On the Road with Rick Holmes: America’s first traitor

Rick Holmes GateHouse Media
The view from West Point, where the Continental Army was block British traffic on the strategically important Hudson River. [Photo by Rick Holmes.]

Rick Holmes, an award-winning journalist and longtime GateHouse Media columnist, is on the road in search of the ties that bind Americans - and the forces that pull them apart. With all eyes on Washington, Rick reports from real places too often reduced to primary colors on an election map.


George Washington looked north from what is now called Trophy Point at a spectacular view of mountains, rivers and cliffs. He wasn’t the first or last to marvel at that landscape.

But Washington saw more than the scenery. He saw that the Hudson River narrows and curves sharply around the bluff where he stood. Anyone holding this spot could stop British ships coming from either Canada to the north or New York to the south. From here, the Continental Army could stop the British from controlling the Hudson and splitting the rebellious colonies in two.

Washington chose Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a military engineer from Poland, to design the fortifications at West Point, which came to include forts and redoubts on both sides of the river and a 150-ton chain stretched across at its most narrow point.

Washington’s strategy was sound. What he didn’t count on was treason.

The Hudson River was a battlefront from the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. Fort Ticonderoga was taken in 1775 by colonial militias led by Ethan Allen and a flashy officer from Connecticut named Benedict Arnold. Arnold next led a doomed attempt to take Quebec, and was seriously wounded in the fight. He heroically defended Lake Champlain, out-maneuvering a much larger British fleet. At Saratoga, Arnold capably led troops in the field, but he clashed so loudly with his commanding general that he was relieved of his command halfway through the battle. Arnold threw himself into the fray anyway, rallying troops that remained loyal to him, exposing himself repeatedly to enemy fire. He was wounded again when his horse was shot out from under him. But the colonists won a great victory, and Benedict Arnold was hailed as the new nation’s first war hero.

A hero and, as Nathanial Philbrick’s “Valiant Ambition” tells it, a royal jerk.

Military histories are full of narcissistic generals pursuing personal glory at the expense of the cause, and Washington’s army had more than its share. The Continental Congress approved all promotions, adding to the political intrigue and back-biting among officers. Arnold’s personal pettiness matched his bravery, earning him enemies both in the army and in Congress who, he complained, kept him from getting the promotions and glory he deserved.

Arnold’s egotism was matched by his greed. He lived extravagantly, especially after he was appointed military governor of Philadelphia, and ran up large debts. He used his position to fatten his bank accounts, justifying his corruption with resentment over the personal sacrifices he had made for his country. And he was a fool for love, marrying the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia loyalist who, Philbrick and other historians claim, encouraged his treason.

Arnold began sending coded messages to the enemy, offering to switch sides in exchange for a large sum of cash and a position in the British army. Working through British Major John Andre, he negotiated a price and a prize: West Point. Arnold got himself appointed commander of the strategic fort on the Hudson and set about weakening its defenses. He gave the design of West Point’s defenses to Andre and promised to surrender the fort.

They almost got away with it. Andre was captured on his way back to British lines, with documents outlining the plot hidden in his boot. Arnold escaped just as Washington was closing in on him. As a British officer, he led a few bloody attacks on American towns, but was almost as unpopular with British officers as he had been with the Americans. He died in England, disliked by the British and despised by the Americans.

There was a time when Americans knew every detail of Arnold’s betrayal. More recent generations have known Arnold’s name to be a synonym for traitor, even if they were fuzzy about what he actually did. Now he’s all but vanished from American memory, and West Point is known for the officers it has trained to serve the nation instead of the officer whose disloyalty almost doomed it.

But Arnold’s betrayal was fresh in the minds of the authors of the Constitution. Treason was the only crime specified in that document, but they gave it a narrow definition, perhaps realizing that disloyalty is rarely as clear-cut as it was in Arnold’s case. After all, the American rebels had been accused of treason to the king, and plenty of loyalists in America had also supported the British. They couldn’t all be hanged.

And while treason carries the death penalty, no American has ever been executed for it since the Constitution became law. Leaders of small rebellions were convicted of treason, but later pardoned. Also pardoned were the leaders of the Confederacy who, along with thousands of southerners, made war on the United States. Sometimes forgiveness serves the national interest better than strict execution of its laws, but that’s a story for another day.

— Rick Holmes can be reached at You can follow his journey at Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, on follow him on Twitter @HolmesAndCo.