Benedict Arnold: A Name Synonymous with Treason

A Name Synonymous with Treason

In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold was one of George Washington’s most accomplished field generals. His legacy today is quite different, with Arnold branded the most notorious traitor in American history, after a failed gambit to trade the vital American outpost at West Point for cash resulted in his defection to the British side.

camera icon - click to for more details about the image Letter from Benedict Arnold to Major John André, coded
Colonel Benedict Arnold camera icon - click to for more details about the image Benedict Arnold
a painting of A post-Revolutionary War view from West Point camera icon - click to for more details about the image A post-Revolutionary War view from West Point
a painting of A post-Revolutionary War view from West Point camera icon - click to for more details about the image A post-Revolutionary War view from West Point

In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold was one of George Washington’s most accomplished field generals. His legacy today is quite different, with Arnold branded the most notorious traitor in American history, after a failed gambit to trade the vital American outpost at West Point for cash resulted in his defection to the British side.

A Fighting General

A pharmacist by trade, the 34-year-old Arnold joined the rebellion in 1775. After organizing an assemblage of volunteers, he seized munitions from the New Haven arsenal and led his group northward to fight the British.

Arnold’s forces eventually clashed with the British at Fort Ticonderoga – nestled along the shores of Lake Champlain in northern New York – capturing valuable artillery stores. He achieved this with relative ease, providing the Continental Army with its first victory of the war and a desperately needed boost of confidence. The heavy cannons taken by Arnold proved instrumental in ending the Siege of Boston the following year. His exploits, however, were not without cost; he suffered the first of two serious leg injuries during a failed attack on British-occupied Quebec, Canada.

The Battle of Ridgefield

By early 1777, Arnold was back in the field, leading his troops in a blocking action against a British advance in Connecticut. The enemy force, commanded by William Tryon, the British Governor of New York and recently appointed general, was acting on intelligence from a British spy about a suspected Continental Army weapons depot.

The British achieved their objectives but at great cost, suffering twice as many casualties as the Americans in the ensuing skirmish. Arnold narrowly escaped death, having two horses shot out from under him on the battlefield.

British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga camera icon - click to for more details about the image British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, 1777
Monument to Benedict Arnold with boot and leaf camera icon - click to for more details about the image Monument to Benedict Arnold, Battle of Saratoga National Park

The Battle of Saratoga

Arnold was also instrumental in the historic American triumph at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. By virtue of his bravery and exceptional leadership, his men prevailed against a formidable army commanded by one of England’s brashest generals. The lopsided victory at Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of thousands of British soldiers, was a turning point in the Revolutionary War, emboldening France to formally enter the war and strike a decisive alliance with America.

Arnold did not escape the battle unharmed, suffering a severe wound in the same leg he injured earlier. To facilitate his recuperation, Washington appointed him Military Governor of Philadelphia.

A sketch of the defense works at West Point, provided by a Continental Army deserter in 1779. Note the “Great Chain” of iron stretching from one riverbank to the other, designed to impede British warships.
A sketch of the defense works at West Point
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Brewing Troubles

Arnold’s patriotism and battlefield exploits earned him little reward. Though the British surrender at Saratoga was hailed throughout the colonies, other officers took credit for Arnold’s tactical success and diminished his role. As a further insult, Congress refused to promote Arnold in rank, elevating several junior officers above him.

As Arnold gradually became more disaffected, his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, was immersing herself in lavish spending, deeply indebting the general. Adding to the swirl of troubles, Arnold faced a court-martial on charges of misconduct and financial impropriety. Though he was largely exonerated, he received a stinging rebuke from Washington, fanning a deep-seated resentment. Bitter, indignant, and desperate for money, Arnold decided to turn away from his country, brokering a secret agreement to begin spying for the British.

In 1780, Washington summoned Arnold to rejoin the Army as a top commander, but the disillusioned general had other plans. He requested and was granted command of the American defenses along the Hudson River at West Point. The fortified outpost held much strategic value, controlling lines of communication and transportation between New England and the rest of the country.

Letter from Benedict Arnold to Major John André, coded camera icon - click to for more details about the image Letter from Benedict Arnold to Major John André, coded
Letter from Benedict Arnold to Major John André, decoded camera icon - click to for more details about the image Letter from Benedict Arnold to Major John André, decoded

Through his wife, Arnold contacted Major John André, Adjutant General and intelligence chief to British Commanding General Sir Henry Clinton, proposing to turn over West Point in exchange for a large payment. He offered an additional lure, the potential capture of George Washington during a planned visit. The British readily agreed.

Arnold’s Treachery Discovered

Arnold began discreetly weakening the stronghold while surreptitiously reporting to André on troop strength, planned movements, and defensive positions. After returning from one of their secret meetings, André was captured and searched by local American militia, who discovered documents implicating Arnold.

A drawing depicting the capture of Major André by American militia and the search of his boot where he had concealed documents provided by Benedict Arnold. camera icon - click to for more details about the image Capture of André by American militia
One of several papers authored by Arnold that were found hidden in Major André’s boot, this one providing an estimate of American forces at West Point. camera icon - click to for more details about the image Benedict Arnold’s accounting of the defenses at West Point
Artillery orders for West Point’s defense found hidden in Major André’s boot. camera icon - click to for more details about the image Artillery orders at West Point, provided by Benedict Arnold

Alerted that André had been captured, Arnold fled West Point and managed to reach the HMS Vulture, a British warship nearby. He wrote to Washington, requesting safe passage to Philadelphia for his wife. Washington acquiesced, unaware of her involvement in Arnold’s scheming.

As for André, Washington ordered the captured British officer hanged as a spy. This came after an offer from Washington, proposing to exchange André for Arnold, was rejected by his British counterpart. Arnold was soon rewarded by the British with a commission as a brigadier general. After clashing with redcoats for years, he would soon be leading them against his former comrades.

Letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington, dated September 25, 1780, after Arnold fled West Point and arrived onboard the HMS Vulture. In the letter, Arnold pleaded for Washington’s assistance regarding the safety of his abandoned wife. camera icon - click to for more details about the image Letter from Benedict Arnold to General Washington, 1780
Letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington, dated September 25, 1780, after Arnold fled West Point and arrived onboard the HMS Vulture. In the letter, Arnold pleaded for Washington’s assistance regarding the safety of his abandoned wife. camera icon - click to for more details about the image
Letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington, dated September 25, 1780, after Arnold fled West Point and arrived onboard the HMS Vulture. In the letter, Arnold pleaded for Washington’s assistance regarding the safety of his abandoned wife. camera icon - click to for more details about the image

In the aftermath of the betrayal, Washington ordered his cavalry commander, Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (the father of future Confederate commander Robert E. Lee) to plan the capture of Arnold from New York City. Weeks after Arnold’s flight, the handpicked John Champe, Lee’s Sergeant Major, posed as a defecting Continental soldier and joined British forces in New York. From there, aided by local spies, he planned to abduct Arnold and return him to American lines. A last-minute transfer saved Arnold, allowing the turncoat to elude Champe, who eventually returned to the American lines. Three months later, Arnold led 1,600 men of the American Legion – mostly Loyalist troops and Continental Army deserters – to Richmond, Virgnia’s capital, which was defended by only a small handful of volunteers. After being chased off by Arnold’s men, Governor Thomas Jefferson offered a bounty of 5,000 gold coins for the capture of the former American general.

Arnold survived the war and moved with his wife Peggy to England, where he lived out the remainder of his life, mistrusted even by the British and consigned to relative obscurity. He died in London in 1801.

After leaving North America in 1782, Benedict Arnold lived the remainder of his life, with the exception of a three-year stay in Canada, at this residence in London. camera icon - click to for more details about the image Commemorative plaque outside the London home of Benedict Arnold