BENEDICT ARNOLD’S BOOT: The rise and fall of a New York hero (continued, part 2)
By Susan Ingalls Lewis
Last week, we took Arnold through the fall of 1776, and the Battle at Valcour Island. In the winter of 1776/77, despite support from George Washington and General Horatio Gates, Arnold was passed over for promotion to major general and threatened to resign. Enemies—he seems to have made many—had turned Congress against him. However, on his way to Philadelphia to discuss the matter that April, Arnold learned that the British were about to attack Ridgefield, Connecticut, and he joined the defense, led the militia, and was wounded again in the left leg—the very leg represented in the boot monument on the field at Saratoga.
In 1777, Arnold’s military career reached its zenith. He was finally promoted after his action and wounding in Connecticut, although he continued to resent that his seniority was less than others who had been promoted in the interim between when he felt the promotion was deserved and when it actually took place. In addition, he had to defend himself against charges of corruption brought by an enemy officer. Although Arnold threatened to retire, Washington insisted that he was needed for the defense against the British invasion of New York from the north and west. Coming down from Canada, General Burgoyne’s army recaptured Ticonderoga in July, and Barry St. Leger’s smaller band of British soldiers, Hessians, Canadians, loyalists, and Native Americans (including New York’s Mohawk leader Joseph Brant) had set out from Niagara in the west. If these forces could meet with an expected expedition up the Hudson from New York City, it was hoped by the British, and feared by the Americans, that New England would be cut off from the rest of the states.
In July, Arnold returned to New York, and was chosen to lead the troops at Fort Edward, the closest U.S. stronghold to Lake Champlain. In August, he was sent to relieve St. Leger’s siege of Fort Stanwix, a frontier fort near present-day Rome, New York. A previous expedition by the local militia had failed; instead, the Battle of Oriskany on August 6th had proved a bloody defeat for the Patriots. Although Arnold led too few men to rout the British forces around Fort Stanwix, he spread a rumor (using a loyalist prisoner) that a large force was on its way to lift the siege. First St. Leger’s Indian allies, then Leger and his men, gave up and left the area in late August. Thus Arnold helped to turn back one prong of the invasion. Again, however, personal animosity on the part of other officers kept his role from being reported to Congress.
The largest and most important part of the attempted triple-pronged British invasion was Burgoyne’s force headed toward Albany. The British reached the Hudson in September. The first meeting of the armies, the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19th, ended in a stalemate, though Arnold’s troops fought well. However, Gates refused to give Arnold credit, not even mentioning his name in the reports. A few days later Gates and Arnold argued bitterly, and Gates angrily relieved him of his command. However, Arnold remained on the field, and at the decisive October 7th Battle of Bemis Heights he famously jumped on his horse and rallied the men to break the British line, all while Gates remained in his tent. Arnold was shot in the leg a third time and his horse was blown out from under him, falling on his wounded leg and injuring it further.
Although Gates gave Arnold credit for bravery, the general who had stayed in his tent (Gates) was given more rewards by Congress than the man who—according to Burgoyne and others—had actually won the battle and forced the British surrender (Arnold). It was this capture of Burgoyne’s entire army that induced the French to enter the war on the American side. The French alliance provided the United States with a trading partner, loans, military equipment, and most important the support of the French navy—support which proved vital in the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, essentially ending the war. That is, Arnold’s contribution to the victory at Saratoga may well have been one of the decisive factors in winning independence.
Arnold was in pain, permanently crippled, with one leg two inches shorter than the other. He also seems to have become permanently embittered. Washington was sympathetic, and attempted to find non-combat positions to reward Arnold for his service. It was as military commander of Philadelphia in 1778 that he met Peggy Shippen, a charming young woman of Loyalist sympathies. He also engaged in some shady business practices and seemed determine to make money out of his position.
Shippen had previously been courted by a British captain, John André, when the British had occupied Philadelphia the previous year. After she and Arnold married in the spring of 1779, he began secret meetings with the British to discuss defecting to their side. Congress held a court martial inquiry into Arnold’s actions in Philadelphia, and though he was found guilty of only two minor charges, Washington published a censure of his actions as “imprudent and improper.” In seeking the command of West Point, a fort strategically based on the Hudson River, it seems that Arnold was already planning to surrender it to the British in exchange for money. At this point he also became a spy for the British, providing secrets about U.S. troop movements and supplies.
Though Arnold later claimed that he was influenced by his disapproval of the U.S. alliance with royalist France, it is unclear how much of the motivation for his treason was the influence of his wife, his bitterness toward Congress, or his desire for financial reward. In any case, he was given command of West Point in August, 1780, and demanded 20,000£ from the British as payment for its surrender. In September, while negotiations Arnold and the British commander were being finalized, the plot was discovered when Major André was arrested and found with plans of the fort. Arnold fled a few steps ahead of the men who came to apprehend him; he left Peggy to distract his would-be captors from the chase (more about this in a future blog), and Major André to be convicted and hung as a spy.
Thus ends the New York career of Benedict Arnold. He escaped to fight elsewhere, another day, for another side, but never attained the glory he felt he deserved. Many historians have worked to rehabilitate Arnold’s career, and I am not breaking any new ground here. The most important recent biography is Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (NYU Press, 1997) by James Kirby Martin, Professor of History at the University of Houston, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak on this topic several years ago.
What I am arguing, however, is that Arnold is an important part of New York’s Revolutionary story—not just his attempt to turn over West Point, or his victory at Saratoga, but all his other actions across New York State. From the North Country (Ticonderoga and the entire length of Lake Champlain) to the West (the Mohawk Valley to Fort Stanwix) to the Hudson Valley (Saratoga, West Point), Arnold seems to have been almost everywhere the action was. The only major battle he missed was the American defeat in the Battle for New York, which took place on Long Island and Manhattan in the summer of 1776 while he was at Lake Champlain working on the makeshift navy. His story helps us remember that the Revolutionary War in New York went far beyond New York City and the Hudson Valley, to the furthest northern and western borders of what was then the State of New York.
“The Battle of Saratoga”; http://battle1777.saratoga.org/history.html
Fort Stanwix National Monument: www.nps.gov/fost/
Saratoga National Historic Park site of Arnold’s greatest victory and his boot memorial: www.nps.gov/sara/
Bravo and keep telling this narrative. It blew my mind when I first heard this side of the story from my professor over at SUNY Ulster. He was similarly aghast that Arnold’s legacy had been so badly abused and urged us to go up to the site and talk to the docents at the historic site. Public perception is on the change.