In Debt to a Traitor
July 4, 2019
Our celebration this week of the birth of our nation will include public readings of the Declaration of Independence, officially approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 and signed (not all on that date) by 56 delegates representing thirteen expatriate British colonies then engaged in a war with Great Britain.
Our popular tradition gives that date as the beginning of the American Revolution, but the reality is that the American War of Independence began more than a year earlier, on April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston. The Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington, was formed on June 14, 1775. In November 1775, Washington commissioned a 25-year-old bookseller, Henry Knox, to bring the heavy artillery captured at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point across the frozen lakes and hills of New York and Massachusetts to Boston in the dead of winter. The story of that “noble train of artillery” is worth a separate telling.
The Siege of Boston ended on March 17, 1776, but the British regrouped and sailed in June to attack New York Harbor, landing troops on Staten Island on July 2. Washington retreated, and “the outlook for the American cause was bleak.” It is frankly amazing that only two days later the signers of the Declaration had the courage to affix their names to a document that surely would serve as their death warrant should the war be lost.
Many people nowadays would be surprised to learn of the role that a Connecticut merchant seaman, Benedict Arnold, played in the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. Elected captain in the Connecticut militia in March 1775, Arnold led his company northeast to assist in the Siege of Boston where he made a proposal to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to seize Fort Ticonderoga, which he knew from previous travels contained valuable armaments but was poorly defended. He was issued a colonel’s commission on May 3, 1775 and rode north to Vermont to join with Ethan Allen in leading Allen’s militia (the “Green Mountain Boys”) in the May 10, 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold’s role in that campaign is noted in the history books, but noticeably absent from popular retelling.
After the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Continental Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec. Arnold was given a colonel’s commission in the Continental Army and participated in the December 31 assault on Quebec City, in which his left leg was shattered. Arnold was promoted to brigadier general, moved to Montreal where he served as military commander of the city until the arrival of the British army in May 1776 forced the Continental Army to retreat to Fort Ticonderoga, and then turned his focus on building a fleet to defend Lake Champlain against an expected naval invasion from the north. His success in that endeavor may have been his most significant – and least known – contribution to the birth of our country.
Lake Champlain is a freshwater lake located between the states of New York and Vermont, extending 107 miles from the Richelieu River in Canada to the Champlain Canal connection to the Hudson River. Given the state of land transportation in the 18th century, the lake served as the equivalent of an interstate highway for commerce and transport. Its strategic importance was inarguable: undefended, it would allow the British to move troops and armament from Canada all the way south to New York city. In the summer of 1776, Britain’s General Carleton had a 9,000-man army stationed at Fort Saint-Jean and was building his own fleet. Unstopped, New York would then be vulnerable from both the north and the south, and would surely fall.
Overmatched in men and material, Arnold’s strategy was to delay and deny the British access to the Hudson. On October 11, 1776, he drew the British fleet into a position between the New York mainland and Valcour Island in an engagement known as the Battle of Valcour Bay. During the battle, many of the American ships were damaged or destroyed (the gunboat USS Philadelphia, sunk that day and raised in 1935, is currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.). That night, Arnold successfully sneaked the remaining ships past the British “with muffled oars and minimal illumination,” retreating to Fort Ticonderoga. The next morning the British discovered the deception and began pursuit.
Most of the American fleet was ultimately either captured or grounded and burned, but the winter snows began on October 20 and General Carleton was forced to abandon his southward push and withdraw to winter quarters. While the Battle of Valcour was a tactical defeat for the Americans, it also served as a strategic victory in that it provided time to fortify the Fort Ticonderoga defenses in preparation for the return of British forces the next year. A monument to Arnold’s role in the Battle of Valcour stands today on the shores of Lake Champlain (click on the link below to view a wonderful video of the story).
Washington later assigned Arnold to the defense of Rhode Island. While traveling through Connecticut on his way to Philadelphia, on April 27, 1777 Arnold led a small militia against the British in the Battle of Ridgefield, where he was again wounded in the left leg. He fought valiantly in the Battles of Saratoga (September 19 and October 7, 1777), where he was once again severely wounded in the left leg. When the British withdrew from Philadelphia in June 1778, Washington appointed Arnold military commander of the city (historian John Shy described it as “one of the worst decisions of his career”).
We all know how this story ends – badly. For whatever reason or reasons, Arnold became a turncoat. By July 1779 he was providing the British with information regarding troop locations and strengths. On August 3, 1780, Arnold was given command of West Point, with authority over the Hudson River from Albany to New York. He actively undermined West Point’s defenses and supplies and offered to provide the British with “drawings of the works” by which the British “might take [it] without loss.” The plot was discovered on September 23, 1880 and Arnold fled into an exile in which he was loathed by the Americans and never trusted by the British. He died in England on June 14, 1801at the age of 60.
Understandably, very few public acknowledgements of Arnold’s accomplishments exist. Valcour Island is mentioned above. The monument to the American victory at Saratoga has four niches; three of the niches contain statues of Generals Gates, Schuyler and Morgan, while the fourth, which would have honored Arnold, has intentionally been left empty. There is however a monument nearby that pays tribute to Arnold without mentioning his name. Often referred to as the “Boot Monument,” it depicts a left-side military boot surmounted with military epaulettes and contains the inscription: "In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”
Why acknowledge a traitor on the day we celebrate the birth of the country he betrayed? Because many hands worked the loom that wove the fabric of this nation. Some were heroes, some were villains, some were both. We needed them all to play the role they played, and we all are the better for it. History must be understood for what it is, and viewed as it is, without the prism of modern-day sensitivities or prejudices. If we seek only to learn that which makes us comfortable, we will ultimately be discomfited by things we failed to learn. So on this day let’s celebrate all the remarkable people and events that birthed these Unites States of America!