Benedict Arnold was America’s greatest commander during the Revolutionary War. He confounded the British on more than one occasion and won the key battle of the war. At Saratoga, he rallied the troops, took a bullet in the leg, and changed America’s fortunes. France soon entered the war and put the fledgling United States on the path to independence. Then, it all changed. Congress passed him up for promotion and praised lesser officers. Arnold also needed money to continue an opulent lifestyle. Baseless corruption charges, a loyalist wife, and Arnold’s own desire for fame and fortune opened him up to treason. In the end, he decided to turn to the British and abandon the American cause for money, spite, and love.
Arnold went to convalesce after his injuries at Saratoga. Doctors wished to amputate his leg, but he refused. As a result, his left leg ended up 2 inches shorter than the right. Following the British withdrawal from Philadelphia, Arnold assumed military command of the city. In the summer of 1778, he met Philadelphia resident Peggy Shippen. Arnold and Shippen began dating and the 18-year-old loyalist sympathizer was used to extravagant living. The following year, the 38-year-old Arnold married the teenager. This was not out of the ordinary for the period.
Shippen’s lifestyle needs and loyalists sympathies provided a negative influence on Arnold. Shippen fed Arnold’s insecurities. He was upset with Congress and felt unappreciated as the body promoted lesser officers in order to assure regional balance in the officer corps. Additionally, Arnold made enemies within Congress and they invented corruption charges against the Hero of Saratoga. Arnold was cleared in January, 1780, but the incident left him bitter.
Arnold was ripe for treason after his experiences Congress. Their shoddy treatment led Washington to write Arnold a complimentary letter in order to smooth things over and reaffirm his support. However, the trumped up corruption charges, being passed up for promotion, extravagant living, and a loyalist wife pushed Arnold into British arms. He agreed to turn traitor. In May 1779, Arnold met British spy master John Andre. The two negotiated Arnold’s treason. He began providing the British military information. Arnold demanded a king’s ransom, but the British wanted West Point first. The fort was a key strategic point within the American defenses. Arnold worked Washington to gain command of the fort. Washington wanted him in the field, but Arnold claimed his injury precluded battle. Washington sympathized with Arnold and gave him West Point.
The British offered Arnold 20,000 pounds for the fort. His wife agreed to the terms. Upon assuming command, Arnold began breaking up West Point’s defenses and squandered the fort’s supplies to help a British attack. In September 1780, Arnold and Andre met to finalize details. Arnold gave Andre a pass through American lines. However, sentries captured Andre, found plans for West Point, and Arnold’s passes. The American commander informed Arnold of the capture, but did not realize the implications of the passes. Arnold ran for the British lines. Meanwhile, George Washington was on his way to confer with Arnold. He found West Point in terrible condition and ordered the defenses reset. Then, a courier arrived with Andre’s papers and Arnold’s passes. Washington realized Arnold turned traitor.
Following Arnold’s treachery, Washington attempted to trade Andre for Arnold, but the British commander, Henry Clinton, refused. He could not surrender the traitor. Other potential spies and traitors would be dissuaded from helping Britain if Clinton turned Arnold over for hanging. Arnold became a British officer and Andre was hanged as a spy. The British never fully trusted Arnold. He turned traitor once and he could do it again for the right price.
Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with treason. His name appears alongside Judas, Brutus, and other great traitors in history. By 1780, the Hero of Saratoga had enough of Congress. They undervalued him, ridiculed him, and prosecuted him. Additionally, his loyalist wife influenced Arnold and spent his money lavishly. As a result, Arnold’s bruised ego and empty pocketbook led him to turn traitor.