Nathaniel Philbrick in his home in Nantucket, Mass.PHOTO: TONY LUONG FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Benedict Arnold is a name like Judas or Iago, synonymous with treason and evil incarnate. Yet through much of historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book, “Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution,” the man who betrayed his country is a largely sympathetic character.
The Nantucket-based author is best known for maritime histories like “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” which won the 2000 National Book Award, and “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. His last book, “Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution” covered the first stages of the rebellion.
After three years of war, with his finances ruined and his leg shattered by a musket ball at Saratoga, Arnold grows embittered by the machinations of his political enemies and frustrated by what Mr. Philbrick describes as a dysfunctional Continental Congress.
“Arnold felt underappreciated and underpaid and that the country was falling apart around all of them,” says Mr. Philbrick.
The book opens in New York in the aftermath of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington faces the invading British armada sent to crush the rebellion; Arnold counters the British attempt to split the colonies by moving in from Canada via Lake Champlain.
“Valiant Ambition” ends in 1780 with Arnold’s betrayal as he attempts to surrender to the enemy the key American fortress at West Point on the Hudson River. Edited from an interview:
If not for his treason, how would Arnold be remembered today?
As a hero of the War of Independence and, absolutely, our best field general. He was wired to be a battlefield commander. He was aggressive. He could see the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and read topography amazingly well. And he was charismatic. If you were fighting by his side, you were with him all the way. And the fact of the matter is that at a very critical time in the country’s history, when we had lost New York and if the British had punched through from Canada, we basically would have lost the war. Arnold went at them like a hellion.
Arnold himself had reason to feel betrayed by higher-ups in the Army and in the Continental Congress. Were reports he was out of control at Saratoga and may even have been drunk, part of a smear campaign?
There are accounts of him slashing the head of an American officer and not realizing it, he was so into [the battle]. And some said he rode around like a crazy man. But it was Arnold who saw [one particular] British officer in the distance and said if we can get him, the enemy line will collapse. He instructed a sharpshooter up in the trees to get him. He did and that turned it all around. So yes, he’s a little unhinged but you can’t argue with results.
Why was the naval battle at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain so pivotal?
Most Americans have no clue that before there were highways, there were only waterways to get through the wilderness. If you weren’t on a lake or a river, you were in a jungle. Arnold was thinking strategically from the very beginning. He said we need to control this corridor of water in order to stop the British.
How did he manage to fight British warships to a standstill with what you call a “mosquito fleet” of what were essentially rowboats?
There’s a replica of one of Arnold’s “gondolas” at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. It’s just a great big rowboat with a mast in the middle and a lot of oars. The breezes on Lake Champlain are often fickle and when the wind is uncooperative, being able to row is useful. But compared to what the British had, the odds were very much against Arnold. What he did was really brilliant. Back then square-rigged vessels could not sail against the wind with any effectiveness. So he hides his fleet inside Valcour Island and uses [a tactic which] is called the weather gauge to his advantage. He lets the British sail by, then says, “Here I am, come and get me.”
When Arnold grows so disillusioned with the American cause that he decides to betray it, does he balk when he realizes his treason won’t simply involve information but putting the lives of the troops he led at stake?
In battle there was always a coldness about him. One of the things that resonated with me was one of his adjutants who described how Arnold forced him to shoot his horse before they climbed onto the last boat out of Canada [earlier in the war]. That’s Arnold: This is what we have to do, it’s what’s required. I think it was the same with his treason. If he decided this was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do. I don’t think there was a lot of introspection.
The British attacked with what ranked, until World War I, as the largest invasion armada in the history of the empire. How did they not win the war?
It’s kind of like “War of the Worlds” or “Star Wars” where this invasion force arrives and they are fully capable of just annihilating you. [British General William] Howe makes an absolute fool out of the Americans at the Battle of Long Island but never delivers the knockout blow. He and his [British admiral] brother had real affection for the colonies. They felt that annihilating the American army would be a bad way to reconcile all of this. They wanted to bring the Americans to the negotiating table, so no knockout blow. You could argue that the Howe brothers were America’s greatest asset.
How did the vastness of the American continent thwart the British?
Remember, these are Europeans who are used to an established country that has a capital; if you take that capital you basically have the country. America is this great wilderness and even when you take Philadelphia, it doesn’t mean the enemy is defeated. They just move away. I remember when thermometers used to have mercury in them and trying to squeeze a piece of mercury with my fingers and it always squished away. That’s kind of what was happening with the British pursuing the Americans: You beat them here, beat them there, but you haven’t eliminated them.
It’s well known that George Washington had false teeth, but who knew that a lifelong habit of cracking walnuts with his teeth was the cause?
For me, details like that turn a fossilized Washington into someone real. It speaks to who he is. Someone who’s cracking nuts with his teeth has experienced sustained tension. Most of us look at the one-dollar bill and see that staid rock. The reality was he had his own inner Arnold, if you will. His natural proclivities were very much like Arnold’s. He was naturally aggressive but he learned to control that aggression because he knew it was best for his country. Arnold could never do that.
At the end of the book, Arnold is in New York, preparing to lead an army south to fight his own countrymen. Are you at work on a sequel?
Yeah. We think of the revolution ending in Yorktown, Va. The fact of the matter is that the French defeated the British in a naval battle right in the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Because the British fleet was coming to rescue Cornwallis, the British general, Washington was able to surround Cornwallis. So this almost-unknown naval battle was absolutely critical in winning the revolution.
Your book includes little-known characters like Joseph Plumb Martin, who first appears at 15 years old as a volunteer at a battle in Manhattan, then shows up at Valley Forge and even runs into Arnold in the woods near West Point. Where did you find him?
He’s someone who wrote an account late in life of his experiences in the revolution. And what a treasure trove. This guy was smart, funny and he had a very good sense of skepticism when it came to his military superiors. He was Forrest Gump in a way, always there at key points. For me he became a sort of Greek chorus for the book.