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Though justifiably considered a traitor by Americans today, prior to September 1780 Benedict Arnold was justly hailed as an American hero. Two of the reasons are explored in two recent books.

Arnold’s first claim to fame is the subject of Thomas Desjardin’s Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec, 1775 (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2006, $24.95). The plan was simple: While Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery attacked Montreal from the west, Colonel Arnold was to take his force up through Maine and attack Quebec City from the south. If the plan was successful, Quebec would leave the British fold.

The plan was simple, the execution far from it. Arnold’s men would have to march through extraordinarily difficult terrain. Unaware that the march was actually twice as long as was shown on his maps, Arnold left Massachusetts with inadequate supplies. Poor weather made navigating up the Kennebec River difficult, and a third of his force deserted with badly needed provisions.

The expedition gradually became a death march as Arnold’s soldiers approached Quebec. There was no relief until they reached Quebec and received aid from the local population.

After Arnold combined his battered force with Montgomery’s, the Americans prepared to attack Quebec City. Although undermanned, the British held the upper hand thanks to their extensive preparations. The result was that Montgomery was killed, Arnold wounded and much of the American force captured.

Although the expedition was a spectacular failure, Desjardin argues that it showed the Americans they could “organize, endure and fight, even on the scale of a coordinated land-and-sea campaign against enemy strongholds.” The epilogue contains a compelling “What if?” exercise that is as interesting as Arnold’s story. The author posits that the failure to take Quebec may have been a blessing in disguise.

Whereas Desjardin focuses solely on the invasion of Quebec, James Nelson’s gripping Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet That Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, Maine, 2006, $24.95) chronicles Arnold’s career from the capture of Fort Ticonderoga through the subsequent naval battle on Lake Champlain. At the start of the rebellion, Arnold was dispatched to grab control of Fort Ticonderoga from the British and send its cannons to aid in the siege of Boston. While the mission was a success, Arnold was hamstrung by infighting and a lack of resources.

Arnold then hatched the plan to invade Quebec. While Desjardin argues that the invasion came within a hair of success, Nelson believes that once surprise was lost, the weakened American force’s prospects disappeared.

Benedict Arnold’s Navy hits its stride when Arnold, after recovering from the wounds he suffered at Quebec, returns to Lake Champlain. He quickly realizes that the British will be sending men and ships down the lake in an effort to cut the colonies in half. He orders American forces to begin constructing naval vessels to halt the invasion.

The odds, however, were heavily stacked against the Americans. The British weren’t short of trained sailors to man the fleet they were assembling at the other end of the lake.

The battle off Valcour Island on October 11, 1776, was predictably a disaster for the Americans. Although Arnold had the advantage of picking the place to fight and the fleet fought ferociously, his ships were overmatched. The scene was set for a massive invasion from the north.

That invasion finally came in 1777 under Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne. Sweeping down Lake Champlain, Burgoyne aimed his forces in a direct line for Albany. Once again, however, Arnold stepped into the breach to halt the danger to the colonies. On his own initiative at the Battle of Saratoga, he rallied the faltering American lines. The battle ended with a large British army surrendering to the Americans for the first time.

While the Battle of Lake Champlain was a defeat for the Americans, Nelson points out that by delaying the British advance, it gave the United States time to build a permanent army, rather than relying on ad hoc militia units. Though the Americans would continue to suffer setbacks in battle, an invasion from the north was now no longer a worry. If the Americans couldn’t utilize Quebec in their fight, then neither could the British.

Both books chronicle Arnold’s original strong commitment to independence. For years he suffered alongside his men, displayed extraordinary personal courage and contributed greatly to the American cause. That doesn’t erase the stain of treason, but Desjardin and Nelson prove that a measure of respect is still due him.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here