Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, into one of the first families of Norwich, Connecticut. His battlefield exploits made him an early leader of the American Revolution, but he later turned from celebrated patriot to despised traitor after he defected to the British in September 1780. Check out nine surprising facts about one of the most complex and controversial figures in American history.
1. Arnold was a successful merchant and smuggler.
Arnold attended private schools during his adolescence, but was forced to end his education at age 14 after his merchant seaman father fell on hard times and slipped into alcoholism. Young Benedict spent the next eight years as an apprentice to an apothecary before settling in New Haven, Connecticut, where he opened his own general store. By his mid-20s, he had purchased three sailing sloops and started a thriving business as a sea trader in Canada and the Caribbean. Arnold’s profits dried up with the introduction of the hated Sugar and Stamp Acts in the 1760s, but like many colonial businessmen, he flouted the laws and took to smuggling untaxed rum and molasses, once publically whipping a man who tried to rat him out to the authorities. The budding patriot also became a leader in the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty and eventually took charge of a company of Connecticut militiamen.
2. He fought in multiple duels.
Arnold was notorious for his quick temper, and there is evidence that he participated in more than one “affair of honor” over perceived slights and insults. The first took place in Honduras during one of his Caribbean trading expeditions. While preparing to set sail, Arnold forgot to respond to an invitation to a gathering hosted by a British sea captain named Croskie. When he later went to Croskie’s ship to apologize, the Englishman denounced him as “a damned Yankee, destitute of good manners.” Arnold demanded satisfaction, and the following day the men met on an island and squared off with pistols. Croskie took the first shot and missed, but Arnold succeeded in grazing his opponent on the arm. He then told the British captain to take his stance again, warning that, “if you miss this time, I shall kill you!” Croskie quickly apologized and the matter was dropped.
3. Arnold was an early hero of the American Revolution.
Prior to his defection to the British, Arnold was hailed as one of the Continental Army’s greatest fighting generals. His career began in April 1775, when he led his Connecticut militia company in the seizure of a local powder magazine by warning a justice of the peace that, “None but Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” The following month, he teamed with frontiersman Ethan Allen in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, a British stronghold that held vital stores of artillery. He rounded out the year by marching some 1,000 men through the backwoods of Maine in a daring attempt to capture Quebec. Arnold sustained a left leg wound during the Canadian campaign, and was later shot through the left thigh while leading a pivotal charge at 1777’s Battle of Saratoga. The injuries left him with a permanent limp and one leg that was two inches shorter than the other, but they also cemented his reputation as a courageous field commander. Even British Secretary of State Lord Germaine was quoted as calling Arnold “the most enterprising and dangerous” of all the American generals.
4. He built one of the first American naval fleets.
During their retreat from Canada in the summer of 1776, the Continentals learned that British General Sir Guy Carleton planned to use prefabricated ships to sail his forces down Lake Champlain and rendezvous with an army of redcoats out of New York City. Arnold immediately devised a plan to stop the advance. Drawing on his experience as a sea trader, he used an army of shipbuilders and carpenters to cobble together 15 schooners, sloops and gunboats. In October 1776, his makeshift fleet clashed with 25 British vessels on Lake Champlain at the Battle of Valcour Island. Arnold’s outgunned squadron suffered heavy losses—all but a few of his ships were lost or scuttled—but he delayed the British long enough that they were forced to change their plans and seek winter quarters. The battle was one of the first engagements fought by an American naval fleet, and many historians have since credited it with having saved the revolution.
5. Arnold’s treason was fueled by more than just money.
In May 1779, Arnold secretly contacted British General Henry Clinton to discuss the possibility of switching his allegiance back to the Crown. He used coded letters and invisible ink to send reports on Continental troop movements and supplies, and later conspired to hand the American bastion at West Point over to the enemy. Greed and personal debts were certainly a motivating factor in Arnold’s treachery—he demanded 20,000 British pounds for turning his coat—but he had also become disillusioned with the revolutionary cause. He’d been stung by a Continental Congress decision to promote five junior officers ahead of him, and he believed fellow soldiers such as Ethan Allen and Horatio Gates had tried to smear his reputation and take credit for his successes on the battlefield. Historians have also argued that Arnold’s actions were influenced by his second wife, Peggy Shippen, a young belle who came from one of Philadelphia’s most prominent loyalist families.
6. The spy who helped engineer Arnold’s defection was captured and executed.
Arnold’s move from hero to turncoat culminated in September 1780, when he secretly met with British Major John Andre to finalize plans for the surrender of West Point. The plot would have been a major blow to the American war effort, but it unraveled after Andre was waylaid by Continental militiamen and found to have incriminating documents stuffed in his boot. Arnold caught wind of the capture just in time to flee his command and escape aboard the British ship HMS Vulture. His defection now complete, he accepted a commission as a British brigadier general and took charge of a detachment of loyalist troops dubbed the American Legion. Andre, meanwhile, was later charged as a spy and hanged to death on October 2, 1780.
7. George Washington plotted to have Arnold kidnapped.
Only a few weeks after learning of Arnold’s treason, General George Washington enlisted a Continental Army sergeant major named John Champe in a daring mission to capture him from behind enemy lines. The plan required Champe to stage a defection from the colonials and join up with the British. Once in enemy-occupied New York, he was to pose as a turncoat, cozy up to Arnold and then work with local spies to spirit him away to New Jersey, where Washington planned “to make a public example of him.” The scheme very nearly worked. Champe fooled the British and even won an introduction to Arnold, who asked him to join his unit. Yet on the very same night that Champe and his accomplices were scheduled to make their move, Arnold was ordered to leave town on a campaign against the southern colonies. His plan foiled, Champe had no choice but to join in on the mission. He would continue to masquerade as a redcoat for several months before finally sneaking back to the Continental lines.
8. Arnold was not well received in Britain.
After donning a British uniform, Arnold spent 1781 leading raids against Richmond, Virginia and New London, Connecticut, both of which were sacked and burned. He settled in London after the American Revolution ended, but received a chilly welcome from his new countrymen, many of whom considered him an unprincipled mercenary whose actions had led to the death of the heroic Major Andre. Arnold and his wife were greeted with hisses when they attended the theater, and he was lambasted in the English press and blocked from taking up positions in the army and the East India Company. Having only received 6,000 of the 20,000 pounds he’d demanded for switching sides, Arnold eventually resumed his old career as a merchant ship-owner in Canada and the Caribbean. When he died in 1801 at the age of 60, he was buried without military honors.
9. The Saratoga battlefield includes a monument to Arnold’s leg.
Arnold’s defection made him into an instant villain in the United States. Residents of Philadelphia paraded a two-faced effigy of him down the streets, newspapers compared him to Lucifer and Judas, and the Continental Congress passed a resolution permanently erasing him from the army register. Arnold’s mixed reputation as both a war hero and traitor was later set in stone at New York’s Saratoga National Historical Park, which features an unusual “Boot Monument” to his twice-wounded leg. While the marker includes a dedication to the “brilliant soldier” who was “desperately wounded” during the Battle of Saratoga, it avoids mentioning Benedict Arnold by name.