The discovery of a Revolutionary War gunboat at the bottom of Lake Champlain some years ago heralds the arrival of an unwanted guest at our Independence Day celebrations.
Like a ghost rising from the deep, Benedict Arnold, reviled for centuries as the very definition of a traitor, arrives at our party, unbidden and unwanted. The discovery of this rough-hewn craft, however, begs us to reconsider our assumptions.
Born in Norwich, Conn. in 1741, Arnold was one of the first to rush to the Revolution’s cause. He was there when Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga. Later that year, George Washington gave him 700 men and orders to conquer Canada.
Not surprisingly, the invasion was a failure, but Arnold had established himself as one of those brilliant, dynamic leaders who men will follow into the cannon’s mouth.
Still recovering from wounds received at the failed assault on Quebec, Arnold, now a brigadier general, built his own fleet of gunboats to defend Lake Champlain. On Oct. 11, 1776, his forces severely crippled a superior British fleet, delaying their invasion of New York.
It was at about this time, politics stepped through the door like an ugly blind date. It is the fate of democracies to elect plodders to their assemblies. These plodders tend to distrust brilliant, charismatic leaders and feel more comfortable with other plodders.
When Congress created five major generals in early 1777, Arnold was not in that number. He had to beat back a British attack on Danbury, Conn. to finally win his second star, but Congress left him junior to the other five.
It was when Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne began his invasion of New York, that Arnold made his most significant contributions to our country.
When no one else would tackle Burgoyne’s Western force under Barry St. Leger, Arnold took 1,000 volunteers, a half-wit named Hon-Yost and an Indian scout and scattered the British, Indians and Tories.
Arnold rejoined the main American army in New York in time to discover Horatio Gates, one of the plodders, had been placed in command. As the Red Coats advanced on Freeman’s Farm near Saratoga, Gates froze. Disgusted, Arnold (with or without permission) grabbed Daniel Morgan’s riflemen and a New Hampshire regiment and moved to foil Burgoyne’s attack.
Arnold was everywhere beating back the British and finally going on the offensive. When he begged Gates for more troops to press his attack, Gates choked again, stalling until it was too late.
Two weeks later, Burgoyne made a last desperate bid to break out of the tightening rebel circle and make his way to New York City. Arnold and Gates weren’t speaking because Gates had refused to give Arnold any of the credit for Freeman’s Farm. Gates had begun a defensive delaying action, when Arnold plunged into the fight, leading two regiments in an assault on the British line. Arnold kept pounding at the British, driving them back and seizing several of their defensive positions until he was wounded again and ordered back.
Hemmed in and defeated, Burgoyne would eventually surrender. It is difficult to over-state the value of the Battle of Saratoga to the revolution. After Saratoga, the British lost their appetite for this war and the French came in as our ally. There would be several battles where Washington would avoid losing the war, but it was perhaps on this field were Arnold won the war.
After the battle, Arnold’s contributions were again ignored, particularly by those who wished to replace Washington with Gates. Arnold was transferred to Philadelphia where he fell in love and married a young woman from a Loyalist family. While they are doing the 18th Century equivalent of maxing out their credit cards, the couple passed the time chatting about what a bunch of idiots were running the revolution.
Eventually transferred to West Point, Arnold did not view it as a promotion. He began playing footsie with the British and made a deal to surrender the key Hudson fort to them for enough money to get him out of debt and a commission in the British army. The British courier, Maj. John Andre’ was captured and the plot foiled. Arnold escaped, but Washington hung Andre’ in a fit of pique. The British commander then hung Nathan Hale (“I only regret…”) to get even.
The surprising thing is the British did live up to their end of the bargain. Arnold became a British general, burned New London, Conn. and eventually moved to London where he dies in 1801 alone and ignored.
For too long, American history focused on the last sad chapters of Arnold’s life and ignored his vital contributions to our nation. Maybe now is the time to dust Arnold off and take another look at him. The Greeks were comfortable with flawed heroes. Maybe we can learn something from this one. We certainly have enough brilliant types who, frustrated by the plodders, run afoul of ego and debt.
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