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CONNECTIONS: A question of treason

Benedict Arnold is a name synonymous with treason. The facts seem clear; the motivation eludes us. Why did Arnold do it? Were his actions motivated by love, greed, hubris, or a rich mix of all three?

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

There is disagreement about whether the papers Benedict Arnold gave John Andre were secreted in Andre’s boot or his stocking. However, another question is more substantive and more to the point: Why would any man, in this case Arnold, throw away his life and reputation for a few dollars?

The first man to answer that question was a Berkshire resident. It was 1777, the man was Pittsfield attorney John Brown and the place was Fort Ticonderoga.

John Brown was born in Sandisfield in 1744. He was educated at Yale and moved to Pittsfield to open his law practice.

In his history of Pittsfield, J.A.E. Smith wrote that the people of Pittsfield placed their confidence in Brown “…and he never gave them reason to repent their trust.”

Brown was a representative to the General Court in Boston, sat as a judge and, when the Revolutionary War was declared, served as an officer in Col. James Easton’s Berkshire regiment. Brown fought at Ticonderoga and met both Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold there.

Benedict Arnold is a name synonymous with treason. The facts seem clear; the motivation eludes us. Why did Arnold do it? Were his actions motivated by love, greed, hubris, or a rich mix of all three? What did Brown say and was he right?

Benedict Arnold by H.B. Hall

Arnold was in the Connecticut militia. He first engaged the enemy at the Siege of Boston. Arnold would prove to be a good soldier and a brilliant tactician. He is credited with suggesting the attack on Ticonderoga because it was a small garrison with big guns. Ticonderoga was comparatively lightly guarded, and the heavy artillery stored there could be captured and moved to the harbor at Boston for its defense. It was an inspired plan, readily adopted.

It was at Ticonderoga, as the wider war raged, that the personal battle among Allen, Brown and Arnold began. Interestingly, people and places in Berkshire figure prominently in the story.

Arnold felt he should be commanding officer at Ticonderoga. Allen was confident it was his command. Brown supported Allen and the other Pittsfield men fell in behind Brown. Allen won command and led his men to victory. Allen rewarded Brown by sending him to the Continental Congress to deliver the news of victory. Arnold steamed at what he perceived as insult and injustice. It was not the only slight he suffered at Ticonderoga.

The battle won, the guns had to be moved from Ticonderoga to Boston. Arnold planned the route through Berkshire County, but again Arnold was passed over. Henry Knox was selected to take the guns and be feted for executing Arnold’s plan.

Arnold was not an injured innocent. He waited and, when opportunity presented itself, Arnold accused Allen and Brown of plundering. Brown defended himself, but also countered by saying this of Arnold:

“Money is this man’s God and to get enough of it, he would sacrifice his country.”

The Berkshire attorney’s statement was prophetic and ignored. It was viewed as an empty cross-complaint. Pity—if Brown had been heeded, he could have saved the country grief and might even have saved the man.

Brown died in battle in 1780. He was 36. He goes down in history as the first man to bring a charge against Benedict Arnold.

Henry Knox, the man who fought his way through a Berkshire winter along what would become known as Knox’s Trail, played a further role in the saga of Benedict Arnold.

Sketch of Peggy Shippen drawn by John Andre. Image courtesy American Battlefield Trust

It was 1777 and Margaret (Peggy) Shippen was 17 years old, a creature of fashion and an acknowledged beauty. Philadelphia was in the hands of the British, and Peggy was a Tory. Peggy’s youth and beauty were a heady mix for the British officers. Peggy favored a British officer named John Andre—handsome, sophisticated and insinuating.

In war, fortunes change. General Washington recaptured Philadelphia, and Arnold marched in as commander of the city in 1778. Arnold and Peggy met. Arnold was none of the things the lady was: He was neither Tory nor fashionable nor particularly handsome. Crippled and embittered by war and what he deemed “slights,” Arnold, well-weathered if not well-worn, remained a patriot. By whatever alchemy, they fell in love and married the following year. Andre remained in Philadelphia, perceived to be a fop unnoticed by serious men—serious men who failed to see that Andre was a clever British spy.

In that circle of three, Andre, Arnold, and his wife, a man in his 20s, a husband in his 50s and a wife in her late teens, what happened? Was Peggy instigator, co-conspirator or innocent young wife? Did she introduce the two men, and did Andre seduce the husband as, earlier, he had seduced the wife? Or, regardless of his bravery, exemplary military career, and excellent strategies, did Arnold’s love of money or need for revenge cause him to seek out Andre?

There is no mystery about what happened next. Andre, supplied by Arnold with a Continental Army uniform and papers, tried to reach the British camp. He was captured and the papers were found. The papers were proof positive that, for money, Arnold conspired to help the British take West Point, a key strategic position—proof that Arnold was a traitor and Andre was a spy.

Andre was carried by ship to the place of his trial. On board the ship, Knox guarded him. Of a similar age, class and educational level, reputedly they became friends. Nonetheless it was Knox who sat in judgment at Andre’s trial and pronounced him guilty.

Self portrait of John Andre, drawn the day before his execution.

Andre was hung as a spy. Arnold was condemned as a traitor. Many who doubted the possibility now joined in the condemnation.

Arnold escaped to England. Peggy, now a mother, followed. Questions arise: Who was Peggy Shippen Arnold and whom did she love? Why did Arnold do it; was Brown right? While hardly as important: Where were the papers, in Andre’s boot or stocking? An 18th-century man’s stocking was hardly a place to secret anything. It was Andre’s boot that held the paper that condemned the man.


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