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Letters change view of Benedict Arnold, Gen. Gates

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Letters change view of Benedict Arnold, Gen. Gates

A newly surfaced letter written by a junior officer just two days after the second Battle of Saratog
Letters change view of Benedict Arnold, Gen. Gates
Park Ranger and Historian at the Saratoga Battlefield Eric Schnitzer describes the historic letter found on Ebay, found over a month ago, from Adjutant Nathaniel Bacheller in 1777 to his wife during the Bemis Heights battle, shown on Thursday afternoon...
Photographer: Erica Miller

American General Benedict Arnold vowed to “have some fun” with the British army as it approached the American lines on Oct. 7, 1777.

But nobody knew it until now.

A newly surfaced letter written by a junior officer just two days after the second Battle of Saratoga is shedding new light on the command decisions made during the turning point battle of the American Revolution.

Both commanding General Horatio Gates and his subordinate Arnold — yes, the traitor Benedict Arnold — emerge looking better than some historians have portrayed them.

The letter describes the two generals discussing an attack on approaching British forces — an account at odds with conventional stories of the men being in conflict, and Arnold engaging in wild and insubordinate behavior on the battlefield that day.

“It changes everything,” said Joe Craig, a senior park ranger at Saratoga National Historic Park, the 3,400-acre park where the battles on the west side of the Hudson River took place 239 years ago.

The letter was written by New Hampshire militia adjutant Nathaniel Bacheller to his wife, Suzanna, and is dated Oct. 9, 1777.

It emerged on the eBay auction website in mid-January, for sale by someone in Saco, Maine. The posting was seen by Larry Arnold, a director of the Friends of Saratoga Battlefield. It sold to an unknown buyer for $2,925.

While the buyer and seller are unknown, during the process the National Park Service was able to view and download a digital copy and make a transcript.

The contents — which include a first-hand account of a conversion between Gates and Arnold at Arnold’s headquarters at the Nielsen House — are historically significant, said Eric Schnitzer, the park's ranger-historian.

“Western civilization won’t really change over this, but our story certainly will,” Schnitzer said.

The new account, unlike memoirs written decades later, isn’t colored by prejudice against Arnold for his attempted betrayal of the revolutionary army at West Point and defection from the new nation in 1780, Schnitzer said.

As an adjutant, Bacheller’s job was to be at headquarters and receive and then deliver orders issued by senior officers. He was present at Arnold’s headquarters on Oct. 7, as it was being determined the British forces were moving forward toward the American lines.

Bacheller’s militia had arrived after the first battle on Sept. 19, during three weeks of standoff between Gates and the British under Gen. John Burgoyne. He was giving his wife an account of his first combat experience.

He wrote that his regiment was told to join Arnold’s brigades on the uplands around the Nielsen house, and soon afterward Arnold went out on horseback with an aide to try to determine how large the British force was.

“General Gates Soon arived to our Lines & Inquired for General Arnol & was Told he was out of the lines to View the Enemy,” Bacheller wrote in the letter, which is full of the misspellings and punctuation errors typical of many 18th century writings.

Gates ordered one of Arnold’s regiments forward, and sent word forward to Arnold not to have his men fire on the nearly deployed unit.

Arnold soon returned, in Bacheller’s account, and told Gates the “Enemy Design was To Take Possession of a hill about a Quarter of a mile To the west of our lines.”

“General Arnol says to General Gates it is Late in the Day but Let me have men & we will have some fun with them before Sun Set,” wrote Bacheller, who incorrectly spells Arnold’s name throughout the letter.

The battle then commenced, and the British withdrew in defeat that evening.

“I’m reading it and saying, ‘Oh wow, this guy is getting into a level of detail that none of his contemporaries did,’” Schnitzer said. “It tells in detail about the decisions of the American command.”

During the fighting, Arnold would have his leg severely broken after his horse was shot from under him during an attack on a British position. His leg was broken by both the shot and the horse falling on it, according to historians — and many believe the prideful general’s brooding during his recovery and resentment at lack of recognition from Congress led to his betrayal of the army.

Bacheller’s account runs counter to standard narratives that say Gates stayed in his own headquarters and left others to do the fighting, or that Arnold angrily charged into the fighting after Gates deployed Arnold's men without Arnold’s involvement.

“Some people will say Arnold was drunk, a madman, a demon possessed,” Schnitzer said. “There’s one story of his forcing his horse to drink rum.”

But the memoirs of James Wilkinson and other colonial officers — the accounts historians have relied on — were written decades later and weren’t objective, Schnitzer said.

“You can see where this is going,” he said. “Arnold could not be a hero because he was a traitor to the United States. Traitors were demonized.”

The son of a Connecticut sea captain, Arnold joined the Connecticut militia in 1775, and soon gained a reputation for intelligence and bravery. He led an arduous march from Boston to Quebec City for an attack that winter, helped colonial forces take Fort Ticonderoga, and fought in actions that delayed the British advance down Lake Champlain.

But Arnold biographies often note his making enemies within the army due to his arrogance, being passed over for promotions, and his building resentment.

At Saratoga, Arnold was a senior general, but serving under Gates, with whom he had numerous documented disputes about strategy.

Bacheller’s account of Arnold wanting to charge into battle and “have some Fun with them” is consistent with Arnold’s character, Schnitzer said.

“It was classic Arnold. Damn the torpedoes,” Schnitzer said. “But he’s asking for men, and that’s not Arnold going rogue.”

Bacheller’s account would also explain why Arnold was never court-martialed, if he actually had taken command on the battlefield without authorization, Schnitzer said.

Both men emerge looking better than some accounts would have it, Schnitzer said.

“Arnold is a smart tactician, and Gates is not cowering in his tent and history would have you believe,” he said.

The letter, while not previously known, is certainly authentic, Schnitzer said. The cloth paper appears appropriately aged, the writing is appropriate to the period, the battle details are right and a previous Bacheller letter, written to his wife a week earlier, is already known and is in the historic document collection at Fort Ticonderoga, Schnitzer said.

The new information will be incorporated into how park officials tell the battle story.

“This alters our understanding of the movements and events that secured America’s victory here at Saratoga,” park Superintendent Amy Bracewell wrote in the March edition of the Friends of Saratoga Battlefield newsletter.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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