by James Kirby Martin
New York: NYU Press, 1997. xxx, 535 pp.
Illus, maps, notes, bibliog., index. $35.00. ISBN:0-8147-5560-7
Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered is an almost definitive biography of one of America’s greatest generals, and hands-down greatest traitor. Prof. Martin has written a very detailed account of Arnold’s youth and military services to the American Revolution.
The book is particularly good for its in-depth exploration of the three principal feats of arms to Arnold’s credit, the expedition to Quebec, the Battle of Valcour Island, and the Saratoga Campaign, but does not while not neglecting administrative and political aspects of his career. Demonstrating that Arnold was by no means as impetuous a soldier as has often been suggested, Prof. Martin points out a number of occasions on which Arnold acted with commendable wisdom to avoid precipitous action.
Unfortunately, the work has a number of flaws. Prof. Martin keeps reminding us that for a long time Arnold’s reputation as a soldier suffered from patriotic attempts to obscure his role in the war. But we know that, and there can’t have been a history of the war in the past 75 years that hasn’t done justice by Arnold’s war record. Worse, while Prof. Martin does a good job of demonstrating that Arnold’s personality was by no means as slippery as some of his detractors would have us believe, he keeps trying to tell us what Arnold was thinking or feeling at various times, usually without any specific evidence. And the book is limited to events before Arnold’s treason, which actually does not figure in the work at all.
Although valuable for those interested in the military history of the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold will disappoint anyone seeking to learn more about the origins of his treachery.