Benedict Arnold is likely America’s most famous traitor. Notorious for his attempt to sell his command at West Point to the British during the American Revolution, Arnold’s name has been synonymous with treason for centuries. But Arnold is a complex figure in American history: before he turned traitor he was first one of the biggest heroes of the Revolution. Though his actions showed him to be impulsive, impatient, tactless, arrogant, and hypersensitive, he was also courageous, confident, tireless, cunning, proactive, and a natural leader who was admired by the men he commanded.
An exploration of the primary documents available on Fold3 by Ancestry shows both sides of this complex figure.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Benedict Arnold was a successful merchant by the time the Revolutionary War began. He joined his local militia and became its captain, and his militia soon traveled to Massachusetts to join with others in the resistance against the British. When he heard that the Patriot cause was low on arms and ammunition, he suggested to the Massachusetts leaders that he raid a poorly defended British fort, Fort Ticonderoga, in New York. With their approval, Arnold left on his mission in May 1775 only to discover that Ethan Allen was planning to complete the same mission. The two men eventually agreed to a joint command and managed to successfully raid the fort.
In the fall of that year, Arnold was asked by General George Washington, commander of the new Continental Army, to take troops to attack Quebec as part of a two-prong attack on Canada. In a letter from Washington to Arnold, he directed, “You are immediately, on their march from Cambridge, to take command of the detachment of the Continental Army against Quebec and use all possible expedition as the winter season is now advancing and the success of this enterprise, under God, depends wholly upon the spirit with which it is pushed.”
After much hardship on the journey, Arnold and his men arrived exhausted and starving. Still, Arnold was determined to achieve his objective, and after being reinforced by additional American troops, they tried to attack Quebec on New Year’s Eve during a snow storm. The attack failed and Arnold was shot in the leg, but he gained the admiration of his men, as seen from an excerpt from a journal in Fold3’s Pennsylvania Archives by one of the men under Arnold’s command: “Our commander Arnold was of a remarkable character. He was brave, even to temerity, was beloved of the soldiery, perhaps for that quality only.”
In October of the following year (1776), Arnold again made a name for himself when he and a small fleet tried to take on the British ships on Lake Champlain to stop their planned invasion of New York. Though the Americans were eventually forced to escape the British by night and burn their own ships, the fight delayed the British enough that they could not attack before winter fell.
Arnold’s most famous action was at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. After butting heads with the commanding officer, General Gates, Arnold disobeyed orders to stay at camp and rode off to rally the men, helping the Americans achieve a much needed victory, at the expense of again being wounded in the same leg he had injured at Quebec—though contrary to what was reported in the letter below, he did not lose his leg.
George Washington appointed Arnold military governor of Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, and Arnold joined the local high society, which included many people still loyal to the British. Arnold—having fallen into debt—unsuccessfully worked to get reimbursed by Congress for money he had spent on the war effort, as seen in the excerpted petition below, in which he asks to get repaid for his expenses on the Quebec expedition and also asks for an allowance for his expenses as governor of Philadelphia.
However, he also got involved in questionable business practices and shady deals to make money, sometimes misusing army resources and abusing his position of authority. These things irked his enemies within the Patriot cause, and Arnold was court-martialed for his actions. Though he eventually got off on most of the charges, Arnold was deeply offended. It only added to his preexisting resentment for injustices done him by those within the Patriot leadership, and he felt even more strongly that they didn’t appreciate all he had done for his country.
Desperate for money and bitter at the Patriot cause, Arnold decided to side with the British, who were offering money to American officers who switched sides. More than a year before he actually defected, Arnold began communicating with the British, who said they would pay Arnold if he helped them take the important military complex at West Point from the Americans.
Arnold asked for and obtained the command of West Point in late summer 1780 from George Washington, who had always been sympathetic to Arnold. Once West Point was under his control, Arnold met with his liaison with the British, Major John André, in September. However, as André was returning from their meeting with the incriminating documents Arnold had given him, he was captured (and later hanged) by the Americans. Arnold heard of André’s capture and fled to the British before he could be captured himself, the final step in what Alexander Hamilton called “the blackest treason.”