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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Much of his anger focused on civilian leaders in Congress who stinted on supplies for the military and failed to acknowledge the contributions made by fighting patriots. "How can Congress allow this army to starve in a land of plenty?" he penned indignantly. With popular support for the American cause waning, Arnold felt that the country was worse off than it had been before the Revolution.

Washington appointed Arnold military commander of Philadelphia in June 1778, his disability preventing another field commission. As he badgered Congress on behalf of veterans and families, Arnold's contempt for the architects of the Revolution hardened. He was infuriated by what he saw as politically motivated accusations that he had misused his military powers. "Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen," he wrote to Washington.

Treason. Unfairly convicted on and reprimanded for two misdemeanor counts of dereliction of duty, Arnold was disgraced at the hands of men he blamed for corrupting the Revolution. Soon afterward, he wrote his first treasonous letter to British Maj. John André. "The only sensible course, in Arnold's mind, was to return his political loyalty to the British parent nation before everything was lost," says Martin.

Unaware of his deep unhappiness, Washington granted Arnold command of West Point, a crucial defense. In secret code letters, Arnold plotted to sell West Point to the enemy for 20,000 British pounds (as much as $3 million in today's dollars). But Major André was intercepted with plans to West Point in his boot. Tipped off, Arnold escaped.

The nation quickly turned against its hero. "Washington knew that they had to destroy this guy top, bottom, and sideways," says Martin, "and forever associate him with treason." André was hanged and Arnold erased from military records. With astonishing speed, his name was linked with Satan's, an example for anyone tempted to switch sides. "The tragedy of Benedict Arnold is that his incredible acts on behalf of the cause of liberty have been washed away and basically forgotten," says Martin.

Arnold received a commission from Britain, along with his 20,000 pounds, and he led raids on Virginia and New London, Conn., before decamping with his new wife and baby to London, where he was not embraced. "Nobody likes a traitor, even if he's your traitor," observes Palmer. He died in 1801, his war injuries dogging him to the end.

Palmer, while he was superintendent of West Point, occasionally walked to the chapel in early evening, stopping just above the choir loft where 12 black marble shield-shaped plaques gleam in the low light. Each of the memorials to generals of the American Revolution has four engraved lines: name, date of birth, rank, and date of death. The last has only two lines: "1741" and "Major General." True to George Washington's orders issued so many years ago, the name of Benedict Arnold does not appear.