Childhood & Early Life
Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Colony of Connecticut, British America. His father was also called Benedict Arnold and his mother’s name was Hannah Waterman King. He was the second of the couple’s six children.
His father was a successful businessman and young Benedict had a comfortable childhood. Unfortunately several of Benedict’s siblings died young and unable to bear the grief, his father took up drinking and became addicted to alcohol. Eventually his business floundered and the family’s fortunes declined.
Benedict could not afford to go to college and was thus apprenticed at a successful apothecary and general merchandise trade ran by his mother’s relatives. His apprenticeship lasted seven years.
He lost his mother in 1759 following which his father’s alcoholism worsened. Benedict struggled to support his father and a lone surviving sibling. His father too died in 1761.
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Benedict Arnold established himself in business as a pharmacist and bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut with the help of relatives. Hard working and intelligent, he soon became a successful merchant. He formed a partnership with Adam Babcock in 1764 and ventured into a business operating ships on the Atlantic Ocean. However, the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act the following year restricted mercantile trade in the colonies
As a result, he joined the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization opposed to implementation of unpopular Parliamentary measures.
In 1775, the American Revolutionary War broke out. It was the armed conflict between Great Britain and 13 of its North American colonies, which had declared themselves the independent United States of America. Arnold volunteered for service with the American Continental Army.
He accompanied Ethan Allen in the successful colonial attack on British-held Fort Ticonderoga, New York. Then he participated in the raid on Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River north of Lake Champlain.
Impressed by his courage, General George Washington appointed him to command an expedition to capture Quebec. He led 700 men through the Maine wilderness and attacked the well-fortified city. The assault however failed and Arnold was severely wounded.
He was then promoted to the rank of brigadier general and commanded by General Washington to defend Rhode Island following the British seizure of Newport in December 1776.
Despite all his successes as a courageous army man, Arnold earned several enemies because of his rash behavior and impatience. In February 1777, five new major generalships were created but Arnold was passed over for promotion in favor of his juniors. Disappointed, he decided to resign but Washington persuaded him to stay.
Benedict Arnold continued serving the Americans sincerely in spite of his disappointment, and repelled a British attack on Danbury in mid-1777. He was finally made a major general, but his seniority was not restored. Over the next few months he won a victory at Fort Stanwix and commanded advance battalions at the Battle of Saratoga. He fought valiantly and suffered grievous injuries in the battle. Following this, he was restored to his proper relative rank.
His injuries were very severe and it took him several months to recover. Arnold was placed in command of Philadelphia in June 1778. There he became acquainted with families of loyalist sympathies and lived extravagantly. He began to violate several state and military regulations in order to raise money for his lavish lifestyle, arousing suspicion of Pennsylvania’s supreme executive council.
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He was growing increasingly dissatisfied with his country’s situation and was being drawn to the loyalist forces. In May 1779, he became acquainted with Major André, who had just been named the British spy chief. Thus began his secret communications with the British forces.
Arnold then revealed to the British the secret of a proposed American invasion of Canada. He expected to obtain the command of West Point, New York, and asked the British for £20,000 for betraying this post.
He obtained command of West Point in August 1780. Once he established himself in this position, Arnold began systematically weakening its defenses and military strength. However, his scheme of betrayal was thwarted when André was captured by the Americans with some secret papers in September 1780.
Arnold made a hasty escape and went to England in 1781. He tried to re-establish his military career with the British military and also attempted to gain a position with the British East India Company, but was unable to do so. His later life was marked by ill health and brushes with the law.
Personal Life & Legacy
His first marriage was to Margaret Mansfield, daughter of Samuel Mansfield, the sheriff of New Haven, in 1767. They had three sons. His wife died in 1775.
He married Peggy Shippen, daughter of Judge Edward Shippen, a Loyalist sympathizer, in 1779. This marriage produced seven children, of whom five survived to adulthood.
He suffered from ill health during the later years of his life. He was plagued by gout since 1775 and became ill with dropsy later on. He died on June 14, 1801, at the age of 60.
Benedict Arnold is most notorious for defecting to the British Army during the American Revolutionary War which he began as an officer in the American Continental Army. He schemed to surrender the forts at West Point, New York, which were under his command to the British. However, the plot failed when one of his co-conspirator was arrested.