Stripped of command and left in camp to drink his sorrows away, Benedict Arnold fumed and ranted in frustration until his aggressive nature took over and caused the deposed general to ride his horse onto the field of battle just in time to lead the final assault against Burgoyne’s redoubts and seal the British fate at Saratoga. For the past 180 years, historians have consistently described Arnold as having arrived late on the field ‘without a command’ on October 7th, 1777. In fact, authors have been so consistent in describing Arnold’s situation that one can hardly imagine the need to verify their sources. However, a close examination of the primary accounts from participants in the battle yields extremely scant evidence to support the often told story.
The Original Story
Not surprisingly, the earliest account of the Battle of Bemis Heights (also called the 2nd Battle of Saratoga) comes from American commander General Horatio Gates. He provided few details of the action but does give the first glimpse of Benedict Arnold’s contribution when he states that, “amongst the [wounded] is the Gallant General Arnold, whose Leg was fractured by a musket ball, as he forced the Enemy’s Breast Work.” While Gates did not specify Arnold as having a command, his praise signifies approval of Arnold’s actions which would seem odd if the modern story were true. Gates and Arnold had had a well-documented dispute after the battle of Freeman’s Farm in September; unfortunately, other than correspondence between them immediately after that event, Gates left no further record of any dispute with Arnold. We don’t know for certain if the departure of Arnold’s aides Varick and Livingston (who were blamed for the dispute) had the desired effect of smoothing over the argument or not.
Before the war was over, British commander Lt. General John Burgoyne published his own narrative along with testimony and argument from the investigation into his defeat and surrender. He said, “Mr. Arnold, who commanded on the left, foreseeing the danger of being turned, advanced without consultation with his general, and gave, instead of receiving battle.” The claim that Arnold commanded his lines and led the left wing against Burgoyne from the beginning of the battle is also bolstered by the testimony of British Captain John Money who said that “going out to meet General Burgoyne on his march, and engaging him before he approached” had been Arnold’s idea. Money also indicated that his later understanding from rebel officers was that Arnold had “attacked, without orders from General Gates.” Although being “without orders” suggests not having a command, later explanation from Dr. William Gordon suggests that Money is likely talking about Gates having ordered Arnold to remain defensive and observe caution but, instead and true to his nature, Arnold ignored the order and aggressively went after the British lines.
The next account examined is actually an early history of the revolution written by Dr. William Gordon in 1788. Early in Gordon’s telling of the story, Arnold is at the front line directing placements and then ordering Cilly’s regiment into the treeline when he receives Gates’s message directing caution because “Burgoyne designs to make his main attack on the right.” Arnold ignores Gates’s warning and directs a “very sudden and rapid attack” on Burgoyne’s advancing troops at which point, in a move that can only be described as supportive and knowledgeable of events, Gates sends more regiments to reinforce Arnold. From that point, Gordon writes the story pretty much the same way modern historians do. The Patriot army extends Burgoyne’s line thereby threatening his flank by way of Morgan’s movement to the right at which time the British retreat to the redoubts. Arnold leads a desperate but unsuccessful attack on the Light Infantry redoubt (Balcarres’s) and then moves to his left to lead a successful attack on the Hessian redoubt which causes Burgoyne to abandon both positions and withdraw to his camp. Arnold is wounded in the final assault.
Over the next few years Charles Stedman, Henry Dearborn, and David Ramsay all wrote accounts of the battle but all were short on details regarding Arnold. They didn’t dispute Burgoyne’s and Gordon’s accounts but they came up short of confirming them either. However, the number two Patriot officer present at Bemis Heights was Major General Benjamin Lincoln who served later as Secretary of War. Following that later service he penned a letter which clearly stated, “General Gates therefore ordered General Arnold to advance with the left where he commanded.”
And then came Wilkinson
Almost 40 years after the Battle of Bemis Heights, James Wilkinson published his very detailed and voluminous memoir which appears to be the origin of the story of Arnold fuming in camp until halfway through the battle and then bursting upon the field just in time to assume command and lead the assaults against the British redoubts. Wilkinson says that, while the battle was ongoing, Arnold “rode about the camp betraying great agitation and wrath, and it was said that he was observed to drink freely; at length he was found on the field of battle exercising command, but not by order or permission of General Gates.” While Wilkinson’s statement seems clear, one detail might be mentioned and emphasized: “It was said.”
During the paragraph describing Arnold’s conduct in the battle, Wilkinson twice indicates that he is only passing on some gossip from around the camp; Wilkinson himself was actually off organizing reinforcements for the battle then raging. Wilkinson had no knowledge of when or under what circumstance Arnold fought in the battle but he seems intent on characterizing Arnold’s role negatively. In fact, Wilkinson ended his account with the conclusion that Arnold “neither rendered service, nor deserved credit on that day, and the wound he received alone saved him from” being completely overshadowed by Gates victory. In spite of Wilkinson’s disclaimers of not having actually seen the events and his reputation as a liar and schemer of historic proportions, virtually every single historian after the Wilkinson account picked his story over the others and described Arnold’s actions consistent with the opening sentence. There were still a few eyewitness accounts to be published but, unlike the secondary sources, they did not support Wilkinson’s claims concerning Arnold’s participation at the battle.
A few years after Wilkinson, Philip Van Cortlandt’s memoirs were published. He didn’t address the issue of Arnold’s participation directly but indicated that just as the Hessians retreated from the initial clash of armies, Arnold “sent his Aide to the right ordering Gen. Poor to bring his men into better order.” Van Cortlandt went on to explain that this was a mistake in that Arnold’s order broke Poor’s momentum and much of Arnold’s scramble around the battlefield was an attempt to “counteract his own order.” Regardless of any mistakes, the significant points are that Arnold was providing orders on the battlefield through his aide from early in the engagement and that Van Cortlandt’s didn’t mention Arnold’s behavior as anything but normal.
Ebenezer Mattoon wrote a letter describing Arnold’s role in the battle in 1835 in which he provides dialogue before the battle starts wherein Gates dismisses Arnold with “I have nothing for you to do; you have no business here” which seems to indicate that Arnold was being shut out. Unfortunately, writing some 58 years after the event, Mattoon also has Arnold leaving headquarters and “immediately” going to the “enemy lines” with General Lincoln; Mattoon then proceeds to get very little of the battle correctly stated. His account is not consistent with Wilkinson. There is no hanging around the camp, fuming, drinking, and then riding out just in time to lead the assault on Balcarres’ redoubt. Arnold goes out to command his division right after meeting with Gates on Burgoyne’s initial advance.
A similar account came even later from Samuel Woodruff. He says Arnold had no “regular command” but “volunteered his service” which would also seem to bolster Wilkinson’s story except that Woodruff states that Arnold was “early on the ground” and describes him meeting with Morgan “soon after the commencement of the action.” Like Mattoon, Woodruff actually describes a situation where Arnold is in command at the battlefront from the beginning of the battle. While his comment about having no “regular command” acknowledges the prior removal of Arnold by Gates, there is also an implication that Gates probably had full knowledge and assent to Arnold’s participation in command of the American left.
The last participant account published came from William Hull after his death in 1845. He says that Arnold’s wing was ordered out to meet Burgoyne at the same time as Morgan’s regiment. Hull has Arnold giving his regiment orders for formation from the very beginning of the action when Burgoyne was “furiously attacked by Morgan’s regiment of riflemen, and Arnold’s three regiments.” He goes on to describe Arnold in the lead during the entire battle.
In researching the questions surrounding General Arnold’s conduct during the Battle of Bemis Heights, some 11 accounts were considered of which eight came from the actual participants and three are well known secondary sources written soon after the war. Of these 11 accounts, only Wilkinson told of Arnold fuming about the camp in a drunken rage while the battle carried on without him. In every other account, Arnold is on the field of battle from the beginning directing regiments and giving orders for the troops. For the question of Arnold having command of the American left where the battle actually took place, Wilkinson is supported by only two accounts both of which were written over 50 years later and neither of which actually track Wilkinson’s sequence of events.
So, given the strength of evidence against Wilkinson’s account, why is there doubt that Arnold had command of the American left at Bemis Heights from the onset of the battle? The answer comes from an examination of subsequent secondary sources. Some 15 well known and highly regarded books covering the Saratoga Campaign in strong detail were reviewed, the first of which was written in 1844 and the last in 2004. In every single book, the author included Wilkinson’s story about Arnold raging furiously about the camp before bursting onto the field of battle in time to lead the attacks on the British redoubts.
Yes, every single historian chose to stay with Wilkinson’s tale. Neilson’s 1844 telling strays just a little bit, but then from Lossing, Irving, Carrington, and Arnold in the 19th century to Ward, Elting, and Luzader in modern times, the judgment becomes unanimous. Wilkinson overrules Gordon, Burgoyne, Lincoln, Hull, Van Cortlandt, and the other eyewitnesses. Probably the most consideration to alternatives came from John Elting, who actually questions the truth of the story but only in his endnotes and not in the narrative. The reason for choosing Wilkinson is not clear in these texts but one is left wondering if the added drama and detail of having Arnold take control of the battlefield by sheer force of will is simply so tempting that none can resist including the story. Perhaps the single most disturbing aspect is that most historians do not really even acknowledge that Wilkinson’s story has problems of evidence and conflicts with several other accounts from people more highly regarded than Wilkinson, himself one of the nation’s most notorious traitors.
Next time: Looking into some other Arnold stories from Bemis Heights.
 John Burgoyne, A state of the expedition from Canada, as laid before the House of Commons, by Lieutenant-General Burgoyne…with a collection of documents…Written and collected by himself…The second edition (London: Burlington House, 1780), 26.
 Benjamin Lincoln to ?, 1799, in John Elting, The Battles of Saratoga (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1977), 83 n. 19; here Elting also admits the possibility that Arnold commanded the left on October 7, 1777, in spite of having used the later Wilkinson story in his narrative.
Charles Neilson, An Original, Compiled and Corrected Account of Burgoyne’s Campaign (Albany: J. Munsell, 1844);
Benson Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1859);
Washington Irving, Life of George Washington, vol. III (New York: Putnam & Co., 1857);
Henry Dawson, Battles of the United States (New York: Johnson, Fry & Co., 1858);
George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, vol. IX (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1866);
Henry Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1876);
William Stone, Campaign of General John Burgoyne (Albany, NY: J. Munsell, 1877);
Isaac Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1880);
Edward Channing, A History of the United States, vol. 3 (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1912);
Hoffman Nickerson, The Turning Point of the Revolution or Burgoyne in America (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1928);
Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1952);
John Elting, The Battles of Saratoga (Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1977);
Richard Ketchum, Saratoga Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997);
James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero (New York: New York University Press, 1997);
John Luzader, Saratoga, (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie LLC, 2004).