Sunday, February 13, 2022

ARP238 Court Martial of Benedict Arnold

When we last left General Benedict Arnold back in Episode 219, he had resigned his position as Military Commander of Philadelphia and had just gotten married to Peggy Shippen.  


Arnold had resigned his command in the face of numerous criminal charges alleging corruption, misuse of power, and consorting with loyalists.  The charges were brought by the State of Pennsylvania, and supported by its President, Joseph Reed.

Benedict Arnold

Arnold retained his commission as major general and demanded a court martial in order to clear his name. Many of the state charges were dropped and the matter was moved to a military court. George Washington had initially tried to convene a court martial shortly after the charges were brought in the spring of 1779, hoping to get the matter over with as quickly as possible and get one of his best combat generals back into action.

President Reed, however, did not want these charges brushed away.  He notified Washington that the prosecution needed time to build its case. If the army tried to push through a quickie court martial and absolve Arnold wrong-doing, then Pennsylvania would cut off its supplies to the Continental Army.  Bowing to this pressure, Washington gave Pennsylvania time to build its case.  Washington first scheduled the trial for June 1779. Continued delays pushed the trial back for months.  

Meanwhile General Arnold remained in Philadelphia, falling deeper into debt and trying to build a life with his new wife, without any real way to support her.  He opened up secret communications with the British, offering to betray his country.  None of this, however, had come to light in the public yet. 

Americans were divided on Arnold. Some saw him as a great general who had been treated poorly by government officials and who was a hero of the revolution.  His detractors saw him as a vain, corrupt man who consorted with loyalists, and despite whatever contribution he made to military victories, was not worthy to remain a military leader.  It seems that the overwhelming majority held the former opinion.  Arnold was a hero, one who had been critical to many of its early successes, and should be recognized as such.

Arnold had certainly made his share of enemies during his military rise.  In 1776, Arnold had nearly faced a court martial. That conflict stemmed from his criticism from the decision of another court martial that he had demanded against subordinate officers who, he believed, had failed to follow his orders.  The only thing that saved Arnold at that time was the fact that his military services were needed to defend against the British invasion from Quebec.

There was no love lost between Arnold and most of the officers who had served with him in the earlier years of the war.  While many might have had a grudging respect for his abilities on the battlefield, Arnold did not seem to get along well with others.  He had a prickly personality, and many believed he put his concerns of money and his personal wealth above the needs of the country.

The proximate cause of the charges he now faced were primarily the result of Arnold’s willingness to associate with, and protect the interests of, loyalists in Philadelphia.  As military commander following the British evacuation in 1778, Arnold mixed with the Philadelphia elite, many of whom had consorted with the British during the occupation of the city.  

Many Philadelphians who had suffered greatly from the occupation, resented those who had collaborated with the British and, in doing so, maintained their property and comfort.  They now wanted these collaborators to pay.  Arnold, however, saw these people as the real leaders of the city - the merchants who could actually get things done.  Further, Arnold wanted to be accepted by the elites of society, something the orphaned boy who had to fight his way to the top thought he deserved.

Joseph Reed 

The radicals could not charge Arnold with treating the Philadelphia loyalists decently.  Not only was that not a crime, Washington and Congress had instructed Arnold to do just that.  Washington did not want to see a reign of terror go after Philadelphians who has done what they needed to do to survive the British occupation.  Rather, Washington, and much of the Continental Congress, was forward-looking, focused on returning Philadelphia to its role as a producer of goods and supplies needed to continue the war effort.  The commercial and economic leaders of the city were crucial to making that happen.

So, the radicals couldn't go after Arnold for being nice to suspected loyalists.  Instead, they could go after Arnold on charges of corruption and abuse of power.  They accused Arnold of using his position of authority as military commander of the city to profit himself personally.

Although a great many radicals in Philadelphia resented Arnold, one of the most powerful was Pennsylvania President Joseph Reed.  It was Reed who had brought the charges against Arnold, and who had prevented Washington from sweeping the charges under the rug.

Following Pennsylvania’s charges in February, the Continental Congress looked at, and dismissed many of the charges.  Several of the charges, such as shutting down the merchant trade for a time, had been ordered by Congress.  By the time of the court martial in December, Arnold faced four charges: 

  1. Allowing a loyalist ship to leave Philadelphia with valuable cargo
  2. Shutting down Philadelphia shops from all commerce, while at the same time making purchases of his own from the stored goods for personal profit and resale.
  3. Imposing menial duties on militia soldiers, and 
  4. Appropriating state wagons to transport private property for his own benefit.

The Court Martial

Arnold’s trial had been delayed at first because Reed insisted on being given time to build a case.  Although the court planned to convene on June 1 to accommodate Reed.  By that time, the summer campaign season began, and there was no time to gather a large group of senior military officers to hear the case.  Once the Continental Army settled into winter quarters in Morristown, the long-awaited court martial could begin, finally starting on December 23.

Robert Howe

Because Arnold was such a senior officer, the normal protocol of being judged by those more senior to the accused was waived.  All of the twelve officers who sat on the court martial were subordinate to Arnold.  Also, due to changes in availability, the court’s composition when it began on June 1, changed considerably to new officers who presided beginning in December.  Major General Robert Howe, headed the court martial.  Also presiding were brigadier generals: William Maxwell, Henry Knox, and Mordecai Gist.  The remainder of the 12 man court consisted of colonels, and even one lieutenant colonel.

Lieutenant Colonel John Laurance, who had prosecuted several other generals in prior years, led the prosecution.  As was the norm at the time, General Arnold defended himself.

The Charges 

The first charge against Arnold was that he had permitted a loyalist ship to leave Philadelphia.  The story gets pretty complicated.  A group of partners, led by Richard Shewell had a ship, the Charming Nancy in Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, while the British still occupied the city.  The partners were trying to get out of town with their valuables before either the British or the Americans could seize it.  

The owners convinced the British that they wanted to sail to New York as part of the general evacuation.  However, they were also concerned about being captured by American privateers that preyed on ships leaving Philadelphia.

Shewell had gone to Valley Forge to see if he could get a pass that would prevent privateers from taking his ship.  Most of the leadership at Valley Forge saw him as a collaborator and threw him out.  Shewell met with Benedict Arnold, who at the time was still in Valley Forge awaiting the final evacuation of Philadelphia. Arnold gave him a pass, allowing the Charming Nancy to leave Philadelphia and go to any American-controlled port.

When the ship left Philadelphia during the British evacuation, it was seized by a privateer and taken to Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  After several months of fighting, the American prize court accepted the validity of Arnold’s pass and permitted the owners to keep the ship and its cargo.

Arnold’s defense was simply that he believed that the owners were Americans, trying to prevent their ship and cargo from being seized by the British, and that he granted the pass in order to prevent the goods from falling into the enemy’s hands.

The prosecution attempted to show that the owners of the Charming Nancy had sold Arnold an interest in the cargo, and that Arnold, acting out of personal interest, had defied Congress’ instructions not to permit any ships or cargo to leave Philadelphia. 

The problem with the prosecution's case was there was no evidence that could prove Arnold had any ownership interest, and Arnold had issued the pass one day before Congress finalized its orders barring any ships from leaving Philadelphia.  In truth, Arnold did receive a personal interest in the ship, but the prosecution could not prove this at trial.

The second charge was that after Arnold had taken control of Philadelphia, that he had purchased goods from warehouses that had been ordered by Congress to be held for inventory and potential confiscation.  

When the British had abandoned Philadelphia in a hurry, they could not take everything of value, nor did they make much effort to destroy it.  Congress had issued orders, essentially preventing the sale or movement of any goods until the army could determine what items were in the city, who owned them, and whether they were subject to seizure.  General Arnold was responsible for executing those orders.

A great many loyalists feared that their goods would be seized by the army because of their collaboration with the enemy during the occupation.  They were desperate to get their goods out of there, or to sell them quickly for any amount.  The prosecution accused Arnold of buying goods at pennies on the dollar, while at the same time barring anyone else from buying or selling anything.

Arnold defended himself by denying any personal interest in any of the goods that had been embargoed.  He readily admitted that he had executed his orders from Congress to prevent the sale, transfer, or removal of any items by anyone else.  He also conceded that had he made any purchases of these goods that doing so would be both illegal and repugnant.  Arnold categorically denied making any deals in which he purchased or took any ownership interest in the goods that he had sequestered on behalf of Congress.  Once again, Arnold probably did do this, but the prosecution was unable to give any conclusive proof that he had done so.  Again, Arnold really did make such deals. The prosecution simply could not prove it.

Timothy Matlack
The third charge involved misuse of militia.  This seemed to be a rather petty charge that stemmed from an incident where one of Arnold’ aides, Major Franks, ordered a militia sergeant named William Matlack to fetch a barber.  Matlack happened to be the son of Timothy Matlack, who sat on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council.  Arnold had ignored Matlack’s complaints about this matter.

At trial, Arnold’s defense was simply that soldiers under the command of an officer must follow orders.  Enlisted men regularly performed acts of service for officers and there was no good legal precedent for thinking otherwise.

The fourth and final charge against Arnold was that he had used wagons owned by the State of Pennsylvania to transport personal property from Egg Harbor, New Jersey.  Arnold readily admitted that he had used wagons to transfer property back to Philadelphia.  The British were about to attack Egg Harbor and the use of the wagons prevented those goods from falling into the hands of the British. Further, Arnold noted that he had reimbursed Pennsylvania for the cost of using the wagons, so he did not improperly benefit from the use of government property.

Arnold brought witnesses and documents to back up his defense.  At the same time, he stressed his  own sacrifices that he had made to the country.  He savaged Reed, bringing up the old story about how Reed had betrayed General Washington back in 1776 when Reed was Washington’s aide, and the same time corresponding with General Charles Lee to imply his support that Lee replace Washington as commander in chief.

The Verdict

The trial lasted just over a month, but a large portion of that was the result of brakes caused by the terrible blizzard conditions that happened in northern New Jersey during that month.  By late January, the court reconvened to render its verdict.  The court dismissed charges two and three.  The prosecution did not produce any good evidence that Arnold had purchased any of the warehouse items in Philadelphia, and dismissed the charge of misusing militia for personal service.

As for the first charge, permitting a ship in possession of the enemy to have a pass to an American port, the court found that behavior to be “irregular” but did not go so far as to say it implied any criminal behavior.  On the fourth charge, the use of state wagons to transport personal property, the court found it to be “imprudent and improper.”  Even though Arnold had paid for the use of the wagons, an officer could not use his military authority to make use of state property for personal benefit and just pay for it later.

Samuel Huntington
Even so, the court did not see the finding of guilt to be serious infraction that required dismissal from service or any other real penalty.  It recommended that Washington reprimand Arnold for his behavior.  The final verdict was really more about poor judgment, and arguably an effort simply to maintain good relations with Pennsylvania by not simply granting a blanket acquittal with honor.

The court martial submitted the verdict to Congress, which gave its approval on February 12 by a vote of 23-3.  For some reason, Congress did not immediately communicate its approval of the conviction back to Washington. President Samuel Huntington provided Washington with formal notice in a letter dated March 11, along with a printed copy of the court martial proceedings.

Washington, pursuant to his duty, issued a written reprimand as part of his general orders for April 6, 1780.  The general orders simply repeated a summary of the charges and the verdict as well as Congress’ reprimand.  In the final sentences, Washington issued his reprimand as required by the court:

The Commander-in-Chief would have been much happier on an occasion of bestowing a commendation on an officer who has rendered such distinguished service to his country as Major General Arnold.  But in the present case a sense of duty and a regard to candor oblige him to declare that he considers his conduct in the issuance of the permit as particularly reprehensible, both in a civil and military view, and in the affair of the wagons, as imprudent and improper.  

In addition Washington included a personal note to Arnold, essentially reminding Arnold that, as military leaders, they needed to remain above reproach.  I think the note also says a lot about how Washington regarded his own position in the army:

Our profession is the purest of all.  Even the shadow of a fault tarnishes the luster of our finest achievements.  The least indiscretion may rob us of the public favor, so hard to be acquired.  I reprimand you for having forgotten that, in proportion as you have rendered yourself formidable to our enemies, you should have been guarded and temperate in your deportment toward your fellow citizens.  Exhibit anew those noble qualities, which have placed you on the list of our most valued commanders.  I will myself furnish you, as far as it may be in my power, with opportunities for regaining the esteem of your country.

Moving On

In his not to Arnold, Washington seemed to make clear in his note to Arnold that he was eager to get Arnold back in the field, where he could regain public esteem and restore his reputation as an honorable warrior.  

Arnold, however, remained frustrated.  In a letter from about this time, sent to Silas Deane, he wrote 

I believe you will be equally surprised with me, when the court-martial having fully acquitted me of the charge of employing public wagons or defrauding the public, or of injuring or impeding the public service.  Yet in their next sentence say ... I ought to receive a reprimand’ 

He clearly was not in any frame of mind to return to military service or restore his reputation.  A few weeks before the final reprimand, Arnold’s wife had given birth to their first child, Edward.  Arnold seemed focused on beginning a naval career, having written to Washington about the idea of taking a fleet to sea.  Arnold had been a merchant captain before the war, and had already acted as a naval commander on Lake Champlain.  A naval command could have given him, not only an opportunity for military glory, but would also to recover from his financial troubles, as he would be entitled to a share of any prizes captured at sea.

Washington passed along this request to Congress, but did not support it.  The Continentals did not have the ships or sailors to create a new fleet for Arnold.  Putting him in a command above the many navy captains who had waited for years for a ship an crew would have created a political firestorm.

A few weeks after the reprimand, Arnold received word from the Board of Treasury that it had disallowed some of his requests and that Arnold now had to repay Congress £1000 sterling.  Arnold, who was already hopelessly in debt and still hoping to get money from Congress, was beyond frustrated with his situation.

Around this same time, he renewed his secret correspondence with British Major John Andre.  In late March he had sent General Clinton details about the defenses around Charleston, South Carolina, looking to prove his worth to that army.  He began looking for an opportunity to switch sides and to turn over as valuable a piece of property as he could, in order to maximize his cash reward from the British. 

Arnold began writing to Phillip Schuyler to intercede with Washington to give him a new appointment as Commander of West Point.

Next week: we look at the hardships endured by the army during the winter in Morristown.

- - -

Next Episode 239 Winter at Morristown 

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Further Reading


Proceedings of the Court Martial:;view=fulltext

Murdoch, Richard K. “Benedict Arnold and the Owners of the Charming Nancy.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 84, no. 1, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1960, pp. 22–55,

“General Orders, 6 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Arnold, Benedict Proceedings of a general court martial for the trial of Major General Arnold, Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1780 (1865 reprint). 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858. 

Sellers, Charles Coleman Benedict Arnold The Proud Warrior, NY: Minton, Balch & Co. 1930. 

Todd, Charles Burr The Real Benedict Arnold, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co.1903. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cunningham, John T. The Uncertain Revolution: Washington and the Continental Army at Morristown, Down the Shore Publishing, 2007. 

Lea, Russell M. A Hero and A Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, Heritage books, 2008

Malcolm, Joyce Lee The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life, Pegasus Books, 2018. 

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990 (or read on 


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