Often, a person’s legacy is defined by decisions made at pivotal moments rather than a lifetime of previous accomplishments. The is especially true for two aspiring, highly competent military officers in senior leadership positions during the fractious American Rebellion. Although initially on opposing sides, the wartime and personal experiences of the infamous Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army (later the British Army) and the little-known Maj. James Wemyss of the British Army are uncannily similar. While both possessed a flair for combat leadership and exhibited heroics on the battlefield, their contemporaries’ esteem and their historical legacies are vastly different.
James Wemyss purchased an ensign’s commission in 1766 at age eighteen and embarked on a promising military career in the British Army. Equally aspiring, Arnold, a self-made man, developed a thriving merchant and shipping business trading throughout North America and the Caribbean. Both men tragically lost their first spouses to an early illness and later remarried.
From the earliest days of the Revolution, Arnold and Weymss actively engaged in fierce, close-quarter combat. Placing themselves in exposed, dangerous situations, both officers excelled at aggressively leading their commands on campaign and in directing soldiers on violent, changeable, and complex battlefields. Both received severe and crippling wounds while leading their units from the front lines. Arnold suffered dreadful bullet wounds in the same leg at the Battle of Quebec and two years later during a bold assault on British lines at Saratoga. Wemyss was wounded on three occasions, first on a raid led by Gov. William Tryon on Danbury, Connecticut, next slightly wounded while in the heat of the action in the British vanguard at the Battle of Brandywine Creek, and most severely at Fishdam Ford, South Carolina. In the opening moments of this last clash, musket balls penetrated both of his legs and one shoulder. Gravely wounded, Wemyss’s command left him on the battlefield to be captured by the Rebels. Both men experienced long, painful periods of convalescence and both walked with a limp for the remainder of their lives.
Given natural proficiency in military operations and highly aggressive battlefield leadership styles, Arnold and Wemyss received independent commands of regimental-size units. Both molded their units into highly effective fighting forces. Well chronicled is Arnold’s epic 1775 wilderness trek through the Maine wilderness to attack the city of Quebec and his 1777 contributions to the rebel victory at Saratoga. Likewise, Wemyss transformed a poorly-led and inadequately trained provincial unit, the Queen’s Rangers, into a highly effective light infantry fighting force. Wemyss’s leadership and the unit’s performance during critical moments of the Brandywine battle earned plaudits from his senior officer, Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Knyphausen, who stated, “it is my duty to mention the merit of Major Wemyss” in a letter to Lord Germain. Even in defeat, fellow officers praised Wemyss. Following his loss at the Battle of Fishdam Ford, Lord Cornwallis wrote to Banastre Tarleton stating that Wemyss’s 63rd Regiment “behaved vastly well.” In addition, to his warrior abilities, Wemyss’s superiors thought highly of his military strategy insights, stating, “No man knows better what has been done or what may be expected to be done—his reports may safely be relyed on.”
Beyond battlefield and strategic proficiency, both developed reputations for unnecessary killing, wanton destructiveness, and wholesale confiscation of civilian property. For example, Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton criticized Arnold for “the loss of some excellent officers and rather too many men” in his raid on Groton and New London, Connecticut and Hessian Captain Johann Ewald reported indiscriminate confiscation of property for his personal gain including “forty-two vessels loaded with booty” during his raid into tidewater Virginia. Likewise, Wemyss vigorously pursued Patriot militias and destroyed Rebel personal property. Under orders “to punish the inhabitants” along the Pee Dee River on one mission, Weymss burned many Rebel homes, especially the houses of Rebels who broke their paroles by resuming fighting the British. In addition, he confiscated horses to provide mounts for his infantry force. However, there is no evidence that Wemyss confiscated property for his own benefit.
Given their aggressively successful military accomplishments, both Arnold and Wemyss believed they should have been promoted faster and higher. Bypassed for promotion to major general in 1776, Arnold vigorously complained to George Washington and Congress on the injustice of their slight, especially given the relatively scant combat experience of the other generals who were promoted. Likewise, Weymss believed his performance in leading the Queen’s Rangers and his battlefield heroics at Brandywine demonstrated a compelling case for further advancement. Lt. Gen. William Howe wrote to Lord Germain, “the Queen’s Rangers commanded by Captain Wemyss of the 40th Regiment distinguished themselves” while in the vanguard of the attacking British forces. Even when both officers eventually received promotions, both Arnold and Weymss felt insufficiently appreciated and recognized for their accomplishments throughout their military careers.
Given their perceived slights, both Wemyss and Arnold heavily criticized fellow officers and in turn received criticism themselves. Later in life, Wemyss penned a document harshly disparaging over fifty British officers including the three British Commanders-in-Chief as well as almost all of their subordinate generals. Most frequently, Weymss described the British General officers as “without abilities,” “useless,” “vain” and “pompous.” Wemyss’s views have been widely quoted by historians but exhibit the hallmark of an officer who was bitter at his lack of advancement and insufficient reward for exemplary service. Further, given events later in life, one would have thought that Wemyss would have been more supportive of the British officers who were supposed to have been more lenient towards the Americans, but he found Howe “unequal to the duties of Commander-in-chief and Clinton “vain . . . open to flattery . . . and too often misled by aid de camps and favorites.” Often, fellow officers regarded Wemyss as petty, overly sensitive, and a stickler for the honorific prerogatives of command. For example, when peevish court martial charges brought by Wemyss against Capt. Hayes St. Leger were not sustained, Captain John Peebles observed that “it is worse than ridiculous to accuse a man of more than you can make appear.” While Arnold did not leave an extensive collection of his observations, Arnold criticized and received criticism from numerous Rebel officers including Generals Horatio Gates and Moses Hazen and Colonels Ethan Allen, John Brown, and James Easton.
Both Weymss and Arnold had significant opportunities for personal financial gain in their respective military commands. Arnold took advantage of several opportunities including as the Continental Army commandant of Philadelphia and during his British Army raids into Virginia. Although avoiding a conviction by court martial for the former, Arnold leveraged his authority to live an extravagant life in Philadelphia and to advance his personal fortunes. While there were several similar opportunities for Wemyss while he served as an aide to quartermaster general and latter barracks master general James Robertson, he did not financially benefit from these roles. Wemyss pointed out high levels of dishonesty and embezzlement for personal gain among many British officers, especially those with quartermaster and barracks master roles. In fact, he said the British officers used “the most effectual means of making immense fortunes; by carrying a successful war on the Treasury of their Country.” Even Adm. George Rodney, who had his own issues with corruption, called out the quartermasters and barracks master, “all of whom make princely fortunes and laugh at the sleeves of the generals who permit it.”
During the Rebellion, neither Arnold nor Weymss were satisfied with the respect and returns they received from serving in their respective armies. Facing strikingly similar situations, the two officers made diametrically different decisions—Arnold defected to the enemy and Wemyss remained loyal to his government. Most egregiously, Arnold both sought and received pecuniary returns from his military commands. Although Wemyss had several opportunities to engage in war profiteering, he did not.
After the war, both Arnold and Wemyss emigrated to the country of their initial adversaries. However, one lived as a shunned traitor and the other was welcomed as a valued, respected immigrant. Rejected by British society, Arnold never attained his pre-war success as a merchant or businessman even when he attempted a fresh start in Nova Scotia. After the war, Wemyss also did not achieve significant career advancement nor financial success. He rose one rank to lieutenant colonel (without purchase) but retired when further promotion eluded his grasp. Perhaps his views on his fellow officers became an impregnable impediment. Turning to a civilian life, Wemyss bought an agricultural estate in Scotland for 10,000 pounds funded solely by his family money and officer’s wages accumulated during the war. However, the property proved financially unsuccessful. Sometime during the period 1795-99, Wemyss made a decision to emigrate to a nation that he fought so hard and suffered horrific wounds to prevent coming into existence. For someone viewed as the “second most hated” British officer during the Revolution this was a bold and risky move. Having acquired considerable experience scouting the area during the war, Wemyss chose to live on Long Island and comfortably settled on a small farm. Wemyss successfully transitioned to a new life in his adopted country and became an American while Arnold never became accepted British in society.
However, both Wemyss and Arnold took regrets and “chips on their shoulders” to their graves. Wemyss used his pen to thoroughly excoriate his fellow offices for mismanaging the war. Although bitter about the conduct of the war, Wemyss garnered the respect of several officers including his patron, General Robertson, who regarded him as “one of my best friends.” Further, Wemyss gained a strong measure of regard from his Long Island neighbors who sought his military services during the War of 1812. Wemyss declined their offers, choosing not to fight against his native country and old comrades. Wemyss lived a full life, passing away on his Long Island farm in 1833. His tombstone reads, “Formerly a distinguished Officer in the service of his Country.” In stark contrast, Arnold died an embittered and lonely man without financial means, friends, and country. Expressing the thoughts of much of British high society, the prominent politician Horace Walpole described Arnold as “a man of wretched fame.” Invisible to most, Arnold’s grave site at St. Mary’s Church of London is located in a basement room which serves as a kindergarten classroom. Updated in 2004 by an American seeking to burnish Arnold’s legacy, the tombstone reads simply, without praise or comment, “Sometime General in the Army of George Washington.”
Arnold and Wemyss faced similar situations but created different legacies—Wemyss “served with distinction during the war” but became a footnote in history; Arnold lost the respect of people on all sides of the Revolution and his name became synonymously linked to treason. In a strange twist of fate, “the second most hated British officer” during the war lived a peaceful life in the land of his most vociferous adversary while the one of the most gifted Continental Army officers spent the last years of his life in ignominy. While there is a tendency for historians to chronicle and for readers to be fascinated with tragically flawed characters, more should be written about people who made good decisions in the face of personal adversity by honorably serving their countries and by respectably switching their allegiance.
Wemyss was replaced to recover from wounds received at the Battle of Brandywine Creek by John Graves Simcoe, the Queens Rangers continued its history of success as a Loyalist light infantry unit throughout the remainder of the war.
Lord Cornwallis to Banastre Tarleton November 9, 1780, in J. Slack, The History of the Late 63rd, West Suffolk, Regiment (Army and Navy Co-operative Society, Limited, 1884), 28, books.google.com/books?id=M2FfZQjhADcC.
James Robertson to Lord Amherts, New York, May 8, 1781, in James Robertson, Milton M. Klein, and Ronald W. Howard, The Twilight of British Rule in Revolutionary America: The New York Letter Book of General James Robertson, 1780-1783 (Cooperstown, N.Y: New York State Historical Association, 1983), 196.
Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775-1782 with an Appendix of Original Documents, ed. William D Wilcox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 331.
Notes on the 1780-1 Southern Campaigns, researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/british-maj-james-wemyss-manuscripts/#_Toc7620871.
William Howe to Lord George Germain, October 10, 1777, Germantown, Pennsylvania in James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, eds., The American Revolution through British Eyes: A Documentary Collection (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013), 503.
For a text version of the Sparks transcription of the Wemyss manuscript with editor notations, see researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/british-maj-james-wemyss-manuscripts/. For an assessment of the Wemyss’s characterizations of the senior British officers see researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/2019/05/03/the-harshest-critic-british-major-james-weymss/, which includes an analysis of Wemyss’s observations.