In December of 1776, Colonel John Brown of Pittsfield, Mass. made an allegation against Connecticut’s General 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, and 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, Brown had been disciplined by Arnold for rifling the bags of British officers captured at Fort Ticonderoga and plundering them.
Brown’s allegation was included in a long list of grievances he sent to General Horatio Gates, and could easily be viewed as 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.” But with Arnold’s heroic efforts at Ticonderoga, Quebec and Saratoga, Brown’s harping on Arnold’s character fell largely on deaf ears.
It would be three long years before Arnold was finally caught as a traitor trying to sell-out his country, and 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 is personal funds to support his troops.
Further, Arnold was not cut out for the bureaucratic side of military life. Though a good warrior – his nickname was the American Hanibal – he was a horrible accountant, frustrating 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, even though the losses he incurred paying for supplies for his men exceeded whatever he might have been able to steal.
Further, he was shot twice in the leg – which left him with a permanent limp – and his wife had died while he was away.
“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 there was praise and gratitude from Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. 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. 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 was married to 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 had been lost by his father), 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 and 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.