The American Revolution produced story after story of personal sacrifice for our nation’s independence. It also produced one of the most notoriously selfish betrayals in history. At the time, many people were surprised by Benedict Arnold’s traitorous deceit, General Washington included.
But if they’d known more about him, they might not have been surprised at all.
To say that Arnold led a “shady” life is an understatement. History reveals that he had a knack for finding – and creating – trouble. Here are just a few examples:
As a kid, Benedict was a showoff. He often escaped the pharmacy where he was apprenticed to ride the local mill’s waterwheel as though it were a wild bronco. He’d soar high in the air, hang on tightly while it plunged him under, and then rise on the other side.
His youthful years also proved him a thief. At the age of 14, the sheriff caught him stealing tar barrels. Being a well-built young man, Arnold simply stripped off his shirt and challenged the peacekeeper to a fist fight.
The young Arnold also lacked commitment. At the age of 16, he joined the British Army just in time to fight the French and Indians at Fort Ticonderoga. But when he became bored by military discipline, he deserted.
His petty theft from childhood carried over into full blown smuggling in adulthood, amassing him a fortune. When his illegal activity was eventually discovered, Arnold once again turned to his fists to solve his problem.
His criminal proclivity even impacted his military career. In 1780, Arnold found himself embroiled in court-marital proceedings. He was cleared of most of the charges, but was found guilty of using military wagons for personal use. Arnold was reprimanded by none other than General George Washington.
In fact, it was the wisdom of General Washington to follow up on his reprimand of Arnold that uncovered the traitor’s betrayal in the first place (possibly preventing the war-changing plans Arnold had concocted). During a planned inspection of West Point where Arnold was stationed, the conspirator was nowhere to be found. Washington continued the inspection of West Point without him, and found the fortress in dire need of repair. In some cases, Washington even noted horrible decisions used in erecting defenses. All in all, Washington was sorely unsatisfied with Arnold’s running of the encampment.
But it wouldn’t be long before Washington knew the reasons behind the fortress’ poor state.
British Major John André, a co-conspirator of Arnold’s, was trying to slip correspondence to British officers when, by pure happenstance, he was apprehended on the highway. In his boots, his captors discovered detailed maps of Arnold’s fort, various minutes from Washington’s last war council, and other condemning documents.
When Arnold’s treason was brought to light, George Washington suffered a tremendous blow, both militarily and personally. With tears welling up in his eyes, the Commander in Chief exclaimed, “My God! Arnold has gone over to the British. Whom can we trust now?”
Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A. J. Langguth. Simon and Schuster, 1988, Pages 255-259.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)