Benedict Arnold and Contemporary Attitudes Toward Treason

Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous traitors in all of American history. While I doubt there is any sort of polling on the matter, his attempt to hand over control of West Point to the British has inspired countless books and made him, for a time at least, “the most reviled person in American history.” So infamous is his treachery that some of his most important battlefield victories have been almost completely forgotten by the general public. I picked up John Enson Harr’s Dark Eagle because I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of Benedict Arnold as a historical figure and I am glad I did. 

Harr’s story begins long before Arnold turns traitor. To be specific, the story starts June 18, 1776. At this time, the declaration of independence has already been issued but the war is not going well for American forces. The Patriots have just lost a key battle with the British and are being forced to make a humiliating retreat. Brigadier-general Benedict Arnold has been tasked with defending the rear guard and to the surprise of many, he excels in the role. Owing to his many military contributions to the Revolution—the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, the tactical victory at Lake Champlain—Arnold comes to believe he has earned the respect of his countrymen. The men who serve under him certainly respect him—the men he serves under are less keen on him. Washington extends him a great deal of respect but many of the other prominent generals in the Continental Army, such as Schuyler and Gates, are more reserved in their opinion. Members of the Continental Congress are downright hostile toward him and many refuse to honor his many battlefield victories with a promotion. Following a particularly stinging rebuke from the Continental Congress, Arnold decides to resign his commission. Nonetheless, he is unable to just stand by as the British attempt to invade New England and rallies local forces to the defense of Connecticut. The British forces suffer some humiliating losses at his hands, but Arnolds suffers a serious injury that leaves him with a debilitating limp. Despite the injury, Arnold re-enlists and the Continental Congress grudgingly honors his many victories.

As far as Arnold is concerned, it is too late and too little. He has bankrupted himself to help support the Revolution and has nothing to show for it besides an empty title and meaningless accolades. His actions in the Battle of Saratoga proved instrumental in securing victory, a battle that ultimately helped turn the tide of war in the Revolutionary War, but none of that seems to matter to the Continental Congress. Determined to improve his financial situation, Arnold decides to use his position as military governor of Philadelphia to gain much-needed income. That would he use his official position to requisition items for personal profit is not especially unusual and, truth be told, it would have been surprising had he declined to do so. Washington was famous for not taking a salary during the Revolutionary War but that did not stop him from taking advantage of an expense account of epic proportions. 

All the same, some of the more radical members of the Continental Congress considered Arnold’s conduct to be nothing short of shameful and subject him to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation. Had he a thicker skin, or perhaps just more money, Arnold may have simply gritted his teeth and pretended the many slights of the Continental Congress caused him no hurt. Instead, he opted to share his grievances with his wife. In ordinary circumstances, this would not have been all that noteworthy. His wife, however, is no ordinary woman. His wife is Peggy Shippen and she just so happens to know John Andre. Owing to Andre’s position in the British military, Arnold is in a unique position to defect to the British cause.

Convinced that he will never be given his just due if he continues to fight on behalf of the Continental Congress, Arnold turns traitor and agrees to provide Andre information regarding West Point’s defenses. The intelligence, however, never reaches British command as Andre is captured before he can deliver it. Andre is hung and Arnold escapes to British territory. Still very much in possession of his wits, Arnold expects that he will command British forces and is heartbroken to discover that high command wants little to do with him. 

Ultimately, Arnold gains little by throwing in his lot with the British and continues to be reviled to this day. I think most people who read Dark Eagle will find it difficult to muster a strong antipathy toward Benedict Arnold. I hope that readers who enjoy Dark Eagle will also reflect on why Arnold inspires so much hatred as compared to other traitors. Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson killed far more Americans and did far less for their country while they still served in uniform–why do they have military bases and elementary schools named after them when Arnold does not? To be fair, Lee and Jackson did both serve in the Mexican-American war before turning traitor but even by the most charitable estimation, all they did was help expand American territory. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, helped America gain independence from Great Britain. Moreover, considering Lee and Jackson fought to preserve the institution of slavery, it is especially noteworthy that they are honored with so many monuments. Whether or not readers consider this worthy of contemplation, I think Dark Eagle will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written battle sequences and military politicking.

This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.