The story of General Benedict Arnold and Major John André takes about a minute to convey in a high school classroom. The real story, however, is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster with all the essential elements: heroes and villains, supporting roles, intrigue, greed, lust for glory, betrayal, danger, close shaves and a nation in peril.
Benedict Arnold had a tomahawk to grind. He was a hero—a courageous warrior in defeat or victory and twice wounded. Yet Congress promoted junior officers over him, refused to make good on “lost pay,” and delayed and then denied his accounting of personal expenses advanced to outfit his units. He saw many sleights, real and imagined, but what he couldn’t see was how his own behavior and personality led to his own undoing.
After Saratoga and a long convalescence, Arnold’s injured leg prevented another field command so Washington appointed him Philadelphia’s military commander, charged with maintaining peace between the ascendant Patriots and the disappointed Tories. Arnold did himself no good by an open association with Loyalists, his financial transactions with local merchants, his bitter quarrel with the Pennsylvania Council and by living far beyond his means, giving rise to suspicions as to how he earned his money.
Major John André had another motive: glory. He knew that a successful intelligence enterprise to end the War would bring fame and advancement. It would also help his mother and three sisters, whose family’s interests had been adversely affected when the French took Grenada.
Arnold initiated contact with André in early May 1779 when he sent Joseph Stansbury, a Philadelphia shop keeper, self-styled poet and acquaintance of Arnold’s wife, Peggy, to meet André in New York. André responded by letter to Stansbury on May 10, in which he listed the kinds of information that would be welcome. From the outset, Arnold made it clear that it was British pounds for perfidy although he’d often editorialize on his more ‘noble’ motives such as a rapprochement with England, hatred of the French and an end to a useless war. One of his earliest letters included a taste of the intelligence he could provide but André’s response suggested taking a command and being “suprized or cut off” such that a loss of 5.000 to 6,000 men would be “rewarded with twice as many thousand Guineas.” What was readily apparent is that Sir Henry Clinton, André’s commander, wanted Arnold’s battlefield participation to guarantee delivery of an army, not just intelligence. Arnold couldn’t have been pleased with this suggestion as the thought of camp life, leaving Peggy and mounting and riding a horse in battle must have caused a painful twinge in his wounded leg.
By the end of July, after the British lost Stony Point to General Anthony Wayne’s Midnight assault, André stressed that Arnold needed to be more proactive and, for the first time, mentioned a British interest in West Point. He also sought information on the strengths and deployments of the Hudson River. Arnold’s tone, as conveyed in his letters, was decidedly frustrated but the mention of West Point must have registered.
When an impasse was reached on financial terms, Arnold devoted his time to defending claims asserted by the Pennsylvania Council regarding his treatment of the local militia, his use of army wagons for transporting his own merchandise and closing local shops, among other complaints. It was the right place and time for the court-martial proceeding: Washington was encamped along with his general officers who’d hear his case in Morristown, NJ where there was little distraction in a winter that was “the worst in living memory.” No supplies could get in and there was likely no concerns that an enemy attack could be launched over roads that were up to six feet deep with snow.
Arnold gave a spirited summation concluding that “I was one of the first that appeared in the field, and from that time to the present hour have not abandoned [my country’s] service. Of course, he omitted mention of his negotiations with the British. Aside from a need for self-preservation, Arnold was able to separate one issue from another, being righteously indignant on the one hand but pursuing an insidious course on the other. On January 20, 1780, the decision was made: the Commander-in-Chief would issue a reprimand.
While the eventual April reprimand infuriated Arnold, Washington went on to state “as far as it shall be in my power, I will myself furnish you with opportunities for regaining the esteem, which you have formerly enjoyed.” Adept at making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse, this was to be Arnold’s watershed. He could have chosen to accept the battlefield opportunity Washington would certainly offer and continue his fight with Congress over expenses. Instead, Arnold saw the reprimand as a betrayal and Congress’ failure to decide on his expense reimbursement as an attack on his livelihood.
Spring, the season of rebirth, saw the resumption of British contact. Offering more intelligence, Arnold wanted to keep the British interested while he undertook a campaign to secure the command of West Point. He made an appeal to Philip Schuyler, who was a friend to Peggy Arnold. Schuyler approached Washington in early May when he arrived in Morristown on behalf of Congress. Schuyler liked the idea of an American hero commanding the New York fortress. The treasonous couple also sought out Robert Livingston, a New York lawyer and scion of a Hudson River family, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Livingston went even further and suggested to Washington that West Point would be in the best hands with Arnold in command. Washington, however, preferred Arnold in the field and deferred any decision.
During a June trip to Connecticut Arnold made his first visit to West Point and “was greatly disappointed in the works and garrison” using descriptions such as “greatly neglected,” “totally neglected,” “wretchedly planned” and “wretchedly executed.” He went further and detailed to the British some of the weaknesses of the post.
Washington worried about a British thrust up the Hudson. “The late movements of the Enemy seem to have no satisfactory solution but an enterprise against West point.” He hoped to beat Sir Henry Clinton to the punch by attacking New York as soon as the French reached Rhode Island. Knowing Washington’s intentions, the impatient traitor sent a letter to André offering more intelligence concerning Washington’s expectations of a move against New York. He added, at least in his own mind, that he’d accepted the West Point command. It is, he emphasized, “a Post in which I can render the most essential Services.”
Three weeks later, Washington ordered Arnold to proceed to West Point and take command of the post and its dependencies from Fishkill to King’s Ferry and work with the engineers as “expeditiously as possible” to complete the defenses. Instead, Arnold began to weaken the place while carefully looking like he was fulfilling his orders.
Arnold chose Beverly Robinson’s House as his headquarters located on the Hudson’s east bank across and downriver from West Point. Within days of his arrival, Arnold wrote Washington requesting a map covering the country from West Point to New York, especially on the east side of the river. Worst case, Arnold would have the best escape route from his headquarters should he be discovered. It was the perfect place from which to plan the “sale” and may have raised some eyebrows, but Arnold’s predecessor had also chosen Robinson House as headquarters.
The last tool that Arnold needed to complete his plan was an accomplice. Whether Joshua Hett Smith was fully aware of the developing treason or just an obsequious member of an important New York family has not been fully established but he remains one of the more enigmatic characters of the War. On paper, Smith was a sensible choice. He was well-educated, lived on a major communications route along the west bank near the Kings Ferry crossing and was an early member of the New York Sons of Liberty. The previous post commander suggested that Smith could be very useful in securing important news of the enemy’s plans. Yet Smith had a dark side and was suspected to be a Tory by some, including General John Lamb, who wanted nothing to do with him. It was not surprising then that Smith was “happy in rendering [Arnold] every aid” in his power, to improve his family’s name and his own standing.
In New York, Clinton waited for naval reinforcements while planning his attack on West Point. Thanks to Arnold, he knew the French were planning to land on Long Island and that Washington would use the opportunity to attack New York at Kingsbridge, its northern tip. Clinton, however, believed that if Washington proceeded against New York, West Point would be exposed and the navy could sail north to attack it with a “strong land force” against which Arnold might put up a perfunctory resistance and then surrender.
Arnold did his best to look like the eager, newly appointed commander but his actions were intended to disguise his effort to slow down construction of new defense works and weaken existing ones. Some questioned Arnold’s patriotism from the moment the traitor arrived. Other actions Arnold took were not being lost on General Lamb, who informed his superior that the garrison was in weak shape and lacked security. Lamb served with Arnold in the siege of Quebec and, also like Arnold, received a serious wound. Yet whereas Lamb never lost his patriotic zeal, Arnold was busy destroying West Point brick by brick.
On the 14th, additional ships and men arrived in New York. All that remained for the command “lay aloft and loose all sails” to echo across the harbor and for the attack against West Point to begin, was to confirm Arnold’s identity and coordinate the actual time, date and nature of the attack. Clinton knew West Point’s position and topography from his 1777 visit after Fort Montgomery fell but he was “determined not to make the attempt except under such perfect security” with low casualties and without risk of surprise or counter-plot.
While it’s understandable that Clinton wanted security for his assaulting troops, it should have been a preference, not a prerequisite. He had already received considerable intelligence of West Point’s weaknesses: incomplete redoubts and forts, insufficient man and fire power, an insufficient landward defense, low morale and poor discipline. He knew that surrender was a certainty and it would be difficult for the Americans to reinforce the garrison in time. This was not the first time Clinton hesitated in the face of favorable odds. Many high-ranking British viewed Clinton as an armchair general who didn’t want to risk fighting the Americans and the French. New York’s military governor called Clinton “inconstant as a weathercock.” Some writers postulate that Clinton made an effective, at times aggressive planner as a subordinate, but became hesitant and guarded once in command. This internal battle “led him to spin large offensive designs with a spider’s pertinacity…[while] fear impeded their execution and prepared the way for a supine defense.”
On September 17th, the Arnolds hosted a dinner attended by General Lamb, the Smiths and Arnold’s aides, who had become suspicious of Smith, believing he was a bad influence who fed their commander’s greed. Dinner was interrupted by a letter under Flag of Truce from Beverly Robinson aboard the Vulture. Robinson, the house’s Loyalist owner, requested a confidential interview to discuss his confiscated property. This was obviously a ruse to get Arnold away from West Point so that the real “accommodation” could be finalized. Lamb and the other officers immediately opposed it—Robinson’s non-military concerns were more appropriately taken to Congress. To avoid suspicion, Arnold made no effort to disagree and would consult the Commander-in-Chief.
Arnold did just that the next day as he met Washington at Smith’s house, accompanied him across the Hudson and then rode with him to Peekskill where they spent the night before Washington set out for Hartford and a meeting with General Rochambeau, the French commander. In the morning, Arnold returned to his headquarters and promptly wrote to Robinson aboard the Vulture. Following his superior’s order, he declined to hold further communication with him, but he enclosed in his official letter two other letters, one of them for Robinson and the other for André. Arnold wrote that he’d send someone to the Vulture on the 20th (the next evening) to meet André and the sloop should remain at anchor rather than sail down river. Robinson sent a letter to André in New York by fast dispatch boat.
André knew he was the only one who could meet Arnold and he urged Clinton to accede. With all of the anxiety of a parent watching his teenager go out on her first date, Clinton gave his approval but he warned the enthusiastic adjutant “not to change his name or address on any account, or possess himself of writings by which the nature of his embassy might be traced.” Clinton also advised him that he was to avoid the American lines and return by the same means he went (i.e., the Vulture). In effect, he was putting the burden on Arnold to meet afloat.
While André was making arrangements to sail, some Americans showed that they were capable of treachery too. At Verplanck’s Point not far from the Vulture’s anchorage, the young rebels hoisted a white flag, enticing the Vulture’s captain to dispatch a boat to answer the flag. Suddenly, shots rang out from the shore where the men were hidden. Outraged, the captain recalled the boat.
Hours later, André was aboard the Vulture. Despite his concerted effort to be available at the appointed time, neither Arnold nor his agent showed. André, anticipating a substantial intelligence coup, was left bitterly disappointed. Arnold had tried to effect the night meeting on the 20th and provided Smith with the necessary documents to ensure safe passage to the Vulture. It’s not clear why Smith failed his instruction—he makes no mention of it in his own narrative. More than likely, Smith was either unsuccessful in securing a boat or the necessary oarsmen to row out to the Vulture. He had relied on his tenants who balked at making the night time round trip on the river. Despite another frustrating effort, the co-conspirators both felt another try was worth it. What Arnold didn’t know was whether André was on the Vulture or not.
Early in the morning of September 21, 1780, Arnold learned that Smith had failed his mission the night before. Not being one to sit idly by in accomplishing his own designs, Arnold saddled up and headed some ten miles south to Verplanck’s Point to figure out the boat situation. André was busy, too, drafting a letter to Arnold, signed by the Vulture’s captain and John Anderson (alias John André) complaining of the white flag deception the day before. When Arnold arrived, he read the letter and immediately recognized André’s handwriting. He also recognized that his last, best chance to achieve his arrangement was at hand.
Arnold sent instructions to have a boat ready for his use that evening, a touchy possibility based on Smith’s experience the day before. Once assured, however, that his instructions would be followed he crossed at Kings Ferry to spend the final hours at Smith’s house before the André meeting. While André was expecting an encounter afloat, Arnold was making plans to have André on land for their infamous meeting. As evening approached, yet another complication arose. Smith’s tenant, Samuel Colquhoun, who had been drafted to do the rowing, balked at the nighttime effort. He was tired and anxious over the intrigue that seemed to hang in the air. Even when he agreed and brought in his brother as the other oarsmen, the pair hesitated again. Arnold had had enough. He now threatened them with punishment. Reluctantly, they agreed, probably believing there was no way out. Smith and his two tenants made their way on a calm and clear night to the Vulture, anchored off Teller’s Point (Croton Point today).
Arnold’s instructions came as a surprise. Simply put, if André wanted to make this happen, he needed to come ashore. Robinson objected but André knew the path to glory. He concealed his elegant officer’s red coat under a long blue greatcoat. As a quarter moon rose in the late night sky, Smith brought André to the west shore at the Long Clove, below Stony Point. The bank was fairly steep but André scurried up and found his co-respondent waiting in a clump of fir trees. The sales contract was about to be finalized.
 Capt. Horace M. Reeve, “West Point in the Revolution 1778-1783,” The Centennial of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York 1802-1902 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 171.  Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 472-473.  Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1968) (Viking Compass Edition), 196, 441-442.  Van Doren, Secret History, 207, 441-442.  Van Doren, Secret History, 212, 453.  George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, March 18, 1780, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Series 3h, Varick Transcripts, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw180148)) accessed February 12, 2014; and James Thacher, M.D., Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783 (Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1823), 221.  Van Doren, Secret History, 244.  Jared Sparks, “The Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold,” The Library of American Biography (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co., 1835), 3:145.  Van Doren, Secret History, 259.  George Washington to Robert R. Livingston, June 29, 1780, The Writings of George Washington, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw190109)) accessed February 10, 2014.  Van Doren, Secret History, 460-461.  George Washington to Continental Congress, June 25, 1780, Writings of Washington, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw190083)) accessed February 10, 2014.  Van Doren, Secret History, 273, 463.  Washington to General Arnold, Writings of Washington, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw190371)) accessed February 10, 2014.  Reeve, West Point, 87.  James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953), 310.  William Abbatt. The Crisis of the Revolution: Being the Story of Arnold and André (New York: Empire State Society, Sons of the American Revolution, 1899), 4.  Isaac Q. Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb, (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1850), 238.  Joshua Hett Smith, Authentic Narrative of the Causes Which Led to the Death of Major André, Adjutant-General of His Majesty’s Forces in North-America (New York: Evert Duykinck, 1809), 13.  Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution Vol. II (New York: Harper, 1852), 146-147.  Leake, Memoir, 245-252.  “The Treason of Benedict Arnold, as Presented in Letters of Sir Henry Clinton to Lord George Germain,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Philadelphia: Publication Fund of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1898), 22:412-413.  Randall, Benedict Arnold, 461.  Frederick Wyatt and William B. Willcox, “Sir Henry Clinton: A Psychological Exploration in History,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 16, No. 1(Jan. 1959) (Williamsburg: Omuhundro Institute of Early American History and Culture), 20-21.  Richard J. Koke, Accomplices in Treason (New York: NY Historical Society, 1973), 67.  Sources vary on when Arnold chose to disclose the letter from Robinson requesting an interview: at Smith’s house (Koke, Accomplices, 67-68); while Washington crossed the Hudson (Reeve, WestPoint, 178); or Peekskill (Van Doren, Secret History, 317).  Letter, André to Clinton, September 29, 1780, in Sir Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion, William B. Willcox, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 216, 460.  Winthrop Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André, William Abbatt, ed. (New York: William Abbatt, 1902), 310.  Smith, Authentic Narrative,17-18.  Sparks, The Life and Treason, 193.  Sargent, Life and Career of André, 312-313.  Sparks, The Life and Treason, 195-197.