Benedict Arnold is hero to some

SUN JOURNAL

Traitor: A handful of admirers want the Revolutionary War general's reputation balanced by remembering his heroism and victories on behalf of the United States.

June 21, 2000|By Dennis Yusko | Dennis Yusko,ALBANY TIMES UNION

STILLWATER, N.Y. - They've given him the boot, but some wonder whether Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary War hero and American traitor, deserves more on the bicentennial anniversary of his death.

Arnold, the intense and contentious general who led American rebels to victory in the crucial Battles of Saratoga in 1777, is better remembered as the nation's first important traitor.

For all his wartime glory, Arnold's legacy is barely mentioned at the Saratoga National Historical Park. His only commemoration is a nameless stone monument bearing a cavalryman's high boot, erected in 1887. Its inscription includes the words: "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot."

Now, 199 years after his death on June 14, 1801, Arnold apologists are trying to revise, or at least temper, history in time for next June 14 by emphasizing Arnold's role as national liberator and playing down his more notorious historical designation.

"The boot is insulting, actually," says Audrey Wallace Wagner of Cambridge, a Benedict Arnold fan. "It doesn't even have his name on it. It's despicable.

"We are shortchanging one of our greatest heroes. The problem is, we have had it drummed into us since day one: He was a traitor." Wagner, 75, began studying Arnold at age 12.

Arnold was wounded in the left leg Oct. 7, 1777, during a daring attack on a heavily defended British position called Breymann's Redoubt at the battlefield.

"Here is a man who saved America," says Bill Stanley, 70, a stockbroker who retired to follow Arnold, his lifelong interest.

A resident of Norwich, Conn., Arnold's hometown, Stanley was suspended from high school in 1948 for two days because in a 12th-grade oral essay, he dared to feature Arnold as "the most valuable American ever to live."

Stanley and Wagner argue that Arnold entered into negotiations with the British only to bring an end to the war.

"I saw when I was suspended the injustice of it all," says Stanley. "He did what he did because he was afraid Catholic France would take over. Nothing Arnold did hurt us."

Stanley and Wagner want to rehabilitate Arnold's reputation. Wagner would like to see Congress posthumously reinstate Arnold's citizenship and grant him amnesty, as was done with the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Arnold, a former druggist, had a military resume that soldiers and generals, including George Washington, admired.

He participated in the attack on Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, the first victory by the colonists against King George III's troops. He marched on Quebec that year. He arranged the first U.S. naval force in Whitehall in 1776, when his troops inflicted heavy losses on a superior British force near Valcour Island, stalling British plans to control the Hudson River.

Though Gen. Horatio Gates commanded American forces at Saratoga, historians generally recognize Arnold as the fighting spirit behind the "turning point of the American Revolutionary War."

"His resolve, his determination, his bravery was unparalleled," says Eric Schnitzer, a ranger at Saratoga National Historical Park.

Arnold sought the command of West Point in 1780 and entered into secret talks with Sir Henry Clinton, commander of British troops based in New York City.

Arnold negotiated a deal with British Maj. John Andre to deliver the fort at West Point to Clinton in return for 20,000 English pounds, a huge fortune at the time.

Andre was robbed on his way to New York City by three highwaymen who found proof of Arnold's plot, by remarkable coincidence in Andre's boot, and they informed American authorities.

Arnold escaped on a British ship, leaving Andre to be hanged as a spy. Later, commanding crown forces, he conducted raids in Virginia and led an attack on New London, Conn., in September 1781.

After the British surrender at Yorktown the next month, Arnold fled to England, where he was shunned until his death in 1801. Loyalists hated him for his abandonment of Andre.

"It was Arnold's choice to betray the country," says Richard Ketchum, author of the award-winning 1997 book, "Saratoga." "It's a shame he did it, but you can't ignore the facts. I don't think you can change it."

The park plans an exhibit and lecture for June 14, 2001, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Arnold's death, says Gina Johnson, program director at Saratoga National Historical Park.

There are no plans to change the boot or the 154-foot Saratoga Monument in nearby Victory.

Each side of that monument has a niche that contains a statue of one of the American heroes who fought at Saratoga. The niche reserved for Arnold on the south side, facing West Point, is empty.

Stanley says he will concentrate instead on producing a life-size statue of Arnold on the lawn of St. Mary's Anglican Church in Battersea, London, where Arnold; his wife, Margaret Shippen, a British loyalist; and their daughter, Sophia, rest in a large crypt in the church's basement.

The crypt shares space with the church's child-care program. There is a makeshift grave marker and a stained-glass window with the Union Jack and the 13-star, 13-stripe American flag, both donated to the site by Arnold-sympathizing Americans.

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