When the Revolutionary War broke out, Benedict Arnold became one of America’s first military heroes. But within a few short years, patriots were comparing him unfavorably to the man who betrayed Jesus. As a disgusted Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions [sic].”
That Arnold defected to the British army in 1780 is common knowledge. But before he switched allegiances, Arnold engineered some crucial victories for the colonist rebels and, by all accounts, led a pretty interesting life. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of America's most notorious traitors, who was born on this day in 1741.
1. HE WAS DESCENDED FROM RHODE ISLAND’S FIRST COLONIAL GOVERNOR.
Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut—the fifth person in his family to be named Benedict Arnold. Among others, he shared the name with his father and great grandfather, the latter of whom was the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the 1663 Royal Charter. A wealthy and respected landowner, he would intermittently remain governor until his death. He was laid to rest at a Newport cemetery that now bears his name: Arnold Burying Ground.
2. ARNOLD FOUGHT IN AT LEAST ONE DUEL.
Though he apprenticed at a druggists, and, as an adult, set up a profitable general store in New Haven, Arnold eventually decided to get into the shipping industry, purchasing three merchant vessels by the time he turned 26. He used the boats to trade goods in Canada and the West Indies. (The ventures would later give him a healthy disdain for British tax policies; to get around them, he—like many of his countrymen—ultimately turned to smuggling.) It was while traveling for business that Arnold would get into a disagreement that led to a duel.
On a trip to the Bay of Honduras, Arnold received an invitation to a get-together from a British captain named Croskie. Distracted by an upcoming voyage, Arnold forgot to respond and wound up missing the party. Hoping to smooth things over, Arnold paid Croskie a visit the next morning and apologized. The Brit was having none of it. Irked by Arnold’s apparent rudeness, Croskie called him “a damned Yankee destitute of good manners of those of a gentleman.” Now it was the New Englander’s turn to get offended. His honor impugned, Arnold challenged Croskie to a duel. In the showdown that resulted, the captain fired first—and missed. Then Arnold took aim. With a well-placed shot, he grazed Croskie, whose wound was taken care of by an on-site surgeon. Arnold called Croskie back to the field and proclaimed, “I give you notice, if you miss this time I shall kill you.” Not wishing to risk any further injuries, the British seaman offered an apology. This incident represents the only duel that Arnold is known to have participated in—although some historians believe he may have emerged victorious from one or two others.
3. HE INSPIRED A MINOR HOLIDAY BY COMMANDEERING BRITISH GUNPOWDER.
On April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord broke out in eastern Massachusetts, marking the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Three days later, Benedict Arnold led New Haven’s local militia—the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard—to the city’s powder house, where its supply of emergency gunpowder was stored. He was met at the front door by the local selectmen and demanded the keys. At first they resisted, but it soon became clear that Arnold would be willing to force his way into the building if necessary. “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” he warned. Faced with the prospect of violence, the selectmen handed over the keys. The Second Company then rounded up all of the available gunpowder and began a march to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rendezvoused with other rebel troops.
Since 1904, New Haven has been commemorating this chapter in its history with an annual Powder House Day celebration. Every spring, a reenactment of the standoff between Arnold and those selectmen takes place on the steps of City Hall. There, members of the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard (which still exists) arrive in historically accurate regalia led by a member who plays Arnold himself.
4. HE TOOK PART IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE CANADA.
Arnold made a name for himself by joining forces with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to capture Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain in May 1775. That fall, George Washington tapped him to lead a military expedition into Quebec. At the time, many Americans believed—falsely—that their Canadian neighbors would be willing to help them overthrow the British. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery and his men were sent to Montreal by way of the Champlain valley. Meanwhile, Arnold (by that time a Colonel) was given command of a second force that was to proceed upwards through Maine before attacking Quebec City.
This campaign wasn’t exactly Arnold’s finest hour. For starters, he’d been given a wildly inaccurate map of the area which led him to underestimate the distance between Maine and his destination. Since the trek took more time than Arnold had bargained for, his force inevitably depleted its food supply along the way. As a result, many of the men resorted to eating dogs, squirrel heads, and even leather. Severe storms and equipment-destroying flash floods did not help matters.
By the time Arnold finally reached Quebec City on November 8, 1775, the force of around 1100 he’d started out with had been whittled down to less than 600. That December, Montgomery and his men—who’d already captured Montreal—met up with Arnold’s demoralized group outside of Quebec City. On the final day of 1775, the Americans attacked. Montgomery was killed in the fray, more than 400 American soldiers were captured, and a splintering musket ball nearly cost Arnold his left leg. Despite this and other setbacks, the invaders from down south remained in Quebec until 10,000 British troops—accompanied by German mercenaries—arrived to force them out in May 1776.
5. AN ARNOLD-LED NAVAL FLEET THWARTED A MAJOR BRITISH ADVANCE.
Having driven Arnold and company from Canada, the Brits decided to go in for the kill. After advancing down to the northern shores of Lake Champlain, General Sir Guy Carleton ordered his men to construct a fleet of new ships from existing parts and available timber. Meanwhile, Arnold and General Horatio Gates set up shop in Skenesborough, located at the lake’s southern end. The Americans got to work building new ships of their own, which would sail alongside four vessels that Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys had captured in 1775. The stage was set for a naval clash that would have profound implications for the rest of the war.
On October 11, 1776, Arnold led the 15-ship American fleet into battle against Carleton’s newly-finished squadron of well-armed war vessels, which was making a beeline for Fort Ticonderoga. Concealing his forces in the strait between Valcour Island and the lake’s western banks, Arnold was able to catch the British off-guard—momentarily, anyway. Despite this sneak attack, Carleton’s superior weaponry took out 11 of Arnold’s ships, killing or capturing 200 rebels. But from a strategic standpoint, the confrontation worked out well for the colonies because it thwarted the General’s primary goal: recapturing Ticonderoga and then funneling Royal troops across the Champlain. The Battle of Valcour Island—along with all the ship-building that had preceded it—kept him busy until winter arrived. By November, the lake had started freezing over, which prompted Carleton to head back to Canada, where he and his men would remain until spring. His temporary retreat gave the Americans some desperately-needed time to prepare for Britain’s next invasion from the north.
In 1777, General John Burgoyne led 8000 troops down the Champlain Valley. At the Battles of Saratoga, the American forces were able to overwhelm them, forcing the General to surrender his army. More than anything else, it was this surprise victory that inspired France to enter the fray on the rebels’ behalf.
According to Alfred T. Mahan, a naval historian, “That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.” Arnold was injured at Saratoga when a bullet went through his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on and crushed the injured limb—the same one that had been wounded in Quebec. The Major General spent three months in the hospital; his leg never fully recovered and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
6. HE SIGNED A LOYALTY OATH AT VALLEY FORGE.
In 1778, the Continental Congress made an attempt to weed out any closet loyalists that might be in its midst by forcing the army’s enlisted men and officers to sign standardized loyalty oaths—which they were also expected to read aloud before a witness. Arnold was presented with a copy when he visited Washington in Valley Forge that May. With no reported hesitation, Arnold recited and signed the document; the event was witnessed by Henry Knox, Washington’s future Secretary of War. Today, the signed agreement can be found at the National Archives.
7. ARNOLD SWITCHED SIDES IN PART BECAUSE HE FELT DISRESPECTED.
On June 18, 1778, after a nine-month occupation, British General Sir Henry Clinton and 15,000 troops withdrew from Philadelphia. (By relocating, Clinton hoped he might avoid any French ships that might visit the area.) Philadelphia, back under colonial control, needed a military commander; Washington picked Arnold, who would presumably be grateful for a post that wouldn’t tax his bad leg too much.
Philadelphia was a city known for its radicals, and Arnold was never able to make peace with them. Instead, Arnold found himself gravitating towards the more pro-British upper classes, where he met a charming young woman named Margaret “Peggy” Shippen. Although she was half his age and the daughter of a wealthy judge with strong connections to the British, he married her in 1779. (It was his second marriage; Arnold's first wife, Margaret Mansfield, died in 1775.) The marriage didn’t make Philadelphia’s new military commander the most popular guy around town. Arnold’s extravagant lifestyle also aroused the suspicions of many, and some suggested that he’d been using his position to fatten his wallet with black market goods. In 1779, he was court-martialed twice, largely on accusations of misusing government resources and illegal buying and selling.
Arnold was cleared of all significant charges, but the experience left him embittered and humiliated. The court-martials were just the latest entries in a long list of perceived slights. Throughout his military career, Arnold felt underappreciated by the Continental Congress, which seemed to constantly ignore him when doling out promotions or praise. On a deeper level, he’d grown increasingly pessimistic about the rebellion’s chances. So before 1779 ended, he used his new wife’s social circle to contact Clinton and the British spy John André. At some point in their correspondence, Arnold let it be known that he’d had enough of the colonies; he was now willing to switch sides—if the price was right.
Arnold started lobbying Washington to grant him command of West Point. On June 29, 1780, the founding father caved and handed over the post. The very next month, Arnold offered to surrender the fort to Clinton for the low price of £20,000 (about $4.7 million in 2017 dollars).
8. WHEN ARNOLD MADE HIS ESCAPE, WASHINGTON WAS EN ROUTE TO HIS HOUSE FOR SOME BREAKFAST.
Arnold arranged to meet with André face-to-face on the night of September 21, 1780. André arrived on the British sloop the HMS Vulture and was rowed to shore. At a location later known as Treason House, Arnold handed André papers that exposed West Point’s weaknesses and the two planned to part ways. But during the meeting, the Vulture had been bombarded by Americans and was forced to move, stranding André in rebel territory. He decided to make his own way to the British-occupied city of White Plains, New York, but along the way he was seized by American militia men who discovered the West Point plans tucked away in his shoe.
André was brought before Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson. Following the dictates of protocol, Jameson sent a letter about this strange man who’d been found with incriminating documents to ... Benedict Arnold. Meanwhile, the documents themselves were mailed to George Washington.
In an amazing coincidence, Washington had arranged to have breakfast at Arnold’s residence in southern New York on September 25, 1780. That very same morning, mere hours before Washington arrived, the turncoat received Jameson’s letter. In a frenzied panic, he dashed out of the house, found the Vulture, and hopped aboard. When Washington learned what had transpired, the normally reserved general shouted, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”
9. HE SAW PLENTY OF ACTION AS A BRITISH GENERAL.
Arnold’s involvement with the Revolutionary War didn’t end when he embarked on the Vulture. The British made him a brigadier general, and he captured Richmond, Virginia with 1600 loyalist troops on January 5, 1781. Amidst the carnage, Virginia’s then-governor—Thomas Jefferson—staged a massive evacuation. Arnold wrote to the exiled Sage of Monticello, offering to spare the city if the governor agreed to surrender its entire supply of tobacco. When Jefferson refused, the general’s men burned a number of buildings and looted 42 vessels’ worth of stolen goods.
Later that year, Arnold laid siege to his own home colony. Recognizing New London, Connecticut as a refuge for privateers—who routinely plundered British merchant ships—Arnold ordered his assembled force of British and Hessian soldiers to put over 140 of its buildings to the torch, along with numerous ships. For the rest of the country, this devastating assault became a rallying cry. At the battle of Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette fired up his men by telling them “Remember New London.”
But if Arnold thought these raids would earn him Great Britain’s respect or acclaim, he was sorely mistaken. When the war ended, this Connecticut Yankee-turned-redcoat general moved to London with his second wife and their children. To his dismay, Arnold learned that his adopted country distrusted him almost as much as his homeland now did. Although Britain continued to recognize him as a general, the U.K. repeatedly declined to give him any sort of major role in the military. Desperate for work, Arnold then attempted to join the British East India Company only to strike out yet again—a high-ranking employee turned him away by saying, “Although I am satisfied with the purity of your conduct, [most people] do not think so.”
10. HE’S BURIED NEXT TO A FISH TANK IN ENGLAND.
Arnold died on June 14, 1801. His body was laid to rest inside a crypt in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, where Arnold and his family had been parishioners; Margaret and their daughter, Sophia, would also eventually be interred there. Strange as it may sound, their tomb is embedded in the wall of a Sunday School classroom. Right next to a whimsical goldfish tank, you can read the protruding headstone, which has an inscription that reads: “The Two Nations Whom he Served In Turn in the Years of their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”
The headstone was financed by the late Bill Stanley, a former state senator and proud native of Norwich, Connecticut who defended Arnold throughout his life. “He saved America before he betrayed it,” Stanley said. Heartbroken by the underwhelming elegy that for many years marked the general’s final resting place, Stanley personally spent $15,000 on the handsome new grave marker that sits there. When this was completed in 2004, the ex-state senator flew out to London with his immediate family and more than two dozen members of the Norwich Historical Society to watch the installation.