Some Dare Call It Treason

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Life isn’t fair.

Saratoga National Historical Park is the site of the Turning Point of the war for American Independence. The battles here are consistently regarded as among the most decisive in world history. The New York Times (1999) rated the events here as the most important battle in 1000 years. In spite of such accolades putting the park head and shoulders above darned near any other such site administered by the National Park Service, visitors still come in and observe: “Oh, this place is like Gettysburg”.

Being constantly under the shadow of the American Civil War seems to be our fate. It is rather understandable as the various those battlefields are peppered with monuments and memorials. Their landscape features are seared into the minds of the public: Hornet’s Nest, Bloody Lane, Mary’s Heights, Devil’s Den, the Mule Shoe, the Crater. It’s as if the armies of the Civil War had hired a public relations firm to chart the battles.

Saratoga NHP really lacks those sorts of sites with memorable names, but it does have a really unique feature found at Tour Road Stop 7. That of course, is the notorious Benedict Arnold Boot Monument, dedicated to the “most Brilliant officer in the Continental Army”.

Rarely a day will go by without at least one visitor who upon arrival declaims the greatness of General Arnold.   Some will cite how Arnold “won the battles of Saratoga while Gates did nothing”. Others happily note that “George Washington called Arnold his Fighting General”. Once in a while, a few will note the, um, unpleasantness discovered in 1780 but it was entirely understandable in their minds as Arnold had been treated so poorly by the United States.

Interestingly, when these visitors even mention said “unpleasantness” they call it “changing sides”, never “desertion” or “treason”. More than a few have claimed that Arnold could not have committed treason against the United States. Their argument runs that the United States did not exist until the ratification of the peace treaty in 1783, therefore Arnold was merely abrogating his contract and switching leagues. Therefore if he was guilty of betraying anything, it was the Cause for Independence, not his country.

So, was Arnold guilty of treason against the United States in 1780? His contemporaries certainly filed his actions under that heading. Colonel Alexander Scammel’s often quoted reaction to Arnold’s departure in 1780 gets right to the point: “Treason! Treason! Treason black as hell!” The Continental Army’s General Orders of 26 September 1780 made no bones about it:

“…Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered! General Arnold who commanded at Westpoint [sic], lost to every sentiment of honor, of public and private obligation, was about to deliver up that important Post into the hands of the enemy….”

Even if Arnold’s modern apologists feel he hadn’t committed treason, he former comrades in arms certainly felt betrayed. As shown by his correspondence with the British, Arnold had certainly ratted them out by providing intelligence to aid and abet for months.

But what had Arnold betrayed? Rather than quibble about the legalities of American sovereignty, it may be illuminating to see what General Arnold had to say about the matter.

During his spat with Major General Horatio Gates between the battles of Saratoga, Arnold offered the following attempt at conciliation:

“I hope you will not impute this hint to a wish to Command the Army or to out shine you, when I assure you it proceeds from my Zeal for the Cause of my Country in which I expect to rise or fall….”

The interesting phrase is “my Country”. On 1 October 1777, Benedict Arnold was plainly guilty of treason against Great Britain. Not only had Arnold been involved for over two years with armed conflict against King George III, but held the rank of Major General in the rebelling forces and would be hard pressed to claim that he was just some poor lout tricked into joining.

So what “Country” does he mean? Obviously not Britain, as he’s at war with that entity. If not the United States, then perhaps he meant Connecticut, his birthplace and home. But to for Arnold consider Connecticut as a country means that it is no longer a colony of Britain, that it (and the other twelve states) are sovereign.

“Ah”, says the sharp-eyed nitpicker, “Arnold says the ‘Cause of my Country’ which supports the argument that he betrayed the political action, not a country.” It’s a strong argument, but let us consider another piece of the public record.

Following the victory at Saratoga, a large amount of the Army of the United States migrated southward to reinforce General Washington’s army near Philadelphia. After the miserable winter at Valley Forge, the good news of the French Alliance was received with enormous relief. Spring also brought Oaths of Allegiance for important folks to sign.

The form read:

“I_________________________do acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA to be Free, Independent and Sovereign States, and declare that the people thereof owe no allegiance or obedience to George the Third, King of Great-Britain; and I renounce, refuse and abjure any allegiance or obedience to him and I do [swear or affirm] that I will to the most of my power, support, maintain and defend the United States against the said King George the Third, his heirs and successors, and his or their abettors, assistants and adherents and will serve the said United States in the office of __________________ which I now hold, with fidelity according to the best of my skill and understanding.”

Public officials and military leaders signed these forms. Among them was one “Benedict Arnold Major General” who signs “B. Arnold” on “30th. May 1778”. The document is witnessed by “H Knox B[rigadier] G[eneral] Artily”.

Even if Britain was slow to recognize the United States as a country Arnold certainly did in 1778. Arnold’s subsequent actions showed that he had turned upon his cause, his comrades, and his country.

Post-Scriptum: The curious reader can find the actual Oath of Allegiance, signed by General Arnold on line at the National Archives web site. The link is:

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