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Background to Treason
In the mid-1700s, America was a cluster of colonies along the Atlantic coast, beset by Indians in the West, threatened by the French from the north, and protected by the mother country, England, far across the sea.
But differences were beginning to arise between the colonies and their protector. In King George's court, political advisers argued that "the plantations" were draining off too much English money, that they were not carrying their share of the financial burden. So began the imposition of taxes and with them portents of American rebellion fired by such men as Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry—portents which were to become real in a volley of musket fire exploding into a crowd of Boston citizens.
A prosperous shipping merchant arriving in the West Indies heard about the "Boston Massacre" and quickly dispatched a furious letter: "I was very much shocked the other day on hearing the accounts of the most wanton, cruel, and inhuman murders committed in Boston by the soldiers. Good God, are the Americans all asleep, and tamely yielding up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers that they do not take immediate vengeance on such miscreants?"
The author of this letter was soon to be known as one of America's foremost patriots. His name: Benedict Arnold.
The story of military justice in this country begins with the saga of this strange, brilliant officer. His was the first significant American court-martial. In those days the Army operated under a loose code of justice copied from the British. This code dated from 1689 when, with the acceptance by William and Mary of the Bill of Rights, Parliament had acquired the power to define the jurisdiction of courts-martial. At first, it had granted court-martial jurisdiction only over mutiny, sedition, and desertion. But gradually, British military commanders had expanded its scope to take in some civilian offenses committed by military men.
During the Revolution, the whim of the American commander was even more controlling as to the jurisdiction of military law. But considerable confusion clouded the question. What, for example, constituted a civilian and what a military offense? And indeed what was legal and what was not? Sea captains, for instance, were permitted to share in the prize money of any ship they captured, yet army generals were not expected to profit from their commands. Yet many high-ranking officers had been merchants and speculators, including Arnold himself. If a commander indulged in a private financial speculation, risking his own money, was he committing an offense? And if so, was it civil or military? Arnold's court-martial brought the problem into focus and, in effect, set a legal precedent that would last almost two hundred years.
But this was a court-martial of far more than legal significance. Arnold was a man with legitimate grievances against the civilians running the war. Almost from the first they had dogged him. Time and again, despite his brilliant battle record, he found himself placed under a talentless hack appointed for political reasons. He had been passed over for promotion while lesser men went up in rank. At Saratoga he had been ordered out of action by the "political" General Horatio Gates, and the Americans only won the action when Arnold disobeyed his orders and rallied the troops. Gates, who was scheming to supplant Washington as Commander in Chief, took credit for the victory.
Time and again, as Arnold squabbled with the Continental Congress and various State councils, Washington had interceded for him. But Arnold had another failing that even Washington could do little about. Arnold simply did not keep adequate books. At that time a sum of money was advanced to a commander out of which he was to pay all salaries and all expenses of a specific campaign. An accounting was then to be made to the Continental Congress. Arnold's accounts were constantly questioned. Congressmen complained that in Arnold's hands money "disappeared." Arnold retorted that he could hardly keep accurate books while making a forced march through swampland to Quebec or while fighting in the wilderness around Lake Champlain.
As the War progressed, Congress constantly disputed Arnold's finances, tied up his accounts, and withheld his salary. By 1779, the proud general was an embittered man. The charges that the Pennsylvania State Council brought against him must have seemed the final insult to a man who had considered himself a patriot and who had proved his heroism time and again in battle. Within weeks of the filing of the charges Arnold entered into correspondence with the British.
But no definite arrangement was made. Arnold was apparently waiting for the outcome of the trial.
Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut, on January 14, 1741, and named for a great grandfather who had been a colonial governor of Rhode Island. As a young man Arnold showed drive and promise. He opened a small drugstore in New Haven and within a few years had built it into a commercial trading company of considerable size. Much of his trade was with the West Indies, and Arnold—the man of action—often sailed as captain of one of his own ships.
Then came first the "Boston Massacre," and then the Battle of Lexington, and Arnold abruptly abandoned commerce for the service of his country.
Few in this nation's history have been so impressive on the battlefield as Benedict Arnold. He joined with Ethan Allen in the victory at Fort Ticonderoga, then led a march through swampland and forest—one of the classic marches in military history—to Quebec in 1775. Wounded at the unsuccessful Battle of Quebec, he fell back with his ragged, starving band to Lake Champlain. There Arnold occupied his troops in cutting timber for rudimentary ships, barges, and rafts. With this makeshift fleet, he surprised an invading British force, causing so much damage that the British withdrew and returned to Canada, putting off the invasion until the following year. Had Arnold failed here, the British would have sailed down the Hudson, cut off New England from the rest of the Colonies, and quite possibly put an end to the Revolution.
The following year the British again struck south from Canada, following the chain of lakes that leads to the Hudson River. The British moved confidently. They had already taken New York and Philadelphia and only awaited the success of their northern campaign to fatally split the Americans.
But at Saratoga, Arnold, recovered from his wounds, once again played a decisive role. An American detachment was besieged by the British; Arnold raised the siege, taking a heavy toll of British officers and men. And on October 2, 1777, in the critical Battle of Saratoga the Americans were being relentlessly forced back by a British advance. Arnold led a spontaneous cavalry charge into the British lines that scattered the redcoats in confusion and turned the battle around. The British retired, were surrounded, and surrendered. France, taking note of this astonishing victory, decided to come to the aid of the Americans.
With the entry of the powerful French fleet into the war the British could no longer roam the Atlantic coast unhindered. Fearful of a blockade across the Delaware, their first decision was to abandon Philadelphia and move their headquarters to New York.
The momentum of victory was now swinging to the side of the colonies. Arnold had been on the battlefield from the first. Now, still recovering from his wounds, a national hero, he was chosen by General Washington to take command of the Philadelphia area. For the rest of the war, it seemed certain, Arnold could rely on his hard-won combat laurels to obtain a series of such comfortable commands behind the lines. All should have been serene. The hero had received his just reward. But Arnold looked at it differently. His back pay was still in dispute and tied up in Congress and he desperately needed money.
The snow was gone from Valley Forge and a bleak spring brought promise of better weather as a man named Robert Shewell came into Arnold's temporary headquarters. At this time the British were still moving out of Philadelphia, and the Americans were waiting to take over. Shewell had a proposition in which Arnold was interested.
Shewell was a respected Philadelphia merchant, although suspected by some of Tory leanings. But then most Philadelphians of good family were suspected of the same attitude. And in this case, it seemed, Shewell wanted to help the Americans—by saving his ship's cargo. The ship was the Charming Nancy, currently loaded and tied up in Philadelphia. Shewell was worried, he said, that the British would confiscate his cargo and take it to New York.
Arnold could hardly have believed this story. It was well known that the British in their haste to move had little space aboard their ships for their own cargo, let alone the cargo of the Charming Nancy. In reality, all that Shewell had to do was wait a few weeks and the Americans would take over the port.
What was unspoken was that Shewell wanted to take the cargo to New York himself where it would claim a higher price from the British than the Americans would pay in Philadelphia. But he could not sail his ship through the American lines without a pass. All parties to the deal would later deny this motive. But the fact is that Arnold granted Shewell the pass, and, in return, eventually received a fifty-percent share in the proceeds of the cargo.
The Nancy set sail, the last British soldier embarked from Philadelphia, and Arnold assumed command. His first move brought irritation to the citizens of the city. He chose as his official residence the same mansion that the British General had just evacuated, and soon was living there in baronial splendor with a coach-and-four and liveried servants.
To make matters worse, there was widespread fear of looting in the lull between the exit of the British and the arrival of the Americans, and Arnold had been asked to close all shops and places of business. This brought added financial hardship to many Philadelphians, and they blamed it on the high-living American commander.
Nevertheless, Benedict Arnold, a short stocky man in uniform with a limp and an indefinable air of heroism, was soon a familiar sight at social gatherings in Philadelphia. And at one of these he met one of history's most intriguing women, azure-eyed, golden-haired Peggy Shippen, the eighteen-year-old daughter of one of Philadelphia's first families. And apparently, she couldn't keep her eyes off Arnold.
When the British had occupied Philadelphia the year before, Peggy hadn't been able to keep her eyes off another handsome officer, British Lieutenant John André. Years later one of her grandsons wrote, "Poor André was in love with her but she refused him for Arnold, keeping a lock of André's hair, which we still have."
Now André and his fellow British officers were gone, but the American hero Arnold seemed a worthy replacement, even at the age of forty-two. And her feelings for him were reciprocated. Soon Arnold was addressing decidedly nonmilitary letters to the girl: "Suffer that heavenly bosom to expand with a sensation more soft, more tender than friendship." To her father, he was writing to ask Peggy's hand in marriage, claiming that his fortune was "sufficient."
But Arnold's fortune was in truth not only insufficient, it was just about to take a turn for the worse. In the midst of his courtship, he received disturbing news about the Charming Nancy.
Of all people, Peggy Shippen's good friend John André had come sailing down the New Jersey coast with a British squadron, burning vessels along the shore.
The Nancy had hastily put into Egg Harbor, and its captain feared that the ship was in danger of being burned. He wanted Arnold to send wagons to the Nancy immediately to unload her and save her cargo.
The trouble was that there were no private wagons to be had; all had been commandeered by the State of Pennsylvania. Arnold solved this dilemma by commandeering the wagons under a military order, then arranging to pay for them privately. However, when the wagonmaster, Jesse Jordan, returned to Philadelphia with the goods, he fell into a dispute with Arnold over the amount of his bill. He complained to the Adjutant General, and eventually those complaints reached the Pennsylvania State Council.
The complaints were eagerly heard by a Council that had had its troubles with the military commander. Arnold handled all their grievances with arrogance; in some cases he did not even bother to answer them. As a result, Joseph Reed, the President of the Council, had become Arnold's bitter enemy. He and others of the Council had often marveled at Arnold's luxurious style of living; now they were certain something illegal was going on.
The Council investigated the matter of the Charming Nancy including the commandeering of State wagons, the character of Arnold's associate, Robert Shewell, and the affair of the closing of the shops. The evidence they compiled was considered by them strong enough to take to Congress. Congress turned the problem over to General Washington, who decided that he must bring his favorite officer to trial by court-martial.
The battlefield hero who had helped Washington so many times in the past was bitter almost beyond words. For what he considered a private financial speculation he was being destroyed by the same civilian politicians who had consistently disrupted his military career. To Washington he wrote:
"Let me beg of you, sir, to consider that a set of artful, unprincipled men in office may misrepresent the most innocent actions.... Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expect to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen."
Nevertheless the trial was scheduled for December, 1779. And a brooding, bitter Arnold began to think of treason.
December 23, 1779. Snow fell softly on the village of Morristown, New Jersey, headquarters of the American Army in the east. Major General Robert Howe and other officers of the Council entered Norris' Tavern where the court-martial would be held. On hand were the two chief accusers of Arnold: General Joseph Reed, President of the Pennsylvania State Council, and Timothy Matlack, Secretary of the Council, plus other witnesses. Benedict Arnold chose to conduct his own defense.
General Howe was the president of the court-martial panel, chosen by Washington because Howe had had some financial problems himself, and might be more lenient with Arnold than any other officer. Three brigadier generals, eight colonels, and one lieutenant colonel made up the rest of the panel.
Arnold was brought up on four charges. They included giving permission for a vessel belonging to "persons of disaffected character" (i.e. Tories) to enter a port of the United States without the knowledge of the State of Pennsylvania or the Commander in Chief; with having shut the stores and shops of Philadelphia while privately making considerable purchases for his own benefit; with imposing menial offices upon the sons of freemen; and with using public wagons of the State for the transfer of private property.
The prosecution called Timothy Matlack to testify to the first charge. The confusion at the time concerning private speculations by military officers is such that Arnold was not even charged with profit sharing in the deal. The charge, instead, hinged on the accusation that Shewell was a Tory, and that, by implication, Arnold was aiding the enemy by granting him a pass.
Matlack testified that Shewell was not only generally regarded to be a Tory but had, himself, told Matlack of being ordered to leave George Washington's camp by the General "on pain of imprisonment."
On cross-examination by Arnold, Matlack admitted he did not know whether Arnold was aware of this fact when he gave the pass. And Arnold asked, "Have you understood that upon several alarms, Captain Shewell turned out with the militia and did duty with them?"
"I know nothing of the matter."
But Matlack did know other evidence of Shewell's alleged "disaffection." Property belonging to Shewell had been seized by American forces in Virginia because Shewell was deemed unfriendly to America. But again, cross-examination drew from him the admission that Arnold might have been unaware of this circumstance, as he was far from the scene at the time, with the Army in the north.
Arnold chose not to cross-examine Matlack further, and the Judge Advocate moved to the second charge, the closing of the shops while Arnold allegedly bought goods for his private benefit. The prosecutor produced a deposition of Colonel John Fitzgerald, a former aide of General Washington, dated May 7, 1779.
Fitzgerald's deposition read, in part:
"On the evening of the day on which British forces left Philadelphia, the deponent and Major David S. Franks, aide-de-camp to General Arnold, went to the house of Miss Brackenberry, and lodged there that night; that the next morning the deponent went into the front room of that house to view Colonel Jackson's regiment marching into the city, and saw lying in the window two open papers ... the deponent was surprised to find one of them contained instructions to Major Franks to purchase European and East India goods in the city of Philadelphia to any amount, for the payment of which the writer would furnish Franks with the money, and the same paper contained also a strict charge to the said Franks not to make known to his most intimate acquaintances that the writer was concerned in the property purchase.
Excerpted from Great Court-Martial Cases by Joseph DiMona. Copyright © 1972 Joseph DiMona. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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