The first Cadet Chapel was constructed on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, in 1836. Its unadorned windows, severe Gothic design and plain white walls accentuate both its ecumenical use and its military heritage. Fittingly, the only decoration other than the “Peace and War” mural by Robert W. Weir, an Academy professor from 1833 to 1876, consists of black marble tablets, mounted around the walls; each tablet bearing in gold the name, rank, and dates of birth and death of a general officer of the Revolutionary War.
High up in a rear corner of one wall, almost out of sight near the railing of the choir loft–and, in fact, cut off by the railing–is a solitary plaque which carries only the rank and date of birth of a general officer of that war. The name and date of death have been conspicuously removed.
It is the “Arnold Plaque,” and it commemorates Benedict Arnold, who, prior to his treasonous attempt to deliver the fort at West Point to the British, was an heroic general officer of that War. His actions included the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, relief of the Siege of Fort Stanwix, and key actions at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, where he was severely wounded in his left leg, an injury that temporarily halted his combat career. The deletion of his name and date of death are a testament to his treachery.
Although he was technically a British subject, Benedict Arnold was born in the Colony of Connecticut and named after a great-grandfather who was an early governor of the Colony of Rhode Island. When his plot to surrender the fort at West Point was uncovered, he fled to Great Britain, but instead of lying low, he accepted a commission of brigadier general in the British army and led its troops against his former brothers-in-arms. In December 1780, he led a force of 1,600 troops into Virginia, captured Richmond and then went on a rampage throughout the colony, destroying supply houses, foundries, and mills. The pursuing American army included the Marquis de Lafayette, who was under orders from George Washington to hang Arnold summarily if he was captured.
He commanded those forces until May 20, 1871. One British colonel wrote concerning him, “There are many officers who must wish some other general in command.” The following month he was ordered back to British headquarters in New York. Finally, after his endless proposals for more action, the British commander authorized him to raid the port of New London, Connecticut, where Arnold led a force of more than 1,700 men. They burned most of New London to the ground on September 4, causing damage estimated at $500,000, [$10 million in today’s dollars] and captured Fort Griswold across the river in Groton, Connecticut, slaughtering the defeated Americans who attempted to surrender.
Arnold then returned to London, where he attempted to become commander-in-chief of the British forces in America. In Parliament, Edmund Burke expressed the hope that the government would not put Arnold “at the head of a part of a British army” lest “the sentiments of true honour, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted.” His application went nowhere, as did his many attempts to gain positions within the government over the next few years. George Johnstone, who turned him down for a position in the East India Company, explained, “Although I am satisfied with the purity of your conduct, the generality do not think so. While this is the case, no power in this country could suddenly place you in the situation you aim at under the East India Company.”
The shunned Benedict Arnold moved to Canada with his son Richard in 1785. There, he speculated in land and established a business doing trade with the West Indies, but an invisible curse followed him. He became entangled with unpaid debts and created an uproar with a series of bad business deals and petty lawsuits. He outfitted a privateer and continued to do business in the West Indies when the French Revolution broke out. He was then promptly imprisoned by French authorities on Guadeloupe, where he was accused of spying for the British. He narrowly escaped a French hangman’s noose by bribing his guards and escaping to a blockading British fleet.
In January 1801, Arnold’s health began to decline. His wounded leg ached constantly and years of gout in his “good” leg left him unable to walk without the aid of a cane. He died in June after four days of delirium, and was buried at St. Mary’s Church in Battersea, London, without military honors. But fate had one final indignity in store for him: a century after he was buried the church and its grounds were renovated. His remains were removed and, because of a clerical error in the parish records, they were reburied in a mass grave. Today, Benedict Arnold, American Solider, Hero of Saratoga, the man who some historians say might have been a President of the United States, the hated Traitor of the American Revolution, lies in an unmarked grave.