Grading British General Benedict Arnold


August 2, 2013
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Prior to September 1780, Benedict Arnold earned a great reputation among Patriots for his bold, brave actions at Quebec, Valcour and Saratoga.  In return for his treason, Arnold received commission as a General in the British army but the question remained unanswered as to whether he actually possessed the formal military command skills expected of a British general officer.

In December 1780, shortly after becoming the most famous turncoat in history, newly commissioned British General Benedict Arnold remained an unknown quantity in the eyes of Sir Henry Clinton.  Even though Clinton named Arnold to command the upcoming invasion of Virginia, he put strong controls in place to limit Arnold’s discretion.  Unsure of either Arnold’s competence or his prudence, Clinton ordered all battle plans cleared with Lt. Colonels Simcoe and Dundas in whom Clinton expressed strong confidence.   Arnold’s primary purpose was to establish a new post at Portsmouth but he also carried permission for raiding the countryside if it could be done “without much risque.”[i]

Clinton’s nervousness showed itself clearly.   Patriot officers frequently obtained their rank without any special skills or experience with the military and Arnold’s reputation included the taking of huge risks in losing battles.  In his written instructions, Clinton emphasized three times that Arnold should not do anything at all “unless they can be effected without the smallest danger to the safety” of Portsmouth.  It was at that point that he also ordered consultations with Lt. Colonels Simcoe and Dundas prior to “undertaking any operation of consequence.”[ii]  In fact, each Lt. Colonel carried a secret blank commission with authority to take command “in case of the death or incapacity of Brigadier General Arnold to execute the duties of the command which is entrusted to his direction.”[iii]

Arnold’s 2200 man force sailed on the 20th and included one regiment of British Regulars (the 80th), three battalions of Hessians, and several Provincial units.[iv]  Captain Ewald of the Jagers (Hessian riflemen) maintained a detailed journal of the expedition.  He says that several storms scattered the fleet on its short  trip south but the majority made the rendezvous point near Cape Henry at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

Just as the British prepared to sail up river, “a small body of Americans appeared on the left bank of the James River at Warwick.”  Arnold moved quickly and boldly in having the Jagers land immediately to disperse the rebel forces.  Unfortunately, the event also left Captain Ewald of the Jagers with a sour taste in his mouth.  He understood the rebels had no interest in fighting and ran away but, “this little trick left me with no great opinion of General Arnold’s judgment, ordering men without bayonets to land and attack an enemy equipped with bayonets, especially since the light infantry was just as close to them as I was.”[v]  Perhaps sensing his mistake and its effect on his officers, Arnold did not demonstrate his reputation for aggressive fighting again in the campaign.

Two days later Arnold arrived at “Burwell’s Ferry, where two enemy vessels” were attacked and surrendered but one remained too close to the shoreline where Arnold couldn’t plunder the vessel due to militia activity.[vi]  In frustration, he sent a note to the rebels on shore that reflected his priority on plunder.  They were to “desist firing and suffer the Prise to be taken away with all her materials” or Arnold would feel it necessary to land troops and burn the village.[vii]  The American officer responded that “he could not give up to a traitor.  But if he were to get hold of Arnold, he would hang him up by the heels, according to the orders of the Congress.”  On hearing the response, Arnold made a “very wry face” but left the area without his prize.[viii]

Arnold’s ships slipped past the now abandoned battery at Hood’s Point to anchor at Westover where they “immediately disembarked” and took control of the area.  Reports came in from local citizens that militia were forming to defend Richmond.  Since his orders were “not to undertake any enterprise that had much risk in it”, Arnold hesitated about whether to proceed to Richmond.  This time Simcoe and Dundas rescued the decision to move forward “concurring that one day’s march might be made with perfect security” and Richmond presented an excellent opportunity for intelligence, etc.[ix]

The 800 man raiding party marched at night hoping to reach Richmond before the Patriots could respond.    They halted to rest at Four Mile Creek just before morning but left again a few hours later.  Ewald wrote that, “Toward two o’clock in the afternoon we reached the heights of Richmond, where several battalions of the enemy with cannon had taken up positions to the left of the town.  To the right lay a very steep hill, overgrown with brushwood, which General Arnold thought was occupied by riflemen.  The general pointed there with his hand – ‘That’s a task made for you!’  I deployed at once, formed two ranks well dispersed, and climbed up the hill.  The enemy left after a volley which wounded one jager.”[x]  Such was the defense of Richmond.

Hoping to give an exaggerated impression of his strength, Arnold ordered his men to “march as open and to make as great an appearance as possible”.  With that done, he ordered Simcoe to lead a patrol down to Westham for the purpose of destroying the cannon foundry located there.  Arnold then sent a communication to Governor Jefferson offering to spare the town if they were willing to pay a ransom.  Jefferson immediately refused and Arnold responded by turning his men loose to plunder the city.[xi]   “Terrible things happened on this excursion;  churches and holy places were plundered.”[xii]

Arnold showed no hesitance or lack of confidence when it came to plundering the city of Richmond.  By the time Simcoe had the foundry raiders ready for return to Westover, Arnold had 42 river vessels “loaded with all kinds of merchandise for the corps booty and sailed down the James River.”[xiii]  Arnold would not be frustrated out of his plunder at Richmond the way he had been by the rebels downstream at Burwell’s Ferry.

About midday, the British marched for Westover leaving half of Richmond in flames.  They moved downstream and crossed to the left bank of Four Mile Creek before camping for the night.  A torrential rain made the roads difficult and marching miserable as they marched for base camp early on the morning of the 7th.  The 14 mile trek turned out to be especially rough and costly as some 60 men disappeared.  Ewald believed them “too fatigued to keep up – fell into the hands of the enemy.”[xiv]

Back at Westover, Arnold considered what to do with all the property plundered from the rebels.   He sent notice out to the locals that he wished to “give every possible satisfaction in my power” to the peaceful inhabitants of Virginia.  To prove his good intentions, Arnold offered to sell back the “Negroes, Horses, & etc. as can be given up . . . if my conditions are agreable.”[xv]  He later discovered no room on the ships for additional horses and they were abandoned.  However, the confiscated slaves were another item altogether.  Arnold took them along with the army and continued negotiations with the owners.

The British ships loaded up on the morning of the 10th and began sailing back down the James River.  While slipping past Hood’s Point, Arnold decided to make a move on the military works at Petersburg and arranged the army for a move inland.  Irritated at Captain Ewald for a lack of aggressiveness earlier, Arnold placed Major Robinson at the head of the march.  Major Robinson was the son of General Beverly Robinson who raised the Loyal American Corps for the Provincial Establishment.  Rather than possessing any particular military ability, Arnold placed young Robinson in the advance position “to give him an opportunity to get his name in the Gazette.”[xvi]

Arnold’s column had only moved a short distance when “some twenty musket shots were fired at the head.”  The bullets passed harmlessly but “instead of halting and searching the wooded area with reconnoitering patrols”, Major Robinson and General Arnold kept the army moving forward.  And, as fate would have it, within a half-hour, they marched directly into a Patriot ambush.  “A terrible fire fell out of the woods from the front and left among Robinson’s honorable Americans.  Weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth arose, and one captain, two officers, and some forty men were either killed or seriously wounded.”  Captain Ewald ran to the front and burst out with “So it goes when a person wants to do something that he doesn’t understand!”  Apparently Arnold got the point as he simply turned to Ewald with “the most courteous expression” requesting that he “take command of the advanced guard.”[xvii]

It was late in the day before Arnold had the column ready to move again.  This time Ewald led the way using small scouting parties followed by Simcoe and the Rangers.  Their reserves stayed behind to drag the dead and wounded back to their ships.  Within a very short time, Arnold changed his mind and turned the army back to the ships at Hood’s Point.[xviii]  There would be no raid on Petersburg.

The fleet sailed to Jamestown on the 13th and then to Burwell’s Ferry overnight.  Arnold crossed the James River the next day and marched to Portsmouth for the purpose of establishing the post needed to support Cornwallis’ invasion.  Over the next several weeks Arnold divided his time between military duties and selling his captured slaves and plunder back to the Virginians.  At one point, Lafayette arrived in the State hoping to trap Arnold between a French fleet and Virginia’s militia.  Even though the fleet was beaten at Cape Henry, Arnold’s negligence in building defensive works around Portsmouth caused a brief period of nervousness in which Arnold himself broke out in a “cold sweat” worrying about the French.[xix]

In March General Philips came and took over the Virginia expedition leaving Arnold second in command and free to return to New York.   During his time in command, Arnold made several tactical mistakes that soured his subordinates, cost dozens of lives unnecessarily, and emphasized Arnold’s lack of formal military command training.  In addition, his constant display of greed for plunder demonstrated many of the same character traits that led to his treason in the first place.  Perhaps General Clinton’s doubts were well placed after all.

[i] Clinton to Arnold, 14 December 1780, Saberton, Ian, The Cornwallis Papers, Volume III, The Naval & Military Press Ltd, East Sussex (2010), p. 56

[ii] Clinton to Arnold, 14 December 1780, Saberton, Ian, The Cornwallis Papers, Volume III, The Naval & Military Press Ltd, East Sussex (2010) P. 57

[iii] Wallace, Willard M., Traitorous Hero, The Life and Fortunes of Benedict Arnold, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York (1954), p. 279 quoting from, Clinton to Dundas & Simcoe, 14 December 1780, Clinton Papers,

[iv] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1979, p. 258

[v] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, A Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1979 at 260

[vi] Ibid at 260

[vii] Arnold to the Officer Commanding the Party on Shore, 1 January 1781 (misdated), Arnold, Benedict letter reprinted in Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (1979), p. 262 – 263

[viii] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1979), p. 260 – 261

[ix] Simcoe, John Graves, Simcoe’s Military Journal, Bartlett & Welford, New York, (1844), p. 160

[x] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London )1979) p. 267

[xi] Jefferson, Thomas, Diary of Arnold’s Invasion, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, volume 4, Boyd, Julian, Princeton University Press, Princeton, (1951), p. 259

[xii] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (1979), p. 267

[xiii] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (1979), p. 268

[xiv] Ibid at 268

[xv] Nicholas to Jefferson, 10 January 1781, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol 4, Boyd, Julian, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NY (1951), p. 331

[xvi] Ewald, Johann, Diary of the American War, a Hessian Journal, Tustin, Joseph, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, (1979), p. 270

[xvii] Ibid at 271, see also, Simcoe’s Journal on page 169 where the total number of Robinson’s dead and wounded is listed at 20 men.

[xviii] Ibid at 272

[xix] Ibid at 289


  • I’m interested in the statement, “his constant display of greed for plunder demonstrated many of the same character traits that led to his treason in the first place.” Is there evidence that Arnold benefited personally from the plundering? And, was his treason based primarily on personal greed?

    1. Hugh, good morning and thanks for the question. I suppose one could argue that Arnold’s treason was based on wounded pride but even then much of the problem goes to Arnold’s greed. His profiteering to pay for a high life style led to a reprimand that was itself part of the source of Arnold’s wounded ego. And, of course we should remember that Arnold demanded a high cash price along with lifetime salary/pension as a British general officer for West Point. For me at least, his background plus his behavior on the Virginia campaign combines to lead me to conclude that Arnold’s desire for personal fortune was behind much of his actions including the attempt to sell West Point.

      On the Virginia raid, Arnold shared the plunder with the men. You might try Ewald’s journal cited above for mention of how much Arnold’s personal share consisted of.

  • I’m always fascinated by the life of Arnold so this was an enjoyable article for me. Putting ourselves in the boots of Arnold, a thought almost too nauseating to consider, I think viewing Arnold’s behavior with the British is a lesson in “corporate governance and armchair psychology. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it was–even for Arnold and his arrogance–to be thrown into the midst of your former enemy after treason. British officers were men of honor and they couldn’t possibly respect Arnold no matter how much his fighting reputation preceded him. The effect of this, I believe, is demonstrated by the behavior described in the article. This clearly was not the decisive, albeit reckless, officer of Valcour, Quebec and Saratoga. I use “corporate governance” because anyone whose worked in a business when a new boss enters the picture would be uncomfortable, tentative and, worse, prone to mistakes until the full measure of the boss–or fellow officers in the case of Arnold–could be taken. Imagine, also, how Arnold must have felt in front of his men when the American officer not only refused to give in to “a traitor” but offered to hang him up by his heels. What’s apparent from Arnold’s Virginia tour is that he may have been more interested in plundering than fighting at this point. After all, his lust for wealth had made him an expert in all sorts of mercantile activities, so much so that he got into serious trouble running Philadelphia when he was accused of using government wagons for private purposes, among other claims.

  • Thanks for the article, Wayne. I’ve never read much about Arnold in the southern campaign having spent what little time I have with his exploits in the northern theater. He certainly does appear to have been a different officer in the campaign you describe. As an unresearched reaction and along the lines of Steven’s remarks, I wonder if that is not to some degree the result of differences in the army around him. The American troops of his early commands, being rather aggressive by nature and with few experienced and decisive officers, needed and responded well to Arnold’s form of command. By comparison, the Crown forces tended to be more conservative by nature and featured droves of experienced officers.

    The plunder element is also interesting to me. I don’t remember any indication of that during the northern theater. Again, as an initial unresearched reaction, I wonder if that doesn’t have some connection to earlier debates over his rank and pay as well as his spending lots of his own money for which he never received reimbursement from Congress.

    Arnold is a character of Shakespearian tragic proportions. Elements of his spirit drove him to perform given acts but other parts of that same spirit doomed him to failure. I have tremendous sympathy for the woman who loved him, Margaret Shippen. A character carried into tragedy by her husband, she suffered through all the nastiness of Benedict’s career and ended up dying when only 44 years old. Poignant players in life.

  • Interesting observation on Arnold’s southern campaigns receiving little attention. I am primarily interested in the southern campaigns and noticed the same thing when I first started researching Arnold. His biographers have traditionally focused on the events prior to and including the betrayal but then spent little time on Arnold’s career with the British. Can’t really blame them. After all, those events make great drama and the rest is sort of anti-climactic. On the other hand, maybe the military skills of Arnold before the Treason have been overstated a bit in order to create the dramatic effect. I recently did a bit of research into Arnold’s role at First Freeman’s Farm and found little evidence to support his biographers’ claims of heroic actions at that battle.

    1. Two final points from me. By late summer 1781, Arnold added to whatever reputation of great generalship he had, by allowing his soldiers to kill the unarmed Ledyard at Fort Griswold in Connecticut and massacring American rebels who’d thrown down their arms. As to feelings about Peggy Shippen, she started out as a spoiled teenage brat, parlayed that into her coquettish behavior with Maj. Andre in Philadelphia and then became a facilitator of Arnold’s treason. It’s too bad her “act” wasn’t realized by Washington when the treason was uncovered. Whatever she suffered because of Arnold’s treason she was a beneficiary of her own perfidy.

      1. I don’t know about Arnold’s involvement in the killings at Fort Griswold. As far as I know, the British 3d in command on the fort’s attack, a tory major, took Ledyard’s sword when offered in surrender and stabbed him with it upon which the rest of the killing commenced. I’m curious if anyone on the other side of the river where Arnold had command was killed in such manner.

        As for Peggy Shippen, I don’t know enough about her to say whether or not she was a spoiled brat. She certainly did have close ties with André and had some role in Arnold’s changing sides. I do contest the use of the word “perfidy,” however. Since she and her family held loyalist views from the very beginning, she can hardly be called disloyal or treacherous. She remained true to her beliefs.

        Beyond the politics of it all, on simply a human level, the loss of two infants and her husband, having to struggle to settle his convoluted estate and debts, and then suffering through a debilitating disease to die at a young age is tragic in my eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *