‘Turncoat’ Offers a Fresh Look at Benedict Arnold

 

Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with treason. Yet few today know his story. Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty, by Stephen Brumwell is a fresh look at the man and his times.

Arnold was a brilliant general, probably only second to George Washington in talent. Next to Washington, he may be most responsible for the survival of the patriot cause. His dogged defense on Lake Champlain in 1776, and his spirited attacks in the Saratoga campaign in 1777, defeated Britain’s northern offensive and led France to enter the revolution on the American side. Absent Arnold, Britain would likely have won by 1778. Three years later, he tried to give Britain the war by betraying West Point to them.

Brumwell traces what led Arnold to switch sides. It was more complicated than many believe.

Arnold was prickly and always protective of his honor. Washington and many of the other Revolutionary generals also were. Yet Arnold combined this with a personality that created jealous enemies.

Badly wounded at Saratoga, Arnold’s wound denied him the active battlefield command he desired. As a substitute, Washington appointed the injured Arnold military governor of freshly-recaptured Philadelphia in 1778. It proved a poisoned command.

Arnold quickly quarreled with Philadelphia’s civilian government. The ruling Philadelphia radicals attacked Arnold with a flurry of meaningless or trivial charges. They should have been dismissed. Instead, to placate this politically powerful faction led Arnold to be court martialed.

Additionally, the French alliance upset Arnold. The revolution began as a political party fight. This is why loyalists were called Tories. Many viewed the French alliance as inviting a stranger into a family quarrel.

This and disillusionment with the Colonial government led Arnold to switch sides. Viewing himself as a new General Monk (who dumped the Parliamentarians to restore Britain’s monarchy after the English Civil War) Arnold sought to end the war by reunifying colonies with Britain.

Arnold misjudged the moment. Instead his actions increased colonial resolve and made him a synonym for treason.

Turncoat is a book with surprising resonance today. It shows what happens when the political gets too personal.

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell, Yale University Press, 2018, 384 pages, $30

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    One of my favorite historical figures.

    • #1
  2. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Surprisingly, Diana Gabaldon has her time-traveling characters meet Benedict Arnold in Outlander, and she is very fair and accurate in her portrayal. This sounds like a book to add to my “must read” list. Thanks!

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Good review, Mark. 

    • #3
  4. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Another great book review, if you keep this up I’m going to earn frequent flyer miles for trips to Ikea for more bookshelves.

    Thanks 

    • #4
  5. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    My older daughter and I were just having an interesting conversation about Benedict Arnold, who he was and why he did what he did.

    I really enjoyed Richard Ketchum’s thorough and informative book Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War that I read a couple of years ago and bet we would both enjoy reading more about Arnold.

    Thank you!

    • #5
  6. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    In his own story, the bad guy never sees himself as the bad guy.

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #6
  7. Richard Finlay Member
    Richard Finlay
    @RichardFinlay

    Does this book attribute any accountability to Arnold’s wife?

    • #7
  8. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Richard Finlay (View Comment):

    Does this book attribute any accountability to Arnold’s wife?

    Yes.

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    In his own story, the bad guy never sees himself as the bad guy.

    • #9
  10. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    In 2001, I took a history trip with the incomparable Ed Bearrs that retraced Arnold’s route to Quebec and the Battle of Saratoga. Congress in the 18th Century was also great at screwing things up.

    • #10
  11. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    In his own story, the bad guy never sees himself as the bad guy.

    That was awesome. Thanks.

     

    • #11
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    Congress in the 18th Century was also great at screwing things up.

    Haven’t changed a bit, now have they?

    • #12
  13. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    I don’t know how accurate it is, but Arnold is portrayed in the series “Turn”, which is about a Long Island family with the father is a Loyalist official and the son is a rebel spy running a network into New York City.

    The wife is portrayed as being the catalyst since she was a former lover of Major Andre, a British spy master, who had been in Philadelphia. When Philadelphia was recaptured, Arnold came to Philadelphia and Major Andre went to NYC while Arnold’s future wife remained in Philadelphia with her family.

    The other motive mentioned is money – the Continental Congress owed Arnold a lot of money it wasn’t able or was unwilling to pay. And Arnold needed money to support his new, lavish wife and their life style. The British came through with the money. Again, no idea if this is true.

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Hang On (View Comment):
    The other motive mentioned is money – the Continental Congress owed Arnold a lot of money it wasn’t able or was unwilling to pay.

    That is certainly true.

    • #14
  15. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    I won’t agree with the watered down version of his treachery.

    Arnold was a traitor and that is suffiicient. Plenty of men get accused of stupid things by political adversaries and don’t become traitors. That is among the worst things one could ever do. He wasn’t on a reality TV show, it was real life and there was no excuse for his perfidy.

    He was influenced primarily by his young wife, whose family were Tories. That’s as complicated as it was. Any attempt to make his actions appear sympathetic are misguided.

    Some crimes are not done and there is no excuse that can lessen the guilt.

    • #15
  16. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I don’t know how accurate it is, but Arnold is portrayed in the series “Turn”, which is about a Long Island family with the father is a Loyalist official and the son is a rebel spy running a network into New York City.

    The wife is portrayed as being the catalyst since she was a former lover of Major Andre, a British spy master, who had been in Philadelphia. When Philadelphia was recaptured, Arnold came to Philadelphia and Major Andre went to NYC while Arnold’s future wife remained in Philadelphia with her family.

    The other motive mentioned is money – the Continental Congress owed Arnold a lot of money it wasn’t able or was unwilling to pay. And Arnold needed money to support his new, lavish wife and their life style. The British came through with the money. Again, no idea if this is true.

    I don’t think it is true that Andre was a former lover. I’ve never heard that claimed before.

    • #16
  17. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I don’t know how accurate it is, but Arnold is portrayed in the series “Turn”, which is about a Long Island family with the father is a Loyalist official and the son is a rebel spy running a network into New York City.

    The wife is portrayed as being the catalyst since she was a former lover of Major Andre, a British spy master, who had been in Philadelphia. When Philadelphia was recaptured, Arnold came to Philadelphia and Major Andre went to NYC while Arnold’s future wife remained in Philadelphia with her family.

    The other motive mentioned is money – the Continental Congress owed Arnold a lot of money it wasn’t able or was unwilling to pay. And Arnold needed money to support his new, lavish wife and their life style. The British came through with the money. Again, no idea if this is true.

    They were fair to Arnold’s motivation and character. They were correct, in my view, that Peggy was truly involved in his treachery. The Andre subplot was for TV only. Turn is a great show but history is not as neat as a narrative story needs to be, heroes don’t do enough and there are always way too many characters. So shows always have to play pretty fast and loose with the truth.

    But I was surprised how accurately and sympathetically they portrayed Arnold’s character and motivations and his own personal sense of honor.

    • #17
  18. Brian Wolf Coolidge
    Brian Wolf
    @BrianWolf

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I won’t agree with the watered down version of his treachery.

    Arnold was a traitor and that is suffiicient. Plenty of men get accused of stupid things by political adversaries and don’t become traitors. That is among the worst things one could ever do. He wasn’t on a reality TV show, it was real life and there was no excuse for his perfidy.

    He was influenced primarily by his young wife, whose family were Tories. That’s as complicated as it was. Any attempt to make his actions appear sympathetic are misguided.

    Some crimes are not done and there is no excuse that can lessen the guilt.

    For my part I think Arnold deserves his symbolic status as traitor to the American people. What he did was a great evil and no one forced him to do it. Washington put up with a LOT of slight and insults to his honor. 

    However I do appreciate knowing what motivated the man and what a complex character he was and how he thought of himself while he became a traitor. That does not lessen his villainy to me, but does enrich my understanding of that time and those events.

    • #18

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