American Revolutionary War general Benedict Arnold (1741 – 1801) is the United States’ most infamous traitor, and one whose name has become an epithet, synonymous with treason and betrayal. He had been a leading patriot in the fight against the British, and was perhaps the most capable combat leader on the rebels’ side before a combination of resentments over slights, coupled with financial distress, led him to sell out to the enemy.
Before turning traitor, Arnold had provided valuable service to the American side and played a leading role early in the war in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He then led an expedition through extremely rough terrain in an attempt to capture Quebec, which failed in its ultimate aim, but exhibited remarkable leadership in getting his men to the outskirts of Quebec.
In 1776, an enterprising Arnold constructed a fleet from scratch at Lake Champlain, which he used to defeat a vastly superior British fleet. While lionized as a hero by the public, his successes, rash courage, and driving style aroused the jealousy and resentment of other officers, who backbit and schemed against Arnold. When Congress created five new major generals in 1777, he was stung when he was bypassed in favor of some of his juniors, and only George Washington’s personal entreaties prevented Arnold’s resignation.
Soon thereafter, he repelled a British attack in Connecticut and was finally promoted to major general, but his seniority was not restored – another slight that would gnaw at him. He again sought to resign but was prevailed upon to remain. He performed brilliantly in halting the British advance into upstate New York in 1777 and was instrumental in bringing about its defeat, culminating in the British surrender at Saratoga, where Arnold fought courageously and was severely injured.
Crippled by his wounds, he was put in charge of Philadelphia, where he took to socializing with loyalist families, as well as extravagant living, which he financed with questionable dealings that led to scandal. He also married a much younger woman of loyalist sympathies and spendthrift habits that soon put Arnold deep in debt. Between resentments and financial difficulties, he secretly approached the British to offer his services.
Placed in charge of fortifications at West Point on the Hudson River, upstream from British-occupied New York City and barring them from sailing upriver, Arnold plotted to sell plans of the fortifications to the enemy and contrived to deliver them into British hands, for £20,000. However, his British contact was captured, along with documents incriminating Arnold, who fled just in time to evade arrest.
He was made a brigadier general in the British army and led soldiers against the American side. The British never fully warmed to him, however, and after the war, he was unable to secure a regular commission. He pursued a variety of ventures, including privateering and land speculation in Canada, before finally settling in London, where he died in 1801.