Sunday, May 13, 2018

Four score and six years ...

Lincoln, of course, said "Four score and seven years ago" to commence the Gettysburg Address in 1863, by harking back to the Declaration of Independence of 1776. But it was the Battle (or battles) of Saratoga the next year, 1777, which in that generation made possible the endurance of "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
There were two battles on the same ground there, three weeks apart, in September and October 1777, followed by the British retreat seven miles north up the Hudson, and then their surrender. It led to French entry into the war, and another British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, and American independence. The 155-foot monument built to commemorate the Saratoga victory was completed in 1883, and was pointed out to the dying Grant from the overlook at Mount McGregor, as chronicled in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
Yesterday was rainy in Saratoga County, when a dozen people including my friend Larry and I took a tour that wound up at the famous 1887 monument to Benedict Arnold and his wounded leg -- a wound suffered at the climax of the second battle. There is an inscription on the back, but it declines to mention the traitor's name. A lot of trees blew down this year in a spring storm, and some parts of the battlefield were off limits.
In the photo, our expert tour guide, Dick Farrell, is in the brown hat. He said, contrary to some previous versions of the story, that the mercurial Arnold was operating under the orders of the commanding general, Horatio Gates, who deserves high praise.
Arnold's treachery later in the war is often ascribed to his jealousy over the promotions of other generals, or the influence of his Tory wife, the former Peggy Shippen. Dick put it down mostly to money, the 10,000 pounds the British offered (they only paid six thousand, because Arnold failed to deliver West Point). His betrayal seems less a matter of warped psychology, or an interesting play in the great game, than of failed morality, of doing the wrong thing. Fleeing from George Washington and the imminent prospect of discovery, Arnold reached a British boat in the river, and, Dick said, tried to have its captain arrest as traitors the two Americans whom he had ordered to row him over.

There are harsh critics of Lincoln, Grant, and Robert E. Lee, and many defenders of the first two  would call the latter a traitor worse than Arnold (I do think it was Lee's friend and fellow Virginian George Thomas who made the right decision in 1861). But Lincoln, Grant and Lee (and Thomas and Washington, too) were also capable of a moral grandeur which Arnold forever forfeited when he tried to give up West Point.

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