Sept. 21, 2022

Benedict Arnold Turns Traitor

Benedict Arnold Turns Traitor

September 21, 1780. American General Benedict Arnold meets with a British spy to discuss handing over West Point, a major American stronghold, in exchange for money and a position in the British Army.


Cold Open

It’s April 27th, 1777, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, two years into the American Revolutionary War.

At the northern end of the town’s center, 35-year-old Brigadier General Benedict Arnold rides on horseback, toward the front of the battle. He shouts orders to a group of American soldiers stationed behind hastily erected barricades, trying to hold the line against an onslaught of British troops.

But as gunfire explodes to the left, Benedict looks up to see a sizable British party knocking down the barriers and overwhelming their flank. Benedict knows that without the barricades, they're dangerously exposed to a larger British force. He quickly orders a retreat, yelling at his men to fall back.

The Americans grab their equipment and begin running. As they flee, Benedict keeps himself between the advancing British troops and his men protecting them as they retreat.

Soon, the British get within range of the Americans and begin firing. Musket balls hit Benedict’s horse, but he manages to hold the line, galloping back and forth in front of his retreating soldiers.

Then, his horse is hit again. This time, it collapses to the ground. Benedict falls with it. Pinned underneath the animal, Benedict tries to pull his legs free from the tangled stirrups. But they won’t come out.

As Benedict struggles to get free, a soldier rushes forward from the British lines, wielding a bayonet. He yells at Benedict to surrender. But Benedict says nothing. Instead, he slowly reaches under his dead horse. The British soldier shouts at Benedict again telling him he is being taken prisoner. Benedict yells out, “Not yet!” And pulls two pistols from under his horse and fires.

The day before the Battle of Ridgefield, as this skirmish will come to be known, Benedict Arnold was on his way to Philadelphia to argue for a promotion before Congress. For years, Benedict proved his devotion to the calls of independence on the battlefield. Known as the American Hannibal, his bravery and strategic skill made him one of George Washington’s favorite generals. And he was ready to be rewarded for it.  

But the nearby approach of British forces halted his plans. At the Battle of Ridgefield, the British drive away Arnold and his men, but not before they inflict severe casualties. By the end of the skirmish, over a hundred British and Loyalist men are killed or wounded, with 40 captured. Yet another accomplishment for Benedict. But he will still struggle to rise through the army’s ranks. Soon, Benedict’s easily bruised pride will turn him bitter, putting him at odds with influential people, and eventually setting him on a path to betray the country he fought for on September 21st, 1780.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 21st, 1780: “Benedict Arnold Turns Traitor”.

Act One

It’s October 7th, 1777, at an American encampment in upstate New York, six months after the Battle of Ridgefield.

Benedict Arnold sits inside his tent, a drink in hand. Outside, a heated battle is raging. But today Benedict isn’t in the middle of the action. He’s in his temporary living quarters, swearing loudly and drinking.

Since the revolution took hold two years ago, Benedict has been on the front line.

After several displays of bravery and military prowess, Benedict was expecting a promotion to Major General this year. If it was up to General George Washington, Benedict would already have gotten the promotion. But Washington doesn’t control promotions; the Continental Congress does.

And this Congress seems to be promoting everyone but Benedict. Earlier this year, he learned that Congress promoted five officers ahead of him who were previously below him in rank. And after months of Washington arguing on Benedict’s behalf, they finally promoted him too. But Congress refused to restore his seniority and put Benedict above the men they already promoted.

With his pride deeply wounded, Benedict offered his resignation from the army. But Washington refused to accept it. He knew the state of the war was too dire to let Benedict’s talent go. So instead, Washington sent him to New York to assist the defense under the command of General Horatio Gates.

The assignment has been a tough one. Benedict’s headstrong and aggressive nature has often clashed with General Gates. During a recent battle, the general ordered his officers to issue their commands well away from the battlefield. Benedict did not hold his tongue telling Gates how little he respected officers who did not lead from the front. This comment led to an argument so heated that General Gates dismissed Benedict from his command. And when the fighting broke out again, General Gates ordered Benedict to stay in his quarters.

Now, Benedict is trying to drink away his fury. His dreams of glory and respect on the battlefield are slipping away, and he’s convinced that the Americans will lose today’s battle without him there. As he listens to the cannons boom in distance, Benedict’s face twists with anger, and he throws down his bottle. He’s had enough.

Benedict runs outside and mounts his horse. He whips the reins and gallops through the American command post toward the battlefield. But he is spotted by several other officers who inform General Gates. With a scowl, the General sends a man on horseback to order Benedict back. But he is already long gone approaching the American front lines.

There Benedict rides back and forth like a madman. Although he’s been stripped of his command, he is still well respected by the soldiers, so when Benedict issues orders, they jump into action.

From his saddle, Benedict scans the British lines for vulnerabilities. He notices one British officer on a gray horse, vigorously repelling the American offensive. Quickly, Benedict rides over to Colonel Morgan, whose riflemen are well-known for their deadly accuracy. He asks the colonel if that British officer is within range.

Colonel Morgan nods. And he quickly orders his sharpshooters into position. The soldiers take aim at the British officer. It’s a long and difficult shot. The first two attempts miss. But the third hits the British officer in the stomach and knocks him from his horse.

With a key officer down, the British line soon falls into disarray. The Americans run them off neutral ground and force them to take hasty cover. But Benedict isn’t satisfied. He wants a victory so decisive that General Gates and the Continental Congress will not be able to dispute his importance on the battlefield.

And then as sun begins to set, Benedict sees his opportunity. There’s a gap in the British fortifications to his left, manned by German mercenaries. He’ll have to ride between two lines of fire. But if he can get there as Colonel Morgan attacks from the front, they’ll have a better chance of taking the fortifications. Benedict relays his plan and gathers a group of 15 men to ride with him.

At his command, they charge across the line of fire. Benedict is the first to reach the fortifications, galloping in with his sword drawn. A small group of Germans is startled by his sudden appearance. And Benedict demands their surrender, but they quickly regain their composure, and one of them raises his musket and fires, bullet shatters Benedict’s left femur and hits his horse in the chest, collapsing on top of Benedict as the rest of the Americans ride in around him. Trapped underneath a dead horse, Benedict writhes in pain. But he yells at his men to push onward.

Thanks to Benedict’s actions, the Americans will win a key victory at the Battle of Saratoga, which will become a turning point in the war. Benedict will survive and be taken to Albany to recover from his injury. But any hope of proving himself and redeeming his reputation at Saratoga will quickly die.

In the wake of the battle, General Gates will take credit for the American victory, despite never stepping foot on the battlefield. The betrayal will add insult to Benedict’s injury. And during his five months in the hospital, the fallen officer will grow even more bitter and prideful. When he finally steps back out into the world, Benedict will be a changed man, ready to take the first steps toward betraying the country he fought and bled for. 

Act Two

It’s April 1779 inside a three-story brick mansion in Philadelphia, a year and a half after the Battle of Saratoga.

Benedict Arnold sits in his lavish dining room, having dinner with his young wife, Peggy.

Since getting out of the hospital a year ago, Benedict’s leg injury has prevented him from seeing much more military action. Once he could walk again, Washington appointed him as a military governor of Philadelphia instead. 

One of Benedict’s main jobs is to transfer goods confiscated from British loyalists to the Continental army, and then sell the rest. But after losing the use of a leg, Benedict felt entitled to some financial compensation. He made a secret agreement with the man sorting the goods. And they began to buy items at low prices they set, and then sell them for a personal profit.

Benedict has been using this money to fund a new extravagant lifestyle. Since coming to Philadelphia, the former soldier has grown to admire the elegant trappings of the city’s upper-class, many of whom are British sympathizers. But with his trade profits, Benedict has started spending money in a way that puts him in their social circles. He’s bought an ornate carriage and a fancy house and attends the theater often. Recently, Benedict even married 19-year-old Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a British Loyalist.

Unfortunately for Benedict, his new associations have put him squarely in the sights of Joseph Reed. Joseph is one of the most influential politicians in Philadelphia and a champion of Pennsylvania’s radical patriots. For a while now, he’s been leading investigations into colonists accused of treason. And his latest target is Benedict.

Benedict resents the investigation. It’s based primarily on rumors of his shady trade deals. And he’s confident that Joseph just wants to make an example of him. He doesn’t believe any of his actions could be deemed treasonous or warrant the level of hostility that Joseph has toward him. If anything, it’s Joseph’s attack on his loyalty that is causing Benedict’s patriotic ideals to slip for the first time.

Benedict takes a bite of roasted trout as he complains to Peggy about his persecution at the hands of Joseph Reed. Benedict tells her that he thinks it’s part of a larger pattern. He blames the Continental Congress. He tells Peggy that they know nothing about how to run a country effectively, and even less about how to win a war.

Peggy consoles her husband that plenty of people appreciate his bravery and passion. But Benedict insists that he’s owed more than just respect. He joined the army to fight for independence, but the war has dragged on, and Congress can’t or won’t raise the money to pay their men.

Benedict slams his fist on the table in anger. He rants that he might never be able to walk without a terrible limp, and he deserves some compensation for that. Off-handedly, he says that things sometimes seemed easier under British rule.

This comment catches Peggy’s attention. Softly, she tells her husband that it would be nice to have an end to all this nonsense of war. Benedict looks up, chewing thoughtfully. He tells Peggy that she might be right.

Peggy continues, pointing out that if Congress could pass Benedict up for promotion, they clearly don’t know what’s best for the country. Benedict nods. He tells her that sometimes it feels like the British appreciate him more than the Americans. He’s read reports of British generals calling him brilliant and daring, one of the best generals in the Continental Army.

Looking down at her plate, Peggy quietly clears her throat. She tells Benedict that if he really feels that way, she has connections. Maybe he should find a place where his talents are most appreciated.

Benedict looks up sharply. He asks Peggy if she’s joking. Peggy merely stares back, unblinking. She tells him that she’s serious about the offer. She made friends with some British officers as a girl, and she still keeps in touch with one man, an officer named John André.

Later that night, Benedict lies in bed next to Peggy. She’s sound asleep, but Benedict lies awake, staring at the wall, thoughts racing. Deep down, he knows that his conversation with Peggy was flirting with treason. Benedict respects George Washington as commander-in-chief and wouldn’t want to betray him. But even Washington must answer to Congress, and in Benedict’s eyes, they’re destroying the young country. It might even be better for the colonists if Britain was back in charge.

Benedict thinks about what he would ask for in return for helping the British. Surely, they would give him a high-ranking position. And unlike the colonies, Britain has plenty of money. He could win glory in battle and make a fortune at the same time.

As Peggy shifts in bed beside him, Benedict jolts out of his contemplation. In his heart, he’s made his decision. He rolls over and falls asleep.

Soon, Peggy will put Benedict in touch with her friend John André, now the head of intelligence for the British. To start, Benedict will send him information about troop movements and Washington’s plans. But when Benedict is put in charge of a critical fort in New York, he will have an opportunity to give the British something much more valuable and get everything he could ever dream of in return.

Act Three

It’s September 21st, 1780 in New York, a little over a year after Peggy put Benedict Arnold in touch with British spy John André.

At a friend’s house near West Point, Benedict and John sit across from each other at a table out of earshot of the home’s resident. After months of sending coded messages, the two men are meeting in person for the first time and have serious business to discuss.

Benedict is now in charge of West Point, a cluster of fortifications on the Hudson River which Washington has called the most important strategic location in America. Benedict is here to discuss the possibility of surrendering it to the British. But first, he wants to talk about his payment. 

Benedict insists to John that he must be rewarded even if the British do not take the forts at West Point; he is taking too great a risk to not be compensated. And John assures him that there will be sufficient payment regardless of the outcome.

Satisfied, Benedict pulls out maps of West Point on which are notes on troop positions, weak points, and potential sites for a British landing. Together, the men hatch a plan for a successful British attack of the fort. But as they talk, something outside catches John’s eye.

In the distance, John sees American troops firing on a British vessel. He realizes it’s the ship he took here from the British stronghold of New York City. It came under a flag of truce, so it should have been left alone. But the American troops at West Point have become uncomfortable with it being so close to the forts for this long.

John’s heart sinks as he watches the ship retreat down the Hudson River. His escape plan is gone; he will have to travel back to New York City by land.

John doesn't relish the prospect. He doesn’t want to be caught with incriminating documents like the maps Benedict has provided and contemplates scrapping the plan. But Benedict is desperate to go through with West Point’s surrender as soon as possible. He insists John take with him the plans to West Point and provided him with a disguise telling John that he will send him with a guide back to the city. And to help him get past the Americans, Benedict even writes a signed pass for him. Reluctantly, John - the British spy agrees.

But he never makes it back to New York City. On his way, John is captured by the Americans, with enough evidence on his person to incriminate Benedict.

When Benedict hears of John’s capture, he flees to New York City and crosses over to British-held territories. While John André is hung for his spying, Benedict manages to escape to Britain’s protection. And over the coming years, he receives a commission in the British army and leads British troops against the men he once fought alongside. After the war, Benedict and his family moved to London.

Word of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal will unite many colonists in hatred against the former American hero. But Benedict’s treachery will not give the British an upper hand. Some historians argue that it will do the opposite; invoking enough patriotism to finally give General Washington the public and financial support necessary to win the war. But regardless, Benedict Arnold will never redeem his tarnished reputation; far from being remembered as the war hero he once was, Benedict’s legacy will be that of a traitor who betrayed his country by meeting with British spy John André on September 21st, 1780.


Next onHistory Daily.September 22nd, 1842. A young Abraham Lincoln meets his rival on Bloody Island to face off in a life-or-death duel.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.