No one, particularly not Gen. George Washington, doubted Benedict Arnold’s skill as a military commander. But Arnold had many faults, among them: he was hotheaded, a glory seeker, brash and haunted by the ever-swirling taint of corruption.
Following his victory at Ticonderoga in 1775, his life became one of humiliation and pain. He wanted to invade Canada, but he was rebuffed and the command was turned over to another officer. He sought reimbursement for the money he had spent on the Ticonderoga excursion, but the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety passed his request to the Continental Congress. This caused his unpaid soldiers to mutiny. They arrested Arnold and negotiated for themselves with Massachusetts.
While this was going on, he learned that his wife had died. And after a long battle with the Massachusetts Board of Examiners, he was finally reimbursed for less than half of what he had spent to capture two forts and a wealth of materiel.
But Washington recognized Arnold’s skills as a tactician and commander; and, over the next two years, Arnold proved Washington’s faith was well-founded. Despite his successes, the Continental Congress passed over Arnold for promotion. Other officers sought credit for his successes. And Arnold became ever more bitter.
In 1778, Arnold, who had been injured during the Battles of Saratoga, was made military commander of Philadelphia. There, he took a new wife, the 18-year-old daughter of a British loyalist. She was almost 20 years his junior.
Charges of corruption and bribery hounded him. These included the misuse of army wagons for profit and accepting bribes to let private cargo ships pass freely between Philadelphia and New York. In 1780, he was court-martialed. Though found innocent of most of the charges, he was found guilty of improperly issuing a pass for one cargo ship and of an imprudent use of army wagons for his own commercial trade. Washington reprimanded him, but acceded to his request to make him commander of a critical fort at West Point, N.Y.
On Sept. 21, 1780, Washington was on his way to visit Arnold and inspect the West Point defenses. He arrived at Arnold’s home just outside the fort to pay a visit to Arnold and have breakfast. Arnold wasn’t home. Washington was told that Arnold had already gone to the fort and that Arnold’s wife was too ill to take visitors. Washington had breakfast and went to the fort, but was told Arnold had not been seen.
After the inspection, Washington returned to Arnold’s home and inquired as to his whereabouts. No one had seen or heard from him, so Washington waited.
That afternoon, Alexander Hamilton handed Washington a pack of letters just taken from the boot of a British spy captured that day by three highwaymen. The spy, who claimed to be John Anderson, tried to bribe the highwaymen into delivering him to the British. But the men, fearing arrest by the British if they did as the spy requested, decided to turn him over to the local American commander.
The man turned out to be Major John André, Sir Henry Clinton’s adjutant general and Arnold’s accomplice. The papers in André’s boot included a plan of the fortifications at West Point, an engineer’s analysis of how to defend the fort and secret minutes of Washington’s last war council.
Washington acted quickly. He sent Hamilton to try to capture Arnold, rushed forces to West Point to increase the defenses and interrogated Arnold’s wife, who was raving that her husband was gone forever.
But Arnold had gotten out of reach. His plans, which had been a year in the making, were falling apart. He had learned of André’s arrest earlier that morning, while Washington was still inspecting the fort. Arnold had bid his wife goodbye, boarded his barge and ordered his crew to take him to the British ship Vulture, which was anchored nearby. On the trip he told the crew of his switch in allegiance and promised promotions in the British army if they would join him.
The coxswain, Cpl. James Larvey is reported to have replied: “No sir! One coat is enough for me to wear at a time.” When they arrived at the Vulture, Arnold had the crew arrested.
Arnold served the rest of the war on the side of the British. He led British troops in battles in Virginia and Connecticut. After the war, Arnold moved to England. He died there in 1801, having never received all he was promised by the British for his betrayal. André was hanged as a spy.
Source: Patriots by A.J. Langguth