The Tragic Life of Benedict Arnold

WORLD HISTORY |

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold’s name has become synonymous with traitor, courtesy of his famous betrayal of the Continental Army. That poor decision has made him the object of hatred from Americans for years beyond his death, but a closer look at his life might just make him the object of pity instead.


One thing that is important to note is that Benedict Arnold was not the first Benedict Arnold. It was his father’s name, his grandfather’s name, and his great-grandfather’s name. And, creepily enough, it was also his older brother’s name – that is, his older brother who died as a baby before the Benedict Arnold we’ve come to loathe was even born. Many people have been named after fathers and grandfathers, but he was also named after a deceased sibling, one he had replaced as the eldest son.

Benedict Arnold Family Homestead, Norwich, CT

Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741, to Benedict Arnold III and Hannah Waterman King. His parents went on to have four more children after them; however, only his oldest sister Hannah lived to be an adult. His brother, Absolom, died in 1750 at just under three years of age. His other siblings – seven-year-old Mary and three-year-old Elizabeth – died from yellow fever in 1753, just nineteen years apart. The family was initially affluent as Arnold’s father owned a successful mercantile business. At the age of ten, Arnold was enrolled in a private school in Canterbury, Connecticut and was expected to attend Yale University. All of that changed, however, after his father began drinking heavily, most likely the result of the death of his children. The family fortune dwindled and, by age 14, they could no longer afford private school.

Lathrop Home, Norwich, CT

Due to his father’s drinking and poor health, Arnold was unable to be trained in the family business. He turned instead to his mother’s cousins, Daniel, and Joshua Lathrop, who trained him in the apothecary trade. He stayed with them for seven years, during which time his mother passed away, leaving Arnold to care for his last remaining sibling and his alcoholic father. His father’s alcoholism worsened, and he was arrested more than once for public intoxication before his death in 1961.

In 1962, the Lathrops helped him set up his own pharmacy and bookselling establishment. His business was very successful and, by 1963, he was able to repay the money he had borrowed to get started as well repurchase his family home which his father had been forced to sell. A year later, he resold the home to purchase three trading ships which he used to develop a West Indies trade business with Adam Babcock. His sister Hannah managed the New Haven business in his absence.  

Sons of Liberty

The implementation of the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 was damaging to Arnold’s mercantile business. As a result, he joined the Sons of Liberty, an organization formed to counteract what they considered to be unfair actions taken by the British government. Arnold did not participate in any public demonstrations, but he continued to operate his business in violation of the Stamp Act. Under the British law, he was essentially a smuggler.

Despite his defiance, his business continued to suffer, and he soon fell into debt. On February 22, 1767, he married Margaret Mansfield. They had three sons which they named Benedict, Richard, and Henry. Her father was the sheriff of New Haven, which helped to protect Arnold from the many creditors to which he was in default.

Ethan Allen at Fort Ticonderoga, 1775

In 1775, Arnold became a captain in the Connecticut Colony militia. He fought alongside Ethan Allen in the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga. He returned home sometime after the battle to learn his wife had passed away in his absence. Nevertheless, he continued to fight, severely injuring his leg during an invasion of Quebec. Afterward, he was promoted to Brigadier general. He was passed over for major general several times in favor of junior officers and began to grow resentful. He was on the verge of resigning when he was finally promoted, but his seniority was not restored until he injured his leg in battle once again. In 1778, he became military governor of Philadelphia. 

Peggy Shippen

While in Philadelphia, Arnold married Peggy Shippen, the 18-year-old daughter of a loyalist sympathizer. Many speculate that it was her influence and that of her family that led to Arnold’s eventual betrayal; however, there were certainly other contributing factors. Arnold was known to have financial difficulties. He had developed a personality rife with ambition and insecurity and was generally disliked among his fellow officers. He also still harbored resentment for the long delay of his promotion to major general, feeling as if he was unappreciated in the Continental Army. As a result, he began negotiating the surrender of West Point to British forces in exchange for money and a position in the British army.

British Army, Revolutionary War

Arnold exchanged several letters with Sir Henry Clinton, using British major John Andre as an intermediary. Andre was eventually captured while holding documents which would incriminate Arnold. Arnold received word of Andre’s capture and fled before he could be confronted. He received the position of brigadier general, though with a lower pay than negotiated due to his plan’s failure. His disposition was not improved, and he was not well-liked among British ranks either.

After the war, he settled in England and resumed the life of a businessman, though with much less success than in his early years. He died on June 14, 1801, after four days of delirium associated with edema.

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