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Kirkland Scene: Benedict Arnold

Richard Williams

This article was written by Richard Williams, Kirkland and Clinton Municipal Historian.

As we are near to the 244th  anniversary of the second battle of Saratoga in October 7, 1777, let’s take a look at one of the most brilliant and heroic generals of the war: Benedict Arnold.

On October 7, 1777, 244 years ago, Benedict Arnold led a furious charge at the Battle of Saratoga which resulted in an American victory. Never receiving what Arnold believed to be proper recognition or payment, he eventually betrayed General George Washington and became on officer in the British Army.

Today Arnold’s life is framed by his treason and not his competence as a navy commander on Lake Champlain at the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776 or as an Army leader by his taking of Fort Ticonderoga with Ethan Allen in June 1775 a year prior to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Arnold helped bring a relief force to besieged Fort Stanwix in today’s Rome after the battle of Oriskany in July 1777 and served with distinction prior to his betrayal and joining with British Major Andre to turn over West Point.

His father operated ships in Atlantic trade from Connecticut as he attained status in the upper society of Norwich, CT. Arnold went to a private school in CT and had hoped for a Yale education.

A decline in the family business and a father who took to drinking caused young Arnold to work at a relative’s apothecary in Norwich which lasted about seven years. In 1757 when he was 16, Arnold enlisted in the Connecticut militia and went to the French siege of Fort William Henry at Lake George. This was a major disaster of Indian atrocities upon the British so Arnold’s militia left after 13 days.

With partner Adam Babcock Arnold bought three trading ships to engage in the trade with the West Indies which became hampered by the Sugar Act of 1764 which Arnold opposed. Like so many other merchants he continued to do business which amounted to smuggling.

Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of the sheriff New Haven and a fellow Mason. They had three sons; Margaret died June 19, 1775 when Benedict was at Fort Ticonderoga following his capture of it.

As Revolutionary War rumblings began in 1774 the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, and Arnold was a captain in the Connecticut Colony militia and marched to Boston following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to assist in the siege against the British army soldiers who occupied the city.      

From there Arnold sought to be part of the two-prong invasion of Canada which the Second Continental Congress approved. While he was passed over to command the main force from Lake Champlain, he proposed to General Washington that he, Arnold, lead a second force overland through the remote wilderness of Maine.

Washington approved, and Arnold was made a Colonel in the Continental Army for the expedition with 1,100 troops. They left Cambridge in September 1775 and arrived in Quebec in November. 200 men died on the march and 300 turned back due to the difficult conditions.

General Richard Montgomery had made the trip down the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence. The assault on Quebec was devastating as Montgomery was killed, and Arnold’s leg was shattered. The siege continued, but Arnold was replaced by General David Wooster in April 1776 even though Arnold became a major general.

A British army had arrived in Canada in May 1776 so American troops began a retreat led by Arnold. Then he directed construction of a fleet to defend Lake Champlain in the famous battle of Valcour Island which caused the British to be delayed in moving south and attacking Fort Ticonderoga until 1777.

At Saratoga General Phillip Schuyler had been preparing a defensive line with General Horatio Gates against the anticipated arrival of General John Burgoyne’s British Army and German Hessians. Schuyler had been pouring supplies and men from neighboring colonies into Saratoga, actually Stillwater.

Arnold and Gates had major disagreements over strategy resulting in shouting matches. In the second battle at Saratoga Arnold disobeyed orders of Gates and went on the battlefield to lead vigorous attacks against the British. He was again severely injured in his left leg but was cited for valor plus his command seniority was restored.

No one in American history is as vilified for treason as Benedict Arnold. The “Boot Monument” is dedicated to this man who led Americans to victory in the Battle of Saratoga. The general refused to have his leg amputated and had to spend three months at a hospital in Albany strapped to a wooden fracture box; he eventually recovered and returned to duty at Valley Forge with his left leg two inches shorter.

General Washington gave him the command of Philadelphia in June 1778 where Arnold lived extravagantly enjoying the social scene. Here he met Peggy Shippen, the 18-year-old daughter of a Loyalist sympathizer. This led to British Major John Andre who also had courted Peggy Shippen.

In August 1780 Arnold received command of West Point and also coded letters from Major John Andre. Arnold had control over the Hudson, weakened the fort’s defenses, and did not make repairs.

Andre was captured on September 23, 1780 near Tarrytown, New York carrying papers about the plot to surrender West Point.  Arnold escaped to a British ship in New York Harbor, and Major Andre was captured October 2, 1780 and hanged at Tappan, New York.