Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Benedict Arnold--Our most enigmatic "hero"

There wouldn't have been a United States of America without George Washington, who entirely deserves the title "father of his country."

As indispensable as Washington was, he couldn't have won the war alone. And we have been stingy in our praise of the man who, after Washington, was most responsible for victory in our War for Independence. No city or state is named after him. There is but one monument to him in the entire country. There is no inscription on it.

That's because the second most indispensable man was Benedict Arnold.

We ought never to forget Arnold's treason. But  let us also remember his heroism.
Benedict Arnold was the best general on either side (and, of course, on both sides). He was the best American admiral, too. He was chiefly responsible for the greatest American victory in the war, a victory that was possible only because of the naval battle he had fought the year before.

Benedict Arnold was a great strategist and tactician, a bold leader who was loved by the troops under his command as only George Washington and Daniel Morgan were loved.

But Benedict Arnold was no politician, and that was his downfall. He suffered slight after slight from the Continental Congress, more than any other of Washington's generals, more than his prickly ego could bear.

"He seemed to me a classic example of the hero in the Wagnerian sense," wrote a biographer, James Thomas Flexner. "He was like a great tower that had been built to withstand gales from only one direction. When the hurricane shifted, the mighty structure crashed to the ground."

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Conn., in 1741, to a father of the same name who squandered the family fortune and reputation through drunkenness. Young Benedict partially rehabilitated his family's name, both as a successful sea captain and apothecary in New Haven. Still, his father's shame heightened his acute sense of personal "honor."

Arnold also found time to be a captain in the local militia, which he led to Boston after Lexington and Concord. There he conceived a plan to seize Fort Ticonderoga.

Arnold jointly commanded with Ethan Allen the force that captured the fort. Then, while Allen and his men went on a three-day bender, he captured two British vessels on Lake Champlain and led a raid on St. Johns in Canada.

Arnold being so occupied, Allen sobered up and claimed sole credit for taking Ticonderoga. Arnold had spent much of his own money to feed his troops, but was refused reimbursement. He was even accused, falsely, of embezzlement.

This was the start of what was to become a familiar pattern. On his return home, Arnold learned that his wife, Peggy Mansfield Arnold, had died during his absence.

Arnold proposed to Gen. Washington an invasion of Canada, and led an expedition through the Maine wilderness that is still considered one of the greatest feats in military history.

A New Year's Eve assault on Quebec failed chiefly because Arnold was severely wounded in the left knee. While he was recuperating, Congress promoted inferior officers ahead of him and again refused to reimburse him after he spent his own money to sustain his soldiers. The less-competent officers made a hash of things, and the Americans were routed by British reinforcements who arrived in Canada in the spring of 1776.

The British then planned to cut the colonies in two by advancing from Canada down Lake Champlain and Lake George to the Hudson River and Albany. Arnold thwarted the plan in 1776 by building a navy and fighting so successfully at the battle of Valcour Island that the British invasion had to be postponed until 1777.

The belated British invasion had two prongs. The main force under Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne came from the north. Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger led a smaller attack along the Mohawk River valley from the west.
Arnold's reputation was now so fierce that St. Leger retreated when he heard that Arnold was coming -- even though Arnold had but 800 men to St. Leger's 2,000. St. Leger's qualms were exacerbated by a stratagem Arnold devised. He sent a captured Loyalist, Han Yost Schuyler, into St. Leger's camp with tales that Arnold's force was huge and close. When asked how many men Arnold had, Han Yost is said to have pointed at the leaves on the trees.

Having dealt with the lesser threat, Arnold then won the battle of Saratoga, which resulted in the surrender of Burgoyne's army. This was the most important American victory of the war because it prompted the French to fight for our side.

Saratoga was really two battles: the battle of Freeman's Farm on Sept. 19 and the battle of Bemis Heights on Oct. 7. After Arnold won at Freeman's Farm, a jealous Gen. Horatio Gates, in overall command, placed him under house arrest after a bitter argument over tactics. On Oct. 7, Arnold broke free, rallied a retreating army and won the decisive victory.

As he led the final assault, Arnold was shot again in the knee that was wounded at Quebec. While he was recuperating, Gates made certain he received no credit for the victory.

His knee too weak for field service, Arnold was made military governor of Philadelphia after the British retreated from the city in June of 1778. He seethed with resentment over his mistreatment by Congress.
Then, during a celebration of the city's liberation on July 4, 1778, Arnold's eyes fell upon an 18-year-old siren named Peggy Shippen, daughter of Judge Edward Shippen, an ardent Loyalist and anglophile. One British officer described her as "supple, pink-cheeked and blonde" with "oh-la-la, what a figure."
Arnold soon sought her hand in marriage and, over her father's objections, she agreed. On April 17, 1779, she descended the stairway of the Shippen household in a white silk wedding gown, her train swirling behind her.

No sooner had the first flames of love simmered down than yet another indignity beset Arnold: pressed by Congress, a reluctant George Washington formally reprimanded him.

Joseph Reed, who greatly disliked Arnold, charged that the general had issued a pass without using the proper form and had used public wagons to save private property from the enemy. Washington, who thought Arnold was being persecuted, worded the reprimand as mildly as he could. But Arnold was mortally offended.

No one knows for sure whether it was Peggy or Arnold who came up with the idea. But the reasons were clear: "In offering his services to the British, Arnold's main motive was the belief he could get from them the appreciation he was convinced his own country had denied him," wrote Milton Lomask in "Beauty and the Traitor: The Story of Mrs. Benedict Arnold."

Beginning in the spring of 1779, Arnold, through intermediaries, made a series of overtures to Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces in America. After some haggling over payment, Arnold finally agreed to persuade Washington to give him command of West Point, which he would allow to be captured.

Upon learning of Arnold's treason, Washington cried, "Arnold has betrayed us. Whom can we trust now?" For all his bravado, Arnold did not succeed in delivering West Point to the British and his new set of soldiers looked upon him contemptuously for having turned on his country.

While he managed -- just barely -- to escape arrest, eventually settling with his family in Britain, Benedict Arnold traded a life of heroism for a life of infamy. Like Washington, his name could have graced cities, towns and monuments. Instead, he is buried without military honors in an unmarked grave at St. Mary's Church in Battersea, London.

On the battlefield at Saratoga, there is a statue of a boot. There is no name on it. An inscription on the back says it is dedicated to "the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot."

Reprinted with permission of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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