In December of 1776, Col. John Brown of Pittsfield, Mass., made an allegation against Connecticut’s Gen. Benedict Arnold so shocking it seemed ridiculous.
During the attack on Fort Ticonderoga, Arnold had “made a treasonable attempt to make his escape . . . to the enemy,” Brown said. He claimed Arnold had to be arrested to prevent his flight.
For a junior officer to be blackening the reputation of an American hero – for that’s what Arnold was at the time – seemed shameful. What’s more, Arnold had disciplined Brown for rifling the bags of British officers captured at Fort Ticonderoga and plundering them.
Brown included the allegation in a long list of grievances he sent to Gen. Horatio Gates. They could easily seem simple retaliation. Congress took up the complaints and, for the most part, cleared Arnold of wrongdoing. But Brown persisted.
In the winter of 1776 and 1777, he printed and distributed a handbill warning of Benedict Arnold’s character. “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country,” he wrote. But with Arnold’s heroic efforts at Ticonderoga, Valcour Island, Quebec and Saratoga, Brown’s harping on Arnold’s character fell largely on deaf ears.
Three long years later, the patriots finally discovered Arnold’s treachery trying to sell out his country. Historians have long debated exactly what drove Arnold to this rash act. He complained about being passed over for promotion at one point, left behind by others. And the war cost him tremendously, as he dipped into his personal funds to support his troops.
Further, Arnold didn’t do well with the bureaucratic side of military life. Though a good warrior – soldiers called him the American Hannibal – he was a horrible accountant. He frustrated Congress with his refusal to track expenses or account for materials. This latter flaw left him open to charges of stealing and using the war for his personal gain. But the losses he incurred paying for his men’s supplies exceeded whatever he might have stolen.
British soldiers shot him twice in the leg – which left him with a permanent limp. And his wife had died while he served his country.
“Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen; but as Congress have stamped ingratitude as a current coin, I must take it,” Arnold fumed in a letter to George Washington.
Yet Washington, Jefferson and other founding fathers had praised him and offered their gratitude. And Arnold, who remarried during the war, continued getting appointments from Washington – first as military governor in Philadelphia and then as commander of the fort at West Point.
Why John Brown?
So how did Brown, a country lawyer from western Massachusetts, see the traitor in the making when others did not?
He had known Arnold longer.
Brown’s sister married Benedict Arnold’s cousin, giving him familiarity with his background. Arnold grew up in Norwich, Conn. His chances for higher education at Yale College were dashed because his drunkard father had squandered the family’s money.
Brown, however, did attend Yale and while in New Haven became familiar with Arnold’s reputation. Though the truth of Arnold’s early life in business has become clouded by efforts to smear him in his later years, Brown had a firm opinion that Arnold was not an ethical nor honest man.
By the time of the Revolution, Arnold had regained his fortune and home (which his father had lost). But Brown didn’t believe the leopard could change his spots.
Hoping to appease Arnold’s ambition, Washington gave Arnold command of the fort at West Point, but by then the general was hopelessly soured on the American cause. He famously tried to sell out to British Major John Andre and surrender the fort for £20,000. Andre was hanged when the plot was discovered and Arnold changed sides, leading British troops in battles in Connecticut and Virginia.
As for Brown, he most likely never had the satisfaction of knowing his charges about Arnold were proven right. Historians will never know for certain what prompted Brown to make his allegations — jealousy or something more concrete.
Arnold was discovered as a traitor on September 25, 1780. Brown died in fighting in the town of Stone Arabia in upstate New York on October 17, ambushed. He most likely never learned of Arnold’s final treason.
This story last updated in 2022.