Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Meeting Notes: May 16, 2018

"Benedict Arnold: Guilty or Innocent?" by John Millar

While most Americans regard Benedict Arnold as a traitor, historian John Millar called him “a patriot” at the May 16, 2018 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond.

“Arnold changed sides because he hated greedy real estate speculators and tobacco planters who wanted to rip off land from Native Americans for westward expansion,” said Millar. “Arnold thought Congress needed a kick in the pants. He was a patriot right to the end.”

According to Millar, the westward expansion was fueled by the need for tobacco planters to find fresh soil to grow their crops. When tobacco was grown on the same soil for a number of years, the soil became poisoned with a chemical which stripped the soil of its nutrients.

Millar also praised Arnold for his efforts after the American Revolution to restore trade between Great Britain and the new American nation. After Arnold moved to London he became friends with King George III, and convinced the king that it was in Britain’s best interests to trade with America rather than allow America to trade primarily with France. Not only did Great Britain resume trade with America but the British navy frequently protected American merchant ships against pirates. 

When King George III listened to Benedict Arnold, he was listening to a man with considerable trade experience. Prior to the American Revolution, Arnold was a merchant in New Haven, CT and “knew the whole East Coast and Canada”, according to Millar.

Arnold was also the founder of New Haven’s militia unit and served as its captain. When word reached New Haven on April 22, 1775 about the earlier fighting at Lexington and Concord, he immediately called out his troops with the intention of marching to Cambridge, MA where other American troops were stationed opposite the British army occupying Boston. 

However Arnold’s troops hadn’t marched more than 15 miles when they changed direction and headed toward Lake Champlain, NY. They arrived in time to participate in the American capture of the very strategic Fort Ticonderoga.  (Arnold sent a few sent to Fort Ti, but he actually went to Cambridge, got commissioned a colonel by Massachusetts and then went to Ti.) 

“Arnold had a mind like a steel trap,” said Millar. “He knew that Lake Champlain would be critical to the war effort, and he knew that Fort Ticonderoga had a heckuva lot of cannons that were needed by the American army outside Boston.”

After Henry Knox led an American force to move the cannons from the fort to the heights above Boston the British abandoned the city. 

Following the liberation of Boston, Arnold led one of the two American armies in a campaign to capture Quebec City, which according to Millar, had 25% of all the cannons in North America. Arnold led his army northward through modern-day Maine to Quebec while Richard Montgomery led another American army northward from Upstate New York to Montreal, and then eastward to Quebec. On New Year’s Eve 1775 the two armies unsuccessfully attacked the city’s very strong defenses. Arnold was wounded and Montgomery was killed.

After Arnold and Montgomery’s remaining troops gradually retreated out of Canada and back into New York, the British launched a Fall 1776 campaign against Upstate New York. Sir Guy Carleton’s troops got as far as Lake Champlain when they encountered a small American army under Arnold’s command which had built its own ships, and challenged the British navy on Lake Champlain near Valcour Island. Although the British prevailed, the tenacious fight from Arnold’s small fleet intimidated the British to the point of where Carleton called off his southward campaign before the arrival of winter. 

“George Washington owes the saving of his army at New York to Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain,” said Millar. 

In February, 1777, Arnold was passed over for promotion to major general, with five men junior to him being appointed.  He was promoted before Saratoga, but his seniority wasn’t restored until after Saratoga.  This was a big point on contention between Arnold and Congress.

In May 1777 General John Burgoyne replaced Carleton as the British northern army commander with the mission to capture Albany. His army marched southward from Canada while the British army under Colonel (Was a BG at this time) Barry St. Leger marched eastward from Lake Ontario. When St. Leger’s troops surrounded American troops at Fort Stanwix, Arnold led a small American army to relieve the siege.

“Arnold put out fake news that he had a much bigger army than he actually did,” said Millar. “When British informants told St. Leger the erroneous news, St. Leger’s army retreated.”

Following his rescue of Fort Stanwix, Arnold participated in the two pivotal battles of Saratoga, which historians often call “the turning point” of the American Revolution.

“Arnold was given only so much authority at Saratoga because the overall army commander, Horatio Gates, didn’t like him. Although Arnold didn’t get the credit he deserved for helping to win the campaign, he probably did more than anyone else to win it,” said Millar. 

Arnold was badly wounded at Saratoga and nearly lost a leg. As a result of his severe wound, George Washington gave him an administrative assignment which would allow him to continue his recovery. He selected Arnold to serve as the military commander of Philadelphia after the British abandoned the city in June 1778. 

While serving in this position, Arnold fell in love with Peggy Shipman and married her. She and her family had loyalist sympathies and friendships with British officers such as Major John Andre. When Arnold decided to change allegiances, it was Andre who served as a liaison between Arnold’s confidants and Sir Henry Clinton, the British army commander in New York City.

After Arnold became the American commander at West Point he began a systematic plan to weaken the fort’s defenses. On September 21, 1780 he met with Andre near West Point, and soon afterward Andre got caught by American troops while in possession of documents revealing Arnold’s plot to allow the British to capture this strategic fort. Once the plot was uncovered, Arnold barely alluded capture by American troops and made his way to a British ship which took him to New York City.

The British made Arnold a brigadier general in their army, and later gave him the assignment to raid Virginia during the Winter of 1780-81. According to Millar, Arnold chose Portsmouth as his base of operations because the surrounding water was too shallow for the larger French ships to attack his supply base.

From Portsmouth Arnold’s raiding party sailed up the James River to Westover Plantation, and then marched virtually unopposed into Richmond where they destroyed warehouses and a foundry, and captured military supplies. Then they returned to Portsmouth.

During the Spring of 1781 Arnold served as the second-in-command to General William Phillips when the British once again raided Central Virginia. This time their primary targets were Petersburg and Manchester. Phillips became ill in Petersburg and died on May 12, 1781, leaving Arnold temporarily in command. 

Approximately one week later General Charles Cornwallis marched his army from the Carolinas into Central Virginia, and took overall command of British forces in that area. Arnold returned to New York City in June 1781.  

On September 4, 1781 Arnold led a British raid on New London, CT. Most of the town burned to the ground but according to Millar, a fire spread rapidly because a ship containing gunpowder exploded. 

“Arnold got blamed for burning the town but he didn’t mean to,” said Millar. “A ship blew up.”

During the Winter of 1781-82 Benedict Arnold left American soil for the last time, as a passenger sailing from New York City to London. One of his fellow passengers was Cornwallis, who had been paroled after his Yorktown surrender. The two of them developed a close friendship while on their voyage, and in fact Cornwallis would later introduce Arnold to King George III. 

Benedict Arnold died in London on June 14, 1801 at the age of 60. He was buried in a London churchyard and wearing his Continental army uniform. 

John Millar and his wife Cathy own and manage Newport House Bed and Breakfast, located in Williamsburg near the Historic District. He is a former museum director and a member of both the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond and the Williamsburg-Yorktown American Revolution Round Table. 

Millar is also the author or co-author of several books which include the following:

1. Ships of the American Revolution

2. Early American Ships

3. Country Dances of Colonial America

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond briefly discussed several topics, such as the need for members to submit nominations to President Bill Welsch concerning the 2018 Preservation Partner.

-----Bill Seward