold’s seniority and he would never forgive them for the slight.

Upon his arrival in the north, Arnold was immediately embroiled in another war between states, as he had been early in his military career. Here two American forces were “warring” against the other for leadership. Most of the New Englanders backed Horatio Gates, while the New Yorkers in the areas were supporting General Schuyler. Arnold was torn, but threw his “support” to Schuyler since he was in similar straits as Arnold.

Later, it was Arnold, the only volunteer, to take Fort Schuyler. He accomplished this by faking out the British into thinking there were hundreds of thousands of American forces heading to the fort, when in actuality he had less than a thousand. He entered a fort empty of the enemy.

Returning to the main force, Arnold found himself under the leadership of General Gates. It wasn’t too long before the two men found a difference of opinion in tactical stance when the Battle of Freeman’s Farm (Battle of Saratoga September 19-October 7, 1777) began. Arnold was ripe and ready for battle and wanted to press his forces before the American lines. Gates, however, held him back and refused reinforcements, remaining cautious. When Gates removed some of his forces without his knowledge AND failed to credit Arnold and his forces with their participation in the Battle of Freeman’s Farm to Congress, it put him over the edge. He wanted to leave, but Gates pulled his command instead for insubordination.

Having a little time to think, Arnold paced his tent, realizing his reluctance to actually leave when there was soon to be some action taking place. So, he paced and complained, paced and complained and paced and complained a little more. Finally, while his aides were trying to keep him informed and not hearing anything satisfactory, he ordered his horse and charged into battle, conveniently ignoring the fact he had no official command. The sight of the fighting man invigorated the troops and they rallied around him. In two severe assaults, Arnold led the men to push open the center of the enemy’s line. Backed by Daniel Morgan and his riflemen, the pressure from the American forces was so strong, the British collapsed. As victory was staring the Americans in the face, Arnold’s horse was shot and fell on the same leg that had been injured before. It was Arnold’s actions, however, that perhaps more than any officer there, led to the American success, because ten days later, Burgoyne conceded–and as a direct result, France came to the aid of the infant country.

Arnold’s seniority was subsequently restored, but he was already too angry to forgive Congress, and never would. He was now also crippled, a blow to his pride after being such an actively athletic man. “He spent the winter of 1777-1778 with the army at Valley Forge. On May 30th, 1778, Benedict Arnold signed the Oath of Allegiance to his country. It was signed at Artillery Park in Valley Forge and witnessed by Henry Knox. After the evacuation of the British in Philadelphia, Washington appointed him commandant of the city.

More Legal Troubles

In Philadelphia, still recuperating, he met Peggy Shippen, a boisterous young woman, the baby of the three daughters of Judge Edward Shippen. (William Shippen, his cousin, was surgeon general to the Continental Army.) Arnold pursued and wooed Miss Peggy Shippen who was missing the company of Captain John Andre, and after some misgivings on her part and the hesitation of her father, Arnold finally succeeded. Peggy was eighteen and Arnold was thirty-eight when they married. His marriage into the Shippen family brought him social status, however, it was something he really could not afford. The couple lived well beyond their means, and as a result, Arnold entered into some shady business dealings, including shipping, real estate speculation and authorizing the use of government supplies for his own personal needs. With people in Congress eyeing everything he did, he was soon brought up on charges and was court martialed. He defended himself, furiously as always, but he was found guilty on two charges: using government wagons for his personal use and issuing a pass to a ship he later invested in. Washington, himself pronounced the charges “imprudent and improper” and “peculiarly reprehensible.”


By May of 1779, Arnold had begun bargaining with the British. Why would a man commit treason against his country, especially one who had fought so valiantly? We can only speculate. He was certainly angry and hurt over the many slights he received over the years. He probably felt unappreciated by his country and those he fought with, even sacrificing his own leg for the cause. His pride was most likely the biggest piece of his life that was damaged–humiliation was always an affront Arnold could never take. Money, of course, played a big part. He was offered in excess of 10,000 pounds and a commission in the British military.

At the time, Arnold’s wife was considered an innocent in the matter, however, new research leads us to believe that the young woman played an important part in knowing what was going on and aiding her husband’s endeavors. The occupation of Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778 was an exciting one for the young woman. Parties, routs, and balls were all aspects of the social scene with numerous British officers and Tory sympathizers. Peggy had made some friends among them.

The bounty Arnold offered the British was West Point. He began correspondence with Major John Andre by a circuitous route. Andre had been friends with Peggy Shippen Arnold during the Philadelphia occupation. Andre was an adjutant general and intelligence chief of Sir Henry Clinton. Washington offered Arnold the position of left wing of the army, in the meantime, which earlier in Arnold’s career would have been a coup. He used his crippled leg as an excuse and was given West Point instead.

Andre was the courier between Arnold and Clinton regarding the closing of the deal. With his ship forced back by American troops, Andre was sent on foot back to British lines with a pass from Arnold as well as documents for Clinton in his sock. He was captured and placed into American custody when the documents were found. Arnold heard of his capture and was able to make his escape…to the same ship, the Vulture, which Andre had arrived on. Andre was put on trial, and met his death as a spy. Arnold defected to the British and received substantial remuneration for his defection. These included pay, land in Canada, pensions for himself, his wife and his children (five surviving from Peggy and three from his first marriage to Margaret) and a military commission as a British Provincial brigadier general.

The British provided handsomely for Arnold, but never completely trusted him. He was never given an important military command. They moved to London where he found no job, some admiration and even some contempt. He moved his family to Canada where he reentered the shipping business. The Tories there disliked him and had no use for him, and eventually he returned his family to London. When the fighting began between France and England, he tried again for military service, but to no avail. His shipping ventures eventually failed and he died in 1801, virtually unknown, his wife joining him in death three years later.