Fame and Infamy: A Question of Character

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Fame and Infamy: A Question of Character


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


Fame and Infamy: A Question of Character George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. Dave R. Palmer. Regnery Publishing, Inc. 424 pages; photographs; maps; index; $29.95.

By Col. Cole C. Kingseed

U.S. Army retired

George Washington and Benedict Arnold-both generals-served the fledgling United States with quiet dignity in the initial years of the American Revolution. In the war's opening stages, each held the fate of the infant nation in his hands, yet they took diverse paths as the war neared its dramatic conclusion. In the first dual biography of the American Revolution's most famous generals, Lt. Gen. Dave R. Palmer, U.S. Army retired, has produced a superb analysis that examines the lives of these two historic and sometimes controversial patriots.

Palmer needs no introduction to the readers of ARMY Magazine. A career officer who served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Palmer is an accomplished soldier-scholar, whose credits include The Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective; The Way of the Pox: American Strategy in the War for America, 1775-1783; and The River and The Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783.

At the center of Palmer's study are Washington and Arnold, two politically prone radicals whose paths first crossed when both joined the 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. Though neither Washington nor Arnold made much impact on the proceedings, both prepared themselves for the inevitable military struggle with Great Britain. Even as Washington received his commission as commander in chief of the new Continental Army, Arnold was already in the field.

In 1775, it was Arnold, not Washington, whose star shone most brightly. While Washington remained frustrated outside Boston, Arnold had already earned the praise of the New York and Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress by his audacious military campaigning. Following his capture of Fort Ticondeioga in conjunction with Ethan Allen, Arnold launched an unsuccessful, yet highly publicized, expedition to seize Quebec.

Arnold's glory reached its zenith during the campaigns in New York in 1776 and 1777. As Washington suffered repeated defeats at the hands of British Gen. William Howe, Arnold constructed a small fleet that denied British control of Lake Champlain in upstate New York in October 1776. By year's end, Washington was on the rebound as a result of his twin victories at Trenton and Princeton. But fame had its price as the celebrated generals soon encountered jealousy of lesser men.

Early efforts by disingenuous congressmen and ambitious generals to remove Washington as commander in chief soon fizzled, but Arnold felt compelled to request a court of inquiry to address the "catalogue of crimes" of which he was accused. While Washington quietly endured "his season of trauma" at the hands of the Continental Congress, Arnold assumed his responsibilities as commander of the Philadelphia region. The appointment, states Palmer, was Washington's most uninspired decision of the war.

Philadelphia was rife with political intrigue and Arnold soon found himself the object of scorn. Much of the criticism was the result of Arnold's own efforts to restore his personal fortune. Palmer carefully categorizes Arnold's "avaricious and nefarious activities. …

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