“I heartily wish some person would try an experiment upon him,” wrote an army physician at Fort Ticonderoga about the enigma that was Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, “to make the sun shine through his head with an ounce ball; and then see whether the rays come in a direct or oblique direction.” Military colleagues described Arnold as bullheaded, tactless, volatile, and imperious, always ready to ridicule those with whom he disagreed. When an officer doubted his authority to command a naval fleet on Lake Champlain, Arnold, as one witness observed, proceeded to “kick him very heartily.”
Yet others praised Benedict Arnold for instilling both discipline and confidence in his troops and for “remarkable coolness and bravery” under fire. Even the British secretary of state for the colonies saw him as “the most enterprising man among the rebels.” With a keen understanding of military strategy and an ability to almost instantly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, Arnold piled up victories at Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain, at Fort Stanwix, and in the battles of Saratoga. He was one of George Washington’s most spirited and valued officers.
Given the fragility of the revolutionary army, though, Washington was troubled by Arnold’s headstrong actions on the battlefield. They were a source both of Arnold’s charismatic leadership and of risk to the American cause. “Unless your strength and circumstances be such, that you can reasonably promise yourself a moral certainty of succeeding,” Washington had cautioned him in March 1777, “confine yourself in the main to a defensive opposition.” Seven months later, spearheading the Second Battle of Saratoga at Bemis Heights near the Hudson River against German soldiers fighting for the British, Arnold “sat conspicuously on his horse waving his sword with such abandon that he slashed the head of an American officer without realizing it.” Minutes later, he led a brilliant, unorthodox charge with a score of riflemen that turned the tide of the battle. But no sooner did he demand the enemy’s surrender than a German soldier raised his musket and fired. The shot crashed into Arnold’s left thigh and killed his horse. “I wish it had passed [through] my heart,” Arnold said afterward, perhaps realizing that the injury would cripple him for the rest of his life.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition is a suspenseful, vivid, richly detailed, and deeply researched book about the revolutionary struggle that bound George Washington and Benedict Arnold together and about the almost disastrous dysfunction of America’s revolutionary government…
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