How to commemorate a traitor


Remembering Benedict Arnold -- it's complicated

By Mike Hare

People are complicated. Which makes history complicated. Much more complicated than school textbooks might lead us to believe.

And in some cases, complicated history makes for complicated monuments -- like the monuments in Saratoga that commemorate Benedict Arnold.

A quick primer on Benedict Arnold

Revolutionary War hero
Before Benedict Arnold was a traitor, he was a heroic soldier, instrumental in winning the Battle of Saratoga.

Arnold was a Connecticut-born merchant who got caught up in the cause of American independence in the mid-1770s. He wasted no time proving himself a valiant soldier. Among other triumphs, he helped lead the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. His heroics aided his ascension in the ranks of the Continental Army, eventually rising to major general.

In September and October of 1777, Arnold was instrumental in helping the colonists win the Battles of Saratoga, leading an unexpected rear charge on British lines. During the battle Arnold was shot in the leg. His injuries were severe enough to remove him from battle. In 1778 George Washington appointed him the military commander of Philadelphia.

Revolutionary War traitor
In the year leading up to the Battles of Saratoga, Arnold felt slighted as he was passed over for promotions, despite his accomplishments -- frustration that grew after his instrumental actions in Saratoga. And as the military commander of Philadelphia, he lived a lavish life, courting and marrying Peggy Shippen, whose family had loyalist connections. Arnold began secret negotiations with the British.

In 1780, while West Point was under his command, he helped devise a plan to turn the fort over to the British. The American capture of British major general John Andre exposed the plan, and Arnold barely escaped capture by George Washington himself.

Boot Monument

Boot Monument -front.jpg

So, do you honor a traitor for the valiant efforts he made before switching sides? And if so, how?

An American Civil War major general devised a way. John Watts de Peyster, who had served in the New York State Militia during the Civil War and was the author of several books about the history of the Battles of Saratoga, donated the Boot Monument, which now sits at the Saratoga Battlefield.

The Boot Monument accomplishes the tricky task of honoring the man whose name remains synonymous with traitor. The monument has a representation of a boot, in honor of Arnold's leg injury during his service to the colonies. And the inscription commemorates the "most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army." But the monument never mentions Arnold's name. It is the only war monument in America dedicated to a specific person that does not carry the name of its honoree.

Boot monument -back.jpg

The dedication on the back reads:

Erected 1887 By
Brev: Maj: Gen: S.N.Y.
2nd V. Pres't Saratoga Mon't Ass't'n:
In memory of
the "most brilliant soldier" of the
Continental Army
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
American Revolution
and for himself the rank of
Major General.

Saratoga Monument

Saratoga Monument.jpg

Arnold is also invisible at the nearby Saratoga Monument, which points toward the sky in the village of Victory. The 155-foot granite monument begun in 1877, and completed in 1882, commemorates the officers who helped the Continental Army secure perhaps its most significant triumph -- the Battles of Saratoga.

The monument has four archways, three containing impressive bronze statutes of heroes of the battles:

+ Arms proudly crossed, General Philip Schuyler looks to the east toward his estate, which the British had recently burned to the ground. The estate would be rebuilt immediately after the battle.

+ Facing west, Colonel Daniel Morgan appears to be shielding his eyes as he faces the positions his corps took to help surround the British.

+ General Horatio Gates, the leader of the Continental Army, is facing north. Gates's anxious pose is meant to show him awaiting the British invasion from Canada.

+ The arch facing south, toward the battlefield, is unoccupied -- intentionally.

Saratoga monument -empty arch.jpg

Benedict Arnold, again, is noted by his absence.

Earlier on AOA: Saratoga National Historic Park

Find It

Boot Monument - Saratoga National Historical Park
648 NY-32 Stillwater
Stillwater, NY 12170


The Old Cadet Chapel in the West Point Cemetery at the United States Military Academy honors Arnold in a similar way.

It's been a couple of years since I've been inside the Chapel, but there are a series of plaques commemorating various military heroes. Benedict Arnold's name is stricken from his plaque with only his rank and year of birth listed.

As the saying goes, "You cannot choose your relations." And that goes for Benedict Arnold. Yes, I am a relation of our country's most notorious traitor. My family married Arnolds twice in our history. The rest of my ancestors went on to be great patriots of the Revolution by fighting the British on land and on the sea. As a privateer, my 5th great grandfather supplied arms and powder to the continental army. My 4th great uncle was captured by the British on one his privateering raids, was thrown in a prison ship and escaped. He spent the remainder of the war working towards the better treatment of imprisoned sailors. I love history, you never know when you will find a surprise when researching your family line.

This article is suddenly very relevant.. interesting read in today's context.

As is true of many monuments, the Boot Monument is as much about promoting the man who dedicated it as it is about the subject: General de Peyster was from an old New York family, his first cousin was Gen Philip Kearney, he was an able military administrator, instructor & historian, though for a variety of reasons he saw little active service in battle.

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