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A Man of Honour
By Deborah Cullins Smith
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
This is an alternate history, which is more along the lines of science fiction rather than historical fiction. Difficult flip of the coin, but it does lean more toward the historical side. Benedict Arnold is a name synonymous with "traitor". But there was so much more to the man than that one moment for which he is most remembered. What if he had followed a different course? How would history remember him? If only....
A MAN OF HONOUR
By Deborah Cullins Smith
He was a handsome man, tall and well built, with a far away look in his clear blue eyes. He gazed across the small creek, barely seeing the ducks and loons that had laid claim to this habitat. Indeed, it seemed incongruous that birds or wildlife of any kind could still nest in this war-torn, blood-soaked land.
Benedict Arnold, the man whose actions at Lake Champlain had almost made a 14th American State of Quebec and won him promotion to Brigadier General. This same man, whose leadership in the Battle of Ridgefield won him promotion to Major General at the hand of General George Washington himself. This man who was known as the Savior of Saratoga, where he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat … This man was a tormented soul.
And he saw no way out.
Sold as a bondservant at the age of nine, Benedict’s mother wept softly as he was led away. His father, a disillusioned drunkard, was dead, and his mother inherited all his bills, but no assets, therefore no way to pay their enormous debts. Selling her son bought her a chance to escape the horrors of debtor’s prison. As an apprentice to an apothecary, Benedict’s life could have been much worse. He had plain but nourishing meals, a roof over his head, and the opportunity to learn a trade. But the sting of slavery hurt. It was a stigma that would never truly fade.
“Say your prayers, Ned,” his mother had said. “And don’t be forgetting who you are. Keep your head held high, Son. And remember – always keep your honour.”
Benedict wondered often about that phrase: keep your honour. He considered it a point of honour that he had never backed away from a duel, any duel. A man fool enough to refer to Benedict’s humble origins in a disparaging manner rarely walked away from the encounter unscathed. But was that honour or hotheaded anger? Benedict shifted uncomfortably when such questions accosted him. Life was too precarious these days to indulge in introspection. But today was different. Benedict was at a crossroads, and he didn’t know what to do.
Honour. Benedict Arnold never left a battlefield unless he either won the day or was carried away wounded. Arnold’s entire fleet was destroyed in the battle for the fortress of Quebec, but the British army was forced to retreat, and Benedict won the day. His men adored him, bled for him, died for him. An ounce of lead served as a talisman to remind him (as did the ache in his left knee) of the Battle of Saratoga. Benedict Arnold was a hero. Even when General “Granny” Gates took credit for that hard-won victory, the men who fought knew the truth. Gates hung on the periphery of battle while other men engaged in the violent bloodletting, then sailed in to claim the victory. The only people fooled by this charade were the members of the Continental Congress.
When Congress cut off his pay and reprimanded his “reckless behavior” on the battlefield, Benedict Arnold held fast to his convictions. Was that not honour? What more did they expect? What did these paunchy old men know of war? Where were their injuries, their battle scars? Arnold would feel his injury in cold or rainy weather for the rest of his life. Had these old men known starvation? Did they sleep huddled in blankets on the cold, bloody ground? No. They slumbered between fresh sheets, curled up beside plump wives on featherbeds. Privation was the absence of morning tea.
Then his beautiful wife, Margaret, died. Benedict regretted the long months spent far away from his Margaret. Her gentle spirit tempered his fiery nature, and, in her, his anger mellowed. Without Margaret, Benedict was cast adrift with no safe harbor to anchor his heart.
In giving his time to the American Army, Benedict Arnold lost his business ventures, suffering financial ruin – bankruptcy. But did the governing body of the Thirteen Colonies reward his sacrifice? No. They withheld his pay, refused his reimbursements, and criticized his heroic efforts, calling it recklessness. Recklessness, indeed! General Washington called it valor, but then, Washington didn’t pay his wages. And his motherless children couldn’t eat the General’s words of praise.
Bitterness became his constant companion.
Benedict still heard violins when he remembered the first time Miss Margaret “Peggy” Shippen floated down the staircase and into his arms for their first waltz. She was radiantly stunning, an angel that made all other women drab by comparison. Or maybe he expected this Margaret to mirror the Margaret he had lost to the fever. Judge Shippen was reticent about this suitor of dubious background. But Benedict was relentless and Peggy was headstrong. She was willing to raise her stepchildren, and desired children of her own. And the tall, gallant man in Continental blue took her breath away. Peggy was young and romantic at heart. Benedict was dazzled.
Little did he know that Peggy had an agenda of her own.
Title, land, social position, and wealth topped Mistress Arnold’s goals in life. With a push in the right direction, she was sure she could appeal to Benedict’s sense of injustice. Congress had given him a raw deal time and time again. Peggy stoked the flames of Benedict’s discontent daily. Her husband was too good for this ragtag bunch of Colonists. They were the traitors, to Peggy’s way of thinking. The British would win this war eventually, and Peggy longed for the titles of Lord and Lady Arnold with a passion.
Only General George Washington had continued to believe in Benedict Arnold. Only General Washington stood between Arnold and purgatory. And now, it seemed, even General Washington had hung him out to dry.
Benedict had been desperate to gain the hand of the lovely Peggy. But first he had had to win over Judge Shippen. So he had engaged in a few extra “activities”, as many other governors throughout the Colonies had done. He had developed his own little privateering enterprises in the great city of Philadelphia. For a price, businessmen could accomplish almost anything. Frowned upon as unscrupulous, but not technically illegal, Benedict had rebuilt some of his personal coffers and purchased the fabulous estate of Mount Pleasant for his precious Peggy. Surely this show of wealth would sway the indomitable Judge Shippen.
Still, Congress was determined to bring him down, and General Washington as well.
“They slander you daily,” Benedict had spat out with venom at the regal old gentleman. “How can you continue to fight for a country that besmirches your name with every breath?”
“I know the Hand of God is upon us,” Washington had responded calmly. “I believe our cause is blessed.”
Benedict had downed the last of his wine in one quick swallow.
“How can you endure?” he whispered.
Washington’s honest eyes bore through the bitterness in Arnold’s heart as though it was transparent.
“I believe in this country, Benedict,” the great man had said. “And I believe in our cause, our very existence. In spite of the odds, we will prevail. I cannot condone the men who sit back and pretend to be armchair generals. But when I look in the mirror as I shave, I know in my heart that we are going to win. We – Must – Win.”
Washington had smiled and clapped Arnold on the shoulder affectionately.
“As long as I can look at my reflection in that mirror without flinching, I know I’ve kept my honour. And that carries me through the rough times.”
Benedict Arnold couldn’t remember when he had last looked in a mirror without flinching. Daily the battlefield of his mind grew as bloody as the fields of the American Colonies. Daily he berated himself for allowing Peggy to lead him into the realms of treason.
She “knew people”, she had said, she had “friends” on Sir Henry Clinton’s staff. The British commander-in-chief would reward the Arnolds handsomely. All Benedict had to do was turn over the Fort of West Point to the British. Title, money, and a commission in the British Army awaited him. He couldn’t possibly still believe that the Continental Army would win…. “Lady” Peggy Arnold baited the hook with Benedict’s own bitterness and reeled him in like a trout.
Now he was trapped.
Here by this quiet creek on the outskirts of General Washington’s Headquarters at Morristown, he pondered all these things. His life, his wife, his allegiances… his faith.
Benedict stiffened as a large familiar hand came to rest gently on his shoulder.
“Benedict, I am sorry I had to do that,” said the Colonial commander in chief.
“You hung me out to dry, Sir,” he said with barely concealed rage.
“I did what I had to do,” General Washington countered. “I saved you from a general court martial with that reprimand. I saved your rank, your position, your place in this Army. What ever possessed you to throw down a gauntlet before your own judges? That was suicide!” Washington stepped in front of Benedict and locked eyes with him. “Is there anyone in this country that you have not challenged to a duel? You’re not thinking straight, Benedict. You could have been clapped in irons.”
“So what?” lashed out Benedict, his anger blazing into full flame.
“So – I need you, Benedict,” Washington replied. “I need you at my side. I need you on the battlefield. This country needs you in this war, not locked in the stockades. Don’t you understand the stakes, Benedict? This isn’t about some under-the-table business venture. We are trying to birth a nation, and right now we are dying. I need my best man. Reprimanding you publicly was my only recourse. You left me no choice with that fire-brand temper of yours.”
“And you’ve left me no choice either, General,” Benedict countered through gritted teeth. He looked out over the water, unable to meet Washington’s eyes.
“What do you mean, Benedict?” the shrewd General asked. He knew something was chewing at Benedict Arnold, eating him alive from the inside. Washington loved this man. Loved him like the son he’d never had, and Benedict’s turmoil made his heart ache.
The pause seemed to stretch for an eternity.
“Nothing,” whispered Benedict.
The General saw the pain. Benedict Arnold was at war with himself, had been actively engaged in that war for most of his life, truth be told. This time, it was subtly different. And suddenly, General George Washington was afraid.
“Benedict,” he said, trying to draw the younger man back from whatever Hell he had just consigned himself to. “I want you back on active duty.”
“My knee…” Benedict objected with a shake of his head. “I’m not fit for the battlefield.”
“Poppycock,” countered Washington, never missing a beat. “You’ll be astride a horse. I want you commanding the Left Wing of my Army. Three Divisions.”
Benedict’s eyes widened in surprise. This was the prize command he had longed for.
“Yes, Son,” said Washington. “You’ll be second in command of the Continental Army. My right hand. You’ll answer only to me.”
Benedict’s thoughts raged like a tempest at sea. He was drowning and General Washington was not only throwing him a lifeline, he was handing him the greatest honour he had ever known. But treason was all ready on the table. He couldn’t go back now. The letters, those damning letters… He would be hung, and even the great General George Washington would not be able to stay the executioner’s hand.
“I know you, Benedict,” the General said softly. “Perhaps even better than you know yourself. Honour, Benedict. It’s what you’ve based your entire life on. You live and breathe for it. I’ve never doubted your loyalty for one moment, – until now.”
Benedict closed his eyes in silent agony. The General’s back stiffened. Benedict Arnold would not – could not – look him in the eye.
“General Arnold,” the Commander-in-Chief snapped in a steely voice. “I will not move from this spot – and neither will you – until I know what you harbor in your heart. What dark secret holds you captive and builds this wall between us? You will tell me even if I must stand here all day and all night.”
“Sir, just give me command of West Point,” Benedict asked, blinking back tears. “I’ll serve there without the rigors of the battlefield. My heart … isn’t … in it anymore.”
“No,” said General Washington after a long pause. “No, Benedict. I was going to give you what you asked. But my heart tells me not to give in.”
The General heaved a great sigh before continuing.
“Martha has always chided me for not following my instincts. For years, she has admonished me. Every time I allow sentiment to overrule my heart, I’ve had cause to regret my decisions. And every time, my beloved wife says, ‘See, George? I told you to trust your instincts.’ And of course, she’s always right.” The General smiled tenderly, as though hearing Martha’s voice whispering in his ear.
“She’s a rare and wonderful woman, General,” whispered Benedict, still looking over the lake, but not seeing it.
And in that moment, General Washington knew.
“Margaret was a lovely woman,” he said. “She was the perfect wife for you, Benedict. Charming, gracious, gentle … She tempered your fire with her sweetness.”
Washington paused. Now was the moment of truth, the moment to tread carefully, or all would be lost, including Benedict Arnold’s soul. He tried to put a smile in his voice but fell short.
“I once heard Benjamin Franklin say that a woman is like a fine wine. To sip from the bottle is pleasurable, but to drain it is to invite a headache.” Washington paused again, then continued, putting the steel back in his voice. “What folly has the beautiful Peggy Shippen Arnold driven you to, General Arnold?”
Benedict struggled to maintain his composure. He failed.
Haltingly at first, then in a mighty rush as if a dam had burst inside him, Benedict Arnold confessed it all. The bitterness, the anger, the money problems, the social climbing propensities of his young wife… Then the letters conveyed to Sir Henry Clinton by way of Major John Andre, the use of his fictitious alias Gustavus Monk, and the mysterious courier Joshua Smith. Benedict Arnold talked for hours while Washington listened without comment.
Finally Benedict’s voice wavered and trailed off. Taking a deep breath, he raised his head and, for the first time, looked his General full in the face.
“Now you see why I cannot accept the command your Excellency has offered me,” Benedict said. “I am prepared, General, for whatever punishment you deem fit to mete out. I have betrayed my country and my oath as an officer, disgraced my name, and soiled my honour. I have nothing left.”
General Washington pondered the dilemma thoughtfully. By all rights, he should have Benedict Arnold strung up in the very tree under which they now stood. Treason, especially in a time of war, was the foulest crime a man could commit.
“I know what course I should take, General Arnold,” the large man said after several moments. “But I cannot do it.”
Benedict’s startled gaze locked onto his commanding officer’s grave face. He was too shocked to respond.
“You’ve written letters. That is damning evidence. But you’ve also apprised me of the situation in time to reverse a tragic mistake. Maybe even in time to use it to our advantage.”
Their conference lasted all night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, Benedict Arnold galloped home, a small contingency of soldiers following at a discreet distance. He had little to say to Peggy, and his orders to his staff were delivered with clipped brevity. Eyebrows rose and whispered speculation spread throughout the camp. Not even General Arnold’s aide, Major David Franks was privy to the plans that were obviously afoot, and that worried him greatly. The late afternoon meeting set many of his concerns to rest, but, watching his commander walk across the lawn to his private quarters and waiting wife, Major Franks worried anew. This would not be easy…
· * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Peggy searched her husband’s implacable face as he sipped his coffee and stared out over the Hudson River. It was almost time to meet Major Andre to finalize arrangements. The plans for the overthrow of West Point had been 16 months in the making. Peggy had written the initial letters herself.
“You … didn’t come to bed last night, dearest,” she ventured tentatively. “Are you … all right?”
His silence was deafening.
A brisk knock at the door indicated the arrival of his saddled horse, led by a groom.
“Have you made preparations, Major?” Arnold asked his aide.
“Per your orders, Sir,” the young man replied.
“Post the detail,” Arnold ordered with a nod.
“Yes, Sir,” the aide replied, snapping a salute.
A flurry of shouts echoed and the sound of activity around their home escalated.
General Arnold squared his shoulders and walked past Peggy without a word, snatching up his hat and cape as he strode out of their cottage. Once astride his stallion, he paused to look into Peggy’s eyes before tipping his hat and galloping away. That look … Peggy had never seen it before.
What happened in Morristown? her mind screamed.
Then she noticed the guards surrounding her home.
· * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Major Andre and Joshua Smith awaited the General at the rendevous point. Their horses snorted and shifted restlessly in the misty morning air. The men suddenly tensed as hoof beats thumped in the still forest.
General Arnold halted before the two men, acknowledging their presence with a nod of his head.
“Gentlemen,” Arnold said.
“I bring you this dispatch from Sir Henry,” said Major Andre, handing over the sealed parchment.
“Very good,” said Arnold, taking the document and breaking the wax seal. He took a moment to scan the contents before nodding again with satisfaction.
“Yes,” he said, “everything seems to be in order.”
Arnold looked up at the two men and said clearly, “ Gentlemen, consider yourselves my prisoners.” Men burst from the trees all around them, muskets raised and ready to fire.
“You traitor!” Andre snarled.
“No,” said Arnold, with a tight smile. “Not a traitor, Major Andre, a patriot. And I will not be bought at the expense of my countrymen.”
“You’ll hang, Arnold,” Andre spat. “Mark my words, you’ll hang.”
“Take them to General Washington,” Arnold said, “along with this.” He handed the parchment to a young captain who saluted before motioning to his men, who were binding the prisoners’ hands.
The sounds of cannon fire caused the horses to dance nervously beneath their riders. Major Andre shot a murderous look at Arnold.
“That would be my men,” the General said with a feral smile. “Sir Henry seems to be receiving the greeting I told my men to send this morning. I think it’s safe to say that the Hudson River Valley will remain safely in the hands of the Continental Army.”
General Arnold turned to the captain. “Give General Washington my compliments, Captain. And tell him I’ll make preparations for his arrival.”
“Shall we?” the captain said, nodding to General Arnold as they turned to ride toward Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Peggy was silent through the dinner with General Washington. After an evening of small talk, to which she had contributed only her silent presence, she excused herself and retired to her chambers.
“Not a happy lady, I take it,” observed General Washington.
“No, Sir,” Benedict sighed. “I doubt she’ll stay. I’m going to give her the option of returning to England with her parents or of staying with me and renouncing her loyalty to the Crown. I have little doubt what her decision will be.”
The General gazed fondly at Benedict.
“She’s a handsome young woman, Benedict, but looks alone will never hold a marriage together. Now, Margaret …” he raised his glass of sherry as though in a toast. “… there was a woman of rare beauty, both inside and out.”
“And therein lies my guilt, General,” said Benedict, staring moodily into the hearth’s roaring blaze. “I expected Peggy to be like Margaret, and she is not. What a fool I was…”
“What are you going to tell Congress?” Benedict asked at last.
“That you and I conspired to capture this Joshua Smith,” General Washington said, “which is true . He’s done terrible damage to our efforts by passing vital information to the enemy for months. Major Andre just happens to be a bonus.”
“Will they believe it?” whispered Benedict.
“Probably not,” conceded Washington. “But they’ll be forced to take me at my word.” He smiled at the younger man whose face reflected more peace than he’d seen in a good many years. “And in the meantime,” he added, “you’ll dazzle them with your military brilliance. Deeds will always speak louder than words, Benedict.”
Benedict smiled as he clinked his glass to Washington’s.
“History doesn’t remember our personal conflicts and inner demons, Benedict,” the General said softly. “History remembers our choices.”
· * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
General Benedict Arnold took command of the Left Wing of the Continental Army, and won field after field. His men rallied to his command, buying American soil with the blood of hundreds of Her sons. In 1781, he covered Washington’s flank at the Battle of Yorktown and witnessed the surrender of Cornwallis.
Then he marched on to Charleston, one of the few remaining British strongholds in America. Joining forces with Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox” for his lightning strikes against enemy forces, and General Nathanael Greene, General Benedict Arnold fought in the Battle of Eutaw Springs. The British retreated to North Carolina before the lethal attacks of these three courageous leaders. General Arnold was once again wounded. He rallied from a gunshot wound to the chest, only to fall victim to malaria in the swampy islands of South Carolina. After several weeks, the General died in a hospital in Charleston, whispering the name of Margaret.
General George Washington referred to Benedict Arnold as the most decorated war hero of the Revolution. He was once quoted as saying that, “… without the valiant and heroic actions of General Benedict Arnold, the war against British rule might well have been lost.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The truth of the matter:
The story is true up to the point where General George Washington demanded an answer of Benedict Arnold at Morristown. When Arnold asked for West Point, Washington gave in to him. And Arnold’s traitorous course was open.
In 1780, Benedict Arnold agreed to turn the installation of West Point, the key to the Hudson River Valley, over to the enemy in return for a royal commission in the British Army, as well as a large sum of money. Major John Andre, aide to Sir Henry Clinton, acted as liaison, and was captured on his way back to Clinton’s flagship. Incriminating letters were found on his person, and placed in Washington’s hands. Arnold fled to the British for refuge and John Andre was hung as a spy.
Benedict Arnold’s treason had an enormous impact on the Continental Army. It is conjectured that Arnold’s betrayal significantly shortened the war by uniting the Thirteen Colonies as nothing else ever could have.
In December of 1781, Arnold and his family sailed to England. He received only a small portion of the money promised him by Clinton. All of his business investments failed miserably. The British never fully trusted Arnold and though he served the British, raiding towns along the coast of the Americas in 1780, they never allowed him any further service with the military. He lived the remainder of his life as a man without a country, dying on June 14, 1801 in London.
Benedict Arnold’s successes in the Battle of Lake Champlain, and his victory at Saratoga are all but forgotten. But his one decision to betray his country is remembered – and his name has become synonymous with the word traitor in the annals of American history.
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