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The irony of Benedict Arnold

Norwich’s native son Benedict Arnold often comes to mind when we think of an American traitor during the Revolutionary War.

There was a time people didn’t even want to talk about Arnold, but their perception has changed over time, Norwich Historical Society Executive Director Regan Miner said during a telephone interview.

“I think people are realizing that history is three dimensional,” she said. “There is more than one side to the story, and Arnold is one of those individuals who has multiple angles and multiple perspectives to explore and learn about.”

She said that it is difficult to reconcile the patriot and traitor aspects of his complex profile.

“Despite Arnold’s defection to the British, he (previously) was a fierce patriot for the Continental Army and often put himself in the thick of battle with little regard for his own safety.”

Major General Benedict Arnold — George Washington’s bravest battlefield general — was wounded in the same leg three times, Damien Cregeau, a historian who specializes in the American Revolution, said in an email.

“It is widely accepted that Benedict Arnold’s heroics in the Continental Army had long-lasting consequences in the war and had it not been for him, the war would have certainly been lost or would have at least followed a much different trajectory,” Dayne Rugh, interim director of the Slater Museum, said in an email.

Two examples, he said, include the Battle of Valcour Island and the Battle of Saratoga.

“Arnold’s strategic victory at Valcour Island prevented the British invasion forces from Canada from penetrating deeper into North America via Lake Champlain, forcing them to go into winter encampments. At that time, Washington had retreated from New York and the state of the army was nothing short of perilous.”

Even though Arnold’s fleet on the lake was completely decimated, Rugh said “it bought the American forces enough time to regroup going into 1777,” when Arnold rallied the troops at Saratoga “and clinched victory while General Horatio Gates, the commanding officer of the Northern Army, didn’t even step foot on the battlefield according to the reports. This was a monumental victory which led to the alliance with France against the British.”

Arnold was also “the hero of the Battle of Ridgefield here in Connecticut in April of 1777,” Cregeau said.

It’s possible that Arnold’s treasonous acts saved the American cause, Rugh said, because “when Arnold turned traitor in 1780, the war was going so poorly that even Washington believed that this cause was about to fail. The war had turned to the southern states and between 1779-1780, the Continental Forces suffered crushing defeats at Charleston, Camden, Savannah, and other locations.

“Arnold’s treason completely shook the nation — but as a result, the Americans now had a new motivation to keep going — to defeat the traitor, Benedict Arnold. The cause became that much more personal and it galvanized the Continental Forces” and America in general to keep fighting. “Arnold believed that by defecting, he would bring legions of British loyalists and disaffected patriots to their side, but it never happened — in fact he achieved the exact opposite.”

Cregeau pointed out that Arnold committed “treason over a much longer period of time than most people know. His treasonous communication with Major John Andre, a British aide in New York City, began as soon as Benedict had married Peggy Shippen in the spring of 1779. He put his house in New Haven on the market” and communicated with the British in spurts over a 16-month-period, “up until his infamous plan to give the plans of West Point to Major Andre in late September of 1780.”

Cregeau, a Norwich resident, added, “What is truly ironic are two facts stemming from Arnold’s treason tied to Norwich: first, that General Washington wrote his first report of Arnold’s treason in a long letter to Samuel Huntington, president of the Continental Congress, and that Norwich’s own, loyal patriot general, Brigadier General Jedediah Huntington, sat on the board of generals who convicted the captured Major Andre of being a spy before he was (hanged) like our own state hero, Captain Nathan Hale, was years prior.”

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Benedict Arnold is that many people assume he was simply born evil and planned all along to betray his nation; that is completely untrue,” Rugh said. “Arnold’s history is complicated and tragic, and much of his undoing can be traced back to a long line of family shame, political infighting, and his own personal shortcomings. Arnold had many skills but just as many drawbacks, not the least of which was his complete lack of diplomacy when it was called for the most. Arnold was a self-made man in many respects and although he was a savvy businessman and military commander, he lacked polish and finesse when it came to interpersonal relationships and political maneuvering. His brash and hot-headed personality always got the best of him and his adversaries knew they could exploit it whenever they wanted.”

Born in Norwich on Jan. 14, 1741, Benedict Arnold’s childhood was marred by tragedy, Miner said in an email, and by 20, “he was an orphan struggling to make his way in the world as an apothecary.”

Rugh said “Benedict Arnold is only one component of a larger thing that we call difficult history,” and that it can be stressful to think and talk about. “But it doesn’t make it any less important. You can’t just cover it up,” and you have to discuss people like Benedict Arnold without glorifying them.

“This isn’t a conspiracy to redeem or otherwise,” but rather an opportunity to educate to prevent future Benedict Arnolds from happening, he said. “Once people hear that, I think it puts it into perspective a little bit.”

“Recently, the Norwich Historical Society created a series of self-guided walking trails called the Walk Norwich Trails. The Benedict Arnold Trail explores Arnold’s upbringing in Norwich while allowing visitors to judge Arnold’s treason for themselves. The trail discusses Norwich during the colonial period and its role throughout the Revolutionary War. The Benedict Arnold Trail can be accessed online via walknorwich.org, and trail brochures are available at the outdoor information box at the Norwich Heritage & Regional Visitors’ Center,” Miner said.

“Similar to how Salem, Massachusetts, has developed its tourism industry under the controversial Salem Witchcraft Trials, Arnold’s international name recognition represents an opportunity to invite visitors to reexamine his dual history,” Miner said. “Recently, Arnold has seen resurgence in pop culture references such as Brad Meltzer’s novel “House of Secrets,” Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book (“Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution”), and he is featured as a prominent character on AMC’s TV Series, “Turn: Washington Spies.”

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