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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

One hundred and ninety-five years ago today, Fort McHenry was under intense bombardment from British ships off the coast of Maryland. The Royal Navy was hoping to reduce Ft McHenry as part of an overall land-sea invasion operation against Baltimore, which the British considered to be a "nest of pirates."

Detained by the British was an attorney named Francis Scott Key. Key, who had been negotiating with the British for the release of a friend, hopelessly watched the bombardment, fully understanding the stakes of the contest.

What if Fort McHenry Would've Fallen?

The British had already captured Washington, the nation's capital, and had burned its federal buildings to the ground. A devastating and humiliating blow to the Americans. Now, the British were following up their burning of Washington with an attack on Baltimore. Had they succeeded, it would've essentially gutted the eastern coast of the United States.

While it may be overstating things to suggest that the United States would've fallen back under British imperial control, it is certain that the loss of Baltimore (so close to the burning of Washington) would have all but guaranteed British victory in the War of 1812.

Had that occurred, several very unfortunate scenarios may have ensued, including the British refusal to return captured territory (which they eventually did under terms of the Treaty of Ghent), the possible secession of the New England states from the Union, and more. Th future of the United States would've been bleak.

The Climax

On the morning of September 14, Francis Scott Key peered through the smoke and haze - and saw, with delight, what the British saw, with great disappointment. The American flag still flew over Ft McHenry!

The Royal Navy soon abandoned its efforts to reduce Ft McHenry. What's more, British land forces lost their lead general, Robert Ross, to a sniper's bullet and their invasion was stalled against American forces led by Generals Samuel Smith and John Stricker.

The British eventually withdrew their forces and decided on a more southern strategy, an attempt to take New Orleans and gain control of the vital Mississippi River. There, that would meet devastating defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson.

Key's sighting of the American flag, and the ultimate defeat of Britain's attack on Baltimore, inspired him to write "The Defence of Fort McHenry," a poem later put to the music "To Anacreon in Heaven," a popular men's drinking song. America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," was born.