Was Benedict Arnold Misunderstood?

A panel of experts finally settles the matter

Johnson

Col. James M. Johnson
Military historian, Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area

Benedict Arnold committed “treason of the blackest dye,” to quote Gen. George Washington, as a result of a character flaw. He was not misunderstood, but he clearly felt unappreciated.

Christopher DiPasquale
Author of An Object of Great Importance: The Hudson River During the American War for Independence

He was not misunderstood. He was a traitor. While many in the officer corps felt underappreciated and lost property and wealth, they did not attempt to sell their country down the river. There were other traitors, but Arnold was a hero with the cause from early on.

He is remembered for trying to sell the plans of West Point, but he also returned to fight against America. He burned New London and was part of the attack on Virginia, where he almost captured Thomas Jefferson. His goal was to hand the British what had been called the “palladium of liberty” — West Point.

That said, what would be left for Arnold had the patriots lost? He was a disabled (from his war wounds), middle-aged man with a young wife. He hedged his bets. His bet was spoiled only by the three men along a road near Tarrytown who happened to encounter Maj. John André.

Pataki

Allison Pataki
Author of The Traitor’s Wife: A Novel

While conducting research for The Traitor’s Wife, I found myself wrestling with a surprising reaction. I kept thinking: Poor Benedict Arnold. He was an ardent patriot. If not for his prowess at the Battle of Saratoga, the British might have won the war in 1777.

A certain amount of Arnold’s bitterness toward his colleagues was justified. Washington often mediated for Arnold (and took his side) when Arnold was treated unfairly by the Continental Congress and the army. His name has become synonymous with traitor, but history, as always, is filled with nuance.

John Duncan
Curator of Treason! Benedict Arnold in the Hudson Highlands, Putnam History Museum

One of the most overlooked aspects of his story is that Congress was broke, the army was on the brink of collapse and public opinion about the war was fractured. By this telling, Arnold provided a common enemy that united the American people.

That’s the version of Arnold that has persisted, and that’s why his story re-emerged during the Civil War to remind Americans of our shared past. That version of Arnold’s story continues to be invoked, and I think the resurgence of interest in him reflects the state of political discourse more than anything else.

Martin

James Kirby Martin
Visiting professor of history, West Point, and author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered

Arnold gave his all (short of life itself) to the patriot cause until 1778. Twice wounded in combat, he was a critical player in inflicting one of the worst defeats the British experienced during the war, at Saratoga, because the victory led to invaluable French assistance.

Why did Arnold return his allegiance to the British? Was it just his beguiling wife, Peggy Shippen, money and the devil (an early explanation), or was he disillusioned by the lack of even basic recognition? Writers who condemn him outright, without analyzing his actions, both worthy and unworthy, tend to ignore or   his contributions.

Metropulos

Penny Metropulos
Director of The General from America at Boscobel

Many people who have committed a wrong were misunderstood in some way. I believe he did love his country. He sacrificed his well-being, as well as his leg, and if he had died at Saratoga, he probably would have been considered a hero.

Richard Nelson’s play depicts a passionate man who is warm, arrogant, humorous, loving, courageous and fallible. He seems to have had the sin of pride. He felt he deserved more recognition and money. At a crucial moment in the war, he thought his country, as well as his personal well-being, could be better served by the British. Many American Loyalists felt the same way, the difference being the injudicious way in which he acted upon his beliefs. Unlike Washington, he had little patience.

Kruk

Jonathan Kruk
Storyteller and author of Legends and Lore of Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson Valley

Misunderstood. Who captured and accounted for the cannons used to defeat the British at Bunker (Breed’s) Hill? Who came close to conquering Canadians loyal to King George? Who saved the newly United States Northern Army while commanding the first American Naval battle at Valcour Island in upstate New York? Who lead the militia roused by Sybil Ludington at the Battle of Ridgefield? Who was the man to inspire skittish American troops to the most important fight at Saratoga?

After being discredited for that Saratoga victory, passed over for promotion for more politically important officers, reprimanded by Washington for using soldiers to haul personal goods, Benedict had reason to become a turncoat. But his accomplishments on the battlefield outweighed his treachery.

Benedict Arnold Returns for the Summer


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