Messy revolutions

Our own provides lessons in courage and fidelity that apply today

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This month marks the 230th anniversary of the event which, more than any other, is responsible for the independence of the United States of America.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (, 412-263-1476).

What history calls the battle of Saratoga was really two battles which resulted in the surrender of British Gen. John Burgoyne and his army on Oct. 17, 1777.

Gen. Burgoyne led an army of 9,000 troops in an assault from Canada upon Albany. The Hudson River was then the great highway of America. If the British controlled both ends of it, they could cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, and strangle the infant nation in its crib.

The victory at Saratoga did more than thwart this design. The French were so impressed by it they declared war on Britain. Without French help, the Revolution could not have been won.

The victory at Saratoga was won chiefly through the strategic insight, tactical brilliance, reckless courage and inspirational leadership of one man. There is a statue "honoring" this hero on the field at Bemis Heights, site of the second battle of Saratoga. It is the likeness of a left leg, with no inscription.

That's because the man, after George Washington, most responsible for winning America's independence was Benedict Arnold, who is more (in)famous for other things.

Benedict Arnold was the best soldier on either side in the American Revolution (and, of course, on both sides). He was a terrific admiral, too. The year before Saratoga, he had thwarted a British invasion from Canada at the naval battle of Valcour Island. Arnold not only devised the naval strategy for the fight on Lake Champlain, and bravely and expertly fought the battle, he built the fleet, too.

No American commander inspired so much fear in the enemy. The mere word that Arnold was coming (even though without any troops) caused British Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger to abandon his siege of Fort Stanwix and retreat back to Canada, thus depriving Gen. Burgoyne of troops he was counting on.

And no American commander inspired so much devotion in ordinary soldiers. The battle of Bemis Heights had begun without Benedict Arnold, because he'd been put under house arrest by the overall commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, who did nothing for the victory save claim credit for it afterwards. The battle initially was going badly for the Americans. But they rallied when Arnold, defying Gates, charged onto the field.

I first learned of Benedict Arnold through Kenneth Roberts' excellent novel, "Rabble in Arms." Like most who are fascinated with Arnold, Mr. Roberts tries to answer the unanswerable question: How could a man of such exceptional virtue as Arnold sell out his country and his comrades in arms for 20,000 pounds sterling?

He was treated badly by Congress. He was concerned about the alliance with the French (which, ironically, was the result of his victory at Saratoga). He was beguiled by the beautiful Tory he married, Peggy Shippen. But the excuses are unsatisfying. There was something missing in this otherwise great man.

Arnold's treason is burned into our historical memory because it was a fall from such a great height, not because it was unusual. The Revolutionary War might have been won in the summer of 1778 if it hadn't been for the more successful treason of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee.

Once an officer in the British army, Lee was the second ranking general in the Continental Army after Washington. He was captured by the British in December 1776 after carelessly dallying at an inn. His captors offered him a choice. He could be sent to Britain to be hanged as a traitor, or he could turn his coat. Lee (understandably) chose collaboration.

Lee's task (after he had been exchanged for a British general captured in Rhode Island) was to keep Washington from attacking the British when they retreated from Philadelphia. The British had been weakened by the detachment of a large number of troops to guard the West Indies from the French, and were saddled with 3,000 loyalist refugees. They were very vulnerable.

Lee first argued against an attack on the British, and when Washington insisted on a scaled down one, demanded that he rather than Lafayette lead it. He kept the best units under his command from participating in the battle, and his confusing orders would have led to a rout had not Washington arrived on the scene in time to stem it. But a great opportunity was lost.

Those were complex times, as now, and those 19 percent of Democrats who said in a recent poll that the world would be better off if the United States loses in Iraq ought not to judge Arnold or Lee too harshly.


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