The People “Hamilton” Forgot: Benedict Arnold

I am setting out on a mission that is probably way beyond my skill set. That mission? To shed light on the revolutionary war figures that slipped through the cracks of Lin Manuel Miranda’s script. Because there are some awesome stories that deserve their share of the limelight.

Let’s start with Benedict Arnold, the most notorious turncoat of the war, and America’s first traitor. At least, that’s how we remember him.

But that’s starting at the end of the story.

Benedict Arnold was the son of a Connecticut merchant of the same name, the second of six children.  Only one of Benedict’s siblings, Hannah, survived childhood.  Perhaps it was the tragedy of losing four of his children, perhaps it was a decline in family fortune, or perhaps something else entirely, but the elder Benedict started drinking and didn’t stop until he’d drunk himself into the grave.

Which left young Benedict as the head of his family.  His mother died two years before his father, so Benedict was left to care for his younger sister at the age of 18.

At 16, he joined up with the Connecticut militia to fight in the French and Indian War.

At 21, Arnold was an established pharmacist and bookseller.

At 23, with the help of a partner, he owned three trading ships.

So when Parliament passed acts that curtailed trade in the colonies, Benedict did not stay silent.  True, it was not idealism that drove him to join the rebellion, but rather a drive to survive.  This was a man who had to work and fight for everything he had, and the hardships of his childhood left him with an abhorrence of running out of money and not paying back his debts.  In fact, thanks to the Stamp Act, even though Arnold blatantly ignored it and became a smuggler, Arnold ended up deeply in debt.

Shortly after this, Benedict was married, and had three sons.  His wife, Margaret, died four years after their wedding, when the Revolution was just beginning.

Like many young men of the time, Arnold joined the Continental Army.  His first significant contribution to the Revolution was the capture of Fort Ticonderoga with Vermont’s Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.

His next attempt at glory, an expedition to rally support for the Patriot cause in Canada, was far from successful.  Canadians were far from willing to join the Revolution, and Arnold was wounded in the leg during his desperate attack on Quebec City.  Once his leg was healed, Arnold helped to prevent an invasion force from Canada reaching New York, thereby saving the Revolution.

Despite his timely and heroic efforts, Congress refused to give him the promotion he thought he deserved, causing Arnold to quit the army. (good to know Hamilton wasn’t the only one to throw a temper tantrum, right?)  Washington persuaded Arnold to return to service, and Arnold assisted in the defense of New York against General John Burgoyne.

As if Burgoyne and his army of Brits weren’t enough enemies, Arnold developed a mutual hatred with his commanding officer, General Horatio Gates.  Arnold thought Gates was incompetent; Gates claimed Arnold’s successes as his own.  During the Battle of Saratoga, Arnold ignored the fact that Gates had relieved him of duty and led a group of American soldier in an effort which disrupted enemy lines and helped to secure an American victory.  Arnold’s leg was wounded again, seriously enough that he was no longer fit for field command.

Probably the most remarkable part of this story is that, if Benedict Arnold had been killed at Saratoga, or died of his wounds, we would remember him as a hero.  As it is, Saratoga stands as the last positive contribution Arnold made to the American Revolution.

Arnold was appointed Governor of Philadelphia as a belated reward for his efforts in battle.  It was there that he met his second wife, Peggy Shippen, daughter of a loyalist.  True to form, Arnold’s focus was more on making money than worrying about his public image, which allowed many vicious yet not unfounded rumors to be circulated.  These rumors, when combined with Arnold’s resentment at continually being passed over for promotion, helped to push Arnold into becoming a turncoat, and supporting British efforts.

Much like a Greek tragedy, Arnold’s descent from hero to villain was gradual and complete.  Arnold conspired with British Major John Andre to hand over the American fort at West Point, preferably during one of General Washington’s visits.  Andre was caught crossing enemy lines dressed as a civilian, and the plot was uncovered in time to prevent it.  Arnold fled behind British lines, and Andre was hanged as a spy.

Strangely, Arnold’s betrayal fanned the flame of rebellion in the flagging hearts of the American patriots.   I guess there’s nothing like a failed traitor to bolster morale.

After the war ended in American victory, Arnold lived out his days in England, having received only a portion of the reward the Brits had promised.  He was not well liked in England, while citizens of the newly-formed United States of America downright hated him, turning his name into a synonym for traitor.  The only monument to Arnold’s contributions to the American Revolution is a statue of his wounded leg in Saratoga National Park.  Arnold’s name does not appear on the monument.benedict-arnold-boot

FOOTNOTE: The information in this blog post is a combination of childhood memories of watching Liberty’s Kids on PBS, what I remember from reading The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin a couple years ago, and late night skimmings from Wikipedia and  I am not an expert on American history, and would urge any who are interested in learning more to dig into the history section of their local library.  you never know what truth nugget you might uncover.


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