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'Valiant Ambition' Tells Of Benedict Arnold's Turn From Hero To Traitor


Benedict Arnold - his name is synonymous with treason. And historian Nathaniel Philbrick wrote about the Revolutionary War general who sold his services to the enemy in 1780.

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: This was huge news. This was inconceivable to the American people. Here, one of the great heroes of the Revolution had dared to betray them. Any - you know, and this was a republic they were trying to form, which meant that Arnold had not betrayed a president or a monarch or a dictator. He had betrayed every American citizen.

MONTAGNE: Philbrick sought the story behind that news for his book "Valiant Ambition." He spoke with our Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Philbrick wants you to know that Benedict Arnold was a hero before he turned traitor. And just how he turned is a complicated story. Arnold made his name in upstate New York, fighting for control of a chain of rivers and lakes. His men hacked together little warships and took extraordinary risks to battle a British fleet.

PHILBRICK: He was very aggressive. He reveled in risk so that it was kind of unnerving for those sometimes following him because you knew that Arnold would always make the big play. And more often than not, it would work. After the Battle of Valcour Island, that battle on Lake Champlain, at night, he broke through the British line and was able to get his entire fleet out before the British realized it.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure this is clear to people. It's at night. His fleet is trapped by bigger British ships. And they just sneak right up between the British ships in the darkness?

PHILBRICK: Right. His second-in-command said wait, wait. Let's go the other way and take the long route. And he said, no, I think we can get through. And so he snuck through the very narrow line between the end of the British vessels and the shoreline. And it was morning, they were many miles down Lake Champlain before the British commander realized it. And, you know, this was classic Arnold.

INSKEEP: So how did this courageous soldier, repeatedly wounded in battle, turn against his new country? Philbrick tells a story of a man who felt extremely underappreciated. The trouble intensified when he served as military governor of Philadelphia. Long before he turned traitor, Benedict Arnold was the target of paranoid investigators who suspected him of treason. He was also short of money.

PHILBRICK: Going into the Revolution, Arnold had been very well-off. And he had donated much of his own personal money to the cause. And after suffering these grievous wounds at Saratoga, he began to think it was about time he started making some of that money back. And he was not above using his position as the top military personage in Philadelphia to his advantage.

INSKEEP: How was it that Benedict Arnold began corresponding with an officer in the British Army?

PHILBRICK: Yes, well, he had married Peggy Shippen. And her family was part of the British hierarchy prior to the Revolution. And so they were always suspect after the Revolution broke out. And she had greatly enjoyed the eight months during which the British had occupied Philadelphia and had socialized regularly with a group of British officers that included Major John Andre.

And it's no surprise, perhaps, that after marrying Peggy, within a month, Arnold began a correspondence - a secret correspondence - with John Andre about possibly turning his loyalties over to the British.

INSKEEP: How did he phrase that?

PHILBRICK: Well, he felt that the country was falling apart in the midst of the Revolution. This was an act of loyalty, from his perspective, and that he was doing the best thing for the American people.

INSKEEP: Did he have reason to believe that?

PHILBRICK: Well, yes. You know, he was not the only one who was appalled by what was happening. We're now getting into the fifth year of the Revolution. This was not a God-ordained march to freedom. It had stagnated. The French had come in on our side, but that had done nothing to win the war. The American people had seemed to have lost all the fervor they had had in 1776. Washington's army was languishing. And so Arnold felt that the time had come to stop this experiment and to return to the British.

And there were others who obviously did not go that far but who were very upset with where the country was in 1780.

INSKEEP: You also describe almost McCarthy-style witch hunts for potential traitors and people were coming after Benedict Arnold, who saw himself as a huge patriot up to that point.

PHILBRICK: Yeah, you know, I think many of us don't realize how ugly it got within American society, where the Revolution devolved into a kind of civil war. It was often - the militiamen would become kind of thuggish enforcers and sometimes dragging people out of their houses. It was a very desperate and despairing time.

INSKEEP: You know, whenever I cover politics today as a journalist and I hear people questioning other people's loyalties or worrying about foreign influences, I wonder if some little part of that goes all the way back to the beginning.

PHILBRICK: Absolutely, and there were people who questioned the alliance with France. You know, France had been America's perennial enemy. You know, what are we doing? They're just going to take us over if we happen to win.

INSKEEP: So what was the deal that Benedict Arnold finally made with Major John Andre of the British Army?

PHILBRICK: By 1780, Arnold had been able to win command of West Point, which was the foremost fortress on the Hudson. And the deal was that if he turned over West Point to the British and was awarded a sum of more than 10,000 pounds, which was a lot of money back then, this would be the plan that could very well turn the Revolution around. American's fortunes were at their absolute nadir, and so this was the deal Arnold worked out with John Andre in a very dramatic midnight meeting on the west bank of the Hudson.

And if Andre had not been captured on his way back to New York, it very well could have happened.

INSKEEP: You've pointed out that the Revolution was not a shining, easy success. It was a long slog. It was a mess. In the years after that, Americans consciously polished that history and published biographies of George Washington that were partly made up or of Patrick Henry that were almost entirely made up and made everything look really great. At the same time, did Americans go out of their way to make Benedict Arnold look even worse than he was?

PHILBRICK: Absolutely because what was being formed in the early 19th century was a kind of American genesis story. And we had our hero, Washington, and we needed to have our villain. And it was Benedict Arnold. And so it was very uncomfortable to think that Arnold, who was such a great general, had reason to begin to think about turning sides. It was much more comfortable to believe that he was evil from the start. And I think in that, Arnold has been a real casualty of that tendency in America.

INSKEEP: Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, And The Fate Of The American Revolution." Thanks very much.

PHILBRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 16, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of the Web summary of this story incorrectly identified Nathaniel Philbrick as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Philbrick won the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007 but has not won a Pulitzer.
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