The sudden arrival of a horseman on a Friday afternoon electrified New Haven. Israel Bissell leapt from his saddle and shouted for the village selectmen. His eyes bulged with news. Citizens came rushing to the green at the center of the prosperous Connecticut seaport. Bissell, his face strained with fatigue, rattled off his brief, shocking story. Fire. Slaughter. War.
Stupid with excitement, he had been riding from Massachusetts since Wednesday morning. Forty miles to Worcester, pushing his horse so hard that the animal dropped dead on arrival. Pounding southward on a fresh mount, he had alerted all those along the dusty roads. Into Connecticut, all night along the coastal post road, throat raw from screaming his warning to every village and farm.
“To arms! To arms!”
He pulled from his shirt a statement by Joseph Palmer of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Two days earlier, on April 19, British general Thomas Gage had sent a thousand redcoats marching westward from Boston. At Lexington they confronted “a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired without any provocation and killed six men and wounded four others.”
The words flashed through the crowd. Repeated in shouts and whispers, they ignited New Haven’s streets and taverns and markets with fear. “I have spoken with several persons,” Palmer wrote, “who have seen the dead and wounded.” Images of blood spilled into the minds of the people. Fear quickly turned to rage.
Bissell had set off too early to know the outcome. The short firefight at Lexington had exploded into a blaze at Concord, a conflagration on the road back to Boston. Fire had consumed homes, bayonets had pierced innocent flesh. “A BLOODY BUTCHERY BY THE BRITISH,” the first newspaper account howled. In fact, well-organized patriot militiamen had shot dead seventy of the king’s soldiers and wounded many more.
In a day, the world had changed.
In New Haven, the news quickly arrived at a prominent mansion on Water Street, “by far the grandest” residence in the town of five thousand souls. The house, with its mahogany paneling, English wallpaper, and sweeping central stairway, was not yet completed that April afternoon. The peach, plum, and cherry trees that filled four acres of orchards were just coming into leaf. The new stables housed some of the finest riding and carriage horses in the region.
The owner, Benedict Arnold, was a fifth-generation American of Puritan stock. His great-great-grandfather, also Benedict, had been governor of Rhode Island—a thousand mourners had attended his funeral a century earlier. His name was handed down through a line of Arnolds but the family wealth was not. The fourth Benedict, a cooper’s apprentice, had settled in Norwich on the eastern edge of Connecticut, married well, climbed the social ladder, and made himself a prosperous merchant and trader. When he succumbed to depression, bad luck, and drink, he left his son, the current Benedict, to start over from scratch.
As soon as word of the violence reached him, Arnold rushed to the town green on a slick stallion. He was greeted with relief by the townspeople. Here was a man to take charge during this daunting time. His eyes, poised between anger and anticipation, swept their faces as he listened to the details. His verdict was simple: They must act. Must march to Boston and join the fight. Must leave today, tomorrow at the latest.
Few in New Haven could match him in enthusiasm. Another man might have weighed the risks. At thirty-four, Benedict Arnold had a lot to lose: a prosperous international trading business, a large retail store, ships and wharfs along the waterfront, a wife he loved, three young sons on whom he doted. “He has had great luck at sea of late,” a neighbor observed. Arnold himself would later testify: “I was in easy circumstances. I was happy in domestic connections and blessed with a rising family.”
Yet Arnold could smell the future. Something fundamental was about to happen, something that could not only alter his life but shape the destiny of the country. He had always felt an irresistible urge, almost a mania, to climb, to acquire, to become somebody. Here was an opportunity even grander, a chance to play a role in history, a chance for immortality. He never hesitated.
Risk was nothing new to Arnold. In business, he had seen his fortunes heave up and down on the stormy commercial seas that followed the French and Indian War. Blessed with a vast store of energy, he had worked, calculated, gambled, and prevailed.
The previous December, Arnold and a group of New Haven citizens had established a voluntary militia unit. This independent company was in part a social club, in part a means to learn the basics of soldiering. The group included sixty “gentlemen of high respectability.” They had received their charter in March and were now officially the Second Company Connecticut Governor’s Foot Guard. During the spring they had hired a British Army deserter to drill them in the rudiments of military tactics. They had practiced marching, wheeling, handling firelocks in close formation. They had broken the town’s quiet with their cracking volleys.
This was Arnold’s only formal military training, but his teenage years had been years of war in the colonies. The armed struggle, the British Army and provincial forces fighting the detested French, had infected his play and fed his young imagination. At sixteen he had joined the Norwich militia for a march to the New York frontier. They hurried north to save Fort William Henry on Lake George. The bastion had fallen before they arrived, and Indians had murdered and peeled the scalps from a portion of the British captives. The militiamen returned home, reminded that war was not play.
Although he lacked combat experience, Arnold was familiar with violence. Never a merchant to supervise his business from a counting house, he personally captained the ships he sent to Canada and the Caribbean. By venturing to remote markets, he could take advantage of local trading opportunities, buy and sell as conditions dictated, and keep a close eye on his merchandise. He loved the sea, where danger and promise defied the pettiness of men.
In an age when piracy was a threat and seaports teemed with rough characters, a ship’s captain had to assert himself, with force if necessary. Seamen who failed to obey orders were severely flogged. In a zone dominated by the widespread cruelty of enslavement and the outrages of brigands, a reputation for violence was useful.
At home, Arnold dressed in silk and drank tea from expensive china. Out in the world, he was a muscular, black-haired, sunburnt man. His jaw jutted with the defiance of a professional pugilist; his gaze made other men think twice before opposing him. Arnold was noted for his athletic prowess—one acquaintance described him as “the most accomplished and graceful skater” he had ever seen. Everyone noted his hair-trigger temper and the quickness with which he defended his honor.
In 1766, Arnold and a pack of cronies had publicly seized a former crewman, Peter Boles, who had informed on him for smuggling. They “gave him a little Chastisement,” and ordered him out of town. When he ignored the warning, they seized him again, tied him to a whipping post, and flogged him “in a shocking manner.” Arnold was arrested and a New Haven magistrate fined him fifty shillings for disturbing the peace—Arnold took the penalty as a point of pride.
Gradually, Arnold’s concerns had grown more political. He had been trading in the West Indies when he heard about the incident on March 5, 1770, when redcoats shot five colonists dead in what was called the Boston Massacre. “Good God!” he wrote in a letter to a fellow merchant. “Are Americans all asleep and tamely giving up their glorious liberties?” He scornfully referred to these passive patriots as “philosophers.”
In response to the 1773 protest in which citizens heaved tea into Boston Harbor, Parliament had imposed the so-called Intolerable Acts. The legislation shut down the port of Boston, stripped Massachusetts of self-government, and allowed British redcoats to be quartered in citizens’ homes. Reverend Samuel Peters, a Connecticut clergyman, spoke out in defense of the acts and in opposition to relief measures for Boston’s beleaguered citizens. “Deliver us from anarchy,” was his sentiment. He asserted his fear of “the mobs of . . . Benedict Arnold.” Arnold led a crowd of mechanics and waterfront men to besiege Peters’s house. The minister soon decamped to Boston and eventually to England.
On this momentous day in April 1775, Arnold, who had been elected captain of the Foot Guard, sent word to all members. In a quickly convened meeting, they voted to march to the scene of the action. They would assemble on the town green in uniform the next morning. The war that had loomed over the colonies for years was at hand.
That night, the militia captain hurried to put his affairs in order. He sat with his wife, Margaret, known as Peggy, and his unmarried sister, Hannah. Both were knowledgeable about his business from having overseen affairs during his extended sea voyages. Not knowing how long he would now be absent, he gave them instructions about ongoing dealings and the various amounts owed to and by him.
Peggy was an attractive, quiet, often sickly young woman, and Benedict loved her to distraction. He had known her father, Samuel Mansfield, before the marriage. Both merchants were members of the local Masonic lodge. Mansfield, who also served as high sheriff in New Haven, had partnered with Arnold in a number of business deals. His son-in-law referred to him affectionately as Papa.
Although their wedding was in many ways a coupling of flame and ice, Arnold did not lack a strain of domestic sentiment. On his trading journeys, he wrote to his “dear girl,” begging for news of “our dear little prattlers.” He reminded her, “How uncertain is life, how certain is death,” a lesson handed down from his Puritan mother. She wrote back far less frequently than he wished, and he sometimes begged for a word from her.
Arnold’s frequent travel strained their marriage. Away from home for months, he had ample opportunity for sexual encounters. On one occasion an embarrassing rumor of venereal disease followed him home. On another, he tried to placate Peggy by purchasing an enslaved girl in the West Indies as a household servant.
When dawn broke, Arnold donned a ruffled white shirt, a white waistcoat, silk stockings, and black leggings. He slipped into a coat of rich scarlet wool faced with buff-colored silk and adorned with silver buttons. Gaudy dress-up had been part of the fun of the Foot Guard, but the display also signaled that Arnold was a gentleman of means. He felt that his uniform announced his authority, an instinct he shared with an equally zealous Virginia planter. In a few weeks, George Washington, resplendent in his military finery, would be appointed commander of a new “continental” army of patriots.
Just after sunrise, Arnold bid adieu to Peggy and Hannah. He hugged Benedict, seven years old; Richard, six; and little Henry, only three. Leather creaked as he climbed onto his handsome horse and trotted the half mile to the green, where his men were already assembling. Arnold greeted Eleazer Oswald, a lieutenant who would help him manage the group. Oswald was a capable twenty-five-year-old immigrant from England. He was the son of a ship’s captain and had been apprentice to a printer. He would stick by Arnold through much of his career.
That Saturday morning, the town was still buzzing with the news from Lexington. Folks gathered to watch the uniformed Foot Guards go through their paces, the drummers pounding out staccato signals of war. The air crackled with excitement. This would be the people’s answer to the cruelty of the “lobster backs.” The crowd cheered every celebratory volley.
The night before, Arnold had recruited a handful of Yale students more eager for adventure than learning. Now sixty men in all lined up for the 140-mile march to Cambridge. With no time to assemble provisions, the men had to carry their own food in knapsacks.
What they could not do without was gunpowder, ammunition, flints, and additional muskets. The town’s supply of arms and its kegs of explosive powder were stored in a stone magazine on the outskirts. Arnold was informed that the selectmen were just then conferring in Beers Tavern, a popular meeting spot just up the street from Yale College. He sent a man there to request that the powder house be opened so that the Foot Guards could arm themselves.
The selectmen had already agreed to remain neutral for the time being. How could they know the real facts until they received more definitive information? Nor were they anxious to join in an uprising against the crown—an act of treason—over a dispute between Massachusetts radicals and the British ministry.
They sent David Wooster outside to confer with the brash captain. Wooster, at sixty-four, was the leading military man of the colony, commander of its regular militia forces. He had served in colonial wars over the past thirty-five years, rising to become a colonel in the British Army before retiring on half pay. He was well aware of the gravity of bearing arms against the king, but he was also an American patriot. Like Arnold, he had participated in driving the Tory Reverend Peters out of town.
Arnold, although of medium height— “There wasn’t any wasted timber in him,” one acquaintance said—had a posture that suggested a perpetual strut. He confronted the older man in front of the tavern. Wooster perhaps wished himself thirty years younger and fired with Arnold’s passion. The younger man respected Wooster’s military savvy and experience, but when Arnold insisted he hand over the keys to the powder house, Wooster refused. Arnold threatened to order his men to break open the magazine. He swore that “none but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” His actual language was likely saltier than the version filtered through the historical record—the profanity of the era was obscenely imaginative, especially among sailors.
Wooster responded by giving up the keys. The populace cheered. Even today Powder House Day is celebrated every April in New Haven.
The men supplied themselves, formed into ranks, and prepared to move out. Before they left, local pastor Jonathan Edwards Jr. pronounced a blessing over the town’s patriotic warriors and over the man whose name meant “blessed.”
Entering Cambridge at the end of a long and hurried march, the Foot Guards looked around in amazement. Even Arnold, who had traveled to London, Quebec, and the West Indies, was impressed by the bustle. The whole region was alive with activity. Camps swollen with men from all over New England stretched in an arc from Winter Hill in the north to Dorchester Heights in the south. They formed a large, rattling settlement: men slaughtered bullocks and baked bread to feed the army; farm boys drilled awkwardly on the parades; smoke from a thousand open fires hung in the air. All eyes were focused on the besieged city of Boston, isolated on a virtual island in the center of the bay and occupied by British troops and their loyalist supporters.
Word of the outrages at Lexington and Concord had sent excited militiamen marching the day they heard. Legend depicts Israel Putnam, the well-known veteran of the French and Indian War, leaving his plow in a field in northeast Connecticut and heading for Boston in his work clothes. John Stark, an independent-minded ranger from New Hampshire, tore south with three hundred men. After Arnold and his troops left New Haven, Connecticut authorities ordered David Wooster to gather six thousand of his state’s militiamen to support the cause.
Soldiers were packed into the buildings of Harvard College and sheltered under tents made from ships’ sails in clearings along the Charles River. Many simply slept in the open. The Foot Guards, elegant in their uniforms and sharp in their drills, were admired by the men of the more ragged militia units. Arnold was able to secure them quarters in the plush former residence of Andrew Oliver, a recently deceased lieutenant governor loathed by patriots.
In Cambridge, Arnold sought out a man called “the greatest incendiary in all America” and met a lost brother. Joseph Warren was, like Arnold, largely a self-made product of the colonial middle class. The men were almost exactly the same age. Both were versed in medicine: Arnold operated an apothecary store where he sold herbal potions, aphrodisiacs, and scurvy cures; Warren had studied the craft of healing at Harvard. As a child, Arnold had helped his inebriated father off the streets and had watched his family’s belongings auctioned in bankruptcy—he had become the richest man in New Haven. The youthful War- ren had hawked milk on the streets of Boston—he was now a prominent physician there. Both men were tough dandies used to fine clothes and opulent surroundings. Both were rebels.
Warren possessed charm and polish, Arnold displayed a rougher exterior. Warren knew how to play politics to get his way, Arnold preferred to force his will on others by means of his relentless self-confidence. Several weeks after their meeting, Warren would write in a letter, “Danger and war are become pleasing.” Arnold agreed.
Like Warren, Arnold sensed that the current hubbub was not just another of the temporary tremors that had been erupting in the colonies during the ten years since the Stamp Act crisis. This time, the people would not heave into action only to subside when London agreed to a compromise. This was different. The shots fired on Lexington Common marked the doorway to a new order.
Not everyone could see it. Even avid patriots spoke of negotiation and reconciliation. At the end of April, Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull still hoped to avoid further hostilities. Warren convinced him that violence was unavoidable. “No business but that of war,” he wrote, “is either done or thought of in this colony.”
“Our all is at stake,” Warren proclaimed. “Every moment is infinitely precious.” Action was needed. Now he found himself staring into the face of a man for whom action was a reflex. And Arnold had a plan.
Excerpt from GOD SAVE BENEDICT ARNOLD: The True Story of America’s Most Hated Man by Jack Kelly. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.