Introduction

It is no exaggeration to assert that Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) transformed himself from national hero to national pariah more quickly than any other American before or since. Prior to his treasonous September 1780 attempt to sell West Point, the pivotal Hudson River fortress entrusted to him by Washington, to the British, this native of Norwich, Connecticut, had earned the esteem of his countrymen. He had suffered wounds to his left leg during the 1775 Battle of Quebec, the 1777 Battle of Ridgefield, and the climactic 1777 Battle of Saratoga.

In 1778, after the British withdrew from Philadelphia, Washington had placed the recuperating Arnold in command of the divided city. Here he met and married Margaret “Peggy” Shippen (1760–1804), a young woman with numerous Loyalist connections. After a delayed promotion followed by being court-martialed for corruption as Philadelphia’s administrator, Major General Arnold soon demonstrated that, although a brilliant tactician and battlefield commander, his greatest talent was feeling sorry for himself.

Arnold’s scheme to sell West Point to the British in exchange for £20,000 and a commission in the British Army failed when Major John André, a Redcoat spy to whom he had entrusted documents related to the plot, was captured by three militiamen. They sent word both to West Point and to George Washington, who was en route to visit Arnold and inspect his Hudson Highland fortifications. His treason exposed, Arnold fled down the Hudson and sought refuge on a British warship. The news dismayed Washington. “Arnold,” he declared, “has betrayed us! … Whom can we trust now?”

A year later, a writer using the pen name “Plain Truth” addressed this open letter to Arnold. In no uncertain terms it excoriated the turncoat for both his treason and his subsequent actions as a British brigadier general. Arnold, who had helped lead the invasion of Virginia in the first half of 1781, by early September had turned his attention to an assault on Connecticut’s coastline. His men captured Fort Griswold, slaughtering American troops after their surrender, and set fire to New London, the port town just twelve miles from the place of his birth.


Source: “Plain Truth,” “To the Traytor General Arnold,” Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), September 25, 1781.


Is there not stored in heaven’s wrath, some red hot thunder bolts to come hurling down with dreadful vengeance upon the unaccountable miscreant wretch, whose serpentine soul betrays his country, and sets the place of his nativity in flames?

TO THE TRAITOR GENERAL ARNOLD

READ and tremble at the above awful question! Light as you may think of it, there is a tremendous Judge.

Your actions are so infamous, that if General Clinton[1] had employed the devil and all his imps to have raked hell for a complete villain, they could not have found your equal.

When I consider you as a man mounting rapidly to the highest pitch of honor, all on a sudden descending from that pinnacle of glory to the mean lucrative traitor: I am indeed surprised. But, as if your crimes were not yet sufficient, when I find you slaughtering your countrymen, and carrying on the ravages and devastations of the war with a degree of inveteracy never before heard of; I stand confounded and shocked at the thoughts of such a viper ever being brought into the world. And as if you were determined to outdo the furies of the infernal regions; you have, contrary to what human nature could be supposed capable of, set New London, the neighborhood of your nativity, in flames, while you murdered its inhabitants and your most intimate acquaintances.

To make up your measure of iniquity, and to hand your name down to posterity, as the most consummate demon that ever existed; there is only a few crimes more for you to commit, viz.[2] to rip open the womb which gave such a rancorous serpent birth, to imbrue your hands in the blood of your dearest connections, then tear out the heart of your patron and protector General Clinton, and to close the scene lay violent hands on your own life.

I took up my pen with an intent to show a reflective glass, wherein you might at one view behold your actions; but soon found such a horrid ugly deformity in the outlines of your picture, that I was frightened at the sight, so the mirror dropped and broke to pieces each of which discovered you to be a gigantic overgrown monster, of such a variety of shapes, all over ulcerated, that it is in vain to attempt to describe them.

Study Questions

A. Arnold might have argued that he was not a traitor—that instead, those who continued to fight for independence were the real traitors. What points does “Plain Truth” make that undermine such an assertion, exposing Arnold as especially worthy of scorn?

B. In what ways was the writer’s response to Arnold’s treason and subsequent actions similar to and different from the actions of the Connecticut petticoat army that paid a visit to the parents of baby “Thomas Gage” (Stratford, Connecticut’s Thomas Gage—and Monmouth County, New Jersey’s Dunmore)? What were the advantages and disadvantages of these efforts to express and reinforce anti-British opinion?

Footnotes

  1. General Henry Clinton (1730–1795) served as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America (1778–1782).
  2. Abbreviation for videlicet, which means ‘namely.’