An Analysis of the Near-fatal Wound Suffered by Benedict Arnold at Saratoga

Article by: William J. Maloney

“What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?”

   -Arnold’s query to one of his prisoners, a Continental Army officer, while he himself was leading British forces

“They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet.”

   -The American officer’s response

The present-day visitor to Saratoga National Historical Park encounters a multitude of informative markers and monuments commemorating the military engagements which occurred there in 1777.

One such monument is a stark frieze of a boot which pays tribute to a “most brilliant soldier” of the Continental Army who suffered a terrible wound near the location of this monument.  The observer might become slightly perplexed by this seemingly simple monument, a form of a damnatio memoriae, as it is devoid of the hero’s name.

This monument, known as the Boot Monument, is truly not as simple and uncomplicated as it might first appear.  Rather, it represents the complexity of the relationship between the wounded officer and the fledgling nation which he so bravely served during the early parts of the American Revolution.  This multifarious relationship between the General and his countrymen evokes such passionate and mixed emotions because this valiant savior of Saratoga is, as the handwritten birth records in his hometown describe him, “the traitor” Benedict Arnold.

Benedict Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut.  His great-grandfather, also named Benedict Arnold, was the first governor of Rhode Island.  His father had been involved in the Caribbean trade but, later became the town drunk as his business ventures faltered.  Young Benedict supposedly roamed the waterfront looking for trouble and, oftentimes, finding it.

Looking out for her son’s well-being, Arnold’s mother consigned him, in 1754, to an eight year apprenticeship with her cousin, Dr. Daniel Lathrop.  Dr. Lathrop was a Yale graduate and had studied medicine in London.  He operated an apothecary shop- the only one between New York City and Boston.  This apprenticeship ended in 1762.  Perhaps the knowledge and experience gained by Arnold during these eight years gave him the confidence, years later, to reject the recommendations of the surgeons of the Continental Army to have his left leg amputated.

Arnold’s meteoric, albeit short-lived, rise to hero status and valiant defender of the American cause began in April 1775 when he captured a local powder magazine with his Connecticut militia company.  This was followed up only a few weeks later when he and Ethan Allen captured the strategically important British-held Fort Ticonderoga.  Soon thereafter, at the request of George Washington, he led a column into Canada in an attempt to capture Quebec.  Arnold was wounded in this Canadian campaign in the same leg which would be shattered by a German bullet two years later at Saratoga.

At Saratoga, Benedict Arnold did not receive the respect from General Horatio Gates which one would expect to be accorded to an officer who had fought so bravely in the first years of the American Revolution.  In February 1777, Benjamin Lincoln was promoted past Arnold.  Arnold had supposedly fallen out of Gates’ favor.

At Saratoga on October 7, 1777 Gates sent Colonel Daniel Morgan’s sharpshooters to the flank in response to the movements of British General Burgoyne.  Heavy casualties were inflicted upon the British.  Arnold could not resist joining the battle.  He rode his horse furiously toward the British defenses at Balcarres Redoubt.

After being initially repulsed at Balcarres Redoubt, Arnold and his men turned their attention to Breymann’s Redoubt.  Arnold could see that he could gain entry into the enemy’s position on the far left by entering it through a sally port from behind as Colonel Morgan led the Americans in attack from the front.  This redoubt was manned by Germans under the command of Heinrich Breymann.  As Arnold furiously and successfully breached the German fortifications, supposedly demanding the surrender of the stunned Brunswickers, one German fired his musket in Arnold’s direction.  Arnold’s horse was killed and the ball tore into his leg.  This was the same leg which was hit by a ricocheted bullet at Quebec.

As his men rushed after the fleeing Germans, Arnold remained pinned under his dying horse.  Henry Dearborn was one of the first to reach Arnold.  Dearborn had practiced medicine in New Hampshire prior to the war and served under Arnold in Quebec.

One ball had struck Arnold’s horse and another struck his leg.  Arnold’s unwounded leg was pinned under the horse while the other leg was bleeding profusely.  Arnold’s men struggled and eventually freed him from the horse.  A tourniquet was made from strips of Arnold’s trousers.  A litter was constructed hastily to carry Arnold back to the American headquarters through the darkness.  There doctors could only triage the wound and provide little to no relief.

It was not until October 11 that Arnold was brought, via a bumpy ride in a cart, to a military hospital in Albany.  He was in immense pain from his wound which was located slightly above the left ankle.

Arnold had already made it very clear that he would rather die than have his leg amputated.  Amputation was the usual course of treatment for such a wound.  One of the American surgeons, James Thacher, attending to Arnold wrote on the morning of October 12 that he “required all my attentions during the night.” Thacher described the ghastly scene in the military hospital.  He spent his days, from eight in the morning to late in the evening, “amputating limbs, trepanning fractured skulls, and dressing the most formidable wounds.”

Wounded British and German troops were treated by their own surgeons in the same hospital as the Americans.  Thacher was impressed by the skill and dexterity of the British surgeons.  However, he did not hold the same opinion of the German medical professionals who he said were “destitute of any sympathy and kindness toward the suffering patient.”

Musket balls were made of solid lead which, upon contact with its victims, flattened and deformed.  The kinetic energy of the projectile was transferred to the surrounding bone and tissue.  In the eighteenth century, amputation was accomplished in two manners.  A circular incision was applied to the muscular portion of the leg around the calf or a flap procedure was performed on the lower portion of the leg near the ankle.

During his recovery, Arnold constantly degraded the doctors at the military General Hospital.  He  believed, and was probably correct, that his previous training in apothecary provided him with better medical knowledge than the doctors who routinely practiced bloodletting and the application of an ointment made from Cinchona bark in an attempt to prevent gangrene.

Arnold’s shattered leg was immobilized in a medical device known as a fracture box which acted  as a simple wooden splint.  Arnold suffered for months- bedpans, bed sores, and pain which would not even allow him to write a letter.  He endured this suffering while hearing the news of Congress striking a medal in honor of Gates- ‘The Hero of Saratoga.”

Arnold’s leg had turned grossly purulent in mid-November.  The wound had closed in December but, Thacher had to make incisions in order to drain the infected leg as antibiotics would not be discovered by Alexander Fleming for another 151 years.  By the end of the year the leg showed much improvement and Arnold was sitting up in bed a few weeks later.

After five months of suffering Arnold’s leg emerged misshapen and two inches shorter than the right leg.  Even a specially made shoe could not hide Arnold’s limp which the intense inner fire of Arnold refused to allow him to view as a handicap.

An analysis of the years directly preceding and following the near fatal wound suffered by Benedict Arnold at Saratoga evokes emotions which may best be described as ‘disturbing’.  Such emotions are the result of an honest appraisal of these two juxtaposed periods of time which inevitably throws our nation’s collective and comfortable opinion of Arnold into disarray.  Arnold was wounded while in a full-throttled attack on enemy positions.  There was not a single drop of traitorous blood running through his veins as he gallantly entered Breymann’s Redoubt.

The high water mark for Arnold’s patriotic service to the American cause occurred at the very moment the German ball ripped through his leg.  Arnold was almost prophetic in his assessment of his situation as he lay pinned beneath his horse wishing that the German ball had pierced his heart rather than his leg.  History’s view of Arnold would have been so much more straightforward and kinder to him.  But, alas, history is not as simple and clear-cut as many desire.

Rather than being placed in the neat and tidy column of revered American heroes of the Revolution, Arnold was sentenced by the German musket ball to a period of convalescence during which his thoughts were consumed by stolen glory. Arnold most likely was suffering, during the many agonizing months of recovery, from what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  This period allowed subconscious and brooding feelings to rise to the surface like a deadly iceberg.  As a result, Arnold was thus transformed into the apathetic, Washington’s dark angel of the American creation story.

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