11. Benedict Arnold: Hero or Villain?

The engraving above depicts Colonel Benedict Arnold before the city of Quebec in 1776. Even though that campaign and the whole Canadian venture ended in failure, it did not tarnish his on-going career. Indeed, his battlefield bravery was already legendary.  In the heat of the fight  he was  all over the place, fearlessly charging, rallying, never wavering, and always cajoling his men to push harder.  One might even compare him to impetuous General Patton in World War II, whose dash and daring were respected even by the enemy. But also like Patton, Arnold was arrogant and petulant, hungry for recognition, and bitter when he felt denied.

Actually, one could say that his meteoric career began in early May, 1775, when he lodged in Williamstown. His first big test was to come the next day when he expected to take command of the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga.  What dreams of glory passed through his head as he tossed on his bed at Smedley’s Tavern that night! And also what latent demons were also lurking there, ready to taunt him into taking reprisal whenever he (as he so often believed) was being slighted by inferior rivals?

However, before consigning him to his demons, let us observe Benedict Arnold during his most glorious hour, at the zenith of his brilliant career as a soldier and, for that moment at least  a legitimate American hero.  That moment, of course, was the Battle of Saratoga, which would not have been won were it not for the above mentioned good qualities of this quondam patriot. Furthermore, had that battle not been victorious, there’s a good chance that the Americans would never have won the final battle that ended the war and established our independence.

In spite of the futile Canadian adventure but during which he was heroically wounded,  Arnold was promoted to brigadier general. However, there were quarrels with associates and charges of misuse of his authority which, while dismissed in court, raised suspicions in Congress. In their list of promotions to major general in February of 1777 he was not mentioned. Angry or not, he briefly returned to his home in Connecticut,  remarkably just in time to thwart a sudden attempt by the British to intimidate the local citizenry and frighten them from joining the rebel cause. During April, 1777, a British raiding party landed on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound near Westport, and drove north along the old Housatonic River trail (now Route 7) toward Danbury, burning properties and terrorizing householders along the way. Arnold gathered as much militia as he could and though quite outnumbered attacked and harassed the British troops inflicting heavy casualties upon them, especially as they retired through the town of Ridgefield. Militarily speaking, it was not an American victory, but Arnold’s dramatic resistance and personal heroism galvanized public favor in Connecticut in support of the American rebellion.

It should be remembered that a huge reason that Americans emerged victorious in the war with Britain, was the gradual winning of the hearts and minds of the people by events such as this. Many if not most of American citizens were reluctant at first to join such a dangerous and seemingly impossible effort, but were finally inspired, precisely because of the actions of valiant soldiers like Benedict Arnold who risked their own lives to protect the lives and property of ordinary folk .

In any case, George Washington remained one of Arnold’s most fervid admirers, urging him to be patient concerning promotion, and wanted to post him to the northern New York theater where British General Burgoyne was threatening American control of Lake George. Arnold agreed, even though he would be serving with superior officers he believed to be his inferior in ability. Arnold would be especially annoyed with his subsequent commander, Major General Horatio Gates, a difficult leader who was overly cautious in battle, tended to make enemies of  his subordinates, and was openly conspiring with Congress to take over Washington’s position as commander in chief.

Let us leave Brigadier Arnold for the moment, and turn our attention to the British, and pick up on what Burgoyne was planning, and what Arnold would soon be opposing; also what Burgoyne’s fellow British generals, Howe in Philadelphia, and Henry Clinton, the commander Howe had left in charge of New York city, were doing in the spring of 1777. As mentioned in the previous installment, Burgoyne intended to put together a large army of  nearly ten thousand regulars, including six thousand British and  thirty-six hundred Germans plus a thousand Indians and a number of  loyalist militias, and move it south along the lake chain, retake Fort Ticonderoga, proceed to Albany where another large army, either that of Howe, or Clinton, arriving simultaneously north along the Hudson, would meet him. Another smaller army coming from the west by way of the Mohawk River valley under General Barry St. Leger would also join Burgoyne, putting key in the lock, so to speak.  The result would close off the entire north-south route, leaving New England fatally isolated from the rest of the western and southern colonies. A brilliant concept in theory, if only it would work in practice.

Burgoyne’s ambitious plan had been approved in London by Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for the Americas. Unfortunately, the Secretary had little knowledge of the geography of the land nor the temper of its people, yet he insisted on monitoring the entire strategy  from his London office,  three-months of communication time away. Instructions were sent to Howe, but he was already preoccupied with his own plan to occupy Philadelphia. Clinton in New York was also addressed, but considered the orders unspecific and so advised that he dared not leave the city so soon for fear of an American attack.  As Burgoyne arrived in Canada to launch his grand scheme that April of 1777, he had not yet been informed of all these equivocations. In sum, he was thoroughly unaware that the other crucial half of the plan was still quite unsettled. .

When Burgoyne arrived in Montreal, he found several of the preparations he had expected still wanting, including an extra contingent of a thousand men. Furthermore, everyone seemed to know what Burgoyne was intending even though it was supposed to be a military secret. Still, the army eventually assembled  numbered over nine thousand regulars, roughly half British and  half mercenary Germans. Also included were about five hundred Indians, less than he had asked for. Indians were necessary to act as scouts as the army moved through much untracked wilderness. They came from several Canadian tribes now loyal to the British after the French defeat. Many belonged to the Iroquois nation including the Mohawks (“People of the Flint”). In fact, the word “Mohawk” had become a generic word for all the Indians attached to the British army. As they arrived at Burgoyne’s camp, he made a  welcoming speech  which naively seemed to invite the Indians to kill and scalp anyone opposing the British advance – except women and children. By the Indians’ interpretation, however “anyone” meant no exceptions. As we shall see, Burgoyne’s deployment of Indians  was to prove one of his most serious mistakes.

Finally on June 20, 1777, Burgoyne’s armada set off south on Lake Champlain. Because of the large amounts of  baggage including artillery, going was slow. The boats could cover only about five to six miles per day.  Two weeks later, the army landed just above Fort Ticonderoga. Interestingly, the old fort had been built by the French so that its most formidable bastions faced south against their then enemies. The north side was relatively unfortified, which made the taking of Ticonderoga from that direction easier. In the next installment, I shall not discuss how the British re-captured the fort, nor its valiant defense by the Americans, but move on to the next episode in Burgoyne’s advance, where he really ran into trouble trying to push south down the east side of Lake George and march his heavily burdened army as far as Fort Edward at the lower end of the Great Carrying Place.

Next installment: THE MURDER OF JANE McCREA

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