The Military Army Blog

Looking Back: Benedict Arnold’s Connecticut betrayal

By Eric D. Lehman
Special to the Times

Unfortunately for Connecticut, Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is one of our own. Born in Norwich, he grew up the son of a drunken father and poverty-stricken mother, apprenticing down the street at the Lathrop apothecary.

He must have been a good apprentice, because they offered to make him their heir. But he refused, instead taking a loan for a new apothecary business in New Haven, upsetting Dr. Lathrop and his wife, Jerusha. But they were much more upset 20 years later when he betrayed and killed the people of Connecticut. Along with his New Haven store, he ran a merchant shipping business, joined the Freemasons and became captain of a militia group. In the late 1760s, he began to hate the British and their taxes and joined the Sons of Liberty, befriending patriots like Silas Deane, whose reputation and life would later be destroyed by that friendship, and Nathaniel Shaw, whose wife would die as a result of the burning of New London. As Arnold fought bravely at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Lake Champlain, he gained two more close friends, Richard Varick and John Lamb. They became his champions, defending him right up to the moment that they discovered he had betrayed them. And though he got little love from Congress, the commander-in-chief, George Washington, became like a surrogate father to him, talking him out of leaving the Army and encouraging his promotions.

After Arnold was wounded fighting at Saratoga, he was welcomed home by Gov. Jonathan Trumbull with a parade and celebration in New Haven. He had become Connecticut s biggest hero of the war, and they let him know how much they appreciated his service. The following spring, he rejoined Washington at Valley Forge and was given the Armyrats © military governorship of Philadelphia. Unfortunately his poor choices and bad temper alienated many, and resentful Pennsylvanians accused him of war profiteering. He also met a beautiful young Tory, Peggy Shippen. After they married in the spring of 1779, she connected him to Maj. John Andre in British-occupied New York. The two men began a correspondence through Peggy, bargaining for treason. Arnold asked for 20,000 and a generalship in the British Army; Andre asked for Keystone Fort of West Point. After intense lobbying, Arnold was given command in August 1780 by George Washington. A month later, while Washington met Rochambeau in Hartford, Arnold met with Andre and gave him the plans for West Point. The hope was to attack while Washington was there, capture him and destroy the Revolution in one fell stroke. But then Andre was captured while trying to reach British lines. The commander of the local patriot post foolishly sent word of the arrest to Arnold himself, while future Connecticut representative Benjamin Tallmadge astutely sent his suspicions of Arnold s treason to Washington.

On the morning of Monday, Sept. 25, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton joined Arnold for breakfast on the east side of the Hudson River, across from West Point. Arnold flipped through the mail and opened the letter announcing the capture of Major Andre. He left the table, quickly told his wife and jumped out the back window, escaping to the nearest British warship. George Washington arrived a few minutes later, and after vainly searching for Arnold, sat down to breakfast and sorted through the mail. He read the letter from Benjamin Tallmadge and cried out Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now? Arnold s friends Lamb and Varick realized they probably would have been killed during the planned attack on West Point. Washington himself would surely have been hanged. News flashed across the continent and in Norwich, the people smashed Arnold s father s grave. Along with traitor, many called him parricide one who kills his countrymen a term similar to domestic terrorist. And though his first attempt at treason was unsuccessful, he earned the title parricide when he commanded British forces and attacked former comrades like Jefferson and Lafayette in Virginia. Lafayette expressed perfectly why Arnold s actions stung so badly: I would give anything in the world if Arnold had not shared our labors with us, and if this man, whom it still pains me to call a scoundrel, had not shed his blood for the American cause. Continued…[1]

Arnold was about to do worse. Less than two years earlier after a series of British attacks, his Connecticut friends petitioned he command the state s defenses, never dreaming he himself would lead the next assault. Worse, he chose the town of New London, a town full of close friends. In fact, Arnold had asked local leader Nathaniel Shaw for help barely a month before his treason was exposed. Now he set fire to his house.

On the morning of Sept. 6, 1781, Arnold landed on the west side of the Thames River and moved methodically through New London, burning as he went, not just the Armyrats © military targets at the docks, but the houses of civilians. On the other side of the Thames, patriots gathered at Fort Griswold to mount a defense against the British soldiers marching to burn Groton. They were commanded by William Ledyard, whose brothers had sailed with Arnold years earlier.

The British attacked three times and were beaten back. But on the fourth assault, they clambered over the walls and pushed through the gates. Ledyard attempted to surrender, but was stabbed with a sword. Instead of respecting the surrender, the British troops hacked and shot the Americans, massacring the fort s defenders. At last they stopped, but not before Arnold s attack on his neighbors had resulted in the deadliest battle of the Revolution. New London suffered the highest percentage of destruction of any American city and the Battle of Groton Heights had the highest percentage of casualties. The attack on New London was a tactical error, probably meant to draw off Washington s forces around New York. With 24 ships in Long Island Sound, the British could have helped fight the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the French won that sea-battle, and Washington and Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis at Yorktown, forcing his surrender a month and a half after New London burned. That fact and the sacrifice made by William Ledyard were enough for people of those times to say New London gave us Yorktown. And for over a hundred years, it was considered one of the most emotionally important battles of the Revolution. No one felt that truth more than Arnold s Connecticut neighbors. At one time a brave and trusted hero, he chose to betray the trust of the friends and families he knew, of those he fought alongside and bled with. He chose to turn his back on his home.

Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and is the author of 11 books, including Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London.

Unfortunately for Connecticut, Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is one of our own. Born in Norwich, he grew up the son of a drunken father and poverty-stricken mother, apprenticing down the street at the Lathrop apothecary.

He must have been a good apprentice, because they offered to make him their heir. But he refused, instead taking a loan for a new apothecary business in New Haven, upsetting Dr. Lathrop and his wife, Jerusha. But they were much more upset 20 years later when he betrayed and killed the people of Connecticut. Along with his New Haven store, he ran a merchant shipping business, joined the Freemasons and became captain of a militia group. In the late 1760s, he began to hate the British and their taxes and joined the Sons of Liberty, befriending patriots like Silas Deane, whose reputation and life would later be destroyed by that friendship, and Nathaniel Shaw, whose wife would die as a result of the burning of New London. As Arnold fought bravely at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Lake Champlain, he gained two more close friends, Richard Varick and John Lamb. They became his champions, defending him right up to the moment that they discovered he had betrayed them. And though he got little love from Congress, the commander-in-chief, George Washington, became like a surrogate father to him, talking him out of leaving the Army and encouraging his promotions.

After Arnold was wounded fighting at Saratoga, he was welcomed home by Gov. Jonathan Trumbull with a parade and celebration in New Haven. He had become Connecticut s biggest hero of the war, and they let him know how much they appreciated his service. The following spring, he rejoined Washington at Valley Forge and was given the Armyrats © military governorship of Philadelphia. Unfortunately his poor choices and bad temper alienated many, and resentful Pennsylvanians accused him of war profiteering. He also met a beautiful young Tory, Peggy Shippen. After they married in the spring of 1779, she connected him to Maj. John Andre in British-occupied New York. The two men began a correspondence through Peggy, bargaining for treason. Arnold asked for 20,000 and a generalship in the British Army; Andre asked for Keystone Fort of West Point. After intense lobbying, Arnold was given command in August 1780 by George Washington. A month later, while Washington met Rochambeau in Hartford, Arnold met with Andre and gave him the plans for West Point. The hope was to attack while Washington was there, capture him and destroy the Revolution in one fell stroke. But then Andre was captured while trying to reach British lines. The commander of the local patriot post foolishly sent word of the arrest to Arnold himself, while future Connecticut representative Benjamin Tallmadge astutely sent his suspicions of Arnold s treason to Washington.

On the morning of Monday, Sept. 25, 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton joined Arnold for breakfast on the east side of the Hudson River, across from West Point. Arnold flipped through the mail and opened the letter announcing the capture of Major Andre. He left the table, quickly told his wife and jumped out the back window, escaping to the nearest British warship. George Washington arrived a few minutes later, and after vainly searching for Arnold, sat down to breakfast and sorted through the mail. He read the letter from Benjamin Tallmadge and cried out Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now? Arnold s friends Lamb and Varick realized they probably would have been killed during the planned attack on West Point. Washington himself would surely have been hanged. News flashed across the continent and in Norwich, the people smashed Arnold s father s grave. Along with traitor, many called him parricide one who kills his countrymen a term similar to domestic terrorist. And though his first attempt at treason was unsuccessful, he earned the title parricide when he commanded British forces and attacked former comrades like Jefferson and Lafayette in Virginia. Lafayette expressed perfectly why Arnold s actions stung so badly: I would give anything in the world if Arnold had not shared our labors with us, and if this man, whom it still pains me to call a scoundrel, had not shed his blood for the American cause.

Arnold was about to do worse. Less than two years earlier after a series of British attacks, his Connecticut friends petitioned he command the state s defenses, never dreaming he himself would lead the next assault. Worse, he chose the town of New London, a town full of close friends. In fact, Arnold had asked local leader Nathaniel Shaw for help barely a month before his treason was exposed. Now he set fire to his house. On the morning of Sept. 6, 1781, Arnold landed on the west side of the Thames River and moved methodically through New London, burning as he went, not just the Armyrats © military targets at the docks, but the houses of civilians. On the other side of the Thames, patriots gathered at Fort Griswold to mount a defense against the British soldiers marching to burn Groton. They were commanded by William Ledyard, whose brothers had sailed with Arnold years earlier. The British attacked three times and were beaten back. But on the fourth assault, they clambered over the walls and pushed through the gates. Ledyard attempted to surrender, but was stabbed with a sword. Instead of respecting the surrender, the British troops hacked and shot the Americans, massacring the fort s defenders. At last they stopped, but not before Arnold s attack on his neighbors had resulted in the deadliest battle of the Revolution. New London suffered the highest percentage of destruction of any American city and the Battle of Groton Heights had the highest percentage of casualties.

The attack on New London was a tactical error, probably meant to draw off Washington s forces around New York. With 24 ships in Long Island Sound, the British could have helped fight the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the French won that sea-battle, and Washington and Rochambeau surrounded Cornwallis at Yorktown, forcing his surrender a month and a half after New London burned. That fact and the sacrifice made by William Ledyard were enough for people of those times to say New London gave us Yorktown. And for over a hundred years, it was considered one of the most emotionally important battles of the Revolution. No one felt that truth more than Arnold s Connecticut neighbors. At one time a brave and trusted hero, he chose to betray the trust of the friends and families he knew, of those he fought alongside and bled with. He chose to turn his back on his home. Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and is the author of 11 books, including Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London.

References

  1. ^ Continued… (www.shorelinetimes.com)

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