Select Page


In edition 17 of this podcast, we learned about a bevy of personality traits, and dare I say flaws, of Benedict Arnold. Today we will explore how those characteristics or propensities led him down the path to engage in a drama royal which involved George Washington and the Continental Congress, as well as engage in what can be viewed as either extreme acts of valor or unnecessary risk taking due to unrealistic views of the self.

We will rejoin Benedict Arnold’s journey in the year 1777.  By that time, he had become well known for his willingness to engage the enemy, his own physical sacrifice for the cause, and unfortunately for his temper. His confrontational and combative behavior with other officers and members of Congress had already caused him to not be selected for leadership positions such as that in the primary leader of the Quebec campaign, and it would soon cause him to be “overlooked” to receive a promotion.

In February, 1777, he was not included in a list of men promoted to major general by the Continental Congress. Five men with less seniority, and certainly less notoriety, were instead honored with that title. From that moment on, the seeds of a negative spiral would be sewn which ultimately led to his defection.

To make matters worse, at least in the eyes of Benedict Arnold, the Congress acted again just two days later promoted several other men. The number of men who had been promoted, which did not include Benedict Arnold had jumped from five to fifteen. Arnold was, needless to say, furious. Although the second group had only been promoted to Arnold’s then current level, certainly the Congress could have taken a moment to amend the promotions of the 19th, if Arnold’s name had been accidentally left of the list.

George Washington believed the matter was nothing more than an oversight by the Congress, and cautioned Arnold to be patient in a letter he sent to Arnold on March 3, 1777. Lest you think that Washington was going above and beyond what he might do for others, please remember that George Washington was not only a gentleman but had a great sense of political tactics as well. He actually wrote a bevy of letters on March 3, 1777. Washington wrote a remarkably similar letter to Andrew Lewis which began “I was much disappointed at not perceiving your name in the in the list of Major Generals lately made by Congress, and most sincerely wish that the neglect may not induce you to abandon the Service.”  Washington wrote a note to William Woodford, with a somewhat parental “I told you so” sounding tone because he had cautioned Woodford against resigning his commission. Woodford had not listened, and although the Congress chose to appoint him as a brigadier general, he had lost seniority to others who had continued on in service. On March 3rd, Washington also wrote congratulatory letters to newly appointed generals Poot, Varnum and Cadwalder.

On March 6th Washington wrote a different sort of a letter. This correspondence was intended to remain private and sent to Richard Henry Lee who was the President of the Continental Congress: “SIR I am anxious to know whether General Arnold’s nonpromotion was owing to accident or design and the cause of it. Surely a more active a more spirited and sensible officer fills no department in your army Not seeing him then in the list of major generals and no mention made of him has given me uneasiness as it is not to be presumed being the Oldest brigadier that he will continue in service under such a slight I imagine you will lose two or three other very good Officers by promoting yours or any one’s over them My public letters will give you the state Of matters in this quarter and my anxiety to be informed of the reason of Arnold’s non promotion gives you the trouble of this letter.”

Although there is no record of Lee’s direct response to Washington, the General’s advocacy for Arnold does appear to have had an impact. on May 20th Lee wrote the following to Thomas Jefferson: “One plan, now in frequent use, is to assassinate the characters of the friends of America, in every place, and by every means. At this moment they are now reading in Congress an audacious attempt of this kind against the brave General Arnold.”

We have the advantage of knowing not only the tone and content of the letters that Washington sent to others on March 3rd, but also the extent to which Washington had used his influence to advocate on Arnold’s behalf with the President of the Continental Congress. However, Arnold was operating in a vacuum. He could not have known what Washington wrote to others. He was also left to mull over the situation and the circumstances which may have caused him to be ignored, if not shunned, by members of Congress.

With a heavily bruised ego and certainly in no mood to follow Washington’s suggestion that he should not take “any hasty steps,” Arnold wrote to Washington from his camp in Providence on March 11, 1777, and tendered his resignation: “I am greatly obliged to your Excellency, for interesting yourself so much in my behalf in respect to my appointment, which I have had no advice of, and know not by what means it was announced in the papers. I believe none but the printer has a mistake to rectify. Congress undoubtedly have a right of promoting those, whom, from their abilities, and their long and arduous services, they esteem most deserving. Their promoting junior officers to the rank of major-generals, I view as a very civil way of requesting my resignation, as unqualified for the office I hold. My commission was conferred unsolicited, and received with pleasure only as a means of serving my country. With equal pleasure I resign it, when I can no longer serve my country with honor. The person, who, void of the nice feelings of honor, will tamely condescend to give up his right, and retain a commission at the expense of his reputation, I hold as a disgrace to the army, and unworthy of the glorious cause in which we are engaged. When I entered the service of my country, my character was unimpeached. I have sacrificed my interest, ease, and happiness in her cause. It is rather a misfortune, than a fault, that my exertions have not been crowned with success. I am conscious of the rectitude of my intentions. In justice, therefore, to my own character, and for the satisfaction of my friends, I must request a court of inquiry into my conduct; and, though I sensibly feel the ingratitude of my countrymen, yet every personal injury shall be buried in my zeal for the safety and happiness of my country, in whose cause I have repeatedly fought and bled, and am ready at all times to risk my life. I shall cautiously avoid any hasty step (in consequence of the appointments which have taken place), that may tend to the injury of my country.”

In light of Arnold’s statement, and given what we have learned about his personality, let’s stop for a moment and consider whether Benedict Arnold might meet the diagnostic criteria for something called “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” The term “narcissism” stems from the Greek mythical figure, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. In general, narcissists are thought to be self-loving, self-absorbed, prone to self-aggrandizement, seek constant attention and admiration from others, consider themselves to be superior to others, and firmly believe that others see them as special or superior as well. They also act without concern, or even awareness, of how their behavior might impact others. Think of them as wearing a t-shirt that says, “It’s all about me” on the front.

In the full length edition of this episode, I used the criteria from the American Psychiatric Associations’ Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders otherwise known as the “DSM 5” to learn that Arnold indeed met the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Of course, in order to accurately diagnose someone, they must to be in treatment with the mental health professional who is issuing the diagnosis, but for our hypothetical purposes here, we can certainly label Arnold as a Narcissist. I encourage you to listen to the full length edition because the discussion is very entertaining.

Let’s return now to March of 1777. Washington and Arnold, were in frequent correspondence regarding strategy and troop movements. Arnold again took the opportunity offer his resignation, as well as asking for a court of inquiry regarding his conduct in a letter Washington dated March 26th.

Washington finally answered Arnold on April 3, 1777, but his response was little more than an echo of his previous statements. He told Arnold that he was surprised not to see his name on the list of those appointed and thought there must be some mistake. Now that it was clear the Congress had consciously chose not to promote him, Washington indicated he could not advise Arnold on how to proceed with such a delicate matter. He did, however, say that since no charges had been raised against Arnold that he felt a Court of Inquiry could not be held. He concluded his letter by saying that General Greene had inquired with members of Congress regarding the reasoning by which the promotions had been made. Greene reported that a formula had been devised linking the number of soldiers provided by each state to the number of generals who were appointed by the Congress.

Was the information that General Green furnished to Washington accurate? The actual records of the Continental Congress give no specific reasons why those particular men had been promoted. They most certainly did not mention why Arnold was not included amongst the chosen. However a report by Thomas Burke concerning the debates of the Congress in February, 1777 may shed some light. Burke reported that the delegates from several states proposed fixed rules of promotion, so as to have a leadership that was based upon the state from which the individual hailed as much as his valor, honor, leadership capability.  Needless to say, there was no mention of Benedict Arnold in Burke’s summary. Not that Arnold would have believed it if he had actually read Burke’s summary notes. Could it also have been that the delegates from states other than Connecticut carried a bit of ill will because of the occurrences at Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec? This is only speculation, but Richard Henry Lee’s letter to Jefferson certainly indicated that there were rumblings in the halls outside of the Congressional Chamber.

Unable to contain himself any longer, Arnold was determined to speak with members of Congress directly. He took leave in late April to travel to the seat of government in Philadelphia. As he traveled through Connecticut, he learned of British troop movements by General Tryon, and his two thousand men, which had come ashore at Compo. Although a few valiant militia members offered resistance, they were quickly chased off. Arnold switched courses, joined the forces of General Silliman, the Connecticut militia commander, and rode toward Fairfield where General Wooster readied his troops for a battle. It is said that along the way, they sounded the local alarms for militia members and other townspeople to join them. It seemed the two forces would collide in Danbury. The British arrived first, and there are horrible stories of their treatment of the townspeople including four men who had fired on the troops. They were thrown into the cellar of the house they were in, and the house was burned. However, when they heard of the looming group of colonists coming toward them, and General Tryon who seemed to have many officers who were tired or perhaps a bit too fond of spirits, decided to beat a hasty retreat. Along the way they burned the homes of patriots, destroyed provisions stored for the colonial army including 3000 barrels of pork, 1000 barrels of grain, 1700 tents, spirits, and other provisions. The colonial forces had met at Bethel which was approximately 4 miles away from the location of the British troops in Danbury. Arnold and Silliman took one group men, Wooster took another, and the new point of contact seemed to be Ridgefield. As the forces collided, Wooster (who was 67 at the time) was shot and died a few weeks later in Danbury.

There is a story of Arnold’s bravery during this battle which really demonstrates his fighting nature or his willingness to place himself in peril. Of course, the colonial forces were greatly outnumbered at this battle, and although his men had built an obstacle in front of the British forces, it was quickly over run. It was said that as Arnold ordered a retreat, the horse on which he rode was shot. Arnold was tangled in the riding stirrups, and as a British solider stood over him with a bayonet, Arnold refused to admit he had been taken prisoner. Instead, he drew his pistol, shot the man dead, and fled into a swamp as the British continued to fire upon him. The next day, Arnold and his men continued to fight. Again, the horse on which he rode was shot. This time, however, he was shot as well and injured the same leg once again.

On May 2nd, the Continental Congress recognized Arnold’s contribution in the Battle of Ridgefield. John Adams, who chaired the Board of War, wrote of it to his wife, Abigail, on that day: “We have promoted Arnold, one Step this day, for his Vigilance, Activity, and Bravery, in the late Affair at Connecticutt.”  The Congress also supplied Arnold with a new horse as a token of his gallant conduct on the field.

In the next edition, we will learn of Benedict Arnold’s attempts to rule over, and take advantage of, the quagmire that was Philadelphia in 1779.