Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Traitor's Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for Reconciliation

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Traitor's Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for Reconciliation

Article excerpt

The apostasy of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold forever undermined his reputation as a Revolutionary hero, but even Arnold's most virulent critics generally have conceded his many talents as a soldier. The general was a magnetic combat leader; soldiers followed him into the heat of battle as they did few other officers. It was Arnold's intelligence, fearless combat leadership, and determination in the face of adversity that inspired troops, earned the admiration of George Washington, and aroused the jealousy of Horatio Gates and many others. Indeed, Arnold's exceptional record in command-he was not just any general-made his treason that much more appalling to Patriots. The "American Hannibal" had been one of their best, and he had turned against them.

Arnold confirmed his reputation for villainy on 6 September 1781 when he led a major raid into his home state of Connecticut. His target was the Thames River port of New London, a major rebel privateering center and commercial hub vital to the regional economy and the Patriot war effort. As a privateering base, New London was a legitimate military target. Leading some 1,700 Loyalists, Hessians, and British regulars, Arnold's raid was viciously efficient. Over the course of the day, his command virtually destroyed the town, burning some 140 buildings, including private homes, warehouses, commercial facilities, and docks; ships unable to escape went up in flames. There was grim fighting as well. At Fort Griswold in Groton, across the Thames, a British attack carried the fort, but at a high cost in casualties. Enraged redcoats slaughtered some eighty American soldiers, many of them as they tried to surrender.

The New London raid was a tactical success, demonstrating that Arnold was as audacious a commander in a red British uniform as he had been in Continental blue; he had lost none of his élan. He was also unapologetic about the severity of the attack he had led in a region the Arnold family had called home for generations (his great-great-grandfather and namesake had been a governor of colonial Rhode Island).1 Arnold had issued orders against despoiling private property, but he winked as they were honored in the breach. He made no effort to restrain his troops as they pillaged and burned civilian homes, and he never reprimanded officers responsible for the Fort Griswold "massacre." He expressed no remorse in terrifying former neighbors. The destruction of the raid was seemingly unnecessary, even though the war was not yet over. Arnold's conduct, as one recent account has termed matters (certainly melodramatically), amounted to "homegrown terror." "Remember New London" became a Patriot rallying cry.2

The attack on New London, as destructive to the rebel cause as it was, has garnered little attention beyond its purely military aspects. Most historians have not examined Arnold's motives for the unrestrained brand of war he waged in New London. Clare Brandt hints at the traitor general s anger at his old community, which she alleges never fully accepted him as a "gentleman." Willard Sterne Randall considers Arnold's raid simply as typical of his penchant for waging "ruthless, total, modern warfare."3 This essay, however, argues that there was more at work in Arnold's conduct. His motives at New London belie simple answers: They did not stem solely from spite or a preference for a style of warfare; they derived from his experience in his first independent command as a British brigadier general-his invasion of Virginia in early 1781.

Arnold campaigned in Virginia between January and June 1781, but the focus of this essay is his period of independent command between January and March, before Maj. Gen. William Phillips superseded him on 27 March. Although other historians have dealt with this episode, and recognized its importance in Virginia's Revolutionary experience, Arnold's Virginia campaign remains misunderstood. The standard account has Arnold rampaging and plundering up and down the James River, including a raid on Richmond, leaving fire and destruction in his wake. …

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