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~ The Old Sachem ~ Hero and Traitor

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By Bill Stewart


I’m sure you heard about the traitor Benedict Arnold in your high school days. But there is a story to be told about Arnold. He was born on January 3, which became January 14, 1741, when the calendar was corrected during his lifetime. He was born in Norwich, Conn., as a British subject and named after his great-grandfather, Benedict Arnold I, who was an early governor of the Colony of Rhode Island. His grandfather was Benedict Arnold II. Through his maternal grandmother, he was a descendant of John Lothropp, an ancestor of six presidents.

His father was a very successful businessman in Norwich, and his family was in the upper level of Norwich society. At 10 years old, Benedict was enrolled in a private school in Canterbury, Conn., and his father expected Benedict to attend Yale, but the father’s income dropped after two older sons died and his father took up drinking. At 14, the family resources were so low that private education was not possible. His mother had family connections that got Benedict an apprenticeship with her cousins Daniel and Joshua Lothropp, who owned an apothecary and general merchandise trade in Norwich, and Benedict’s service lasted seven years.

Arnold tried to enlist in the provincial militia in the French and Indian War, but his mother refused permission. When he turned 16, he enlisted in the Connecticut Militia and he marched off to Lake George in northwestern New York. When word got out that the French and their Indian compatriots captured Fort William Henry, the company turned and went back to Connecticut. Arnold only served for 13 days.

Arnold became a businessman in New Haven in 1762 as a pharmacist and bookseller. He had borrowed from the Lothropps to start the business and repaid them within a year. His father had sold the family home, and Benedict bought it, then resold it for substantial profit. He formed a partnership with another young businessman in New Haven, Adam Babcock, and together they bought three trading ships and traded in the West Indies.

The Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 had a severe impact on his businesses. He became a critic in opposition to the Acts and he joined the Sons of Liberty, which advocated resistance to the Acts and other restrictive Parliamentary measures. Arnold became a smuggler as his businesses went into decline. He married Margaret Mansfield in February of 1767, the daughter of Samuel, who was the Sheriff of New Haven.

He became a captain in the Connecticut Militia in May 1775 and led his company to the Siege of Boston after Lexington and Concord. He earned a colonel’s commission and he withdrew to New Hampshire to join with the troops of Ethan Allen and participated in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Next he led his company on a raid to Port Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River in Quebec and returned to Ticonderoga, where he had an argument with his commander. Arnold resigned his commission.

He went to Cambridge, Mass., to meet with Washington, received a colonel’s commission and led 1,100 troopers to attack Quebec City. The going was tough and 300 men turned back and 200 died enroute. His unit joined with a small unit, and on Dec. 31 led the assault. In the battle, Arnold’s leg was shattered and his chaplain, Rev. Samuel Spring, carried Arnold to a makeshift hospital in the Hotel Dien. Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General for his role in Quebec. Benedict then traveled to Montreal as military commander of the city, which was lost when the British arrived. His force was directed to Lake Champlain, was overmatched and was defeated at the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. These battles delayed the British advance against Ticonderoga until 1776.

He had many disputes with commanders, but his friends included Washington, Phillip Schuyler and Horatio Gates, commanders of the Northern Department. One of his enemies within the Continental Army published a handbill about Arnold that stated, “Money is this man’s God and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”

In February of 1777, he was passed over by Congress for promotion to Major General, and Arnold threatened to resign. Washington would not hear of it and assigned Arnold to Danbury, Connecticut, along with a small unit, to stop or slow the British attacking force. He was again wounded in his left leg. He left for Philadelphia after the battle and convinced Congress to promote him to Major General.

Washington ordered Arnold north to assist with the defense of Fort Ticonderoga, which had fallen to the British. He arrived at Fort Edwards, New York, and was ordered to relieve the Siege of Fort Stanwix and sent an Indian messenger to British Brigadier General Barry St. Leger, telling the British of a large Continental force converging on the fort, and the British gave up the fort. Arnold returned to the Hudson and entered the command of General Gates, where he distinguished himself in the Battle of Saratoga. He spent the next few months recovering from his injuries.

The British withdrew from Philadelphia in June 1778 and Washington appointed Arnold as military commander of the city. Arnold began planning to enrich himself financially in Philadelphia and engaged in many business deals designed to profit from his position from war-related supply movements, schemes not uncommon among American officers. Arnold was frustrated by local politicians, and one of them named Joseph Reed gathered enough evidence to publicly confront Arnold. Arnold lived the extravagant life in Philadelphia and eventually married the 18-year-old daughter, Peggy, of Judge Edward Shippen, a loyalist sympathizer, who had done business with the British during their occupation.

In 1778 there were signs that Arnold was unhappy with his financial situation and pessimistic about the country’s future. In November 1778, Major General Nathanael Greene wrote to Brigadier General John Cadwalader “I am told General Arnold is becoming very unpopular among you owing to his associations too much with the Tories.” A few days later Arnold wrote to Greene complaining about the “deplorable” and “horrid” situation of the country, citing depreciating of the currency, disaffection of the army, and internal fighting in Congress while predicting “impending ruin” if things do not change soon.

Arnold met with Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stansbury, who then went secretly to New York with a tender of Arnold’s services to Sir Henry Clinton. He was introduced to Major Andre, who had been named the British spy chief. This encounter started secret correspondence between Arnold and Andre and led to Arnold’s change of sides in 1780. Clinton authorized Andre to continue discussions with Arnold and was told how to communicate instructions about the American military. Arnold provided information of troop locations and supply depots while negotiating about compensation.

Arnold’s court martial on charges of profiteering began June 1, 1779, and was delayed until December 1779 by Clinton’s capture of Stony Point, New York. Arnold was cleared of all but two charges and took to publicizing the facts, but Washington published a formal rebuke of Arnold’s behavior.

General Schuyler approached Arnold about the possibility of Arnold commanding West Point, but Washington was against it. Arnold sent information to Andre about West Point. Benedict went home to Connecticut, where he sold his home and transferred assets to London. He continued on with military information to Andre. On August 3, 1780, Arnold was named commander of West Point. He weakened the defenses and reduced the troop numbers. He continued with information of the American army to Andre. Clinton’s final offer to Arnold was 20,000 pounds. Andre and Arnold finally met in September in Hudson Bay, New York. Andre was to be picked up near West Point, but the vessel came under fire and retreated. Arnold gave Andre passes to pass through the lines and plans for West Point.

Andre was captured near Tarrytown, New York, and eventually became a prisoner. The papers that Andre was carrying were sent to Washington. Meanwhile, Arnold was escaping to a British ship in Hudson Bay. Washington tried to negotiate an attempt to free Andre to receive Arnold but Arnold escaped to London.

In 1785, Arnold came back to live in Saint John, New Brunswick. He was not liked in New Brunswick for his business practices and was hanged in effigy in front of his house. During the French Revolution, Arnold outfitted a privateer for business in the West Indies. The British awarded him a land grant of 15,000 acres in Canada near present Renfrew, Ontario. In January 1801 his health declined between gout and his leg wounds. Physicians diagnosed Arnold with dropsy and he died on June 14, 1801. He was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Battersea, England.

His major concern throughout his life was about money. He often had it and often lost it. A dedicated American he was not. His legacy is as an infamous traitor.


(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)

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