Arnold’s Pittsfield Nemesis
Bicentennial Berkshire, Nov. 17, 1976, By Denis Lesieur
generation writes its own history and ours is no exception. Despite
continuous efforts at objectivity, historians and their work must necessarily
reflect the needs and values of the times in which they live. As the present
changes, so does our view of the past.
And so does our understanding of the tragic turbulent relationship of John Brown of Pittsfield and Benedict Arnold. A brave battlefield officer and brilliant military tactician, Brown figured prominently in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. Yet within a few years of his death in 1780, Brown and his varied Accomplishments all but faded from public memory, relegated to a few historical footnotes.
Except for one fascinating fact: his rabid rivalry with Benedict Arnold. Ironically, Brown has escaped obscurity mostly because of the man he hated above all others. Until Sept 25, 1780, their bitter battles remained a subject of continuing controversy, with public support for both men. On that day, however, Benedict Arnold fled to the British, becoming American’s ultimate traitor, it’s supreme villain. And on that day, John Brown became a hero, the “brave accuser of Benedict Arnold.”
Within the last few years, however, historical opinion has slowly shifted. Perhaps as our lives have grown more complex, we have become correspondingly more able, and willing, to recognize complexity in others. Also, the progressive disillusionment of many Americans with their leaders has bred in many historians a similar disenchantment with history’s heroes, and an intensifying interest in it darker figures. As a result, John Brown and Benedict Arnold are gradually emerging as much more complicated, land human, individuals than permitted in the traditional, one-dimensional view.
Brown and Arnold were both driven men, fired by ruthless ambition that left little room for self-doubt or opposition. A man of piercing intelligence and driving energy, Arnold rose from the son of an alcoholic, bankrupt sea captain to become a wealthy merchant in 10 short tumultuous years. He was an essentially unpleasant but magnetic figure, able to attract or repel men with equal ease.
The tall, handsome John Brown’s quiet assurance was in sharp contrast to Arnold’s brittle aggressiveness. The son a prominent Sandisfield family, he was a Yale graduate who seemed equally at ease with roughened frontier farmers and with polished well-educated gentlemen. Enjoying a status and sophistication which Arnold desperately sought but never captured, Brown nevertheless proved as restless and dissatisfied as Arnold. His casual confidence masked a near-obsession with achievement that could suddenly erupt into violent, impulsive action.
Less than a year after his arrival in Pittsfield in early 1773, Brown was balancing a thriving law practice with an increasing involvement in politics. Appointment to the powerful local Committee of Correspondence, in constant contact with Boston, gave Brown a vital link with the eastern radicals. Selection to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in October 1774 confirmed his position as a political intermediary between the colony’s urban and rural patriots. Within several months, however, Brown would adopt a far different, and dangerous, role.
The strategic significance and untapped natural wealth of the vast Canadian wilderness attracted and astonishing array of profiteers, patriots, and men who were a blend of both. Brown and Arnold were both knowledgeable about Canada and they quickly gravitated to the center of colonial efforts at conquering it. They soon found themselves on a collision course.
Trouble began early, in May of 1775. Angered by Arnold’s arrogant assertion of authority over recently captured Fort Ticonderoga, Brown, as a strong supporter of the displaced Ethan Allen, struck back hard. Combining vocal and often venomous, criticism of Arnold with quiet, relentless political pressure, Brown did much to cost Arnold control of Ticonderoga, as well as relegating his part in its capture to a minor, even negative role. Stripped of power and pride, a humiliated and frustrated Arnold stood by helplessly while many of his disbanded soldiers re-enlisted, under the command of John Brown, his new enemy.
As dislike and distrust deepened into hatred, the encounters between Arnold and Brown proved increasingly explosive. Days before a near-hopeless attack against the fortress city of Quebec, the ragged remnants of the American invasion army were torn by mutiny. Accusing Arnold of risking their lives solely for his own advancement, three of his officers and their man demanded an independent command under another field officer. While inconclusive, the evidence points to John Brown as that officer, and instigator of the revolt.
Near the breaking point, Brown resigned his commission in the winter of 1777 and came back to Pittsfield. There, on April 2, he published a scathing indictment of Arnold’s character and ability. The extremity of the charges, ranging from the promotion of smallpox through inoculation to the massacre of entire villages of women and children, only served to destroy Brown’s credibility. One phrase, though, would come to echo prophetically in future years; “Money is this man’s god, land to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”
Shocked by these “wicked lies”, Congress finally ordered a hearing. But Brown was not summoned, nor any of his witnesses, although Arnold personally presented his defense. The outcome was predictable. In May 1777, the Congressional Board of War ruled that Arnold had been “ . . . cruelly and groundlessly aspersed . . . “ Quick congressional approval of the report officially closed the case.
Ironically, Arnold paid a heavier price for the ruling than Brown. The charges lingered on, not so much from any validity as from the willingness of men to believe in Arnold’s guilt. They would be one more grievance for Arnold to brood over, to turn him against his country.
Brown, bitter of his mistreatment and haunted by a continuing hatred for Arnold, nevertheless, retained the friendship and support of most Berkshirites. By the fall of 1777, he won appointment as a colonel in the Berkshire Militia, serving brilliantly in the field against Burgoyne. Then, in autumn of 1780, restless after two years of prosperous but quiet civilian life, Brown volunteered to lead a militia company against a force of Indians and Tories ravaging the Mohawk Valley in New York State. One October 19—his 36th birthday and a little over a month after Arnold’s treason—Brown, with only 130 men, confronted over 1,000 enemy troops.
In savage fighting lasting most of the day, 40 Americans were killed, Brown among them. He died tragically, but as a hero, vindicated by Arnold’s treason, and his own courage.