history had changed just slightly would Benedict Arnold
have his picture on the dollar bill?
Arnold: The Father of Our Country?
His name is synonymous with the word traitor,
yet, if things had gone a little differently, could this infinitely
complex man been the hero of the American Revolution?
There are few historians that do not recognize the
contributions made by George Washington during the American Revolution
were to be key to its success. He was an intelligent, resourceful,
military leader fully, committed to the ideals of the democracy
and the revolution. What would have been the outcome if something
had happened to the tall Virginian early in the war? Who would
have Congress turned to for military leadership?
Just such a change in history could have occurred
on September 11, 1777, in the Brandywine Valley just south of
Philadelphia. Washington was out on his horse, along with another
officer, surveying where he should position his defenses against
the advancing British troops under the command of General Howe.
There he ran into Captain Patrick Ferguson of the British Army.
Ferguson was the inventor of the first military breech-loading
rifle. This weapon could fire up to six bullets a minute and was
much more accurate and deadly than the muskets carried by most
British and American soldiers. Ferguson didn't know who Washington
was, but he recognized him as a senior American officer. He pointed
his deadly rifle at him and called out for him to surrender. Washington,
coolly defying death, swung his horse around and galloped away.
Captain Ferguson raised his rifle to shoot, but then lowered the
weapon. He later wrote that the idea of shooting an unarmed man
in the back "disgusted" him. Ferguson didn't regret his decision,
even after finding out the next day that the officer in question
was Washington himself.
What if Washington
had been killed by Captain Ferguson in 1777?
What if Ferguson had fired? Given the accuracy of
his weapon, there seems little doubt he would have hit Washington
either killing him, or wounding him so badly he would have been
captured. If Washington could no longer lead the war, to whom
would the Continental Congress have turned?
There seems to only be a couple of choices if this
had occurred in September 1777. The battle of Saratoga took place
just a month later in October. Major General Horatio Gates won
a major victory over British General John Burgoyne by capturing
his army. The temptation to give the overall command to Gates
might have been overwhelming. The General, however, did not deserve
the accolades that were laid at his feet. While he was a good
army administrator, his record as a field officer was mediocre
at best. His tentative leadership earned him the nickname "Granny"
from his troops. If another officer had not - against orders -
fearlessly led a charge at Saratoga, the battle would have been
lost. Gates also had little in the way of personal courage. Later,
in 1780, when his forces met a disastrous defeat at Camden, South
Carolina, the General hopped on a horse and in a panic and retreated
170 miles from the battlefield.
At least in retrospect, Gates, would seem to be
a poor choice to replace a fallen Washington. There was one man,
however, whose personal courage was unquestioned, who had backed
the revolutionary cause since its inception in 1767 when he'd
helped burn the Crown's officers in effigy in protest of the Stamp
Act. This same man had already saved the American cause from major
defeats on two separate occasions and had a reputation among the
men as a General who knew how to fight. Perhaps this officer would
have been the right choice to take over the role of the fallen
This man's name was Benedict Arnold.
Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1781,
and as a teenager served in the American militia during the French
and Indian war. After his parents' deaths, he established himself
in business as a pharmacist/bookseller in New Haven, Connecticut.
Arnold was an aggressive businessman as soon, working with two
partners, bought several ships becoming a merchant trader dealing
with the West Indies.
demands the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold and
Allen's capture of the Fort provided desperately needed
of Fort Ticonderoga
Arnold became involved in the revolution in 1775
when he was chosen Captain of the Second Company of Connecticut
Guards. One of the problems the Americans had during the beginning
of the war was a lack of heavy cannon. It occurred to Arnold that
if he could capture the British-held Fort Ticonderoga located
on Lake Champlain, the cannon there could be transported and pressed
into service for the revolutionary cause. With the backing of
the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, Arnold was appointed a
Colonel. He recruited troops, then headed west to link up with
Ethan Allen and the Vermont Militia (also known by the name of
the "Green Mountain Boys").
Though Allen and Arnold argued about who was in
ultimate command, they seemed to reach some sort of agreement
and successfully captured the lightly-defended Fort Ticonderoga
and the nearby Fort Crown Point and Fort St. Johns. As Arnold
predicted, the captured cannon were of great use to the Americans
and were transported to Boston where they helped break the British
seige in 1776.
of Valcour Bay
Arnold was again to serve the American cause in
the fall of 1776. He and his men had retreated to Fort Ticonderoga
after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Quebec. The British commander,
Guy Carleton, was preparing to sail down Lake Champlain and take
the fort. With that in British possession little would stop them
from grabbing the city of Albany before winter. From there Carleton
would have been able to attack New England in the spring, perhaps
bringing the American Revolution to a quick end by mid-1777. The
only thing standing in his way was Arnold and 3,500 tired, sick
and hungry American troops. The British had a force of 16,000,
re-enforced by Indians.
fleet fought the British feet at Valcour Bay. the lost,
but delayed the British advance enough to save the revolution.
It was obvious that the British had to advance by
using the lake, so instead of just waiting for them to show up
at the fort, Brigadier General Arnold decided to declare himself
an Admiral and build a fleet of ships to do battle on the water.
He had his men build 13 crude vessels, manned them with soldiers
who had no sailing experience, and then headed up the lake to
challenge the British to come out and fight. The British, however,
were building a fleet of their own including the fully rigged,
180-ton man-of-war HMS Inflexible. The Inflexible,
by itself, could probably have destroyed Arnold's makeshift fleet.
Fortunately, the ship wasn't quite ready to sail and Arnold decided
the best course was to retreat down the lake and take a defensive
position at Valcour Island.
Officers in Carleton's command urged him to attack
immediately, but the commanding officer had been so thrown by
Arnold's bold maneuver, he decided to wait until the Inflexible
was fully rigged and armed before setting out. This delayed the
British advance by four weeks. Arnold was aware that his sailors
were unskilled and that his fleet was outnumbered and outgunned.
The British had 30 ships to his 16 and 1,670 sailors to his 750.
Fortunately, Arnold's experience with merchant ships
paid off. He decided to use what he had to his best advantage
and placed his ships in a line across a narrow section of the
lake between the island and the coast. This would make it difficult
for the British to use their superior firepower to best advantage.
On October 11th, 1776, at noon, the British opened
fire with a broadside on the American line. Intense fighting continued
for almost 6 hours. Though the Britsh forces took a beating during
the fighting, the American's losses were much greater. By sunset
Arnold decided his only choice was to run. He managed to sneak
what was left of his fleet through the British line during the
night and then sailed for the cover of the American-held fort
at Crown Point.
The British were able to overtake and capture several
of the American ships, but Arnold and most of his men escaped
to Fort Crown and Ticonderoga. By now the snow was falling and
General Carleton felt it was too late in the year to try and take
the forts. Instead he retreated to Canada until the spring. If
Arnold hadn't taken aggressive action and delayed the British
advance, it is likely the British would have been able to take
Ticonderoga and Albany that year. This would have allowed them
to link up with their forces in New York City splitting the colonies
in half and bringing the Revolution to a premature end.
How does Arnold go from the hero of the Revolution
to traitor? Check Part II
Copyright Lee Krystek
2007. All Rights Reserved.