Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arnold, Benedict
ARNOLD, BENEDICT (1741–1801), American and afterwards English general, was born at Norwich, Connecticut, 14 Jan. 1740-1. (The date usually given of 1740 seems to have originated from a confusion between the new and old styles.) His family, of respectable station in England, had emigrated from Dorsetshire; his great grandfather had been governor of Rhode Island; his father, a cooper, owned several vessels in the West Indian trade. From his infancy he manifested a mischievous and ungovernable disposition, of which several characteristic traits are recorded. On attaining man's estate he entered into business as a bookseller and druggist at New Haven, Connecticut, married, adventured like his father in the West Indian trade, and acquired considerable property, partly, there is reason to suspect, by smuggling. Upon the outbreak of the dissensions between the colonies and the mother country he took a leading part upon the side of the patriots, and immediately on receiving the news of the battle of Lexington (19 April 1775) put himself at the head of a company of volunteers, seized the arsenal at New Haven, and marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, with true military instinct, he proposed to the committee of public safety an expedition to capture Ticonderoga, on Lake George, and Crown Point, on Lake Champlain, the keys to the communications between Canada and New York. The plan was approved, and Arnold was despatched to Western Massachusetts to raise troops. While thus engaged he learned that another expedition, under the direction of Ethan Allen, was proceeding from Vermont with the same design. He hurried to join it, and claimed the command, which was refused him, and he had to be content with accompanying it as a volunteer. He took part in the successful surprise of Ticonderoga, 11 May, and a few days later, having obtained some troops of his own, anticipated Allen in surprising and capturing St. John's, also on Lake George. Difterences with the Massachusetts committee occasioned him to resign his command; but shortly afterwards Washington adopted a plan proposed by him for an expedition against Quebec by way of the river Kennebec and the mountains of Maine, to co-operate with another expedition under Schuyler proceeding by way of the northern lakes. After enduring extreme hardships, aggravated by the desertion of one of his officers who marched back with a part of the commissariat, Arnold brought his troops successfully under the walls of Quebec, but was too weak to attack the city until the arrival of Schuyler's column, now commanded by Montgomery. On 31 Dec. 1775 the two leaders assaulted Quebec, but were disastrously repulsed, Montgomery being killed and Arnold severely wounded. He nevertheless maintained the blockade of Quebec, 'with such a handful of men,' wrote his successor, 'that the story when told hereafter will scarcely be believed.' He subsequently commanded at Montreal, and when at last want of supplies, discontent among the troops, and inferiority of force, compelled the Americans to evacuate Canada, he was literally the last man to leave the country. His next appointment was to the command of a flotilla on Lake Champlain, where, after two desperate actions and one dexterous escape, he was compelled to run his vessels ashore, but saved himself and the men under his command. Shortly afterwards he was, as he conceived, unjustly treated by Congress, which promoted live brigadiers to the rank of major-general over his head. This conduct was probably occasioned by charges then pending against him with reference to the seizure of property at Montreal; and when he was ultimately acquitted. Congress, though consenting to his promotion, refused to restore his seniority. The disgust thus occasioned was probably the first motive to his subsequent treacheiy. He fought, however, at Ridgefield, where he escaped death as though by miracle; relieved Fort Stanwix, blockaded by Indians; and, placed nominally under Gates's orders, but in reality the life and soul of the American army, took the most conspicuous part in the two battles at Saratoga which occasioned the surrender of Burgoyne (October 1777). Congress now restored him to his precedence; but this was the term of his good fortune. A severe wound received at Saratoga disabled him from active service, and he was appointed governor of Philadelphia. While filling this post he exposed himself to charges of extortion and peculation, the truth of which it is difficult to ascertain. He resigned his command, and claimed an investigation. After vexatious delays he obtained a partial acquittal, but incurred a reprimand which Washington, who had always protected him, administered with evident reluctance (January 1780). Arnold was now thoroughly disgusted; his fortunes were desperate. The second wife he had recently married had strong loyalist sympathies; the sentiment of military honour, apart from military glory, had probably never been a very strong one with him, and he easily allowed himself to be persuaded by British agents that he would serve his country by an act of treachery putting an end to the war. A paper published by Barbé-Marbois, purporting to be addressed to Arnold by Colonel Beverley Robinson, is of doubtful authenticity, but probably represents the nature of the arguments to which, rather than to pecuniary temptation, his fidelity succumbed. In August 1780 he solicited and obtained the command of West Point, the key of communication between the northern and southern states, and the depository of the American stores of gunpowder, with the deliberate intention, it cannot be doubted, of betraying it to the enemy. Negotiations were immediately entered into with the British commander Clinton, being conducted on the latter's part by his adjutant, the gallant and unfortunate Major André. On Sept. 21 Arnold and André had an interview at which the surrender of West Point was arranged, and the latter departed, carrying with him particulars of the defences and other compromising documents. The circumstances of his arrest have been related under his name. The news reached Arnold on the morning of 25 Sept., only one hour before the arrival of Washington. After a hasty interview with his wife, who fell senseless at his feet, he mounted his horse, galloped down to the riverside, called a boat, and found safety on board of the British sloop Vulture, which had brought André on his fatal errand.
On joining the British, Arnold received the rank of brigadier-general. His first act was to publish a vindication of his conduct and an appeal to the American army to imitate his example; but these documents, though ably composed, failed to produce the slightest effect. He subsequently commanded expeditions against Richmond in Virginia and New London in Connecticut; both succeeded, but were mere marauding forays, without influence on the general course of operations. In 1782 he proceeded to England, where he was consulted by the king on the conduct of the war, and drew up a very able memorandum, but the suggestions it contained obviously came too late. He also obtained upwards of 6,000l., as compensation for his losses, and a pension of 500l. for his wife. Though much caressed at court, he found it impossible to procure active employment in the British army, and was even obliged to vindicate his honour by fighting a duel with Lord Lauderdale. He again entered into business, first in New Brunswick and afterwards in the West Indies. Though not in actual service, he so distinguished himself at Guadaloupe as to be rewarded by a large grant of land in Canada; he also evinced political prescience in framing, a plan for the conquest of the Spanish West Indies, by exciting insurrection among the Creoles. His commercial enterprises proved unfortunate, and his latter days were embittered not only by self-reproach for his treason, but by pecuniary embarrassments and the dread of want. He died in London on 14 June 1801. The threatened ruin was averted by the exertions and business ability; of his devoted wife. All his four sons by her entered the British service, and one, James Robertson Arnold, an officer of engineers, rose to the rank of lieutenant-general. Descendants of his third son George still exist in England. He had had three sons by his first marriage, whose posterity survive in Canada and the United States.
'It should excite but little surprise that an ambitious, extravagant man, with fiery passions and very little balance of moral principle, should betray his friends and plunge desperately into treason.' This remark of the historian of Arnold's native town leaves little further to be said on the cardinal event of his life. Under provocation and temptation he acted infamously, but his character does not deserve the exceptional infamy with which it has been not unnaturally loaded in America. A civilian soldier, he had imperfectly imbibed the traditions of military honour; and, with his loyalist connections, his desertion may have seemed to him rather a change of party than the betrayal of his country. He was eminent for courage and the strength of domestic affection, and his memoirs contain instances of generosity and humanity which better men might envy. With all these redeeming qualities he was still essentially a bad citizen, turbulent, mercenary, and unscrupulous. Washington's exclamation on hearing of his defection showed that he had no belief in his probity, though he had tolerated his vices in consideration of his military qualities. These were indeed eminent. Arnold's intrepidity, ingenuity, promptitude, sagacity, and resource are even more conspicuous in his miscarriages than in his successes. When his almost total want of military instruction is considered, he deserves to be ranked high upon the list of those who have shown an innate genius for war.[The principal authorities for Arnold's life are the dry but clear narrative of Jared Sparks in the Library of American Biography, vol. iii., Boston, 1835; and the more copious Biography by Isaac N. Arnold (Chicago, 1880). The latter extenuates everything, the former sets down not a few things in malice, but between the two it is easy to arrive at a just estimate of Arnold's character and actions. See also Miss F. M. Caulkin's History of Norwich, Conn., pp. 409-415; Irving's and Marshall's Lives of Washington; Sargent's Life of Andre; and the historians of the American war of independence in general.]