Benedict Arnold: American Hero and Traitor

The controversy over Arnold’s place in American history has persisted into this century.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    New York Public Library Digital Collection
    Benedict Arnold

    New Yorkers have long treasured their heroes -- from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But, in the case of one man who went down in history, there is some debate about whether he was a hero or a traitor. His name is Benedict Arnold.

    Arnold was not exactly a New Yorker, although he is most notorious for what he tried to do in upstate New York just 231 years ago this week.

    Late in the Revolutionary War, in September 1780, Arnold, the commandant of West Point, conspired to deliver West Point to the British. On September 23 of that year, Major John Andre of the British Army, who was part of the conspiracy, was captured by the British with documents incriminating Arnold in the plot. Andre was hanged. Arnold escaped to England with his wife and children.

    Benedict Arnold, born in Norwich, Connecticut, was a great soldier. George Washington valued him highly. In the summer of 1777, as British General John Burgoyne pressed the Continental troops of General  Horatio Gates near Albany, Arnold, cursing, riding, according to one account, “like a man possessed,”  rallied the troops.

    As one soldier wrote: “He was our fighting general, as brave a man as ever lived.”  Although the battle was not decisive, Arnold had saved the day and established his reputation as one of the most brilliant generals in Washington’s army.           

    Benedict Arnold, a hero of the battlefields in the Revolutionary War, by the end of that war was regarded as a traitor. Indeed, in the history of the United States, his is the one name that is considered synonymous with traitor.

    Was he a hero or a traitor? That’s debatable. Washington himself seemed to have positive feelings about Arnold, his hot-tempered subordinate, but, long before the plot with Andre was uncovered, Arnold was the object of conspiracies against him by politicians and military colleagues. They resented his brilliance and his often intolerant personality.  Arnold wanted to do things his way and, if he couldn’t, he was not above rebelling against authority.

    The controversy over Arnold’s place in American history has persisted into this century. In 2002, the citizens of Ridgefield, Connecticut observed the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield. Arnold fought impressively in that struggle. The chairman of the committee that re-enacted the battle, Keith Jones, said:  “I think more people appreciate that there were two sides to the gentleman and I think more of us are accepting what is fact is fact and when he was in Ridgefield was three years before he turned traitor.”

    Jones told me that the life of Benedict Arnold was “definitely an American tragedy.” 

    “He gave his all in the battles of the American Revolution. At Ridgefield, he twice had horses shot from under him. He was a brave man, extremely devoted to his country.

    “A patriot, he gave away his fortune to outfit American ships. He bought cannons for the Army. He gave his all to the cause. He was an ambitious man like Hamilton or Jefferson but he was not honored and respected as they were.”

    Jones spoke of how Arnold was passed over for promotion time and again by the politicians and the military, how he was frustrated and angry at not being appreciated by Congress.

    In the course of a tumultuous career, he lost his parents when he was very young and his wife died when he was 34. He found little solace in his public life. For many years, he suffered from a leg injury sustained in battle.

    Jones said that those who frame the question as to whether Arnold was a hero or a traitor are being “simplistic.”

    “You can’t describe him in the terms of sound bite journalism. There’s no easy way to describe this man. He was charismatic. He was extremely intelligent. And, at a time when many people were ambivalent, he loved both countries, Britain and America.”

    Does that excuse betraying his country? Perhaps not. But, a couple of hundred years after he lived, it’s interesting to hear the point of view of a man who believes there is another way of looking at Benedict Arnold. He was a tortured soul, despised by many in America and Britain. He was not afraid to risk his life for a cause. But he risked his reputation and, history shows, he lost.