Benedict Arnold V was a general during the American Revolutionary War who originally fought for the American Continental Army but switched sides to the British Empire. While he was still a general on the American side, he obtained command of the fort at West Point, New York, and plotted unsuccessfully to surrender it to the British. After the plot failed, he served in the British military.
Arnold has been called “the best general on either side of the conflict”. He distinguished himself early in the war through acts of cunning and bravery. His many successful actions included the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, successful defensive and delaying tactics while losing the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776, the Battle of Ridgefield, Connecticut (after which he was promoted to Major General), and the pivotal Battles of Saratoga in 1777, in which he suffered leg injuries that effectively ended his combat career for several years.
In spite of his success, Arnold was passed over for promotion by the Continental Congress while other general officers took credit for his many accomplishments. Charges of corruption were brought by political adversaries, and Congress investigated his accounts, finding he owed it money after he had spent much of his own money on the war effort. Frustrated, bitter, and strongly opposed to the new American alliance with France, Arnold decided to change sides in 1779. In July 1780, he sought and obtained command of West Point in order to surrender it to the British. Arnold’s scheme was exposed when American forces captured British Major John André carrying papers that revealed the plot. Upon learning of André’s capture, Benedict Arnold escaped down the Hudson River to the British sloop-of-war Vulture, narrowly avoiding capture by the forces of General Washington, who was arriving the same day to inspect West Point and to meet and dine with Arnold.
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 at Blanford, Virginia and Groton, Connecticut before the war effectively came to an end with the Siege of 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 entered into mercantile business with his sons Richard and Henry in Saint John, New Brunswick, but returned to London to settle permanently in 1791, where he died.
Because of the way he changed sides his name quickly became a byword for treason in the United States. This conflicting legacy is recalled in the ambiguous nature of some of the memorials that have been placed in his honor.
Benedict was born the second of six children to Benedict Arnold III (1683–1761) and Hannah Waterman King in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741. He was named after his great-grandfather Benedict Arnold, an early governor of the Colony of Rhode Island, and his brother Benedict IV, who died in infancy. Only Benedict and his sister Hannah survived to adulthood; his other siblings succumbed to yellow fever in childhood. Through his maternal grandmother, Arnold was a descendant of John Lothropp, an ancestor of at least four U.S. presidents.
Arnold’s father was a successful businessman, and the family moved in the upper levels of Norwich society. When he was ten, Arnold was enrolled into a private academy in nearby Canterbury, with the expectation that he would eventually attend Yale. However, the deaths of his siblings two years later may have contributed to a decline in the family fortunes, as his father took up drinking. By the time he was fourteen, there was no more money for private education. His father’s alcoholism and ill health prevented him from training Arnold in the family mercantile business, but his mother’s family connections secured an apprenticeship for Arnold with two of her cousins, brothers Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, who operated a successful apothecary and general merchandise trade in Norwich. His apprenticeship with the Lathrops lasted seven years.
In 1755, Arnold, attracted by the sound of a drummer, attempted to enlist in the provincial militia for service against the French, but his mother refused permission. In 1757, when he was sixteen, he did enlist in the militia, which marched off toward Albany and Lake George to oppose the French invasion from the French province of Canada that culminated in the Battle of Fort William Henry. Word of that battle’s disastrous outcome led the company to turn around; Arnold served for 13 days. A commonly accepted story that Arnold deserted from militia service in 1758 is based on uncertain documentary evidence.
Arnold’s mother, to whom he was very close, died in 1759. The youth took on the responsibility of supporting his father and younger sister. His father’s alcoholism worsened after the death of his wife, and he was arrested on several occasions for public drunkenness and was refused communion by his church; he died in 1761.