SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A historic mural donated to the New York State Military Museum recalls General Benedict Arnold's heroism at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, when he personally led a critical attack that led to victory.
The painting, by military artist George Gray, was one of many he did commemorating the military history of the United States. Arnold was one of the nation's most famous fighting generals before he conspired with the British to sell out the Continental Army at West Point three years later.
Before he was a traitor, Benedict Arnold was an American hero, and the New York State Military Museum now owns a mural that commemorates Arnold's heroic moment at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777.
The museum, run by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs – the state agency responsible for the New York National Guard – was presented with the mural by the H. Lee White Marine Museum in Oswego , N.Y.
The seven foot by 25-foot painting, titled “Benedict Arnold, Triumphant at Saratoga,” depicts the moment on Oct. 7, 1777, when Arnold personally led an assault that captured a British fortification known as the Breymann's Redoubt.
The capture of this position, held by Hessian troops under Gen. Henrich von Breymann, exposed the British position on Bemis Heights overlooking the Hudson River and forced the British to withdraw and retreat. This led to the British force being surrounded and surrendering on Oct. 17, 1777.
The American victory at Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of a complete British Army, brought France into the Revolutionary War on the American side.
In 1780, of course, Arnold gained his place in infamy when he plotted to sell out the American fort at West Point and General George Washington to the British. He finished up the Revolutionary War fighting as a British General.
The painting was one of many done in the 1930s by muralist and military painter George Gray, who was born in 1907 and died in 2004. In the 1930s Gray was hired by the American Hotels Corporation to paint murals depicting local history in the hotels the company owned across the United States.
The mural donated to the Military Museum was originally hung in the Hendrick Hudson Hotel in Troy, N.Y., said Military Museum manager Michael Aikey.
The hotel was opened in 1926 and the building still stands in Troy but closed as a hotel in 1966.
At some point believed to be in the 1970's, the mural was moved to The Hotel Pontiac in Oswego, N.Y., another one of the American Hotels Corporation properties, Aikey said. In 1985, the painting was again moved, this time to the H. Lee White Marine Museum also in Oswego.
The mural was one of several by Gray at the Marine Museum, which depict the history of Lake Ontario and Oswego, N.Y. Those other Gray paintings depict the history of Oswego and the Benedict Arnold painting really didn't fit in with the museum mission, so the Marine Museum decided to give the Gray battlefield mural to the Military Museum at no cost, Aikey said.
Gray, who was born in Harrisburg, Pa., and made a name for himself painting military and historic scenes. During the 1930s his art appeared regularly in “National Guardsman,” a magazine published by the New York National Guard. He also contributed art to the “US Cavalry Journal” and “US Infantry Journal.”
During World War II he joined the Coast Guard and served as a war artist. The Coast Guard currently presents an annual George Gray award honoring artwork of Coast Guard men and women in action.
This is the second work by George Gray at the Military Museum. A Gray painting called “Breaking The Hindenburg Line,” illustrating the soldiers of the New York National Guard's 27th Infantry Division in action during World War I hangs in the museum already.
That painting, too, was originally commissioned to hang in the Hendrick Hudson Hotel in Troy, When the hotel closed that painting was moved to the National Guard Armory in Schenectady, N.Y. and then sent to the museum when the Division of Military and Naval Affairs declared that building surplus.
One of the fascinating features of the mural is how its representation of Benedict Arnold changed over time, Aikey said.
When Gray's mural was originally hung in Troy, the artist's conflicted view of the general was evident, he said.
While Arnold is depicted on horseback leading his men to victory, the legend under the painting reads,
"A victory made possible by an American Major General who neither forgotten nor forgiven and nameless to loyal men, nevertheless with bravery and resourcefulness commanded our forces at Quebec, Valcour Island, Fort Stanwix, Ridgefield, and finally at this one of the decisive battles of the world."
The stigma of Arnold as a traitor was played up by two panels Gray painted at the sides of the mural, Aikey pointed out.
The left panel features a map with Arnold's victories, and a silhouette of the general with the caption, "An American Major General." The right panel illustrates the memorial to Arnold at the Saratoga National Battle Field known as the Boot Monument.
The Boot Monument commemorates Arnold, who was injured in the leg while leading the attack on the Hessian troops, without naming him.
According to Aikey, the idea for a painting commemorating a heroic Benedict Arnold came from historical fiction novelist Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957). Roberts was a best-selling author and two of his books, “Arundel” and “Rabble in Arms” focused on the military campaigns Arnold led. In both books Arnold is portrayed as heroic.
"Roberts, sometime after 1937, contacted either Gray or the American Hotels Corporation and lobbied to give Benedict Arnold his due for the flawed general's important contribution to the American cause," Aikey said.
"As a result of Roberts' efforts, the mural today credits Arnold in the legend, adds his name to the map panel, and replaces the Boot Monument panel with a panel representing Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island, he added.
The new mural is in storage until it can be restored, Aikey said. The New York State Military Museum will work with the Friends of the New York State Military Museum, a private non-profit that raises money to support the museum, to raise funds so the Battle of Saratoga painting can be displayed, Aikey said.