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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Friday, July 26, 2013

How Tall Was Benedict Arnold?

Yesterday I quoted Louisa Catherine Adams’s anecdote about a visit to her father’s house in England from the twice-retired general Benedict Arnold. She described him as “a small neat looking man.”

In response, Boston 1775 reader John L. Smith, Jr., asked:
I had read in some journal or book somewhere that Benedict Arnold was 5' 5" tall. Have you ever run across that?
I actually looked into the question of Arnold’s height when I drafted that posting, wondering if he really fit Adams’s description. And it turned out to be an interesting historiographical question.

So far as I know, no one who met Arnold ever wrote down his exact height. Instead, we have descriptions like these:
  • Samuel Downing, a veteran of Saratoga: “He was dark-skinned, with black hair, and middling height; there was n’t any wasted timber in him”.
  • John Henry, a veteran of the march to Québec: “He was well formed, very stoutly built, with a florid complexion.”
  • Rev. J. S. Leake, son of a neighbor: “My father…has often described him to me, as about his own size, which was something below the middle height, well formed, muscular, and capable of great endurance.” (Extra trivia: Leake also said Arnold was ”the most accomplished and graceful skater” his father ever saw.)
That record got confused because there is a record of a ”Benidick Arnold” who enlisted in the New York militia in 1758-60 and was measured as 5'9". Some early biographers wrote that this was the future general, which allowed them to treat his militia record as a forecast of his career in the Continental Army: he enlisted eagerly at the age of eighteen, took his enlistment bonus, and then deserted.

However, that Benedict Arnold was identified as a weaver and laborer while the future general was already in training as an apothecary clerk. That Benedict Arnold was listed as coming from Norwalk, not Norwich, Connecticut. And at 5'9" that Benedict Arnold was above average height for a British-American of his time, not “middling” or “something below the middle height.”

There were several Benedict Arnolds in Connecticut and Rhode Island at the time, named after a seventeenth-century governor. One of them joined the New York militia, most modern biographers agree. Another one, shorter and already on a more lucrative career path, became a famous officer in the Continental and British armies.

So I don’t think we can say Arnold was 5'5" tall, which implies we can be precise to the inch. But we can say that contemporaries thought he was around that height, on the short side of the average range. And Louisa Catherine Adams, whose father and husband were both about 5'7", told her children that Arnold was “small.”


John L Smith Jr said...

I just keep thinking how odd the scene must have looked on the trek to Ft. Ticonderoga: ~5'5" Benedict Arnold battling for command against the ~6'2" Ethan Allen!

J. L. Bell said...

Arnold had the advantage of wealth, but Allen was older, taller, and had more friends. So Arnold wisely didn't press the case at first.

But once Allen's men took Fort Ticonderoga, they started to disperse while Arnold's arrived in larger numbers. And his greater discipline soon put him in charge.

To regain the initiative, Allen took on more risky missions and got captured. I can't imagine Arnold was too surprise or too upset.