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Armchair Genealogy

By Melinda Cohenour

The Arnold Family - England to America
A Patriot and A Traitor – Cousins

      As promised, this month we shall explore the actual life of Benedict Arnold, his troubled efforts to recoup the family fortune and care for his mother and sister, and his eventual fate – how he became the most infamous of all American Revolutionaries – the Traitor.

      The parents of our subject, Benedict Arnold known throughout history as The Traitor, were Benedict Arnold III and his wife, Hannah Waterman King Arnold. From this union were born six children – four of whom would never live beyond their youth.

      The first-born son of this union between Benedict Arnold III and wife, Hannah Waterman King Arnold, was to have been the son to carry on the family name of Benedict Arnold IV. His early death, however, was the first tragic misfortune to befall this young couple. Born 15 Aug 1738, he succumbed to yellow fever the following year, his death recorded as 30 Apr 1739. It has been recorded that all the deaths in this family shown below were as a result of yellow fever, which ravaged Colonial America in numerous epidemics. The sad story of their loss of the remaining three of those four young children and the following death of their mother is told in the record of cemetery inscriptions upon gravestones in the Hale Collection of Cemetery Inscriptions and Newspaper Notices, 1629-1934, Connecticut:
* Arnold, Absolom King, son of Benedict & Hannah: died Oct. 22 1750, age 3 yrs, 6 mos., 18 days
* Arnold, Mary, daughter of Benedict & Hannah: died Sept. 10 1753, age 8 yrs, 3 mos.
* Arnold, Elizabeth, daughter of Benedict & Hannah: died Sept. 29 1753, age 3 yrs, 10 mos.
* Arnold, Hannah, wife of Capt. Benedict & daughter of John & Elizabeth Waterman, died Aug. 15, 1759, age 52 yrs.

      The toll these tragedies took upon the father of our Benedict V, known always as The Traitor, was almost immeasurable yet certainly comprehensible. To have such terrible tragedies hit one after the other took Benedict III from the role of supportive husband, proud father, and successful businessman to that of a forlorn, drunken failure. Of his six children, only two now remained: Benedict Arnold, the second son of this union so named, and his sister, Hannah who was the namesake of their now deceased mother. The thriving mercantile business founded by Benedict III was now heavily afloat, and rapidly sinking, in debt. The father was now the town drunk, frequently arrested for public drunkenness and public displays of unacceptable behavior. By 1761, the elder Benedict passed away, his reputation now so tarnished he was refused communion by his own church. An ignominious ending for a man once gifted, bright, successful, and rightfully expectant of a wonderful life.

Benedict Arnold V (the Traitor) as a young man.

      For Benedict, the son, this meant the end of his dreams of a bright future. A mere two years before the deaths of his four siblings, Benedict had been enrolled in a private school at the age of 10, a preparatory school whose brightest students were expected to successfully ascribe to Yale upon graduation. Now, only 14 years of age, he was forced to turn to his mother’s Lathrop family connections in order to support himself, his parents, and his sister, Hannah. The Lathrop family maintained a successful business in general merchandise, specializing in apothecary. Young Benedict was taken in as an apprentice who quickly gained the skills and professionalism to carry on the trade. (An often overlooked fact concerning Benedict Arnold is that he was a descendant, through his maternal grandmother of John Lothropp, a direct line ancestor of no less than six American presidents.)

      One can only imagine the potential for bitterness in young Benedict. Once welcomed in the homes of the most influential, upper crust families in Norwich, he was now apprenticed as the poor relation to his uncle’s and cousin’s business. It must have rankled. Yet, he took up his yoke, bent his back and made the best of the situation. Along the way, not only did he learn the trade – he learned the trade secrets and the ways and wise of the streets. For he became a street fighter, and a successful one at that, as well. He established a popular and profitable business as a bookseller and pharmacist in New Haven, Connecticut. His astute business sense permitted him to not only repay the loans made to him by his Lathrop relatives, but to pay back the outstanding debts incurred by his father on the family home. Within a year he had sold the old family homestead for a comely profit – a profit so substantial it permitted him to purchase, in a partnership, three sailing ships and establish his own trading enterprise.
   He then brought his sister Hannah to New Haven, made her his business manager in his apothecary trade and set about expanding his horizons. Benedict often sailed one of his own ships as he travelled from New Haven to Quebec and to the West Indies in pursuit of trade goods. Thus, we encounter one of the early signs of Benedict Arnold’s self-governance. In the course of establishing this trade business, the British Crown imposed upon the colonies two highly unpopular acts intended to extract for the King the profits being obtained by the colonists: The Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. These two Acts imposed high taxation upon all goods sold, all papers created or used to transact business. The Acts were so unpopular they formed the basis for the Colonists’ early murmurs of rebellion.
   For Benedict, however, the Acts merely generated in him a personal rebellion – the intent to thrive in spite of all opposition. He simply resorted to smuggling. He joined forces with a secret organization known as the Sons of Liberty, a group of merchants and traders willing to oppose the law in concert and in defiance of the Crown. In spite of this, Benedict’s business was rapidly sinking in debt due not only to the taxation but to his inclination to live “high on the hog.” He enjoyed the good life – that early promise having been denied him by his father’s failures – and spent beyond his means. It would appear Benedict equated money with success and the degree of ostentation with reputation. From a compilation of published works concerning Benedict Arnold, Wikipedia reports:

“Arnold also faced financial ruin, falling £16,000 in debt, with creditors spreading rumors of his insolvency to the point where he took legal action against them. On the night of January 28, 1767, Arnold and members of his crew, watched by a crowd of Sons, roughed up a man suspected of attempting to inform authorities of Arnold's smuggling. Arnold was convicted of a disorderly conduct charge and fined the relatively small amount of 50 shillings; publicity of the case and widespread sympathy for his view probably contributed to the light sentence.”

   This early and personal rebellion against the Crown, the King, evidenced Benedict Arnold’s willingness to engage in civil disobedience in pursuit of his personal enrichment. Throughout his early years and later, as he engaged in his military career, this tendency would be prominent.
   About this time in his life, Benedict Arnold took a wife. It appears to have been an arrangement which benefitted him personally and financially:
“On February 22, 1767, Arnold married Margaret Mansfield, daughter of Samuel Mansfield, the sheriff of New Haven and a fellow member in the local Masonic Lodge. Their son Benedict was born the following year and was followed by brothers Richard in 1769 and Henry in 1772. Margaret died on June 19, 1775 while Arnold was at Fort Ticonderoga following its capture. The household was dominated by Arnold's sister Hannah, even while Margaret was alive. Arnold benefited from his relationship with Mansfield, who became a partner in his business and used his position as sheriff to shield him from creditors.”


      At the young age of 14, in 1755, Benedict Arnold first displayed his interest in joining the Army. His mother, still alive at that time, refused to permit him to do so. However, two years later, at the young age of 16, he did – indeed – march off to serve in the French-Indian War. His term of service in that endeavor was a mere 13 days and is colored by rumours he deserted his unit in early 1758. The entire tour with the Connecticut Militia lacks any element of glory, for not only were their engagements met with uncertain victories, their Indian allies engaged in atrocities which met with sanctions from the general public.

      In March of 1775, Arnold joined the Connecticut Colony militia, entering service as a Captain. His early strategic military moves brought him a certain degree of repute; however, as would occur repeatedly throughout his military career, Benedict would end this phase of his service as a result of a dispute over control. He had taken over Fort Ticonderoga when another militia force arrived and the officer in charge determined it was his duty to take command. Benedict resigned his Massachusetts commission and headed home. Unfortunately, it was on his way home he learned of the death just months earlier of his wife. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine touches upon the grief young Benedict felt:

“Upon returning from Lake Champlain to New Haven, he visited her grave with his three young sons at his side. Arnold’s letters to her prior to the Revolution had been filled with pleas for her to write more often, and his grief upon her death seems to have been almost overpowering. And yet, for someone of Arnold’s restless temperament, it was inconceivable to remain in New Haven with his sorrow. “An idle life under my present circumstances,” he explained, “would be but a lingering death.” After just three weeks, Arnold left his children under the care of his sister Hannah and was on his way back to Cambridge, where he hoped to bury his anguish in what he called “the public calamity.” Over the next three years—in Canada, on Lake Champlain, in Rhode Island and Connecticut and again in New York—he made himself indispensable to his commander in chief, George Washington, and the Revolutionary cause.”


      Sister Hannah, who had wielded control of the Arnold household even while Benedict’s first wife and mother of his first three sons yet lived, took up the role of house mistress and caretaker of his children in support of her brother in his grief. This freed Benedict to pursue his military career, his desire to assuage his forlorn lot directed to this end. He accepted General Washington’s request to resume his command. He suggested to Gen. Washington an invasion of British troops sequestered in Quebec City, a suggestion that bore fruit; however, he was bitterly disappointed when he was not given command of that invasion force. His many years in trade with Quebec made him singularly familiar with the city and its people. Soon thereafter, a second expedition was formed under his command. This attack was to move through the backwoods of Maine, equipped with 1,100 men and Arnold was granted control.


The Battle of Quebec (French: Bataille de Québec) was fought on December 31, 1775, between American Continental Army forces and the British defenders of Quebec City early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle was the first major defeat of the war for the Americans, and it came with heavy losses. General Richard Montgomery was killed, Benedict Arnold was wounded, and Daniel Morgan and more than 400 men were taken prisoner. The city's garrison, a motley assortment of regular troops and militia led by Quebec's provincial governor, General Guy Carleton, suffered a small number of casualties. Montgomery's army had captured Montreal on November 13, and early in December they joined a force led by Arnold, whose men had made an arduous trek through the wilderness of northern New England.


      This campaign would result in the first of three injuries to Benedict Arnold’s leg, a mixed bag of friendships and animosity that would eventually result in long range feuds with several powerful Continental officers. In fact, Benedict Arnold’s entire military career was peppered with his own bitter disappointment in slow recognition of what he believed to be his own outstanding brilliance, accusations of improprieties typically concerning either the use of his position to achieve personal monetary enrichment, or lack of proper oversight of funds, equipment, or arms. He developed a number of bitter enemies, one of which was John Brown, who was:

“a Revolutionary War officer, a state legislator, and a Berkshire County judge. He played key roles in the conquest of Fort Ticonderoga at the start of the war, during the American invasion of Canada in 1775-1776, and once again in 1777 during Lieutenant General John Burgoyne's invasion of the United States by way of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Brown was the first man to bring formal charges against Benedict Arnold, who was then a prominent American general.”


      It was John Brown who published a handbill which claimed of Benedict Arnold: "Money is this man's God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country".

      In this vicious statement, we may well discern a truth that foretells Benedict Arnold’s ultimate treason against his country. For, after a shattered youth with all dreams destroyed, he would spend a lifetime in pursuit of the wealth his father’s downfall had denied him. Along with that, he would spurn even the slightest verbal criticism by physical, overpowering aggression against the naysayer. This tendency would both endear his troops to fierce loyalty and engender hatred among his military peers. Although lacking in particular height, his was a powerful and attractive physique. Handsome in an aristocratic manner, with aquiline nose, sharp features and a stocky yet flexible build, he carried himself with the air of the high born. For he was, indeed, the descendant of a family whose fame had graced two continents.

      Benedict Arnold’s desire to regain the reputation lost by virtue of his father’s improvident drunkenness and squandering of the family wealth seemed to goad him into a perpetual show of riches, flirting with financial disaster, and driving him to finagle and manipulate in order to enrich his coffers.

      Historians far more prescient than your author regarding the many factors at play with Benedict Arnold, the history of his military exploits and disappointments, his posturing for the upper crust of society, his courting of beautiful, rich young women have described a complex set of circumstances that drove a man destined to greatness in American history to commit high treason against his own country. For, Benedict Arnold’s name has become not a tribute to an American hero but the very definition of the term “Traitor.”

      Next month, we will look at the many factors at play in Benedict Arnold V’s personal life and military career that turned him from potential greatness in American and world history to become America’s most famous traitor. We will also explore the known distant relation this man has to our family line and the possibility that relationship is even more complex.

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