Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Benedict Arnold: Tragic Hero

Much has been written about Benedict Arnold over the years, and recently movies. Mostly they had been unflattering, so much so, that “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous with treachery and betrayal, much as “Judas Iscariot” was to the generations before Arnold’s plan to surrender West Point during the American Revolution.

With revisionist trends in history which seem to tear down our heroes in the pursuit of “truth” the investigation into Arnold’s actions do not justify them, but explains and offers a more balanced view. After two hundred and more years after his death a more complete Benedict Arnold emerges, one that was a hero, a tragic hero that on the outset, loved and fought fiercely for his country.

Born in 1741 to what would be considered well to do family, the family fortunes changed rapidly over the years, with poor business practices, his father’s drinking, and eventually the passing of both parents. The reversal of fortunes over time left Arnold with his own drive for personal wealth and financial security. He had apprenticed as an apothecary to a family member, taking time away from the business to fight in the French and Indian War. Eventually he purchased wares in Europe and opened his own shop in New Haven.

With the Crown restricting trade and increasing taxation Arnold earned extra income through smuggling. This would foreshadow the practices he would be accused of during the revolution.

He entered the fight for independence as a captain when he heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Eager for battle, he proposed an attack on Fort Ticonderoga. On his march he encountered Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, a group of rough, free booting rangers. As a commissioned soldier Arnold felt Allen should be subordinate to him, but had no way to enforce it, the rangers simply went about as they liked including celebrating the taking of the fort with the British stock of rum.

During the invasion of Canada Arnold showed his determination as well as his temper, especially when feeling slighted. He and Ethan Allen once more could not work well together, but they cobbled together a navy of small gun boats to challenge the British on Lake Champlain, these were to be the first naval engagement between the rebels and the Crown.

During this fighting, Colonel Easton, serving under Arnold had returned to Massachusetts, diminishing Arnold's contributions, while trying to highlight his own. Eventually Arnold's temper would force him to challenge Easton to a duel, which the other refused. With the violence pending, Allen and Easton left and Arnold was ordered to serve under another commander. Arnold refused, resigning his commission and writing Congress over the affronts.

Arnold had also attempted to regain his expenses from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which only paid him a fraction of what he was owed. During the Revolution, soldiers, officers especially, paid out of pocket, even outfitting their men. Arnold was not rich but affluent, and he wanted to stay that way, he would go to Congress to recoup the rest of the amount. This constant struggle to receive his monies as well as addressing congress with grievances was a pattern Arnold would continue throughout the war.

Awarding Connecticut the lion's share of the plunder from Fort Ticonderoga over Arnold's Massachusetts further incensed the soldier. The above is an example of events through out Arnold's career. Benedict Arnold lived for glory and recognition; he was a brilliant warrior and wished to be recognized as such. He vied against many others that also chased such accolades but he lacked others' political savvy.

One ally Arnold had been George Washington. The General proposed Arnold to the Continental Congress to join the expedition into Canada under General Schuyler. Schuyler gave Arnold free rein and the soldier conducted an incredible march into Quebec; earning him accolades as a Hannibal for the Revolution. Weather, desertions, and lack of supplies plagued Arnold, but he held his company together to reach the St. Lawrence. December 1775 saw battle and small pox decimating Arnold's troops. Arnold took a bullet to the leg, shouting orders even when he was laid up wounded. Montreal could not be held, the battle was lost, but for his efforts he was made Brigadier General.

The Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777 once more showed Benedict Arnold's importance as a leader of men and a general that was vital to the revolution. Arnold was under the command of Horatio Gates. Arnold was eager for battle but Gates held him back, actually relieving him of his command for insubordination. The battle was engaged and Arnold, tiring of sitting it out took his horse and led a body of men into the center of the British forces, causing a collapse that allowed the American forces to capitalize to victory. During this battle Arnold had his mount shot out from under him, reinjuring the leg that was wounded in Canada.

The result of the American victory convinced France to throw its full support behind the fledgling nation. Horatio Gates, who had been hesitant and arguable an overly cautious if not out and out bad general, took credit for what was really Arnold's victory. Gates was vying to take Washington's position as Commander and Chief of the Army, and went so far as to send his reports directly to Congress rather than to Washington as commander of the army.

Benedict Arnold was now crippled, joining Washington at Valley Forge for the infamous winter, his seniority restored by Congress though the damage had been done and the stage set. Washington appointed Arnold as commandant of Philadelphia after the British abandoned it. It was there that Arnold met his second wife Peggy Shippen.

Shippen, twenty years Arnold's junior, came from an affluent family, giving Arnold the status he craved, but his income could not afford it. He engaged in inappropriate shipping practices, using his position as commandant. He was court-maritaled on the charges, and was convicted of improperly using government property and speculation. It should be noted that, like today, it was an atmosphere of "do as I say not as I do" Congress members were speculators in their own fight for freedom, back room deals for supplies and bankrolling their own privateers which put them at odds with the fledgling Navy. The attacks on Arnold were politically motivated, as much as Arnold had few supporters. The attacks were likely aimed at Washington as well as Arnold's friend and ally.

Benedict Arnold would war with Congress, defending his good name, seeking redress for financial losses, and protesting the slights he was given in promotion and responsibility. Time and again he was hailed a hero but those junior to him would be promoted over him, many because of patronage within Congress.

Arnold, through his wife, a Tory from her time with the occupying British in Philadelphia offered to turn coat to them. The prize was West Point, and some speculate, Washington himself. The price: 10,000 pounds and a commission as a provincial Brigadier General. During the negotiations Major John Andre served as the go between (a friend of Peggy Shippen and possibly former lover) Andre was captured and a missive between Arnold and General Clinton was discovered. Andre was tried and hanged as a spy. Arnold escaped down river on the British sloop Vulture. It is speculated that Arnold actually offered to trade himself to win Andre's freedom.

Arnold would not be entrusted by the British with anything important; he served in command during a couple of raid like battles in Virginia. He would attempt to serve his new country as well as restart his shipping business, but he had earned the reputation of being untrustworthy, having betrayed one country might he not do so again? He died in London in 1801.

Benedict Arnold was a great general, brilliant leader of men, and a patriot. Had he the patronage that men like Gates enjoyed, or the charisma and wealth of Washington his story might have been different.

He was also a tragic hero. Arnold had personality flaws that led to his downfall. He could not control his temper; he took slight easily, making him a political sitting duck. He did not have the resources or networks that Washington had to keep him informed or whisper in the right ear in Congress. He had the patronage of Washington, but the General was trying to win a nation. He also had the misfortune of marrying into a moneyed Tory family. Had he not married Peggy Shippen, he might have taken the battle-command offered to him by Washington instead of West Point.

Benedict Arnold was the tragic hero of fiction, but on the stage of History. He was the dark mirror of George Washington. Washington was of the South, Arnold the North, both men were moneyed, yet Washington was able to magnanimously serve his country without pay, where Arnold struggled to receive recompense. Both men were seekers of glory and adventure, yet Washington was understated, almost humble in his pursuit. Both had a love of their fledgling country, Washington was able to stay the course and Arnold fell.

A clever writer would have been fortunate to write such characters! Through the lens of history, as a person might read a novel, we see the speeding freight train that is Benedict Arnold's hurtling career. We see time and again he is looked over, abused, and ignored. He suffers indignities despite his valiant efforts in the cause of freedom. One could see what was coming for Arnold and wish they could look away because of the tragedy unfolding. The reader knows Arnold is doomed, they see what is driving him to his end, through his own choices he is damned, yet one could almost sympathize with him.

What glory might he have known then? Would his name be revered with the other great generals like Greene? Or would his debts and temper have led him to obscurity instead of infamy? Is it better to be a villain than to be forgotten? But such is the speculation of fiction. What we have is history. Arnold was an unfortunate man who made a fateful decision that resonates to this day.

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