Friday, August 23, 2013

The Mystique of Benedict Arnold

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The Mystique of Benedict Arnold

By Sakura Honda
The Daily Magi
September 12, 2051


Benedict Arnold (January 14, 1741 [O.S. January 3, 1740] – June 14, 1801) was a general during the American Revolutionary War who originally fought for the American Continental Army but defected to the British Army. While a general on the American side, he obtained command of the fort at West Point, New York, and planned to surrender it to the British forces. After the plan was exposed in September 1780, he was commissioned into the British Army as a brigadier general.

Born in Connecticut, Arnold was a merchant operating ships on the Atlantic Ocean when the war broke out in 1775. After joining the growing army outside Boston, he distinguished himself through acts of intelligence and bravery. His actions included the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, defensive and delaying tactics despite losing the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776, the Battle of Ridgefield, Connecticut (after which he was promoted to major general), operations in relief of the Siege of Fort Stanwix, and key actions during the pivotal Battles of Saratoga in 1777, in which he suffered leg injuries that ended his combat career for several years.

Despite Arnold's successes, he was passed over for promotion by the Continental Congress while other officers claimed credit for some of his accomplishments. Adversaries in military and political circles brought charges of corruption or other malfeasance, but most often he was acquitted in formal inquiries. Congress investigated his accounts and found he was indebted to Congress after spending much of his own money on the war effort. Frustrated and bitter, Arnold decided to change sides in 1779, and opened secret negotiations with the British. In July 1780, he was offered, continued to pursue and was awarded command of West Point. Arnold's scheme to surrender the fort to the British was exposed when American forces captured British Major John André carrying papers that revealed the plot. Upon learning of André's capture, Arnold fled down the Hudson River to the British sloop-of-war Vulture, narrowly avoiding capture by the forces of George Washington, who had been alerted to the plot.

Arnold received a commission as a brigadier general in the British Army, an annual pension of £360, and a lump sum of over £6,000. He led British forces on raids in Virginia, and against New London and Groton, Connecticut, before the war effectively ended with the American victory at Yorktown. In the winter of 1782, Arnold moved to London with his second wife, Margaret "Peggy" Shippen Arnold. He was well received by King George III and the Tories, but frowned upon by the Whigs. In 1787, he returned to the merchant business with his sons Richard and Henry in Saint John, New Brunswick. He returned to London to settle permanently in 1791, where he died ten years later.

Because of the way he changed sides, his name quickly became a byword in the United States for treason or betrayal. His conflicting legacy is recalled in the ambiguous nature of some of the memorials that have been placed in his honor.

Arnold's contributions to American independence are largely underrepresented in popular culture, while his name became synonymous with traitor in the 19th century. The demonization of Arnold began immediately after his betrayal became public. Biblical themes were often invoked; Benjamin Franklin wrote that "Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions", and Alexander Scammell described Arnold's actions as "black as hell".

Early biographers attempted to describe Arnold's entire life in terms of treacherous or morally questionable behavior. The first major biography of Arnold, The Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, published in 1832 by historian Jared Sparks, was particularly harsh in showing how Arnold's treacherous character was allegedly formed out of childhood experiences. George Canning Hill, who authored a series of moralistic biographies in the mid-19th century, began his 1865 biography of Arnold "Benedict, the Traitor, was born ...".

The social historian Brian Carso notes that as the 19th century progressed, the story of Arnold's betrayal was portrayed with near-mythic proportions as a part of the national creation story. It was invoked again as sectional conflicts increased in the years before the American Civil War. Washington Irving used it as part of an argument against dismemberment of the union in his 1857 Life of George Washington, pointing out that only the unity of New England and the southern states that led to independence was made possible in part by holding West Point. Jefferson Davis and other southern secessionist leaders were unfavorably compared to Arnold, implicitly and explicitly likening the idea of secession to treason. Harper's Weekly published an article in 1861 describing Confederate leaders as "a few men directing this colossal treason, by whose side Benedict Arnold shines white as a saint."

Fictional invocations of Arnold's name also carried strongly negative overtones. A moralistic children's tale entitled "The Cruel Boy" was widely circulated in the 19th century. It described a boy who stole eggs from birds' nests, pulled wings off insects, and engaged in other sorts of wanton cruelty, who then grew up to become a traitor to his country. The boy is not identified until the end of the story, when his place of birth is given as Norwich, Connecticut, and his name is given as Benedict Arnold. However, not all depictions of Arnold were so negative. Some theatrical treatments of the 19th century explored his duplicity, seeking to understand rather than demonize it.

The connection between Arnold and treason continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. On an episode of The Brady Bunch, "Everyone Can't Be George Washington", Peter is assigned the role of Arnold in the school play, and is ostracized. On one of The Simpsons' Halloween specials, Treehouse of Horror IV, Arnold is included in a "jury of the damned" – along with other figures like John Wilkes Booth and Richard Nixon – deliberating the ownership of Homer Simpson's soul. Dan Gilbert, owner of the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers, subtly invoked Arnold in 2010. Upset over LeBron James's announcement of leaving the team, Gilbert's company lowered the price of posters bearing James's likeness to $17.41, referring to the year of Arnold's birth.

Novels related to the American Revolutionary war sometimes feature Arnold as a character. Kenneth Roberts' Arundel series treats him more positively, covering his military campaigns.

Canadian historians have treated Arnold as a relatively minor figure. His difficult time in New Brunswick led historians to summarize it as full of "controversy, resentment, and legal entanglements" and to conclude that he was disliked by both Americans and Loyalists. The historian Barry Wilson points out that Arnold's descendants ended up establishing deep roots in the country, becoming leading settlers not just in Upper Canada, but later in lands further west, where they established settlements in Saskatchewan. His descendants, most of all those of John Sage, who adopted the Arnold surname, are spread across Canada. His long woollen British scarlet military jacket with a buff lining continues to be owned by descendants; as of 2001, it was held in Saskatchewan. It has reportedly been passed in each generation to the eldest male of the family.

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