Who Was Benedict Arnold? - Biography, Facts, & Timeline

Instructor: James Moeller
Today, his name is synonymous with 'traitor,' but his reasons for defecting to the British are more complex. This lesson will explore the life of Benedict Arnold, with emphasis on his role in the Revolutionary War and his reasons for turning to the enemy.

Hero Turned Traitor?

The life of Benedict Arnold is replete with turning points. At the Battle of Saratoga (Sep-Oct of 1777), Arnold fought for the colonists and proved his bravery repeatedly. Though relieved of his duty, he still mounted his horse and rode up and down the line of American soldiers, directing their fire against the British Infantry. His leadership led to an American victory in one of the most pivotal battles in the entire war. Severely wounded in the leg, had the bullet gone straight through his heart, he would have died an American hero!

How could someone who was willing to die for his country at one point simply abandon it at the next opportunity? We will seek to answer that question by looking at his background and character.

The Life & Times of Benedict Arnold

Portrait of Benedict Arnold in Continental Army Uniform

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, CT on January 14, 1741. His family life was troubled to say the least, even though his father was a successful businessman. After three of his children died, Benedict Arnold Sr. began to drink heavily. Intending young Arnold to be well educated, he sent him to school. However, financial difficulties and his father's alcoholism forced young Benedict to leave school and become an apothecary and bookseller in nearby New Haven.

Arnold joined the Connecticut State Militia as a Captain and fought in the French & Indian War in 1757. He returned home two years later, after the death of his mother, to take care of his sister and drunken father, who died in 1761.

The American Revolution

Arnold knew first hand the difficulties merchants faced with the hated Stamp Act (a tax on documents, newspapers, playing cards, and other items). Using a loan from a wealthy friend, he bought three merchant ships with his partner, Adam Babcock. By 1767, the business had flourished, but the Stamp Act was cutting into Arnold's profits. Angry with the situation, he joined the Sons of Liberty, a protest group calling for independence from the British Empire. On February 22nd, Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of the Sheriff of New Haven.

Due to his experience as Captain of the CT Militia, Massachusetts commissioned Arnold as a Colonel to take the lightly defended Ft. Ticonderoga on May 3rd of 1775. He linked up with Colonel Ethan Allen of Vermont and took the fort in a night raid without a fight.

Later, in the fall of 1775, Arnold was sent through the snowy Maine wilderness with 1,100 troops in order to take Quebec City in Canada. Two hundred men died, and 300 more were sent back. On December 31, Arnold attacked Quebec City with another American force and lost the battle.

Saratoga, Philadelphia, & Treason!

Arnold's personal bravery and leadership skills in the Quebec operation did not go unnoticed, and he earned the rank of Brigadier General. However, in February of 1777, Arnold found out that several other officers had been promoted over him to Major General. Extremely upset, he offered to resign his commission, but Commander-in-Chief George Washington refused the resignation. Washington went to Congress to advise them of the error and to fight for Arnold.

In the fall of 1777, Washington assigned Arnold a new task as three British Armies were converging on Saratoga, NY, with the intent of taking Albany and controlling the Hudson River. Arnold reported to General Horatio Gates on the task. Gates was often accused of being self-serving and vain. After the initial segment of the battle, Gates relieved Arnold of his command after the two engaged in a shouting match in Gate's command tent.

Surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, October 17, 1777

Arnold ignored Gate's order, took command at Bemis Heights and succeeded brilliantly in defending them at high cost to the British. In the fighting, Arnold was shot in the leg. On October 17, 1777, British General, 'Gentleman' Johnny Burgoyne surrendered. So momentous was this surrender that shortly afterwards the French signed a treaty with the Americans, engaging in a military alliance that would eventually help defeat the British.

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