Duel Personalities

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger, Saratoga NHP

“Having lost faith in sorcery…we assert that the sorcerers are wrong, that there is no kinship of harm between ourselves and an effigy of us, and nonetheless, we feel hurt if a single word of our name is joined by a single word of abuse….”

Jorge Luis Borges

Stories from Turkestan

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted that there are no second acts in American lives. If Benedict Arnold didn’t have a “second act” after his changing sides during the Revolutionary War, he certainly had an extended epilogue.

Arnold migrated to Britain after his betrayals and service against his former comrades in arms. Sadly for his hopes of preferment, Arnold proved a bit of an embarrassment to the British. Some were quite forthright in rating their new companion:

“…The Duke of Bolton rose [in Parliament], and recapitulated many national grievances…[including] the bad news from America, in the loss of Major Andre and the revolt of General Arnold, which his Grace called exchanging a good officer for a bad man….” [London Magazine, 1781]

Arnold’s name had come up in Parliamentary discussions about the ensuing campaign season [1782], and it was evident that some members of parliament regarded him as rather toxic:

“[18 February, 1782] On this occasion, Mr.[Edmund] Burke wished the Secretary of State [for the Colonies] to inform the House who was to command the army in America [during] the ensuing campaign and whether General Arnold was to be employed? He spoke of the gallantry and spirit of that general in terms of high commendation; but could not help blaming administration , if by placing him at the head of part of a British army, the sentiments of true honour, which every British officer held dearer than life should be affected.

Mr. [Wellbore] Ellis expressed his surprise, that being so lately promoted, he should be called upon to speak on subjects on the last importance the first day he had appeared in the character of a minister of that House. And he was no less astonished at the language of the hon. Gentleman, which though it well become a member of the American Congress, was, he thought very improper from a member of that House.

General [Henry Seymour] Conway gave great commendation to the military virtues of Gen. Arnold; admitted freely, that what he had done for us deserved reward; but still he did not think that the reward proper, was military honours…” [Gentlemen’s Magazine Volume 52, 1782]

Essentially, Benedict Arnold had some supporters, but he had not gained the rewards for which he’d hoped in terms of preferment and patronage. As has been noted, Arnold was a person for whom many felt contempt, a circumstance that seems to have bred at least one Arnold tale.

A story is told that Arnold, soon after his arrival in Britain was at a soiree and was escorted about by no less than George III. In their wanderings the King and Brigadier Arnold encountered the Earl of Balcarres, who commanded the Light Infantry in General Burgoyne’s army. Arnold was face to face with an old adversary, but now wearing the same uniform and serving the same guy. According to the tale the encounter went something like this:

King [to The Earl]: “Do you know General Arnold?”

Earl: “…You mean the TRAITOR Arnold?”

As might be expected, a remark like that resulted in General Arnold challenging the Earl to a duel, as his (Arnold’s) honor had been trampled on mightily. The Earl, unsurprisingly, accepted.

The antagonists met on the field of honor. Arnold fired first and missed, then stood to receive the Earls’ shot, which never came.

The Earl turned his back on Arnold and walked away.

Arnold called out: “Sir, will you give me no satisfaction?”

The Earl replied, without breaking step: “Sir. I leave you to the Devil.”

For a moralizing tale about the just deserts for deserting one’s cause, country and comrades, it just doesn’t get much better. In it, we have two former military opponents whose forces fought on the field of battle meeting face to face. Although they now wear the same uniform, they are now meeting upon a “field of honor” for a duel, one contestant is no longer “honorable”, and the professional soldier haughtily leaves Arnold to stew in his own guilt.

There’s only one small problem: it never happened.

Some individuals stoutly contend that the story is true, including the current Earl of Balcarres. However, the dearth of contemporary sources is notable. Our current time suffers from a surfeit of celebrity “journalism”, and so did the latter part of the 18th Century. Like today, there were many gossipy pieces about the well-known individuals to be found in print. An encounter like the supposed duel between Arnold and a titled Lord (with the King thrown in to the story as well) would never have been ignored, especially with the very catty ending.

More importantly, during the 1790’s the Earl of Balcarres was sent to Jamaica to end one of the most successful slave uprisings. In his retinue was a young man Benedict Arnold, Junior. Arnold the Younger died of a fever, and Arnold the Elder noted in a letter [20 February 1796]:

“I have the consolation to hear that he was much respected and beloved by the officers of his acquaintance and Lord Balcarres had promised him further promotion.”

If Arnold and the Earl had had such a negative encounter as related above, it is quite unlikely that the Earl would have on his staff the son of a despised individual, let alone do favors for him.

In short, no duel between Arnold and the Earl. However, Arnold did fight a duel of honor…sort of.

In 1792, Britain was involved with a war with France. Unlike previous conflicts between His Most Britannic Majesty and His Most Catholic Majesty, there was only one king in the fight. France had deposed Louis XVI and executed him, which to King George and his Royalist supporters was setting a Very Bad Precedent. Accordingly, to prepare troops for a possible invasion an armed camp was positioned at Bagshot Heath southwest of London. They were also posted there to cow the local populace if they started getting certain ideas from Revolutionary France about eliminating the British Monarchy.

Named to the post of command of these troops was the Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, who apparently had slid up and down the political spectrum in his career. According to a speech summarized in the Parliamentary Register (1792), James Maitland, 8th Lord Lauderdale noted:

“[the Duke of Richmond] had once been a great friend to parliamentary reform, and called on the people to assert their rights. Now he was at the head of a camp formed to overawe the country and the inhabitants of this metropolis….”

Lauderdale then waxed eloquent, and rather nasty:

In giving the command of this camp to the Duke of Richmond, if apostasy could justify promotion, the Ministers were well justified; for perhaps, in the whole list of public apostates, there could be none found equal to the noble Duke, if the name of General Arnold be erased from it….“

The Duke, unsurprisingly demanded satisfaction for such an attack upon his character, but the affair was resolved before any bodily harm could be risked. The records do not indicate if the noble Duke was offended by the charge of political apostasy or being compared to General Arnold.

General Arnold was tipped off about the proceedings in Parliament wherein his name had come up in conversation. Needless to say, Arnold was not pleased to be called an apostate, and sent a message to Lord Lauderdale that an immediate apology was expected.

Lord Lauderdale apologized, however, the wording was not to General Arnold’s satisfaction, and the date was set for a meeting of “honour” for the morning of the 1st of July. Martin Hawke, 2nd Baron Hawke was to be Arnold’s “second” and Charles James Fox (parenthetically, the Duke of Richmond’s nephew) was Lauderdale’s. Apparently each brought along a surgeon as well…just in case.

The “meeting” took place at Kilburn Wells the morning of July 1st. General Arnold a few days later provided the following account written on the 7th of that month, quoted in The Life of Benedict Arnold, his Patriotism and his Treason by Isaac Newton Arnold, 1905:

“The parties met at 8 o’clock­ Lord Lauderdale with his friend Mr. Fox, and Lord Hawke as the friend of General Arnold. The parties agreed to fire together on a word given by Mr. Fox. Lord Lauderdale received General Arnold’s fire (which was without effect), and reserved his own. Lord Hawke told Lord Lauderdale that he believed his pistol had misfired, and desired him to fire. He was also called upon by General Arnold to fire (who kept his ground for that purpose), which his Lordship declined, saying that he had no enmity to General Arnold. Lord Hawke then observed that he supposed Lord Lauderdale would not object to say that he did not mean to asperse General Arnold’s character, which his Lordship declined, saying that he had formerly said he did not mean to wound General Arnold’s feelings: he should not explain what he said, and that General Arnold might fire again if he chose. This Lord Hawke and General Arnold said was impossible. Then Lord Lauderdale said he could not retract his words, but was sorry if any man felt hurt by them; on which General Arnold said it was not a proper apology ­ such as he should make himself in a similar situation ­ and again instead on his Lordship’s firing.

Lord Lauderdale, after some short conversation with General Arnold and the seconds, came forward very handsomely, like a man of honor and declared ‘that he had no enmity against General Arnold, that he did not mean to asperse General Arnold’s character or wound his feelings, and was sorry that General Arnold, or any other person should be hurt at what he had said.

General Arnold told Lord Lauderdale that he was perfectly satisfied with his apology, provided their seconds, as men of honour, would say that he ought to be so, which they both did….”

All told, it was a bit of a wet firecracker sort of encounter. Lord Lauderdale (mostly) backed down, and Arnold felt completely vindicated. Peggy Arnold smugly claimed in her letter to her father [6 July 1792]:

“It has been highly gratifying to find the General’s conduct so much applauded, which it has universally, and particularly by a number of the first characters in the Kingdom, who have called upon him in consequence. Nor am I displeased at the great commendations bestowed on my own conduct upon this trying occasion…”

In the end, everyone went home happy and in one piece, Arnold got his satisfaction as a gentleman, and Peggy received guests of the “first character”. But for all Arnold’s “satisfaction”, Lord Lauderdale’s snide reference points out that in 1792, and in the present day, Arnold is still the by-word for treason.