Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Treason of Benedict Arnold

On September 21, 1780, American General Benedict Arnold met with British Major John Andre to plot the transfer of West Point, a key strategic post in New York, to British control. The meeting was a culmination of months of secret negotiations between General Arnold and the British, and it marked perhaps the most famous act of treason ever committed by an American military officer.

Why Did Benedict Arnold Betray the American Cause?

Benedict Arnold was one of George Washington's favorite commanders. Brave, tenacious, and highly gifted as a military leader, Arnold had distinguished himself repeatedly in battle.

Yet the brilliant Arnold was also egotistical and self-interested. And had a tendency to rub many people the wrong way.

Passed over for promotion, denied credit for certain accomplishments, and faced with major financial challenges, an increasingly bitter Arnold hardened his heart against the American cause and offered his services -- for a price -- to the British.

Why did Benedict Arnold, one of America's most talented and courageous generals, conspire to betray the American cause?

***See "The Enigma of Benedict Arnold," courtesy of Early America Review

What if Arnold's Treason Had Succeeded?

At the time of Arnold's meeting with Andre, the American general commanded the fortress at West Point, a key strategic point that prevented the Royal Navy from accessing the Hudson River. This effectively limited the British presence in New York to the coastline, especially New York City.

Had British General Clinton captured West Point, the British would've gained control of the Hudson and quickly divided the American colonies, just as they had hoped to accomplish during their previous ill-fated campaign that ended ingloriously at Saratoga.

Arnold's plan almost worked. He had already weakened West Point's defenses and Clinton was preparing a major assault. Had it not been for Andre's capture, the stalemate in the Revolutionary War's theater would've been broken -- to the distinct advantage of the British.

At the very least, this would've meant that the Revolutionary War would've dragged on for many more years. At worst (at least from the American perspective), it would've meant defeat for the American cause.

Fortunately for the Americans, Andre was captured and the plot discovered. Benedict Arnold escaped arrest (and a sure hanging) and would finish the war in British uniform! But the consequences of his treachery were nowhere near what they could have been.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this description of Benedict Arnold's treason, but we should also rememember that before he became a British spy, Arnold was a distinguished general without whom the Americans might not have won the Battle of Saratoga. Arnold, like his neighbor and friend, Silas Deane, have often been unfairly maligned and their achievements have been underestimated. You can read more about that in Joel Richard Paul's history of the Franco-American alliance,UNLIKELY ALLIES: How a merchant, a playwright and a spy saved the American Revolution. It describes how Deane and Arnold helped capture Fort Ticonderoga, and how Deane subsequently went on to obtain all of the arms, ammunition and supplies for the entire Continental Army from France -- long before Franklin arrived in Paris.