Benedict Arnold — Revolutionary War Hero Turned Traitor

January 14, 1741–June 14, 1801

Benedict Arnold was a General in the Continental Army. He was instrumental in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga at the beginning of the American Revolution but eventually turned traitor.

Benedict Arnold, Portrait

Benedict Arnold is remembered as one of the most well-known traitors in American history. After serving under George Washington in the early years of the American Revolution, he conspired with the British to turn West Point over to them in 1780.

Benedict Arnold Biography

Benedict Arnold came from a prominent New England family that fell on hard times after the death of his mother in 1759. He joined the militia at an early age but eventually served as an apprentice at an apothecary under the tutelage of his cousins. He opened his own apothecary and bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1760s. Prior to the American Revolution, he was opposed to British taxation policies. When the war broke out, he helped lead the raid that captured Fort Ticonderoga in May 1755. Throughout the course of the war, he found favor with George Washington but was always at odds with other commanding officers or subordinates. After he was injured near the end of the Saratoga Campaign, he was placed in command of Philadelphia, where he met his second wife, Peggy Shippen. While in Philadelphia, Arnold began to conspire with the British and aided them in planning the takeover of West Point. When the plot was uncovered, Arnold fled to England. He eventually served in the British army and led an attack on New London, Connecticut in 1781.

Benedict Arnold Facts

Early Life, Education, and Family

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut on January 14, 1741, to a successful family until bad business deals, alcoholism, and deaths in the family created financial problems.

  • Arnold’s father and grandfather were also named Benedict Arnold.
  • His mother was Hannah Waterman King, a wealthy widow who married his father.
  • Arnold’s grandfather was the first royal governor of the Province of Rhode Island.
  • Attended school at Canterbury until the family was unable to pay for it.
  • Two sisters and one brother died from yellow fever.
  • His mother died in 1759, and his father died in 1761.
  • Arnold married Margaret Mansfield in 1767. They had three sons together. Margaret died on June 19, 1775.
  • He married Peggy Shippen on April 8, 1779. Peggy died on August 24, 1804.

Early Military and Professional Career

Arnold enlisted in the Connecticut militia at 16 years old in 1758 and served in the French and Indian War in upstate New York.

He served as an apprentice to his cousins, Dr. Daniel Lathrop and Joshua Lathrop, in their apothecary business. After serving in the militia, he returned and finished his apprenticeship.

Arnold received a loan from Dr. Daniel Lathrop in 1762 and started his own apothecary shop in New Haven. His only surviving sibling, Hannah, was his assistant in the business. Along with medicine, Arnold also sold books, jewelry, and artwork.

As he became more successful, he started sailing his own ships to the West Indies and Canada. He was involved in trading horses, which took him to Montreal and Quebec.

He joined the Sons of Liberty and participated in smuggling in an effort to avoid paying taxes that had been levied by the British.

Around the time of the Boston Tea Party, he formed a militia of around 58 men in his hometown of New Haven called the “Governor’s Foot Guards.”

The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga — May 10, 1775

Arnold was elected Captain of the Connecticut militia in December 1774.

When the news of Lexington and Concord reached New Haven, he offered to lead any volunteers who would join him and march to Cambridge.

Doolittle Engraving, April 19, Battle of Lexington, Plate 1
This engraving by Amos Doolittle was made in 1775 and depicts the British Redcoats firing on the Massachusetts militia at the Battle of Lexington. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

His march was delayed when the New Haven selectmen initially refused to give him the keys to the powder magazine, so his men could get ammunition. When Arnold threatened to break down the doors of the powder magazine, they gave in and David Wooster handed the keys over to Arnold.

On the march to Cambridge, Arnold crossed paths with Samuel Holden Parsons. Parsons had just left Cambridge and was on his way back to Connecticut to raise more troops. Parsons told Arnold the provincial army surrounding Boston lacked the artillery needed to bombard the British and drive them out of the city. Arnold told Parsons that there were cannons and artillery at Fort Ticonderoga and that the fort was in poor shape and undermanned. When Parsons reached Connecticut, he met with Samuel Wyllys,  Silas Deane, and others and began planning an expedition to capture Fort Ticonderoga. Edward Mott was chosen to lead the expedition, which would include Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. Later on, Allen would be put in charge of the field operations and would lead the attack on the fort.

Portrait of Ethan Allen
This illustration depicts Ethan Allen. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Arnold arrived at Cambridge 10 days after Lexington and Concord and petitioned Joseph Warren and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to let him lead an expedition to capture Fort Ticonderoga.

On May 3, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts appointed him as a Colonel in the militia and authorized him to raise an army of up to 400 men and then proceed to Lake Champlain to capture Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.

While Arnold was out recruiting men for his expedition, he found out about the Connecticut expedition. When he did, he left his recruits behind and raced to catch up to Mott and his men.

Arnold caught up to them around 4:00 in the afternoon of May 8, at Castleton. Arnold tried to take command of the Connecticut expedition, but the Green Mountain Boys laughed at him and refused to follow his command. Despite being rebuffed, he joined the Connecticut expedition, along with roughly 50 of his volunteers from Massachusetts.

On May 10, the expedition captured Fort Ticonderoga. Two days later, Seth Warner captured Crown Point.

Capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Allen and Delaplace, Chappel
Ethan Allen confronts William De La Place, commander of Fort Ticonderoga. Image Source: Fort Ticonderoga, Online Collections.

On May 16, Arnold and his men captured a schooner at Skeenesboro. Arnold placed guns from the fort on the schooner and renamed it Liberty.

On May 17, he sailed north to Fort St. John on the Richelieu River and led a successful attack on the fort. After he took Fort St. John, he scuttled five British ships and captured four more. He was in command of America’s first naval force.

With the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Fort St. John, and the destruction or capture of British ships the Americans were in control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley,

Arnold was given temporary command of all American forces on Lake Champlain on June 1.

Arnold was replaced as commander on June 14 and took exception. In response, he took some of his men to Crown Point. His men were eventually convinced to accept their new commander and the potential for a mutiny was avoided.

Arnold was accused of misusing funds meant for the expedition, so he left for Cambridge on July 5 and arrived there toward the end of the month. The committee that investigated the matter was headed by Dr. Benjamin Church. Massachusetts paid Arnold back for official expenses that he incurred.

Arnold was disgusted by the whole affair. He resigned his commission in the Massachusetts militia and disbanded his regiment.

The Battle of Quebec — December 31, 1775

Arnold was offered a position as an adjutant general under Major General Philip Schuyler in the Northern Department. He declined because he wanted a field commission.

Congress had decided to send an expedition north to invade the Province of Quebec and capture Montreal and Quebec City. The expedition was to be led by Schuyler.

Arnold met with George Washington in August 1775 and proposed a second expedition that would approach Quebec City from the east and mount a surprise attack. Washington and Congress agreed with the plan, and Arnold was put in charge of the second expedition.

Despite defections, disease, and an extremely difficult journey, Arnold was able to reach Point Levi, across from Quebec, on November 10.

Due to a lack of equipment, Arnold could not attack Quebec City right away. On November 13, he was able to cross some of his men over the St. Lawrence River. They scaled the heights up to the Plains of Abraham, where they camped outside of the city walls. Arnold demanded the city’s surrender but was refused. On November 19, Arnold had his men pull up camp and they marched to Pointe aux Trembles.

The first expedition, now under the command of General Richard Montgomery, captured Fort St. John and Montreal and then joined up with Arnold and his men at Pointe aux Trembles on December 1.

They attacked Quebec City on December 31, 1775, but failed. Montgomery was killed, and Arnold was wounded in his left leg. The American forces retreated.

Battle of Quebec, Death of Richard Montgomery, Trumbull
This 1786 painting by John Trumbull depicts the death of General Richard Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General on January 10, 1776.

The American army, under Arnold’s command, laid siege to Quebec but was forced to retreat on May 6, 1776, when a fleet of British ships arrived.

The British pursued the Americans and Arnold commanded the rear guard. He burned towns, forts, and bridges along the way to slow the British forces and allow thousands of sick and wounded Americans to be evacuated.

Arnold boarded the last boat leaving Fort St. John, barely escaping the British.

The Battle of Valcour Island — October 11–13, 1776

Arnold led American naval forces in the Battle of Valcour Island on October 11, 1776.

Arnold’s navy was almost completely destroyed by the British, and he was forced to retreat to Ticonderoga, which gave the British control of Lake Champlain.

Although the British won the battle, Arnold delayed them long enough so they could not push forward with their invasion of the northern colonies.

They occupied Crown Point for two weeks before withdrawing north into Canada for the winter.

Battle of Valcour Island, Ships Fighting in the Straight, Painting
This painting by Henry Gilder depicts the Battle of Valcour Island. Image Source: Royal Collection Trust.

Disputes with Junior Officers and Continental Congress

For a time, Arnold had good relations with his superiors, Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates, but had issues with subordinates Jacobus Wynkoop, Moses Hazen, and John Brown.

Schuyler sent Wynkoop to take command of the fleet on Lake Champlain. Wynkoop challenged Arnold’s authority and Arnold had him arrested and removed.

Arnold accused Hazen of insubordination. Hazen was acquitted and Arnold was ordered to apologize, which he refused to do. Horatio Gates intervened on Arnold’s behalf and ended the proceedings on December 2, 1776.

Brown insisted General Montgomery had promised to promote him to Lt. Colonel, but Arnold refused to follow through. Arnold accused Brown of stealing from British supplies that had been captured, a charge Brown denied. Brown then accused Arnold of stealing from the British supplies and using them for his own purposes. Brown filed charges against Arnold on December 1, 1776, but the charges were eventually dropped.

He threatened to resign from the Continental Army in February 1777 when the Continental Congress did not make him a General. Washington, who thought highly of Arnold, persuaded him to stay on.

After the British burned Danbury on April 25, 1777, American forces led by Brigadier General Gold Selleck Silliman, Major General David Wooster, and Arnold pursued the British forces. Arnold led attacks that inflicted heavy casualties on the British in the Battle of Ridgefield.

Due to heroics at Ridgefield, Congress promoted him to Major General, but without seniority, which meant he was still subordinate to the other officers that were made Generals in February

On May 12, John Brown published a broadside that stated, “Money is this man’s god, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”

Arnold submitted his resignation again on July 11, 1777. However, Washington asked the Continental Congress to allow him to serve under Philip Schuyler near Ticonderoga. Arnold asked for his resignation to be put on hold and he went to join Schuyler.

The Continental Congress voted against reinstating his seniority on August 8, which upset Arnold.

Saratoga Campaign — June–October 1777

Arnold helped defeat the British at Fort Stanwix in August 1777.

He played a significant role in the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, under the command of Horatio Gates. However, Gates and Arnold disagreed on the strategy, and Gates left Arnold’s accomplishments on the battlefield out of his report. Later, Gates took troops away from Arnold’s command and eventually relieved Arnold for insubordination.

Although he had no troops to command, he joined in the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7. He rallied the troops and led them on two assaults on the British front lines. His actions contributed to the American victory, however, he received another injury to his left leg when his horse was shot out from under him and fell on him.

Benedict Arnold Wounded at Saratoga, Illustration
This illustration depicts Arnold with his leg pinned under his horse. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Winter at Valley Forge — 1777–1778

Arnold spent the winter of 1777-1778 with the Continental Army at Valley Forge.

While there, he signed the Oath of Allegiance on May 30, 1778, witnessed by Henry Knox.

He was promoted to Major General on February 17, 1778, which gave him seniority over the generals who were previously above him.

Command in Philadelphia

Due to the wounds Arnold suffered to his leg, he could not serve in the field, and he was named military commander of Philadelphia on May 28, 1778.

Joseph Reed filed eight charges of misconduct against him with Congress in February 1779. Congress initially cleared Arnold of the charges but Reed persisted and Arnold was eventually brought to trial on four of the charges.

He was found guilty on two charges. The first was for using government wagons for personal use. The second was for issuing a pass for a ship, the Charming Nancy, that he invested in.

Arnold was upset that he did not receive a full pardon.

Court-Martial at Morristown

Arnold was accused of using his position as an officer to benefit himself financially while he was in Philadelphia.

The accusations were made by General Joseph Reed and Timothy Matlack.

The trial was initially started on June 1, 1780, in Philadephia, but was postponed due to the British attack near New York City.

The court-martial resumed on December 23, 1780, at Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army was camped for the winter.

Arnold was found guilty of two minor charges and reprimanded by Washington.

Arnold was upset over the result of the court-martial and saw it as another sign of disrespect from his fellow officers and soldiers.

Arnold’s Treason — May 1779–September 25, 1780

After he married Peggy Shippen, she introduced him to Major John André and other British officers. André was the intelligence chief for General Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America at the time.

Arnold contacted Joseph Stansbury, a Loyalist, and told him he was interested in joining the British or spying for them. Stansbury relayed the information to André. The British took Arnold up on his offer and told him to remain in his position so he could spy for them.

Arnold believed he was going to be put in charge of West Point and began negotiating with the British to help them capture the garrison.

He was named commander of West Point on August 3, 1780.

Arnold and André met on the night of September 21 to discuss the final details of the British takeover of West Point.

André was captured by the New York militia at Tarrytown on September 23. They found documents in his shoe that Arnold was sending to Clinton.

Arnold escaped Philadelphia on a British ship, the Vulture, and went to New York City.

André was put on trial and hanged for spying at Tappan, New York on October 2.

Arnold's Treason, Arnold Giving Letters to Andre
This illustration by C.F. Blauvelt depicts Benedict Arnold directing Major John Andre to hide his documents for General Clinton in his boot. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Service in the British Army During the American Revolution

Arnold was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the British army and led a raid on New London, Connecticut in September 1781.

He went to England in late 1781 and attempted to obtain a regular commission in the British army. He was denied.

Life After the American Revolution

After the war, Arnold pursued various business ventures, including land speculation in Canada. He returned to England in 1791. He spent several years as a privateer in the West Indies. He eventually settled in London.

Death of Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold died on June 14, 1801, and was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Battersea, London.

Benedict Arnold Significance

Benedict Arnold is important to the history of the United States for the heroic role he played as an officer for most of the American Revolutionary War. He used his leadership skills, tactical knowledge, and personal bravery to lead men at Quebec and Saratoga. Unfortunately, Arnold also allowed his personal pride to get in the way, which led him to feel like he was disrespected by his fellow officers and even Congress. That led him down a path where he conspired with the British, betrayed his fellow countrymen, and became one of the most hated men in American history.

Benedict Arnold APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Benedict Arnold, the Invasion of Canada, and the American Revolutionary War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Benedict Arnold Definition APUSH

Benedict Arnold is defined as a once-prominent American military leader, who is primarily remembered for his betrayal of the American cause during the American Revolution. Initially a skilled and brave general who played a critical role in several early battles, Arnold grew disillusioned with the Continental Congress and ultimately conspired with the British in 1780. He attempted to hand over the strategic fort at West Point but the plot was discovered. His name has since become synonymous with betrayal in American history, contrasting his early heroism with his later treachery.

Benedict Arnold Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Daily Bellringer discusses the life and career of Benedict Arnold.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Benedict Arnold — Revolutionary War Hero Turned Traitor
  • Date January 14, 1741–June 14, 1801
  • Author
  • Keywords Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, George Washington, John Andre, Fort Ticonderoga, West Point, Benedict Arnold APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 18, 2024