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"Villainous Perfidy": Benedict Arnold's Betrayal of George Washington

James Thomas Flexner examines how Benedict Arnold's defection shaped George Washington's future.

Benedict Arnold stands as one of the most notorious turncoats in all of American history. A Revolutionary War hero whose early successes on the battlefield played a crucial role in America's fight for independence, Arnold nevertheless struck a secret pact with the British in late 1779: In exchange for a hefty sum and a commanding role in the British Army, Arnold would hand over the key American outpost at West Point, New York. 

The plot was foiled in September 1780, but Arnold escaped behind enemy lines. And perhaps no one was more shocked—nor more disappointed—by Arnold's defection than General George Washington. Arnold had become a powerful military commander under Washington’s counsel and good graces, despite Arnold's war injuries and disregard for authority. Washington considered Arnold one of his strongest officers—and, above all, a trusted ally.

In Washington: The Indispensable Man, National Book Award-winning author James Thomas Flexner delivers a sweeping history of the life of George Washington, tracing his rise from uncertain young soldier to America's first president. The book explores Washington's fateful relationship with Benedict Arnold, and how Washington handled Arnold's betrayal with the grace that would one day make him president. 

An excerpt of Flexner's riveting work is below. But first, let's assess the man whose name is now synonymous with treachery, whose historic defection Washington described as an act of "villainous perfidy."

Who Was Benedict Arnold? 

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741. As a teen, he briefly served in the colonial militia during the French and Indian War before settling in New Haven and establishing himself as a successful business owner and merchant. He married Margaret Mansfield in 1767, and the couple had three children before Margaret's death in 1775. In the spring of 1775, as war loomed between the British and the American colonies, Arnold joined the Connecticut militia as a captain. In April of that year, violence broke out between colonial militiamen and British forces in Massachusetts, setting off the Revolutionary War. Arnold's career as a commanding officer in America's fight for independence had begun. 

Benedict Arnold quickly proved his worth as a military leader, delivering key victories that helped shape the direction of the war. In May 1775, Arnold joined forces with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to successfully capture the British-controlled Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York. In October 1776, Arnold clashed with the British navy on the waters of Lake Champlain at the Battle of Valcour Island. While British forces beat back Arnold's fleet, the confrontation successfully stalled British advancement into the upper Hudson Valley—thus buying time for the Continental army to regroup. 

In the fall of 1777, Arnold once more squared off with advancing British forces in northern New York, this time at the decisive First and Second Battles of Saratoga. A major turning point in the Revolutionary War, the confrontation resulted in British General John Burgoyne’s surrender and persuaded the French to enter the war against Britain and provide military aid to patriot forces.

Related: 10 Revealing Revolutionary War Books 

The Second Battle of Saratoga also left Benedict Arnold seriously wounded—and increasingly frustrated by what he saw as insufficient recognition of his contributions to the war effort. In 1778, George Washington moved Arnold away from the frontlines and placed him in command of Philadelphia as its military governor. It was during this time that Arnold met his future second wife, Margaret "Peggy" Shippen, whose pro-British sentiments and close ties to British leaders—in particular, British Major John André—ultimately sowed the seeds of betrayal.

In the excerpt below, Flexner vividly recreates the moment General Washington learned of Benedict Arnold's act of betrayal—and how the commander of the Continental army stepped up to take action. 

Read on for an excerpt from Washington: The Indispensable Man, and then download the book.

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Washington

By James Thomas Flexner

Washington

By James Thomas Flexner

Arnold had commanded West Point for two months when Washington, on his way back from his depressing conference with Rochambeau, intended to inspect the fortress. He looked forward to spending a day and a night with the valiant officer and his very pretty wife. After a considerable ride, he arrived at their headquarters, some miles upriver from West Point, on September 24 for a late breakfast. He was dashed to be received only by an aide. Mrs. Arnold, he was told, had not yet arisen, and General Arnold had embarked in his barge on the river. The General had left word that he had gone to the fortress to prepare a reception for “His Excellency.”

Washington ate his breakfast with no emotions deeper than disappointment, and then himself set out on the river. Concern first appeared in his mind when, as the fortress that rose high on the right bank of the river loomed ever closer, he could see on the landing place only somnolently pacing sentries. There was no sign of the reception which Arnold had said he was going to prepare.

Related: Rediscover America’s First President with the Best George Washington Books 

“As soon as Washington landed, he asked for Arnold. None of the officers had seen him that day. As Washington proceeded with his inspection of the various redoubts, he kept hoping that Arnold would appear. “My mind misgave me,” he later remembered, but “I had not the least idea of the real cause.”

Washington was back at Arnold’s headquarters in time to spruce up for a four o’clock dinner. Hamilton, who had been left behind to receive any dispatches that might come in, reported that nothing had been heard of Arnold. Peggy had sent word down that she was indisposed.

The party dispersed to their rooms. As Lafayette was dressing, Hamilton dashed in with the request that he attend at once on the commander. He found Washington trembling with emotion, a packet of papers in his hands. “Arnold,” Washington cried out, “has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”

george_washington_biography
  • Portrait of Benedict Arnold.

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The papers revealed that “John Anderson” had been stopped on his way from the American to the enemy lines, dressed as a civilian and hiding in his shoes papers in Arnold’s handwriting giving information which would assist the British in capturing West Point. There was also a meticulously written letter from “Anderson” which revealed that he was no common spy but a high officer. It stated, “What I have as yet said concerning myself was in the justifiable attempt to be extricated. I am too little accustomed to duplicity to have succeeded. The person in your possession is Major John André, adjutant general to the British army.”

It was not clear how wide was the plot or how great the immediate danger to West Point. Although André had been apprehended, other messages might have got through. And the wind, blowing upriver, was perfectly angled to hurry British warships from New York Bay to the fortress, which might be secretly prepared for surrender. The obvious necessity was to take the precaution of changing commanders at key posts while at the same time putting West Point on the alert for attack. These things Washington failed to do. So great was the shock of discovering the perfidy of a man he had so deeply trusted that only one thing seemed important to him: capturing the traitor.

Related: When Benedict Arnold Created—and Then Sank—a Fleet of Ships During the Battle of Valcour Island 

Two of Washington’s aides, who had arrived at Arnold’s headquarters in the early morning, remembered that he had received a message obviously disturbing to him. He had taken to the river. Enough time had passed since then for Arnold to have reached the anchored British warship from which André had previously disembarked. Yet Washington held on to the hope that Arnold had not been notified of the discovery of his treason and was somewhere in American territory where he could be captured. To keep the villain in ignorance, Washington resolved to make no move that would indicate that the plot had been revealed. He did nothing more than send Hamilton and a companion thundering on horseback down to King’s Ferry, the last outpost that could stop Arnold’s barge.

One of Arnold’s aides came up to Washington and reported that Mrs. Arnold seemed to have gone mad. She had been running through the upstairs halls almost naked, shouting that “there was a hot iron on her head, and no one but General Washington could take it off.”

"He is gone. He is gone forever, there, there, there: the spirits have carried him up there!"

Washington mounted the stairs. The beautiful young woman was now in bed, dandling her baby, raving, weeping, revealing, as her bedclothes parted, charms usually hidden. She paid no attention to the tall figure standing in the door. Arnold’s aide spoke to her: “There is General Washington.”

“No!” she cried, and denied that he was Washington.

Leaning over her with the greatest concern, he gently assured her that he was. “No!” she shrieked, gesturing to shield her infant. “No! That is not General Washington! That is the man who was agoing to assist Colonel Varick in killing my child.”

When Washington finally persuaded her of his identity, she accused him of “being in a plot to murder her child.” Her husband, she moaned, could not protect her. “General Arnold will never return. He is gone. He is gone forever, there, there, there: the spirits have carried him up there!” She pointed at ceiling. “They have put hot irons on his head.”

Finally Washington went downstairs. He felt all the more bitter against a traitor who had caused so lovely a lady such anguish.

Related: 7 of the Best American History Books  

Washington wandered around like a man in a nightmare. It was after six in the evening when a message came in from Hamilton reporting that Arnold had escaped to a British warship, from which he had sent two letters that were enclosed. The one to Peggy, Washington sent upstairs unopened with the message that, although it had been his duty to try to capture Arnold, he was happy to relieve her anxiety by telling her that her husband was safe. The other letter was addressed to Washington. He read it with rage, since Arnold contended that it was true patriotism which had carried him to the British.

Now, at long last, Washington took the steps which he should have taken hours before. In dispatches headed sometimes “seven o’clock,” sometimes merely “o’clock,” he prepared the army for a British assault. During the night, the wind changed, and the immediate danger was over.

Washington walked around like a man in a nightmare.

The next day, Washington had to face the painful problems of what to do about Peggy and what to do with André. The young wife (who had been in the plot from the start) need not have used such heavy artillery on Washington; he always labored to shield women from the rigors of war. The next morning, she admitted to no memory of her hysteria and stated quietly that she was utterly innocent. Washington accepted the statement without question. He sent her back to her father in Philadelphia.

To make the problem of André the more heartrending, the young officer behaved in his mortal danger with the utmost courage and the utmost charm. Washington was deeply touched, all the more because of André’s temperamental resemblance to Lafayette. Washington’s young aides, including Hamilton, were almost aswoon with sympathy for the prisoner. But a court-martial could not avoid the verdict that André had acted as a spy and must be sentenced to death.

Related: George Washington Was Nearly Impossible to Kill 

Washington longed for some way to escape the inevitable. He could not pardon André out of hand without making it seem to American public opinion that the army was soft on treason. But supposing he could substitute on the gibbet the right man? Knowing that André was Clinton’s intimate friend, Washington sent unofficial (they could be no more) messages to his British opposite that he would be happy to release André if Arnold were made available for capture. But Clinton could not agree without torpedoing the whole British effort to win over American officers.

The most exquisitely painful issue then arose. Accepting his death as unavoidable, André asked to be shot (which was considered a gentleman’s death), not hanged like a varlet. But hanging was prescribed for spies, and Washington feared that changing the manner of death would give further ammunition to the British propaganda machine, which was already crying out that he intended to murder a legitimate prisoner of war. Although Hamilton growled angrily, “Some people are only sensitive to motives of policy,” Washington saw no way that he could interfere with the legally established penalty. It was for him a dreadful moment when the clock struck the hour of the hanging.

george_washington_biography
  • A portrait of Peggy Shippen and her daughter.

  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As Washington concocted an elaborate scheme—which misfired—to have Arnold kidnapped from New York City, the British tried to make every use of Arnold’s defection to disrupt patriot morale. The British propaganda machine ground out statements for Arnold which described his acts as true patriotism and tried, by opening up every sore that rankled in patriot minds, to induce others to imitate him. But hatred for the traitor swept the nation.

Washington’s investigations indicated (as was the fact) that there had been no widespread plot. Except for mean go-betweens, Arnold (and Peggy) had operated alone. Yet there remained a most dangerous issue. While in Philadelphia, Arnold had been supported by the conservatives, and he had long been a protégé of Washington’s. If guilt by association were accepted, the right wing of the patriot cause and the Commander in Chief would be tainted. It is terrifying to think what use a modern “super-patriot” rabble-rouser could have made of this issue. The radical Reed did take some initial steps, but then, frightened it seems by the possible consequences, stepped back.

Washington warned that witch hunts would serve the enemy “by sowing jealousies, and, if we swallow the bait, no character will be safe. There will be nothing but mutual distrust.” He labored to turn the popular emotion to gratitude that the plot had been foiled: “In no instance since the commencement of the war has the interposition of Providence been more conspicuous than in the rescue of the post and garrison of West Point from Arnold’s villainous perfidy.” 

Want to keep reading? Download Washington: The Indispensable Man and learn the full story of America's first president.

Need to know what happened to Arnold after his infamous betrayal? Read on.

How Did Benedict Arnold Die? 

In 1779, Benedict Arnold entered into secret negotiations with British forces. Peggy facilitated the clandestine exchanges, serving as an intermediary. By 1780, a plot was hatched: Arnold would help deliver control of West Point to British forces in return for a handsome recompense and command in the British Army. Why this one-time Revolutionary War hero turned his back on America's quest for independence remains one of history's most baffling (and contentious) mysteries. In any case, the plot failed. In September 1780, British Major André, Benedict Arnold’s primary point of contact, was captured while disguised as a civilian and crossing between British and American lines. Among André's possessions were documents that outlined the plot and incriminated Arnold in treason. 

Arnold took flight upon learning of André's capture, escaping behind British lines before American soldiers could apprehend him. André was not so lucky. In October of 1780, he was hanged as a spy. 

News of Benedict Arnold and his treachery spread throughout the eastern seaboard. He was loathed by the public; indeed, historians suggest that the scandal played a sizable role in boosting morale and reinvigorating the patriot cause. Upon his defection, Arnold took up arms in the British army, fighting in a number of smaller engagements against his former countrymen. In December 1781, with the war drawing to a close, Arnold and his family set sail for England. 

Arnold struggled to establish himself upon his arrival to England—many kept their distance, due in no small part to the role Arnold played in Major André's death. He pursued a number of business ventures in his final years, from land speculation in Canada to privateering in the West Indies. On June 14, 1801, after suffering from increasingly poor health, Benedict Arnold died at the age of 60. He was buried in south London at Saint Mary's Church, Battersea.

This story originally appeared on Early Bird Books.

Featured photo: General George Washington at Trenton by John Trumbull, Yale University Art Gallery via Wikipedia 

Published on 20 Feb 2019

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