Benedict Arnold photo for Bryan column

Benedict Arnold led British troops into Richmond in 1781 and laid waste to the city.

Ask almost anyone to list the worst villains in American history, and certain names usually appear — John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Al Capone and, inevitably, Benedict Arnold, who is arguably the most notorious scoundrel of them all. But few people seem to be aware of the role Richmond played in Arnold’s infamy.

A brilliant general for the Patriot cause at the beginning of the American Revolution, Arnold gained hero status by helping win a string of crucial victories over the British. Despite being popular with the public, his fellow officers regarded him as a thin-skinned, self-centered glory-seeker. In reality he was something even worse — a traitor.

Four years into the war, Congress reprimanded Arnold on a number of counts, including consorting with Loyalists in Philadelphia and even marrying into a prominent Loyalist family. Stung by these perceived insults and upset that his talents were not fully appreciated, he started passing military secrets on to the British for money. English General Sir Henry Clinton secretly urged him to change sides.

When it was discovered that he was dealing surreptitiously with the enemy, and planning to surrender the garrison at West Point, N.Y., to the British, American commander George Washington ordered the arrest of Arnold. Forewarned, Arnold fled to New York City in 1780. There the British granted him a brigadier general’s commission in the army and ordered him to recruit Loyalists into the Crown’s service.

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By late 1780, the Revolutionary War approached its sixth year. Great Britain’s mighty naval and ground forces had tried numerous strategies to subdue their rebellious American colonies. Large-scale offenses in New England, the mid-Atlantic colonies and then the South had failed to defeat the upstart colonials.

Arguing that striking a blow at the infant nation’s largest and wealthiest state would be a major setback for the Americans, Gen. Clinton ordered Arnold to take a force of 1,600 American Loyalists, British regulars and German Hessians to invade lightly defended Virginia.

Arnold and his troops anchored off of Hampton Roads on Dec. 30, 1780, and two days later sailed up the James River to seize Richmond, the newly designated capital of Virginia. After ransacking and looting plantations along the way, the invaders landed near Westover plantation, and headed west by road.

When Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson learned of the approaching enemy force, he called out the state militia, to which only 200 responded. He had all military stores and arms moved out of town to the cannon foundry at Westham.

After firing a ragged volley at the approaching enemy, Jefferson’s feeble militia unit panicked and fled the field. Nervously watching these events unfold, the governor left town, not wanting the British to lay claim to such a high-profile public figure.

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Arnold entered the capital and established headquarters at City Tavern. He dashed off a message to Jefferson demanding that large stores of tobacco and a cache of armaments be turned over to the British. If not, the town would be razed.

The indignant governor flatly refused to give in to Arnold’s threat. In response, Arnold ordered that Richmond be torched. His men went on a rampage of destruction, looting, and burning government buildings and homes. A steady wind intensified the flames, which left most of the town destroyed.

Leaving Richmond under a pall of thick smoke, Arnold marched his men to the Westham foundry, which they set aflame. Finished with their second orgy of destruction, Arnold took his men to Chesterfield, where they went on a final spree of looting and burning.

When Jefferson learned of the destruction, he ordered Virginia militia units under Sampson Mathews to harass Arnold’s force. Preferring not to engage the enemy so far inland, Arnold floated his force down the James River and back to Hampton Roads, destroying more property along the way.

Arnold’s wanton destruction in Virginia only intensified the hatred Americans had for him. After the war he failed in his attempts to establish businesses in Canada and England. He died as a pauper in London in 1801, shunned by almost everyone.

For years Jefferson faced questions about his leadership abilities and his courage. His enemies accused him of cowardice for deserting Richmond rather than staying to fight Arnold. The old charge of fleeing the field in the face of the enemy dogged Jefferson throughout his run for the presidency in 1800.

The fall of Richmond to Union forces in 1865 is a familiar story to most of us, yet many people do not know that we live in the only American city to hold the dubious distinction of being captured twice by enemy forces and to suffer widespread destruction by fire. Nor do they know that Benedict Arnold gained the reputation as one of America’s most notorious villains at the expense of Richmond.

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Charles F. Bryan Jr. is president and CEO Emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at cbryan69@verizon.net.

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