Dark Eagle: A Novel of Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution

Written by John Ensor Harr
Review by Sarah Johnson

The name Benedict Arnold is synonymous with the word “traitor” in the American vocabulary. With this novel the author attempts to set the record straight. Dark Eagle is a epic defense of Arnold’s treasonous behavior in the U.S. Revolutionary War, during which he plotted to turn both the American fort of West Point and the U.S. Commander in Chief, George Washington, over to the British army.

Arnold, trained as an apothecary in Connecticut, joined up with the Continental Army when he felt they needed strong soldiers. Known as the “fighting General,” he proceeded to lead the Americans to several great military successes. However, in the midst of fighting at Freeman’s Farm near Saratoga, the American commander held him back from the fighting and redirected his men elsewhere. Despite this, Arnold led his forces to victory, though he ruined his leg in the process. (Today at the Saratoga National Historic Park in New York there is a curious memorial, dedicated more to the leg than the man.)

Though one of the Americans’ strongest leaders, Arnold is not treated well by either his fellow Generals or the Congress. This stirs up gradual resentment in him. At times it seems the only people on his side are the troops themselves and, later, his wife Peggy. Though he’s too brusque and forthright to be a truly sympathetic character, Arnold’s final action did become more understandable the more I read.

Growing up, I found US history unbelievably boring, as the classes in the subject seemed nothing more than unending lists of battles and dates. Despite this, I picked up this novel with interest after learning that Benedict Arnold was a distant cousin of mine. In Dark Eagle, the personalities of Revolutionary heroes on both sides of the action shine through. Arnold is the classic tragic hero, switching sides only when it’s clear that his country has turned against him. “Gentleman” John Burgoyne is his worthy opponent, and General Washington is portrayed as an honorable man who gives up on Arnold in the face of opposition from Congress. The one character who I felt could have been more fully fleshed out is Peggy Shippen, Arnold’s future wife, who seems a bit too concerned with frilly dresses and parties to be the sensitive, intelligent confidante that Arnold finally finds in her.

The author describes the front lines of battle and the home front equally well. I found the descriptions of the wartime festivities in British-occupied Philadelphia especially enjoyable. Also fascinating was Burgoyne’s visit after Saratoga to the recuperating Arnold, at which they praised each other’s actions and reminisced about strategies! Needless to say, if I had read this novel years ago in lieu of my school textbooks, I might have had a more favorable impression of American history. Highly recommended.