Benedict Arnold Saves the Day Twice

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As I have said several times before in this blog, you really can’t get more bang for the buck than old American Heritage magazines. They’re cheap and they have loads of great stories and illustrations.

One of the neatest stories I’ve seen in AH is one called “How a Madman Helped Save the Colonies” by James Thomas Flexner in the February 1956 edition. It’s about Hon Yost Schuyler, a thoroughly unappealing character, and a loyalist at that, without whom the American Revolution would almost certainly have failed.

You see tons of stories of this kind: If so and so had not done such and such, the rebellion would have been defeated, the US would not have won its freedom, and we would not enjoy the blessings of Liberty today. We’d be little better than … Canadians!

I’ve mentioned two such stories in this blog: the Barbara Tuchman book “The First Salute” about Admiral deGrasse, who bottled up Cornwallis at Yorktown, and the two British fleets that failed to engage him; and the story of John Honeyman (also from American Heritage) who gave Washington the information he needed to decide on his bold stroke at Trenton AND disinformed the Hessian commander so he failed to heed the warnings he received from Loyalist farmers.

There’s also the story of the British sharpshooter who had Washington in his sights but for some reason, perhaps decency, he did not shoot him. As I recall he only found out later that it was Washington.

And then, of course, there’s Benedict Arnold. He went down in history as a traitor, but he saved the rebellion at the Battle of Ticonderoga when he led a charge at the exact right moment and defeated “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his enormous army that had threatened to cut the colonies in two. You can read about that battle in a historical novel by Kenneth Roberts called “Rabble in Arms.”

General John Stark (Mr. “Live Free or Die”) also did his part at the Battle of Bennington, capturing a British foraging party.

Well it turns out Benedict Arnold saved the day not once, but twice. The second time was at Ticonderoga. The first time was when he defeated the army of 1800 British, Tories and Indian allies who were beseiging Fort Stanwix in what is now Rome, New York, with only 750 defenders. The Mohawk Valley militia under General Herkimer sent to relieve the fort had been defeated by the Iroquois in a bloody ambush.

A quick sketch of the situation. Burgoyne is coming south from Canada, threatening the Hudson Valley. He is opposed by General Philip Schuyler who hasn’t been able to do much of anything to slow down Burgoyne. He has been continually falling back and has had to abandon Fort Ticonderoga “on which all defense plans had been based.”

“If St. Leger overwhelmed Stanwix,” Flexner explains, “as seemed probable since his army so outnumbered the defenders, he could sweep on to Albany, cutting General Schuyler’s supply lines and leaving him in the wilderness north of that city at the mercy of Burgoyne.”

The defenders of the fort were growing desperate. “A tunnel dug under the direction of British engineeers approached the mud walls to the sound of scalping knives being sharpened.”

Three British officers approached the fort and were let in blindfolded. They stated that the Indians were “numerous and exasperated.” If the fort surrendered at once, the British could control them, but ‘should resistance continue it will be impossible to prevent them from executing their threats to march down the country and destroy the settlement with its inhabitants. In this case, not only men but women and children will experience the sad effects of their vengeance.”

The fort’s commandant — we don’t learn his name in the article — refused to surrender. Then the British commander, General Barry St. Leger, issued a proclamation to all the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley saying, politely, that they would all be slaughtered if they didn’t talk the garrison into surrendering.

General Washington sent one guy to reinforce Schuyler. That guy was Benedict Arnold. And damned if Arnold didn’t defeat St. Leger’s army with only one guy — Hon Yost Schuyler, the Tory madman.

Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion.