Although he has written on other subjects, Nathaniel Philbrick has made a specialty of writing about events and industries that affected New England, including the Revolutionary War. His latest book concentrates on the forces and personality flaws that resulted in Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of his country.
I haven’t read much about Benedict Arnold, only one novel, Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. That novel painted him in surprisingly sympathetic colors, blaming his treachery largely on the rapacious demands for money of his wife Peggy. Philbrick’s view is more nuanced.
Certainly, at the beginning of the war you can sympathize with Washington and with Arnold. For his part, Washington was hamstrung by the ineffectiveness and bickering of the Continental Congress. He had very little power over such decisions as which of his officers would receive promotion, which lead to the initial difficulties with Arnold.
A key to the British strategy of cutting off New England from the rest of the country was the chain of lakes leading down from Canada to the Hudson. So, Fort Ticonderoga was an important target. Benedict Arnold and a rag-tag collection of boats prevented the British from approaching the fort in the fall of 1776, before the lakes could freeze up to keep the British out.
As the hero of this engagement and the senior Brigadier General in the Continental Army, Arnold expected a promotion. But the Congress devised an idiotic scheme that awarded the promotions not on merit but according to what state the person was from. Since Connecticut already had two Major Generals, Congress awarded the promotions to other Brigadier Generals who were junior to Arnold, some of whom were only mediocre in ability. Washington protested this decision, to no avail. Even after he got his promotion, Arnold was forced to defer to these men who were promoted before him.
It was this kind of bickering about states’ rights and even local rights versus the rights of a national government that hampered the Congress. In addition, there were plenty of people out for what they could get. I was shocked to read that while no one was interested in supporting the Continental Army, to the point where they were starving and dressed in rags, the rest of the country was doing very well financially. Arnold joined into this self-enrichment when he was made military governor of Philadelphia after it was captured back from the British. He was actively engaged in all kinds of corruption.
Philbrick’s book is really interesting and sometimes quite exciting as it revisits key scenes from the war and leads up to Arnold’s big betrayal. His conclusions about the results of the betrayal are startling.