Monday, March 21, 2011

Benedict Arnold was a hero...until

Most of us think of  Benedict Arnold as a traitor, a turn coat. And that's pretty much all most of us know of him.

What we didn't learn in school is that Benedict Arnold was a military hero. His admirers likened him to the legendary Hannibal for his boundless courage. George Washington considered him among his best generals. His own men revered him because he never put them in harm's way without doing so himself. He led "from the front."

Why would such a man forfeit what would likely have been an exalted place in history?

Not for money, though this is the common wisdom. The British paid him almost nothing--the equivalent of $10,000--and treated him with contempt when joined their team. (No one likes a traitor!)  Ironically, the British weren't even that interested in him in the first place. It took two years of negotiations, all propelled by Arnold, for the British to seal the deal.

Arnold detested Congress and made no secret of it. Who could blame him?  Most in Congress treated him with the utmost contempt, refusing his reasonable requests for more troops, food, hard cash. They failed to acknowledge his heroism,  crediting  lesser men such as Horatio Gates and Ethan Allen for victories, such as Ticonderoga, that were rightfully due Arnold.

Arnold made huge sacrifices to the rebel cause. He used his own funds to feed his men and was only partially repaid. After his first wife's death, he had no choice but to send his children to live with his spinster sister and rarely saw them. He was physically disabled from repeated wounds to his leg--doctors wanted to amputate, but he refused. Not only did Congress fail to appreciate Arnold's sacrifices, they promoted lesser men above him.

There is only so much that any person can stand, right?

But there's also a more intriguing, romantic possibility, which I think is the real explanation for Arnold's behavior.  On a smaller scale, with lesser consequences, this sort of thing,the Achille's heel for powerful, dissatisfied men, happens every day.

Ah, sweet love.

In late 1778, middle-aged Arnold  fell head over heels for an exquisite woman half his age:  Peggy Shippen of Philadelphia, daughter of Loyalist Judge Shippen. Eventually, he married Peggy and, by most accounts, it was she who urged him to defect, even introducing him to intermediaries, such as the dashing John Andre. (More on him in another post)

Sadly--tragically--had Arnold not defected,  memorials to him would have been erected in his honor alongside Lincoln and Washington. Universities and high schools named for him would be legion. Cities and towns as well. Arnold City, Conn.?  Likely he would have appeared on some dollar denomination.

Benedict Arnold's downfall  was the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy, a great man unhinged by his vulnerabilities, prodded on by his very own Lady Macbeth. I wish someone would write a play about him.

Arnold figures fairly prominently in my novel. So I've really had to get to know him. But what fun it is  to take that knowledge and "create" a character. This is the joy of historical fiction.

The following  takes place in June, 1776. Arnold is then stationed in Montreal. Congress has ordered him to protect Canada from British attack, but it's an "unfunded mandate" because Congress hasn't given Arnold what he needs: food, hard currency, more troops.  Half his men have small pox.  (Interesting factoid: Arnold's aide-to-camp,  David Franks, was Jewish. He was not implicated in the treason.)

In this scene, Arnold  receives a delegation, appointed and dispatched by Congress, headed by the great diplomat, Benjamin Franklin. The mission's purpose is to persuade Canada, then a Catholic country, to join the mostly Protestant thirteen colonies, a fool's mission, the subject of another blog. Initially charming to the group, Arnold soon lashes out at them, venting his frustrations even at Franklin.   We get a taste here of Arnold's volatility, his simmering resentments--a foreboding of his treason.

Here's "my" version of Arnold:

Slouched over a cane, hawk-like nose protruding, General Benedict Arnold was hobbling toward them. Injury had crippled his leg, but not the man. He was proud and strong, adorned in the full regalia of his station, bronze epaulettes gleaming from his powerful shoulders, his blue jacket tailored to his stout, muscular, body. He was both young and old, his hair a mat of silver and black.
Arnold welcomed the group with the white gleam of his smile. One hand grasping his cane, he offered his free hand to each man, his handshake robust and surprisingly strong.  
When it came his turn, Patrick searched Arnold’s eyes for a glimmer of recognition; perhaps the general recognized him from last year’s battle at Quebec.  But Arnold’s gaze was polite and measured, offering no more than the occasion required. Patrick, who normally shrank from attention, was crushed.   He’d been just one of many under Arnold’s command, he reminded himself, nothing more.
“Follow me,” Arnold commanded.  
His cane stabbing the ground, Arnold managed to move briskly, leading the group across the moat into the sparkling city, drenched in French culture, despite British conquest.  A throng of spectators awaited them, ready to pounce. A soldier ordered them away.
Arnold turned to his visitors, leaning on his cane as he fastened grim eyes on them. “I fear that my hospitality shall amount to nothing but dreariness.”
“Our ears are open,” Franklin said.
Arnold swallowed hard. “We shall not speak of it until the morrow.” He shifted his weight on his cane. “I would be a most loathsome host, if I did not first provide you with you  entertainment. A banquet has been prepared for you, French food and wine.”  He paused, his smile devilish and white.  “I’ve invited some of the city’s finest and most… shall we say … eager ladies.” Another mischievous smile, this from the most serious of men. “Of course, I can call them off, if you prefer.”
Laughter crackled through the air.  
 “It has been long, tiring, lonely journey,” said Franklin, his face aglow. 
In the morning, when the visitors had taken no more than two spoonfuls of porridge, Arnold limped into the dining room, his face, distraught and worried.
Declining a seat, Arnold leaned against his cane. Half moons hung from his eyes, pouches of crinkled flesh. His lower lip folded over the upper. One hand was clenched in a fist, the other strangled his cane. His eyes, the color of  ash, scanned the room, but found no rest.
Alarmed by the change in Arnold’s appearance, the men pushed their plates away, opened their linen napkins,  hastily wiping their mouths, gazing mournfully at uneaten bacon.
Arnold, impatient, rapped his cane against the floor. “Gentlemen?
The sun was fuzzy and low. Arnold moved nimbly, efficiently, his pace like the flight of a deer. His cane punctured caked mud along the path, his damaged leg snapping forward on command. Patrick noticed that Franklin had a hard time keeping up, that he was straining for breath.
The path took them to a dingy red -brick house, shutters, once white and hinged, flapping in the wind.  A colonial flag hung limply from a pole, no longer proud. Someone had attempted a garden, now mostly weeds. Rose bushes, just short of their season,  bowed their prickly branches, blossoms closed, petals furled.
Arnold turned around, his back to the house. A gust of wind blew back his hair, more silvery now than black. His complexion was sallow, almost yellow. He tapped the foot of his uninjured leg, awaiting the last of them, Patrick and the breathless Franklin.
“Headquarters,” Arnold announced.  He didn’t smile. His tone was sardonic. “Forgive its appearance. We can longer afford the help.” He motioned them inside.
Clutching the banister, hopping on his bad leg, cane tucked beneath an arm, Arnold led them up a flight of stairs.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, elongated rectangles searing the floor.  A single candle wavered above the mantel, above a brick fireplace whose fire was but a spray of orange and blue.  Worn maps of Montreal, Quebec, northern New York hung lopsided on the colorless wall.
Two men shot to their feet, saluting Arnold. A leathery-faced man announced that he was Colonel Moses Hazen,  veteran of the French-and-Indian War. A younger man, wide shoulders droopy, said he was Arnold’s aide-de-camp, but didn't give a name.
Arnold carefully leaned his cane against the oval table, slid his bulk onto a high-backed chair at the head of the  table, refusing assistance of any kind. He took his seat, his chair scraping the wood floor.
Still more scraping, as the other men pulled wooden armchairs from the table.  Patrick’s muscular thighs exceeded the narrow seat. He crammed his legs beneath the scratched-wood table.
Arnold beamed impatience as Franklin found his seat.
The general’s eyebrows, threads of black and silver, lifted as he  exchanged gloomy looks with Hazen and Franks, fencing off the others.
 “Our situation is untenable,” Arnold finally announced, turning back to the visitors. He folded his hands in front of him.
Across the table, the men’s uplifted eyes combined like rivulets into a single stream, flowing towards the head of the table.
  Having roused the men’s curiosity, Arnold took his time of it, power scalding his face.  He looked down at his folded hands, briefly grimacing. Looking up, he scanned the table, his eyes black globes, flaring from their sockets. The candle’s spidery shadow danced on the wall.
 Arnold narrowed his eyes toward Father Carroll. “I’m afraid the fish won’t bite,”
The men looked at the priest, then back at Arnold.
“ Bishop Briand has threatened to excommunicate anyone who sides with the Americans,” Arnold explained. “In sermons and speeches, he repeatedly recites Congress’s infamous …” He shook his head in disgust.  “…Indictment of Catholicism.”
 Arnold unfolded his hands, gripping his injured leg. The callused fingertips of his other hand tapped softly, rhythmically, against the tabletop, the only outlet, Patrick imagined, for a well of rising worry.  Arnold’s temper was legendary—hence, his problems with Congress. But flare-ups were rare. Normally, he was unflappable, his face a blank wall.
Not today, thought Patrick.
“Religion is the least of it,” Arnold lectured. He exchanged grave looks with Hazen and Franks.
Hazen leaned forward.  Deep grooves cracked his leathery face and his eyelids drooped. “The very snow and ice that obstructed your journey is precisely what has kept the British at bay,” he said.
Clutching his cane, Arnold slowly rose, limping toward one of the maps on the wall. His face was beginning to flame.
 “Once the St. Lawrence is navigable, British ships will sail again,” Arnold said, pointing to a thin blue line of river. His finger, running along the line, was trembling, Patrick noticed.  “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you where they’re headed.”
“Here,” said Hazen, thinking them dunces.
                       Patrick’s eyes fell to his lap. He had not expected the British to invade Montreal so soon.
Arnold limped back, arranged his powerful body on his seat. One hand was clenched in a fist, the other embraced his wounded leg. Patrick  understood.   The needling pain, the crippled gait, must, to the proud general, serve as a constant a reminder of sacrifice unrewarded, a requiem to the gratitude he so deserved. Arnold had spent much of his own fortune, scarcely repaid, on provisions for his men.  His family life was in shambles, his wife recently dead, his young children, like lonely orphans, relegated to the care of his spinster sister.
 Patrick watched the tornado building in Arnold’s face.
 “Delighted as we are by your good intentions,” Arnold said, voice drenched in sarcasm.   “With all due respect—“ He lingered on the last word, tasting his anger. “---- we might have preferred food, powder, clothing, cash in stead of your actual visit."
Fury blazed on Arnold’s cheeks. It ignited his eyes, clenched his fist. Patrick pictured water rushing against a dam, overflowing.
Arnold folded his fingers, then--the thud as sudden as a burst of thunder—pounded his fist against the table.
The men, stunned, bolted upright in their chairs, blinking from the sudden blow, unexpected, undeserved.
 “I don’t suppose that you ‘gentlemen’ in Philadelphia, not to mention the other those members of Congress"—He paused, disdainfully--"have so much as an inkling of what goes on in the battlefield?” Arnold’s rage feasted on Franklin, then Charles Carroll, both of them members of Congress.  Arnold pressed his hand on the table. His knuckles were red. Patrick was surprised they weren’t bleeding. “They demand that I defend Canada, but send me not a penny,” Arnold fired on. He surveyed his guests, his eyes furious pinwheels. “Not a single penny.”
 Stunned, speechless, the men exchanged astonished looks. Franklin and Charles Carroll bent their heads forward.  Patrick bristled. Even the strongest boat could be capsized by a storm. 
“The only thing we do possess in abundance,” Arnold raged on, “is small pox. And…” --He paused, rearranging his injured leg---. “even if all our men were all fit for duty, there would still be too few of them.” His eyes were beads of self-righteousness.  “When the rivers melt, the British will advance and we, a pathetic excuse for a military, shall have to no choice but to fold.”
Franklin’s lips thinned.  His face was pink and crisp. His eyes bulged, icily, above his spectacles, cutting with with a glassy stare.  “Some of us in Congress do support you,” the wise man said, his voice spiced with just the right amount of anger. We might be but a small minority but we of us in do support you.”--–He gestured at Charles Carroll, who also stared at Arnold, stunned.  Franklin’s eyebrows slid upwards, reproachfully. “Perhaps, General Arnold, if you would but moderate your temper just a touch, you would garner more support.”
Arnold stared Franklin down, but his anger was dying. Patrick was proud of the old man, imagined him  negotiating with the foolish Lord North in London. What a man Franklin was, despite his many blemishes! Patrick marveled. The full flowering of humankind’s magnificence.
Franklin’s eyebrows were still raised, as though frozen. “We have brought with us a private bounty,” he said, gently, forgivingly.
Arnold looked quizzically at his aide-de-camp. 
 “He sent us some liquor and jewels," the young man muttered.
“Oh that,” Arnold snapped.
Franklin’s eyes bored into Arnold’s. “Aaron Gomez has been quite generous.”
Arnold glowered.
“I am afraid, Dr. Franklin,” Arnold said, dicing each word, “that the Jew’s ‘bounty’ will scarcely feed our soldiers for a week.”
Patrick sat straight in his chair.  His chattering legs bumped beneath the tabletop.
 Words forced their way through the barriers of his lips. “Dr. Franklin risked his life to get here,” Patrick lashed out, a sudden magnet for astonished stares. “Given his age and ill health it is remarkable that he is here at all. “
Charles Carroll flicked at Patrick a cautionary warning. Franklin, gazing downward, was having a grand time.
Arnold’s slid his eyes toward Patrick, eviscerating him..
 “A doctor ordered Dr. Franklin to turn around and recuperate in Philadelphia,” Patrick continued, his voice serrated. “But true to his fine character, Dr. Franklin braved on. He has devoted most of his life to serving out cause. Our common cause.”  
Arnold looked at Patrick, allowing a speck to shine. The harsh brash color draining from his face, the general looked at Franklin, then at each man individually, then bowed his head in shame.
 “Please forgive my outburst, gentlemen,” Arnold said.
Color sputtered back into his face again. Patrick worried that the general’s calm was temporary, the eye of the storm, and would come flooding past the barriers again. Save for a cough, a clearing of a throat, the other men were silent. No man dared look at another, fearing perhaps that so much as an exchange of looks would ignite the general all over again.
But the storm had passed. Thunder faded in the distance. Pale sunlight poured through the dispersing clouds. What remained was the storm’s violent aftermath, fallen trees and shattered homes, leaves pasted to the ground, glistening with sorrow.
Arnold raised his chin. His face was calm, resigned.
 “Gentlemen,” he said, looking around the table, his eyes moist. “I am afraid that your journey has been in vain.”


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