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What we do in life echoes through the history textbooks

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Failure is not always failure.

In my What If? book the other night I was reading about the American Revolution. There were numerous instances during the war when a single action could arguably be what won or helped to win the war for the United States. In any one of these instances, if things had not worked out as they did, the balance of power could’ve toppled into Britain’s favor assuring them victory (even if it wasn’t swift). Two of the most interesting examples of this involved that paragon of treachery, Benedict Arnold. That is, Benedict Arnold before he became a Benedict Arnold. When he was still on the American side.

The first took place on Lake Champlain on the eastern side of New York during the fall of 1776. Arnold was on the southern side of the long lake holed up in a fort with about 3,500 men. On the north side of the lake, the British sat, planning an assault on the fort with 16,000 men. Instead of sitting and waiting for the British to build up their fleet and attack, Arnold had his men make boats and built his own fleet. He was able to make up 13 small ships and gathered all the soldiers he could, most of whom knew nothing of ships. Arnold attacked in what was surely considered a suicide mission. The almost insurmountable odds were raised even higher when Arnold learned that the British were making a 180 ton man-of-war, which could’ve single handedly destroyed Arnold’s boats. At the last moment, Arnold retreated to an island and took a defensive position. The British general was thrown Arnold’s brashness and decided to wait until the man-of-war was finished before attacking, even though his men argued that their 26 other gunships could easily destroy Arnold’s fleet.

The ship wasn’t finished for another four weeks, at which point the British attacked. Arnold could do nothing but retreat back to his original outpost at the souther part of the lake, losing most of his ships in the process. By the time he did, though, the British determined that it was too late in the year to start a siege, and they retreated back to their defensive position in Canada. Arnold’s attack had failed and he wound up back where he started, but by launching his attack, he assured that the British were unable to invade and inhabit New York until the following spring. If they had, the British would’ve had nothing to stop them from going where ever they chose in New England. Arnold’s failure was a major victory for the continued existence of the United States.

Insubordination is great…when it works out in your favor

The second event took place in the spring the British easily took the fort Arnold had retreated back to. By this time, however, an army had moved into place to back him up. Arnold was replaced in command by Major General Horatio Gates. Gates had no battle experience and when he attempted to hold off the British from invading Albany Arnold was able to easily point out holes in his defensive position. Arnold plugged these holes and, as a result, easily beat back the advancing British Army.

Major Gates gave no credit to Arnold for the win and a bitter argument ensued. At the end of it, Arnold was confined to his tent and stripped of command. When the British attacked again three weeks later it looked as if the Americans might be beaten. Arnold disobeyed his orders, though, and rushed into battle commanding the troops to a victory.  Gates only left his tent after Arnold had arrived and rallied the troops. Because of this victory, the French figured that the Americans had a chance of winning the whole war and decided to loan America some much needed money and guns.

Because of his act of defiance, Arnold swung the moral pendulum back to the American side.  With a failed suicide mission and disobeyment of direct orders, Arnold had a major impact for America’s benefit. It’s hard to imagine that he knew he was doing something so great at the time.


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