J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Burning Almost All of Benedict Arnold in Effigy

Gen. Cornwallis surrendered his forces at Yorktown to the Continental and French armies on 19 Oct 1781. The news traveled quickly up the North American coast. On 31 October Gen. William Heath, stationed outside New York, described various ways his troops celebrated, including this anecdote:

the company collected had determined to burn Gen. [Benedict] Arnold in effigy for his treachery at West Point; just as they were going to commit the effigy to the flames, one of the company observed that one of Arnold’s legs was wounded when he was fighting bravely for America, that this leg ought not to be burnt, but amputated; in which the whole company agreed, and this leg was taken off and safely laid by.
Arnold didn’t have anything to do with Yorktown, of course. But these soldiers apparently wanted to burn something. It was mid-autumn, after all, and that’s when the British had enjoyed their Guy Fawkes bonfires for generations.

It was probably just a coincidence of when the Yorktown news arrived that this New York bonfire took place on 31 October. However, that celebration was a forerunner of how several of the British Empire’s 5th of November traditions eventually shifted to Halloween in America. The Bostonian Society’s online exhibit traces more of the shift.

In 1887, acting on impulses similar to Heath’s soldiers, the Saratoga Monument Association erected a monument to the leg where Arnold had been badly wounded in battle before he defected to the British.


Larry Dudley said...

As a resident of the Saratoga region familiar with the battlefield, I think it might be worth noting that Arnold's name is not actually on the monument, however! Just a tribute to a brilliant commander.

Christopher Abel said...

Did he lose his leg, or was it severely injured? I believe he continued to have both his natural legs for the rest of his life.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re right; Arnold didn’t lose his whole leg from his wound. Rather, he lost its use, and a couple of inches after it healed shorter than his other leg.

Heath’s soldiers said that leg “should be amputated,” which means that it hadn’t been, yet they nevertheless saw it as separate from the man.

As early as 1840, the story was told, “When BENEDICT ARNOLD asked ETHAN ALLEN in England, what the Americans would do with him if be was to fall into their hands, he replied that they would amputate the limb which was wounded at Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and consign the rest of him to the gibbet.” I don’t think Arnold and Allen were ever in Britain at the same time, however.