THE TRAGEDY OF BENEDICT ARNOLD: AN AMERICAN LIFE
By Joyce Lee Malcolm
Pegasus Books $27.95, 410 pages
TURNCOAT: BENEDICT ARNOLD AND THE CRISIS OF AMERICAN LIBERTY
By Stephen Brumwell
Yale University Press $30,372 pages
For generations, the words “Benedict Arnold” have elicited scorn for the man whose treachery almost scuttled the American Revolution.
Contemporaries denounced him for “treason of the blackest dye.” Author Joyce Lee Malcolm rightly terms him “the most infamous man in American history.”
Yet Arnold was also perhaps the ablest general in the Continental Army. His victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, kept the British Army from driving a wedge between New England and the Southern states that likely would have cost George Washington victory.
And, ironically, this battle well might have started his decline into treason.
Arnold suffered a painful gunshot leg wound in the last stage of the fighting and had to leave the field. His titular superior, Gen. Horatio Gates, took the British surrender. And although Gates had not left his tent during the battle, he took full credit for the victory, not even mentioning Arnold in his dispatch to Gen. Washington.
Thus began the transformation of military hero into a villain derided as “wicked, self-serving and greedy,” in Ms. Malcolm’s words.
To Arnold, a self-made man, personal honor was important. His father, a prominent Connecticut merchant fell into alcoholism and bankruptcy. The young Arnold was forced to abandon prospects of attending Yale and apprentice as a pharmacist.
His drug store eventually morphed into a general trading company, with Arnold operating a fleet of trading vessels that sailed to foreign ports.
Although lacking any military experience, once the war began Arnold mustered a Connecticut regiment and launched a series of campaigns roughly centered in the Hudson River valley. Washington frequently praised his military acumen as his unschooled militia bested trained English troops.
But his deadliest adversaries were not on the battlefield. Prominent rivals were generals jealous of Arnold’s success. And the regional politics were vicious.
Early in the war, Arnold was chagrined when four generals junior to him were promoted to a higher rank.
The slight offended his sense of honor, which was paramount among men of the era. Many officers would have viewed the slight as a reason to resign.
But Arnold gamely soldiered on, although the parsimonious Continental Congress ignored his pleas for support. As Arnold’s unpaid army shivered and starved through a bitter winter, he begged, “We have been obliged to beg, borrow and squeeze to get money for our subsistence.”
Hungry troops were forced to scourge the countryside for food, alienating local residents.
But the Congress ignored his pleas. Arnold did not receive any pay for four years. All the while, however, Congress hectored him to account for every one of the sparse dollars they appropriated for his army, as if a general engaged in combat had time to deal with chores best done by a clerk.
Arnold was forced to use his own money to support his troops — expenditures that toppled him toward personal bankruptcy.
To make matters worse, rivals filed two senseless complaints against him that essentially accused him of theft and misuse of public funds. One court martial resulted in an order to Washington to “reprimand” Arnold.
Then Arnold suffered a second wound that shattered a leg, leaving him lame for life. And civilian “superiors” continued to harass him over money issues.
The remainder of the story is well-known to history. Concluding that his cherished honor had been blighted, Arnold contacted British intelligence.
Over a period of months, he provided details of defenses of forts along the Hudson, including the strategically vital West Point. If the enemy had launched attacks based on his disclosures, American soldiers would have died.
Indeed, his disclosure on West Point could have resulted in the capture of General Washington. Fortunately, a message to the British went astray, his plot was foiled at the last minute, and Arnold fled to sanctuary with the enemy.
The turn-coat then led British troops into several battles, including a campaign in Virginia which almost captured the capital, Richmond. But class-conscious British officers never fully accepted Arnold as an equal.
Historian Stephen Brumwell suggests that Arnold was partially motivated by a desire to end the war under terms that would have satisfied the American’s major complaints, but without independence.
But, as does Ms. Malcolm, he details a multitude of legitimate grievances that led to his change of allegiance.
Arnold spent the remainder of his ruined life in Britain.
Does Arnold’s pre-treason bravery warrant absolution by history? A masterful concluding sentence by Ms. Malcolm (professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University) offers a reasonable answer: “If time cannot bring forgiveness, can it not bring some measure of understanding?”
Perhaps, but naught more.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.