Benedict Arnold, American Hero

Benedict Arnold, that ultimate American traitor, made one big mistake in his career during the American Revolution: he didn’t die soon enough. Had Arnold possessed the good sense to, say, die of blood poisoning after the victory at Saratoga, he would today be held up as an American hero  of the second rank. No, he wouldn’t challenge George Washington’s primacy, but honestly who could? On the other hand, he would sport a greater claim to fame than several others who true history nerds know: Nathan Hale or Dr. John Warren. Nathan Hale, had he possessed more than one life to give for his country, might well have done something ignoble with the second one. Arnold, to his detriment, got that opportunity.

Early in the war, Arnold, while a bit reckless and self-promoting, enjoyed a string of bold actions that were mostly successful.

  • When the town fathers in his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut dithered, he forced their hand, broke in to the armory, and led his militia unit off to help around Boston.
  • He famously helped to capture Fort Ticonderoga and was instrumental in bringing the fort’s cannon down to Boston, which proved key in driving the British from the city.
  • To take the battle to the enemy, Arnold led a group through the wilderness and made an ill-fated but incredibly bold attack on Québec.
  • Later, he proved instrumental in blunting British efforts to recapture Fort Ticonderoga and, with it, control of Lake Champlain and the north end of the Hudson valley.
  • Finally, it was Arnold who led the successful fighting in the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, a battle that Arnold and many historians believe would have been an even greater win had General Gates heeded his subordinate’s call for further attacks.

After that, Arnold’s triumphs were over. He grew disillusioned and bitter about an array of slights, both real and imagined. Eventually, he got into contact with Major John Andre, and the rest is history.

How sad is it that many Christians enjoy a Benedict-Arnold-like career serving God’s kingdom. We may spend years doing all the right things, teaching Sunday School or passing out bulletins. We might be married for decades or raise a string of godly children. We might, like the prodigal son’s older brother, make all the right moves.

But then, nearing the finish line, we can foul things up. We can wind up damaging our family or dividing our church. What a shame to transform oneself from the hero of Saratoga to the archetypal traitor. That’s why we are warned in Hebrews 12:1-2 to run the race with perseverance. It’s why, in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul doesn’t look back at how he started the race but remarks that he has “finished the race.”

It was at Saratoga that Arnold took a musket ball to the leg that left him limping for the rest of his life. Never given the credit he deserved from that battle, passed over for promotion, and not reimbursed for large personal expenditures, Arnold grew increasingly bitter and eventually conspired to betray the defenses of West Point to the British. If only his wound had proven fatal.

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