Benedict Arnold: Saratoga, 1777
The Very Genius of War
On the grounds of the Saratoga National Historic Park in upstate New York, the site of a key battle of the Revolutionary War, there stands a peculiar monument of a leg encased in a boot. Aptly called the Boot Monument, it marks the spot where a leg was shattered by a bullet. The back of the monument is inscribed to the memory of the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, the sally port of Burgoyne's 'Great (Western) Redoubt' 7th October 1777, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General."
The soldier was Benedict Arnold, but because the tribute is to the leg and not to the man, his name does not appear on the monument. And perhaps that is the way it should be for a brilliant soldier whose renown was quickly eclipsed by an everlasting infamy.
The monument's characterization of Arnold is no exaggeration. Arguably, he was the top field commander produced by either side during the Revolutionary War-a warrior whose military instincts, leadership skills, and aggressiveness rank him with Stonewall Jackson and George Patton. Further, Arnold fought not only on land but at sea, commanding a ramshackle flotilla on Lake Champlain that thwarted a British invasion from Canada. Applying current standards of eligibility, one could argue that Arnold on three occasions-his service on Lake Champlain and for wounds suffered at the head of troops at Quebec and Saratoga-would have merited Congressional Medals of Honor for superlative displays of command and courage. Had the Saratoga wound proved fatal, few military figures would be more revered by the American people than Benedict Arnold. Let us see why.
At the outbreak of war in April 1775, Arnold was a prosperous 34- year-old merchant living in New Haven, Connecticut. He was married with three young sons, owned ships, warehouses stocked with goods, stables with horses and carriages, and lived in a mansion with servants and slaves at his bidding. Arnold was an accomplished sea captain, sailing on business to Canada and the West Indies. He was a smuggler, but that was a respectable calling for Americans given Britain's stringent trade laws. With war looming he helped organize a militia unit of 60 men who elected him their captain.
Within days of the opening salvoes of war at Lexington and Concord, Arnold marched his unit to Cambridge, where he conferred with the revolutionary leaders in the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. He presented a bold proposal, volunteering to lead a foray to seize the forts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point at the southern tip of Lake Champlain. Arnold knew the forts commanded the main invasion route from Canada to the American colonies, which was reason enough to seize them. He also knew from business trips to the area that the forts were in disrepair and lightly manned, yet amply equipped with cannon and munitions. He was given the green light by the committee, which granted him a colonel's commission and the authority to enlist 400 men for the expedition.
A Connecticut militia colonel Arnold informed of his plan dispatched a messenger to Bennington, Vermont, to enlist the services of Colonel Ethan Allen and troops under his command-the Green Mountain Boys-for the expedition. Arnold was wary of Allen's involvement and rushed ahead to confer with him. (Beginning with his first campaign, Arnold exhibited an obsession with the prerogatives of command that would mark and poison his military career.) Arnold insisted that he would lead the expedition, but reluctantly agreed to share command with Allen when the Green Mountain Boys vehemently objected to serving directly under Arnold. The joint force headed for Fort Ticonderoga, and at daybreak on May 10, 1775, Arnold and Allen crowded into two boats with 83 men and landed a half mile below the fort. Convinced the element of surprise would be lost if they waited for additional troops to come up, Arnold and Allen commenced the assault. They quickly swarmed over the ruins of the south wall, and without firing a shot the Americans persuaded the commanding officer to surrender. The fort was garrisoned by only 50 men, many of whom were physically unfit for active service.
Arnold's initial victory had far-reaching ramifications that reverberated all the way to the shores of Massachusetts. Fort Ticonderoga offered a treasure trove for the artillery-strapped Colonial forces. In December of the same year, 25-year-old Colonel Henry Knox organized an expedition to haul the guns to Boston, where British occupying forces had been under a quasi-siege since the war's beginning. It took a grueling month for the Knox party to accomplish the Herculean, 300-mile task. The men moved 58 mortars and cannons on 42 specially constructed sleds pulled by 80 yoke of oxen, traversing the iced-over Hudson River and the deep and narrow valleys of the snow-covered Berkshire Mountains. When more than 20 of the guns were laboriously hauled up to the 112-foot summit of Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston Harbor in early March 1776, the fruit of Arnold's Ticonderoga victory prompted the British to evacuate the city within a few days.