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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.