Benedict Arnold’s Rise — and Downfall — Took Place in the Hudson Valley

The traitor of the American Revolution attempted to betray American forces by placing West Point plans in the hands of the British.

Photo courtesy of HVA Press

Benedict Arnold may just be America’s most famous traitor.

A colonial resident by birth, Arnold made his living as a merchant before joining the American military to defend against the British. Yet as every elementary school student knows, Benedict reneged on his original commitment and defected to England. Although he was unsuccessful, his attempt to betray George Washington and his American forces remains engrained into the history of the United States forever.

This is old news, of course. What might be new, however, is the fact that Benedict Arnold’s attempted betrayal — and eventual downfall — had all to do with the Hudson Valley.

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Benedict Arnold
Cover photo provided by HVA Press

In his book, The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason, author Isaac N. Arnold recounts the downhill fight of his infamous ancestor. Originally published in 1880, the book was rereleased in July 2019 by HVA Press in Warwick after being unavailable for more than 100 years. In a special sneak peek for Hudson Valley readers, the publication house shared a few highlights from the dramatic, real-life read.

240 years ago on this June 1, 1779 Benedict Arnold Court-Martial proceedings begin. These events would ignite the already displeased Arnold into the acts that history now knows him for. Arnold stood before a group of men in Philadelphia on 13 counts of various charges. Ultimately a final decision was made in December and most charges were dropped. Washington did punish him verbally, however. —————— While Benedict Arnold most certainly can be blamed for his defection, his story is more complicated. While serving under General Horacio Gates, Gates often took credit that Arnold deserved. There were many victories that can be attributed to Arnold and ultimately never were. However, Arnold was not an easy person to deal with and often questioned his direct authority. His behavior was no stranger to Congress. While disliked by many, Washington did admire him but the fragile ego of Arnold and his greed clouded his ability to see this. —————— Many historians have theories as to what made him defect, some even say it was his wife, but most agree that the court-martial proceedings and Arnold’s perception of Washington’s “snub” was a major catalyst. ————- Ultimately, the hefty sum of money promised to Arnold by the British swayed him and sometimes I wonder if he would have taken the money regardless of his treatment by other Generals and Congress. Arnold is a complex story, but it always leads to a disappointing end. . . . . . #benedictarnold #onthisday #revolutionarywar #americanhistory #historicalanniversary #militaryhistory #historynerd #continentalarmy

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Who Was Benedict Arnold?

Born in Connecticut in 1741, Arnold made his trade in the apothecary business. Adventurous from the start, he took calculated risks everywhere from the playing field to his business dealings.

“He would astonish his playmates and alarm the lookers-on by clinging to the arms of the great water wheel, and holding on as it made its revolutions, he would be carried high in the air, and then rapidly descending, pass beneath the water of the stream by which the great wheel was turned,” Arnold writes.

After the death of his parents in his early adulthood, Arnold established his own shop in New Haven and later joined the American military just in time to participate in the capture of Ticonderoga in 1775. A brave and daring leader, he earned respect from his troops, who admired his dedication and enthusiasm to the battle.

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Arnold’s Path to Traitorousness

In the heart of the American Revolution, Arnold was a hero. In December 1775, he suffered a severe injury when he took a bullet to the leg at the St. Lawrence River. George Washington commended his devotion to the fight and recommended his promotion to Congress officials.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way. Congress refused his promotion, whether because of his injury or politics (his wife, Peggy Shippen, came from a loyalist family and had British sympathies) remains unclear. Washington didn’t like it, but no one was more aggrieved about the turn of events — or lack thereof — than Arnold himself. Whether convinced to turn by his wife or of his own volition, the American military man dedicated his efforts to the British.

The Hudson Valley Is the Key

According to George Washington, West Point was “the key to the continent.” In the early 1780s, he named Arnold commander of the critical point, thereby proving Arnold’s esteemed position on the battlefront. By that time, however, Arnold was ready to betray his commander in chief. How? By delivering the plans to the military stronghold straight to the British.

In September 1780, he met with British Major John Andre, who became his co-conspirator. They convened in West Haverstraw, where Arnold passed along the plans for Andre to deliver to his superiors.

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“On the night of the 21st, a boat was sent by Arnold, which brought Andre to the shore about six miles below Stony Point; and there under the shadow of the mountains, after midnight, the conspirators met,” Arnold says.

Where It All Went Wrong

Arnold did his part, but Andre ultimately failed to deliver. While he was traveling through Tarrytown, the major mistook American troops for British ones and gave himself over. Because he was not in uniform at the time, American soldiers assumed he was a spy for the British. As such, he was automatically subject to death by hanging.

A well-liked man, Andre was defended by everyone from George Washington to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in chief. Yet it was all for naught, and the major was put to death in Tappan in October 1780.

Arnold’s Escape and Demise

Knowing he had to escape the Hudson Valley, Arnold secured passage on a British schooner sailing along the Hudson River.

“He is reported to have said to the [American] bargemen, who had taken him to the schooner: ‘My lads, I have quitted the rebel army and joined the standard of his Brittanic Majesty. If you will join me I will make sergeants and corporals of you all, and for you, Larvey (who was coxswain), I will do something more.’ Larvey indignantly replied, ‘No sir, one coat is enough for me to wear at a time,” Arnold writes.

Upon his defection to the British, Arnold retreated to England without his wife and children. He served as a British officer for a number of years, although trust remained a hard thing for him to earn, and eventually garnered passage for his family to travel to Canada and, eventually, to London. With a failed shipping business and an isolated status in society, Arnold passed away in 1801.

Curious about Benedict Arnold’s rise and fall in the Hudson Valley? Visit HVA Press to learn more about Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason or find a bookstore that carries it near you.

Related: A Look Into the Colonial History of Old New York

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