Benedict Arnold and the History of the Lake Champlain Islands
First a world-class hero on Lake Champlain...then a traitor of world renown
Benedict Arnold's life has always been of interest to us at Hero's Welcome, for he had been a friend of my great great great...grandfather, Abiather Camp. Both were well-to-do merchants, traders and ship owners in New Haven, Connecticut. There, they had even joined the Masonic Lodge on the same night. When the Revolutionary War began, Abiather declared his loyalty to the British as did 1/3 of America's citizens. At first, Benedict took the opposite course, championing America's fight for freedom. Their paths parted in a dramatic way, but years, later they rejoined in sorrowful exile.
The story of Benedict Arnold's heroism on behalf of America...especially on Lake Champlain is largely unknown, and it's the story we want to tell here. We'll leave those dark facts of his later defection and traitorous ways to historians. He gets plenty of bad press there...and deserves it too.
A Narrative of 1775-1783
Arnold was brilliant, innovative, vain, thin-skinned and hot-tempered. He was a natural athlete, strong and physically graceful. A charismatic leader, he was absolutely fearless. Intuitive and resourceful, Arnold was a shrewd and wealthy businessman bent on restoring his family’s honor; lost by his father to the bottle. His practical ability to turn vague ideas into action was breathtaking. He loved beautiful women, money and status symbols. He cherished…no…he craved glory, but was fatally flawed by “…the tincture of vanity.”
Four Early Revolutionary War Battles
• Each fundamentally shaped by Arnold
• Crucial to final victory in the war
• Making Arnold a national hero and “America’s Hannibal”
• Earning George Washington’s deep admiration as his top
1775: Seizing Fort Ticonderoga
Within four days of the onset of The American Revolutionary War, Arnold presents a bold idea: seize British-held Ft. Ticonderoga on the western frontier. He knows from business travels that the fort is vulnerable and loaded with top-quality brass cannons, desperately needed by the Colonies. These guns bring America’s first serious firepower into battle.
In early April, 1775, we find Benedict Arnold engrossed in his life as a prominent Yankee merchant trader in New Haven Connecticut. His properties include three ocean-going sloops, anchored on the Long Wharf, just a short distance from his warehouse and Yale College. His elegant waterfront home and retail shop are nearby on Water Street. Arnold regularly sails to trade in Canada and the West Indies, swapping rum, sugar, horses, lumber, medicines, hymnals, and other books. He enjoys being called “Doctor Arnold” by his admiring customers. His home boasts marble floors, two wine closets, fluted domes, a coach house, even a secret passage.
On April 18th, 1775 “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in nearby Lexington and Concord Massachusetts ignites the battle for American Independence! Just four days later, Arnold, is marching to the aid of Cambridge with a company of Connecticut volunteers he has recently helped sponsor. Within days, he has presented a brash plan to seize idle cannon from British-neglected Ft. Ticonderoga on the Hudson River in New York State, then gallops off to help lead the assault. With this mission accomplished, first-rate brass cannons are hauled by ox-teams to the hills surrounding Boston, a distance of more than 300 miles.
When the British spy their own former heavy guns now looming above them in February 1776, they retreat from their occupation of Boston, sailing out in the powerful Royal Fleet. The pull-back shocks King George III, and is widely condemned in London. One ambitious British general named John Burgoyne pens “…What!? Ten thousand peasants keep 5,000 of the King’s troops shut up? Well let us get in, and we’ll soon find elbow room!”
Arnold also suffers personal loss during this time. Not yet 30-years old, his wife Margaret dies of a “mysterious” illness, leaving behind 3 young sons. Her father passes just 3 days later. Arnold’s sister Hannah steps in as surrogate mother, and also begins to attend to his business affairs.
1775/6: Becoming “America’s Hannibal”
In an invasion of Canada, George Washington selects Arnold to lead an attack on the British-controlled country, entering at Quebec, to distract and defeat the enemy in the North, and enlist Canadian sympathizers. In a stealth march through the snow-filled backwoods of Maine, he leads 1100 hand-picked men into un-known hell. 600 survivors credit his leadership in coming through what still remains America’s all-time test of survival.
The idea to attack Quebec by surprise, via the backwoods of Maine is blessed by General Washington in late summer of 1775 after Arnold makes an impassioned case to lead the expedition. Washington agrees that only “active woodsmen” should go. Arnold immediately begins by testing marksmanship and physical strength.
He and Washington together select the final group, which includes larger-than-life Daniel Morgan. A former Indian fighter, with “arms like tree trunks”, Morgan confidently leads his Virginia Rifle Company. These men are all expert shots with their unusually long-barreled rifled guns. The new weapons, capable of hitting a man’s head at 750 feet, will soon become known to the British as “twisted” guns, and “the worst widow and orphan makers in the world.”
200 heavy-duty flat-bottomed boats are needed within 15 days! Winter is rapidly approaching. The supplier, unable to secure seasoned wood or proper nails on short order, uses green timber instead, with disastrous effect.
The plan...an impossible idea in retrospect…is to first march from Boston, then sail to Maine, then trek, wade and scramble up the Kennebec River, cross the bog-filled un-charted high country, then descend by boat on the Chaudiere River into Quebec. Finally, the surviving men are to cross the vast and quarrelsome St. Lawrence River to attack the strongest fortress in North America, resting high above the river’s edge.
Washington has also planned a second Canadian flank attack: this one led by a proven leader, General Richard Montgomery. A former British Officer, he is highly regarded by his troops; Montgomery is given a special incentive by Washington to encourage enlistment: 200 acres of American farmland per recruit, plus 40 additional acres for a wife and for each child.
Montgomery will lead the larger force, with instructions to capture Montreal before sailing down river to Quebec City, where he will join Arnold in attacking the famous fortress. Before Arnold departs, Washington quills two personal appeals to “The Inhabitants of Canada”, asking for their support and loyalty. Arnold and Montgomery carry these documents in their packs.
Arnold’s spirit is infectious, his energy above all those who follow. He sends his men ahead in waves, the first (and strongest) to blaze a trail. Last to come will be those carrying food and provisions. It turns out the crude maps are inaccurate. The “green” boats begin to leak, spoiling provisions. The boat chines cut deep gashes into shoulder muscles, as the men struggle to portage past an unexpected succession of rapids.
Early snow begins to fall. Provisions grow scarce. Constant cold and wetness set in. Arnold moves up and down the line, urging-on his recruits. Frustrated by the lack of provisions, he charges back down the Kennebec to discover that the final detachment has gone home!…and with most of the food.
Hunger sets in along the line. The men begin to boil their leather boots and cartridge belts for protein, and eat dogs and shaving soap to survive. Some continue bare-footed. Death and sickness join the march, yet spirits remain remarkably high. One soldier lightly pens “cooking as gone out of fashion” as provisions vanish. Says another, “…no one can imagine the sweetness of a roasted shot pouch to the famished appetite.”
Out of nowhere a hurricane-like storm strikes, raising the water of the normally aptly named Dead River by eleven feet in three days! Baggage is swept away. Arnold races ahead, and finds a Quebec farmer shepherding a small number of cows. He offers payment, and then drives the herd back up the trail. At the sight of the first man in his army, he slaughters a cow on the spot, then pushes on with the rest. The men are so hungry they dispense with fire-building, and begin to feed on the still warm animal.
After 45 days, with impossible hardship, and with 450 men dead or deserted, the “band of scarecrows” straggles out of the forest…and prepares to follow Arnold in attack. “That they had survived at all was proof of their great courage. That they were still willing, even eager to attack Quebec was proof of Benedict Arnold’s strength as a leader.”
Arnold and his much diminished regiment, manage to cross the icy St. Lawrence River, and have surrounded the under-manned Quebec fortress. As they await the arrival of General Montgomery, each man has but 5 cartridges left, and only one in six muskets are in operating condition. In early December Montgomery’s men march in, providently stocked with extra food, captured uniforms (red!) and ammo. The long-planned attack on the stone fortress at Quebec is launched at night in a blinding nearly-horizontal blizzard, on the final day of enlistment for Arnold’s army…December 31st, 1775.
Arnold is seriously wounded with a shot to the left leg. He leans against a wall, shouting “…rush on brave boys, rush on!” Daniel Morgan is taken prisoner, but refuses to hand over his sword, except to a priest. Montgomery is killed instantly in the first moments of the fight, shot through the head. Still, the outcome is left in doubt. Arnold is carried to a makeshift hospital, where he continues to direct battle, all the while holding 2 cocked pistols in his hands.
A long winter stand-off begins, with record low temps to come. Inside the fortress, the Brits and French Canadian Paisants begin to burn furniture for heat. Outside, still shoeless in many cases, the American men suffer constant cold, hunger and disease in what’s left of their tattered garments. Both armies have sent messengers carrying fervent pleas for help. Both wait for signs of succor. In April, cannons are heard from below on the river. All ears turn to learn the news. Are Americans below, now at the rescue? Has a British supply squadron arrived? Alas…it is the latter.
Recognizing tactical defeat, Arnold leads his men west, away from the fort and toward Montreal, his wound still festering. The Brits take up pursuit in fresh uniforms and with full stomachs. Arnold leads his men, including Montgomery’s remaining troops towards American soil, stopping to rest at a mosquito-filled island, Isle aux Noix, on the Richelieu River below Montreal. There, he reviews his options. His army is in unsustainable condition. Hundreds have contracted
small pox. “Large maggots” crawl upon their bodies. Only a minority of those present began this journey with him in Boston. Yet those who did, still deeply admire him. Arnold decides to find enough boats and canoes to escape to the safety of American-held Ft. Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain…the fortress he helped capture the previous year.
He loads the last among the living into a higgly-piggly flotilla and bids them off. Then, to fully assess the military situation, he rides back along the river towards the British as they quick-march in pursuit. Seeing the sun’s reflection upon the bayonets of 4000 soldiers in pursuit, he turns back towards the last remaining boat. An ardent horseman, Arnold removes the saddle and bridle from his mount, then shoots it in the head. He climbs into the boat, saddle and all, and joins his pummeled comrades in a 120-mile row(!) …against the lake current…to the southern end of Lake Champlain, and temporary safety.
Though defeated in Canada by a larger, better supplied professional army, Arnold has tied up, tormented and penned-in British forces for 9 months. For these exploits, people begin to call him “America’s Hannibal”. Famed Patriot Sam Adams hails him a “genius”. Washington adds “…the merits of this gentleman are certainly great and I heartily wish that fortune may distinguish him as one of her favorites.”
Three Side-Bar Stories from the Perilous Trek:
Aaron Burr (a future Vice-President, and later the winner of a deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton) marches with the group at age 19. He meets an extraordinarily beautiful Indian Princess, named Jactaqua, who joins the march. The men, jealous of his good luck despite his “sparrow size”, nickname her “Golden Thighs.”
A determined Jemima Warner travels alongside her farmer husband, all the way from Boston.
As they near the final Chaudiere River in starvation, she sits with him in a sodden swamp as he meets death. Lacking proper tools, she covers him with frozen leaves, dons his cartridge belt and rises to continue onto Quebec, carrying his musket. She pushes hard to catch the army, now 20 miles distant.
Simon Fobes, a 14-year old boy, caught up in the excitement of the British attack upon Americans, leaves his parents farm without permission to join General Washington’s army. In the following 18 months, he fights at Bunker Hill, joins Arnold in the march to Quebec, and is captured by the British during the failed attack upon the mighty fortress. In prison, he contracts Small Pox, but is nonetheless compelled to fight with the Royal Navy. Escaping with a friend, he walks back home, re-tracing Arnold’s original path through the mountains, encountering the “bleaching bones and hair” of those who did not make it before.
Finally, he arrives at his father’s farm. He enters the kitchen and sits down in a chair without saying a word. He is filthy in lice-infested clothing. His face is haggard, bearded and pitted by disease. His own mother, assuming he’s a traveler, doesn't’t recognize him. Silence follows. Suddenly his younger sister, not yet a teenager, blurts out “La!…if there ain’t Simon!”
1776: The Battle of Valcour Island
Choosing to defend Lake Champlain against the British at Valcour Island, Arnold builds the first American sea power and trains a naval force of “naked” recruits. In this nearly hopeless fight against a huge British, Hessian and Iroquois armada, he inflicts enough damage to hurry the British into winter quarters, thus earning the Americans a game-changing breathing spell.
After rowing 120 miles and literally crawling behind the protective battlements of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point on July 7th, 1776, the remains of Arnold’s Canadian Invasion Army can rest, heal and re-supply. But not Arnold. He arrives to find an officer’s Council of War in progress. Without so much as a bath, he immediately joins in. As the most junior officer, he is permitted to speak first...and has much to offer.
While fighting in Canada he has learned through former trading partners and spies of the secret English strategy to win the war. It is bold, opulent, compelling and coming fast! Royal generals have decided to split the rebellious colonies in half, by sending two flanking forces around and behind the American land mass. One army will push off from Montreal later that summer; proceed south through Lake Champlain, Lake George and on to the Hudson River with 10,000 British regulars, 2,000 German mercenaries, 4,000 Iroquois Indians, plus 1,000 Canadian conscripts to clear the path! Twenty-five warships have been assembled, some pre-constructed in England, with each part numbered, then disassembled, and lashed to the decks of the Royal Fleet heading for Canada.
A second armada will invade and seize New York City, then sail north up the Hudson. This force, the largest ever fielded by England, will consist of 479 warships and 34,000 sailors and soldiers! The overall plan is to create 18th-century “shock and awe” and to have the two armies meet near Albany. With a “noose” secured around the most densely populated part of America, they will pull it tight until surrender is obtained.
Arnold tells his fellow officers that America's only hope for 1776 is to delay this Northern Army…to deny it one half of the grip-hold. He sees no chance of defeating it. America has but a handful of small boats on the Lake and not a single trained seaman to fight. The situation is desperate.
One possible advantage: Arnold predicts that the famously-cautious English General Sir Guy Carleton will take his time in preparing for the invasion. The British are unaccustomed to lake fighting, will no doubt bring cumbersome vessels. Arnold posits that a bluff might convince Carleton that a potent American fleet is being readied. He hopes to inspire delay and force Carlton to return to Montreal and wait out the winter ice. A few extra months will give the Americans time to re-build and re-arm.
He first asks for 30, then 20 small “lake fighters” or gondolas to meet this threat. They will be of his design, lateen rigged, fast and agile, yet utterly outgunned by the Royal man-o-wars. The plan is quickly approved by General Washington…but time is of absolute essence! The British force could be on the lake by late August. Soon, shipwrights from throughout New England, responding to an offer of premium wages, begin marching into Skenesborough where the little Navy will be born. There are shortages of everything, and the program bogs down. Arnold's boundless energy and enthusiasm pulls the process back on target, and by late September, a fledgling fleet, carrying small bore cannons is forming up. Arnold begs and badgers to assemble the needed men. He writes “…I hope to be excused, if with 500 men half naked, I should not be able to beat the enemy with seven thousand men, well clothed.”
As the first boats come out of their cribs in August, with the oakum barely cured, Arnold personally sails them north, near to the British preparation site on the Richelieu River. He test fires his cannons to convey the bluff. Hearing the constant reports, Carleton slows the schedule to build more ships. September passes.
By early October, Arnold is almost ready, having carefully chosen the site to defend America. He anchors his 15-boat fleet between nearby Valcour Island and the New York shore, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
The forward ships of the British armada (that would soon number 624 vessels and 9000 men) finally sail out onto the lake on October 10th…in miserable weather. Some 28 gunboats plus 20-man Indian war canoes begin the search for Arnold. That evening they pull into a protected bay, today known as "The Gut."
The Indians, who tower above the average British seaman, sense battle. They light bonfires surrounding the bay, apply war paint and dance completely naked...scaring the hell out of the newly conscripted British and Hessian sailors.
Dawn shows cold and gray, and as the war canoes paddle out with the fleet, a sailor notes that the Indian's heads disappear behind the heavy lake swells. Others write of snow on the Adirondacks. Winter will soon arrive, inevitably freezing the lake rock solid. The chilling wind is blowing from the North, favoring Arnold.
By 11:00 a.m. off the Southern end of Valcour Island, the forces collide. The superbly trained British seamen are ready…no Navy in the world has shown itself the equal of British sea power. They arrive with twice as many gunboats, each carrying heavier cannon, more ammunition, battle-hardened Hessians and war-ready Indians. The prospects do not look good for Arnold’s untried navy.
At close range, the cannons begin to belch balls, bar and grape shot...it fairly screams back and forth. Hopelessly out-gunned, Arnold stands on the exposed deck of the Congress, still limping from his Quebec wound. In the thick of battle, he personally aims and fires the one small-bore bow cannon aboard. Six hours later, as dusk mercifully arrives, the British guns become silent, and the attackers pull back for the night. By dawn's early light...the Brits plan to finish their work.
Arnold takes stock. A night fog has settled in. His fleet is badly crippled. Sixty men have been killed or wounded, and the decks are still slick with blood despite constant re-sanding. Only a quarter of the ammo remains. At a council of war on the Congress, he and his remaining commanders, certain of annihilation by morning light, decide to attempt a daring escape in the darkness, by silently rowing single-file past the recuperating British gunboats. Each oarlock is wrapped in cloth to muffle the sound as they slip past. The Americans can plainly hear the “Limey” carpenters talking aboard their ships as repairs are made.
The next morning, the English awake up to see their enemy has vanished! Catching favorable winds, Arnold leads his mortally wounded gondolas south toward Ft. Ticonderoga and safety. His wounded are lying on the decks. Little remains of America's first Navy. Within hours he is forced to beach and burn some of the boats, and attempt to reach Ft. Ty overland.
Safety of the fortress is obtained…and is of huge historic strategic importance, for Arnold’s hoped-for delay of the British invasion has succeeded. With his fleet and his pride damaged from the fight with Arnold's petite but potent gun ships, and with snow on the way, Carleton turns back for Montreal...and into winter quarters. Some historians (said to include Winston Churchill) agree that this minor battle, leading to a winter’s pause may be one of the most fateful decisions ever made in the course of human history!
By truncating his 1776 invasion, and turning back, Carleton gives the Americans the one thing they need most...time. The Brits are unable to tie the suffocating knot around American forces in 1776. When the two armies meet a year later at nearby Saratoga, with Arnold once again at the head of the final pivotal charge, the Americans win a clear, momentous victory, capturing nearly 6000 men and 8 Generals! Historians agree that this victory convinces the French to join America’s cause, which turns the tide of the Revolution. Final victory in the War of Independence lights the lamp of the world’s first true democracy...which changes the history of mankind.
Alfred Mahan, a 19th century naval historian, famous for convincing American leaders that sea power offered the surest route to world power, went even further. “The little American navy was wiped out, but never had any force, big or small lived to better purpose, or died more gloriously; for it had saved the lake for that year.”
He summed up the crucial outcome of such a small fight. “That the war spread from America to Europe, from the English Channel to the Baltic, from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, from the West Indies to the Mississippi, and…the French waters of Hindustan, is traceable through Saratoga. Whatever deductions may be made for the blunders….which made the British campaign of 1777…disastrous [at Saratoga]…led directly to the American alliance with France in 1778.” The French Alliance secured our victory in 1783, and while other nations fought on for years to come, America’s amazing destiny became secure.
But not all of Arnold’s contemporaries shared a congratulatory view. In Congress, he is heavily criticized for losing the entire American Navy in just two days…in taverns and on village greens; he is becoming a genuine national hero.
Arnold briefly returns to his home in New Haven. Now 36, he is met with a parade, huzzahs, and cannon reports. While there, he falls for one Betsy De Blois, a beautiful 16-year old Tory. Her parents are not impressed. Always decisive and direct, Arnold delivers an entire trunk full of European fashionable clothing, including dresses, scarves, leggings and undergarments! Her parents rule against the entire gift. Betsy chooses another suitor, but asks if she can keep the undies! The embarrassment is painful. To add salt to this still festering wound, Congress publicly rejects Washington’s request for Arnold’s promotion to Major General.
1777: Winning the Epic Battle of Saratoga
The amazing and game-changing American victory at Saratoga, against the world’s most powerful army convinces the French to enter the war on the side of Liberty. The victory belongs to Benedict Arnold, despite his being ordered from the field by his superior officer.
While the Brits and their German comrades attend winter balls in Montreal early in 1777, Benedict battles his fellow commanding officers for recognition, and the Continental Congress for reimbursement.
Both armies are planning ahead to a violent summer campaign in 1777. Miraculously, America’s “Rabble in Arms” has thus far eluded defeat. Arnold’s hastily-formed navy has bloodied the nose of Britain’s first-ever fresh water armada. To the South, Washington has finally managed to achieve a single upset victory…his first solid score of the war…in a surprise attack on the day after Christmas in Trenton, New Jersey. Still, he is becoming the Poster Boy of Defeat, as Arnold ascends towards a hero’s status.
Here and there, the colonial fighters are proving to have courage and moxie, if not spit and polish. American Colonel Charles Moultrie offers exemplary behavior in another theater. Defending Charles Town, South Carolina against a pounding by more than 30 British gunboats, Moultrie’s patriots fight valiantly for over 10 hours. In the end, the invaders withdraw, with its Commodore, Peter Parker missing a bit of his privacy. An American cannonball it seems has removed the coattails of his Royal Naval jacket, the seat of his pants and his underwear…all without a scratch on the surface of his butt cheeks!
In Britain, King George III has had enough…the honor of his nation is on the line. Even his own officers have complimented Arnold’s leadership and American audacity in their written reports. Sensing an opening, an ambitious British officer of common birth named John Burgoyne first criticizes the timid accomplishments of the previous 1776 campaign, then presents an elaborate strategic plan to the King for the coming fighting season.
Known as “Gentleman Johnny” to his troops, Burgoyne is well-connected in court, very popular with those he leads, handsome, articulate and brilliant. On the side, he writes stage plays, entertains lavishly, gambles, practices politics and “…likes his lass and his glass.”
His plan calls for a repeat performance on Lake Champlain in 1777, except bigger and better…a surge strategy. This time the army will travel with more troops, Indians, ships and arms, and create a closely-timed pincer attack from three separate directions. Burgoyne gets nearly everything he requests, including the appointment to lead it. His nation awaits better news.
In America, Arnold is under constant attack by envious military contemporaries, doing their best to blacken his name, and by Congress in denying him higher rank and not fully paying his expense vouchers. But George Washington holds a far different view. He finds Arnold to be a masterful student of calculated risk, mixing well-studied caution with aggressive field leadership. Washington calls him to headquarters in New York where he praises him and urges a more moderate tone.
Meanwhile, Burgoyne arrives in Montreal, with massive re-reinforcements…plus 33 wagon loads of personal gear, including crystal glasses, silver flatware, tent chandeliers, stage costumes, props, theatrical scripts, musical instruments, and weapons! He also obtains a favor from his Chief French Canadian provisioner. He demands that the poor fellow lend him his attractive wife for the summer, as a mistress!
Burgoyne’s plan, indeed the newly re-minted British strategy, is to reach Albany NY, meet up with an equally impressive British force that has fought its way north from New York City, as well as an eastbound army, heading in from the Great Lakes. With those pathways cleared, England will have succeeded in placing a fatal grip-hold around the rebellious colonies… including control of all land above New England, control of the Western Frontier (Lake Champlain and the Hudson River) and control of all major cities such as Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia, as far south as New York City. Since many loyalists reside in the American South, they feel certain the rebellion will then finally breathe its last.
Burgoyne meets with the Indian Chiefs of twelve North Eastern tribes, whose wilderness fighting skills he needs, but whose barbarities, he eschews. Only rarely do Europeans or American settlers match the ferocity and cunning of Native Americans in battle. Their use of human torture in tribal warfare is truly frightening, especially as practiced by their women. In an elaborate ceremony, Burgoyne pompously asks for humanity in warfare. Yes, he will pay a bounty for scalps if taken honorably, but he sternly warns of consequences if he is ignored. Perhaps he envisions that soon, even the Indians will be enjoying his campaign musicales.
But atrocity is the fighting methodology of Indians in the 18th century. A very beautiful young woman by the name of Jennie McCrea waits for the arrival of her betrothed Lt. David Jones, now marching towards her in Burgoyne’s army. Prior to the invasion, they had been neighbors and like-minded Loyalists, and Jones has gone to fight with those who wish to reclaim the colonies. On this day she is wearing her wedding dress, for they plan to marry in haste, as the two armies collide. A minister is standing by.
Trying to cross the lines in secret, Jennie is captured by two Wyandot Indians. The warriors argue over which of them shall possess her. A tribal Chief, highly irritated by the unnecessary dispute, lays the muzzle of his musket upon her breast and fires, killing her instantly. In another second, she is scalped and butchered by the two braves. The Indians bring the scalp into Burgoyne’s camp for payment. The yard-long blonde curls are instantly recognized by Jennie’s suitor. Completely crushed, he deserts the following morning into Canada, carrying the scalp of his lover. Burgoyne is outraged, and demands the name of the murderers. The Indians close ranks and threaten immediate desertion if punitive action is taken. Burgoyne steps back from his threat.
The huge British surge force sweeps south. Progress is slow due the all the equipage, including over 500 wives, girlfriends, children and hookers. On some days the army can make little more than a mile. But this time, Ft. Ticonderoga quickly folds.
Arnold had warned fellow officers a year earlier of a fatal flaw in the fort defenses. A small but extremely steep Mt. Defiance is located almost next door to the great stone citadel. Arnold had climbed it with some difficulty (his Quebec leg wound still hurting) and immediately grasps the damage that could be wrought with cannons from that height. Sure enough, a British officer co-opts Arnold’s idea in 1777, saying “…where a goat can go, a man can go, and where a man can go, he can drag a gun.”
On July 5th, just a day after the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and after spotting a battery of British cannons on top of the nearby mountain, 2500 Americans begin their retreat from Ft. Ticonderoga, south towards Saratoga NY. They fell trees and damn riverbeds as they march, to slow the cumbersome British wagon train. The trees are cut with hand axes, the sounds echoing through the night.
Upon hearing of the loss of Ticonderoga, Abigail Adams writes to her husband “how shall our lost honor be retrieved?”
But here, they once again discount the fighting genius of Benedict Arnold. General Washington has asked Arnold to join the command of General Horatio Gates in the defense of Albany and New York State, and to temporarily set aside his grievances over rank, pay and recognition. Known to his troops as “Granny” Gates, this ultra-conservative former British Officer is nonetheless much respected by the American Congress. He secretly lusts for Washington’s job and speaks poorly of him in private correspondence. Although he admires Arnold’s increasingly famous leadership skills, and publicly welcomes him to his command, he remains suspicious and aloof.
The Americans decide to join battle with Burgoyne at a carefully chosen spot in Saratoga NY, where the valley floor narrows beside the Hudson River, and is surrounded by steep inclines on both sides. Burgoyne must pass here on his way to his reunion party in Albany.
Arnold plans significant work for Daniel Morgan (now out of British gaol) and his sharp-shooting Rangers. Gates’ headquarters will be located well back from the action.
Just ahead of this battle, the Continental Congress votes (twice!) to deny Arnold the title of Ranking Major General. The decision profoundly changes Arnold. No longer will he seek favor and preferment in the Continental Congress.
Low on food, and deep in enemy territory, Burgoyne’s army lumbers into view. For the first time, the Americans outnumber British forces, as recruits pour in, partly in reaction to the horrific well-publicized murder of Jennie McRae.
The battle soon begins. As British Officers ride onto the field, they fall in alarming numbers. On Arnold’s orders, Daniel Morgan has placed his famous sharpshooters high in trees in a nearby woodlot. With calm and alacrity, they hit most of the regimental leaders, one by one.
Friction mounts between Gates and Arnold. Gates nearly always chooses defense. Arnold demands offense. Gates decides to minimize Arnold’s role in the coming second wave of fighting. American officers quickly sign a petition, begging Gates to change his mind. Gates relents on the condition that Arnold stays off the battlefield.
Burgoyne writes for urgent help from the South. He calculates that food will run out on October 12th. On October 3rd and with no help in sight, British soldier’s rations are cut by a third. Feed for the horses and oxen is ended. Burgoyne stalls for time. It begins to rain.
Burgoyne learns that his newly captured Ft. Ticonderoga has barely resisted a rebel attack, and that his line of retreat has probably been cut off. Further, his army is consuming 10 tons of provisions each day, all of it traveling a great distance from Montreal. Grappling with a potential disaster, Burgoyne opens a newly arrived dispatch from London…promoting him to the higher rank of Lieutenant General!
On October 5th, at Midnight, Burgoyne sends up a signal rocket, hoping that advancing British allies from the South will see it and signal back that succor is at hand. All eyes…on both sides…watch the rocket, and wait for a reply.
The heavens answer with darkness. There is no response.
On October 7th, Burgoyne can wait no longer. Outnumbered, surrounded, and nearly out of food, he orders his men onto the fighting field. The sun has returned and the British march out in formation, their Regimental flags flapping, their silver “undulating bayonets” stretching a thousand yards long. Well-fed Americans hear the drum rolls and take their positions…again, mostly in the surrounding woodlots.
Arnold has borrowed a huge chestnut war horse and is sitting on the animal in hopes that Gates will change his mind. But Gates ignores him and orders out his brigades one by one.
Arnold and Gates begin to argue violently over strategy. Arnold senses that Americans can seize the day with an immediate shift in tactics. Gates disagrees and predictably argues for continued defense. Their words turn to insults, then shouted threats. “Damn you to hell, sir!” snaps Arnold. “…impudent son of a
Bitch!” retorts Gates, as he orders Arnold from the field.
Suddenly, Arnold cries out “Victory or Death!”…and gallops out to fight. Seeing retreating soldiers he yells “…Come on brave boys, come on!” Recognizing soldiers from his home state he cries “If the day is long enough, we shall have them all in hell before night!”
He gallops back and forth along the most dangerous space, the open line of fire between the two armies. Stunned by what they are seeing, the British hold their fire. They are clearly “in awe” of this officer and soon learn that it is Arnold, the same man who had stymied their 1776 lake invasion.
Finding a key German-held log redoubt impregnable, Arnold leads his men around the back to the sally port (back entrance) and breaks through. His horse is shot and falls. Arnold is also hit…again in the left leg. The massive weight of the falling horse splinters Arnold’s leg bone. His old comrade Henry Dearborn, a fellow officer and survivor from the Maine woods, kneels to ask “…where are you hit?” “In the same leg”, Arnold replies. “I wished it had been my heart.”
But the Americans have won the day, and the Battle of Saratoga. Burgoyne stalls before negotiating surrender terms, still hoping a relief force under British General Clinton might soon arrive from the south. Indeed, Clinton has broken through Washington’s Hudson River defenses and is moving north fast to the rescue. He sends a spy ahead, with a written message placed inside a silver bullet. It reads, “Nothing between us now but Gates.” The spy however is captured and forced to vomit up the bullet before he is hanged. Burgoyne begins negotiations.
The stench and carnage of war is heavy. One British lad is lying upon a makeshift operating table, awaiting the amputation of a mutilated leg, when a cannonball crashes through the tent and blows off his other leg.
While discussing possible outcomes with his own officers in a campaign tent, Burgoyne is interrupted by an 18 lb. cannonball ripping through the canvas and driving through the documents on the table. It seems the Americans mean business!
A gallant and much loved Scottish officer, General Simon Fraser has been mortally wounded, shot at extremely long range, and from a tree-top by Daniel Morgan’s top sniper. The loss has a huge effect upon the British regiments. Fraser asks that he be buried “at the crest of the hill, with a view of the beautiful countryside and the Hudson River in golden autumn”. Honoring his request, a detail including senior British officers proceeds to the grave site. Americans continue to fire, and cannonballs pound into the dirt as the chaplain speaks. Suddenly, the American guns cease, and after a pause, a single cannon is fired at one minute intervals. The Americans have joined the enemy is conveying a solemn salute to a gallant warrior.
Burgoyne can barely grasp the consequence of his loss. Ironically, and in twisted bravura, on the final night in defeat, with wounded and dead piled everywhere, and before surrender terms have been finalized, soldiers can hear crystal glasses clinking, regimental songs and laughter in the campaign tent headquarters of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne.
In a highly formal 18th century military ceremony, and with negotiations complete, the two generals meet on the bloody field. Burgoyne, a tall elegant man, is resplendent in his crimson and gold uniform. Gates, much smaller in stature, wearing spectacles, is dressed in simple cloth. Arnold is nowhere to be seen.
“The fortune of war has made me your prisoner” offers Burgoyne, as he draws his sword and offers the hilt to his vanquisher. Gates replies “…I shall always be ready to bear testimony that it has not been through any fault of your Excellency”, as he returns the sword.
In defeat, the British march onto the field. They surrender over 7,000 arms, and empty their cartridge boxes. Soon after, they begin the long march to Virginia and imprisonment. As the enemy formations leave the field, a Hessian officer later writes of the Americans “…the rank and file were in civilian clothes, but they stood erect…left hand on the hip, right foot slightly advanced. They were so slender, so handsome, so sinewy, that it was a pleasure to look at them.”
High spirits soon fill the field. The American band strikes up “Yankee Doodle”…once the derisive tune favored by the British…and the victors shout their goodbyes to “General Elbow Room.”
Burgoyne’s highest wish…for glory in London…has been spent. He sails for home, leaving the remains of his army in prison camps. The triumphant intersection of British armies will not occur in Albany. The “noose” will not be tightened. The final outcome of the Revolutionary War will change to the everlasting benefit of America.
Gates reports the momentous victory back to the Congress and Washington. He barely mentions Arnold, who remains in hospital with his shattered leg. Gates gives him no credit whatsoever for the victory. But word spreads fast, and Arnold’s arc of heroism reaches its ascendancy. In stories told throughout the colonies, he truly has become “America’s Hannibal.” He has scored five crucial game-changing strategic triumphs. Washington has been much less successful thus far, but to his lasting credit, holds Arnold in high public esteem.
News of the victory at Saratoga comes to the colonial towns “like rain after a long drought.” Americans have actually captured 5700 enemy soldiers, including 8 generals and 6 renowned regiments! Far more important: within 2 weeks of learning that the rebels have defeated the “pick of Britain’s professional army”, Louis XVI of France decides to recognize American independence! Ever global pragmatists, then and now, the French have witnessed the courage and fighting tenacity of these underdogs, and sense an opening to help weaken their mortal British enemies. However, France elects to take its time in bringing aid to a new ally.
Through this catapulting moment in American history, Arnold is absent, lying in a field hospital with a desperate wound. As someone once said “…had Arnold been killed in the Battle of Saratoga, instead of critically wounded, he might have ended up on the face of an American coin.”
“Treason! Treason! Black as Hell!”
• The Plot…anger, shame, lust, vanity, revenge
• The moment…a script writer’s dream
• Disgrace, exile, bitterness and death
Arnold’s doctors insist on the amputation of his left leg. He replies “…utter nonsense!” Instead, he is tied to the back of a board to prevent any movement, then transported by wagon several hundred miles, over rutted dirt roads to his home in Connecticut. The pain is nearly unbearable. He learns that his shattered left leg will forever be two inches shorter than his right.
Congress finally grants him full Major General Status, but Washington delays telling him, perhaps because his own skill as a leader has come under harsh national scrutiny. He asks Arnold if he will be ready to fight in the next campaign, and offers him full command of his entire left flank. This is a position of high honor, but Arnold waits two months to reply…saying…“No, I will not.”
Nothing cheers Arnold’s soul. Even a written acknowledgement by General John Burgoyne crediting Arnold with the victory over his British regiments at Saratoga fails to improve his spirits. Arnold buys a share in an armed privateer, a vessel permitted to wage war, but also conduct private trade for profit. He’s determined to re-fill his depleted bank account.
He also learns that the elusive Miss De Blois is still single…her wedding ceremony truncated in mid-sentence at the church by her mother. Arnold again seeks permission to court her, this time first writing a rough draft which he carefully copies. But to no avail. Betsy spurns him for a second time!
Dark anger begins to turn towards selfishness and cunning. His journey towards heroism has been costly. Arnold has become a cripple with a much diminished personal fortune. His businesses, ignored for over 2 years, have foundered, his cash depleted. His contribution towards victory has been criticized by powerful insiders. His lack of luck with women has proven humiliating.
Aware of Arnold’s declining physical ability as his top fighting general, Washington returns with a second offer…the command of Philadelphia. The British have chosen to abandon their occupation of the city following the setbacks in upstate New York. In London, a new war strategy is being developed, based more on remote sea power than boots on the ground. The surge strategy has backfired.
Arnold accepts the appointment and quickly adopts an ostentatious lifestyle, modeled upon the behavior of his British predecessor. He seeks and takes opportunity to fill his purse.
Limping badly and often requiring the assistance of an aid in order to walk, Arnold meets a vivacious and stunning 17-year old socialite, named Peggy Shippen. The youngest of three Quaker daughters, her voluptuous personality and figure has attracted many men, including British officers during the city’s occupation. She’s earned the reputation of favoring a “British solution” in the conflict. Arnold is struck by cupid’s arrow. Preparing to write her for permission to court, and tapping his pragmatic brain, he pulls out his second letter to the now lost Betsy De Blois and re-copies it…nearly word for word…and sends it to Ms. Shippen!
Peggy, attracted by Arnold’s golden mantle as a national hero accepts his advances. Her father (also drawn into the possible benefits to his family) assents to marriage, despite his concern for a serious age difference and the broken bones of his soon-to-be son in law. At the wedding ceremony in April, 1779 an aid assists Arnold to stand next to Peggy as he recites his vows.
No longer hopeful for a public reckoning of accounts or for accorded honor from congress, an embittered
Arnold begins to seek personal financial opportunities as he overseas Philadelphia affairs, but his extravagance and rising prices soon anger its citizens. As he hobbles down a street one day, men throw stones at him. Undaunted, he borrows deeply to purchase Mt. Pleasant, one of the grandest homes in Philadelphia, for Peggy. It still stands today.
During the days of British occupation in Philadelphia, and before meeting Arnold, Peggy Shippen had enjoyed a lively friendship with a fast-rising British officer, a Major John Andre, aide to General Henry Clinton, British Commander in Chief of the entire invasion force. Andre is well regarded for military prowess, but also for his love of theater, poetry and drawing.
Said one historian “…Peggy had begun to live when the British captured Philadelphia; and officers such as Andre had taught her to love the Royal Army.” The first suggestion that Arnold change sides, “probably comes from her lips.”
Arnold steps towards treason by beginning a secret correspondence with the British. Writing anonymously under the pen name of Monk, he suggests that a “certain senior officer” in the American forces might change uniforms, and bring along a key military asset; the new fortress at West Point. In exchange he asks for 10,000 Pounds Sterling up front, 20,000 pounds for the keys to the fortress, a 500-pound yearly income for life, new titles of “Lord and Lady” and promotion to Major General in the British Force! For a man who “teetered so dangerously between a British peerage and an American gallows”, Arnold shows little humility here.
The secret carrier of his letters is none other than Major Andre. The exchange goes on for months. During this time, Arnold pressures Washington to appoint him Commandant of West Point. Major Andre is eager to gain favor with his powerful boss, General Clinton and takes care to keep the discussion going.
Arnold believes thousands of Americans will join him in a rapprochement with England. After all, only a third of the nation has steadfastly favored independence, and the costs have been high. British leadership of the Colonies has been locked in place for 150 years. Many are eager to iron the sheets and return to a Royal bed. Arnold wants to be seen as the hero that reluctantly switches sides for the betterment of the nation he has faithfully served. He desires to be “…the pied piper of reconciliation with the parent nation.”
Arnold begins to shift his financial assets to London. At one point he stoops to storing American army food in a room at his home, and re-selling it for personal profit.
West Point is incredibly well-sited militarily, at a narrow 90-degree bend in the Hudson River. Arnold intends to quietly weaken the fortress, and forward the structural plans to the British. His elegant Commandant’s home is across the river from West Point. His wife Peggy, now 19, is there, nursing their infant son.
A deal is finally cut in September 1780. Arnold does not get what he asks, but gets enough. The timing in this turn-of-coat operation has become remarkably propitious. General Washington is just completing a low-key fall tour of his defenses, after greeting the French Admiral Rochambeau for the first time. In good humor and riding with limited protection, Washington has sent word ahead that he and his top officers will be pleased to breakfast with the Arnolds, then inspect West Point. He adds “…I want to make my journey a secret”…not imagining the opportunity he has opened to a traitor.
Meanwhile Arnold and Andre have finally met in person. Arnold has passed over the fortress plans with personally signed instructions for its capture. He suggests that Andre keep them hidden in his boot as he crosses back over to British lines. Arnold now senses a golden opportunity for the British: to seize both West Point and General Washington in a single stroke!
Washington’s officers are eager for the breakfast. Peggy’s beauty is widely renowned. His top officers, well-known to us even today…The Marquis De Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, General Henry Knox… are relaxed. They joke with Washington about her. He adds “…all my young officers are half in love with her.”
Waiting for their breakfast guests, Arnold sits at his dining table. Suddenly, a rider gallops onto his property, and brings a sealed dispatch inside. Still sitting, Arnold at first “opens it negligently” then visibly blanches. The messenger has brought incredulous news: Andre has been caught! The documents have been discovered! General Washington is due within minutes, and might already know about this most treasonous act!
Arnold jumps from his seat, orders his horse brought around immediately. He races upstairs, and delivers the devastating news to Peggy. Her tears are immediate, as is her panic. Arnold cannot console her, but promises his love and determination to protect her. An aide knocks on their closed bedroom door, saying that Washington’s servant had just appeared. “His Excellency is nigh at hand.” Arnold bolts from the room, “almost knocking the aid down”, and descends the staircase. Peggy faints.
He mounts his horse and charges out of the barn, only to have his path blocked by 4 men on horseback. He lowers his hand to a pistol…but the riders cheerfully identify themselves as Washington’s Light Horsemen. One of the dragoons explains that the General is “right behind”. Arnold bids them to stable their horses in the barn, then spurs his own down the steep hill to the river at nearly impossible speed. His boatmen wait. His pistols are both cocked. He tells his six boatmen to pull hard for he must inspect something at the fort, and quickly return to “meet His Excellency.” He offers an extra ration of rum for their effort. Oddly, he stops long enough to remove the saddle from his horse, the pistols still attached, and throws it into the barge.
But as the launch approaches opposite side of the river, he issues new orders, as he ties a white handkerchief to his cane. He asks to be rowed much further down river to the British Warship Vulture. Again, Arnold lies, telling his crew that he’s on a mission for General Washington to conduct important negotiations with the British.
Back at the house, Washington arrives within minutes of Arnold’s departure. He’s told that Arnold has gone over to the fort on urgent business and will soon be back. The party is encouraged to begin eating. Upstairs, Peggy has become completely hysterical…some describe her behavior as insane. Naked under an open morning gown…and exposing more than “should be seen by a gentleman of the family, much less by many strangers”, the officers attempt to console her as she screams of “hot irons” on her head. Later, hearing General Washington downstairs, she begins to cry out that he is intent on killing her baby. Washington himself ascends the stairs to help, and tenderly embraces her.
Arnold’s launch comes alongside the Vulture. He and his crew climb on deck. After a brief discussion with the British officers, he turns to his boatmen, and using well-chosen words announces his new rank as a British general. He urges his men to join what will be a huge wave of converts. He offers promotions to all if they agree on the spot. The coxswain quickly replies “…No sir! One coat is enough for me to wear at a time.” The others stand firm as well. Embarrassed by this rebuff at a pivotal career moment, Arnold has them arrested and confined onboard. He asks for quill and paper, and pens a letter to General Washington.
Washington soon learns of Arnold’s treasonous act, of Captain Andre’s capture, of the plan to have West Point fall into British hands, and of the plot to capture the senior officers of the American army. Briefly, his spirits flag. The Marquis finds him alone, “folding documents in trembling hands, saying “…Arnold has betrayed us. Whom can we trust now?”
Believing Peggy’s emotion is genuine and her innocence incontrovertible, Washington offers to have her personally escorted back to her home in Philadelphia by one of his captains. But she is not welcome there.
Historians later discover that Peggy Shippen is deeply implicated in Arnold’s treason. No doubt she uses her emotions, her beauty and her body masterfully in order to save herself and her husband from a rendezvous with a rope. Said Alexander Hamilton, a witness to her ravings on that treasonous morning, “…it was the most affecting scene I was ever witness to.”
Major John Andre is tried by military tribunal, and hung within a few days. Arnold is almost immediately rebuffed by British officers, some of whom refuse to fight with a traitor.
British General Clinton is outraged! He has captured neither West Point nor General Washington. Instead, he’s lost Andre, his most able adjutant, and been forced to accept an odious traitor within his ranks.
Despite a spirited marketing campaign, funded by the Brits, Arnold can only convince a handful of American patriots to join him on the British lines.
Some time after his defection, Arnold leads a raid on Virginia…in part to attempt the capture of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, in which he very nearly succeeds. While there, he asks a British subordinate what might be his fate, should he be captured by local patriots. “They will cut off that leg of yours, wounded at Quebec and Saratoga, and bury it with all the honors of war”, the officer replies, “…and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”
The British ask Arnold to lead a raid on New London Connecticut, located just 12 miles from his birthplace! He enlists Abiather Camp (my ancestral grandfather) to spy for him, ahead of the mission. Typical of Arnold, the attack is carefully planned and a complete military success. However, things get out of hand. Some American prisoners are barbarously bayoneted, and the town is put to the torch. Hearing these shocking stories, Americans turn on Arnold like never before. With New London in ashes, they begin to call Arnold “America’s Nero”…a far cry from “America’s Hero.”
More than 300,000 Loyalists are expelled in the summer of 1783, at war’s end. They sail for Canada, Britain, The Bahamas, The British West Indies, etc. Tapping his skill as a blue water sailor, the British lend Abiather Camp one of their gun boats, The Duchess of Gordon, to ferry 34 Loyalist families to New Brunswick in June 1783. He settles there himself, near St. John’s.
In London, Peggy gets on well with the Royal court. It’s rumored that she is intimate with the King. Arnold cannot find welcome ground. Visiting the House of Lords one day, The Earl of Surrey commands him to leave the chamber, and “never to return under any circumstances.”
An American officer, who had known Arnold in earlier days, is visiting London. Arnold calls upon him at his lodgings. The officer instructs his servant to “…tell the gentleman I am not at home…and never shall be for General Arnold.”
Vexed, Arnold sails for New Brunswick, and starts up a merchant trading enterprise in St. John’s, modeled on his once successful New Haven company. But success is fleeting. Again, he returns to Peggy in London.
Arnold’s sister Hannah (who’d given up her hope of marrying after her brother had ordered a French suitor off the front porch, firing a pistol shot for good measure), remains loyal and loving to the end. She follows her brother to St. John’s, New Brunswick in exile, and dies there two years after he does…a spinster bound to a traitor.
At sixty, Arnold again attempts to re-create his prior success as a merchant trader, despite being no longer fit enough to command a ship at sea. He borrows to buy a privateer, and heads for the West Indies, but the new debt nearly brings the family down. Peggy is forced to sell the lease to their London home. She sees “ruin staring me in the face.”
Arnold’s final request: Upon his deathbed in London in June, 1801, he begs God’s forgiveness for forsaking the American cause and asks that he be buried in his American Officer’s uniform.
Pulled out of school at 14 for lack of family money, Arnold became the butt of boyhood jokes. He learned to fight exceptionally well, and began showing off. A favorite trick was to climb the masts of ships in harbor, then perform aerial tricks, and challenge others to do the same. Some say he once tempted fate by walking along the ridge-line of a burning barn.
Drawn towards grandeur, even at a young age…with the first 500 Pounds Sterling he received at the completion of a long apprenticeship in the mercantile trade, he ordered clothing, books, a chariot, maps, pictures, watches and wines….then opened a shop in New Haven, immodestly named “B. Arnold, Druggist, Bookseller etc. from London.”
Dueling: Arnold fought many duels, surviving all. Eg. After a minor public slight by a fellow sea captain in the West Indies, Arnold challenged him to a duel. His first shot grazed the Captain’s face. Arnold stood absolutely still as the Captain took his first shot…and missed. Arnold calmly warned, as he re-loaded “…I will certainly kill you with my second shot, if taken.” The Captain apologized forthwith.
Arnold loved clothing…especially shoes…square, buckled, inlaid with sparkles. He favored bright colors and close-fitting garments.
A neighbor once described him “…as the most accomplished and graceful ice skater that he had ever seen.”
Arnold loved to remind those he met that his grandfather, Benedict Arnold I had been Rhode Island’s first Royal Governor.
Written by Robert Camp
North Hero, Vermont