Benedict Arnold: A Traitor, but Once a Patriot

The one-time war hero chose a path of betrayal after becoming disillusioned with the cause.

Before he soured on the revolutionary cause, Benedict Arnold was a celebrated hero.

Before he soured on the revolutionary cause, Benedict Arnold was a celebrated hero.

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After almost losing a leg for America, Benedict Arnold expected more.

Admired by revolutionary leaders, twice wounded in courageous fighting, Arnold could easily have seen his accomplishments chiseled onto every Revolutionary War memorial in the country. Instead, his name is a historical sneer.

His unforgivable act of treason has often been attributed to a flawed character, but the real story is sadder and more complex. After so many sacrifices, he became disillusioned with the war's progress. Perhaps even more important, he grew deeply mistrustful of the cause's civilian leaders and, ultimately, Arnold himself felt betrayed. "This was a man who began in 1775 as the most ardent of patriots," says James Kirby Martin, a history professor at the University of Houston, "but he grew to feel that turning back to England would be the best course for the country."

Arnold was the second of six children born to a close-knit and prosperous family in Norwich, Conn., in 1741. His mother sought solace in religion and his father in alcohol after three of Arnold's siblings died of diphtheria. Expecting to attend Yale, the 14-year-old was instead apprenticed to an apothecary in New Haven. When his mother died and his father turned into the town drunk, Arnold had an early taste of the disgrace that would color the rest of his life.

Ambition and business acumen propelled Arnold from merchandising to international trade. He had made enough money by 22 to buy back the family homestead sold to pay his father's debts. He resold it at enough of a profit to buy a fleet of ships. In 1767, he married the daughter of a prominent Freemason.

But soon squeezed by oppressive British taxes and policies, which imperiled his livelihood, the short and intense patriot devoted himself to resisting British tyranny by joining and then leading the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty.

Hannibal. Untrained and poorly equipped troops frustrated Arnold, so he used his own money and time to train patriot forces. In May 1775, he helped launch an attack on the small British fort of Ticonderoga. A bloodless victory whetted his appetite for military maneuvering and led to Washington appointing him commander of 1,100 men for a campaign against Quebec. Three hundred fifty miles the troops trudged through rain, snow, and ice, reduced to eating candles, dogs, and shoe leather. The Americans' march through the Maine wilderness earned Arnold the undying respect of his men and the nickname "America's Hannibal." During Arnold's recovery from a musket ball to the leg, Thomas Jefferson praised him before the Continental Congress.

Yet Arnold never truly felt his nation's grati-tude. Petty jealousies kept his name off lists of promotions. Inferior military officers generated rumors that pockmarked his reputation. "Virtue is a key concept in the Revolution," says Martin, author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered, "and Congress repeatedly insulted Arnold's virtue."

After the triumphant Battle of Saratoga in New York in 1777, his sense of betrayal reached an unbearable pitch, says Dave Palmer, former superintendent of the U.S. Military Acad-emy at West Point and author of George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. The courage and stam-ina shown by Arnold and the Americans impressed the French enough to help convince them to join the war and provide critical support to the struggling rebels. But Arnold received a near-fatal shot to the same leg wounded at Quebec and would never walk again without a limp. While Arnold lay immobilized in an Albany hospital, his commander, Major Gen. Horatio Gates, peevishly claimed credit for the British surrender. "Bedridden and helpless, Benedict Arnold gnashed his teeth at the distressing thought of 'Granny Gates' receiving honors won by the blood and grit of better men," writes Palmer.

Reassessing his sacrifices and rewards, Arnold grew bitter. He was financially strapped, his wife had died during his absence, and his personal honor had been attacked. "Poison may have stopped oozing from his leg," Palmer writes, "but his heart remained full of rancor."