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May 2, 2024 11 mins

Benedict Arnold is the United States' most famous traitor. Learn about his journey from hero to villain of the Revolutionary War in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article:

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff, Lauren
bobebam here. One of the oddest monuments in America is
the Boot Monument in Saratoga National Park in New York,
which commemorates, but does not name, a soldier on the
American side of the Revolution who was wounded and nearly

lost his leg as he led troops in the defeat
of the British and the Battle of Saratoga in October
of seventeen seventy seven. But this isn't a Boot of
the Unknown Soldier kind of situation. The hero's name was
left off of the monument for a reason. Benedict Arnold,
despite his bravery on the battlefield, eventually switched sides and

became the most infamous trader in American history. After trying
and failing to hand the Continental fort at West Point
over to the British, he joined the Royal Army and
took up arms against the rebellious colonists and even put
a Connecticut town to the torch. For the article, this
episode is based on How Stuff Works. Spoke with Steve Shinkin,

the author of an award winning biography for young adult readers.
Called the Notorious Benedict Arnold a true story of adventure,
heroism and treachery. He said, there's no other story like Arnold's.
He was at the absolute top, one of the great
American heroes, and fell all the way to the bottom,
a kind of devil figure. And in both cases rise

and fall, he did it by himself. It's a measure
of Arnold's infamy that nearly two centuries after his death
he remained so infamously reviled that Americans still sometimes refer
to someone viewed as disloyal as a Benedict Arnold. Houstuff
Works also spoke by email with Eric D. Lemmon, an
associate professor of English at the University of Bridgeport and

author of Homegrown Terror, Benedict Arnold and the Burning of
New London. He said Arnold's case is so disturbing not
because he decided to back the British, which which many
others in America did. It's because he was a hero
to the American side. First, because he had so many
friends and comrades who fought beside him. To fight beside

someone and then to switch sides and fight against them
is anathema to most people. It is so much more
troubling than the mere political betrayal, and that is why
it's so incredibly rare, particularly for a general in the army.
Lemon sees parallels between Arnold and another infamous figure in
early American history, Aaron Burr, who yes killed Alexander Hamilton

in a duel, but was also later tried unsuccessfully for
treason for his role in an ill fated plot to
lore States to leave the US and join a new empire.
Lemon said both were competent war heroes who, in one
way or another, had their careers stalled or ruined by
their own actions, and then plotted against their perceived enemies

in the American government. Both had the misperception or a flaw,
that the government was the name, and when elements in
that government, in Arnold's case, Congress or in Burr's case,
Thomas Jefferson became antagonistic to them, they responded by trying
to burn the whole thing down. In some ways, Arnold's
treachery may have been forged by resentment and frustration. Born

in Norwich, Connecticut, in seventeen forty one, he spent his
youth preparing to attend Yale, but the bankruptcy of his
alcoholic father dashed those dreams. He instead apprenticed as an
apothecary the eighteenth century version of a pharmacy, and served
in the French and Indian War before settling in New Haven, Connecticut,
where he built a drug store business and worked as

a merchant and sea captain, involved in trade with the
Caribbean and Canada. By the time Arnold was in his
mid thirties, he had become successful enough to build one
of the grandest homes in New Haven, but he was
never quite content. A lemon said, he had great gifts
of intelligence and physical prowess. He always felt that they

were being overlooked. He had the sort of prickly personality
that took offense very easily. He was often threatening to
quit or to fight a duel with someone who insulted him.
I would say he was certainly a narcissist, but the
tragedy is that he could have gone another way. He
had a lot of people pulling for him, helping him
and loving him, but he ultimately chose to betray many

of them. In the spring of seventeen seventy five, Arnold
was serving as the captain of a local militia in
new Haven. When the British attacked Lexington in Concord, Arnold
took some of New Haven's gunpowder supply and headed to
Massachusetts to join the fight. Early on, Arnold distinguished himself
as a competent, even gifted military leader, but one who

frequently became immersed in political squabbles that stymied his rise.
Arnold got Massachusetts officials to back his plan to capture
Fort Taekwonderoga in New York so that the rebels could
seize its eighty or so cannons. But as it turned out,
Arnold wasn't the only one who wanted that artillery, and
when he got to New York with his expedition, he

was compelled to team up with Ethan Allen and his
Green Mountain Boys. The Americans rode across Lake Champlain from
what's now Vermont and staged daring late night surprise attack
to seize the fort. Their success was a major early
victory in the war. Though Arnold and Alan coled the raid,
it was Allan who rashly demanded the British render quote

in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental
Congress who ended up with more of the credit. But
Arnold had even bigger ambitions. He pitched the Continental Congress
and George Washington, the new head of the American forces,
on a scheme to invade Canada, overwhelmed the few hundred
troops that the British kept there, and emboldened Canadian colonists

to join the American cause. A Washington agreed, but appointed
Major General Richard Montgomery to head the effort and relegated
Arnold to commanding a small force that made up its
way through the main wilderness to Quebec City. The New
Year's Eve assault on the Canadian city turned into a debacle,
in which Montgomery was killed. Arnold, though severely wounded, managed

to rally the remaining troops and continue the siege until spring,
when he was ordered to return home. Arnold went on
to distinguish himself in September seventeen seventy seven in the
aforementioned Battle of Saratoga. He quarreled with Major General Horatio Gates,
his commander, who tried to keep him back at headquarters
as a punishment, but Arnold eventually ignored his orders and

rode his horse to the front, where he led a
charge that outflanked a force of German mercenaries. During the fighting,
Arnold was shot and a bullet killed his horse and
caused it to fall on him, crushing the leg had
injured in Quebec. He had to be carried off the
field and walked with a limp for the rest of
his life. Arnold's courage had helped the Americans win a

crucial victory, but again he didn't get the credit or
position he felt he deserved. Instead, in July seventeen seventy eight,
Washington put Arnold in charge of the city of Philadelphia,
which the British had abandoned kept out of action. Arnold
married the young daughter of a local judge, Peggy Shippen,
and the couple lived in extravagant lifestyle that was beyond

an American general's means. Congress refused to pay some of
his expense vouchers, and eventually, in June of seventeen seventy nine,
he was court martialed on charges of corruption. Although Arnold
eventually was acquitted, the humiliation might have been the final straw.
Even before the trial began, he secretly reached out to

the British and began communicating with British spy Major John
Andre through coded correspondence. Meanwhile, Arnold asked to be reassigned
to West Point, the fort that served as Washington's headquarters.
In September of seventeen eighty he met with Andre at
a house near the Hudson River and hatched a plot
to hand the fort over to the British in exchange

for command in the Royal Army and twenty thousand British
pounds that's worth something like four million pounds today or
about five million US dollars. But once again Arnold was
foiled by fate. Before John Andre could make his way
back into British held territory, he was captured by American militiamen.

When Arnold heard the news, he managed to escape on
the Hudson in a British ship, the Vulture. Before he
could be arrested. From on board, Arnold wrote a letter
to Washington complaining of the quote ingratitude of my country
and asking that his former superior protect Arnold's wife. He wrote,
it ought only to fall on me, and Arnold was

about to get even further into the thick of it.
In seventeen eighty one, having become a British officer. He
ordered his troops to burn the town of New London
in Connecticut, just ten miles away from where he was
born and raised. That's around fifteen kilometers. This action was
ostensibly meant to punish private who operated out of New
London for capturing a British merchant ship. Arnold's forces torched

some one hundred and forty buildings, including residence homes, and
after capturing the fort overlooking the town's harbor, slaughtered eighty
American militiamen who had already surrendered. Lemon said, I think
that once Arnold made the choice to go over to
the British, he knew he had to succeed, and he
was willing to do anything to make that happen. That's

a dangerous place to be in for anyone, and it
led him to a very dark place. In December of
seventeen eighty one, Arnold and his wife and children went
to live in London, England, supported in part by a
portion of the fee had been guaranteed for the failed
West Point plot. After America's Revolutionary War was over, he

moved to Canada and tried to revive his career as
a merchant but his fortune was mostly gone by the
time he died in eighteen oh one. Shankin said, this
is a classic rise in falset. We see them over
and over, and of course it's usually some character flaw
that brings the hero down. That's not just in fiction

and theater. And that's happened throughout history and we'll continue
to happen. It's a dynamic and in some ways sympathetic story.
But to this day, in New London, the city Arnold torched,
local residents return the favor by burning an effigy of
him each September. Today's episode is based on the article

how did Benedict Arnold Become America's Most Infamous Trader? On
how Stuffworks dot Com written by Patrick J. Kyder. Brain
Stuff is production of my Heart Radio in partnership with
how stuffworks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klang.
Four more podcasts from my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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