Was He A Patriot Or Was He A Traitor?

By Don Vitale

The "he" we're talking about-- if you haven't figured it out yet-- is Benedict Arnold. Pretty much of a no-brainer, right? Seems like it. However, since I have a bit of 'show me' coursing through my literary veins, I turned to novelist Willard Randalls to nail it down. In his recent book on Arnold, the author describes America's most controversial military figure as both patriot and traitor combined. Both? How could that be...unless you're a magician who says 'Now you see me, now you don't.' I don't question that Arnold was different, if not unique. Or that in many ways he was special.

How so? For one thing he was the only military figure in American history who served both sides in the same war. That hasn't ever happened before or since. And if that isn't enough, he became a hero on each of the opposing sides he fought for. That may be a hard act to follow...but how does it answer the "was he or wasn't he" question? In examining Arnold's life, enigma is a word that comes to mind. Check this out: Arnold's record as a Commander during the Revolutionary War could easily be described as heroic. Hard to believe we're talking about a traitor...but facts are facts. From the very beginning of the War Arnold displayed his valor in battle after battle. He was intelligent, brave and...successful in most every engagement he fought. Actually, a majority of historians would agree that if it weren't for Arnold, the Revolution would've been a non-starter. A month after the first shot was fired in 1775, Arnold and Ethan Allen stormed Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. Five months later Arnold led an expedition attacking Quebec. A hundred Americans were killed, many were captured and more were wounded, including Arnold with a cannon ball through his leg. Though that battle took its toll on the American forces, Arnold was undaunted.

For five years running Arnold engaged the enemy in battle after battle including the historic assault at Saratoga. I say 'undaunted' because Saratoga arguably was the turning point in the War. The Americans under Arnold's leadership prevailed although he was again wounded in the leg, ending his combat career for several years. It was said that "No General was more imaginative than Arnold, no field officer more daring, no soldier more courageous."

However it should be noted that Arnold's military prowess and his success in vanquishing the British Army on the battle field went largely unreported in the news media of the day. Okay already!...I don't know about you but despite all of his so-called 'heroics,' I find it difficult to describe Benedict Arnold as a hero.

Face it, we're talking about the man who was ready to hand over West Point to America's enemy! If that had taken place, if his plot had not been uncovered, our war with the Brits would've done a one-ninety and we'd be serving tea at three in the afternoon. Call Benedict Arnold a traitor, yes. A villain, okay. A treasoner, absolutely. But hero? Nosirree, Bub!

Let's not forget that Arnold spent a good deal of his time in and out of the courts. Though he distinguished himself in battle, his ambition and craving of power found him continually defending his character...along with charges of corruption in his financial dealings. Hero? I don't think so.

Because of these issues Arnold was passed over numerous times for promotion by the Continental Congress. Yet all the while, he had good relations with George Washington. In a letter to Arnold Washington wrote that he was surprised "when I did not see your name in the list of Major Generals." Washington believed that Arnold's name for promotion was omitted by mistake, urging Arnold not to take any "hasty steps." When Arnold found that there was no mistake, he submitted his resignation. Though he withdrew his resignation, he continued to feel unjustly overlooked by his superiors.

Some may say that this was a case where "coming events cast their shadows before." Namely, when Arnold made his fateful decision to deliver West Point and its 4000 defenders to the British for 20,000 pounds sterling. If you get your calculator out and retro back to 1780, Arnold would've feathered his nest with just a few pennies short of one million of today's dollars.

When his plot was uncovered, he changed uniforms as a Brigadier General in the British Army. Arnold led devastating raids in Virginia and Connecticut against Patriot warehouses and supply depots. His actions in spearheading these engagements destroyed American facilities he had previously helped to defend. He burned ships and looted the town of New London.

After going over to the enemy, Arnold defended his actions in an open letter To The Inhabitants of America. In a separate letter to Washington he wrote that "Love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions." Upon retirement from the British Army, a number of his commercial ventures went sour. Arnold sailed to London, lived in Canada for a few years, finally returning to London where he died in 1801. Wrote Benjamin Franklin: "Judas only sold one man, Arnold three million." Washington: "Treason of the blackest dye was discovered. General Arnold...lost...every sense of honor of private and public obligation."

Bottom Line: Was Benedict Arnold a traitor or a patriot? Recorded history brands him as a traitor. His unrecorded actions during the early days of the War show him as an unabashed patriot. Maybe author Rillard Randalls is right. Benedict Arnold was both.--dv