The name of Benedict Arnold stands in the first rank of infamy in our national mythology. Our emerging Democracy was anything but certain after the Revolution, when at least 20% of the white population of the colonies were Loyalists and perhaps just 1/3 of Americans actively supported the Patriot cause. The independent American identity appears to have required its signature Tory traitor as a focus of national animosity just as much as it venerated the martyred spy Nathan Hale and fostered an almost cult-like devotion to George Washington the "father of our country".
Arnold's treason is an undisputed fact but he was hardly the only Patriot to switch sides during the Independence struggle. None other than Ethan Allen, lionized along with Arnold for their capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, is known to have negotiated with the governor of Canada between 1780-1783 to establish Vermont as a British province and consequently was charged (but not convicted) of treason by Congress. Arnold was certainly the most prominent Patriot defector, however, and his exploits in the first years of the war were of such indispensable value to the cause of independence that his treason was viewed as all the more deplorable by his former comrades.
I confess more than a passing interest in this complex and tragically flawed figure. I have long felt it spiteful that Arnold's niche in the Saratoga Monument was left without a statue, since his actions there essentially won the battle that has been called the "Turning Point of the Revolution." My opinion of Arnold is also influenced by the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, perhaps Arnold's foremost apologist, who wrote sympathetically about his Revolutionary exploits and the injustices he endured. But there is also a close family connection, for two of my ancestors had fascinating connections to Arnold during the Revolution. One was among his closest companions during the extraordinary overland campaign against Canada in the Fall and winter of 1775, and the other negotiated unsuccessfully with the British for his surrender to the Patriots in return for the life of Major André.
Matthias Ogden and his friend Aaron Burr were at college at Princeton when the war began, and after Bunker Hill they left for Massachusetts and presented themselves to Arnold as unattached volunteers for his march on Quebec. Matthias served on this expedition as Captain of a grenadier company under Lt. Col Christopher Greene and as Arnold's Brigade Major. During the campaign he presented Arnold's surrender summons before the walls of Quebec (and dodged an 18 lb. shot that the British fired at him in reply) and was wounded in the shoulder during the attack on the city on December 31st, 1775. Returning to Elizabethtown, he was appointed Lt. Col of the 1st New Jersey Continentals and served as its Colonel and commander until the war's end.
Matthias Ogden's brother (and my direct ancestor) Aaron Ogden also served during the Revolution in the 1st New Jersey as Paymaster, Captain, Brigade Major and A.D.C. to General Maxwell in command of the New Jersey Brigade. During the Yorktown campaign in 1781 he was a Captain commanding three companies of Light Infantry - all picked men - in Lafayette's elite corps of horse and foot. On October 14th, 1781, he lead the van during Col. Alexander Hamilton's assault on Redoubt #10, and a footnote in his memoirs records he "received a contusion from a cannonball in the fight."
He was serving in New York under Lafayette in the fall of 1780 when news of Benedict Arnold's treason reached the patriots. British Major John André was captured with incriminating papers given to him by Arnold that detailed the American Highland defenses. Ogden's Autobiography (published for his family in 1893), details the role he was to play in the negotiations to exchange the condemned André for the traitor Arnold:
"(Captain Ogden) was met by General Washington alone, at his tent door, who put into his hands a packet addressed to his excellency Sir Henry Clinton Commander &c., of the British forces at New York, and at the same time directed him to carry it with a flag of truce, under an escort of twenty-five dragoons, to the next post of the enemy and deliver it into the hands of the commanding officer there, that he should get for himself the best horse he could obtain and call on the Marquis La Fayette for special instructions...
General La Fayette's instructions to Captain Ogden were, that he should if possible, get within the British Post at Paulus hook, and continue there during the night, and that he should privately assure the Commanding officer there, without taking him aside for the purpose, that he, captain Ogden, was instructed to say, that if Sir henry Clinton would in any way whatever suffer general Washington to get within his power General Arnold, then Major Andre should be immediately released."
Ogden was able to convey his message to the Commander at Paulus Hook, who took it to New York and returned a few hours later with the answer that "a deserter was never given up" and that his horse would be ready for him to return to Washington the following morning. Ogden's Autobiography records with partisan zeal:
"Thus this benevolent experiment of General Washington in favor of the unfortunate Andre failed and this accomplished scholar and gentleman suffered an ignominious death, while the infamous Arnold received the reward of his treachery to his General and his treason to his country."
I have not had the opportunity to examine the papers of Matthias Ogden to see whether he records any response to the treason of his former commander and comrade-in-arms, but have no reason to suspect that his opinion differed to any great degree from the sentiments expressed by his brother Aaron. The Ogdens were patriots of the first order and presumeably would have seen Arnold's defection as both traitorous to the cause and dishonorable to their class as gentlemen. In any event their own reputations benefited from their respective associations with Arnold: Matthias as the former hero's comrade in the days of his glory, and Aaron as the agent of Washington's retribution when he became a foe.