Monday, September 26, 2011

The Benedict Arnold/Dr Benjamin Church Jr. Confrontation - Part Five

   Benedict Arnold departed Crown Point on July 4th, 1775 and after arriving in Albany, New York was informed that his wife Peggy (Margaret) had died two weeks before of a fever. Three days after her death, her father, Samuel Mansfield, High Sheriff of New Haven, Connecticut, and a man to whom Arnold was very close, also passed away. The two main pillars of Arnold's personal life were now gone, and it seems so had his military reputation. After visiting briefly with General Philip Schuyler, Arnold proceeded to New Haven where he placed the care of his three young sons in the care of his sister Hannah, to whom he was very close. Hannah also took control of her brother's many business affairs since he was determined to travel to Massachusetts to confront his problems with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and, ever the military man, to meet the new Commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. Hannah was a very resourceful and pious woman who soon had the two older boys enrolled in school and took complete control of her brother's many business affairs proving herself to be a shrewd businesswoman.
Benedict Arnold's birthplace in Norwich, CT - No longer standing
   Normally a very physically robust man, Arnold's health now took a turn for the worse and he suffered a severe attack of the gout, which periodically struck his legs, and he was bedridden for a week. (I am always struck by how so many ailments in this period were diagnosed as an "attack of the gout." Given the state of diagnostic medicine at the time, I wonder how many of these gout diagnoses were, in fact, something modern medicine would be able to identify more specifically.) Arnold's malaria also flared up again; but he soon recovered and, toward the end of July, he embraced his sons and his sister, mounted his horse, and began his second journey in just three months to Massachusetts. This time he was determined to confront a Provincial Congress whom he felt had abused him.
   With his accounts in hand, Arnold presented himself to the General Court of Massachusetts. Historians and biographers of Arnold refer to it as the "Third Provincial Congress." In fact, the Third Provincial Congress of Massachusetts had dissolved itself on June 20th, 1775 upon the advice of the Continental Congress. The Third Provincial Congress had dispatched Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with a confidential communication requesting advice from the Congress to clarify the situation of a permanent government as a result of the activities in the colony since April 1775. Acting on that request, the Continental Congress resolved that Massachusetts was correct in recognizing that the positions of Governor and Lieutenant Governor, as well as the Council were vacant. It recommended that the Massachusetts towns elect a new Assembly that would choose a Council from among its members. On July 19, 1775, this newly elected General Court "resumed" government under the old 1691 Massachusetts Charter.
   The Council, the successor to the assistants under the old charter, consisted of twenty-eight men selected from the House of Representatives. They acted as the upper body of the legislature and advisor to the governor. No money could be issued from the treasury without a warrant from the Governor and Council. The lower body of the legislature, known as the House of Deputies under the old charter, was now called the House of Representatives. Freeholders, those men holding a certain amount of property, elected the House of Representatives annually. The General Court appointed officers, passed laws and orders, organized all courts, established fines and punishments, and levied taxes, all with the consent of the governor. The House alone controlled the salaries of the governor and judicial officers.This House has been sitting in continuous session since then.

   On August 1, 1775, the House of Representatives named a committee of five, headed by Dr Benjamin Church, Jr, to review Arnold's records and recommend a final settlement of his accounts. Dr Church was not only the member of the Committee of Safety who had signed Arnold's Commission, he had four days earlier been appointed to a newly established position. The Continental Congress had created a Medical Department of the Army with a Director General and Chief Physician who would be head of both the Hospital Department of the first Army Hospital and of the first headquarters of regimental surgeons in the army before Boston. Dr Church's appointment to this position made him the chief medical officer of the Continental Army besieging Boston, under the command of George Washington as of July 3, 1775. Thus Church is considered the first "Surgeon General" of the United States
   Only a week earlier, Dr Church had authored the infamous cipher letter addressed to his brother-in-law that he attempted, through his mistress, to smuggle into Boston.
   The Church Committee was ready and waiting for Arnold and the rancor started almost immediately during a very testy, day-long hearing. The committeemen had heard all sorts of reports about Arnold from his enemies Col Easton and Brown, and from the Spooner committee, none of them favorable and they were ready to take Arnold on. Dr Church was known as a trenchant wit, quick with a retort, quip, or cutting remark or statement. Indeed, he may have been the most effective propagandist that the Patriots had in their long struggle against the Crown. Church was also the most famous poet in the colonies and had given a most remarkable oration on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. A distinguished graduate of Harvard, Church was up against a man with a very rudimentary formal education with only a couple of years at the Reverend Cogswell's school.
The Edmund Fowle House, Watertown Massachusetts

   The Committee started off by asking Arnold why he was weeks late in reporting to the Congress since the Spooner Committee had directed him to to ride to Watertown immediately to settle his accounts. He had not received authorization to travel by way of New Haven, regardless of his personal circumstances.
   Arnold, true to his martial character, decided that the best defense was a good offense and went on the attack. He stated he resented the insinuations of the committeemen. Why did they doubt his truthfulness when he said he had to spend his own money after the meager L100 they had furnished him with which he was to pay for an entire regiment? He presented the committee with copies of a set of ledger sheets itemizing all of his expenses, listing pay for entire companies, for carpenters and a shipwright, for lumber, for milling grain, and for much more. But why, the committee wanted to know had Arnold not obtained proper receipts for each expenditure? He needed to provide them with evidence. When he asked how he could do that, they facetiously advised him to ride to Ticonderoga and secure receipts from Massachusetts' own Colonel James Easton. Arnold scoffed at the suggestion. Arnold insisted that as the man on the scene for Massachusetts, he had to make countless decisions on behalf of the Province and pay prevailing prices and wages. He had spent what he considered appropriate to maintain his men. Now was not the time for civilians to second-guess a field commander operating under very difficult conditions. The Committee, in turn, took special umbrage at the number of personal charges Arnold had levied against the public account. Even before the hearing, the House had refused to pay bills of credit drawn by Arnold on Massachusetts until it had examined his accounts.
   All day long, the committee and Arnold went back and forth and the quill pens scratching "disallowed' became more and more numerous. The first target was Arnold's horse which, he maintained, he had purchased on the authorization of the Provincial Congress before he had departed for Ticonderoga. He valued it at L16; the committee at L3. The committee also struck out L38, 4s, 9d for the wages of a wheelwright Arnold had hired to build gun carriages to transport cannon. Arnold was supposed to pay troops and use them as carpenters, not hire carpenters, no matter how skilled they were. Arnold's policy of paying well for workers and skilled mariners did not go down well in Massachusetts where it was viewed as driving up the cost of war.
   The accusations against Arnold ranged from the petty - paying L3, 15s, for an officer's out of pocket expenses without obtaining a proper receipt - to some much more serious. They objected that he had acted as his own commissary and then charged a broker's fee; they refused to pay for livestock Arnold had bought from Colonel Easton without a receipt from him. They demanded to know what had happened to the L160 reportedly found aboard the captured British sloop. The committee assumed that Arnold had pocketed the money as a prize of war and they therefore disallowed L163 from his expenses for soldiers' pay. Since Arnold had not attached the company's pay table, Dr Church would not accept Arnold's word of honor that he had ever paid the company of men before he disbanded them and the men went home. Finally, Dr Church and his committee disallowed L100 Arnold said he paid the crew of the sloop Enterprise. When the hearing was over, the committee reserved judgement until another day.
   A number of weeks later, the committee released its findings ( Dr Church was in detention at this point in the Vassall House in Cambridge) and repaid Arnold L757 - 65% of the money he said he had spent in the name of the Massachusetts Congress.

   I will conclude this story tomorrow with some final thoughts about Arnold and this whole enterprise. A contemporary American may feel that Arnold was shabbily treated based on what has been so far reported, but I think that is an emotional reaction. It's a little more complicated. One of the things that has always struck me about Arnold is that he was, in many ways - an innocent, naive, and, at times, just plain obtuse.

Note: I have included illustrations of both the Meeting House and Fowles' House in Watertown. The Meeting House has long been demolished but the Fowle House has been restored but moved from its original location. The confrontation between the Church Committee and Arnold took place in one of these buildings. Although the House met in the First Parish Church, the Upper Council met in the Fowle House and committees of the lower House did hold meetings in the Fowle House.

 To Be Continued

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