Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Real Benedict Arnold

The Real Benedict Arnold

Jim Murphy
For ages 12 and up
Clarion, 2007   ISBN: 978-0395776094

Without a doubt Benedict Arnold was a traitor, but was he also the coward, the cad, the military failure, and the reprobate that so many people have portrayed him to be? In this excellent book Jim Murphy sets out sorting out the fact from the fiction. It is not easy for many of the facts can no longer be found but with care Murphy has sifted through the evidence and has found a way to present his readers with the picture of a man who is not at all like the character described in many a history book.

Benedict came from a highly respected and well-to-do family, a family which, alas, fell on hard times but which recovered and prospered once more. As Benedict’s father, the Captain, was successful in his work, Benedict lived comfortably and was given a good education. All went well until a diphtheria epidemic killed two of his sisters. This was closely followed by the beginning of the French and Indian War which badly affected the Captain’s business. Eventually the family sank into poverty and the Captain, to the humiliation of his family, sought comfort at the bottom of a bottle.

Seeing his family sink so low had a powerful and long lasting effect on Arnold. He was determined that he would return the family name to its place of honor and that he would rebuild the family fortune. Through hard work, good business sense, and an advantageous marriage he was able to do just this. He formed strong partnerships and friendships with people though his quick temper did earn him enemies as well. He was clearly devoted to his wife Peggy and got very angry when it was suggested that he had been unfaithful to her.

When conflict with the British began Benedict was not ready to suggest that a complete break was necessary but he did want to see change take place. The new taxes were unacceptable in his view but he did not get actively involved until after the Boston Massacre occurred, an event which appalled him. He formed a small militia group and he soon proved to be a very astute military leader. Knowing that the Americans badly needed arms and supplies, he suggested taking poorly manned Fort Ticonderoga from the British. He knew there were guns aplenty there for he had seen them himself.

This was just the beginning of what would be a very difficult military career. For though Benedict served very well, always doing his best, and clearly doing an exemplary job under very difficult circumstances, he was never given the credit he deserved. He made enemies during his time at Fort Ticonderoga, enemies who had political influence with Congress and who knew how to use their power to blacken Benedict’s name. And they did the best they could to make him look bad even though George Washington himself believed in Benedict and greatly admired him. Benedict was not given the rank he deserved, the support he needed in the field, the praise that was his due, nor was he reimbursed for the money he had spent on his men. He was insulted and worst of all, his name was dishonored.

Even after the Battle of Saratoga, which was won because of him and not because of Horatio Gates, Benedict was not given his due. Is it surprising that after all this and after receiving two serious battle wounds, that Benedict felt betrayed? Surely a Congress which was so unfair towards him could not be much better than an English Parliament. Perhaps it was even worse. By fighting for the patriot cause he could in fact be helping to “replace one unfair government with another.” It was thus that the patriots lost the support of one of their greatest generals. Had Congress treated him better and been less prone to political intrigue, Benedict Arnold would be remembered today as one of America’s greatest patriot generals instead of one of its most famous traitors.

In this superb book Jim Murphy tells the story of one of America’s most famous names in history. He digs deep into sources of all kinds to find the truth and discovers that the man who has been so reviled for so long was not a monster who changed sides out of greed or because he was evil through and through. Benedict Arnold honestly believed that he was doing the right thing because his own experiences had shown him that he had been backing the wrong side. And, when we read what happened to him, who can blame him for coming to that conclusion. He certainly was very badly treated and it is right that his side of the story has, at last, been told. Jim Murphy does not try to gloss over the fact that Benedict Arnold was a traitor. What he does do, is to show his readers that Arnold was also a skilled general who was loved by his men, and that he was an honorable man who was ill-used by his own government. Jim Murphy gives us the facts and lets us decide how we feel about this man who tried so hard to do the right thing.