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Alternate Histories:

Arnold charging on his horse at the Battle of Saratoga.

Benedict Arnold: The Father of Our Country? (Part II)

Arnold saved the Revolution once, then he saves it again - before betraying it.

Arnold's aggressive defense at The Battle of Valcour Bay delayed the British advance through the winter of 1776. By the spring of 1777, though, British forces were amassing to move down Lake Champlain, take Fort Ticonderoga and then the city of Albany. From there, they could link up with British units in New York City, splitting the colonies in half and bringing the American Revolution to an end.

The Battle at Saratoga

Over the winter, British commander Guy Carleton had been replaced by the more aggressive General John Burgoyne. With a 9,000 man army, he swept down from Canada and easily captured Fort Ticonderoga. To meet this threat, the Continental Congress placed Major General Horatio Gates in charge of the defense at Saratoga, just outside Albany. At that location General Gates built elaborate fortifcations and awaited Burgoyne's attack.

Gates, who was more an army administrator rather than a field commander, was outmatched by the clever Burgoyne. Burgoyne decided to bring 42 heavy cannons down from Ticonderoga and outflank Gates by positioning them on high ground where they could shoot down on the American defenses. From there he could pound the Americans into surrender.

Fortunately, Bendict Arnold had been sent to assist Gates. Arnold saw the danger of Burgoyne's strategy and convinced the reluctant general to allow him to lead an assault against the British before they could get into position. (As one member of the staff recorded, Arnold had "..urged, begged and entreated him [Gates] to do it..")

Arnold took charge and ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan's Virginia sharpshooters to attack the approaching British at Freeman's Farm. According to one soldier, Arnold also got involved in the action himself with a total disregard for personal safety, "Arnold rushed onto the thickest part of the field with his usual recklessness, and at times acted like a madman." The battle raged at Freedman's Farm for three hours and finally Arnold and his troops retreated. Though the Americans were forced toleave the field, they inflicted serious losses upon the British and stopped their advance. With over 600 of their men killed or injured - nearly twice the amount of American losses - it was a very expensive "victory" for the Redcoats.

Arnold's leg was seriously wounded as he and his men took the critical redoubt.

Gates unfortunately tried to take all the credit for the battle. Arnold, annoyed at this, argued with the general and Gates had him confined to his tent for the second clash at Saratoga, three weeks later. During those weeks, Burgoyne had built fortifications and was waiting for assistance from other British units. On October 7, 1777, after realizing that help was not coming and knowing his supplies were dwindling, Burgoyne decided to gamble on assaulting the American fortifications at Bemis Heights.

Despite orders to stay out of the battle, once Arnold heard the guns firing, he leapt on a horse and raced to the scene of the action. There his presence on the field heartened the Americans. Seeing that General Ebenezer Learned's brigade in the center of the assault was losing ground, he helped Learned rally his men and organize a counterattack. Arnold not only forced the enemy back, but led the troops in capturing a key enemy redoubt, saving the battle.

Ten days later, with his army greatly weakened by the fight, Burgoyne was forced to surrender. The news of this important victory gave the Americans renewed credibility with the French and who then agreed to join the war effort. This, in turn,greatly increased the odds of the American Revolution being a success.

Again, Arnold had saved his fledging nation, though at great cost to himself. In capturing the redoubt that day he was wounded in the leg, an injury that would bother him for the rest of his life. A statue to his leg still stands on the battleground today.

Monument to Arnold's Leg

More than a century after Arnold's leg was gravely wounded at Saratoga, a brigadier general from the Civil War paid to have this monument erected at the Saratoga Battlefield. It reads:

Erected 1887 By JOHN WATTS de PEYSTER Brev: Maj: Gen: S.N.Y. 2nd V. Pres't Saratoga Mon't Ass't'n: In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot the sally port of BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT 7th October, 1777 winning for his country men the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General.

Because of his later betrayal Arnold's name is not mentioned on the monument. After Arnold turned traitor, he captured an American soldier and asked what would have happened if the situation was reversed. The reply the soldier gave Arnold was that the patriots would "Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet."

Clearly Benedict Arnold was a patriot and an aggressive fighter. He might have just been the man to replace Washington in the fall of 1777 if the leader had fallen victim to a British bullet.

Fatal Flaw

So how did this patriot, this combative American hero, wind up having his name forever associated with treason? Why did he betray all that he had fought for?

For some reason Arnold was never the favorite of certain members of the Continental Congress. That body repeatedly passed him over for promotion, something he greatly resented, especially after his grave injury at Saratoga. In 1778, Washington put Arnold in charge of Philadephia after the British evacuated the city. Perhaps to distract himself from his disappointments, Arnold threw himself into the city's social life, and running up bills he couldn't pay. Members of Congress accused him of corruption and he was court-martialed. "Having become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet [such] ungrateful returns," he wrote to General George Washington about the situation.

Duirng this period Arnold met Margaret Shippen, an attractive woman whom he eventually married. Shippen had loyalist leanings and undoubtedly influenced Arnold's thinking and he began a correspondence with British General Sir Henry Clinton. Shortly after that, Arnold sought command at the crucial Fort West Point in New York and Washington put him in charge of it. Arnold, disaffected to the American cause by his constant disagreements with Congress and convinced the British would treat him better, made plans to betray his country.

Fortunately, his plot to turn over West Point and its garrison of 3,000 to the British for 20,000 pounds sterling and a position in the British Army failed when a spy carrying papers signed by Arnold was caught. Arnold fled to the British lines and was given the position of brigadier general, but the British never really trusted him. After the war he lived out his life in Canada and London, trying to restart his trading business with little success. Scorned by both the British and Americans, he became a forgotten figure who died in poverty in 1801.

Like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, Arnold was a hero with a fatal flaw. He could have been a champion of the Revolution, his name honored like Washington if he had simply held fast to his principals. Perhaps if he had been called on by Congress to replace Washington he might have won the war and would now be known as the father of our county.

If so, would our nation's capital be called Arnoldton?

Return to Part I

Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.