The biblical book of Proverbs teaches that pride goes before a fall. Perhaps no man better exemplifies the proverb than a Continental army officer who was one of the top battlefield commanders during the early years of the American Revolution. He won distinction in one of the most important battles of that war. His service earned him the respect and appreciation of his countrymen, including General George Washington. But then his self-consuming pride led him to commit an infamous act of betrayal. He is now remembered for his despicable treason rather than for his heroic deeds. This hero-turned-traitor was none other than Benedict Arnold, the American general that pride destroyed.
From his earliest days, Benedict Arnold felt the need to prove himself. After watching his father lose respectability due to debts and alcoholism, he worked hard to become a successful druggist and merchant. He participated in early anti-British protests when his business interests were adversely affected by oppressive changes to colonial laws. When the Revolution broke out, he assumed command in the Continental army and quickly gained attention with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. His fame further increased when he led an expedition through the Maine wilderness to attack the British stronghold of Quebec, Canada. In the attack he suffered a wound to his leg. He recovered in time to command an improvised American navy at Valcour Island and turn back an enemy fleet coming down Lake Champlain. He was probably already America’s best battlefield commander. Some even called him an American Hannibal, in reference to the legendary Carthaginian general. Then came his greatest success — the Battle of Saratoga, New York.
The British were advancing down the Hudson River in order to divide the colonies. The Americans confronted them outside of Saratoga. In the first of two major actions, Arnold was once again in the thick of the fight. The heavy fighting forced the British to halt their advance. Following that first engagement, however, Arnold quarreled with the American commander, Horatio Gates, and was confined to camp. He was sitting in his tent when he heard the noise of battle as the second engagement began. Disobeying Gates’ orders, he jumped on his horse and raced to the front of the troops. He led an attack that ultimately forced the British to surrender. At this moment of triumph, however, Arnold suffered further injury to the same leg wounded at Quebec. It is said that when he was asked where he was injured, he answered it was his leg, “but I wish it had been my heart.” Many people over the years have expressed agreement with this statement. Had his story ended that day, where he quite possibly saved the Revolution and achieved a victory that persuaded the French to enter an alliance with the Americans, today we would remember him as a heroic officer who gave his life for his country. His story did not end that day though. He would be remembered — but not for saving the country.
Arnold underwent a dramatic transformation as he recovered from his wounding. He had always believed himself underappreciated, even though he was admired by his troops and trusted by George Washington. He saw incompetent officers rewarded while his own career languished. He was upset when the Continental Congress promoted several officers ahead of him. These disagreements continued, and even deepened, after Washington appointed him military governor of Philadelphia. He also suffered financial problems, which he attempted to correct through his influence and position. He would face a military trial for his questionable dealings. A light reprimand from Washington only seemed to push Arnold further away. Perceived slights became major grievances. He felt his honor had been impugned.
As he endured these tribulations, Arnold found comfort in his new wife, Peggy Shippen, a young woman who had been openly friendly with several British officers during their earlier occupation of Philadelphia. Encouraged by his wife and stung by the wounds to his pride, Arnold began to see himself more and more as a victim. Finally, Benedict Arnold had had enough. America’s Hannibal decided to trade American blue for British red.
Having chosen his course of action, Arnold began a secret correspondence with Major John Andre, the adjutant general of the British army who had known Peggy well in Philadelphia. Arnold eventually agreed to secure the capture of a critical American fort in exchange for a large sum of money and, supposedly, the respect of the British, represented by a command in their military. The fort was West Point, future sight of the United States Military Academy. At the time it was actually a series of forts strategically located on the bluffs guarding the crucial Hudson River. As Arnold knew from previous experience, the British desired control of the river so they could separate New England from the rest of the nation and end the war. He persuaded George Washington to appoint him as commander of West Point. Arnold assumed his new command at the end of July of 1780 and spent the next two months deploying troops and defenses so as to weaken the forts and allow an easy British capture.
At 1:00 A.M. on September 22, 1780, American General Benedict Arnold secretly met with British Major John Andre. Arnold handed over the information critical to West Point’s capture. He also told Andre that George Washington was coming to inspect the fort. If the British moved quickly, the American cause could be dealt a fatal blow. Miraculously for the country however, American militiamen, maybe no more than highwaymen, intercepted Andre in civilian clothes on his way back to British lines. The plans to West Point were found hidden in his boots along with a pass signed by Arnold. The men took Andre and the information to a nearby American commander. The commander sent the documents to General Washington and, in an unfortunate development, a message was also sent to Arnold informing him of the capture. Realizing his plot was exposed, Arnold fled to safety behind British lines in New York. Within minutes after Arnold’s escape, Washington himself arrived at West Point. When the commanding general saw the documents, he was shocked and was heard to exclaim, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”
Arnold eventually ended up in England and lived out the rest of his life in disgrace. As for Major John Andre, the Americans tried and hung him as a spy, then later returned his body to the British who buried him with honors in London’s Westminster Abbey.
Even though America eventually won the Revolution, Arnold’s act was a devastating blow for Washington and the country. America’s greatest battlefield general had joined the enemy. Americans would never forget that. One story even told how the traitor Arnold later questioned a captured American soldier as to what would happen if he, Arnold, were captured. The soldier replied that the leg that had suffered wounds for the cause of liberty would be cut off and buried with military honors. The rest of Arnold would be hanged. The young man was more right than he knew. Today, on the old battlefield at Saratoga, there is a monument which depicts a leg and which praises the gallantry of the officer who was wounded on that spot in the service of his country. The monument does not give the name of the officer, but his identity is known to all familiar with the history of the battle. It is a fitting testament. Benedict Arnold fought, bled and almost died for his country. Ultimately however, he allowed his pride to lead him to treason — and to a fall — just as the proverb says.