Researching my new book God Save Benedict Arnold, I came to appreciate the central role that New York State played in Arnold’s career and in the Revolutionary War itself.
The first shots of the American Revolution rang out early on the morning of April 19, 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Only three weeks later, on May 10, Benedict Arnold managed to capture the most strategic fortification in the colonies at Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.
He then fitted out a small schooner with cannon and, on his own initiative, proceeded north on the lake into Canada. There he captured a sloop of war, the only British warship in the region, and secured Lake Champlain for the patriots.
His feat was one of the most critical accomplishments of the war. The strategic objective of the British during the first two years of the war was to take control of the
waterway that ran from Montreal to New York City. This was that era’s superhighway through the colonies. British dominance there would have split the colonies, isolated New England, and most likely won the war for the redcoats.
Why is the Ticonderoga victory rarely emphasized in the history books? For one thing, it wasn’t much of a battle — the attackers found the British asleep. But the fact is that history was later revised to take credit away from Arnold after he proved a traitor.
In some accounts, the credit for the capture went to Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who supplied the manpower for the operation. Allen was an opportunist who saw the Revolution as a chance to cement his land claims in what is now the state of Vermont. His vigilante band had been harassing the authorities who were trying to maintain New York’s claim to the region.
But the idea for capturing the fort came from Benedict Arnold. He supplied the leadership. And through initiative and skill he secured the lake and protected the fort from being quickly retaken. He also organized the artillery from the fort, which was later used to drive the British out of Boston.
The value of the Fort Ticonderoga was proven the following year, when the British mounted their first invasion from Canada. To do so, they needed a fleet of armed
vessels to counter the Americans’ warships. Otherwise, their troop transports would have been vulnerable to attack.
The summer of 1776 saw an arms race, with both sides building gunboats and ships at opposite ends of Champlain. Benedict Arnold led the nautical effort to stop the invasion. The long delay while the British tried to amass overwhelming firepower worked to the advantage of the patriots.
On October 11, 1776, Arnold’s small fleet finally fought the much larger British force at Valcour Island, just south of today’s Plattsburgh. The initial battle was a stand-off.
Further firing as the British chased Arnold south on the lake largely ruined the American fleet. But by the time the enemy approached Ticonderoga with their main army, it was too late in the season to begin a siege. They returned to Canada — the American effort was a success.
The British did not give up on their plan for an invasion from Canada. In 1777, General John Burgoyne led a powerful army down Lake Champlain. This time, there
was no resistance from American warships, which had largely been destroyed in the action of 1776. Burgoyne took Ticonderoga without firing a shot.
They fought two battles, collectively known as the Battle of Saratoga. In both, Burgoyne tried to sweep around the left end of the American line; in both, Benedict Arnold commanded the left division.
In the battle of September 19, he fought Burgoyne to a standstill. On October 7, he decisively defeated the enemy and personally led a charge that smashed through the British field fortifications.
Arnold was severely wounded in the attack, but his heroism forced Burgoyne to retreat and, a few days later, to surrender his entire army. Saratoga became known as the turning point of the war.
Over the years, stories with little basis in fact held that Arnold’s role at Saratoga was minimal. But many historians today consider him to be the essential leader of the essential victory of the war.
Arnold was not finished in New York. In 1780, after his decision to defect to the British — the reason remains murky — he gained command of the lower Hudson Valley.
He planned to hand over to the British the fort at West Point, which guarded the river. The plot was foiled by chance. Arnold escaped to British-held city of New York, and joined their army as a brigadier general. He fought against Americans in Virginia and in 1781 led a raid on New London, Connecticut, close to his hometown of Norwich.
Benedict Arnold has always been a problematic character, both hero and villain, a champion of the Revolution who tried to destroy the Revolution. Yet his complex and paradoxical nature makes him one of the most interesting figures of the era.
His story also offers a cautionary tale. We have to remain aware of the danger of paradoxical figures, who abound in history. Just in the Revolutionary era, Aaron Burr, Charles Lee, Benjamin Church, and Ethan Allen himself all served the American cause and, in one way or another, wavered from it. None went as far as Benedict Arnold, but his example reminds us of the fickle qualities of human nature.
It should serve to keep us always on our guard against treasonous tendencies even in our heroes.
Jack Kelly’s God Save Benedict Arnold: The True Story of America’s Most Hated Man has just been published by St. Martin’s Press. Kirkus Reviews described the book as “a dazzling addition to the history of the American Revolution.” Kelly lives and works in the Hudson Valley. His Substack newsletter is called “Talking to America.” You can read more of his work at the New York Almanack here.
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