By Walker Joyce
The only time our most famous traitor stood trial was in a makeshift courtroom in Morristown. And that completed his transformation from hero to turncoat, yet another key bit of history ignored by our state.
To review the context in our last column, Benedict Arnold might have been revered as one of the Revolutionary War’s greatest champions. He was the Patton to George Washington’s Eisenhower, indisputably the best combat commander in the Continental Army.
He captured Fort Ticonderoga, nearly annexed Canada, and arguably saved the American Cause twice: by delaying the British advance on Lake Champlain and winning at Saratoga. He was grievously wounded a second time at the latter location, but not before securing the victory that convinced France to become our ally.
Had he died, he’d be lionized today. Instead, he survived to reap a bitter harvest of resentment, which was completed in our most historic city.
In 1779, Washington returned to Morristown, having previously encamped there after the Christmastime victories at Trenton and Princeton two years before. This coincided with the worst winter of the century, but people only remember Valley Forge.
The weather and Arnold’s trial would make for another epochal holiday season.
Earlier, Arnold was the commandant of Philadelphia, an assignment that allowed him to recuperate. Alas, also like Patton, this instinctive fighter proved to be an erratic administrator.
The qualities that made him a great warrior—impulsiveness, fearlessness, a righteous arrogance—worked against him in a civilian setting. He offended many in Congress and mixed with Tory elites, making the daughter of a prominent loyalist his second wife.
Marrying the young, beautiful and ambitious Peggy Shippen would prove a fateful choice.
Her champagne tastes and lavish socializing required funds that were scarce. This drove Arnold, who was owed back pay and spent much of his personal fortune on his own troops, to some questionable speculating. His enemies accused him of abusing his power. Arnold, who’d been denied promotions while others usurped his glory, couldn’t abide such personal attacks.
He demanded a court-martial to clear his name. “If Your Excellency thinks me criminal, for heaven’s sake let me be immediately tried,” he wrote Washington in May. “Having become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet ungrateful returns.”
But a trial was not forthcoming. The months dragged on, and while they did, Peggy’s flirtation with a British officer was rekindled.
Major John Andre, head of redcoat intelligence, was a dashing figure who’d charmed the Shippens. Given Arnold’s indignation and Peggy’s sympathies, it wasn’t long before the Major and the Missus were tempting the disgruntled General.
On December 23rd, a court-martial board finally convened. Dickerson’s Tavern was converted to hear the case. There, in the main room lit by candles and a roaring hearth, the members gathered.
Arnold arrived resplendent in his best uniform, including a knotted gold sash given to him by Washington. He eschewed a boot-lift that compensated for the two inches missing from his left leg. Instead, he used a cane and limped noticeably.
The charges centered on profiteering accusations regarding a merchant ship and transport wagons. Hard evidence was scarce, and the proceedings were delayed for weeks as reluctant witnesses were subpoenaed.
The trial was the talk of the town as Washington lodged in the Ford Mansion and his men shivered in Jockey Hollow. Arnold defended himself skillfully, and gave an eloquent summation stressing his sacrifices.
The verdict came on January 26, 1780. Arnold avoided a serious conviction, but his conduct was also called “imprudent and improper.” He was sentenced to a reprimand, the mildest punishment possible.
But Benedict Arnold’s ego would only tolerate a complete acquittal. Refusing to see any sympathy in the court’s decision, his rage only grew.
More time passed, and the blizzards increased. Congress was tardy in confirming the verdict, and Washington waited months to publish his rebuke. Arnold fumed, absorbing more pillow talk from Peggy, and when the penalty letter arrived in April, he made up his mind.
He would turn his coat.
In June, he smuggled two letters out of Morristown to British commander Henry Clinton.
The West Point plot had begun.
Would exoneration in Dickenson’s bar room have changed history? We’ll never know. Nor can we visit the site, for in typical Jersey fashion all that remains is a dingy plaque on the corner of Spring Street and MLK Boulevard.
More lore sacrificed to urban renewal.