George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, c.18 April 1779

From Major General Benedict Arnold

Philadelphia [c.18]1 April 1779

Dear Sir

Agreable to your Excellencys advice to me when at Camp, I requested of Congress to appoint a Committe to Examine into the Charges aledg’d against me by the Presdt and Council of this State; my request was complied with, the Report of the Committe I have taken the liberty to Inclose, after peruseing it Your Excellency will doubtless be suprised to find Congress have directed a Court Martial to try me (among other Charges) for some of those of which their Committe, have acquitted me in the fullest and Clearest Manner; and tho this Conduct may be necessary For the Public Interest, It is hard to reconcile it to the Feelings of an Individual who is thereby Injured.2

Mr Reed has by his Address kept the Affair in suspence for Near two Months, and at last obtained the foregoing Resolution of Congress, and will I make no doubt, Use every Artifice to Delay the proceeding of a Court Martial As it is his Interest the Affair should remain in the dark; And tho Congress to avoid a breach with this State, have Declined, Decideing on the Report of their Committe, I have No doubt of obtaining Justice from a Court Martial, as every Officer in the Army must feel himself Injured by the Cruel and unprecedented treatment I have met with from a set of Scoundrils in Office. I must earnestly Intreat Your Excellency that a Court Martial may be directed to sit as soon as posible, If It can be done in this City I shall esteem it as a great favor as my wounds make it extreemly Inconvenient, for me to attend at Camp where it is very difucult to obtain the necessary accomodations for the recovery of them. It will Also be extreemly Difucult if not impracticable to produce at Camp the Evidences, which are all in this City—But should the service make it absolutely necessary that the Court should be held at Camp, I beg that as early a day may be fix’d for it as posible, and that the President and Council of this State may have such Notice, that the Court may not be delayed for want of their Evidence; Mine will be ready at the Shortest Notice.

When your Excellency Considers my Sufferings, and the Cruel Situation I am in, your Own Humanity and feelings as a Soldier, will render every thing I can say farther on the Subject unnecessary. I beg my best Respects to Mrs Washington and am with sentiments of perfect Respect & Esteem Dr Sir Your Excellency’s Affectionate & Mo. Obedt Humble Servt

B. Arnold


1Arnold left the date blank, but the letter was docketed as having been received on 18 April.

2Arnold had written to Congress on 8 and 12 Feb. requesting a trial and inquiry into charges that had been brought against him in a letter of 25 Jan. from Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council President Joseph Reed to Congress, and in an act passed by Pennsylvania on 3 February. Congress read Arnold’s letters on 15 Feb. and immediately resolved to ask GW to convene a court-martial to try the general. On 16 Feb., it referred Arnold’s letters to a five-man committee that had already been looking into the charges contained in Reed’s letter of 25 Jan., and it suspended Arnold from command in the army until his fate was determined (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:184, 188–89).

The enclosed copy of “A Report of the Committe of Congress Appointed to Examine into the Charges Exhibited against General Arnold by the President and Council of the State of Pensilvania,” signed by committee chairman William Paca, summarizes the committee’s conclusions, which were presented to Congress on 17 March: “The first, Second, third, and fifth Charges are Offences tryable only in a Court Martial, that the Fourth Charge is an Offence only of a Civil Nature and Triable only in a Common Law Court, that the Sixth Seventh, and Eighth Charges are Offences not triable by a Court Martial or Common Law Court, or Subject to any other Punishment than the Displeasure of Congress and the Consequences of it.

“That the Committe were furnished with Evidence by the Supreme Executive Council on the fifth, and Seventh Charges to which they beg leave to refer, that the Committe of the Said Executive Council tho Repeatedly applied to declined to give any Evidence on the Rest of the Charges after Fruitless applications For three weeks dureing which time several Letters passed between the Supreme Executive Council and Committe, In which Letters the Supreme Executive Council threaten the Committe and Charge them with Partiality.

“Resolved that as to the first and Second Charges No Evidence appears tending to prove the Same, that the said Charges are fully explained and the Appearances they Carry of Criminality fully obviated by Clear unquestionable Evidence.

“The third Charge Admitted by General Arnold in One Instance, to be transmitted to the Commander in Chief.

“Resolved that the Recommendatory Letter in the 6th Charge is not within the Spirit of the Resolve of Congress, or a usurpation of Authority.

“Resolved that the Letter in the 7th Charge tho not in Terms of perfect Civility yet is not Expressed in Terms of Indignity, and that after the Conduct of the Sd Supreeme Executive Council towards the Sd General Arnold, and the unexampled measures they took to obtain satisfaction, totally and absolutely preclude all Right to Concessions or acknowlidgement.

“Resolved on the 8th Charge that there is no Evidence to prove the same.... The fourth Charge there appears no Evidence to prove the Same and that it is triable only in a Common Law Court.

“The fifth Charge to be transmitted to the Commander in Chief” (DLC:GW; the report is printed in JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:324–26). Although the committee had found many of the charges against Arnold to be unproven and had criticized Pennsylvania’s lack of cooperation in the inquiry, Congress, seeking to patch a widening breach with Reed and his council, nevertheless resolved on 3 April that “the complaints against General Arnold be transmitted to his excellency the Commander in Chief, in order for trial; and that the same be duly notified to the executive council; and that they be requested to furnish the Commander in Chief with the evidence thereupon in their possession; and that all farther proceedings elsewhere cease, save the collecting and transmitting any further evidence thereupon to the Commander in Chief”; in other words, the trial would continue (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 13:414–16; see also John Jay to GW, 12 April).

GW complied with this resolution on 20 April by ordering a court-martial (see his letters of that date to Arnold, John Jay, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council). To his chagrin, the matter did not end there, but grew into a protracted and sordid dispute that threatened to damage GW’s relations with the Pennsylvania government while at the same time permanently alienating Arnold. On 24 April, Joseph Reed wrote a lengthy letter to GW complaining that he had misconstrued the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council’s role in preferring the charges against Arnold; GW’s bemused and equally lengthy reply of 27 April only partially put the misunderstanding to rest (see GW to Reed, 8 and 15 May; Reed to GW, 1 May; and the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council to GW, 8 May).

Meanwhile, GW’s attempts to fix an early date for the trial, originally set for 1 June, were hindered at every turn by bureaucratic confusion and enemy movements. Although the court met on 1 June just long enough for Arnold to object to the presence of three of its members, a council of war met later that day and decided to postpone the trial indefinitely on account of a British move up the Hudson River (Council of War, 1 June, DLC:GW). “I cannot,” GW wrote to Timothy Matlack on 2 June, “fix the time when the Court will sit, as it must depend on the Enemy’s operations” (PHi: Dreer Collection). The court did not meet until 20 December 1779 (see GW to Arnold, 4 Dec., DLC:GW, and General Orders, 19 Dec.). It reached a verdict on 26 Jan. 1780, when it acquitted Arnold of most of the charges against him, but found him guilty of dereliction of duty on two relatively minor points (see General Orders, 6 April 1780). Congress confirmed the verdict on 12 Feb. (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 16:161–62), but waited another month before forwarding it to GW, who was required to reprimand Arnold in general orders. He did so on 6 April 1780, but by then the damage had already been done: Arnold, furious at what he regarded as a conspiracy against him, had begun secret contacts with the British in the late spring of 1779. See GW to Arnold, 26 and 28 April, 7 and 15 May, 2 June (DLC:GW), and 4 Dec. (DLC:GW) 1779; Arnold to GW, 5, 14, and 18 May, and 13 July (DLC:GW) 1779; and Samuel Huntington to GW, 11 March 1780 (DLC:GW).

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