Awesome Villain in History: Benedict Arnold

Last month, I wrote an article about the mysterious monk Rasputin and the legends built around his reputation. Judging by the number of comments, you all really liked that one. One of you in particular requested “More evil bastards please!” Well, gotta give the people what they want. This week’s Awesome Villain in History: Benedict Arnold.

He doesn't look like much... but don't be deceived. Watch out!

Like some of the best villains, Arnold’s story begins with him as a much-beloved hero, only to turn to evil and betray everyone and everything he once fought for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benedict Arnold V was born in Connecticut in 1741. He and his sister Hannah were the only two of six children to survive into adulthood. His father reacted badly to the deaths of his children and his wife, becoming an alcoholic who was arrested several times for drunkenness. Arnold managed to move past this terrible beginning, apprenticing to a pharmacist and eventually starting his own successful pharmacy business. Before long, Arnold had moved into the lucrative West Indes trade business.

It was as a businessman and tradesman that Arnold came to the Revolutionary cause. The new taxes imposed by the British drove him into debt, and so he refused to pay them and instead joined the Sons of Liberty, an activist group that protested the new laws, sometimes violently. After the Boston Massacre, he was quoted as saying, “Are the Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers, that they don’t take immediate vengeance on such miscreants?”

It wasn’t long before Arnold was elected a captain in the local Connecticut militia, and when the Revolutionary War began he teamed up with Ethan Allen to seize Fort Ticonderoga, the most important British fort in New England, before the British soldiers stationed there learned that war had broken out. He then proposed that the revolutionaries should invade Canada, to prevent the British from using it as a base from which to attack them. George Washington allowed Arnold to lead his army through the then-unexplored wilderness of Maine to reach Quebec, braving a cold, wet winter and colder, wetter rivers and muddy trails to reach his destination. He and his men persevered in spite of running out of food and having insufficient supplies and clothing. When Arnold finally reached Quebec, he was shot in the leg. Although the battle was lost and Arnold was in no position to fight, he kept up the campaign in Canada for several months before British reinforcements forced him to retreat. And even then, he slowed the British advance by constructing a makeshift “navy” on the shores of Lake Champlain and forcing the British to fight their way across the lake.

By now, Arnold’s reputation was immense, and his soldiers compared him to the great generals of ancient times. Yet Arnold’s reputation among his fellow generals, and especially his reputation before the Continental Congress, was not so rosy. He was repeatedly accused of corruption, with rumors circulating that he exaggerated his army’s expenses to line his wallet with the extra funds. Arnold spent the better part of the next year fighting with Congress over his reputation.

Then, in 1777, a massive British invasion of New York from the north threatened to cut the Revolution in two – the British already held New York City, and if they could cut New England off from the rest of the country the new nation would be in great peril. Arnold was at the scene to stop the British advance, but unfortunately for him so was Horatio Gates, George Washington’s second-in-command. Gates and Arnold did not get along at all, and during the Battle of Saratoga the two got into a shouting match. Gates punished Arnold by ordering him to stay away from the front. Arnold fought anyway, leading the charges against the British that turned the tide of battle. Then, Arnold was shot again… IN THE SAME FREAKING LEG!

I guess the British really hated that leg.

The worst part was that Arnold could only sit helplessly in a hospital while Gates not only slapped an insubordination charge against him, but took credit for the American victory.

The insult to Arnold’s honor was unbearable. He spent several months recuperating from his wounds, and when he was able to (sort of) walk again, Washington decided to give him a desk job as the military commander of Philadelphia. This was where Arnold would make the shift from hero to villain.

There were two reasons for this change. The first, naturally, had to do with a woman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this case, the woman in question was a British sympathizer named Peggy Shippen, with whom he was absolutely smitten and soon married. Several of Shippen’s pro-British friends were paramours with British officers, and they managed to create a secret network to continue to send love letters back and forth across the battle lines. This will soon become important to our story.

The second had to do with politics. Philadelphia had just been liberated from British occupation, and as such the local economy was in complete disarray. It seemed prudent to Arnold that the first order of business was to take an inventory of everything that every shop in Philadelphia had, and then draw up ration lists to divide those things that the perpetually poor-supplied army needed immediately and those that would go to support the civilian population. As seemed to happen so often in the Revolution, Arnold was accused of corruption. Reports surfaced that he had taken a sizable share of the supplies for himself and sold them on the black market for a profit. Whatever the truth or falsity of these reports, George Washington was forced to address them, and sent Arnold a slap-on-the-wrist reprimand. Washington thought he was doing Arnold a favor, avoiding the humiliation of a court martial. But Arnold saw this as the ultimate rejection of all of his life’s work for the Revolution. “Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen,” he wrote.

Arnold’s mind was made up. He asked his wife to use her underground love-letter network to make contact with British Maj. John Andre, and promised to hand over to the British the plans for West Point, America’s most important fort in New York at the time. In return, he demanded money to the tune of $3 million in today’s currency, and a commission as a brigadier general in the British army. After months of plotting and secret messages, Arnold met with Andre in person to hand over the plans. Arnold managed to make it safely to the British camp, but Andre was captured and hanged, the plan exposed and the nation horrified by the news. Arnold’s name was stricken from all military records. Even Benjamin Franklin was moved to say “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions.” The name “Benedict Arnold” is to this day equated with treason.

Now a British general, Arnold was sent to Virginia, where he led a surprise attack on Richmond that almost captured Thomas Jefferson, and proceeded to destroy a major supply depot used by the Continental Army. He then launched several raids into the countryside to disrupt American supply lines, defeating a counterattack at the Battle of Blandford. Arnold only left Virginia when Gen. Charles Cornwallis arrived to move the British garrison to Yorktown.

Which turned out to be such a brilliant move.

Now, let’s just take a moment here and think about something. Imagine being a British soldier who has been sent to fight the rebels. And imagine you learn that your commanding officer is not just an American, but the man who personally was responsible for some of your enemy’s most important victories. Um… awkward?

Anyway, Arnold continued to lobby for the British to attack economic targets, on the idea that the Americans would be forced to give up their Revolution if they couldn’t keep it going. Eventually, he was allowed to attack New London, Connecticut, an important port whose capture, Arnold hoped, could open up a new campaign in New England. However, the assault was much, much bloodier than expected. Although Arnold technically won the battle, he lost a quarter of his men. The New England campaign was cancelled. This “victory” proved the beginning of Arnold’s undoing.

In the political aftermath of the surrender of Yorktown, Arnold was sent to England to argue before Parliament that the war in America was still winnable. However, Arnold’s reputation as a turncoat had preceded him. The highly influential political philosopher and member of Parliament Edmund Burke quipped that if Arnold were put in charge of British troops “the sentiments of true honor, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted.” Turns out even the British didn’t want to associate with a traitor.

In the end, Britain reluctantly accepted the inevitable and recognized America’s independence. Arnold had to build a new life from scratch. Several years in Canada proved fruitless, especially when he became a pariah for suing people left and right over petty squabbles. He fared better in the West Indes, where the French Revolution’s impact was felt as Europe’s navies fought over the islands. He put together a militia that helped to hold the British islands against French attacks, but when he tried to turn this into a new career in the British Army he was turned down. He died in London, where he was buried – without military honors.

Wow. Even Anakin Skywalker was at least given a Jedi funeral.

Information mainly from the documentary series The Revolution, with supplementary information from the from U.S. News, Early American Review, and of course, Wikipedia.

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One Response to Awesome Villain in History: Benedict Arnold

  1. Pingback: Awesome Villain in History: William Walker | Cat Flag

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