Would Benedict Arnold be remembered as a hero if he had picked the winning side? Interpreter Scott Green shares the rise and demise of a brilliant strategist.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Heroes and villains make history fun, and Benedict Arnold has to be one of our favorite villains. The name itself is synonymous with traitor, making his story one of the most remembered. Today I want to introduce you to Scott Green, the interpreter who takes on Arnold's character at Colonial Williamsburg. Scott, thank you for being here today.
Scott Green: Surely, surely. It's my pleasure.
Harmony: Well, Benedict Arnold didn't start out as a villain. Where does his story begin?
Scott: Well his story begins in Connecticut. He was born in Connecticut. He always had a flair for the military. He used to watch the men drill. His mother for a time has the means to send him off to private schooling. Those means quickly disappear. His father is a drunk, basically. He's known as the town alcoholic in a way which I think affects Benedict Arnold.
So the funds run out, Arnold comes home. Eventually, through the good graces of some of his mother's relatives, he is given a position as an apprentice of sorts as a pharmaceutical, what we would call a pharmaceutical book seller sort of a business, primarily pharmaceutical, and he later sets himself up as a bookseller, a shopkeeper himself of sorts. I mean, ultimately he joins the cause. He was one of the Sons of Liberty so very, very ardent towards the patriot cause in the beginning.
Harmony: I almost feel like it's a kind of foreshadowing that as a young man Benedict Arnold sees his father turn into a drunk, he's disappointed in this father figure, he has to ditch the course that's laid out in front of him, make do for himself, and take care of his mother and his sisters. Is that correct?
Scott: Precisely. So he does become the man of the house.
Harmony: I wonder if that somehow foreshadows what happens to him later in the Revolution?
Scott: It perhaps might. It might be always a striving, an absolute aggressive striving for something more. Status, wealth: obviously these things play a role in every person's life, but I think more so and it is perhaps because of watching his father's fortunes decline. So obviously he was, I won't say obsessed, I hate to use that word, but he was driven. He was absolutely driven to have more, to have nicer houses, to have fine things throughout his life and that's reflected throughout his life and to his detriment in some cases especially in Philadelphia.
Harmony: He also was distinguished as being very clever and very capable man of battle.
Scott: Oh my gosh. There are so many ways that he distinguishes himself on both sides. On the American side obviously most point directly to Saratoga, of course, that's the turning point of the war. That's when the French are able to openly side with the American cause.
But well before that, he started with Ticonderoga although some would say that's a minimal victory of sorts. But that was his, sort of his first bloodless engagement of course, but taking of Ticonderoga with Ethan Allen with the main goal being to capture those guns to use at Boston. But obviously Saratoga, the major turning point of the war, the two battles of Saratoga.
On the second day of battle he wasn't even supposed to be there. He had been relieved of his command by General Gates so that impetuosity, that pacing back and forth in camp, he could not stand to know that there was a battle going on and that he was not a part of it. So he hopped on his horse and rides out to the second day of battle at Saratoga. Gates even sends an officer after him and says to send him back. He's not supposed to be on the battlefield. They relieved him of his command. In that decisive battle even Burgoyne says later that had Benedict Arnold not been on that field things might have been different. And these are Burgoyne's words, this is not my opinion. So ultimately Saratoga, ultimately Saratoga.
Harmony: So he really proves himself in battle and then he starts to gain these promotions and this stature?
Scott: He begins to gain promotion rather early on starting with Quebec. He obviously he doesn't gain promotion fast enough for himself according to what he feels he is capable of doing and what he is deserving of, but obviously Washington absolutely trusts him. Wants him to be promoted. Wants his seniority regained as far as other officers. There were five junior officers who were brigadiers who had been appointed major generals ahead of him and he felt slighted by that. He offered up his resignation many times, but Washington kept saying "Atay with us, stay with us, stay the course with us."
Harmony: Even though he has a reputation as a hothead and a very driven man, as far as we know, and what the record tells us is that he starts out as a great American hero. I mean these are qualities that we would celebrate had he not turned coat. Where does the tide turn for him? What makes him begin to kind of eye his opportunities with the other side?
Scott: I believe you can say 1778-'79. That's when he's making overtures to the British in '79, and we know that. I think, however, it goes back much further than that. I think it's not one blow that brings a man to any decision or brings a man to his knees or brings him to great heights, it's the cumulative effect of many. And I think that's what happened to Arnold. Early on he was slighted. I think, and this is once again the only person that knows these things are Benedict Arnold and he's gone. He's left very little evidence so I can only use the information that I have and the years that I've tried to portray this man honestly.
He's not a political man, he's making enemies very early on and enemies in Congress and I think that affects his entire career in the American Army. That's why he offers up his resignation so many times. A man can only be slighted so many times before he finally says, "Do I have an option?" And I think the British were a better option once he decided. I think the straw that really broke the camel's back was when these allegations were laid onto him when he was military Governor of Philadelphia.
There were, I think, eight charges brought up against him; two of them stuck. And he was sort of publicly reprimanded in a certain degree by Washington. Washington, I don't think enjoyed it or relished it, but I think he felt like Arnold was guilty of malfeasance on two of these issues and so he sort of publicly slapped him on the wrist and I think that was just the final thing.
Harmony: So Benedict Arnold becomes a double agent. What is he doing in those early days of his spy career to prove his worth to the British.
Scott: I think the British are skeptical. They need to know is this really Benedict Arnold. Obviously the British see the importance of such a high-ranking officer in the American cause; the psychological importance of that. If we can get him on our side, my God, who else might come? What does that say to the American cause that Benedict Arnold would join us? He's arguably the greatest General that Washington has. If he'll join the British cause what psychological effect does that have to the American cause and how many of them can he bring with him?
Harmony: What is Benedict Arnold giving to the British? What kind of secrets or information is he leaking to them?
Scott: Ultimately it's West Point. They want West Point. It's a vital, vital position on the Hudson. Its strategic importance is enormous. They want that. They want him obviously, but they want that as well. That's initially, that's the initial agreement. When he's handing over those plans to John André, it's the layout of West Point basically. This is how you can take West Point.
He's already weakened the defenses of West Point. He's calculated this, he's spread troops out. The state of West Point even when Washington got there and saw it thought, "What has Arnold been doing here?" So that's initially it. Once he's on the other side he knows the terrain, he knows the officers, and he can certainly advise the British on how to win this war. Whether they take that or how much initiative that he's allowed, that's a different story. They didn't utilize him as well as they could have or should have.
Harmony: So ultimately Benedict Arnold is not successful in surrendering West Point. How does that play out?
Scott: He doesn't have a bargaining chip at that point. When he realizes that André's been captured, that's the linchpin there. They know. Washington knows. He knows that they had plans to West Point. They realize now Arnold has betrayed us.
His primary goal was to get away at first, obviously to get on board that British ship because he knows he's going to be hanged, but the bargaining chip is gone. He's still wants to be compensated for his losses and he has lost a great deal at this point. He's lost houses, he's lost ships, he's lost a war. So it's not as if this was some destitute man who's grasping for money. Obviously he wanted to be compensated for his losses.
Benedict Arnold was still a businessman. This was not just a big payday. I don't believe that for one instant and there are plenty of historians who will argue that point with me. This was compensation. This is, "I'm giving up everything. I just bought a house outside of Philadelphia for my wife, a wedding present that we will never live in. I've lost a great deal. I need compensation." So people can look at that any way they choose to look at it. So at that juncture the only service he can give them is his knowledge of the American Army and his tactical skill on the battlefield.
Harmony: I can't help but wonder if he's just a guy who backed the wrong horse. Do you think that if he had stayed with the American side we would remember him differently? Or that if the British had won we would remember him differently?
Scott: Obviously if he had stayed with the American side, he might have been killed at some junction in the war further down the line perhaps he still would have been a hero. There would be statues of Benedict Arnold, there would be Benedict Arnold Boulevard in major cities, he would have been ranking right up there with Washington.
Harmony: It's kind of tragic. He really is a great man. He has skills and resources and bravery and he's a very clever tactician.
Scott: That's the word. That is the word. When I think of Arnold I think of tragic. I'm slightly biased to a certain degree. I'm an actor who plays this character, but I can't help but empathize, sympathizing with him. It's tragic, it's absolutely tragic and I think he had to, at some point later in life, to a certain degree, maybe recogne the tragedy of it. But, once again, I think he was a man who made a decision and he stuck by it. And one of the tragedies is that very few people really know the history prior to Benedict Arnold the traitor.
Harmony: Scott, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Scott: Thank you so much.