Benedict Arnold: From American War Hero to Traitor to Enemy

  The Native American Indians tell the tale of a tribal elder teaching his grandson:

“There are two wolves inside every person, one good and one evil. They are constantly fighting for dominance, to see which one will win. Grandson, which wolf will win.” 

“I don’t know grandfather.” 

“The one you feed.” 

That is the story of Benedict Arnold who went from being an American War hero to a traitor to an enemy of the American Revolution.

Most Americans recognize the name of Benedict Arnold as the infamous traitor. But they know little else. They are especially surprised to learn that Benedict Arnold was once a great American military hero, whose heroism in battle was crucial to the outcome of the American Revolution.

 Benedict Arnold was a pharmacist and bookseller. England’s taxes acts hit him hard. So, he decided to take action against them. Arnold started trading on the colonial black market. He also acted as a smuggler. He became an original member of the patriotic Sons of Liberty.

 During the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, Arnold’s friend and fellow Son of Liberty, Dr. and Major General Joseph Warren was shot and killed.  Warren’s wife had died in 1773, so his death orphaned his four children. Arnold donated the huge sum of $500 for their care. Benedict also sponsored a bill to give the children a major-general’s half pay.  His charity knew no bounds.

 Benedict Arnold was promoted to general in the Continental Army. His leadership led to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.  The cannons from the fort were used to drive the British from Boston.  He broke the siege of Fort Stanwix.  He won the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, and the Battle of Ridgefield in Connecticut.

 But his greatest victory was at the famous Battle of Saratoga. (See blog post on “The Miracle at Saratoga.”)  After the first failed skirmish, General Arnold got into a public shouting match with commanding General Gates over strategy.  General Gates demoted Arnold on the spot, relieved him from his field command, and ordered him confined him to tent.

When the second battle started, General Arnold heard the screams of the wounded American soldiers.  Disobeying orders and risking court martial and execution, he mutinied, stormed out of his tent and raced to the floundering Americans. He usurped command, rallied the troops, and led them to victory over the British. 

 During the battle, General Arnold was shot. The bullet passed through his left leg and into his horse. The horse collapsed, pinning General Arnold to the ground and shattering his wounded leg.  General Arnold ended up in a lot of pain. His injured left leg healed badly, leaving his left leg two inches shorter than his right. He was left with chronic pain and a pronounced limp.

 Because of General Arnold’s miraculous victory at Saratoga, the British strategy to drive a wedge between the colonies was foiled, and General Burgoyne was forced surrendered to General Washington. This marked a turning point in the war.  (A monument was erected at Saratoga in Benedict Arnold’s honor. It contained a relief of a left leg in boot and stirrups and generals epiletes.    Conspicuously, General Arnold’s name is not the memorial.) 

 Congress rewarded General Arnold’s valor by restoring his rank. As the disabled Arnold healed, George Washington rewarded him by putting him in command of the strategic fort at West Point.             

 Benedict Arnold was insulted. He chose to be offended.  He interpreted the rewards as acts of pity, rather rewards for heroism.  General Arnold felt he never got the recognition, promotion, and financial reward he deserved. He gradually became more frustrated, bitter, and consumed with self-pity.

Finally, Benedict Arnold decided to switch sides.

 With Arnold’s loyalist wife serving as go-between, Arnold arranged a secret meeting at Fort West Point with the head of the British Secret Service, Adjutant General and Major John Andre. Arnold offered to surrender the strategic fort to the British. This would cut New England off from the rest of the American colonies.  (Ironically, that was the English strategy at Saratoga.)

 Arnold gave Andre a letter with Arnold’s terms. The letter included strategic information about the fort and the strategy for the British capture. In return, Arnold wanted the huge sum of 20,000 English pounds and a high command in the British Army. (The English pounds were worth close to 4 million dollars in today’s money.)

Benedict Arnold provided Andre with civilian clothes and a false passport in case he was stopped by the authorities. Dressed as an American, Andre started his trek from West Point to the British headquarters in New York City.

 A few days into his trek, Andre was confronted by two men. These were not American the authorities Andre had prepared for. Instead, these were deserters from Washington’s army, and they were highway robbers. When they searched Andre for hidden cash, they discovered Arnold’s letter inside Andre’s stocking. John Andre offered a large cash bribe.  Incredibly, the robbers refused. Instead, these deserters turned Andre over to the authorities, risking their own court martial and execution. Miraculous! General Washington was alerted, and the plot was foiled.

Image result for photos benedict arnold

Benedict Arnold fled down the Hudson River in a small boat and reached the British warship Vulture, just ahead of Washington’s men. Benedict received a commission as a general in the British Army, and he led British forces in several battles against the Americans. He retired comfortably to London in 1791, where he died ten years later from gout.

When John Andre was arrested, the British assumed he would be held prisoner until the end of the war or until a prisoner exchange. There was an understanding between both sides that officers would never executed for doing their duty. 

The British believed that the Americans would not dare to execute a Major and Adjutant General. They were wrong. General Washington was so enraged at the hanging of twenty-one-year-old Nathan Hale a few years earlier, that he ordered the hanging of Andre.

(After the war, John Andre was re-buried with honor in Westminster Abbey.)

Two final points.  First, had Benedict Arnold surrendered Fort West Point to the British, it could have cost the Americans the war.  Second, Benedict Arnold is remembered only as “traitor,’ “turncoat,” “villain,” and so on.  He is not remembered for his charity, patriotism, bravery, and heroism.  

He chose to feed the wrong wolf.

(Sources: “Benedict Arnold,” “Battles of Saratoga,” “John Andre,” Wikipedia; “Major John Andre,”; “Battles of Saratoga,” Wikipedia.  Personal research for speeches on the “Divine Birth of the American Nation.” “The Battle of Saratoga,”; “The Battle of Saratoga – A Major Turning Point of the Revolutionary War,”; “Battle of Saratoga,” American Ride, BYUtv.)

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