NPS Saratoga National Park
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  • 112. Wilkinson Trail --Station L

    A trail marker post labeled Station L, Wilkinson Trail.

    Track 13: Station L 

    The dense and varying terrain made it very difficult to stay in communication, both within one's own army and with other individuals farther away. They had only two ways to send a message; word of mouth, or a written message, either of which had to be sent with a messenger. That's right, no e-mail, cell phones, no radios, not even telegraphs! 

    Certainly, there were also spies, and both sides used them, often for gaining information about an enemy or circumstances ahead of one's own army. British General Simon Fraser, as one example, made many payments to individuals in exchange for scouting and spying services. And yes, the American Revolution also had its share of secret messages hidden in everyday objects, like buttons, bullets, or clothes, or messages encrypted by clever codes or hidden in plain sight and only revealed by a chemical treatment. 

    Of course, the punishment for spying was severe –execution by hanging. Perhaps the most infamous American traitor, General Benedict Arnold, was guilty of smuggling critical military information to the British –he was spying. Yet that wasn’t until 1780. During the Battles of Saratoga, Arnold was still on the American side. In fact, Arnold was considered by his troops as a man of great bravery and valor. 

    So what happened? Answering that requires taking another step back in time. But even then, it’s complicated. In 1775, Arnold helped lead a daring mission to take over remote Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Credit for the victory went to Vermont militia commander Ethan Allan, with whom Arnold shared command. Arnold perceived this as a slight to his honor, the first among many that were yet to come.

    In early 1777, Arnold was passed over for promotion, as five other Brigadier Generals were promoted to Major General, leaving Arnold behind. A few months later, he gathered a militia force and repelled some British invaders from central Connecticut, which won him his promotion, but did not restore his seniority –he was still subordinate to those other five Major Generals. 

    Here at Saratoga, Arnold suffered yet another blow to his ego. After the battle of Freeman's Farm on September 19th, a series of arguments with General Gates ensued, ranging from the unauthorized expense of public money to Arnold's anger over not being mentioned in dispatches back to the President of Congress, John Hancock. Gates decided to ignore Arnold’s further complaints, advice, and his very presence within the army. Arnold took it personally. 

    Two weeks later, on Oct. 7, as Burgoyne's forces made a movement closer to the American lines, the Americans launched an attack. Joining this attack, Arnold rode to the field of battle and took part in the ensuing fight, culminating in the successful capture of the Breymann Redoubt. Severely wounded in the left leg just as the redoubt was being taken, and described as "gallant" in the report to President Hancock by Gates himself, Congress afterward decided to restore Arnold's seniority. 

    Capturing Breymann Redoubt led to a British retreat, and the retreat led to the British surrender. General Horatio Gates, as the commanding American officer, was credited with the American victory –a reality that no doubt aggravated Arnold as he lay for months in Albany, and later in Connecticut, recovering from his leg wound. 

    His leg healed, but his anger festered. 

    In summer 1778, George Washington sent the now hobbling Arnold to Philadelphia to help stabilize the city in the wake of a British retreat from the area. While there, he met and eventually married Peggy Shippen, a much younger woman with Loyalist sentiments, and who infamously facilitated his contact with British intelligence officer, Major John André. 

    As allegations of his conduct surfaced, Arnold requested a change of command that would put him back in New York as Commandant of West Point. Arnold and his wife felt that the powers-that-be never fully appreciated his actions or his service, and that the British might offer better treatment. He arranged to meet in secret with Major André, the head of British Intelligence in America. 

    Arnold devised a plan to give over the defenses at West Point –the pride of the Continental Army and the key to advancing up the Hudson River. The information wouldn't be without cost, though: Arnold demanded 30,000 pounds-sterling in exchange, but would only receive 10,000 pounds-sterling, or nearly one million American dollars today. 

    Arnold gave André detailed information including troop movements, maps and weapon locations. André was captured in route with the plans hidden in his boot and Arnold's betrayal was revealed. Had Arnold not chosen to betray the American cause, he may have been remembered as one of the greatest heroes of the Revolution. Instead, Arnold fled West Point, and set sail on HMS Vulture to New York City where he was made a British Brigadier General. He then fought against American forces in America for the rest of the war, and died in England in June of 1801. 

    Once known as General Washington’s "fighting General," he had become America’s worst betrayer. 

    While today we have weapons of mass destruction that could conceivably destroy the entire population, what types of weapons did the armies use during the Revolutionary War and what sorts of damage could they inflict?