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One of the most well-known stories in the American Revolution is the tale of Benedict Arnold and his infamous treason. Less well-known, however, is the close relationship he had with George Washington, and his heroism as an American general, leading the troops to victory at Saratoga. In a new book, historian Nathaniel Philbrick delves deep into the American Revolution, beginning just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He explores the motives of Benedict Arnold, his tragic relationship with George Washington and how America’s most famous traitor actually helped unite a young nation.
- Nathaniel Philbrick Historian and bestselling author of "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower," which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Read An Excerpt
MS. RACHEL MARTINHey there. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rachel Martin from NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's out today. In the months immediately following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, American forces were losing the war with the British. But General Benedict Arnold's heroics at Valcour Island in Saratoga helped turn the war around, which made his treason years later all the more difficult to understand.
MS. RACHEL MARTINIn a new book, historian Nathaniel Philbrick explores the motives of America's most famous traitor and the complex relationship he had with the nation's first president. The book is titled "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the fate of the American Revolution." The author, Nathaniel Philbrick, joins me in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us.
MR. NATHANIEL PHILBRICKIt's great to be here.
MARTINSo this is a thing that a lot of Americans think they know a lot about, right, the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold, George Washington, all these characters, but it's more complicated than many of us were lead to believe. What drew you to want to explore this guy in particular, Benedict Arnold?
PHILBRICKYeah, well, for one thing, it really dates back to my mom. When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, my mother was kind of a renegade and she liked Benedict Arnold and...
MARTINShe liked Benedict Arnold?
PHILBRICKLiked Benedict Arnold and, you know...
MARTINYou're not supposed to do that.
PHILBRICK...for most -- no. Benedict Arnold, to be called a Benedict Arnold, and I was, you know, that's what you -- it was the worst you could be, evil incarnate. And so, you know, I didn't quite understand where mom was coming from, but she felt -- she was, I think, drawn to his audacity. And it was after I finished my previous book, "Bunker Hill," which takes the Revolution through the Siege of Boston, I had become fascinated with Washington.
PHILBRICKI wanted to see what would happen next. And I realized that the middle part of the Revolution was unlike anything I had learned in school, you know. I think we think of the Revolution as kind of battles as stepping stones to God-ordained victory and that the militia men rising up to throw off British tyranny. And the fact of the matter is, the Revolution went on for eight long years and it stagnated and the American people's energies were more directed to fighting each other than the British.
PHILBRICKIt wasn't going well. The Congress couldn't tax. There wasn't enough money. It was kind of falling apart. And so there was a dark side to the Revolution that I wanted to get at and how to focus on this, who...
MARTINYeah, who better to focus on the dark side?
PHILBRICK...who better, then I thought of mom. Benedict Arnold. And because Benedict Arnold was not evil incarnate at the beginning of the Revolution.
MARTINWho was he at the beginning?
PHILBRICKHe was one of our -- probably our best battlefield general. He grew up in New Haven -- born in Norwich, Connecticut, but grew up on New Haven, apothecary and sea-going merchant who had a small fleet of trading vessels that went from the West Indies up the St. Lawrence to Quebec and Montreal. He knew the geography of North America. And then, the Revolution hit and he realized that one of the strategic points that America needed to have control of was Ft. Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain.
PHILBRICKIt was a quarter of water that connected with the Hudson River that was vital. It was -- whoever controlled that would have control of their destiny because the potential, the British taking that would be to divide New England from the rest of the states. And so he, along with Ethan Allen, took Ft. Ticonderoga and then, you know, which was a very important feat. Soon after, he was leading that ragtag band on Quebec, on this overland march through the main wilderness that won him the title of the American Hannibal.
PHILBRICKAnd then, he lead the American retreat from Canada and then fought the battle of Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, which was an amazing victory. And so he was a fiery guy. He was really athletic and in battle, he was charismatic and inspiring.
MARTINNot middle -- no kind of gray matter.
MARTINPeople loved him or hated him.
PHILBRICKExactly. He, you know, and he was not a tactful person and so he was -- what made him great in battle did not make him a great -- with politicians or his fellow officers when it was, you know, just hanging out. And so he was a volatile sort, but his skills on the battlefield made him Washington's best general.
MARTINYou mentioned this, that there was a lot of apathy and many of our listeners and your readers might not understand that during these eight years, the American public was divided over this war.
PHILBRICKWell, you know, we know about the Declaration of Independence and the great show of unity that created that document in 1776. But soon after, as the revolution devolved into this slow slog, a lot of people became apathetic and the war was draining their resources and, you know, they just sort of lost that initial spark. And as that happened, particularly around British-held New York, large parts of the country became battlegrounds where gangs of patriots that called themselves skinners battled British gangs, loyalists known as cowboys in the Westchester County to the north of New York.
PHILBRICKThis became a wasteland of neighbors preying upon neighbors, you know, taking out old animosities. The same thing was happening in Long Island, in coastal New Jersey. They called it the whale boat wars, where there would be Viking-like raids. And, you know, it was just ugly stuff and people just seemed to have lost interest. The continental Congress was no longer the place where the greats, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Ben Franklin -- where they soon left and the third and fourth-stringers showed up and partisanship dominated politics rather than any kind of constructive dialogue.
PHILBRICKAnd so it was really slowing down and so many officers became very upset with the American people, that they had sort of given up on the cause. And so Benedict Arnold wasn't alone as the Revolution progressed in getting upset with the direction his country was going.
MARTINLet's talk about his relationship with George Washington because it's kind of paternal in some ways. George Washington likes this guy. He was -- or I don't know if he likes him. You tell me. But at least he respects him.
PHILBRICKHe respects him. And I think he saw a little bit of himself in Arnold. If he had been ten years younger and not saddled with the crushing weight of command, Washington might've done the kind of battlefield heroics Arnold was because, you know, we think of Washington as this staid pragmatist, you know, the sort of a grumpy-looking guy on the one-dollar bill. But during the Revolution, he was in his 40s, reddish hair and he was fiery.
PHILBRICKDuring the Siege of Boston, he wanted to attack Boston and take out the British, you know, something that would've been so risky that his counsel of war turned him down every time he came up with it. And during the battle for Long Island, he wanted to fight the British, even though he really didn't have a chance, given that they had naval command of the waters surrounding New York. But that was his natural inclination. He would eventually realize that he had to rein in his naturally aggressive temperament for the good of the country.
PHILBRICKBut I think he really identified with the fiery willing to attack that was part of Arnold's makeup. And then, I think he also identified with Arnold because Arnold was controversial and he had his enemies and Washington was inevitably surrounded by controversy. He had to deal with the continental Congress on a regular basis because remember, this was a republic they were forming. And so the civil government had control over the military.
PHILBRICKAnd soon after Arnold fights this naval battle on Lake Champlain called Valcour Island and delays the British marching down towards the Hudson, Arnold expects he's gonna get a promotion to major general. He's next in line and he's doing better than anyone. But Congress, in its wisdom, decides that major generals should be determined by how many there are per states. And since Connecticut already had two, Arnold, even though he's our best brigadier general, will be overlooked and five generals underneath him will be promoted past him to major general.
MARTINAnd he will not be pleased.
PHILBRICKNo. He was not pleased. And, you know, people accused him of being thin-skinned, but no one would've been pleased with this and Washington was appalled. And the letter Washington would write to him, he says, I can't believe this, hang on, I'm going to do everything I can to straighten this out is interesting because he also includes a bit of advice. At that point, Arnold was stationed in Providence, Rhode Island. The British had taken Newport and Arnold was trying to dislodge them.
PHILBRICKAnd Washington writes him saying, you know, please do not attack them unless there is a moral certainty of victory. It's like he's almost talking himself out of his own natural aggressiveness because he sees it in Arnold. And, you know, he uses this as a teaching moment, even as he's deeply sympathetic to Arnold's plight. And so these guys had something in common and I think that commonality meant that, as things progressed and things went from bad to worse, Washington had kind of a blind spot when it came to Benedict Arnold.
MARTINWe're talking about Benedict Arnold, America's most famous, infamous traitor. Stay with us. The book is called "Valiant Ambition" and it was written by Nathaniel Philbrick. He is here in our studio. We'd love to hear from you, too. Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com. Of course, join us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm Rachel Martin of NPR's "Weekend Edition" sitting in for Diane Rehm and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTINHi there, welcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's Weekend Edition, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And I'm talking with Nathaniel Philbrick. He's the author of a new book called "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution." And Nathaniel, we had been talking about how Benedict Arnold was passed over for this very important promotion. He's not happy about it. Pain the larger picture for us. Where was the war around 1780, the year that Benedict actually turned? What was happening in the conflict itself?
PHILBRICKYeah, well in 1777, there was the Battle of Saratoga, which -- in which Arnold is grievously injured, his leg is hit by a musket ball as he's leading a charge that helped win the battle for America against British General John Burgoyne up in New York. And this was a stunning victory that brought -- ultimately helped bring France into the war on the side of America. And people thought, wow, this is great. With the French in, we're on easy street, we're going to win this revolution.
PHILBRICKAnd all of this energy is radiating through the country, Arnold is in a hospital bed with a fracture box around his injured left leg, unable to move for months at a time. For someone of Arnold's temperament, it was pure agony. And at this time, Washington is in Valley Forge, he's lost Philadelphia to the British. His army is falling apart. There are people in Congress who are trying to dislodge Washington because they think Horatio Gates, who was the commander of Arnold at Saratoga, would be better than him, even though it was really Arnold's aggressiveness that made the battle go to America's side.
PHILBRICKAnd so everyone -- you know, Washington, Arnold's embattled, and yet people are excited because the French come in. And then in the years that -- subsequent years, this French alliance does nothing to win the war. It's extremely frustrating time for Washington. And the American people are kind of distracted. They say hey, the French are here, we don't need to worry about this.
MARTINWhy didn't the French make a difference?
PHILBRICKWell, they -- they came in with a large naval force. The hope was that they would, you know, fight the British on the sea and give America, you know, control of the water. But they kept -- it never worked out. It was very frustrating, as the war moved not only in North America but down to the Caribbean, where the British and French were really most interested. And so it just -- it just became -- it didn't help initially.
PHILBRICKAnd so Congress can't raise the money to fund the army. There isn't enough food. There isn't enough...
MARTINI mean, there's really not enough food. People -- soldiers are starving.
PHILBRICKNo, no, soldiers are starving, they're dying of disease at Valley Forge, and then by 1780, it's all just winding down. You get these letters from officers, saying, you know, I am embarrassed to call myself an American, you know, look at, you know, the people back home in Connecticut are living high off the hog, and here we are fighting for our country, and we have no food to eat, no clothes to dress ourselves in, there's mutinies occurring, it's all falling apart.
PHILBRICKAnd by this time Arnold has married a girl in Philadelphia named Peggy Shippen, half his age, he was 36, she was 18.
PHILBRICKYes, and beautiful and from a family with -- a loyalist-leaning family.
MARTINBritish loyalists, yeah.
PHILBRICKYeah, and she -- during the British occupation of Philadelphia, she had hobnobbed with many of the British officers. And one of them had been a very handsome young officer named Major John Andre, who by 1779, the British have now left Philadelphia and are back in New York, and Andre is now head of the British spy network. And Arnold, who has grown increasingly disgruntled, by this time he has served as -- he is serving as military governor of Philadelphia, and...
MARTINSo he's not fighting anymore.
PHILBRICKHe's not fighting. He can't because his leg -- he can barely walk.
PHILBRICKAnd so he is deeply frustrated. And he's a lightning rod of a man. He's not going to get along with politicians and the people of a very divided city. And he's immediately surrounded in controversy, and he's being hounded by Philadelphia politicians who think he's trying to work financial deals for his own personal good, and he is because by this time, you know, he's saying, hey, I've lost my -- he's donated most, you know, most of his personal wealth has gone to the cause, right.
MARTINAnd it did, that was true.
PHILBRICKYeah, and he's broke. He's broke. And so he's trying to do stuff. You know, it's -- the country can't pay him, well he'll try to do something to pay himself. And if he's a little fast and loose with the regulations, so be it, he's not the only one doing it, and the politicians are hounding him, and he's met this beautiful girl named Peggy. And they get married, and it's very interesting. Within a month of their marriage, Arnold sends out his first feelers to the British, to none other than Major John Andre in New York, you know, just exploring options about -- because at this point the British seem to regard him with a higher regard than his own country.
PHILBRICKAnd so Peggy clearly had a role in this. And so he opens up the -- he opens up a dialogue with the British.
MARTINI mean, that's crazy to think back then, though, this general, who had staked his life and reputation on the success of this American experiment...
PHILBRICKYeah, absolutely, yeah.
MARTINAll of a sudden, he changed his mind.
PHILBRICKHe changed his mind. And, you know, his injury had started him down a path, it had probably begun when he was overlooked for promotion. By this time the Continental Congress has reinstated -- you know, he now has his proper rank, but he's embittered, and what -- what he suffers in Philadelphia politically embitters him. And, you know, Arnold is a man of action, and it drives -- he's not like Washington in that Washington had tremendous patience. Even though things had gotten into this terrible state, he just kept pushing forward.
PHILBRICKArnold wanted to do something to right this, and as he saw the country falling apart -- he was also -- later claimed he was very deeply suspicious of the French alliance. You know, is this really good for us? Won't they co-opt us if we do win this thing? And he was able to convince himself that what was best for him was best for his country. There was a little more -- more than a little narcissism in Benedict Arnold. I think, you know, part of what made him such a great battlefield commander was his absolute belief that, you know, he could make, you know, everything -- the world revolved around him to a certain extent.
PHILBRICKAnd so he began to increasingly think that the best thing for him and his country, he later maintained, was to bring back the British. He later said that it had gotten so bad that he thought this was the only thing to be done.
MARTINWhat was the British response to that first salvo, that firs extension of communications from Arnold?
PHILBRICKThey -- you know, they were quite interested in it. But Arnold in typical fashion oversteps his bounds. He says -- you know, he says okay, you know, now that I will become a conduit and send you secret information about what's happening with the American army, you need to tell me what you're doing. And by this time General Henry Clinton was the commander of the British forces in New York, and Clinton says no. You can send me information about the Americans, but you're not going to -- I'm not going to tell you, you know, what I'm about to do.
MARTINWell, because what was he going to do with that information, double agent?
PHILBRICKWell they were -- yes, who knows? And so -- and Arnold got angry, and Arnold -- so Arnold cut it off, which is interesting. He didn't immediately go. And a silence of several months occurred, and then interestingly it's in the fall of 1779, things are getting really ugly in Philadelphia, there is what's known as the Wilson Riot, where a group of militiamen fire upon a group of continental officers and conservative politicians that have holed up in a judge's house.
PHILBRICKAnd it's -- you know, it's the worst part of a civil war. It's Americans fighting Americans. It's militiamen killing continental soldiers who are killing militiamen. I mean -- and an irate mob at this point attacks Benedict Arnold's coach. You know, he's still -- he can't ride a horse yet. And it's humiliating for him. And just within weeks of that, a letter goes to Major John Andre, are you still interested in this, and from that day forward negotiations proceed, to the point that a little less than a year, Arnold will become the traitor we all know of.
MARTINTurn, yeah, he will turn. Interesting use of word, humiliation. I mean, so much of this is about him, personal shame, personal affront that he felt.
PHILBRICKIt's about honor. This is an honor-driven age in the 18th century and particularly if you were a military officer.
MARTINI want to talk more about Peggy Shippen. We have heard from one of our listeners, who says the rumor is that his wife was more of a traitor than he was. True?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, it's interesting. During -- in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, Peggy was thought to have been an innocent bystander in all this, you know, that she had been taken advantage of by her evil husband and dragged into this. It wasn't until the 20th century that the papers of Henry Clinton, the commander -- the British commander, ended up at the Clements Library on the campus of the University of Michigan, where there in these papers is the Arnold-Andre correspondence. And it's fascinating.
PHILBRICKAnd there is revealed that yes, Peggy was very much a part of this, and in fact she was acting as the conduit, and clearly her relationship with Andre beforehand was absolutely essential to all this.
MARTINWas she actually a loyalist in her heart, or was this kind of a game?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, her family was trying to tread, you know, on the fence about it because, you know, they had -- she clearly, you know, her family came from a royalist background, but with the coming of the revolution, they had to be careful. And -- but clearly she had deep -- she was angry about what the American politicians were doing to her husband, and she had, you know, enjoyed the company of the British officers and felt that they had a higher regard for her husband than the Americans. And so clearly she took a role in this.
PHILBRICKAnd, you know, the dynamics of a marriage are such that I don't care who you are, you know, if -- if your husband or wife is urging you in any one direction, you're going to listen.
MARTINI'm Rachel Martin with NPR's Weekend Edition, and you are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find on Facebook, or send us a tweet. We're talking about Benedict Arnold today. I'm with Nathaniel Philbrick. He's written a new book about Arnold. It's called "Valiant Ambition." And let's open the lines. Let's talk to some callers. I want to bring in Mark from Cincinnati, Ohio. Mark, you're on the air.
MARKGood morning, thank you for having this time, I appreciate it. I'm looking at our political landscape right now and seeing candidates on both sides of the political spectrum being -- Sanders and Trump, far left, far right, and I see in that a nation groping for the right answer. And I'm just concerned that maybe Benedict Arnold was reaching for what he thought were the right answers in the midst of a nation that was losing -- well, losing momentum in a war, not finding the right answers, the populists being tired of what's been going on, the populists looking for new answers.
MARKMaybe he thought Benedict Arnold -- he as Benedict Arnold might have better answers. But they were the wrong answers as we look at it now. But I see that same desperation occurring now within the nation, trying to find the right answers. And is there any parallel you see between the tensions that occurred in America during that time and some of the tensions we're seeing today?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, it's a very good question, and one of the things I think we have a tendency to do is to look back in the past and think it was a simpler time, you know, where George Washington knew where he was headed, and they -- and our founding fathers had it figured out, and that's not the case. And that's really what my book is about. It's about that, you know, everyone was making it up as they were going along, they were frustrated, and they were wallowing in a chaotic present, just as we are today.
PHILBRICKYou have to be careful, I think, in drawing parallels because it was a very different time, and yet my book is about, really, what is the meaning of patriotism, what is the meaning of loyalty, self-interest. When does one go over -- when do you step over the line? When, you know -- Arnold felt that what he was doing was not only for his betterment but for the better of the country. This did not prevent him from going for the highest dollar, you know, so that he wasn't doing this out of the goodness of his heart necessarily, but there are others.
PHILBRICKFor example Joseph Reed, who was the head of the Pennsylvania state legislature, he was the one who had a virtual witch hunt when it came to Arnold, hated Arnold. He was a political -- Reed was a political radical. He had previously served as Washington's adjutant general. But just at Washington's lowest moment, this is after they've lost New York in the dark days before crossing the Delaware, Reed sent out a letter to the second-ranking American army officer, Charles Lee, and it's basically saying, you know, Washington is too indecisive, we need new leadership.
PHILBRICKAnd Washington discovered this letter, and it was an act of true betrayal, and it was never the same between them. And when it came to Reed's role in the state legislature, there were people in the Continental Congress who were accusing him, Reed, of disloyalty because Reed was pushing his own state's agenda to the point that he was undermining the Continental Congress. He was saying, if you don't do what I want when it comes to Benedict Arnold, I will not allow the Pennsylvania militia to fight with the Continental Army. I will deny the Continental Army use of our wagons.
PHILBRICKAnd what -- you know, so what is patriotism here? What is -- you know, I think it's a fine line between egotism and patriotism, and I think we're seeing it today under very different circumstances, but it was definitely being enacted in 1779 and 1780 in the midst of the American Revolution.
MARTINIt's fascinating. The book is "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution." It's written by Nathaniel Philbrick, and Nathaniel is in our studios, and he's here to take your calls and your questions. So join us, send us a tweet, reach out to us on Facebook. You can of course reach us at 1-800-433-8850. I'm Rachel Martin, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We'll be right back.
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Rachel Martin with NPR's "Weekend Edition," sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about Benedict Arnold with Nathaniel Philbrick. He's written a new book called, "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution." And, Nathaniel, I want to ask you about a TV show that's airing right now.
MARTINWe've gotten a couple of emails from folks who want to hear your view of a new show that's on right now called, "Turn: Washington's Spies." I'm putting you on the spot here. Have you seen this show?
PHILBRICKI haven't seen the show. I've read the book, which is great. And it was a huge help to me in my research. And the show started last year and -- while I was working on this book. And I purposely said, I can't, you know, I don't want to go there.
PHILBRICKBecause it's just going to potentially mess with my head as I'm grappling with these primary source materials and things like that. And so I cannot, unfortunately, speak to, you know, "Turn." I know it's -- I've got a lot of friends who are riveted.
MARTINBut clearly, this is a topic, I mean, you were right on point.
MARTINThis is something everybody is fixated on.
PHILBRICKRight. Well, you know, and I have to say, you know, I've had a book, "In the Heart of the Sea," become a movie. And it's great to watch these stories take on a life of their own in a different medium. And I just think that the stories of the revolution, particularly when it comes to the whole espionage side of it, you know, reveals that -- the dark edges of the revolution. And so, you know, I can't speak to the portrayal of Benedict Arnold. I -- but the one -- the thing that fascinated me about him was the sympathy I had for him in the beginning.
PHILBRICKAnd then to watch him turn. And that turning was much more complex and -- then I had ever thought. And something that -- it wasn't just Arnold who was feeling these kinds of forces. You know, there were many of his fellow officers were greatly disheartened by what was going on. However, it would only be Arnold who would take it to this extreme.
PHILBRICKAnd when you look at Arnold, that was his character. You know, he was the one to take it to the Nth degree every time. On the battlefield that would work to his advantage. His audacity would work miracles.
MARTINYou don't think he was bluffing? Was there a part of him that hoped it wouldn't work?
PHILBRICKYou know, that is -- it's very interesting. Because, you know, I -- you would have thought when he first reached out to the British it would have been a fait accompli after that. But it wasn't. It took more than a year of negotiation. I think there's a very tortured side to him about this. I think he had nothing but the greatest respect for Washington. And at one point he writes this what can only be described as a hysterical letter to Washington. He's in the throes, he's, you know, he's married Peggy.
PHILBRICKHe's, you know, he's, you know, probably getting whispered in one ear to go to the British, and yet he's talking -- he getting Joseph Reed and Pennsylvania legislature is hounding him. He's gonna have to go into a court martial. And he writes this letter to Washington. And it's a cry out for -- in pain and of sheer anguish. And it's just before he ultimately reaches to the British. And so I think there was, you know, it wasn't a clean break.
PHILBRICKBut ultimately, when he decided to go for it, when ultimately he was able to win command of West Point, the fortress at that very key strategic area of the Hudson, and the plan was to then turn that over to the British. Once he did that, he was all in. He was gonna make it happen.
MARTINWhy didn't George Washington suspect anything?
PHILBRICKYeah, well, you know, I think part of it was he had such great respect for Arnold. And needed generals like him, that he wanted Arnold to succeed. Washington was not, by nature, a suspicious individual. And I think that made him a good leader. You know, a good leader has to have some faith in those around him. That didn't, you know, but he was also, you know, with Benjamin Tallmadge, created a very complex spy network.
PHILBRICKBut, you know, there were no real warnings when it came to Arnold, which you have to give Arnold credit for when it came to his plot. And, you know, I think he did have a blind spot with -- it came to Arnold, but everyone did. You know, to -- it was inconceivable. Here was this guy who had given almost everything for his country, you know. His personal wealth, his health. You know, he could barely walk, just began to ride a horse by 1780. You know, he had been, you know, and yet, that led to his embittering.
PHILBRICKSo it was, you know, he was able to sneak in there and, you know, and make this gesture, begin this correspondence and finally it got to the point where Andre and Clinton decided we have to have a face-to-face meeting. You know, this has all been done in coded letters and, you know, they needed to have confirmation. And so it would be in September of 1780, Arnold was, by this point, at West Point. His headquarters was in a house on the east bank of the Hudson about a mile below West Point, where he was joined by Peggy and their young son.
PHILBRICKAnd it was arranged that he and Andre would meet. And so at, I mean, this is melodramatic, wonderfully cloak and dagger stuff. Andre would come up the Hudson in a British ship with the absolutely appropriate name of "The Vulture," and anchor in Haverstraw Bay. And at night he and Arnold would meet in a grove of trees on the west bank of the Hudson and discuss all of this, that was a -- a deal was made.
PHILBRICKArnold would give Andre detailed plans and lists of what was at West Point. And then that morning an officer -- an American officer, unknown to Arnold, would fire a cannon upon "The Vulture," forcing it down the river. And this meant that Andre's escape had -- vessel had left. And Andre would have to make his way through that -- the Westchester County, that wasteland created -- known as the neutral ground, just the north of New York, if he was gonna get back to British-held New York.
PHILBRICKAnd that was between him and this plot working. And he would -- just before he made it, he would be stopped by three men, one of whom had a Hessian Jaeger jacket on. Andre assumes it's the British, he's free.
PHILBRICKAnd nope. One of -- they were three American militiamen, one of whom had been a prisoner in New York and had used that jacket to escape the British. And Andre was arrested as a spy. And Arnold would learn of this, tell Peggy, and -- who would -- and then escape down the river to "The Vulture," and to the British. And this is where it becomes so personal for Washington, who has just been in Hartford.
PHILBRICKHis first meeting with French General Rochambeau. And he's got Hamilton, he's got Knox and he's there. He learns all of this and he turns to Lafayette, who had become -- this young French general who had become his surrogate son. And he says, whom can we trust now. And that's, I mean, it was a -- clearly a dagger to his heart and to all of them. And, you know…
MARTINHe had stood up for him so many times.
PHILBRICKHe had stood up for him. And, you know, and it was just outrageous. Arnold had -- was now in Britain, I mean, was now in British-held New York. But he was a traitor. And, you know, even the -- and Andre would eventually be hanged as a spy. And -- which was a very difficult thing for all concerned. And for Washington it was now personal. You know, he would make arrangements to try to capture Arnold and make him see justice at some point.
PHILBRICKBut, you know, it's such a personal story. And this is what, for me, was the amazing thing about writing those last chapters of the book. As the plot brings all of the strands of the revolution, of the American people and turns it into this -- these two people who finally come to this revelation that, you know, one has -- another person has betrayed Washington and it's his best general.
MARTINWe got an interesting email from a listener named Kevin, in Washington, D.C., who wants to talk a little bit about Arnold's legacy. He says, "I'm a West Point graduate from South Carolina. And I always found it odd when I was there that the academy history department and administration held up traitors like Robert E. Lee, as notable graduates, while notably continuing to shun Arnold."
PHILBRICKYeah, yeah, no, it's as if Arnold doesn't exist. And, you know, there's a great irony here. Because in the first three years of the revolution Arnold was our best battlefield general. But it was his betrayal, it was his treason that probably did more than anything to unite the American people. Because this was a galvanizing moment. Not only the fellow American officers, but all of America were outraged by this. Arnold was burned in effigy in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
PHILBRICKAnd it was wakeup call to America, that this war of independence was theirs to lose. And so you could argue that it was Arnold's, you know, no one short of Washington did more for America in the revolution than Benedict Arnold, both through his battlefield heroics and his ultimate betrayal. And, you know, he -- but he, you know, the thing that's different between Washington and Robert E. Lee, is Robert E. Lee clearly was going with his conscience. Arnold was going for top dollar. And that's…
MARTINIt was really about money?
PHILBRICKWell, he would not -- he would of insisted that no, money was a part of it, of course, but he was doing it for his country. And in a fascinating letter he would write to Washington, after, you know, from "The Vulture," he would write this letter saying, you know, people always get it wrong, but I know in my heart I did the right -- my motivations were nothing but the best for my country. And, you know, it gets, you know, the dividing line between self-interest and patriotism.
PHILBRICKYou know, we are a country in which political debate is essential. But when do you go over the line? When do you -- was Arnold's act an act of protest? Or was it an act of treason? It was clearly an act of treason. And that's the dividing line this country has to wrestle with. We, you know, part -- we -- protest is a part of our dialogue, but at some point you cannot do something that undermines the integrity of this country.
MARTINI'm Rachel Martin, with NPR's "Weekend Edition." And you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm in the studio with Nathaniel Philbrick. We're talking about his new book, "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution." Is there something, also, Nathaniel, particularly troubling to Americans and the American psyche about the idea of treason?
PHILBRICKYeah, well, what you could argue is that the entire country is based upon an act of treason. The Declaration of Independence tries to put it in best of light as possible. But what we -- this country began by saying we're out of here, King George. And so for a nation of, you know, you could call us a nation of traitors. That's why treason was so important. It changed the conversation from us leaving Britain. It gave the mythology of America -- we had a hero. We had Washington. Now, we had the ultimate villain, Benedict Arnold.
PHILBRICKAnd that's what we needed for our own myth of creation. It moved the story away from us leaving Great Britain and turning into our fight as Americans to protect our -- the integrity of our country. Because remember, we're a republic. And by betraying his country, Benedict Arnold betrayed not just Washington and the Continental Congress, but every citizen of the United States of America.
MARTINI want to bring in Jim, from Elkin, N.C., who reminds us that this can feel very far away and close at the same time, our history. Jim, you're on the air.
JIMOh, yes. Thank you. I just -- this book this great. I just -- I'm excited beyond belief. About what you said a little while ago about, you know, not having an idea what the -- how the world was going or how conditions, you know, we think the past is always, you know, crystal clear. And Washington, for the longest time, you know, was in retreat. And until the Southern Campaign we really didn't stop losing…
JIM…I mean, win any battles until, you know. And I'm just down the road Kings Mountain…
JIM…Camden, Cowpens, and, you know, Bloody Carlton and, you know, just everything. And, I mean, Cornwallis crossed -- they had the Yadkin River just miles from the house here. And I was glad that you said that, 'cause I think with the political situation now in America, we're forgetting that we didn't know back then either.
JIMAnd it's so important. I think it's important to have discussions like this on a national scale 'cause, you know, the past can really help bring that around. And I -- it opened my eyes. 'Cause I didn't know. I mean, you know, you just think what you learn in first or second grade (unintelligible).
PHILBRICKRight. Well, you know, and I…
MARTINThank you so much, Jim.
PHILBRICKYou know, I actually -- I don't know if it makes you feel better about where we are today, but it makes you realize that, you know, this sense of being adrift, at being kind of terrified at where we might go is kind of a part of being, creating a republic and maintaining a republic. And, you know, it may seem bad today, it was worse back then if anything. This is what life is in a place in which people can, you know, where we're trying to identify the will of the people. And that is complex and controversial and inefficient and frustrating, but it's absolutely essential for how this country works.
PHILBRICKAnd I think looking -- seeing that the American Revolution was by no means inevitable, that it was frustrating and terrifying and ugly and messy. I mean, and back down where you are in North and South Carolina, it just took that ugliness, the civil war aspect of it to a new level. In the years after -- in the year after Benedict Arnold's betrayal, you know, that's -- that is the real story of the revolution. And, you know, it's -- it may be a little less heroic, it may be a little less inspiring, but it's more real. And I think it can -- ultimately has a lot to teach us that can help us with the reality of what we're living in today.
MARTINNathaniel, did Benedict Arnold -- is there any evidence that the was pained by what he did personally to George Washington?
PHILBRICKYou know, he -- as Washington would say very revealingly, in a letter to an officer after all this, that, you know, Arnold just won't ever -- because the officer said that Arnold must be in -- his mind must be in an agony. And Washington said no. Arnold doesn't ever look back. He is -- just looks forward. And I think that's true. I'm sure, I mean, it became clear to Arnold in the months and years after his treason that what he had done had destroyed his life. You know, he -- there would be very little happiness in his life after this.
PHILBRICKAnd, but he was one of these -- one of the reasons why, I think, he went down this path was that he was, you know, so convinced that what he was doing was right. And, you know, that's a -- that's something we have to be careful about when it comes to people in a leadership situation. That, you know, one of Washington's great characteristics was you -- he believed -- he meant -- knew that rules meant something. He was able to look out beyond the impulsive demands of his own character. And that is an extraordinary ingredient for leadership.
MARTINThe book is called "Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution." The author is Nathaniel Philbrick, who's joined us here in studio. Thanks so much for being with us, Nathaniel.
MARTINAnd I'm Rachel Martin, with NPR's "Weekend Edition," sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks so much for listening.
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