Small Wars Journal

Lessons on Civil-Military Relations from the Benedict Arnold's Infamous Treason, a Case Study with Contemporary Applications

Tue, 09/06/2022 - 4:16pm


Lessons on Civil-Military Relations from the Benedict Arnold's Infamous Treason, a Case Study with Contemporary Applications[1]

By Gerald Krieger


            America's national security strategy is a military posture that contains political elements. Mixing strategy and policy with politics is an inherent facet of national security work that requires military leaders to maintain a heightened awareness and skills to operate within the political realm without being caught up in politics. The relationship between military professionals and civilian leaders is built on trust. The respect that it conveys to the military means that it is one of the most venerated vocations in the eyes of the American public. The foundation of the relationship is based upon apolitical advice and counsel on the viability and suitability of military force to achieve national objectives when leaders are contemplating various instruments of national power. The American political arena in contemporary culture is among the most divisive in US history. A case study from our nation's founding through the lens of civil-military relations (CMR) can offer insights for national security professionals. The American people were equally divided between those who supported independence and those who supported the English Crown during the American Revolution. This manuscript provides a case study with perhaps the most infamous treason in American history by analyzing the operating environment in Philadelphia that disenfranchised the revolution's greatest hero, General Benedict Arnold.

            We argue that Benedict Arnold's actions against the United States arose from his inability to cope with the complex political environment of the day that pitted Americans against each other. Those loyal to King George III, also known as Tories or Loyalists against the Patriots or Whigs, who sought independence. Specifically, he struggled to navigate the treacherous waters created by the civilian leaders of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council (PSEC), Joseph Reed, and his associates. Arnold assumed the role of a city's military commander in June 1778. This essay suggests that while Arnold was the most competent battlefield commander on either side during the American Revolution, his inability to operate in a tenuous political environment frustrated him and prompted him to abandon the American cause. Furthermore, General George Washington's decision as Arnold's superior ranks as one of the worst decisions in his career and turns a hero into a zero. In essence, Washington is partially responsible for creating Arnold the traitor.

            This fascinating case study must serve as a foundation for future military leaders who are forced to operate in a fast-evolving complex environment. Furthermore, the challenge of military professionals in postings working with and advising civilian leaders requires a developed skill set that must be honed. At the same time, an awareness of the dangers of being engulfed in infelicitous political issues must be avoided. An exploration into Arnold's character and challenges allows the reader to understand why military leaders must be mindful of the personal philosophies that motivate their subordinates. His tragic story also highlights the importance of civil-military relations and the dire consequences when the relationship turns personal. This paper has four parts. First, establish a basis for Arnold's character during his early military career. Next, it explores the challenges and details around his actions as military governor of Philadelphia. The third part analyzes the man based on several contemporary studies. The final section applies Arnold's example with modern challenges of CMR, highlighting what military leaders can learn from Arnold's experiences, including the importance of leader-subordinate relations.



Born January 14, 1741, Benedict Arnold was a descendant of a long line of Arnolds who helped form the Rhode Island colony. One of his great-grandfathers served as governor of Rhode Island for fifteen years. During this period, the Arnolds were among the most influential families in Rhode Island and Connecticut.[2] When young Benedict was thirteen, his father, whose fondness of the bottle led to the family mercantile business's neglect, creating excessive debts, and creditors threw him into prison.[3]   Benedict's mother, Hannah Arnold, borrowed money to secure his father's release from debtors' prison. Hannah, realizing that her son would have limited prospects placed young Arnold with her cousins, Daniel, and Joshua Lathrop, to train as an apothecary.[4] This apprenticeship would teach him the fundamentals of business. Another consequence was that pursuing a growing business would drive Arnold to the sea, developing maritime skills as he established connections and trade agreements in the West Indies. The dark cloud over the Arnold family left an indelible mark on the young man. It served as a driving force, propelling him to succeed in all of his personal and professional ambitions.

On April 19, 1775, British regulars and colonial militia exchanged fire at Lexington and Concord. This event prompted Arnold to join his fellow colonialist in the war for independence from London. This critical period allowed Arnold's strong personality and natural leadership abilities to capture Dr. Joseph Warren's attention, the head of the local Massachusetts Safety Committee. Years earlier, during several business ventures, Arnold's travels took him to Fort Ticonderoga, where he noted the abundance of cannons (along with the dilapidated condition of the fort). He discussed his plan to capture the fort with its invaluable artillery with Warren. Warren heartily agreed to the proposal and promoted Arnold to a colonel in the Massachusetts militia. Arnold joined forces with the Green Mountain Boys and Ethan Allen, capturing Fort Ticonderoga without bloodshed. This action brought Arnold to the attention of the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, who would regularly rely on Arnold.

During the war's early stage, Arnold developed many daring military plans. His execution of various operations provided him a platform to demonstrate his bravery and resourcefulness. He devised an elaborate scheme to capture Quebec. His plan included a treacherous route through 350 miles of almost impenetrable wilderness in the current state of Maine. Arnold's enthusiasm captivated Washington, who supported the campaign. The Battle of Quebec (December 31, 1775) was unsuccessful and costly. Arnold was wounded, and the expedition leader, General Richard Montgomery, was killed in action; even worse, the legendary Daniel Morgan was also captured during the assault.[5] Congress promoted Colonel Arnold to brigadier general based on his heroism and daring at Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Quebec. Meanwhile, Arnold impressed both Generals Phillips Schuyler and Horatio Gates with an audacious plan to delay the British fleet on Lake Champlain. Both generals readily agreed. 

Arnold and his men fought an exhaustive delaying action at the Battle of Valcour Island (October 11-13, 1776).[6] Though the British Navy destroyed the entire American fleet, their victory was pyrrhic. The Americans attained their objective by forcing the British fleet to return to Canada for the winter, though shockingly, Arnold's critics highlighted that he lost the American fleet in the process. On February 18, 1777, Arnold left Canada. He returned home to discover that the Continental Congress promoted five brigadier generals to major general ahead of him due to a new quota based on troops supplied by each state.[7] Arnold was the most senior one-star general; he was also the most decorated, so the slight deeply wounded his pride. Congress's action enraged him, fueling his distrust of Congress, which was not uncommon among the officer corps at the time.  

Congress recognized his gallantry by promoting him to major general on May 2, 1777, though not restoring his seniority. Ever mindful of his image, Arnold was deeply frustrated (Congress angered many senior Continental officers with their arbitrary promotions, leading several generals to resign in protest). On July 11, 1777, Arnold resigned over the issue of seniority. General John Burgoyne's Army invaded America from Canada during this same period and captured Fort Ticonderoga. The invasion panicked throughout the colonies. General Washington implored Congress to send Arnold to support the Northern Army.[8] They did, deferring Arnold's resignation to a later time. Despite his desire to resign, the sense of danger, an opportunity for glory in battle, intoxicated him. Hastily, he reported to General Horatio Gates. The event afterward became known as the Battles of Saratoga.

Arnold played a significant role in the Battles of Saratoga (September 19-October 17, 1777), which consisted of two engagements, one at Freeman's Farm and the second at Bemis Heights. Arnold is widely credited as a deciding factor with Gates's defeat of Burgoyne, and the victory signaled the French entry into the conflict. Arnold received his second combat wound to his right leg during the battle. His injury prevented him from taking a field command, prompting Washington to assign him the post of military governor of Philadelphia. Washington's instructions to Arnold were simple: Ensure law and order and guarantee no harassment against former Loyalists to the British Crown.


Arnold in Philadelphia

Once the British evacuated Philadelphia on June 18, 1778, Arnold entered the city the following day, on the 19th, to assume his role over what is now eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. The PSEC ran the city, while the council president was like a governor today. Philadelphia was the second-most populous city in North America after New York at the time. There were large groups of neutral Quakers, along with many Patriots. Surprisingly, some former Loyalists or Tories remained in the city. Many city residents awaited the war's outcome to determine their loyalty. Naturally, even the slight murmuring of support for King George III evoked strong responses from the community. Noted historian Willard Sterne Randall captures well the political climate that Arnold entered:

A struggle for control of the nation's capital involved Pennsylvania's radical new revolutionary government, the anti-Washington, anti-Schuyler, and anti-army factions in the Continental Congress, and the Army, which was to be represented only by Major General Benedict Arnold.[9]


Unfortunately for Arnold, being close to Washington, Schuyler and an essential military representative of the Continental Army were three strikes too many against him. The Quakers and former Loyalists were the only groups that were mildly receptive to him, or at least not outright contemptuous. Washington commanded Arnold to retain the city's skilled tradespeople. He felt their skills practical to support the military. Washington had the best control over his temperament when working with Congressional leaders who were difficult and demanded action while offering little in terms of supplies and support for Washington and the Continental Army. Knowing how to diffuse a potentially volatile culture in Philadelphia would require patience and strategic resolve that the bold Arnold, accustomed to almost recklessly running into battle, was ill-suited. Philadelphia's political climate was especially volatile, demanding tact and restraint from a military governor. There were few officers in the Continental Army suited to the test, though General Nathanael Greene demonstrated such skills that might rival Washington's

There were reports that Philadelphia Tory merchants started to hide goods for public consumption to sell to the army at much higher inflated prices. This news generated an order from Congress to suspend all trade,[10] which, in turn, made the public hostile. Joseph Reed, then vice-president of the council (he was ultimately elected president on December 1), directed a committee to compile names of Tory sympathizers for prosecution and punishment. Arnold blocked all acts of retribution. Arnold's action earned him rebuke from most of the city, who sought to punish the Tories.

            As Washington's duly appointed representative to the city, Arnold moved into the Penn residence, much like Clinton before him. He furnished it elegantly, restoring it to its former grandeur (Before his military service, Arnold was a successful and wealthy merchant. This success created an expectation of a higher standard of living). His high life in a city devastated by the English raised the eyebrows of local Quakers and incurred the wrath of Reed and most of the PSEC. Arnold forced all shops to close. He then signed a secret agreement on June 23 with the Clothier General of the Army and his assistant to purchase goods for military use.[11] The proceeds for sale were to be distributed among the three signatories (war profiteering within British and Continental officer corps was standard at the time).

Arnold liberally issued passes for people to go in and out of Philadelphia to conduct business. A businessman named Robert Shewell told Arnold that he was transporting his ill wife, along with personal property. He mentioned that he was also selling goods to the Continental Army. Arnold readily signed a pass for Shewell to enter any American port. Shewell's ship, the Charming Nancy, was involved in the lucrative Canadian smuggling business where prices were higher, unbeknownst to Arnold. The ship was captured, and Arnold's pass suggested his involvement in the smuggling operation. Reed learned of the incident, adding it to his running list of Arnold's transgressions in the city.

Within a month of his tenure in Philadelphia, Arnold was painfully aware that his personality and skill set were not suited for a military governor's role. He knew that his meager military salary was acceptable while on campaigns but vastly insufficient for resuming his comfortable lifestyle. Meanwhile, he needed to generate enough income to support himself and convince Judge Shippen that he possessed enough means to keep his interest in the Judge's daughter, Peggy. Arnold wrote Washington on July 19, 1778 and requested command in the Navy. He mentioned that he had neglected his private affairs since joining the army. Arnold wanted to retire to public business or accept an offer "to the command of the Navy to which [his] being wounded would not be so great an objection, as it would remaining in the army. I must beg leave to request for Excellency's sentiments respecting a commanding in the Navy,"[12] he continued, searching for a way out of the toxic Philadelphia political scene and into a less toxic position. Washington responded on August 8, wishing him well, though professing ignorance in maritime affairs. He stressed a desire for Arnold to resume command under him. A few years later, during the summer of 1780, Congress transferred the few remaining naval frigates under Washington's control.[13]

Arnold had many disputes with the PSEC, several erupted into the local newspapers. The situation in the city was heating up for him. On January 21, 1779, the Pennsylvania council wrote to Arnold and requested the details surrounding military wagons for personal business. The board also asked Congress to investigate Arnold, though specific charges and details were absent.[14]  Arnold learned of these charges on February 6, while he was personally meeting with Washington, who advised Arnold to request a court-martial. Ultimately, Reed and his committee formed eight charges and printed them in the local paper. He also sent copies to Washington, as well as to representatives of all states. Here is a summary of the charges:

  1. Issuing a pass to a known smuggler (Charming Nancy)
  2. Closing the city shops while making private purchases and sales
  3. Forcing militia to do menial jobs (one of his aids used a militia sergeant to get a barber)
  4. Interfering with Pennsylvania court ruling on profiteers
  5. Using government wagons for personal business
  6. Issuing passes without signatures from the Pennsylvania committee
  7. Failure to report his use of government wagons for personal use
  8. Supporting loyalists rather than patriots[15]

These charges in February unnerved Arnold. It also concerned Peggy's father greatly (Arnold married Peggy in April). He was deeply in love with Peggy. The charges also negatively impacted his public perception. Given his father's history, he was determined to maintain his integrity, especially to Judge Shippen and others in Philadelphia's high society.

            On March 17, 1779, Arnold wrote to John Jay, the President of Congress. He requested a speedy investigation to clear his name. Arnold was aware that he must extricate himself from Philadelphia. He relinquished his command to Brigadier General James Hogan on March 19, 1779, though he remained in the city. He wrote to Washington, requesting an appointment outside Philadelphia. On April 3, Arnold learned that Congress determined only four of the charges (1, 2, 3, and 5) were potentially viable for a court-martial. They set a trial date of May 1, 1779, unbeknownst to Arnold. He was busy with wedding preparations, which would occur on April 8, 1779, at the Shippen residence in Philadelphia.

On April 18, 1779, Arnold wrote again to Washington about Reed's wild accusations, requesting a speedy trial, mere weeks after the wedding. He expressed concern that Reed would delay the trial to gather evidence.[16]  Washington responded two days later, apprising Arnold of the May 1 date. Reed wrote to Washington on April 24, arguing that he never intended all the charges to be raised. The only substantial evidence, Reed claimed, was of Arnold's personal use of government wagons. He and the rest of his committee needed more time. Reed also suggested that he block the use of wagons by the military if he were not afforded adequate time to prepare for the court-martial.[17] Reed sent a similar letter to Congress, requesting a delay, surprisingly threatening the state of Pennsylvania would secede if pressed on the issue.[18] Washington reluctantly wrote to Arnold on April 28, advising him the witnesses for the court-martial were in Virginia and Carolina. The trial had to be postponed until early July. This letter sent Arnold over the edge. On May 5, 1779, his response highlighted his frustration while presenting a man nearly hysterical. He wrote:

From a candid view of the charges and the whole proceedings against me…you must be fully persuaded that I have been unjustly accused and that I have been refused justice from Congress on the report of their committee. . . If your Excellency thinks me a criminal, for Heaven's sake let me be immediately tried, and if found guilty, executed. . . Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expect to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen. Still, as Congress has stamped ingratitude as a current coin, I must take it. I have nothing left but the little reputation I have gained in the army. Delay in the present case is worse than death.[19]

Washington read Arnold's letter, replying two days later. He told Arnold the new trial date would be on June 7th. Reading the passage above, almost two hundred and fifty years later, Arnold's anguished words provide the best backdrop of a man trapped by fate, backed into a corner, grasping for a lifeline. The new trial date was almost a month away, and it did little to ease Arnold's concerns. The "rescue" came not from Washington but a friend formerly very close to Washington.

Not long after Arnold learned of his new trial date, a British parolee, Christopher Hele, stopped by to deliver a lengthy letter from Washington's former intimate friend, loyalist Colonel Beverly Robinson.[20] The letter, dated May 1779, was written to persuade Arnold to abandon his cause and embrace the ranks of American loyalists. There is no evidence Arnold replied to the letter. Years later, Joseph Stansbury, a young Philadelphia merchant who was widely known to be uncommitted to any cause, wrote that he met with Arnold in the middle of June 1779. Stansbury said the two discussed possibilities of ending the war (Historians determined that the meeting took place in May).[21] Near the end of their long discussion, Arnold swore Stansbury to secrecy, telling him that he was debating two options: to offer his services to General Sir Henry Clinton or to join the British Army.[22]

Arnold's court-martial was rescheduled a few times due to British threats in the area, along with other excuses from Reed. On December 19, 1779, it finally happened in Morristown, New Jersey. The trial was lengthy, rendering judgment on January 26, 1780. The findings exonerated and acquitted Arnold. However, giving in to the Pennsylvania commission, they determined that Arnold issued "irregular" passes and was also guilty of improper use of government wagons. General Washington was to render the reprimand, though he did not do so immediately. Months later, On April 6, 1780, Washington reluctantly issued a gentle rebuke of Arnold. Nothing could have altered Arnold's mind by this time. He continued his coded correspondence with John André and assumed command of West Point on August 3, 1780. Washington was to meet Arnold for breakfast on September 24, 1780. The same morning, Arnold fled to the British, shortly after learning of André's capture, and the details of his plot to deliver West Point to British military authorities in New York were revealed.  

The reasons that Benedict Arnold betrayed his country are debated among historical experts. Several have suggested that Arnold's marriage to Peggy Shippen and her loyalist family tipped the scales. Some suggest that even as Arnold learned of the verdict (January 1780), he was only guilty of listening to or exploring defection. Isaac Arnold says of Benedict Arnold, at this point, "he was not irretrievably lost."[23] This observation was incorrect. On May 23, 1779, Arnold wrote a letter in cipher and reported troops and supplies to the British in Charleston, South Carolina. [24] The British were exploring a potential invasion of Charleston that would not take place until March 29-May 12, 1780. Some historians claim that Arnold defected to the British because he knew that the American cause was lost, though this is not supportable.[25] All the correspondence from Arnold is from after his time as a British officer. There is no doubt that his posting to Philadelphia pushed him to defect, though his marriage to Peggy Shippen might have provided him with a British contact. The evidence and letters presented here suggest that Arnold's frustration and inability to engage civilian political leaders in Philadelphia created an environment that spiraled out of control, and he began exploring service under the British around May 1779.


CMR Challenges

Benedict Arnold, one of the most capable officers in the Continental Army, betrayed his country because he lacked the skills necessary to navigate Philadelphia's complex political arena, specifically with the PSEC. Arnold's frustrations with civilian authorities and Washington's perceived lack of support drove him to abandon the American cause. The evidence from his letters reflects his intense frustration with Joseph Reed and the PSEC and Washington's lackluster support. Unwittingly, Washington gifted Arnold a poisoned chalice when he placed him in charge of Philadelphia. Historian John Ferling wrote that he did not incline to defect to the British before his assignment in Philadelphia, underscoring the importance of his time in the city and the birth of his treason.[26]

            During the founding of the Continental Army, Congress was very mindful of the dangers of a strong military. European history was replete with examples of military overthrows of civilian governments. Washington ensured that he followed civilian leadership while effectively denying the military jurisdiction of state governments, as was the situation in Philadelphia, and he would intervene when civilians attempted to interfere in military operations.[27] Washington was mindful that he was establishing wartime boundaries for civil-military relations, though he was unaware that he would establish enduring precedents. Members of Congress often collectively or individually criticized (and praised) general officers for behavior that effectively meant that civil-military disputes often took on a much more personal quality during this period; as historian Don Higginbotham effectively argued in George Washington the American Military Tradition.[28] This personal element meant that officers often felt wronged by Congress, and many resigned over various imagined and real slights. Friction between the military and even civilians and Congress rose to volatile levels, and the latter often became scapegoats for everything that went wrong during the revolution. The infamous Conway Cabal (1777-1778) was a scheme orchestrated by General Horatio Gates's Congressional supporters to replace Washington. It was distressing for the military and public officials as it embarrassed both, though fortunately, it bore no fruit. Local political leaders often portrayed themselves as more ideologically motivated than the Continental Congress. They used their positions to secure supplies for local militias that could easily control rather than the Continental Army.[29] Washington was responsible to civilian leadership and walked the fine line of not challenging civil control while keeping a poorly supplied and inadequately paid army intact. He was forced to solicit support and recruits from local leaders without antagonizing them and win against the British (or at least not lose significant forces), placing Washington in a delicate situation where most officers would have failed.

            Political leaders were wary of a potential military coup d'état which meant that from the founding of the Continental Army, they controlled the appointment of senior military leaders. While there were few formal documents establishing Washington's authority when he was appointed Commander in Chief on June 19, 1775. His commission specifically stated

And you are to regulate your conduct in every respect by the rules and discipline of war (as herewith given you) and punctually to observe and foll(ow) such orders and directions from time to time as you shall receive from this or a future Congress of the said United Colonies or a committee of Congress for that purpose appointed. This commission to continue enforce until revoked by this or a future Congress.[30]

While Congress directed the formation of a national army, which meant that they had to feed and equip the army, this broke down later in the war. By 1778, the states were required to support the military, which blurred boundaries and made the relationship more complex. However, while Washington carried a grand title, his authority, and responsibilities outside the theater of operation were ill-defined, though Congress granted him temporary exceptional powers on several occasions.[31]

            Congress struggled to raise funding and provide adequate supplies for the Continental Army, creating another bureaucratic layer with local governments, undermining federal civilian authorities. General George Washington was very aware and mindful of civilian leaders throughout the American Revolution and established a strong foundation and tradition with which military leaders served the civilian establishment. Washington's challenges clothing and feeding his men is well documented. Beginning in 1778, Congress adjusted its approach to supporting the army and shifted support requirements for the war to each state government.[32] Washington strongly objected to this approach, suggesting that the result would be "pernicious beyond description."[33] The biggest problem for generals in the Continental Army was that their direction was coming from Congress from this point forward. However, local governments wielded absolute power and influence. This power and influence are precisely what the PSEC did, with the leader Joseph Reed even threatening to withdraw Pennsylvanian support if the charges against Arnold were not investigated.[34]

            When Arnold became military governor of Philadelphia, it was during a period when the Continental Congress was emasculated due to a lack of money, access to credit, and the Continental dollar was almost worthless, left the average soldier on the cusp of survival and death. Congressional representatives from many states were critical of Washington and his subordinates, mainly when it involved supplies, and personal letters are filled with sniping at others, often resorting to "language that was not always fair or appropriate in an American context. It was language laced with radical Whig references to standing armies robbing citizens of their freedoms or serving as instruments of corruption."[35] The bottom line is that the conditions for the Continental Army were deteriorating. Philadelphia was a large city, and the PSEC wielded significant influence.

A productive civilian-military relationship is crucial, especially in the modern urban battlefield. Benedict Arnold was a bold military leader, superb on the battlefield but ill-suited for local political governance. A great combat leader does not necessarily make a great staff officer and vice versa. Arnold resigned before Saratoga due to his frustration over seniority exacerbated by the actions of Congress. His excessive pride drove him towards this type of behavior, although many of his peers did the same. Washington knew the unique situation in the entire city of Philadelphia, particularly between loyalists and patriots. Still, Washington's inability to give Arnold a way out of his predicament may have contributed to Arnold's betrayal. Leaders must understand their subordinates and be attentive when subordinates reach a breaking point. Success on the complex (and often urban) modern battlefields requires effective decision-making and executions.

Arnold's tact and interpersonal skills were severely lacking. General Washington was perhaps one of the best when it came to the art of gentle admonishment. That is, he would gently rebuke subordinates rather than directly confront them. He also used silence rather than rage to influence people around him. In that regard, Arnold was the opposite of Washington. Washington was superb at dealing with Congressional politicians; Arnold was skilled at inspiring men to follow his audacious battle plan. When the latter left the battlefield for a garrison posting, his inability to engage civilian leadership led to his downfall effectively.

While most officers might cringe when they hear Benedict Arnold's name, assuming that the only thing a modern officer is treason or even worse. However, Arnold's plight can offer insights into American politics' modern challenges for national security practitioners. He was among the most gallant and competent leaders during the American Revolution. While his actions on the battlefield elevated him above his peers, his pride, interpersonal relations with others, and inability to mediate and navigate the complex political climate in Philadelphia led to his downfall. He was too full of pride and tone-deaf when it came to staying out of local politics and found that his actions were perceived as more supporting the Tories and thus biased against the Patriot cause. Modern politics in America between Democrats and Republicans is not unlike the caustic Tory versus Patriot or Whig dilemma. Arnold attempted to stay in the middle, but this behavior made him an enemy of the Patriot cause. The tragic irony is that he was among the few leaders who gave so much, including multiple injuries to his right leg.

While we tell young officers that they need to be apolitical, the reality is that those currently serving need to be cognizant of staying out of emotionally charged political issues. General George C. Marshall’s famous position on abstaining from all political participation to ensure he did not compromise his independent judgment. More recently, General David Petraeus with National Public Radio when he stated he had not voted in an election since he was a major general. Nevertheless, one could make the case that demanding that the military voluntarily disenfranchises itself from American politics out of a chivalrous sense of stoicism and propriety is not realistic nor part of a solution. More concerning might be the shrinking of moderate views and the growth of extreme politics at both ends of the spectrum. As Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn recently wrote, "[T]here is often a wide gulf of opinion and values between the officer corps and civilian national security elites and elected officials"[36] The growing partisan politicization of the public is increasingly reflected in the military and "much of the body politic viewing the military as 'captured' by one of the parties," though traditionally the military has been a more conservative institution and increasingly viewed as a Republican institution.[37]

The past several administrations opened the door to many retired and active military officers in his administration. This trend must raise alarm bells across the military. More retired general officers and senior military leaders are getting involved in the political process. While it does not mean that active military members will be influenced, it does open Pandora's Box, and those who have left might look to those still in uniform to recruit. While there might not be an imminent threat to a militant right or left-wing movement, the threat is still real and growing. Politics in the US is growing more divisive, and military practitioners’ risk being drawn in and must be cognizant of the dangers and stay out of the public fray. We, the people, have become has become them versus us. The lesson of Benedict Arnold's actions and behavior in Philadelphia continues to be instructive. Senior leaders must know their subordinates, recognize suitable assignments, and effectively manage their talent pool. Additionally, more training is needed for senior officers before it is too late. While modern leaders are unlikely to betray their country, their active participation in extreme politics can stoke the fires of political tensions and destroy the American people's hard-earned reputation and trust.



While all officers are taught the fundamentals of CMR, many civilians are not always exposed to the framework and boundaries of CMR. Our young officers must be educators and provide insights for leaders advising and working alongside.[38] Samuel Huntington's influential Soldier and the State (1957) promoted a theory of objective control where military and civilian realms were distinct. The military was granted latitude with operational and tactical decisions in exchange for military abstention from politics and political decisions. While it is outside the scope of this essay to address the debate over retired general officers in politics, the large number of those who engage in politics after retirement should concern everyone in the military. Furthermore, the tendency for senior officers to follow and fall in line with the crowd against their better judgment is also concerning. The time for demanding more rigorous training and awareness to CMR for field grade officers was never more urgent. General George Washington’s extraordinary subordination to civilian decision-making still represents a monument for the profession. On the other hand, had Washington recognized the warning signs and better understood both the political challenges in Philadelphia and Arnold’s temperament that was ill-suited to the task, he would have removed him earlier. It would have made all the difference in the world to Arnold and American history. We would have erected statues and monuments to Americas greatest revolutionary general. Instead, we are left with a dark stain on American history.




Arnold, Benedict; Lea, Russell M. ed. A Hero, and a Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold. Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, Inc., 2006.

Arnold, Isaac N. The Life of Benedict Arnold:  His Patriotism and His Treason. Reprint 1905. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2012.

Blakshain, Jessica D. "A Primer on US Civil-Military Relations for National Security Practitioners, Wild Blue Yonder, July 6, 2020, accessed on February 6, 2022,

Brumwell, Stephen. Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Desjardin, Thomas. Through a Howling Wilderness:  Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Feaver, Peter D, and Richard H. Kohn. "Civil-military Relations in the United States: What Senior Leaders Need to Know (and Usually Don't)." Strategic Studies Quarterly. 15.2 (2021): 12-37.

Ferling, John. Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Flexner, James Thomas. The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1953.

Hancock, John. 1775. "Commission from the Continental Congress," June 19, 1775. The National Archives.

Higginbotham, Don. George Washington and the American Military Tradition. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985.

Lehman, Eric D. Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.

Malcolm, Joyce Lee. The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.

Martin, James Kirby. Benedict Arnold Revolutionary Hero:  An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Nelson, James L. Benedict Arnold's Navy:  The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Randall, Willard Sterne Randall. Benedict Arnold:  Patriot and Traitor. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

Stedman, Charles, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War in Two Volumes vol. Gale Reprint. New York: Creative Media Partners, 2012.

Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution:  An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others Draw from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North American Now For the first time Examined and Made public. New York: The Viking Press, Inc. 1941.



[1] Elements of this paper were represented at the 87th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History: Turning the Tide: Revolutionary Moments in Military History, Norfolk, VA, May 20-23, 2021.

[2] Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 15; Joyce Lee Malcolm, The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold (New York: Pegasus Books, 2018), 12.

[3] Malcolm, The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold, 18-20.

[4] Randall, Benedict Arnold, 29.

[5] For a detailed account of the Battle of Quebec, see James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold Revolutionary Hero:  An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York:  New York University Press, 1997).

[6] The best source for this engagement is James L. Nelson’s Benedict Arnold's Navy:  The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006).

[7] Randall, Benedict Arnold, 328.

[8] Randall, Benedict Arnold, 342.

[9] Randall, Benedict Arnold, 407.

[10] Randall, Benedict Arnold, 409.

[11] Benedict Arnold, ed. Russell M. Lea, A Hero and a Spy:  The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold (Westminster, Maryland:  Heritage Books, 2006), 302.

[12] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 303.

[13] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 537.

[14] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 315.

[15] For a list of the actual charges, see Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 317-319.

[16] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 326.

[17] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 326.

[18] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 329.

[19] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 330.

[20] Carl Van Doren argues that Arnold sent an emissary to New York by the time he met with Hele so the talk that he had with him did not convince him of anything. Arnold had already made up his mind. See Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others draw from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North American now for the first time examined and made public, (New York: The Viking Press, 1941), 193.

[21] Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 252. See also Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution, 196.

[22] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 334.

[23] Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold, 261.

[24] Arnold, A Hero and a Spy, 343.

[25] For more on this line of reasoning, see Stephen Brumwell’s Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

[26] John Ferling, Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 448.

[27] Don Higginbotham, George Washington, and the American Military Tradition (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), 63.

[28] Higginbotham. George Washington and the American Military Tradition, 82.

[29] Higginbotham. George Washington and the American Military Tradition, 85.

[31] Higginbotham, George Washington, and the American Military Tradition, 92-93.

[33] As quoted in Higginbotham. George Washington and the American Military Tradition, 90.

[34] While outside the scope of this paper, it is noteworthy that Joseph Reed was originally one of George Washington’s aides-de-camp. Washington accidentally opened a letter to Reed from General Charles Lee in December 1776 that revealed that both men were openly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief and questioning his abilities to lead the army. Although Reed would subsequently leave the army, the relationship between Reed and Washington remained precarious at best.

[35] Higginbotham, George Washington and the American Military Tradition, 103.

[36] Peter D. Feaver & Richard H. Kohn. "Civil-military Relations in the United States: What Senior Leaders Need to Know (and Usually Don’t)." Strategic Studies Quarterly. 15.2, 2021, 27.

[37] Feaver & Kohn "Civil-military Relations in the United States,” 28-29.

[38] Jessica D. Blakshain. 2020. “A Primer on US Civil-Military Relations for National Security Practitioners, Wild Blue Yonder, July 6th, accessed on Feb 6, 2022,, 2.


About the Author(s)

Gerald Krieger has published articles on military history, US policy, and international relations. He specializes in international relations, focusing on the Greater Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, South China Sea, and US Foreign Policy. Gerald also conducts research on military conflict and cooperation between Native Americans and European colonial powers, specifically the Revolutionary Era and the Early Republic, demonstrating enduring links among strategy, operations, and tactics. He is currently ABD in an international relations doctoral program with Salve Regina University.