Alternate History:

If history had changed just slightly would Benedict Arnold have his picture on the dollar bill?

Benedict 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?

A New Commander-in-Chief

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 Washington.

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.

Ethan Allen demands the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga. Arnold and Allen's capture of the Fort provided desperately needed heavy cannon.

The Capture 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.

The Battle 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.

Arnold's 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.