Who Was Benedict Arnold?
On September 24, 1780, General Benedict Arnold was riding for his life. His horse galloped quickly through the trees following a steep path that headed toward the Hudson River, north of New York City. Benedict was one of the heroes of the Continental Army. He and his fellow colonists were fighting the American Revolutionary War, struggling for their freedom from Great Britain. Benedict had been a hero of several battles. Now, he was in terrible trouble.
As he rode, Benedict did not know how close his pursuers were. He kept his head down and guided his horse along the trail, his sword and pistols bouncing and clattering at his sides. He knew that a boat was waiting for him, and he hoped it would take him to safety on a larger ship waiting on the broad Hudson River.
He was probably thinking of his wife and four children, whom he had just left behind. He hoped they would all be safe. Benedict had met and married his wife when he was the American military governor of the city of Philadelphia, another important position he had held in service to his country.
But Benedict Arnold, once a Continental Army hero, was not running away from British forces. Instead, he was fleeing his fellow American colonists. Just moments before Benedict made his quick escape on horseback, the leading Continental general, George Washington, had learned some terrible news: Benedict Arnold had sold plans for the American fort at nearby West Point to a British spy. He was a traitor!
When Washington got that sad news, he was only minutes away from arriving to meet with Benedict. But Benedict also had received a note. It said that the British spy Benedict had worked with had been caught. Benedict knew he had only one option—-to run away. If the Continental Army caught up to him, he would be put on trial. As punishment for his crimes, he could be shot.
What had led a man who had once been a hero to turn on his nation? How did Benedict Arnold become one of the most hated men in US history? He had been a business owner, a ship captain, and a successful soldier and military leader. Now, he was a criminal.
When he reached the river’s edge, Benedict pulled his horse to a stop and leaped off. He shouted at the sailors waiting by the small boat to pull him quickly away from the shore. He was heading to the safety that he could only find aboard a British ship. Benedict would never find a safe home in America again. Chapter 1: An Active Early Life
Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741, in the British colony of Connecticut. Like everyone in the town of Norwich, he was a subject of the king of England. Great Britain owned Connecticut and twelve other colonies in North America. They spread along the Atlantic coast from what is now Maine in the north to Georgia in the south.
Benedict’s family was one of the wealthiest in Norwich. His father, also named Benedict, owned ships that traded between islands in the Caribbean and the American colonies. His mother, Hannah, was a well-respected leader in their church. Benedict had three younger sisters, Hannah, Mary, and Elizabeth. The family was well known. Their seats in church were those reserved for the most important members of the congregation.
Young Benedict led a very active life. He was a leader among his group of friends, often deciding what they would do or choosing where they would go. They often played in the nearby woods, camping or hunting. He became an excellent ice -skater, zipping over frozen ponds and rivers.
He had learned to read and write in a one--room schoolhouse. But when he was not in school, he had many adventures. Benedict would sometimes try dangerous things just to get attention. Once, he jumped onto a moving waterwheel. This was a huge wooden device that spun on the side of a building. Part of the wheel went underwater as it turned. Inside the building, the wheel was connected to a millstone that ground wheat into flour. As people watched in shock, Benedict clung to the wheel and rode it all the way around, holding on as it passed underwater. He popped back out, soaking wet and grinning. People were shocked that he would do something so bold and daring.
One summer, he sailed by ship with his father to other colonies and even traveled as far as the Caribbean Sea, stopping at Saint Kitts, Martinique, and the Cayman Islands.
When Benedict was eleven, he was sent to a boarding school in nearby Canterbury. He studied Latin and math, as well as Greek and the Bible. While he was away at school, he once again showed his daring side. At a dock nearby, he climbed high up on a ship’s mast before the crew could catch him.
Then, from this high spot, he dove into the water to escape. Later, the school’s headmaster wrote to Benedict’s mother about another incident. When a barn caught fire, Benedict ran into the burning building. He climbed to the roof and walked along the top as the smoke and flames grew around him.
During his second year at boarding school, Benedict got sad news from home. His sisters Mary and Elizabeth had died from yellow fever. Hannah had been very sick, too, but she had survived. Benedict’s mother told him not to come home because she feared he might also catch the deadly illness.
Everything really began to change for Benedict in 1754. His father’s business had been slowly losing money. Eventually, the family’s money ran out, and Benedict had to return to Norwich from his boarding school. The Arnolds were no longer among the town’s leading families. Benedict was often teased by other kids because of his family’s troubles. He fought with the boys who made fun of him. He also had to take care of his father, who sometimes drank too much. It was embarrassing for thirteen--year--old Benedict. He became more and more upset about what people might think of him and his family.
During the fall of 1754, Benedict met some Mohegan people who lived nearby. They taught him how to paddle a canoe and move silently through the woods. He learned to fish and hunt. His adventures in the rivers and forests of Connecticut were not enough for Benedict, though.
He still got into trouble for doing dangerous things, like once starting a huge bonfire. Finally, he was caught by a constable, a type of policeman. Benedict threatened to hit the officer! This was too much for Mrs. Arnold. She arranged for her angry, active boy to go to work as an apprentice. He needed to find something positive to do with his time, and she needed him to settle down and help his family.
In the American colonies, many young people worked as apprentices, learning a job or a skill by helping an expert. Apprentices worked in shops or in stables, for candle makers, blacksmiths, and in many other businesses. They often did the hardest or dirtiest tasks.
Being an apprentice was a job, and it came with many rules. Apprentices had to work for little or no pay for many years while they learned a particular skill or craft. The business owner or expert craftsman paid for their food and a place to live but usually made the apprentice work long hours. At the end of their time, however, they hoped to have the skills to open their own businesses.
In 1755, when he was fourteen, Benedict became an apprentice with the Lathrop family. The Lathrops owned an apothecary, a store that sold medicines, bandages, and herbs. Benedict was put to work in the shop, packing boxes and learning everything about the business. The Lathrops also sold other products like cloth, wine, and tobacco.
Work seemed to change Benedict. Once he had used his youthful energy for playing pranks and having fun; now, he put his energy into becoming rich. Chapter 2: B. Arnold, Shopkeeper
Benedict worked long hours at the Lathrops’ shop. He learned about the medicines they sold and what sort of cloth was most popular among customers. As he grew in the job, the Lathrops gave him a little money. He often used it to buy fancy shoes, which he loved.
In 1759, his mother and the Lathrops gave Benedict permission to join the British Army. He trained with a group of soldiers that was preparing to march against Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York State in what was known in the colonies as the French and Indian War. They marched and practiced their drills and worked in camp but never fought in a battle. While he was there, he got word that his mother was very sick, and he returned to Norwich to be with her. Benedict remained in Connecticut to help care for his mother and returned to his apprenticeship. But Benedict’s mother died in August 1759. He was just eighteen years old.
The Lathrops eventually began sending Benedict on short trips to the British--controlled West Indies to learn more about trading, buying, and selling. But back in Norwich, Benedict’s father continued to get into trouble for his debts and drinking. Benedict often had to help him, too.
In 1761, Benedict’s father died. He didn’t leave Benedict and his sister, Hannah, very much money. However, about the same time, Benedict completed his apprenticeship. The Lathrops believed in him and loaned him money to start his own shop. Benedict and Hannah moved to New Haven, a larger town about sixty miles from Norwich.
Benedict set sail for London, England, from the port of New Haven. There, he bought hundreds of items, including cloth, tea, books, maps, and medicine to fill his Connecticut shop. Most he bought on credit. He promised to pay for the goods after he earned the money by selling them.
When he returned to New Haven, he put up a sign on his store that read, “B. Arnold, Druggist, Bookseller, etc. from London.” He loved wearing some of the fancy new clothes he had brought from London. He rode in an expensive horse--drawn cart. He chose a Latin motto for himself: Sibi Totique which means “for self and all.” Benedict must have believed that making himself happy should be his most important goal.
Benedict ran his shop well, but he made a few mistakes. He did not pay back many of the people in London who had given him merchandise on credit for his store. Even though he was earning a living from his shop, he was not honest with the people who had loaned him money and products. At that time, if you did not pay your debts, you could be put in jail. In 1763, Benedict was jailed for six weeks. He was allowed out after paying back only a small portion of what he owed.
However, even after spending time in jail, Benedict still seemed to look at making money as the most important thing in life.
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