IT WAS late afternoon on October 7, 1777, the final phase of the Battle of Saratoga. After hours of fierce fighting to keep British forces from seizing Albany and then New York state, Benedict Arnold discovered an opening in the British line and led a furious charge at it.
In the melee, he and his horse were shot. As he fell, Captain Henry Dearborn called out, asking Arnold where he had been hit. In the leg, Arnold answered, adding, “I wish it had been my heart.”
“Rush on, my brave boys, rush on,” Arnold then shouted to his men. On they rushed. The day would be theirs, the battle won.
Commander Horatio Gates, who had stripped Arnold of command and confined him to his tent, had spent the day in his own tent and never set foot on the field. Yet Gates was hailed by Congress as the victor when the British surrendered, while the real hero was carried to Albany grievously wounded.
Had Arnold’s wish been granted at Saratoga—had he been hit in the heart instead of his leg—he would have died one of America’s greatest heroes. Indeed, Arnold has been reckoned by some as the most brilliant officer on either side of the Revolutionary War.
J.W. Fortescue, historian of the British army, judged that he possessed “all the gifts of a great commander … sound strategic instinct, audacity of movement … great personal daring, and true magic of leadership.”
Men followed him into the face of death, even when, as at Saratoga, he was stripped of military command. Among his military exploits were a harrowing trek through the Maine wilderness to Quebec; a dramatic naval battle on Lake Champlain with ships he built against a powerful British fleet; relief of Fort Stanwix; and his pivotal leadership at Saratoga.
But Arnold lived. He would later abandon the cause and became the most infamous man in American history, his name a synonym for traitor.
Two centuries later, Arnold remains a two-dimensional caricature in the minds of most Americans: wicked, self-serving, and greedy.
Yet he repeatedly risked his life and sacrificed his fortune for the patriot cause, even paying his men when Congress failed to.
Numerous books and a celebrated TV series have now cast his young wife, Peggy, as an Eve tempting her soldier husband into treason. However titillating, these charges against Peggy are contradicted by her actions, contemporary accounts and the historical record.
Replacing the cardboard cutouts with a more authentic picture of the couple and their times makes their actions, if still culpable in Arnold’s case, more understandable.
Arnold’s personal life and military successes occurred amid the unremitting attacks of personal enemies, divisions within the patriot side, and a Congress fearful that a leading army officer might become another Cromwell, seize power and overthrow them.
Son of a once-successful Connecticut merchant seaman whose alcoholism and indebtedness disgraced his family, dashing plans for Arnold to attend college, the boy was instead apprenticed to relatives. Little wonder Arnold was determined to gain personal honor.
When the Revolutionary War started, he led his regiment of Connecticut Minutemen to Massachusetts to join the growing army of men and boys there. With no previous military training, he quickly became an outstanding leader.
A closer examination of Arnold’s career exposes the bitter divisions within the patriot side that led to a shootout in Philadelphia between moderates and the radical Pennsylvania government.
Unlike Washington, Arnold was no diplomat. Beset by enemies, dishonored by Congress, attacked by radicals, court-martialed for petty finances, Arnold approached the British.
“I have suffered, in seeing the fair fabric of reputation, which I have been with so much danger and toil raising since the present war,” he proclaimed at his court martial, “undermined by those, whose posterity … will feel the blessed effects of my efforts.”
This extraordinary and driven man, despite his ultimate dishonor, deserves our attention.
Joyce Lee Malcolm is a professor at George Mason University and author of “The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life.” Her Great Lives Series lecture on Arnold will be held in Dodd Auditorium on the University of Mary Washington campus on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at 7:30 p.m. and is open to the public free of charge.