Benedict Arnold: The Epitome of Betrayal

The American Revolution arose as thirteen British colonies fought for independence. Not everyone supported the cause, specifically Benedict Arnold, who became history’s most infamous turncoat.

May 20, 2024By Aaron Stoyack, BA History, Museum Studies Minor

benedict arnold betrayal


Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of his compatriots in favor of the British made his name synonymous with treason in American culture. However, the impact of his treachery is minimal relative to its presence in collective memory. Americans across the political spectrum exalt the values of the Revolution, so Arnold sees no sympathy stateside. Precise motivations for his treason are debatable, but an examination of his life offers clues as to how and why he became the legendary traitor.


The Early Life of Benedict Arnold

Birthplace of Benedict Arnold by E.Z. Webster, 1881. Source: Library of Congress


Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1741. His great-great-grandfather of the same name was the governor of Rhode Island, and thus, Arnold carried a respected family name and fortune. Benedict was the only one of eleven siblings to survive past childhood, and the frequent deaths drove his father to drink away the family’s wealth.


When he was sixteen, he served in the militia during the French and Indian War but deserted twice. Once he came of age, Arnold pursued work as a pharmacist. Both his parents passed away by the time he was twenty-one, and he moved to New Haven. He established a commerce operation there, with vessels trading and smuggling as far as Canada and the Caribbean. He married Margaret Mansfield in 1767 and fathered three sons.


The Beginnings of Arnold’s Military Service

Major General Arnold Wounded Dec. 31, 1775 at the attack of Quebec, 1780. Source: Library of Congress


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Arnold found increasing British taxation unacceptable and joined the anti-British Sons of Liberty, using personal expenses to supply militia units. After the opening battles of Lexington and Concord, he exercised command of a contingent of soldiers from New Haven. On May 10, 1775, his command worked with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys from Vermont to capture Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. After this victory, Arnold used a ship to assault other British strongholds along the lake. Margaret’s passing in June overshadowed these initial successes.


Arnold led an invasion of Quebec in 1775, which ushered in a revolutionary spirit among the American colonists despite its lack of success. They drew comparisons to legendary commanders such as Hannibal and Xenophon. The Continental Congress unanimously appointed him to the rank of brigadier general in 1776. In February 1777, Arnold was refused Major General status in favor of leaders with less experience than him, so he offered to resign. George Washington rejected Arnold’s abdication and defended him in a letter to Congress.


Fall From Grace: Saratoga to Philadelphia

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull, 1826. Source: Architect of the Capitol


During the early years of the Revolution, Arnold displayed persistent military brilliance and was one of George Washington’s most trusted subordinates. He won great fame at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1777, where he was wounded in the leg. The victory at Saratoga resulted in the capture of thousands of British soldiers and convinced France to enter the war on the American side. For his efforts, Washington gifted Arnold epaulets from a French dignitary who requested they be granted to one of Washington’s favorite generals. Soon after, Arnold was finally promoted to Major General. His injury necessitated a leave from active command, so Arnold became military governor of Philadelphia in 1778.


In Philadelphia, Benedict used his military influence and commercial background to live a luxurious lifestyle and entertain the city’s upper class. Arnold met Peggy Shippen, daughter of a wealthy Loyalist, at one of these social functions. Peggy was only eighteen and Benedict thirty-seven when they met. He went into debt courting her and gaining her father’s approval for their marriage. Peggy introduced him to Major John André. André served as chief of intelligence for Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of British troops in America. Arnold was court-martialed for abuses of power, but his punishment was left to Washington, who heavily reprimanded him.


Why Would Arnold Betray His Cause? 

A Proper Family Re-Union by Oscar H. Harpel, 1865. Source: Library of Congress


Arnold was disliked by his fellow American military leaders as well as civilian authorities. His actions on Lake Champlain and at Saratoga were conducted in disobedience of direct orders. Opponents called for a court-martial on four separate occasions for alleged corruption, and Congress did not repay him for the many personal expenses he made for the cause. Writing to George Washington in 1779, Arnold complained that he “little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen.” He also despised America’s French allies, seeing the Catholic nation as a threat to the principles of freedom.


There were already unfounded rumors that, as early as December 1776, Arnold prepared to turn to Britain during the Battle of Trenton. Americans regarded most prominent officers as pretentious, greedy aristocrats while upholding minutemen as ideal soldiers, and Arnold’s Philadelphian excesses cemented their distrust.


Arnold Becomes the Notorious Villain

The Capture of Major André by Asher Brown Durand, 1845. Source: Birmingham Museum of Art


Arnold secretly exchanged letters with Henry Clinton in the hopes of bringing an end to the conflict. Arnold was given command of West Point, a fort he agreed to help the British capture for 20,000 pounds of sterling. Occupation of West Point would grant the British dominion over the Hudson River, isolating the Northeastern colonies. Benedict clandestinely created vulnerabilities and met with Major André several times, feeding the agent vital intelligence. Washington wrote to Benedict that he planned to visit West Point, and Arnold implored Clinton to act quickly to capture the American commander.


Benedict Arnold, 1741-1801, reproduction of a painting by John Trumbull, ca. 1894. Source: Library of Congress


On September 18, 1780, Arnold met with Major André, to whom he gave signed documents on West Point’s defenses. American militia captured the Major three days later and discovered the papers. Arnold barely escaped to a nearby British vessel and traveled to occupied New York.


Washington offered to let Peggy remain in Philadelphia with her family or join her husband. She initially chose to stay, but the irate townspeople compelled her to leave, and she joined her husband within two months. Recent scholarship revealed Peggy as not only an influence but a co-conspirator. She helped to encode Arnold’s communications, goaded him on in letters when his commitment seemed to falter, and frequently wrote to Major André herself.


Reactions to Benedict Arnold’s Betrayal

A representation of the figures exhibited and paraded through the streets of Philadelphia, on Saturday, the 30th of September, 1780. Source: Library of Congress


Arnold was not the only American to turn to the British side. Benjamin Church and others did so since the outbreak of the war. But none provoked the reaction that Arnold’s betrayal did. At that time, many colonists engaged in activities such as price gouging and trading with the enemy.  Arnold was made a scapegoat, portrayed as the pinnacle of high treason, alone in his betrayal of the cause. His offenses were antithetical to notions of patriotism, masculinity, and honor.


Revolutionaries claimed the scheme’s collapse demonstrated a divine ordinance for American independence. Cities across the states desecrated effigies of Arnold. The residents of Norwich destroyed his father’s gravestone. Colonists claimed if they captured Arnold, they would cut off the leg wounded at Saratoga and bury it with honors before executing him.


Benedict was awarded the rank of brigadier general, yet even the British looked down on him as a traitor. They blamed him for the execution of John André, even though they refused  Washington’s proposal to exchange André for Arnold. The American Legion Refugees, Arnold’s new unit, struggled to recruit enlistees. Commander Clinton knew that Arnold would face grave resistance in the field.


Americans viewed André as a sympathetic figure. To them, his execution was necessary, but he was an obedient soldier for his country. Washington, who frequently dismissed Arnold’s previous controversies, was spared blame. Emphasized instead was the tragic personal betrayal of his friend and its military significance.


Military Command for the British

Arnold’s Treason by John Rogers, ca. 1870. Source: University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor


The fresh turncoat and general undertook a campaign in Virginia beginning in December 1780. To the Virginians, he offered amnesty and the opportunity to bring them back under British control, an attitude met with little positive reaction. After occupying Richmond, he wrote to the city’s merchants that they could avoid outright seizure of their goods. This was contingent on whether they gained permission from the colonial government to sell them to the British at half the going price.


The business owners proposed the plan to Thomas Jefferson, who refused to respond, provoking Arnold to capture the material. He banned his soldiers from destroying and confiscating private property in Virginia, orders that were followed to a certain extent. Experiences in Virginia convinced Arnold that the Patriot cause was substantial and support for him was weak.


In September 1781, Arnold commanded an expedition against a privateering port in his home state. This successful raid was marred by rampant destruction of civilian property, possibly inspired by the resident’s hesitance to embrace him as a high-status individual in his younger life. After capturing two forts, Benedict’s soldiers slaughtered the defenders after they surrendered. Whether they acted under orders is unknown.


Peace, Later Life, and Death

Portrait of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, ca. 1782-1783. Source: Clive Hammond, Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia


Arnold returned to England in early 1782 with Peggy and their two children. His three sons from Margaret remained in the United States. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, after which he hoped to be granted an officership in the British Army. His candidacy was rejected due to his traitorous past being an insult to duty. He ventured to Canada to buy and sell land for a profit but failed and returned to England in 1791. Arnold then sailed as a privateer in the West Indies until 1795, when he retired to London. He passed away there on June 14th, 1801.


Remembrance of Benedict Arnold’s Treason

Boot Monument within Saratoga NHP, 1887. Source: Saratoga National Historical Park, Stillwater


Early biographers fabricated a troublesome streak in childhood, depicting Arnold as naturally evil. West Point Military Academy has a display of plaques commemorating every American Revolutionary War general, containing their name, rank, and dates of birth and death. Arnold’s marker forgoes this convention, reading only “Major General, 1741.” At Saratoga National Historical Park, there is a monument depicting an unnamed leg, suggesting the same attitude that Americans felt during the Revolution.


Popular media, from political cartoons to television shows, continuously use Benedict Arnold’s name as a synonym for a traitor. Nevertheless, in recent times, Arnold gained some credit for his wartime contributions before the betrayal. Bill Stanley, former Connecticut State Senator from Arnold’s hometown of Norwich, paid $15,000 in 2004 to craft a new headstone for Arnold’s tomb in London. The inscription reads in part, “The Two Nations Whom He Served In Turn in the Years of Their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”

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By Aaron StoyackBA History, Museum Studies MinorAaron is a historian, museum specialist, and writer. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from West Chester University with a BA in History. Aaron served on local commissions and presented at regional and national public history and education conferences. He enjoys researching and interpreting all aspects of history, from local to global scale.