Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

"Valiant Ambition" shows how dicey the revolution was and how frequently both the British and American sides screwed things up. Philbrick guides us through Revolutionary War debacles and Arnold's steps towards treason.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

For my "Year of Rebellion", I've been brushing up on my American Revolutionary War history. "Valiant Ambition" shows just how dicey the revolution was and how frequently both the British and American sides screwed things up. Nathaniel Philbrick (also the author of the charming "Why Read Moby Dick?") doesn't hold back in his criticism of George Washington in particular, who he accuses of a "lack of generalship" and of being "not a good battlefield thinker." The poor early military performance of the Americans led to a near collapse of the Revolutionary effort before it even got off the ground. Philbrick also reminds us that the American theater was in many respects less important to the British than protecting their extremely profitable Carribbean colonies from the French.

But the real star of this book is Benedict Arnold.  Philbrick begins with a Shakespearean epigraph from Julius Caesar that provides the title for the book: "As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him."  Arnold inhabits a canonical place in American history, and Philbrick consciously ties him to his treasonous literary ("like Satan he was magnificent in his fearless and pugnacious pride") and classical ("the sheer audacity of the undertaking won Arnold the title of the “American Hannibal") predecessors.

A New Haven(!) resident, Arnold is a fascinating and deeply flawed character in our national history.  Philbrick highlights how his bravery and brilliance helped turn the tide of the war.  Yet Arnold was repeatedly passed over for promotion because of the Continental Congress's political infighting and he was subjected to a "merciless witch hunt conducted by Reed and his Supreme Executive Council."  Arnold's heroic dedication went consistently unrewarded and Philbrick leads us to take a more sympathetic view of this traditionally reviled figure.

A clear and engaging writer, Philbrick guides us through the muddle of the many Revolutionary War debacles while giving us colorful bits of flavor on a wide cast of characters.  He sprinkles some of his own musings on history and politics throughout:

Since republics rely on the inherent virtue of the people, they are exceedingly fragile. All it takes is one well-placed person to destroy everything.

And he ends with some musings on Arnold's influence on the development of subsequent American national character:

The United States had been created through an act of disloyalty. No matter how eloquently the Declaration of Independence had attempted to justify the American rebellion, a residual guilt hovered over the circumstances of the country’s founding. Arnold changed all that. By threatening to destroy the newly created republic through, ironically, his own betrayal, Arnold gave this nation of traitors the greatest of gifts: a myth of creation.

My highlights below:

PREFACE - The Fault Line

The real Revolution was so troubling and strange that once the struggle was over, a generation did its best to remove all traces of the truth. No one wanted to remember how after boldly declaring their independence they had so quickly lost their way; how patriotic zeal had lapsed into cynicism and self-interest; and how, just when all seemed lost, a traitor had saved them from themselves.

after his retirement in July 1789, Thomson set to work on a memoir of his tenure as secretary to the Congress, eventually completing a manuscript of more than a thousand pages. But as time went on and the story of the Revolution became enshrined in myth, Thomson realized that his account, titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress,” would “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.” Around 1816 he finally decided that it was not for him “to tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses,” and he destroyed the manuscript. “Let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men,” he wrote. “Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.”

Without the discovery of Arnold’s treason in the fall of 1780, the American people might never have been forced to realize that the real threat to their liberties came not from without but from within.

The son of a bankrupt alcoholic who had been ruined by his pretensions, Arnold lacked the ability to rise above petty and unjustified criticism. He also had a habit of living beyond his means.

PART I - The Wilderness OF Untried Things

CHAPTER ONE - Demons of Fear and Disorder

Three months before, Washington had formed his elite Life Guard, consisting of more than a hundred handpicked men between five feet eight and five feet ten inches in height. They were all, in accordance with Washington’s orders, “handsomely and well made . . . , clean and spruce.” As their title suggested, the Life Guards had been entrusted with ensuring the safety of His Excellency, the commander in chief of the Continental army.

This final convoy, it turned out, contained eight thousand soldiers from Hesse-Cassel in west-central Germany. Britain’s determination to put an end to the American rebellion was so great that the ministry had decided to augment its army of native-born troops with these superbly trained and equipped professional soldiers, whose ruler depended on the income derived from hiring out the young men of his impoverished state to finance his government.

By the middle of August, the British flotilla totaled more than four hundred vessels bearing forty-five thousand soldiers and sailors, making it the largest collection of ships and men ever assembled by the British Empire. (Not until World War I would Great Britain amass a larger fleet.)

On his arrival at Staten Island in July, Admiral Howe learned of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — a document that technically rendered all future negotiation impossible because the Howes had only been given the authority to quell a rebellion, and not to recognize the Americans as an autonomous people. This was not enough to deter Admiral Howe, who made several unsuccessful attempts to engage Washington in talks even as he sent communications to Benjamin Franklin and other officials in Philadelphia. But as Franklin subsequently informed the admiral, the “fine and noble china vase” of the British Empire had already been shattered.

What made this submersible unique was the keg of gunpowder attached to its back, making the Turtle the world’s first military submarine. It was the brainchild of David Bushnell, a Yale graduate who during the Siege of Boston began to tinker with the idea of creating a craft equipped with an explosive device that he called a “torpedo” in reference to the torpedo fish, a type of ray capable of stunning its prey with an electric shock.

Rather than Washington and his army, it was the Howe brothers’ misguided obsession with reaching a peace accord that saved America in the summer of 1776.

Mostly, however, the autumn of 1776 amounted to a terrible and embarrassing collapse of the American army in New York and New Jersey. Over the course of four disastrous days in November, both Fort Washington and Fort Lee fell to the British.

CHAPTER TWO - The Mosquito Fleet

Since no roads existed, Lake Champlain provided the only practical route by which the British could invade America from the north.

He was descended from the Rhode Island equivalent of royalty. The first Benedict Arnold had been one of the colony’s founders, and several subsequent generations had helped to establish the Arnolds as solid and respected citizens. Unfortunately, Arnold’s father, who had resettled in Norwich, Connecticut, proved to be a drunkard, and only after his son had moved to New Haven was the boy able to begin to free himself from the ignominy of his childhood.

Abrupt and impatient with anything he deemed superfluous to the matter at hand, Arnold had a fatal tendency to criticize and even ridicule those with whom he disagreed.

He eventually lost five hundred of his twelve hundred men to starvation, exposure, and desertion, but after several weeks of slogging through the boggy, ice-crisped backwoods of Maine, Arnold and the ragged remnants of his command staggered out of the wilderness and proceeded to climb the same riverside cliffs the young William Howe had scaled back in 1759. Even though the British forces in Quebec refused his impertinent demand that they surrender, the sheer audacity of the undertaking won Arnold the title of the “American Hannibal.”

Arnold had a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. And yet, if a soldier had served with him during one of his more heroic adventures, that soldier was likely to regard him as the most inspiring officer he had ever known.

Adding to the impact of the Inflexible’s arrival was the fact that she almost immediately succeeded in sinking the gondola Philadelphia. (More than 150 years later, a group of salvagers discovered the wreck on the bottom of the lake with her mast still standing and a cannonball wedged between the timbers of her bow. Today the Philadelphia is the centerpiece of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.)

With Arnold it was always difficult to draw the line between acceptable risk and self-serving derring-do, and the retreat from Valcour Bay was to be no exception.

But two weeks later, when Carleton ordered his troops back up the lake to St. Johns for the winter, Arnold could take consolation in knowing that no matter what the cost, he had done it — he had prevented the British from taking Fort Ticonderoga and continuing to Albany and, eventually, to New York. And perhaps just as important, while Washington’s army to the south continued to suffer setback after setback, Arnold had shown that it was possible to stand up and fight.

If Arnold remained a controversial and, as a consequence, underappreciated figure in his own army, his British opponents, who did not have to contend with his often imperious and self-dramatizing manner, were more generous with their praise. Lieutenant Digby wrote of his “remarkable coolness and bravery,” while Secretary of State Germain lauded Arnold as “the most enterprising man among the rebels.”

CHAPTER THREE - A Cabinet of Fortitude

fellow army officer claimed that “the fighter did not combine... any intellectual qualities with his physical prowess. Instead of engaging an interesting argument, he shouted and pounded the table.”

During the Siege of Quebec, he had risked venturing behind enemy lines at night, a sentry remembered, “woman hunting.” High-strung and libidinous, he had little patience with anything beyond the here and now.

From General Howe’s perspective, there was no need to engage the Americans, since the war had already been, for all practical purposes, won. In just three months, the British had taken 4,500 prisoners and almost 3,000 muskets along with close to 250 cannons and 17,000 cannonballs. By December, Washington had lost by death, injury, and desertion more than three-quarters of the soldiers under his command in the main army. The offer of a pardon to the citizens of New Jersey in late November had resulted in thousands of former patriots’ declaring their loyalty to the king. “Our affairs are in a very bad situation,” Washington admitted. “The game is pretty near up — owing in a great measure to the insidious arts of the enemy.”

Until the day the Delaware went from being a moat to being a bridge, there was nothing much for Howe to do but wait in his comfortable headquarters in New York, where his mistress, the blond and beautiful Elizabeth Lloyd Loring of Boston, was waiting for him.

As had been demonstrated at Long Island and New York, Washington was not a good battlefield thinker. Howe (with the help of Henry Clinton) consistently outgeneraled him. Washington’s gifts were more physical and improvisational. When dire necessity forced him to ad-lib, when the scale of the fighting was contained enough that he was able to project his own extraordinary charisma upon those around him, there was no better leader of men. Instead of a diminutive Napoleon who scrutinized his battle plans from the sanctity of his headquarters tent, Washington — as commanding a physical presence as ever led an army — exuded the dignified grace of an Indian sachem.

At one point as they approached a creek crossing, the rear legs of Washington’s horse slid out from underneath it on what Bostwick called “the slanting slippery bank.” In the flickering snow-filled light, Bostwick watched as Washington “seized his horse’s mane and the horse recovered” — an astonishing act of strength and control that confirmed the general’s reputation as the greatest horseman of his generation.

The previous day, Colonel Rall had received a warning from British headquarters that according to a well-placed spy, an American assault was imminent. When Stephen’s men opened fire that night, Rall assumed that this was the anticipated attack, and once the Americans had fled into the darkness, the Hessians inevitably began to relax, particularly given the appalling weather. As a consequence, despite having arrived several hours behind schedule, Washington — thanks to Stephen’s premature and largely ineffective strike — was able to catch the Hessians by surprise.

Some later claimed that the Hessians had been hopelessly drunk after the Christmas celebrations of the night before, but as Greenwood and others testified, this was not the case. If any side indulged in alcohol, it was the Americans, who broke into the Hessian liquor supply and became raucously inebriated.

“Trenton reanimated the timid friends of the Revolution and invigorated the confidence of the resolute... The American community began to feel and act like a nation determined to be free.”

The Howes’ entire premise — that America could be won back through a combination of coercion and negotiation — was dependent on the British army’s completely controlling the momentum of the war.

Up until now, William Howe’s hopes for reconciliation had prevented him from destroying Washington’s army when he had the chance. In his conversation with Cornwallis he made it plain that circumstances had changed. He must make the Americans regret that they had ever ventured back across the Delaware by inflicting the devastating defeat that the British had so far refused to deliver.

By the end of this one last attempt to cross the Assunpink, the Americans had suffered a mere 50 casualties while 365 British and Hessian soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured — most occurring in the space of little over an hour.

As the British retreated, Washington called to those around him, “It is a fine fox chase, my boys!” and took off in pursuit.

Soon Princeton had been flushed of its British occupiers, some of whom attempted a halfhearted stand at the college’s Nassau Hall before surrendering.

CHAPTER FOUR - The Year of the Hangman

In early March 1777, when Elizabeth was just sixteen, all this lip puckering and eye fluttering was, at least for the thirty-six-year-old widower Benedict Arnold, irresistible.

The organization of the American army was based, in large part, on the British model, with one notable exception. Because they had to buy their commissions, British army officers tended to be financially independent products of the upper class; in fact, one of the reasons Horatio Gates had quit the British service was that his lack of social standing severely limited his potential rise through the ranks. American officers, on the other hand, although from the upper echelons of their communities, rarely possessed the personal wealth of their British counterparts.

In the American navy, a ship’s crew received half the total worth of a captured merchant vessel and the entire value of a man-of-war, with the lion’s share going to the captain. As a successful naval officer, Arnold could fulfill all his Gates-like ambitions while living like the lordly Schuyler. This is the great what-if of Arnold’s career. Had he been a commodore rather than a general, he might have outshined even John Paul Jones.

Seventeen seventy-seven, it had been predicted, was destined to be the year the rebellion finally came to an end. The date’s three sevens looked like the gallows from which all the traitors would swing. What better way to begin what the loyalists liked to call “the year of the hangman” than with a devastating lightning strike into the New England interior?

The unfinished mansion on the New Haven waterfront that he’d begun building prior to the Revolution — paneled with mahogany from Honduras, with stables for twelve horses and an orchard of a hundred fruit trees — had become a sadly dilapidated monument to his declining fortunes.

His legs ensnared in the stirrups, Arnold struggled to untangle himself as a well-known Connecticut loyalist rushed toward him with a fixed bayonet. “Surrender!” the loyalist cried. “You are a prisoner!” Reaching for the two pistols in the holsters of his saddle, Arnold was reputed to have said, “Not yet,” before shooting the loyalist dead.

Citing the examples of Caesar and Oliver Cromwell, both of whom had used their armies to seize control of the civil government, they viewed Washington’s increase in popularity in the wake of Trenton and Princeton with concern. Instead of a standing army, they favored the use of the states’ militias as a safer, less expensive, and inherently more republican way to fight the war.

The winter in Morristown had also given the American commander in chief the opportunity to inoculate his army for smallpox, the disease that had so far killed many more American soldiers than the muskets and fieldpieces of the British.

Thanks, in part, to Howe’s seeming indolence, the Continental army had been given the time to rebound from a low of barely a thousand men in the winter of 1777 to almost nine thousand soldiers, and on May 29, Washington moved twenty miles south to Middlebrook, where he had a commanding view of the countryside between Perth Amboy and New Brunswick.

Washington had finally hit upon a way to win this seemingly unwinnable war — not through military brilliance but by slowly and relentlessly wearing the enemy down.

Some in his own army dismissed what they called Washington’s “Fabian” strategy (in reference to Fabius Maximus, the Roman leader who defeated Hannibal through a war of attrition) as unnecessarily cautious.

CHAPTER FIVE - The Dark Eagle

In the days and years ahead, the death and scalping of Jane McCrea became a permanent fixture in the folklore of the Revolution.

Even more than their love of liberty, the New Englanders’ multigenerational fear of native peoples was what finally moved them to rise up and extirpate a British army that had dared to reawaken this ancient source of terror, despair, and guilt.

Schuyler wrote to Washington explaining that Arnold “has asked my leave to retire. I have advised him to delay it for some time.” Once again, Arnold laid aside his own hurt and anger and remained with Schuyler, whom he praised in a letter to Washington as having “done everything a man could do in his situation. I am sorry to hear his character has been so unjustly aspersed and calumniated.”

So as to assert Congress’s supremacy over the military, a sacrifice must be made, in Lovell’s view, of Benedict Arnold.

By August 16 Burgoyne had dispatched a total of fourteen hundred mostly German soldiers on a mission to secure provisions and horses in the countryside to the east. That morning, near the town of Bennington, they fell prey to the force of nature known as John Stark. One of the heroes of Bunker Hill and also present at the Battle of Trenton, Stark had done what Arnold only threatened to do. Rather than dillydally with a capricious Congress, he had simply resigned once he learned that several junior officers had been promoted past him. He was then given an independent command by the New Hampshire General Court, and within six days had raised a brigade of fifteen hundred men. Beholden to no one — least of all Congress — Stark considered himself to be a kind of land-based freebooter. When Schuyler ordered him to join the Continental army stationed on the Hudson, he replied, “Stark chooses to command himself,” and announced his determination to remain on Burgoyne’s left. On August 16 he was perfectly positioned to defeat the extensive British foraging party led by Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum in what Stark described as the “hottest” action he had ever seen. By the time the fighting had ended, Stark counted 207 enemy dead and 700 prisoners, meaning that Burgoyne had lost, in just one day, approximately 15 percent of his entire force.

According to a tradition not recorded until the 1870s, Natanis prophesied that Arnold, whom he called “the Dark Eagle,” would ultimately fail in accomplishing his overly ambitious objectives.

The six tribes of the Iroquois nation were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, whose territories stretched from the Hudson River and Champlain Valley into western Pennsylvania.

Making the catastrophe that had become the Battle of Brandywine all the more galling to Washington was the realization that had he held to his earlier determination to remain on the defensive, his army would have been positioned to deliver the British a potentially crushing blow. Just as had happened at the Battle of Long Island, Washington’s lack of generalship had denied his army the opportunity to meet the British in a fair fight.

CHAPTER SIX - Saratoga

Although Burgoyne claimed victory, since he still remained on the field, his army had been dealt a potentially mortal blow — 700 British killed, wounded, and captured to the Americans’ 150. And as everyone in the American army knew, the blow had been inflicted, almost exclusively, by the soldiers under Arnold’s command.

Arnold might be vain, overly sensitive to a slight, and difficult to work with, but there were few officers in either the American or British army who possessed his talent for almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.

Dearborn asked if he had been badly wounded. “In the same leg,” Arnold replied. “I wish it had passed [through] my heart.”

PART II - Secret Motives AND Designs

CHAPTER SEVEN - The Bite of a Rattlesnake

On October 17 John Burgoyne’s army finally laid down its arms. Horatio Gates — the commander in chief of the northern army — had never ventured onto the field of battle during two days of brutal fighting. He had so thoroughly bungled treaty negotiations prior to the British surrender that Congress was ultimately forced to renege on several of the agreement’s overly generous terms. However, none of this altered the fact that the Battle of Saratoga had changed the course of the war. An entire army of British and German professional soldiers had been overwhelmed by a swarming mass of American patriots. This was big, extraordinary news, and the sheer magnitude of the victory guaranteed that Gates — no matter how imperfect his performance may have been — was about to become a national hero.

Thomas Paine was with a group of American soldiers near Germantown when he was “stunned with a report as loud as a peal from a hundred cannon at once.” In a letter to Benjamin Franklin he described how the explosion of the Augusta created a cloud like none other he had ever seen: “a thick smoke rising like a pillar and spreading from the top like a tree.” It did not become the symbol of a new and terrible age of destruction for another 168 years, but in the fall of 1777 the skyline of Philadelphia was darkened by the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

As Martin and the five hundred defenders of Fort Mifflin had learned firsthand, “great men get great praise, little men nothing.”

After the Battle of Brandywine, a British officer listed the nationality of the rebel prisoners. If this list is any indication, most of the soldiers in Washington’s army had been born not in America but in England, Ireland, and Germany, with only 82 of the 315 prisoners (approximately 25 percent) listed as native born. This meant that while the vast majority of the country’s citizens stayed at home, the War for Independence was being waged, in large part, by newly arrived immigrants. Those native-born Americans who by mid-1777 were serving in the army tended to be either African Americans, Native Americans, or what one historian has called “free white men on the move,” such as Joseph Plumb Martin.

What the Gates faction did not know was that Washington had an extremely well-placed spy. One of the commander in chief’s aides was a twenty-three-year-old South Carolinian named John Laurens, whose father, Henry, happened to be the new president of the Continental Congress.

At the center of the talented group of young men who constituted Washington’s military family were John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton.

Incredibly, this overweight Prussian fraud, who had lied about almost all his qualifications, proved to be exactly what the soldiers of Washington’s army needed.

CHAPTER EIGHT - The Knight of the Burning Mountain

As difficult as it may be to believe today, Britain’s islands in the Caribbean were of considerably more economic importance in the eighteenth century than all thirteen American colonies combined.

There was nowhere in the world where money could be made at such a staggering clip as the Caribbean. In 1776 the British West Indies generated 4.25 million pounds of trade, almost three times what had been made by Great Britain’s East India Company. France was just as dependent on her Caribbean possessions, which accounted for more than a third of all her overseas trade.

On June 4 he granted James Seagrove his pass, a pass that appears to have given Arnold a stake in Seagrove’s schooner the Charming Nancy. It was just one in an ever-growing number of get-rich schemes that Arnold embarked on in the months ahead, all of them assisted by the fact that on June 18, with the British about to leave Philadelphia, Washington named him military governor of Philadelphia.

Like many American mariners and merchants, Arnold’s early revolutionary beliefs had been nurtured in the smuggling trade. For men like John Hancock in Boston and Arnold in New Haven, finding a way around the stifling economic restrictions imposed by the British government had been not only a financial necessity but an expression of patriotism, a finger in the eye of the British regime. Now that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia had proven to be, if anything, even more dysfunctional and unjust than the ministry in London, Arnold saw nothing disloyal in doing what Americans had always done: profit as best they could from whatever commercial circumstances presented themselves.

CHAPTER NINE - Unmerciful Fangs

Brilliant, mercurial, and outspoken, Reed had a habit of antagonizing even his closest friends and associates, and after his falling-out with Washington in the winter of 1776 over his clandestine correspondence with Charles Lee, he had served in a variety of official capacities, always restless, always the smartest, most judgmental person in the room. As William Gordon, a New England minister who had heard many complaints about Reed during his tenure as adjutant general, wrote to Washington, Reed was “more formed for dividing than uniting.” And then, in the fall of 1778, Reed stepped down as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress to assist the state’s attorney general in prosecuting twenty-three suspected loyalists for treason. For a man who believed that he and he alone possessed the capacity and righteousness to ferret out the sinners in what had come down to a war of good against evil, it was the perfect role. Since many of the accused collaborators came from Philadelphia’s upper class, his position as prosecutor allowed him to menace the very group that had proven so unaccommodating to his wife. It also established him as one of the city’s most zealous and unforgiving patriots.

Perhaps contributing to Reed’s ire was the fact that he and his wife had recently moved to the house next to Arnold’s and had not been invited to the party.

For the last year, a disturbing rumor about Reed had been circulating among the officers of the Continental army. According to John Cadwalader, Reed had been in such despair over the state of the war in late December 1776 that he’d decided to spend the night of Washington’s assault on Trenton at a home in Hessian-occupied New Jersey, where he’d been poised to defect to the British in the event of an American defeat.

Arnold eventually became a traitor of the highest order, and ultimately he alone was responsible for what he did. However, one cannot help but wonder whether he would have betrayed his country without the merciless witch hunt conducted by Reed and his Supreme Executive Council.

Indeed, Arnold’s problems in Philadelphia were symptomatic of a national trend as more and more Americans regarded Continental army officers like Arnold as dangerous hirelings on the order of the Hessian mercenaries and British regulars while local militiamen were looked to as the embodiment of the true patriotic ideal. In reality, rather than fighting for freedom against the British, many of these militiamen were employed by community officials as thuggish enforcers to terrorize local citizens whose loyalties were suspect. In Philadelphia, for example, the state’s militiamen had begun to serve as the strong arm of the Constitutionalists — evicting loyalists from their homes and interrupting meetings of the conservative Republican Party — while Continental army officers like Arnold and Cadwalader became, almost by default, the defenders of the wealthy minority.

Arnold is usually credited with coming up with the idea himself, but there are reasons to suspect that the decision to turn traitor originated with Peggy. Certainly the timing is suspect, following as it does so soon after their marriage.

Adams was lucky; his wife and virtually every member of his extended family supported his political positions. Arnold now found himself in an entirely different situation. Instead of appealing to the better angels of his patriotism, Peggy was calling forth the demons that had been whispering in his ear ever since his first troubles during the retreat from Montreal.

During the English Revolution a hundred years before, the defection of one of Cromwell’s favorite officers, George Monck, had made possible the restoration of King Charles II, who in gratitude awarded Monck a host of preferments including the vast tract of territory in North America that eventually became North and South Carolina.

“Money is this man’s god,” Colonel John Brown had insisted two years before, “and to get enough of it, he would sacrifice his country.”


After suggesting some of the ways Arnold might help them — from stealing dispatches to identifying the location of ammunition depots — André outlined the code that he was to use in future communications. First, Arnold needed to provide André with “a long book” for reference purposes. (Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England was an early choice but was eventually replaced by Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary, which had the advantage of listing the words alphabetically.) Each word in his message was to be keyed to the book with the help of three numbers: “the first is the page, the second the line, the third the word.” Another way to transmit secret messages was through the use of invisible ink, of which there were two options—one that was revealed by the application of a liquid chemical, the other by heat, each to be identified by a letter at the top of the page. “F is fire,” André instructed, “A, acid.”

Arnold, of course, did not see it that way. The same narcissistic arrogance that enabled him to face the gravest danger on the battlefield without a trace of fear had equipped him to be a first-rate traitor. Arnold had never worried about the consequences of his actions. Guilt was simply not a part of his makeup since everything he did was, to his own mind, at least, justifiable. Where others might have shown, if not remorse, at least hesitation or ambivalence, Arnold projected unwavering certitude.

What made Arnold unique was the godlike inviolability he attached to his actions. He had immense respect for a man like Washington, but Arnold was, in the end, the leading personage in the drama that was his life.

By waiting her husband out, Peggy had allowed the deteriorating conditions in Philadelphia to work to her advantage. Now that Continental soldiers and Pennsylvania militiamen were killing each other in the city’s streets (deaths that Joseph Reed dismissed as the “casual overflowings of liberty”), Arnold had decided that his best bet was with the British.

CHAPTER ELEVEN - The Pangs of a Dying Man

By so harshly condemning an act that paled beside what he had already done and planned to do, Arnold had become the oratorical equivalent of the berserker who had stormed the enemy redoubt at Saratoga. He was mocking not only his military judges but the gods, and like Satan he was magnificent in his fearless and pugnacious pride.

By turning West Point into the largest, most important fortress in the United States, Washington had created, ironically, a vulnerability that the country had not previously possessed: a military stronghold so vital that should it fall into the hands of the enemy it might mean the end of the war.

Five days after the Connecticut mutiny, Washington received news of the most stunning defeat of the war. Charleston had fallen to the British. Rather than abandoning the city when he still had the chance, Benjamin Lincoln had allowed the pleas of local citizens to delay his exit until it was too late, and he and almost his entire army of fifty-five hundred soldiers had been captured. The following day, on May 31, Washington confessed to Joseph Jones, an attorney from Virginia who served in the Continental Congress, that he feared “our cause is lost.”

In the end, it had all come down to money. Unwilling to pay the taxes demanded by Great Britain, the American people had fomented a revolution; unwilling to pay for an army, they were about to default on the promise they had made to themselves in the Declaration of Independence.

For almost half of its 315-mile overall length, from New York Harbor to Troy, the Hudson is tidal, meaning that it flows south at ebb tide and north with the flood.

D’Estaing had been replaced by the Comte de Rochambeau, who was headed for America with an army of four thousand soldiers and a fleet of warships under the command of Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac de Ternay.


On August 16 in Camden, South Carolina, Gates suffered one of the bloodiest and most humiliating defeats of the war. Nine hundred American soldiers were killed or wounded; a thousand were made prisoners as Gates abandoned the field in apparent panic and rode an estimated 180 miles before finally coming to a stop.

Gates’s debacle at Camden, coupled with Benjamin Lincoln’s equally spectacular defeat at Charleston, gave Arnold the satisfaction of knowing that his two superior officers at Saratoga had so far proven unable to succeed without him.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN - No Time for Remorse

Unknown to just about everyone but Washington, Tallmadge, twenty-six, was also the head of the American spy network. Over the last year, he had done much to develop what is now known as the Culper Ring, which had already provided valuable information through agents stationed in New York and Long Island.

It was not Arnold’s fault the scheme had failed; it was André’s.

What really irritated André was the fact that he had been undone by three American peasants. Just as had happened the day before with the Cahoon brothers, the three militiamen had refused to do as they’d been told by their social superiors.

The capture of John André had revealed a glaring gap in the spy network put together by Washington and Tallmadge. Despite the sophistication and reach of the Culper Ring, Arnold had succeeded in outfoxing Washington’s spy chief, who later admitted that he had “no suspicion of [Arnold’s] lack of patriotism or political integrity.”

Treason, along with suicide, is the most self-centered of acts.

Since republics rely on the inherent virtue of the people, they are exceedingly fragile. All it takes is one well-placed person to destroy everything.

Peggy had apparently decided that insanity was her best defense. All that night and well into the following morning, she succeeded in convincing anyone who was brought into her presence that Arnold’s treason had left her bereft of reason. It also meant that she did not have to answer any questions. Even the very bright and normally clearheaded Alexander Hamilton was completely taken in. “Her sufferings were so eloquent,” he wrote his fiancée, “that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender.”

Through several different channels, Washington informed Clinton that the only way he would release André was in exchange for Arnold. No matter how sorely tempted he may have been on a personal level to do exactly that, Clinton acknowledged to his staff that “a deserter is never given up.” Washington had no choice, in the end, but to execute Major André.

But Washington, who had made sure not to meet André, refused to yield. What Arnold had done had rocked the country to its already shaky foundations. The times required an act of unbending firmness to drive home the point that treason in this new, half-formed country was not to be tolerated. It almost cost him Hamilton, who regarded the decision as an unnecessarily “hard hearted policy,” but in the end Washington realized that he could not grant the prisoner his wish.

EPILOGUE - A Nation of Traitors

As a warrior at Valcour Island and Saratoga, Benedict Arnold had been an inspiration. But it was as a traitor that he succeeded in galvanizing a nation. Just as the American people appeared to be sliding into apathy and despair, Arnold’s treason awakened them to the realization that the War of Independence was theirs to lose.

The United States had been created through an act of disloyalty. No matter how eloquently the Declaration of Independence had attempted to justify the American rebellion, a residual guilt hovered over the circumstances of the country’s founding. Arnold changed all that. By threatening to destroy the newly created republic through, ironically, his own betrayal, Arnold gave this nation of traitors the greatest of gifts: a myth of creation. The American people had come to revere George Washington, but a hero alone was not sufficient to bring them together. Now they had the despised villain Benedict Arnold. They knew both what they were fighting for — and against. The story of America’s genesis could finally move beyond the break with the mother country and start to focus on the process by which thirteen former colonies could become a nation. As Arnold had demonstrated, the real enemy was not Great Britain, but those Americans who sought to undercut their fellow citizens’ commitment to one another.

the greatest danger to America’s future came from self-serving opportunism masquerading as patriotism.