Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later

This is the first part of what will be a running series that will highlight the 240th anniversary of the events surrounding Benedict Arnold’s treason.

The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason during the Revolutionary War is one of the most infamous, yet tragic, in our nation’s history. He was the “American Hannibal,” the most brilliant battlefield commander during the conflict’s early stages. His patriotism, sacrifice, and commitment to the cause of independence were matched by few in the American high command, so too were his battle honors. Fort Ticonderoga, Quebec, Valcour Island, Ridgefield, the relief of Fort Stanwix, and the battles of Saratoga—he was always in the thick of things.

Benedict Arnold
Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. Wikimedia.

Arnold’s treason was not something that was pre-determined. His ultimate defection to the British in 1780 was a result of many factors that continued to pile up as the war progressed, but it can be rooted in a long-running feeling of being underappreciated and a growing distrust in America’s political leaders.

Following his grievous leg wound at Saratoga on October 7, 1777, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia, never to command American troops on the battlefield again. While stationed there, his downward spiral towards treason began to accelerate. An open feud with Joseph Reed and Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council led to a court martial and reprimand from George Washington, something beyond correction for a man with the personal honor of Benedict Arnold. The slippery slope became even more slippery.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Arnold’s shady business dealings and abuse of power in Philadelphia, and his subsequent court martial, in April 1779, he married the young loyalist sympathizer, Peggy Shippen. Although there is no actual evidence that can directly tie Peggy to Arnold’s treasonous plot to eventually turn the American stronghold of West Point over to the British, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence. Coincidentally, the month following their marriage, Arnold opened up a line of communication with Henry Clinton to test the waters and eventually begin negotiations regarding his defection. By the summer of 1780, he was lobbying George Washington to give him command of West Point and the Hudson Highlands north of New York City.

1783 Sketch of West Point
A Sketch of West Point from 1783. Library of Congress. 

Today, 240 years ago, the American commander in chief directed Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold to assume command of the post. The treasonous plot to turn West Point and control of the Hudson River over to the British was becoming a reality. Below is Washington’s directive:


You are to proceed to West Point and take the command of the Post, and its dependencies—in which are included all from Fish-kill to Kings Ferry, The Corps of Infantry and Cavalry advanced towards the Enemy’s lines on the East side of the River will also be under your orders, and will take directions from you, and you will endeavour to obtain every intelligence of the Enemy’s motions. The Garrison of West Point is to consist of the Militia of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, for which reason, as soon as the Number from those States amounts to twelve hundred, the New York Militia under the command of Colonel Malcom are to join the main Army in the West side of the River. And when the number from Massachusetts Bay alone shall amount to fifteen hundred Rank and File—the Militia of New Hampshire will also march to the main Army. Colonel James Livingstons Regiment is till further Orders to Garrison the Redoubts at Stoney and Verplanks Points.

Claverac upon the North River is appointed for the place of rendevous of the Militia of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, from whence you will have them brought down as fast as they arrive. A supply of provisions will be necessary at that place, which you will order from time to time as there may be occassion.

You will endeavour to have the works at West Point carried on as expeditiously as possible by the Garrison, under the direction and superintendance of the Engineers—The stores carefully preserved—and the provision safely deposited and often inspected—particularly the salted meat. a certain quantity of provision has been constantly kept in each work, to be ready against a sudden attack. Where there are Bomb Proofs they serve for Magazines—but in the smaller works where there are none, you will have places erected sufficiently tight to preserve the provision from damage and pillage.

You will as soon as possible obtain and transmit an accurate Return of the Militia which have come in, and inform me regularly of their increase.

Should any Levies, from the State of New York or those to the Eastward of it, intended for the Continental Army arrive at West Point, you will immediately forward them to the lines to which they respectively belong.

The difficulties we shall certainly experience on the score of provisions render the utmost oeconomy highly necessary. You will therefore attend frequently to the daily issues, and by comparing them with your Returns, will be able to check any impositions. Given at Head Quarters at Peekskill this 3d of August 1780

Go: Washington

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