Founding Fighters: Benedict Arnold

by Alan Cate

In my 2006 book Founding Fighters: The Battlefield Leaders Who Made American Independence, I tell the stories of 15 founding U.S. military leaders who essentially created an American army from scratch during the Revolutionary War. One of the most interesting and controversial figures I examine in the book is Benedict Arnold. Born to a wealthy Connecticut family in 1741, a combination of bad luck, bad business dealings, and drinking problems had drained much of the Arnold family’s resources by the time he reached adulthood. Arnold apprenticed at an apothecary and his business dealings in the 1760s turned towards smuggling, in contempt of royal customs laws. A serving captain in the local militia when the War of Independence broke out, Arnold joined up with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, taking a British garrison by surprise. Arnold secured several notable successes in the early years of the war, and planned an invasion of Canada with General Washington that never quite materialized. Despite donating his funds to the war effort and sustaining serious war injuries, Arnold was disappointed to be passed over for promotion at the Continental Congress. To add insult to injury, he was notified that he owed the Continental Army money. In 1779, Arnold entered into secret negotiations with the British, and in 1780, Arnold obtained control of West Point, intending to hand it over to the British. When the plot was discovered, Arnold was forced to flee down the Hudson River. Serving as a brigadier general in the British army from that time on, Arnold led raids on Virginia and Connecticut before the war essentially ended with the American victory in Yorktown. Arnold moved to London in 1782, and spent the remainder of his days outside of the U.S. Despite the fact that Arnold was branded a traitor to his country for joining the British, there were undeniably political machinations that slighted him unfairly. Arnold did display considerable valor on behalf of the Americans in the early part of the war, a fact that is in many ways lessened by his betrayal of the Revolutionary army.