Benedict Arnold’s Boot (Part 1)

BENEDICT ARNOLD’S BOOT:  The rise and fall of a New York hero (part 1)

By Susan Ingalls Lewis

The Boot Monument at the Saratoga Battlefield

The Boot Monument at the Saratoga Battlefield

Why would I call Benedict Arnold both a New Yorker and a hero?  Arguably the most famous traitor in American history—a man whose name is still synonymous with betrayal—Arnold was born and grew up in Connecticut, and died in England.  Yet the momentous events of his career took place in New York, and Arnold was one of the most important Revolutionary War heroes before he transformed himself into a villain.  In fact, it was his fall from grace that makes his treason so notorious.  As one of the most demonized figures in our history, it is not surprising that the memorial to his service is simply a mysterious sculpture of a boot on which his name never appears.  This unique tribute, located on the battlefield at Saratoga and erected in 1887, offers a visual reference to the wounds that Arnold sustained there, and is dedicated simply to “‘the most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental Army.”

Arnold was not only the hero of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777—the pivotal battle of the war—but also contributed to the U.S. victory over Great Britain through (1) the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, (2) the building of the first navy and the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776, and (3) lifting the siege on Fort Stanwix and thus driving one prong of the British invasion back to Niagara in 1777.  In addition, Arnold’s military career was noteworthy for numerous acts of ingenuity and courage.

A print of Arnold after the Quebec campaign of 1775/76

A print of Arnold after the Quebec campaign of 1775/76

Arnold’s upbringing would not seem to have prepared him for a military career.  His father was a merchant who succumbed to alcoholism; Arnold himself was apprenticed to relatives of his mother and trained as an apothecary (druggist).   Though he joined the militia during the French & Indian War at age 16, he served only a few days on the New York frontier in 1755, marching toward Albany and Lake George before news of the disaster at Fort William Henry sent his company marching home again.  On the completion of his apprenticeship, Arnold borrowed money to start a pharmacy and bookstore in New Haven, then used his profits to go into a mercantile partnership ,trading (against British laws) with the French in Quebec and the West Indies.   Such smuggling was common in the colonies, and would have inclined Arnold toward the Patriot side as the Revolutionary crisis developed after 1765.

His first heroic acts took place even before independence was declared.  After “the shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Arnold proposed the capture of Fort Ticonderoga from British forces.  He gained permission for his bold plan in Massachusetts, but was surprised to meet Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain boys of Vermont on the way; both groups had the same idea and neither wanted to give up the adventure and opportunity for glory.   In the end, both leaders joined in the capture of the fort at the south end of Lake Champlain on May 10th—an easy victory, since the British were unaware that the colonists considered themselves at war.  The next day, the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Crown Point, the next fort north on Lake Champlain, after which Arnold led a raid on Fort St. Jean, even further north on the Richelieu River.   As it happened, the military equipment captured in these victories proved more decisive for the Revolution than the forts themselves. Dragged across the wilds of New York and Western Massachusetts, the canons arrived in Boston the following spring, were placed on Dorchester Heights, and forced the British to abandon that city in March, 1776.

Unfortunately, Arnold’s disagreements with one Colonel Easton, the man who delivered news of the victory, meant that Arnold’s role in this vital conquest was underplayed and thus undervalued.  This pattern would continue, and undoubtedly contributed to his later decision to commit treason.  In the summer of 1775, however, Arnold remained both a Patriot and an ambitious man determined to win fame as a soldier.   His next exploit involved the invasion of Canada and attempt to turn Quebec to the Patriot cause—or at least deny the area to the British as a base from which to stage an invasion of New York.

Although he was not selected to lead the main force which would travel up Lake Champlain to attack Montreal, Arnold conceived of a bold plan to reach Quebec City by traversing Maine.  He gained the approval of General Washington, but the journey proved far more grueling than Arnold anticipated.   When he finally arrived at Quebec in November , his more than 1000 men had been reduced to approximately 600 exhausted, starving survivors of a struggle through a wilderness of mountains, raging rivers, waterfalls, and swamps; they had been “reduced to eating soap, shoe leather, and cartridge boxes.”[1]  Quebec City was lightly garrisoned but strongly walled, and Arnold had no canon to attack it.  He waited for General Richard Montgomery, who had led the far easier invasion up the Champlain-Richelieu corridor and already captured Montreal.  Their attack in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve was a failure; Montgomery died and Arnold was seriously wounded.  Although the invasion was not successful, he had been named a Brigadier General for leading his wilderness expedition, and his fame was increasing.  We can get a sense of his reputation from a history written in 1781: “the march of colonel Arnold and his troops is one of the greatest exploits recorded in the annals of nations, whether the way in which they marched, the season of the year, the severity of the climate, and the many other disadvantages and hardships which attended them are considered.”[2]

When it was clear that the expedition to win Canada had failed, Arnold organized the safe retreat of the army down Lake Champlain.  “Arnold skillfully began to withdraw the army to New York. He seized anything of value and destroyed everything that could not be taken and burned any dwellings so the British could not use them.  . . .  [at Fort St. Jean] He even dismantled and shipped by bateaux a small British warship that was in the dry docks. The fort, dry-docks, and shipyards were all burned. Arnold ordered his rearguard into the remaining bateaux after the main body had crossed the river. . . . Arnold was the last American to leave Canadian soil”.[3]

Arnold’s next campaign was perhaps his most important service to the Revolution, though it was not in fact a victory.  In expectation of a British advance down Lake Champlain in 1776, Arnold supervised the construction of a “fleet”, sometimes described as the first American navy, in Skenesboro (now Whitehall).  The British were simultaneously forced to build a fleet on the lake to move their 9000-man army, since the Patriot forces under Arnold’s rear guard had either captured or destroyed most British ships on the their retreat south.   Sir Guy Carleton and his forces were thus delayed in starting their invasion until October.   Their goal was control of the Hudson Valley, as it would be the following year in the more famous campaign of 1777 under Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne.   If the British were able to reach and occupy the upper Hudson, they expected to link their forces with those of General Howe who had recently captured New York City—thus dividing New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies.

Battle of Valcour Island

Battle of Valcour Island

Because of his previous experience as a merchant and ship’s captain, Arnold was given command of the small navy.  Arnold’s ships and men were inferior to those of the British in both numbers and fire power, but he cleverly chose Valcour Island as the site for the battle of the navies.   He understood that his goal was not to win a battle, but to stop or at least delay the advance of the British.  On October 11th the fleets engaged, with the British gaining an advantage.   But Arnold snuck his ships through a narrow gap between the island and the shore without the British detecting their escape.   In the chase down the lake the following day, the British captured one ship, but others got as far as Crown Point, while Arnold grounded and burned the rest, then led his men overland to the fort.   Although Arnold then decided to abandon and burn Crown Point and fall back to Ticonderoga, he had held up the British advance.  When snow began falling on October 20th, the British decided to return to Canada for the winter, and try again the next year.  Had Arnold not destroyed British boats on the way down Lake Champlain, not built a makeshift navy, and not maneuvered that navy to hold up the British advance, Carleton might have reached the Hudson in 1776.

Unfortunately for Arnold, though, many of his personal papers and records of the campaign had been lost when one of the ships was sunk by the British.  Later in the war, the lack of these records (which he claimed showed monies spent out of his own funds for the Canada and Lake Champlain campaigns) would contribute to his censure by Congress and perhaps his decision to commit treason.

To be continued . . .  this is only the first half of the story.  In the next installment I will cover Arnold’s most famous triumph at the Battle of Saratoga, as well as his downfall when attempting to turn the U.S. fort at West Point over to the British.

[1] “Benedict Arnold, Flawed Hero,” The American Invasion of Canada, August 1775-October 1776, Exhibition prepared by Susan Danforth, John Carter Brown Library.

[2] “Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec, 13 September-9 November 1775” from Murray, An impartial history, Boston, 1781. Exhibition prepared by Susan Danforth, John Carter Brown Library.

[3] Roger Daene, Benedict Arnold in Canada,” 2011, Military History Online.



Fort Ticonderoga;

Journal of the expedition against Quebec under command of Col. Benedict Arnold, in the year 1775,  Maj. Return J. Meigs , with an introduction and notes, by Charles I. Bushnell (1864);

 “American Revolution: Battle of Valcour Island,” by Kennedy Hickman;

 “Traitor or hero? Navy Museum;




4 thoughts on “Benedict Arnold’s Boot (Part 1)

  1. Insperatus

    Valcour Island deserves its own blog at some point. Not least because of the brave little merchant sloop that strapped guns to her decks and joined the scrap and became the first boat to bear the name “USS Enterprise”. Like most of her later namesakes, ended her meritorious, life-saving mission by getting blown up by her own crew)…sorry, nerded out there for a second.

  2. Steve Victor

    A nice recounting of Arnold’s heroics. Hardly the “evil traitor” as he is portrayed in our grade schools, he was the best fighting general of the war and a true hero, and he should be considered the protagonist in a Greek tragedy. The four-sided monument at Saratoga (now Schuylerville) contains alcoves which has statutes of Schuyler, Gates and Morgan; the fourth is empty and represents Arnold’s contribution. I think it’s about time that a statue of Benedict Arnold is placed there.


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