American Revolution: Major General Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution
Major General Benedict Arnold. National Archives & Records Administration

Benedict Arnold V was born January 14, 1741, to successful businessman Benedict Arnold III and his wife Hannah. Raised in Norwich, CT, Arnold was one of six children though only two, he and his sister Hannah, survived to adulthood. The loss of the other children led Arnold's father to alcoholism and prevented him from teaching his son the family business. First educated at a private school in Canterbury, Arnold was able to secure an apprenticeship with his cousins who operated mercantile and apothecary businesses in New Haven.

In 1755, with the French & Indian War raging he attempted to enlist in the militia but was stopped by his mother. Successful two years later, his company departed to relieve Fort William Henry but returned home before seeing any fighting. With the death of his mother in 1759, Arnold increasingly had to support his family due to his father's declining condition. Three years later, his cousins loaned him the money to open an apothecary and bookstore. A skilled merchant, Arnold was able to raise the money to buy three ships in partnership with Adam Babcock. These traded profitably until the imposition of the Sugar and Stamp Acts.

Pre-American Revolution

Opposed to these new royal taxes, Arnold soon joined the Sons of Liberty and effectively became a smuggler as he operated outside of the new laws. During this period he also faced financial ruin as debts began to accumulate. In 1767, Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of the sheriff of New Haven. The union would produce three sons before her death in June 1775. As tensions with London increased, Arnold increasingly became interested in military matters and was elected a captain in the Connecticut militia in March 1775. With the beginning of the American Revolution the following month, he marched north to take part in the siege of Boston.

Fort Ticonderoga

Arriving outside Boston, he soon offered a plan to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for a raid on Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York. Supporting Arnold's plan, the committee issued him a commission as a colonel and dispatched him north. Reaching the vicinity of the fort, Arnold encountered other colonial forces under Colonel Ethan Allen. Though the two men initially clashed, they resolved their disagreements and captured the fort on May 10. Moving north, Arnold conducted a raid against Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River. With the arrival of new troops, Arnold fought with the commander and returned south.

Invasion of Canada

Without a command, Arnold became one of several individuals who lobbied for an invasion of Canada. The Second Continental Congress finally authorized such an operation, but Arnold was passed over for command. Returning to the siege lines in Boston, he convinced General George Washington to send a second expedition north via the wilderness of Maine's Kennebec River. Receiving permission for this scheme and a commission as a colonel in the Continental Army, he embarked in September 1775 with around 1,100 men. Short on food, hampered by poor maps, and facing degrading weather, Arnold lost over half his force en route.

Reaching Quebec, he was soon joined by the other American force led by Major General Richard Montgomery. Uniting, they launched a failed attempt to capture the city on December 30/31 in which he was wounded in the leg and Montgomery killed. Though defeated at the Battle of Quebec, Arnold was promoted to brigadier general and maintained a loose siege of the city. After overseeing American forces at Montreal, Arnold commanded the retreat south in 1776 following the arrival of British reinforcements.

Troubles in the Army

Constructing a scratch fleet on Lake Champlain, Arnold won a critical strategic victory at Valcour Island in October which delayed the British advance against Fort Ticonderoga and the Hudson Valley until 1777. His overall performance earned Arnold friends in Congress and he developed a relationship with Washington. Conversely, during his time in the north, Arnold alienated many in the army through courts-martial and other inquiries. In the course of one of these, Colonel Moses Hazen charged him with stealing military supplies. Though the court ordered his arrest, it was blocked by Major General Horatio Gates. With the British occupation of Newport, RI, Arnold was sent to Rhode Island by Washington to organize new defenses.

In February 1777, Arnold learned that he had been passed over for promotion to major general. Angered by what he perceived to be politically motivated promotions, he offered his resignation to Washington which was refused. Traveling south to Philadelphia to argue his case, he aided in fighting a British force at Ridgefield, CT. For this, he received his promotion though his seniority was not restored. Angered, he again prepared to offer his resignation but did not follow through upon hearing that Fort Ticonderoga had fallen. Racing north to Fort Edward, he joined Major General Philip Schuyler's northern army.

Battles of Saratoga

Arriving, Schuyler soon dispatched him with 900 men to relieve the siege of Fort Stanwix. This was quickly accomplished through a use of ruse and deception and he returned to find that Gates was now in command. As Major General John Burgoyne's army marched south, Arnold advocated aggressive action but was blocked by the cautious Gates. Finally receiving permission to attack, Arnold won a fight at Freeman's Farm on September 19. Excluded from Gates' report of the battle, the two men clashed and Arnold was relieved of his command. Ignoring this fact, he raced to the fighting at Bemis Heights on October 7 and guided American troops to victory.


In the fighting at Saratoga, Arnold was again wounded in the leg he had injured at Quebec. Refusing to allow it to be amputated, he had it crudely set leaving it two inches shorter than his other leg. In recognition of his bravery at Saratoga, Congress finally restored his command seniority. Recovering, he joined Washington's army at Valley Forge in March 1778 to much acclaim. That June, following the British evacuation, Washington appointed Arnold to serve as military commander of Philadelphia. In this position, Arnold quickly began making questionable business deals to rebuild his shattered finances. These angered many in the city who began collecting evidence against him. In response, Arnold demanded a court-martial to clear his name. Living extravagantly, he soon began courting Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Loyalist judge, who had previously attracted the eye of Major John Andre during the British occupation. The two were married in April 1779.

The Road to Betrayal

Angered by a perceived lack of respect and encouraged by Peggy who retained lines of communication with the British, Arnold began reaching out to the enemy in May 1779. This offer reached André who consulted with General Sir Henry Clinton in New York. While Arnold and Clinton negotiated compensation, the American began providing a variety of intelligence. In January 1780, Arnold was largely cleared of the charges levied against him earlier, though in April a Congressional inquiry found irregularities pertaining to his finances during the Quebec campaign.

Resigning his command at Philadelphia, Arnold successfully lobbied for command of West Point on the Hudson River. Working through André, he came to an agreement in August to surrender the post to the British. Meeting on September 21, Arnold and André sealed the deal. Departing the meeting, André was captured two days later as he returned to New York City. Learning of this on September 24, Arnold was forced to flee to HMS Vulture in the Hudson River as the plot was exposed. Remaining calm, Washington investigated the scope of betrayal and offered to exchange André for Arnold. This was refused and André was hung as a spy on October 2.

Later Life

Receiving a commission as a brigadier general in the British Army, Arnold campaigned against American forces in Virginia later that year and in 1781. In his last major action of the war, he won the Battle of Groton Heights in Connecticut in September 1781. Effectively viewed as a traitor by both sides, he did not receive another command when the war ended despite lengthy efforts. Returning to life as a merchant he lived in Britain and Canada before his death in London on June 14, 1801.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Benedict Arnold." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Major General Benedict Arnold. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Benedict Arnold." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).