Benedict Arnold

In the same month, Benedict Arnold arrived in Saint John, where he soon acquired what was described as “quite a pretentious home” at the corner of King and Canterbury Streets. It was a 2 1/2 storey wooden building with a gambrel roof pitched toward King Street. The interior was well finished, the rooms were large, and several had fireplaces. The King Street entrance was reached by steps leading to an enclosed porch. Three dormer windows completed the upper story of the quite substantial residence. One of Arnold’s children, George, was born there on September 5, 1787. (Arnold had a total of eight offspring: two sons with his first wife, four sons and one daughter with his second wife, and another son, born of an unnamed woman in Saint John while his wife was visiting her mother in Philadelphia. This illegitimate son was named John Gage, and he was treated as an equal to his other children; he was looked after in Arnold’s will.)

King & Canterbury Sts Saint John
Corner King & Canterbury Saint John Today

In Saint John, Arnold began his business as a merchant, trading almost entirely with the West Indies. He built a warehouse and office near the harbour, at the intersection of Charlotte and Broad Streets and, once established, wasted no time in acquiring additional real estate. At one time during his time in Saint John he owned a great deal of the property between Prince William and Germain Streets, as well as large parcels of land in the Maugerville area, York and other counties and in Fredericton. He built a number of wharves on the Saint John harbour front and also owned property, including a home, in the new Provincial capital of Ste. Annes. There is, however, no hard evidence that he ever resided there. 

Abbey Glenn Riverfront B&B
Abbey Glenn Riverfront B&B, Fredericton. Circa 1790

Arnold also commissioned the construction of a 300-ton sailing ship at Maugerville. But, true to form, relations between the shipbuilder and Arnold eventually soured. It was reported that the shipbuilder, Nehemiah Beckwith, believed he had been shortchanged by Arnold, who insisted on many expensive changes to the original plan, without compensation. The shortfall was so great that Beckwith was very nearly ruined financially through his dealings with Arnold. On June 6, 1786, The Gazette reported:

On Thursday last came through the falls of the City, now moored, a new and noble ship belonging to Brig. Gen. Arnold, upwards of 300 tons, of white oak, the Lord Sheffield, to be commanded by Capt. Alex Cameron. The General’s laudable efforts to promote the interests of this infant colony have during his short residence been very productive to its commercial advantage and as such deserve the praise of every well wisher to its prosperity.

The ship was Christened “Lord Sheffield” in honour of a man who had championed the Loyalist cause in England. Serving as master of the vessel, Arnold made numerous trading forays to the West Indies. The young, personable, and attractive Mrs. Arnold, proved to be a popular addition to the fledgling social life of Saint John; exactly the opposite of her overbearing husband, she made numerous friends. She liked meeting people and liked to hear about their personal concerns and daily doings. Early, she was lonely, and wrote during one of Arnold’s absences about “being in a strange country, without a creature near me that is really interested in my life.” But she was resilient and was reported to have directed her household and its affairs “with skill, prudence and success.”

In 1786, Arnold formed a three-way partnership with his son Richard and one Munson Hayt, a former comrade in the military and now a justice of the peace for York county. Despite his own bitter experiences with the hardships of indebtedness earlier in his career, Arnold didn’t hesitate to use the courts whenever some unfortunate soul failed to meet his demands for payments. Between July 25, 1789 and May, 1791, he filed no fewer than 19 lawsuits against alleged debtors, the rank or position of the debtor meaning little or nothing to him, as can readily be seen from his lawsuit against Daniel Murray, a member of the Provincial legislature.

Arnold’s business prospered, until July 11, 1788, when his store was destroyed in a fire. Arnold’s son, Henry, was in the building at the time and narrowly escaped. Shortly after the fire, Arnold’s partnership with Hayt was dissolved, laying the groundwork for a sensational libel action.

Hayt had borrowed varying amounts of money from Arnold and had given promissory notes for which he was unable to make payments. As usual, Arnold immediately sought recourse through the Courts for his money. Several judgements were made in Arnold’s favour, amounting to more than 2,500 pounds but, in a display of pettiness, Arnold then issued a second action against Hayt for 12 pounds, 5 shillings and 3 pence.

Having now been arrested twice, Hayt’s growing dislike of Arnold blossomed into full-blown hatred. Aware that Arnold had taken out insurance of 5000 pounds on the building and contents of the store on Charlotte and Broad streets, Hayt was convinced that Arnold had committed arson to claim the insurance money. He unwisely went public with his views, and declared Arnold to be a blackguard of the worst type. Court records of the time show that Hayt said: It is not in my power to blacken your character for it is as black as it can be. I will convince the Court that you are the greatest rascal that ever was, that you burnt your own store, and I will prove it.” The insurance company, suspicion aroused, refused to pay the claim until the matter could be resolved.

As could be expected, Arnold commenced an action for slander against Hayt, hiring Ward Chipman to represent him. Chipman was former Deputy Master General of the Kings Provincial Forces in New York in pre-revolutionary days, and had written the charter for the City of Saint John. Hayt engaged Elias Hardy, attorney and solicitor, whose legal achievements were notable.

It was not surprising that Arnold’s great lawsuit for slander created widespread interest. It began in Saint John before the Supreme Court with a jury of 12 men on September 7, 1791. The court was held in an Episcopal church on Germain Street.

Under the law, the onus was on Hayt to prove the truth of the allegations he had made against Arnold. But Hayt and his lawyer were hindered in their attack by a court ruling which severely restricted their asking any questions of witnesses that might besmirch Arnold’s reputation in any matter other than the case in question. One of Ward Chipman’s associates at the time wrote:

The circuit court opens today with Judge Isaac Allen on the bench. The defamation (Arnold vs Hayt) case comes up on Friday and if they should have to go into all of the General’s transactions in this country, which is not impossible, it will take some days. The general has thirty witnesses. About a month ago I went up the River after two black men with the General. We found one of them on the Main which was to their purpose. One of them went up with Harry (Henry Arnold) to the top of the store the night that it was burnt with a candle after some oak to make a boat. There was such an appearance of veracity, and fear withal of what might be the consequences, their story so direct which they told without leading question, the declaration that they had not seen any of the General’s family, that no one ever said a word to them respecting the fire, their strong appearance of truth, candour and simplicity, which is always visible particularly in black men, altogether is sufficiently presumptive evidence against anything that Hayt can allege that the store was burnt otherwise than by accident. Mr. Chipman takes a great deal of pain in the business and he has told me that it is one of the most hellish plots that ever was laid for the destruction of a man.

Twenty-seven witnesses appeared for the Arnolds, while Hayt’s representative called 12 witnesses in his behalf. The court records state:
After the evidence for the defence was all in, the Plaintiff called witnesses to rebut it, two of them being his sons (Richard and Henry) who were in the store at the time it was destroyed by fire. After the charge of Judge Allen, the Jury retired and upon returning into court with their verdict, there were sitting with the Judge, Judge Upham, Mayor Campbell, and Aldermen Rogers and Putmen.

The jury returned a verdict of slander against Hayt, and Arnold was vindicated, although awarded only a tiny fraction of the £5000 he had claimed in damages. The insurance company was obliged to pay as well.

Despite his vindication, the cloud over Arnold’s head remained, and there was widespread suspicion in the community. On one occasion, a group of citizens, possibly urged on by Hayt, assembled in front of Arnold’s home and burnt him in effigy. The disturbance was so intense that British troops were called from Fort Howe and the Magistrate was required to read the Riot Act. The troops showed little enthusiasm in their task of defending Arnold.

Benedict Arnold, his wife, and probably his children, were by now totally weary of the hostility of many of the townspeople of Saint John. They had, it is true, made lifelong friends with a select few, particularly Ward Chipman and his wife, but the atmosphere was such that they could hardly bear to appear in public.

That same year, Arnold left New Brunswick with his family, to return to England. He had lived and worked in Saint John for six years. Controversy followed him, and in 1792 he engaged in a duel with the Hon. James Hartland, Earle of Lauderdale, at which Lord Hawke, son of the famous Admiral Hawke, was his second.

He continued to pursue his trade with the West Indies, and in 1794 was reported to have rendered great service to the Sovereign by supplying intelligence of enemy activities in that area. In 1798 the King granted 3,400 acres of land in Upper Canada to Arnold for “gallant and meritorious service at Guadaloupe.”

For several years after leaving Saint John, the Arnolds corresponded, and even exchanged gifts, with friends there. In one letter that survives, Mrs. Arnold wrote to Mrs. Chipman, “We hear of much gaiety in your little city… I shall always regret my separation from my valuable friends, among the first of whom I shall always reckon Mrs. Chipman.”

In another letter Arnold wrote, “The little property that was saved from the hands of a lawless mob and more unprincipled judges in New Brunswick is perfectly safe here, as well as our persons from insult. I cannot help viewing your city as a shipwreck from which I have escaped.”

While still in his fifties, Arnold’s health began to fail him and he was never able to return to Canada. He died in England on June l4, l801, aged 60. At his death, he still owned the land in Saint John, which he bequeathed to his wife and children. Peggy Arnold, named as executrix in his will, showed great skill in coming to grips with the complicated problems of Arnold’s estate. She later wrote, with some understandable pride:

I have paid every ascertained debt due from the Estate of my late lamented husband, within four or five hundred pounds, and this I have the means of discharging. I will not attempt to describe to you the toil it has been for me; but may without vanity add, that few women could have effected what I have done.

She spoke of Arnold as “the best of husbands,” and deplored “the loss of a husband whose affection was unbounded.” To her children she wrote:

I have rescued your father’s memory from disrespect, by paying all his just debts, and his children will now never have the mortification of being reproached with his speculations having injured anybody beyond his own family; and his motives, not the unfortunate termination, will be considered by them, and his memory will be doubly dear to them.

In one final wifely tribute, she wrote:
“His solicitude was in itself so praiseworthy, and so disinterested, and never induced him to deviate from rectitude, that his children should ever reverence his memory.”

She died in London in 1804, age 45.

The last of the Saint John real estate, still in the Arnold family name, was sold on January 4,1839, to one Samuel Halbett. And that transaction was the last ever to involve Benedict Arnold in Saint John.

There is, finally the story told of one of his sons, James, an officer in the Royal Engineers, who revisited Saint John in 1819 and, on seeing the old home at King and Canterbury streets, “wept as a child”. In 1830, James was appointed aide-de-camp to King William IV.

It is widely agreed that Arnold’s war record was exceptional, and he is generally considered to have been the outstanding battle field officer of the American Revolution. But Americans are unlikely to agree that he should be remembered for anything other than his unforgivable treachery. And Arnold and his family fared little better with the Loyalist of Saint John, where his reputation as a turncoat overshadowed any of his accomplishments.

Benedict Arnold remains, to this day in Saint John and almost everywhere, “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.” It is perhaps unnecessary, but safe, to say we will never see his like again. But every once in a while the words “Benedict Arnold” are flung, always intended as insult. For him a fitting epitaph might be, “Old soldiers never die.”

Article by Lois Quigley

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