This Day In History: Benedict Arnold Commits Treason Against the Americans (1779)

This Day In History: Benedict Arnold Commits Treason Against the Americans (1779)

Ed - September 21, 2016

This Day In History: Benedict Arnold Commits Treason Against the Americans (1779)
Arnold’s HQ at West Point

During the American War of Independence on this day in 1780, the American General Benedict Arnold meets with the British. The Americans wanted to turn over to the enemy the strategic position of West Point. Arnold agrees to turn West Point over to the British in return for money and a commission in the British army. However, luckily for the Americans, the plot was detected and this meant that Arnold’s plot was foiled.

Arnold was born to a prominent family in Norwich, Connecticut. He was initially apprenticed as an apothecary (pharmacist) and while an apprentice he joined the local militia. As a young man, he took part in the French and Indian War and he served with some distinction. After serving he became a merchant and he became quite successful. When the American colonists began their war of Independence, Arnold became an officer in the Continental Army. Initially, Arnold was a very good soldier and served the Patriot cause with great distinction. He played a leading role in the successful Patriot attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He went on to lead troops in several important campaigns such as Lake Champlain and Saratoga and he earned the respect of the Continental Army’s high command and even the respect of George Washington. However, he was not universally popular and was not as well connected as several other officers. He was passed over for promotion repeatedly and this made him very bitter with the Patriot party and he probably began to think about changing sides. It must be remembered that many American colonists were neutral or pro-British during the Revolution.

Then he married again and his second wife loved luxury and soon the couple were in debt. This and resentment at not being promoted and his growing debts persuaded him that he needed to do something. If he was unable to pay his debts he would be declared bankrupt and would be disgraced and lose his position in the army. Arnold decided to betray his country to the British. He appears to have had secret negotiations with the British and was tried by a court-martial for treason, but he was cleared.

In 1780 he was entrusted with the command of the strategic West Point located on the Hudson River. Here Arnold contacted his British counterpart and he offered to hand over West Point and his garrison. However, the plot was detected and Arnold fled to the British. He was later to be given command of British troops in Virginia and New England. He became notorious for the burning down of two towns and many farms in Connecticut in 1781. However, he received little of the financial assistance that he had demanded. Arnold left America for good in the aftermath of the American Independence and lived in London and he died in 1801. He is remembered to this day as the most infamous traitor in American history.