For Sale: West Point (Part 1 of 2)


May 22, 2014
by Steven Paul Mark Also by this Author


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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.[1]

Major John André had another motive: glory. He knew that a successful intelligence enterprise to end the War would bring fame and advancement.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.”[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

Robinson House, Arnold’s headquarters.  Destroyed by fire in late 19th Century.
Robinson House, Arnold’s headquarters. Destroyed by fire in late 19th Century.

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

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.”[23] 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.”[24]

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.[25] 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.[26] 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).[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31]

André’s sketch of the skiff with Smith and the Colquhoun Brothers heading for the Vulture.
André’s sketch of the skiff with Smith and the Colquhoun Brothers heading for the Vulture.

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.[32] 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.

Read part 2 of 2.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Watercolor panorama of Continental Army encampments at West Point, c. 1782 (Pierre L’Enfant, artist)]


[1]  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.

[2]  Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 472-473.

[3]  Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1968) (Viking Compass Edition), 196, 441-442.

[4]  Van Doren, Secret History, 207, 441-442.

[5]  Van Doren, Secret History, 212, 453.

[6] 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, 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.

[7] Van Doren, Secret History, 244.

[8] Jared Sparks, “The Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, The Library of American Biography (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co., 1835), 3:145.

[9]  Van Doren, Secret History, 259.

[10] George Washington to Robert R. Livingston, June 29, 1780, The Writings of George Washington, accessed February 10, 2014.

[11]  Van Doren, Secret History, 460-461.

[12]  George Washington to Continental Congress, June 25, 1780, Writings of Washington, accessed February 10, 2014.

[13]  Van Doren, Secret History, 273, 463.

[14]  Washington to General Arnold, Writings of Washington, accessed February 10, 2014.

[15]  Reeve, West Point, 87.

[16]  James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953), 310.

[17]  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.

[18]  Isaac Q. Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb, (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1850), 238.

[19]  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.

[20]  Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution Vol. II (New York: Harper, 1852), 146-147.

[21]  Leake, Memoir, 245-252.

[22] “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.

[23]  Randall, Benedict Arnold, 461.

[24] 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.

[25]  Richard J. Koke, Accomplices in Treason (New York: NY Historical Society,  1973), 67.

[26] 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).

[27]  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.

[28] Winthrop Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André, William Abbatt, ed. (New York: William Abbatt, 1902), 310.

[29]  Smith, Authentic Narrative,17-18.

[30]  Sparks, The Life and Treason, 193.

[31]  Sargent, Life and Career of André, 312-313.

[32]  Sparks, The Life and Treason, 195-197.


  • Mr. Mark, I am looking forward greatly to your concluding portion of the article on Arnold. I have studied Arnold for some time and see him as the proto-type of the “American” spy as his motivation was ego satisfaction within a system where he had the opportunity for great personal and professional success but for various reasons did not achieve it. Probably due to my background, I have no sympathy for him at all regardless of his earlier service. He was equally aggressive in his military actions against his former side after joining the British.

    Also, I support your point regarding Andre. He was ill suited to be Clinton’s intelligence officer and more suited to being his social advisor. I suggest that the poor handling of the Arnold operation was one of the most serious tactical intelligence mistakes of the British during the war.

    I devote much of a chapter in my book, “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors”, to analyzing the Arnold operation. It has valuable lessons for both historians and intelligence officers.

  • SPM;
    having recently invested some significant research into Arnold, I really enjoyed part one and eagerly anticipate the conclusion in part deux.

    I can’t help but wonder if you hit upon any correspondence between Colonel Beverly Robinson and his wife, Mrs. Susannah (nee Phillips) Robinson who remained in residence at thier house “Beverley”; and if so, did any bear on the plot.

    Good read!

  • SPM;
    having recently invested some significant research into Arnold, I really enjoyed part one and eagerly anticipate the conclusion in part deux.

    I can’t help but wonder if you hit upon any correspondence between Colonel Beverley Robinson and his wife, Mrs. Susannah (nee Phillips) Robinson who remained in residence at thier house “Beverley”; and if so, did any bear on the plot.

    Good read!

  • i take the opposite position from Ken Daigler and find Arnold was a hero in the first two years of the war and achieved greatness in his early battles. There is slim contemporary evidence that Arnold was acting solely based on ego satisfaction. I also find it interesting how quickly Mr Mark, and others, write off concerns that Arnold and various other officers during the Rev War had about getting overlooked for promotions based on politics. Also how Arnold should have just brushed off the fact that the Continental Congress failed to reimburse him for significant sums expended from his personal money to pay for his army in the field in Canada. Since when is it patriotic to just forget about a legislative body’s failure to act in good faith, particularly when it involves personal resources.

    History is not a Hollywood blockbuster nor should it be. It is more than emotional responses to actions that may seem objectionable. Although this article uses Van Doren’s study of the Arnold documents as a source, Van Doren saw things differently in a much more objective telling of the story. Historian James Kirby Martin’s prize winning biography of Arnold also tells a different story.

    1. I completely agree with you Steve. Arnold was one of the wealthiest men in Connecticut, if not all of New England when he first entered the war. He had achieved great success as a merchant and citizen in New Haven. The first 2 ½ years of the war there was no more dominant figure on the Continental side than Arnold. I’m not sure if putting yourself in the line of fire, time and time again, was to build his ego. He did so to lead his men successfully. For instance, I doubt there’s anyone that could have pulled off what he accomplished at the Battle of Valcour. There’s a reason why the British respected him as apparent in the letters from Lord Germaine, Sir Guy Charleton, and John Burgoyne, among others. Giving credit to a “rebel” officer, was almost never done.

      At that time personal honor was a major factor with everyone. Maybe even more so with Arnold due to his past in Norwich with his father. When a number of French soldiers were immediately promoted to general upon entry into the army, Greene, Knox, and others were on the verge of resigning. Congress didn’t even care. When the five officers were initially promoted ahead of Arnold, all with almost no experience, it was like making an intern a lawyer’s supervisor at a law firm even though that lawyer has been the most successful at the firm. It was ludicrous. Even Washington’s first letter to Arnold after word came out, stated that he thought it was some sort of mistake.

      James Kirby Martin’s biography is the most well researched one out there on Benedict Arnold. He interjects his opinions here and there, but it’s obvious, and the reader can conclude on the events for themselves based on the unbelievable detailed descriptions taken from the most viable sources on the subject matter. He doesn’t get too much into the events post Saratoga, but I believe the point of the book is to accurately detail events that many people didn’t know anything about with Arnold. Most people just know about the treason.

  • Well written article Steven. Out of all the officers in the Continental Army, Arnold likely spent the most personal money for his troops. Starting right out on Lake Champlain, after Ticonderoga, he was using his own money to provide clothes for his troops. In the march to Quebec he spent a great deal in pounds and used his own credit (With his merchant contacts) to cloth and feed his troops; saving many of their lives as they were on the verge of starving upon reaching the first French Canadian settlement.

    The sleights on Arnold were real. How Continental Congress could ever give people like John Brown, James Easton, and Moses Hazen, (All self-serving soldiers that were common in the early years of the revolution) the time of day is beyond me when they were in the middle of a war and Arnold was the most dominating field general for them.

    Arnold was certainly a changed man after being laid up for five or so months following his heroics in Saratoga. Then Washington made one of his worst decisions of the war in sending Arnold to Philadelphia as the Military Governor. Though that’s in hindsight, Washington couldn’t have known where his mind was at during this time. He was a broken man, with views changing towards what he was fighting for having seen the corruption of Congress first hand when trying to restore his rank.

    There’s a combination of about five or six factors that likely lead to him switching sides, with his wife likely being the last and deciding factor. Arnold didn’t even know Andre, but Peggy had been good friends with him during the British occupation of Philadelphia. So to have correspondence with Andre only a few weeks after getting married is obviously something to consider in her overall roll in the plot.

  • The several comments are all astute and I respect those portions that are opinions. While my article focuses on the treason, here are some responses to the comments:

    1. Arnold was truly a great hero and would have a lot of schools, counties and roads named after him if Saratoga ended the war. Kirby’s fine work details Arnold’s heroic exploits. For me, his march through the Maine/Canadian wilderness in late fall/early winter and attack on Quebec, though failed, clearly shows the determination of this fallen hero. There’s little reference to his treason, except in the introduction, so those who fail to take the full measure of the man will read in awe and, perhaps, blame others for his treachery. While I’m sure Martin made this editorial decision for good reason, leaving out the “rest of the story” exaggerates one piece of the story at the expense of the other. One can praise Arnold’s courage but it can’t excuse his treason.
    2. Congress, at least to all my reading on the war, looms as a real pain in the butt in more than Arnold’s case. How they treated Arnold as to his promotion and expense reimbursement is reprehensible in my opinion. I’m sure that politics, jealousy, fear of military control and an empty treasury were all motivations. But even if Congress had earlier rewarded Arnold with promotion and reimbursed his expenses, the economic impact would not have affected the outcome except maybe Arnold would have less excuses for his action. One can appreciate Arnold’s anger but it doesn’t excuse his treason.
    3. Arnold’s correspondence with Andre, well covered in Van Doren, makes it clear that this treason was primarily about money and, once Arnold joined the British army, securing his same rank. Fact is, the British made him a Brig. General, a rank below his American commission.
    4. Another area not covered by Martin was Arnold’s experience as a British officer. His behavior was hardly heroic. He didn’t stop his quest for cash either.

    1. Steven, this article is an excellent first article on the treason committed by Arnold; I didn’t mean to steer the topic off course a bit.

      Getting back to the article, I’ve always found Joshua Hett Smith as an enigma in this whole episode. I’m not sure how hard it was to become a lawyer back then, but he didn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the box. He likely knew that some treasonous act was going on, but not many of the details involved.

      I agree with you on Kirby. If that’s the only biography someone reads on Arnold, they’ll think he’s been the most screwed over person in history. Through the Battle of Saratoga though, it’s as well researched a biography on Arnold as it gets. As you alluded to, Randall’s biography is an excellent complement to Kirby’s work, or even Willard M. Wallace’s “Traitorous Hero…” which still holds up in a lot of ways despite being published back in the 1950’s.

      Arnold’s business dealings as a General Governor in Philadelphia were certainly unethical, if not illegal. There’s no question he was a different man at that point. Granted I’m not a big fan of his main antagonist, Joseph Reed, going back to his backstabbing of Washington in his writings to Lee.

      That being said, Kenneth C. Davis described Arnold’s knack for making enemies best in stating “Whether deliberate or accidental, deserved or not, Benedict Arnold had demonstrated a marked penchant for rubbing people the wrong way and creating enemies with long memories.”

  • Jim, I did not find correspondence between Beverly Robinson and his wife, Susannah, and saw nothing, in either contemporary or 19th C works, that indicated his wife lived at Robinson House. If so, I’d be interested to know how much correspondence passed between husband and wife and whether, like Peggy Arnold, she helped facilitate the treason. She couldn’t have felt very comfortable, especially after the fall of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, in many respects due to the successful leadership of her colonel husband and his American regiment and Arnold’s subsequent flight.

  • Excellent article – so far. FYI – readers of this article should enjoy the great website Spy Letters of the American Revolution (although there are some errors, e.g., referring to Culper ring member Woodhull as Aaron rather than Abraham, and Lord Rawdon as Roudon).

    Now – to get into the debate generated so far, here are my two cents.

    There is no doubt that Arnold was the Continental army’s best field commander from Spring 1775 – Spring 1778, including the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the ill-fated invasion of Canada, and the victorious Saratoga campaign (Freeman’s Farm, Bemis Heights). He was a man of very aggressive instincts. But like a Greek tragic hero, his strengths were also his undoing. He was great at seizing the immediate military opportunity (e.g., Valcour Island, Bemis Heights), but he lacked a more strategic vision (he lobbied for an invasion of Canada, which was a huge blunder that Washington should never have countenanced). But Arnold’s biggest flaw – in today’s hackneyed parlance – was that he could not be a “team player,” even within the prickly honor-bound context of the 18th century. He clashed with several high-ranking military or civilian officials (except in Canada, and he did defer to Philip Schuyler and Washington), including Congress, Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga, Moses Hazen in New York, Horatio Gates at Saratoga, Joseph Reed in Philadelphia, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko at West Point. I’m not implying that Arnold was always in the wrong in these quarrels (he clearly was not, especially vis-à-vis Gates at Saratoga). But this pattern of behavior, plus the accumulated slights of not being recognized or promoted, and the on-going disputes with Congress over accounts and reimbursements before and after his tenure as commandant of Philadelphia, led Arnold into a series of get-rich-quick schemes that spiraled from the unethical, to borderline illegal, to out-and-out treason. As Washington told him (paraphrasing a line from his favorite play, Cato by Joseph Addison), although Arnold deserved acclamation, “it is not in the power of any man to command success.”

    I’ll make two quick final points.
    1) Earlier this year I read The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution by Alex Storozynski. Kosciuszko suffered as many slights and insufferable under-qualified commanders promoted over him as Arnold, yet could get along with anyone, and was ultimately recognized by Washington, Lafayette and Jefferson for being a noble officer and man, but who did not receive adequate remunerations for his distinguished service to the United States of America.
    2) What were Arnold’s slights, disappointments, and grievances compared to the sufferings of the regular Continental army troops in Canada, Valley Forge, Morristown, West Point, etc. – even the ones who mutinied, and rebuffed British or Loyalist overtures to switch sides? Any excuses for Arnold’s betrayal smacks of special pleading.

  • Hmmmm, it looks like there is no shortage of Arnold enthusiasts among the esteemed readers of the Journal. Can’t say I agree with much of it. To me, Arnold’s battles were always a disaster. At Quebec he pretty much ignored Washington’s instructions not to attack without a good chance of success. Instead, Arnold led his men directly into a defended position, got himself shot immediately, followed quickly by capture of the entire regiment. I understand his determination and zeal for the campaign were impressive on the way through Maine but, his performance as general at the battle was quite dismal and resulted in disaster for his men.

    As I understand it, his time between the Canadian campaign and Valcour was a bit messy. Getting himself involved in petty quarrels with underlings to the point of embarrassing himself trying to court martial a man over personal quibble. At the same time (ironically considering his use of neglect as an excuse to gain control of West Point) Arnold pursued personal vendetta, the defensive works were neglected and no improvements were made.

    Valcour showed Arnold as a man very capable of fighting in a brave and courageous manner. I’m not at all certain it shows him as a shrewd commander. In fact, I see nothing gained by his defeat at Valcour.

    At Saratoga, Arnold again showed himself capable of fighting very courageously but, unfortunately, also showed himself to be a rash and insubordinate underling who couldn’t take no for an answer.

    As a British general, Arnold’s performance is also very questionable. Clinton harbored doubts about his abilities to the extent of giving Simcoe and another officer power to overrule Arnold during the VA raid. Captain Ewald described several incidences of Arnold displaying a lack of military ability during the raids including a really bad decision regarding putting a friend’s son in control of a column, which, subsequently got itself shot up pretty badly. Apparently, he spent so much time plundering and trying to sell slaves and other property back to the rightful owners that Arnold again allowed defensive works to be neglected. Good reason to think he also drank quite a bit at this point resulting in an attack of gout which sent him back to New York instead of campaigning with Cornwallis.

    Passing Arnold over for promotion to Major General isn’t necessarily a slight against him. Perhaps it is simple acknowledgement that he hadn’t actually done enough to earn such a position.

    Arnold’s reprimand from Washington over the use of the wagons was not at all excessive. Arnold used his authority to use public equipment for his personal use. Once caught, he tried to say he never meant the ‘request’ as a command. Congress was correct to point out that, even if that (request rather than command) were true, (unlikely as it sounds), it is simply not a proper thing for a commander to do. So, they reprimanded him and offered him another command. Geez, how awful that must have been.

    However, SPM, did I notice that Arnold was already in negotiation with Andre’ long before the reprimand?

    And then there was the treason. Which, by the way, I am really enjoying SPM’s telling of.

    Yep, Benedict Arnold, quite a guy. :)

  • Jim, your comment was so intriguing regarding Susannah Robinson living in her home during the war that I spent some time researching. Page 440 of “The Life of Sir John Beverly Robinson,” written by a grand nephew of Beverly Robinson, reports that immediately after Col. Robinson joined the British side, Mrs. Robinson was forced to leave the house, leaving it and the furniture to the revolutionary authorities. See

    1. You are correct, sir. My primary interest was whether anyone has uncovered correspondence between Mr and Mrs Robinson. Robinson lurks in the background of the Arnold’s treason, Andre’s capture, conviction and Clinton’s appeal; as well as the British discussions with Allen and Chittendon’s Vermont Republic. Any correspondence could be revealing.

      I looked again at my notes, and my comment was based on her presence during Washington’s previous visit to the Robinson home which occurred much earlier in 1756.

      Following your lead, I looked for related properties where the Robinson’s may have fled following their 1777 disposession. I didn’t find a New York property they owned; but found several properties which would have suited. Several sources state that Colonel Robinson “left his family” to attend raising his regiment and military affairs. His regiment was under Lt Gen Clinton who chose Morris-Jumel Mansion as his headquarters (Gen von Knyphausen also headquartered there). Colonel Morris was married to Mary Phillipse, sister to Susannah, and the manse would have been well known to Robinson. I suspect, because the home was within his family and his commander was there, that Morris-Jumel Manor would likely have been Col Robinson’s initial residence (interestingly, G Washington also used the home as his HQ for several weeks leading up to the Harlem Heights battle). Morris-Jumel Manor is preserved today (see ).

      Jumel would not have been suitable for ladies, who probably went elsewhere. The Phillipse Manor Hall was still in family hands, unsullied by military matters and would have been the likely retreat for their spouses (Manor Hall, Yonkers, 1682, later became Yonkers City Hall). Both Mary and Susannah were married there. Benson Lossing published an article titled “Romance on the Hudson” appearing in the April, 1876 “Harpers Magazine” in which he recounted a story regarding Marry Phillipse wedding to Col Morris. The wedding took place within the Manor beneath a crimson canopy gilded with the family crest. The guest list included a who’s-who of British-American NY aristocracy, including DeLancey’s, Barclays, Van Cordtlands, Heathcote, Kennedy and Watts.
      “During the wedding feast a tall Indian, closely wrapped in a scarlet blanket, appeared at the door of the banquet hall, and with measured words said: ‘Your possessions shall pass from you when the eagle shall despoil the lion of his mane.’ He as suddenly dissapeared…”
      (Old buildings of New York City : with some notes regarding their origin and occupants, available at, pg 143-148). Interesting, if fanciful.

      Although much is written about the Robinsons and Phillipse post war activity, I’ve not found anything from their own hand regarding their forced emigration.

  • Wayne, you noticed correctly. Once an impasse was reached on the “purchase price,” Arnold concentrated on his legal problems culminating in the court-martial and subsequent reprimand. Shortly thereafter, the correspondence began anew.

    1. So, did he lower his price to make the later deal? or did the British meet Arnold’s earlier demand?

  • Wayne, the final deal as far as the research indicates is that Arnold would have been paid £20.000 (about $3m today) for success and a ‘recognition’ fee if he was unsuccessful. Arnold wanted £10.000 for a failed effort (indemnity as he called it for the cost of turning coat). The latter was the sticking point. Andre assured Arnold he would be compensated in any event. For his perpetual infamy, he got just over £6.000, a commission and a modest pension.

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