Monday, January 30, 2012

February 19, 1777 – Benedict Arnold Promoted

After much political infighting and discussion, the Continental Congress announced promoting five men to the rank of major general. The move was largely bureaucratic, but attempts influence came from every direction with much of the decision being a balance of generals from the various states of the new republic. Thirty-six-year-old Benedict Arnold was nearly passed over for the promotion largely due to his poor relations with other officers, but a final decision to promote him over Scotsman Arthur St. Clair came as both he and Thomas Mifflin were of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Mifflin was necessary as the Quartermaster General. Arnold was not popular, but his connections with Washington gave him some credence, and St. Clair proved more useful as a commander beside Washington.

Arnold’s record would prove impressive. Orphaned by the age of twenty but highly successful in business, Arnold quickly joined the Sons of Liberty in resistance against the Sugar and Stamp Acts. He was away on business in the West Indies at the time of the Boston Massacre, of which he wrote, “good God, are the Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their liberties?” When the Revolutionary War began, Arnold became a member of the Connecticut militia and suggested the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in New York, which was so strategically significant it was known as the “Gibraltar of the North” but had an insufficient British garrison. Gaining the rank of colonel, he joined with Ethan Allen in the successful capture of Ticonderoga. During the failed invasion of Quebec (also believed to have been Arnold’s suggestion), Arnold’s wilderness route gave extra support and earned him the rank of brigadier general at the cost of wounds. He commanded Montreal until forced to retreat by British advancing forces, but ordered the construction of the defensive fleet for Lake Champlain that slowed the British advance to Ticonderoga by months and was noted by James Wilkinson to be the last to leave.

While supervising the defense of Rhode Island and remarrying (his first wife had died while he was conquering Ticonderoga), Arnold received his promotion and was dispatched to command the defense of Ticonderoga while St. Clair was kept at Washington’s side with great praise for his strategy at Princeton. General Phillip Schuyler, then in command of the North, requested 10,000 men for the defense of Ticonderoga, but Washington expected British advance to come from the south following the Fall of New York. Arnold was to command only 2,000 men against the approaching forces of General John Burgoyne. Realizing that he had far too few troops to defend the large fort, Arnold ordered an immediate reconstruction of the fort, breaking up much of it and moving it to the higher, more defensible Sugar Loaf height (later known as Mount Defiance). John Trumball had shown the year before it was too high to be shot by cannon from the fort, and Arnold countered opinions that it was impossible for cannon to be set there as he himself had climbed it while injured.

The new works were established shortly before Burgoyne’s 7,800 troops arrived on June 30, 1777. Many of Arnold’s advisers suggested a withdrawal and regrouping with American troops to the south, but Arnold determined to stand firm and call for reinforcements. Burgoyne took the small fort at Crown Point and the remains of Ticonderoga with ease, but then found himself under fire from the American forces atop Mount Defiance. Burgoyne laid siege and was unable to move south, giving General Gates the time needed to collect thousands of local militia and march northward to raise the siege. Burgoyne counterattacked despite recommendations to retreat, and the resulting victory for Americans would be the turning point of the war. While Gates received much of the credit, Arnold won great new political connections through the commander and went with him to the southern theater following the loss of Charleston, where Arnold would manage the retreat at the Battle of Camden in 1780 to keep it from becoming a disastrous rout. Under Nathanael Greene, Arnold would be instrumental in the victories of the South, where his Tory leanings were appreciated.

When the war came to conclusion in 1783, Arnold continued in politics. He joined with the Federalists and determined to keep Georgia and the Carolinas, where he was very popular, from falling under the sway of Jeffersonian Virginia. Campaigning extensively over the value of unity, he took the place of John Adams as the Federalists’ bid for president, giving Adams his desired position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in return. Arnold’s presidential term would be a disaster as he used his position of Commander-in-Chief to extremes during the military build-up in the Quasi-War with France while many hoped for a recall of Washington to arms.

Arnold was soon seen as a potential dictator, and he was expunged from office in 1800, dying of dropsy after complications from gout the next year. Federalism came under great suspicion despite Alexander Hamilton’s attempts to distance his party from Arnold. Under Jefferson, the Twelfth Amendment would see a great restriction of executive power, clarifying many rights to the states.


In reality, Benedict Arnold was passed over for promotion. He made enemies with men such as Moses Hazen, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Regiment, nicknamed “Congress’ Own”, and John Brown of Pittsfield, a member of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, who had been in charge of failed diversionary tactics that led to American defeat at the Battle of Quebec. Arnold would ultimately turn traitor to the American cause with his offer to surrender West Point, then later serve the British in commanding a number of raids. After the war, Arnold attempted to set himself up in business in Saint John, Canada, but found himself unpopular anywhere he went.

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