Sunday, October 7, 2012

Benedict Arnold -- most foolish man in American history?

Today marks the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Bemis Heights, the second of the two battles of Saratoga that led directly to the capture of Burgoyne's army and the entry of the French into the war, thereby indirectly leading to overall victory.

The battle was the high point of the already illustrious career of one of the most remarkable military talents America ever produced -- and it also set in motion the chain of events that led to that man's name becoming as much a synonym for betrayal as the name Judas Iscariot achieved.

Yes, Benedict Arnold was the hero of the day for his conduct that day. While Gen. Horatio Gates took the credit, fair-minded opinion of the day and since has given Arnold the lion's share of the honor for the victory. But Arnold was very badly hurt that day, and he never again held an active field command for the American cause. Arnold was personally fearless in action and the Saratoga wound was not his first -- not even his first in that same leg.

While a talented battlefield commander, Arnold had some unfortunate character traits which led him to be jealous of fellow officers and feel slighted when his clear contribution to the cause of Independence were not recognized to the degree he felt was warranted. Some even go so far as to blame his new wife for his base betrayal of the Patriot cause.

Arnold's boot monument
Arnold has a particular interest here, locally, as he is probably the best-known native of Norwich, Conn. His reputation is, of course, irretrievable, but the distance of time has allowed some small remembrance of his vital contribution to the birth of America to occur. A small plaque sits by the side of a street in Norwich, marking the approximate site of the Arnold homestead. Nothing remains of the original structure, of course. Arnold was so despised that in the wake of his betrayal angry residents descended on the cemetery and tore up the headstones of most of his relatives, including that of an infant son's. Only his mother Hannah Arnold's stone was overlooked and remain there to this day.

At the Saratoga battlefield itself there's a monument to Arnold's boot, which doesn't even mention Arnold by name!

Arnold's attack on Groton
When he appears in wargames, Arnold invariably rates highly as a commander, although in a strategic level games such as Washington's War he presents a bit of a design problem. Naturally the benefit of hindsight clues the player that this highly capable general isn't entirely reliable, but if a game doesn't make Arnold a traitor he's likely to rival the "indispensable man" himself, George Washington as the main figure in the game. This isn't something most Americans are going to be able to stomach.

And it is, in truth, hard to gin up much of defense for Arnold. There's no evidence his change of heart was driven by some high principle. And infamously, he turned around and led British forces against his native region and was in field command during one of the war's major atrocities, the Battle of Fort Griswold, where a massacre occurred after the fall of the fort.

Given how many monuments and communities there are in America named after Washington, Lafayette, Greene, Wayne, KoĹ›ciuszko, v. Steuben, etc. there can't be any doubt that Arnold would have grown old showered with honors had he remained loyal. As honor and public acclamation appear to be what he desired most in life, surely he proved to be one of the biggest fools of American history. It's not unimaginable that  his hometown might have been renamed in his honor and I'd b writing this post from Arnoldton Conn. in the very shadow of some tall obelisk erected in his honor.  Instead he's got plaque.

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