Even by Victorian standards Great Massingham, Norfolk was a sleepy hamlet. Though it had been a settled community since Norman times, in 1880 it comprised little more than a few farms, an inn and a handsome medieval church. Local humour had it that there were more ducks in the village pond than there were people. But it was here, in the parish rectory, that a remarkable document was unearthed. It was a manuscript that threw new light on its author but refuted too the commonly held belief that the American war was considered over with the surrender at Yorktown.
The owner of this document was the Right Rev. Edward Gladwin Arnold. Its author was his grandfather the notorious traitor, Benedict Arnold.
By 1880 there had been little attempt to re-evaluate the reputation of Arnold. To Americans, he remained the personification of betrayal. George Cannings Hill had recently published his influential biography on Arnold with the preface, “of true manhood, lofty purpose and persevering effort … Benedict Arnold offers no such example. On the contrary, his memory shall be detested as long as time shall help to keep it alive.” In Britain on the other hand, his name was all but forgotten, a dishonourable and embarrassing coda to a lost war.
It would have been easy then for this document to have been either destroyed or mislaid but fortunately for historians, the vicar doggedly preserved it, and in 1880 it was published as an appendix to a more sympathetic biography by Congressman and distant relative Isaac N Arnold.
The paper “Thoughts on the American War” comprised nine handwritten pages that were never intended for public view. They contained remarkably prescient observations on the failure of the British cause in America. Arnold being the man he was, they also presented his proposed remedies for those deficiencies. Though it was framed just months after the capitulation at Yorktown, the work reasoned a plan of action that in no part acknowledged defeat as inevitable.
Written at the behest of the George III, it was well received by both the sovereign and his ministry. As such it gives a vital snapshot into the thinking of the British and Loyalist “Ultras” who even at this late stage of the war believed victory, or at least honourable reconciliation, was worth pursuing. Perhaps most remarkably the document was not one that emphasised military solutions to the conflict but civil and political ones. The solutions offered are sophisticated and thoughtful and show Arnold in a fresh light from the blustering headstrong soldier of tradition.
I break down here the central assertions of Arnold for the purposes of clarity and debate. The actual document features no such breaks. Arnold’s style is, as one may suppose, both forthright and emphatic, though some of his points are repetitive. I have tidied up his grammar and spelling, and have left out some of his more pedestrian points, but other than that the paper is as written.
Some of his contentions are undoubtedly wrong. Many are extraordinarily accurate and insightful. Like the man himself, it is a paper that will split opinions. The judgments under Arnold’s narrative are the author’s own and are not intended to be conclusive, rather a starting point for debate. It is for JAR readers to decide how different the war may have been if the British had had had time to engage Arnold’s plan in full, but there is no doubt that as a summary of British policy failings in America it stands up to rigorous scrutiny.
Great Britain was deceived at the commencement of the American troubles when she trusted to what some wrote: that the discontents were confined to a small faction. Her measures thus became inadequate to her ends.
Correct. And a bold assertion with which to begin the paper, for it was commissioned by George III who was the leading proponent of the opinion that the rebellion was the work of a few cynical individuals and not a populist uprising. The British military response to a widespread rebellion was therefore never likely to be adequate. Even at its height, the crown had upwards of 22,000 British regular troops at its disposal in North America to combat the rebellion, supplemented by several thousand German auxiliaries. An additional 25,000 Loyalists, faithful to Great Britain, participated in the conflict as well. What Arnold didn’t mention is that this insufficiency was as much a failure of logistics as it was a political blunder. The British simply didn’t have the capability to put more troops into the field. More importantly, they didn’t expect they would need too. Arnold is probably referencing the American secretary Lord Dartmouth who believed that limited coercion would “prevent bloodshed by overwhelming the radical leaders of the mob” while at the same time, strengthening the determination of those elements variously described as the “better sort” or the “right thinking” colonists. Dartmouth’s view was undoubtedly the prevailing one in Britain at the beginning of the war.
There are those who now allege that she has few or no friends in America; and if they are believed, she will be a second time and more fatally deluded. Such accounts should be listened to with great jealousy, because they proceed from Ignorance or bad design, and lead to despair; and the severance of the Empire will be the ruin of it, and of every part of it.
Correct. The Loyalist communities in the colonies remained remarkably consistent in their support for the crown throughout the war’s long course. Indeed it could be argued that their attachment to a military solution was almost as firm as the King’s himself. There is little evidence that this position faltered substantially after Yorktown. Arnold is wrong however in proclaiming that the loss of the American colonies would lead to the overall destruction of the nascent British Empire. It has been long accepted that the defeat in America was actually the making of the empire; merely moving Britain’s focus from the west to the east.
That a great Majority of the Americans are averse to the separation is a truth supported by every kind of proof of which the subject is capable.
Incorrect. Arnold was presumably hoping to curry favour with the King through this statement. As a senior Continental commander who had operated in many of the colonies, he was undoubtedly aware that even in those states with sizable Loyalist communities such as New York, Georgia and Jersey they were never in a “great majority.” Tellingly he offers no examples of his “every kind of proof.”
It is a Demonstration that the friends of the restoration are most numerous if the fact be admitted that the elections are everywhere attended by a minority, and this has been the case ever since the overtures of 1778. If it was not believed to be so, how should we account for the resort of so many thousands to the King’s lines? What induces them to quit their estates, families and friends, and risk their own lives? It would be the greatest of all paradoxes to find them staking everything dear to them, upon their preference of the royal cause to the Congressional protection, if they knew the latter to be supported by the general voice.
Confused. Though Arnold was correct to point out the sacrifices of the Loyalists as proof of their sustained and earnest support, the conclusion he reached is debatable. His assertion that “elections are everywhere attended by a minority” to back up his argument that this “de facto” signified a lack of support in Congress and the rebellion is tenuous at best.
It was because … the multitude … were not consulted on the propriety of declaring Independence in 1776, nor on the confederation to authorise foreign alliances in 1777, nor on the rejection of the British overtures in 1778. Every one of these events actually made accessions to the number of the Loyalists and frittered down the Independent Party, … the minority increased in cruelty as they lessened in numbers.. the barbarities begot by their fears, disgusting others, and working with general calamities … The zealots … for protracting the war, are really … a very small proportion of the continent.”
Incorrect. This is perhaps the most personal part of the paper. Arnold’s use of the words “barbarities,” “disgust,” “cruelty,” “calamities” and “zealots” illustrates the angry state of mind that encouraged his rejection of the Patriot cause. His passion, however, seems to have coloured his logic. His claim that “the multitude” were not consulted is both naive and disingenuous. Congress did debate all of these issues and insofar as they were able to make democratic decisions in an age before universal suffrage, did so.
If it is thought … that the Rebels are everywhere an inveterate majority, and the Loyalists few and timid … I reply that this timidity should be called diffidence and arises from causes easily to be removed by a change in the Conduct of the War, which the American Loyalists have all along disapproved.
Debatable. Arnold’s contention here is a direct contradiction to the one most famously voiced by Charles Earl Cornwallis who regarded the Loyalists mainly as “quiet men.” Indeed Cornwallis went so far as to directly blame his failure in North Carolina as “not (from) a want of force to protect a rising of our friends. But by their timidity and unwillingness to take a useful and active part.” Arnold clearly took the opposite view. In defence of Cornwallis, the “diffidence” Arnold relates undoubtedly revealed itself at crucial times during the war when a lack of confidence and organisation from the king’s advocates compared poorly with the zeal and action of the Patriots. However, though Arnold believed this outlook could be transformed by a change of conduct in the war (presumably to a more aggressive one) he gives no explanation as to how this was to be accomplished “easily.”
It would be a tedious and invidious task to indulge in particular remarks, upon the Inactivity and misdirection of the King’s arms; I leave it to others.
Cynical. Arnold was both a patron of, and friend to Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis and was naturally averse to criticising them by name. Despite this he couldn’t help bringing to the king’s attention the army’s “inactivity” (Clinton) and “misdirection” (Cornwallis), the unwritten conclusion being, of course, that he could lead it better.
Has any attempt been made to set up the civil authority in any part of America, where the usurpation was beaten down? Certainly not and till this is attended to, the Loyalists, in general, will not, nor indeed can give any essential assistance to the royal arms.
Correct. This is Arnold’s most telling criticism of British policy in America. In just one paragraph he isolates the fundamental failing of her strategy during the war. The British sought a military solution to a political problem. British generals were essentially given overarching powers in any state under British military control akin to those that Union generals later possessed in the postbellum Confederate south. This was a massively inefficient and tedious way to maintain control, and Arnold was correct in pointing out it dampened the enthusiasm of Loyalists while concentrating Patriot and neutral sentiment against the crown.
He has … no objection to serve in the militia within his own colony, under officers who are of it … and to assist in supporting its government and defending himself in it and may perhaps pursue the Rebel out of it … But for this purpose, the Civil Authority … must first be set up, and without it, Great Britain can neither be benefited by his councils, his purse, nor his arms.
Correct. Once again Arnold was exact in his censure of British policy. His particular reference to Loyalists not being governed or led by men of their own state may have been self-serving, but it was also accurate. Britain’s failure to fully trust the Loyalists to administer or lead themselves in arms was in retrospect the biggest failing of the war. As Arnold points out, Loyalists didn’t have confidence in the British army to protect them while concurrently administering the laws of the land.
Is there a county in England, that thus circumstanced, would act otherwise, and be … under the direction of an army? … of an army too, addicted to plunder, and often willing to suppose a friend to be a Rebel, for the sake of what he has got, or they have seized?
Correct. This is a vicious though valid criticism of both the army and British strategy. He pointed out, astutely, that no Englishman would ever stand for such a military occupation at home. Especially one that not infrequently resorted to plunder or arbitrary decree. Is it, therefore, any wonder that Loyalists were subdued and Whigs incensed?
Congress took advantage of our folly in leaving that Province to a military police … (but) wholly inadequate to a Province. Left to a state of nature, the soldiery began to insult … Robberies sprang up. The injured under the late usurpation avenged themselves upon their oppressors. The slaves left their masters, and the whole Province was prepared to resign all hope of Government for the common protection before the Congressional troops, arrived to increase the Confusion … If South Carolina is not lost, it is ruined; so that the only advantage we draw from all our operations in that quarter is the lesson it teaches … of consulting their salvation from destruction by a timely reconciliation with the mother country.
Correct. Not only was much of South Carolina governed by what Arnold deemed a “military police,” there were not even enough of them! He touches on the vicious civil war that sprang up as a result; a state of affairs that managed to both alienate her friends and offer succour to the rebels. His forthright plea for the British to consult with the local population and allow it to govern itself in order to seek a political reconciliation was never acted on.
The Congress is utterly become bankrupt not a bill of theirs now has any credit, and the only currency is hard money. This must be set down to the distrust began and propagated by the Loyalists; for the depreciation commenced in 1777. “Old money old price”, was the vulgar cantatum of the friends of government, from the first moment of the paper emission in 1775.”
Exaggerated. This is a thought-provoking aside from Arnold. The near worthlessness of American currency he put down to the refusal of Loyalists to accept it as specie. However, this seems far too sophisticated and organised a resistance, principally because Continental money was distrusted by Patriots as much as everyone else. Though there were Loyalist attempts to undermine its value by counterfeiting, there is no evidence it was ever a concerted Loyalist tactic aimed at undermining Congress.
The difficulty of forcing the militia into the field; the sanguinary laws of the usurpers; the mutiny and desertion of their regular troops; and various other topics might be mentioned as proofs of the declension of the Party, with decisive confessions in the intercepted letters of the Rebels. In a word, but for the late French aid, the Rebellion had sunk under its own weakness.
Exaggerated. Though all of the problems Arnold lists were genuine concerns for Washington and Congress, it would be hard to conclude that the rebellion was “sunk” – even without vital French aid.
I say nothing upon the delicate enquiry which the disaster in Virginia will lead to. It is material, however, to remark, that if the rebels deserve any advantage from it, “twill be as it shall affect the Councils of Great Britain this Winter.
Interesting. Arnold is suggesting here that militarily the Americans would gain little from the surrender at Yorktown. His contention that it would be much more likely that the defeat would affect the political will of Parliament turned out to be accurate. However, his contemptuous dismissal that an entire British army’s surrender would not materially alter the ground war is more than a little dissembling.
It is impossible for Washington to detach to Green, a force sufficient for the reduction of Charlestown; though he may and doubtless is in strength to ruin his friends as well as ours in the Southern Country.
Correct. Charleston remained in British hands throughout the rest of the war and was never seriously challenged. However, Washington placed less emphasis on the southern theatre and after Yorktown realised he possessed the luxury of time; merely having to maintain the status quo for victory to inevitably follow.
By the complete detachment of Vermont from the rebel interest, and the reduction of the Highland forts early in the spring, much may be expected in the next campaign; especially since the New Yorkers in general, and a very great proportion of the country between them and the Connecticut River, are known to be very favorably inclined to the reunion.
Optimistic. Few commanders would have had a better knowledge of the tactical importance of the Highland forts. He also had first-hand experience of the politically volatile situation in Vermont where the British had sent military incursions and conducted secret negotiations with the Vermonters to re-join the British Empire. Arnold was additionally correct in his assessment that much of Lower New York and Westchester was sympathetic to the British.
However, his assurance that Vermont could be won over politically or that the Highlands could be reduced militarily when neither had happened in the preceding six years, seems both naive and overconfident.
To authorize the Crown to appoint commissioners to come to a final agreement with the Colonies, or either of them … new peace commissioners should have every power of the crown for the appointment of officers, from Governors downwards, such guardians have been heretofore wanting. If they have a council, as I think they should have, to prevent the indelicacy of altercation, regard should be had to their tempers, standing and friendships in this country, as well as to their address and knowledge of its affairs.”
Deluded. This passage exemplifies some of the worst traits in Arnold’s personality. There is no doubt that he was lobbying to be appointed as one of the “commissioners,” noting that they should be men who had “standing” in the colonies as well as “knowledge of its affairs.” His personal self-seeking went further in attempting to persuade the crown to grant these individuals almost unlimited powers, not just to negotiate with the States as a unit or singularly (a shrewd political suggestion incidentally) but also to allow them absolute patronage to appoint officers at every level. Though he suggested there should be a council, this clearly would be little more than a sinecure under the control of the said “commissioners.”
The proposal is deluded on two fronts. Firstly Congress would have had little truck in negotiating anything with such a heinous traitor, let alone a peace settlement. More importantly, Great Britain was a constitutional democracy wherein the powers for reconciliation and patronage were held solely by Parliament. Early in the war, during the first attempted peace negotiations, the Howe brothers were constrained on what they could and could not negotiate with Congress. This limited authority made it a virtual certainty that nothing would come of their convention. This was true later of Lord Carlisle’s commission. So hamstrung was Carlisle that he bitterly declared his negotiations “a mixture of ridicule, nullity, and embarrassments.”
It would be highly unlikely then, that the King or Lord North would grant almost autocratic powers to a handful of Loyalists. Though Arnold teasingly calls these new appointees “guardians,” free from governmental restraint they would have inevitably become dictators – and wasn’t that in good part what the rebellion had been all about in the first place?
It cannot be worth the pains of stating arguments against the flimsy proposal of some for evacuating New York, the common centre, by means of the Hudson, of the British, Canadian and Indian interests in America … Nor against the wilder scheme … for yielding independence to all the continent, to the northward and eastward of a line of forts from the head of Elk River to Delaware, weakly relying upon a bargain, for the quick possession and retention of the Southern Provinces; for the produce of the latter, can be no equivalent for the loss of that commerce of the former.. to say nothing of the insecurity of the tenure … those districts would acquire very soon after Great Britain’s acquiescence in the impairing of that monopoly by which she has been aggrandized.”
Fascinating. This is the most interesting “what if” of the paper. There were many in Britain who argued that her forces should abandon New York and retreat to hold a line from Quebec to Halifax. She would then reinforce the southern provinces where Lord Germaine had been convinced enough Loyalists remained for them to govern successfully. Arnold rightly ridiculed this proposal. His argument that the retention of the southern colonies, if her northern neighbours were lost, would be pointless and counterproductive is a shrewd one. Not only would they be permanently in thrall economically, but they would also be militarily insecure with the British merely postponing troubles for future generations to deal with.
His “all or nothing” guidance was actually the one the British eventually took. Unfortunately for Arnold’s proposal, however, the Treaty of Paris acknowledged not the “all” of his paper but the “nothing” he dreaded.
 George Canning Hill, Benedict Arnold: a biography (Boston: E.O. Libby & Co., 1858), 14.
 Issac N Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and His Treason (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Co., 1880).
 Ibid., 419.
 Author Don N. Hagist podcast, Ben Franklin’s World episode 47.
 Kenneth Coleman, “On Lord Dartmouth and the American Revolution,” Georgia Review, Spring 1968.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 419.
 There have been numerous recent publications on the effect the loss of the American colonies had on the British Empire. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London Harper Collins, 2011).
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 419.
 Ibid., 420.
 “That the people wait for us to lead the way … That they are in favour of the measure, tho’ the instructions given by some of their representatives are not.” Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, 7 June to 1 August 1776.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 420.
 The National Archives Kew London holds the Cornwallis Papers. He is scornful of the Loyalists in much of his private correspondence. Wynnsborough to Balfour, November 17, 1780, appreciates his help; various comment on the situation, scornful remarks about loyalists, PRO 30/11/82/55-56.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 420.
 Ibid., 421.
 Ibid., 422.
 The continental currency depreciated badly during the war, giving rise to the famous phrase “not worth a continental.” A primary problem was that monetary policy was not coordinated between Congress and the states, which continued to issue bills of credit.
 Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 422.
 Ibid., 423.
 Ibid., 424
 Ibid., 426.
 William Willcox, Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence (New York: Alfred A Knop, 1964), 230.
 Ibid., 427.
Extremely interesting and insightful. Thank you.
Reading his words at this juncture also makes you truly contemplate how they would have differed years earlier when he supported the patriot cause, and wonder at the premise that shear personal ambition and a feeling of under appreciation were the simple catalysts behind his treachery. Although as you noted, those traits do reveal themselves though out here as well.
Congratulations John on your article. Benedict Arnold is a person and a subject that continues to fascinate people today, myself included. Only hate e-mail I ever got over a lecture was one I gave on Arnold’s British career! You may be interested to learn, if you are not aware already, that Arnold’s thoughts were probably circulated around some circles in London, as apparently more than one copy exists. The William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan has one, which I discovered several years ago, along with a copy of a cover letter from Arnold himself. Here is my transcription of the cover letter:
London Febry. 3rd 1782.
In obedience to Your Lordship’s Commands I have taken the liberty to offer my Sentiments respecting the American War, with the Candor becoming an honest Man (deeply interested in the Prosperity of every Branch of the Empire) and I hope it will not be thought with an unbecoming Freedom.
The Sentiments in general which I have offered I know to be those of many loyal Americans, esteemed as Men of the first abilities in the Country, and who have had every opportunity of obtaining Information.
The Plan of Operation which I have proposed has ever been dreaded by Mr. Washington and the best Officers of his Army, as the most effectual one which could be prosecuted by the British Army, and I have often heard them express their Surprise that a similar one was not adopted.
If it is intended to prosecute the War in America with vigour, I shall be happy in evincing my Attachment to His Majesty and my Country by taking an active part in it.
I have the honor to be &ca:
Right Honble: Lord George Germain &a: &a. &a.”
Source: University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library, Earl of Shelburne Papers, Volume 67, Pages 179-180.
I liked the approach of the article. However, I wonder if Arnold was not suggesting a way ahead for the British that had a reasonable chance of success. Getting VT separated was not a unrealistic notion based on how the Allen family’s overtures to the British were actually conducted. Maybe it didnt work out but it is an open question whether they were willing to support the Brits in return for VT independence.
I also don’t see that the Brits tried really hard to capture the Hudson Valley forts which had their vulnerability. I see Arnold laying out a better plan than Clinton might have tried. He was very aware of the Hudson forts’ condition.
His idea for a commission really empowered to make peace (he called them peace commissioners) seems realistic to me. Perhaps it was too late in the process for peace by then but who else was thinking in that direction. I read his language on the commission as an attempt to negotiate rather than an attempt to get himself appointed. He was, after all, a military man and not a diplomat.
Hello Todd, Kevin, Steve – Thank you for your comments and interesting reflections.
Todd, I was not aware of the University of Michigan Document. Fascinatingly it seems once again to illustrate the personality defects I have come to conclude (rightly or wrongly) were the motivating factors behind his treachery. Not greed or avarice, as is often suggested, but pride and vanity. He boasts to Germaine that he alone has managed to advance a plan that the Americans have long feared and the dull-headed British have missed. Like you I have long been beguiled by this complex man. I cant say I would like him as a neighbour or a father in law, but as a soldier, he was probably the Continental armies best tactician – certainly its best fighter. Incidentally, you are one up on me on the hate mail. I get that whatever subject I lecture on!
Steve – others have written far more knowledgeably than me about Vermont on this site. However, without wishing to insult any Green Mountain Boys reading I am firmly of the belief that even if the British had managed to concoct some kind of deal or treaty and Vermont had become a British Dominion or independent satellite, ultimately it wouldn’t have made a scintilla of difference to the war. I am thankful it didn’t happen for any number of reasons as the State would have inevitably ended up as a powder keg for future wars between our nations and could easily have ended up as North America’s version of Ulster.
This is a very nice dissection of the validity of Arnold’s recommendations. I enjoyed it for that reason, and then dimly recalled a first impression while preparing a piece for the Vermont Bicentennial in ’77.
It starts with the irony of Arnold’s underlying theme: Arnold suggests that the Crown could regain America by treating Americans like… Brits. Exactly what the Americans wanted back in 1763, 1770, 1774… Major points:
– Know your people better: the government must be connected to the populace in order to not be “deceived” to the actual “discontent” or vitality of “friends”
– Establish a civil authority within America
– Americans will support local government, militia, and law but only if established as a natural extension of local civil government
– No county in England would accept imposition of conditions imposed on America. Respect American’s equality as Britons.
These elements of Arnold’s recommendation were essentially the same as what he might have proposed in 1775 – and what would have diffused the situation in the years before the American goal changed from maintenance of rights to independence. In offering his recommendation, Arnold failed to note that his underlying concepts paralleled previous “olive branches” extended, and rejected, by both sides. He not only seems oblivious to previous offers, but to the reason for their failure: the political situation had changed in the past eight years.
Even before the first shots on Lexington Green the political revolution in New England had largely transitioned from British institutions to local governance. Since then, Americans had successfully implemented civil government in the vast majority of “rebellious” territory. By 1782, conflict over authority of government was limited to occupied or contested areas, primarily South Carolina. Arnold should have observed first-hand during the 1781 Virginia campaign that Virginia’s state and local government flexed but did not break; retaining effective authority in the face of an actively campaigning enemy. In the period of 1774 to Oct 1781 (Yorktown), certainly when Arnold was writing four months later, Americans had made the cognitive investment in independent self-government. They already had, in real implementation, more than what Arnold was recommending. Arnold missed that point; others had not (before Arnold’s letter reached Germain’s hands he was out of power; officially resigning on 9 Feb, 1782).
Arnold’s “Sentiments respecting the American War” is revealing because of its implications regarding his personal thought. Making the same civic recommendation he would have supported in 1775 shows he had not matured ideologically. He had missed the evolution of contemporary political principle and thought in America. Perhaps he had become involved in so many personal issues that he could only see reality in relation to himself and his situation. Intellectually, he had been engaged with military and personal issues, but did not relate with the rapid maturation of national civil identity. He was out of synch, not just with Congress, but America writ large. As they debated Independence, he was consumed with the retreat from Canada and personal issues. As the states deliberated ratification of the Articles of Confederation (1777-1781), Arnold was in battle, or recovering from it, while constantly trying to remedy his personal fortune. The debate and political process which cemented initial American civil autonomous identity had passed by Arnold without his engagement, and so he had not benefitted intellectually from the discussion or made mental investment in its outcome. Thus, his “Sentiments respecting the American War” were out of synch.
So, this document offers a rare glimpse into Arnold’s psyche. Arnold was inwardly focused. Personal motivations far exceed ideology. So inwardly focused that, in direct recommendation to the King, Arnold espoused the same end state which he would have accepted in 1775 – as an American. He couldn’t perceive the disconnect with his native society or that his 1775 Rebel stance conflicted with his 1782 obligation to his sovereign.
John, you are much better read into Arnold’s life and career than I suppose that I am so I do have a question which might even be worthy of another fine article by you. My views on his character and values, or lack there of, have been expressed many times. But, as to his military skills, verses personal courage and actions in combat, my readings just have not convinced me he was a very good military student. I have read little to support his knowledge and use of any tactical and/or strategic skills. To me it appeared his tactical actions in the lakes’ battles probably were his best military effort. I have not read much to demonstrate that his input in the Saratoga battles’ planning was key. Obvious his deception operation against St. Leger’s Indian allies was well done and his dramatic actions on the battle field at Saratoga were impressive. But, tactics and strategy when compared to other like Greene, Morgan ?
Hello Ken – Thank you for your comments and your question.
I do not want to give the impression I am an apologist for Arnold. His approbation is well earned. However, as with that other great villain of the war Banastre Tarleton, his historical reputation is somewhat one-sided in my view. Both were similar men. Arnold had an almost Olympic skill in his ability to fall out with everyone. In years of close study, I have changed my opinion of both men over time. I now “like” Tarleton far more than I “admire” him. With Arnold, it is the exact opposite.
He had a long and fascinating career both before and after the war and I am forever finding new snippets about him. There have been recent revisionist attempts to “humanise” him from a 21st century perspective including the ridiculous notion that he was lead to his treachery by his wife Peggy. Arnold was never lead by anyone! That, unfortunately, was his chief failing, a complete lack of self-awareness.
With regard to his military ability, I can only answer it in the form of a question. Saratoga was Arnold’s tactical victory. Gates would have been quite happy to have sat atop Beamis heights and wait for the British. Arnold’s tactical initiatives (in my view) destroyed an army that had he not been present could easily have slipped away. Valcour island was tactically ingenious and only Arnold could have pulled it off. These two battles alone place him above any other Continental general I can think off. So quite simply my question would be which Continental general was tactically more astute? Not strategically astute, as there were many, but in a pitched battle who controlled, manoeuvred and motivated his forces better. For me no one comes close to Arnold.
The name always proffered to me is Morgan but let me open up a hornet’s nest by saying his reputation as a tactical genius rests in large part on the battle of Cowpens. I have long thought that had he faced any other British general(certainly Rowdon or Cornwallis) instead of Tarleton the tactics he operated in that fight could have not only lost him the battle it could have cost him his army.
There may be an “open” article in this for readers of JAR. If we set Arnold as the benchmark who was a better tactical general?
Debating history is fun, isn’t it!
John, thank you for an interesting reply. I would add that I believe John Graves Simcoe is another individual badly treated by popular history. In my opinion Peggy actively assisted Arnold in contacting the British, but as all her correspondence was destroyed by her family, determining her actual role in the conspiracy is problematic.
As to Dan Morgan, at Cowpens he demonstrated keen knowledge of his own forces’ capabilities as well as the personality and tactics of his adversary. That in my mind makes him impressive. Also, his tactical use of his riflemen throughout the conflict was always a force multiplier for the Patriots.
Arnold, in my opinion, as a traitor reflects personal traits that have often reappeared into modern times with American traitors. In this sense perhaps he was the “first” of a kind.
Appreciate you insights and scholarship.
Thanks, Ken – yes Simcoe is another whose massive achievements, particularly in the shaping of modern Canada are sadly underplayed. The most underrated British officer in the war? In my view yes. He is well worthy of a modern biography.
I do not doubt that Peggy Arnold was a Loyalist who may have made “introductions” for Arnold with the enemy. But his decision making and treachery were ultimately his own not his wife’s doing.
As to Morgan. Well placing your army with its back to a rising river means your tactics had better be spot on! Tarleton lost Cowpens rather than Morgan winning it. He did what he had always done (usually with success) and went after the enemy full on, without any kind of recce or back up plan. His troops were exhausted before a shot was fired and seemed to have endured a kind of psychotic collapse when Morgan counterattacked.
Morgans use of his troops was excellent given the opponent he was up against, and to be fair he selected his formations and tactics based on what he knew of Tarleton’s approach to fighting. You are correct In that sense he deserves great credit.
You see debating these things with others has already made me change my view!
Great article, but I have one question. Your first comment states that the British army was “supplemented by several thousand German auxiliaries.” But many sites claim that 30,000 German troops were hired by the British to fight for them during the War of Independence. “Several thousand” versus 30,000 seems to be a significant discrepancy (not that your larger point of inadequate numbers on the British/German/Loyalist side still stands).
The phrase “several thousand” was used as an editorial choice to avoid the labor of determining a specific number. It is difficult to make generalities about numbers of troops for a war that lasted eight years and saw considerable attrition and structural changes in the forces involved. While around 28,000 German troops augmented British forces during the course of seven years (the first German troops arrived in 1776), there were far fewer in America at any one time – consider, for example, that some were captured at Trenton in 1776, effectively taking them out of the equation, while other new regiments arrived in America in subsequent years. And some German regiments were sent to places other than the 13 American colonies, Gibraltar to name one.
Regardless of whether “several thousand” expresses the numbers well, the point remains that the British government had far too few troops, even with the support of Loyalists and Germans, to quell the rebellion in America by force.
Hi John – I am not ducking out of your question but that line was added by the editors! In truth, I do not know which is closer to the truth, the several thousand or the thirty thousand. My original submission just had a number for the total of British troops and did not include Hessians or Loyalists. Over to you Don!