Today in history, on January 5, 1781, much of Richmond, Virginia was burned to the ground by a British naval force led by Benedict Arnold. It was his most significant military retort against his former cause, a devastating strike that followed his dramatic betrayal.
Although Arnold engaged in some blunders in Quebec, he was also responsible for the monumental victory over “Gentleman” John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, while Horatio Gates had received most of the credit for the victory. Since he was also instrumental in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and several other successes, he was considered by many to be the most effective commander of the Continental Army.
Continually disgruntled over being passed up for promotion by the Continental Congress, Arnold had believed his doings warranted far more recognition. Among other triumphs, Arnold was integral to the monumental victory at Saratoga, and few soldiers had as many accomplishments as he in an army that had suffered so many losses. He was even brought up for a court martial over charges of corruption and malfeasance that mostly absolved him from wrongdoing, but it undoubtedly installed a bitter resentment within him.
Meanwhile, Arnold began written correspondence with Commander-in-Chief of the British war effort, Henry Clinton. Arnold offered to turn over West Point to the British in return for 20,000 British pounds and indemnification. After Clinton agreed to most of Arnold’s terms, he began to order his subordinates to systematically weaken West Point’s defenses, going so far as to consume West Point’s supplies at rapid pace.
When papers were found that exposed his plot, Arnold hightailed through New York to behind enemy lines. After Clinton refused to exchange Arnold for Major John Andre, a British spy, Washington ordered his military forces to capture Arnold and execute him if he were captured. “Public punishment is the sole object in view,” he wrote cavalry commander and friend, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.
Nonetheless, Arnold avoided capture, received a brigadier general’s commission in the British army, and took command over a British force of 1,600 troops. He brought his forces into Virginia, where he captured Richmond, setting fire to the city, destroyed supply houses, foundries, and mills. Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson narrowly escaped capture, avoiding Arnold’s forces by a matter of minutes.
Arnold’s name became synonymous with treason. Although his deed was a setback to the patriot cause against the British army, most historians have come to the conclusion that he had little influence on the remainder of the conflict. He was forced to retreat to Portsmouth, but commanded southern forces until Lord Cornwallis came to relieve him the next year. Arnold returned to New York, and left for England shortly after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
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