Arnold's heroic actions in the Revolutionary War's Battles of Saratoga are detailed in a new exhibit opening Thursday at Saratoga National Historical Park, and his capture of British-held Fort Ticonderoga at the side of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys is being re-staged later this month in a rare nighttime re-enactment.
The Connecticut-born Arnold led American soldiers through Fort Ticonderoga's front gate in a pre-dawn raid on May 10, 1775, and he helped defeat the British at the Battles of Saratoga two years later. But most Americans know Arnold as the man who betrayed his nation by trying to turn over the American fortifications at West Point to the British, then joining the redcoats when the plot was uncovered.
Soon after the war broke out at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the ambitious Arnold began displaying the prickly personality traits that made him a polarizing figure years before he switched sides.
"He was hated long before he became a traitor," said Eric Schnitzer, a park ranger at Saratoga National Historic Park in Stillwater, 20 miles north of Albany. "Some of the guys fighting with him thought he was a total and complete jerk. Other guys thought he was wonderful."
Count the Green Mountain Boys among the former. Angry at Arnold for his orders forbidding them from looting their British captives, the New Englanders broke into Fort Ticonderoga's rum supply instead, then took drunken potshots at the 34-year-old Arnold, who escaped unscathed.
At Saratoga, he clashed with his fellow officers, including the commander of American forces, Gen. Horatio Gates. Despite helping stem the British advance in the first Saratoga battle and getting wounded while charging enemy lines during the second, Arnold was given little official credit at the time for the American victory many historians consider the turning point of the war.
Feeling slighted after being passed over for promotions, and in deepening debt due to his extravagant lifestyle and courting of a Philadelphia woman nearly half his age, Arnold began plotting to hand over West Point to the British in exchange for money. After being given command of the American fortifications guarding the Hudson River north of Manhattan, Arnold attempted to slip information on troop and artillery positions to the British via a spy, Maj. John Andre.
The plot ended when Andre was caught with Arnold's handwritten details of the defenses at West Point, along with a pass signed "B. Arnold." Andre was hanged days later. By then, Arnold had already gone over the British.
The Saratoga park exhibit includes photographs of the two Arnold documents, which are kept in the New York State Archives in Albany. It also features historically accurate replicas of the uniforms Arnold would have worn, both as an American general and a British officer.
The exhibit — "Broken Trusts, the Chequered Career of Benedict Arnold" — runs through April 2013.
At Ticonderoga, the May 19 restaging of the fort's capture is the first nighttime re-enactment at the privately owned tourist attraction since the one held on May 10, 1975, the raid's 200th anniversary.
A contingent will assemble on Lake Champlain's Vermont shore and be ferried across to the New York side in a single wooden boat making several trips, the same way it was done 237 years ago. Then they'll march to the fort and storm through the front gate, shouting for the defenders to surrender.
The number of visitors being allowed inside the fort will be capped at 350, with reservations required.