Why is there a statue of Benedict Arnold’s boot?
Years ago, I was asked that question on a radio call-in show and honestly did not know the answer. Nor was I even aware at the time there was such a statue. But there it is — part of the Saratoga National Historical Park in Saratoga, New York. The “boot” is actually anonymous, citing the “most brilliant soldier in the Continental Army.” But there is no question it honors American history’s greatest villain, born this day in 1741.
History books like to make people into heroes or villains. And Benedict Arnold was easily characterized as a villain, the most notorious traitor in American History for his attempt to betray the patriot cause when he was in command of the strategic post at West Point, overlooking the Hudson River. But he might have been one of the nation’s greatest heroes. And that is what makes history so compelling. Not the black and white of dates and “facts,” but the more subtle gray complexities of ego, ambition and human frailty.
Born on January 14, 1741 in colonial Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold had a biography that reads like that of a character out of Dickens. The son of a wealthy, successful ship’s captain and merchant, young Benedict Arnold was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He was sent off to the best boarding school by his father, owner of the finest home in town. Then it fell apart. Yellow fever took his sisters while he was at school. Alcoholism then took his father. The fall was stunning as the elder Arnold became the town drunk and lost his fortune. At 14, young Benedict Arnold became an indentured servant. As a teenager, he ran away on several occasions to try and join the British-American forces then fighting France in the French and Indian War. Through pluck and generous relatives, Arnold eventually became a wealthy young merchant himself and was soon immersed in patriot politics, even traveling to Philadelphia to observe the First Continental Congress.
When the fighting began in 1775, he led Connecticut’s militia to Boston to join the rebel army gathering there. Arnold soon won honors for his role in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. With George Washington’s approval, he led a daring but disastrous march through Maine to unsuccessfully attack Quebec. Later, he built a small navy to battle the British on Lake Champlain, helping save the patriot cause. But it was at Saratoga in October 1777 that he made his greatest contribution, leading a charge that turned the tide in what would become the most important American victory of the Revolution to that point.
Admired by Washington, Arnold also made a great many enemies. Seeing others promoted and advanced before him made him bitter and ultimately led to his fateful decision to join the British side.
After his plot was uncovered, Arnold did join the British side, fighting against his onetime countrymen. He later moved to Canada and eventually to London where he died and was buried in June 1801 at the age of 60. His remains were accidentally –and fittingly?– moved to an unmarked grave.
You can read more about Arnold and his exploits in the chapter called “Arnold’s Boot” in America’s Hidden History