Benedict Arnold and John André met after midnight on September 22, 1780 to conclude the selling and taking possession of West Point. André, having been picked up from the fourteen-gun British sloop, the Vulture, by two oarsmen, finally met his co-conspirator on a wooded slope south of today’s Haverstraw. Based on Sir Henry Clinton’s readiness to attack West Point, his visit in 1777 after reducing the Twin Forts and sufficient intelligence already fed to him by Arnold, it’s an historical mystery as to why their business remained unfinished by the time Arnold’s agent, Joshua Hett Smith, warned them of approaching daylight. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time to finish all the details, including Arnold’s financial terms, but time and tide wait for no man. The oarsmen had rowed north against the current to reach the beach and now, with the two hour meeting concluded, they were not interested in another trip to the Vulture or being exposed to guard boats after sunrise. André had to be disappointed, especially when Arnold led him past a militia outpost. He must have recalled Clinton’s admonition not to go into enemy territory.
André accompanied Arnold to Smith’s house about two miles north and intended to wait until nightfall before returning to the Vulture. As dawn’s light began to illuminate the river, a four-pounder boomed in the distance. Incredibly, Colonel James Livingston was firing on the Vulture from Teller’s Point. For several days, Livingston had bristled at the sloop anchored in Haverstraw Bay. He had a cannon but no ammunition until the crusty general, John Lamb, sent some along with a letter that characterized the firing of a four-pounder at a sloop-of-war as a “waste of powder.” Nevertheless, the rebel gunners hulled the ship six times and otherwise damaged it sufficiently that its captain ordered it to sail downriver while André watched from the second floor of Smith’s house.
Arnold needed to return to his headquarters at Robinson House to avoid suspicion so around 10 AM he gave André six pages of detailed plans describing West Point’s defenses, most in Arnold’s handwriting, and suggested that André leave his regimentals behind. Arnold instructed Smith to conduct André to safety and left it to Smith to figure the best alternative, by water or land, with a pass for either. André violated Sir Henry Clinton’s warnings to stay in uniform, remain outside enemy lines and carry no incriminating papers. One might wonder why Arnold didn’t exert more effort in getting André back to the Vulture or how he could have relied on an agent like Smith. Arnold may have thought there’d be trouble again finding oarsmen and another boat which he weighed against the risks of sending André by land. With Arnold’s own life on the line, he must have believed that Smith’s respected family and position, the passes Arnold provided and the non-descript clothing André was to wear would ensure success. In André’s opinion, however, “the circuitous route…was imposed (perhaps unavoidably) without alternative, upon me.” Smith turned out to be a thoughtless fool who may have viewed a water borne return as too dangerous and undertook his errand as more of a lark than a matter of life and death.
Reaching the eastern shore of the Hudson just after sunset, Smith chose a less-traveled route rather than the busier coastal road. André’s intention that night was to travel the twenty miles to White Plains. Not far from Peekskill, however, they reached a militia checkpoint. Arnold’s pass worked but the commanding officer warned of roving bands of loyalists in their path so they found a farmhouse to stay overnight.
At daybreak on the 23rd, André’s party were on their way only to be halted again by another militia checkpoint, but Arnold’s pass worked again. André’s relief was short- lived as they met Col. Samuel B. Webb, an American officer just freed by the British. “[André] told me his hair stood erect, and his heart was in his mouth, on meeting Col. Samuel B. Webb…an acquaintance of his. He said the Colonel stared at him, and he thought he was gone, but they kept moving, and soon passed each other. He then thought himself passed all danger.” Smith felt differently. Fearing bands of Loyalists below, Smith announced he couldn’t continue but gave André some of his money and a map. With Smith’s departure toward Arnold’s headquarters, André was alone, hoping, perhaps, to meet one of those Loyalist bands. That mindset may have predisposed him to capture.
Several hours later, a short distance from British lines, André rode up a small rise with the Hudson sparkling in the distance. As he crossed a small bridge outside the village of Tarrytown, he suddenly looked down John Paulding’s musket barrel. Paulding, clad in a green Jaeger’s coat he got after escaping a New York prison, was watching the road along with two others. Being so close to British lines and seeing Paulding’s dress, André assumed they were friendly and quickly acknowledged he was a British officer on an important mission. When Paulding informed him they were Americans, André tried Arnold’s pass. The third time wasn’t a charm. André tried to buy his freedom with promises of anything the three might want. While Paulding listened, the others searched his boots and found the papers. This fellow was a spy!
André was taken to Lt. Col. John Jameson in North Castle, a southernmost post in the American lines. Incredibly, after seeing the incriminating documents, Jameson decided to send André under guard to Arnold with a letter informing him that “John Anderson” (the name used in Arnold’s pass) had been found with “a Parcel of Papers taken from under his Stockings…of a very dangerous Tendency.” These papers included information concerning West Point’s woeful condition—aid and comfort to any enemy. Jameson sent a second letter to Washington on the road from Hartford informing him of the spy’s capture and enclosing the “Parcel of Papers.”
Fortunately, Benjamin Tallmadge arrived in North Castle and, upon being informed of the day’s excitement, privately pointed out to Jameson the “glaring inconsistency” in sending the two dispatches. Eventually, he convinced the befuddled Jameson to recall “Anderson” but the letter warning Arnold continued on. Fortunately for Arnold, a rainstorm delayed both dispatch riders. Tallmadge became André’s personal guard and, by agreement, escorted him to a safer location in the interior.
Monday’s sunrise gave the river a silver cast as Robinson House stirred with the staff preparing for breakfast. Arnold’s bargemen quietly enjoyed the morning calm while the Vulture lay at anchor near Verplanck’s Point waiting and watching for André. Nobody foresaw the brewing perfect storm. Jameson’s messenger to Arnold with news of the capture was heading north, a dispatch rider with proof of the treason was heading west and Washington was heading south, all with the same destination—Arnold’s headquarters—with the traitor now in the crosshairs.
Washington was expected for breakfast and a tour of West Point with Arnold but he diverted to inspect the eastern redoubts. As a result, first to arrive at Robinson House was the news of “Anderson’s” capture. Arnold promptly left the table and went upstairs where he told Peggy he had to flee for his life. When he returned to breakfast he told his aides he was called immediately across the river but would be back soon. Within minutes he was riding hard for his barge.
Second to arrive was Washington, an hour later, surprised at Arnold’s summons to West Point. Surprises would be in abundance that day. When he reached West Point dock, it was deserted, a highly unusual circumstance when the Commander-in-Chief was expected. Another surprise—Arnold was nowhere to be found. With Washington at West Point, the third and final dispatch rider, who’d been looking for Washington on the Hartford road, made his arrival. After seeing the stunning materials, Washington grimly stated that “Arnold is a traitor and has fled to the British. Whom can we trust now?”
When a conspiracy is first discovered, its full extent is usually unknown. Washington didn’t know who he could trust. But the painful blow from a man he’d admired, trusted and sought to help at every turn had to give way to action. A sudden commotion upstairs announced the curtain going up on Peggy Arnold’s encore “Mad Scene” presented earlier just after Arnold fled. It was a virtuoso performance of an inmate from an 18th Century lunatic asylum. It must have been a pitiful site, with tough, war-hardened men trying to assure her she had nothing to fear. The evidence, all circumstantial or hearsay, suggests her involvement but there’s no smoking musket. Was her performance then, consistent with past behavior, a feint to allow her husband to escape or simply the means by which she’d escape future scrutiny and be returned to Philadelphia and eventually to her husband’s companionship? In any event, she was an intelligent and tough woman who could be trusted to serve Arnold as wife, mother, friend and co-conspirator.
Washington’s emotions quickly gave way to action. He alerted his officers to remain vigilant: an attack may be imminent. To Nathanael Greene commanding the army in Tappan, he ordered “You will also hold all the Troops in readiness to move [toward West Point] on the shortest notice.”
No British attack came that night or the next day. In camp, General Orders read “Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered. General Arnold who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private and public obligation, was about to deliver up that important post into the hands of the enemy.” Major André and Smith, also arrested, were separately taken to Tappan, NY. Washington followed days later, less concerned of an imminent attack.
On September 29, a Board of General Officers convened to decide André’s fate. It was a Who’s Who of generals including Lafayette, von Steuben, Knox and Glover, with Greene presiding. Washington submitted the bill of indictment and evidence was presented that included André’s own confession and the materials hidden in his boot. André’s defense consisted of statements that he came on shore under a Flag of Truce and had Arnold’s legitimate pass to return to White Plains (the British lines). His disguise was forced on him as was the route he was to take. André tried to sound as if he had almost stumbled into the situation he was in through no fault of his own and he was only following the instructions of an American general. Yet his confession, written to Washington soon after being taken, showed that he was well aware of what he’d done, what he’d be called and what would become of him.
After hearing and reviewing the evidence, the Board reported, “That Major André, Adjutant General of the British Army, ought to be consider’d as a Spy from the Enemy, and that, agreeably to the Law and usage of Nations…ought to suffer death.” Over the next few days, Clinton made concerted efforts to convince Washington that his much cared for subordinate was misled. Arnold sent his own self-serving appeal, claiming it was he who had forced the disguise and sent André by land but
“if [André] should suffer the severity of their sentence, I shall think myself bound…to retaliate on such unhappy persons of your army, as may fall within my power…But if this warning should be disregarded, and he suffer, I call heaven and earth to witness, that your Excellency will be justly answerable for the torrent of blood that may be spilt in consequence.”
Upon reading the impertinent letter, General Greene threw it on the ground in front of the British emissary who came under a Flag of Truce along with Clinton’s urgent appeal.
The capture, trial and execution of John André is a story in itself, worthy of a Greek tragedy. Benjamin Tallmadge guarded and bonded with André from his detention in Westchester to the gallows, displaying a perfect example of the “Lima Syndrome” two centuries before being defined. “I became so deeply attached to Major André, that I can remember no instance where my affections were so fully absorbed in any man.” Shortly after the execution he wrote to Col. Webb that “had he been tried by a Court of ladies, he is so genteel, handsome, polite a young gentleman, that I am confident they would have acquitted him.” James Thacher wrote “the spot [of the hanging] was consecrated by the tears of thousands.”
Why André evoked so much sympathy and emotion is a mystery. Perhaps Arnold’s treason was so unthinkable that André’s subtle claim that he was a victim rang true. His charm, intelligence, cultured ways and high rank made Americans like Thacher sympathetic, but he was also a poet and dramatist, skilled at making things up and spinning reality. Tallmadge’s reaction is more surprising. As a spy himself, he knew the deal. He also knew Nathan Hale who was summarily executed, denied a clergyman and Bible, and his letters to friends shortly before his execution were probably destroyed.
Thacher, Tallmadge and others may have had misplaced sympathy but General Heath, who would shortly become West Point’s commander, got it right. “…it must be remembered that he who consents to become a spy, when he sets out, has by allusion a halter put round his neck, and that… if he be taken, the other end of the halter is speedily made fast to a gallows.” There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that André was a spy on an intelligence mission, despite the separate attempts of Robinson, Arnold and Clinton to argue Flag of Truce. Sympathy aside, the dashing André knew exactly what he was doing but the potential fruits of the treason far outweighed the potential danger of capture and punishment. Unfortunately for André, the inability of Washington to apprehend the primary villain or exchange him for André assured André’s eventual date with the hangman.
For the new country, teetering on the edge of a failed rebellion, the treason of Benedict Arnold was, literally, a godsend. Instead of focusing on the devastating event in which an American hero saw fit to become the poster boy for British propaganda, the rebel cause saw the undoing of the conspiracy as divine intervention. The Continental Congress saw fit to establish December 7, 1780 as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for the providential “rescuing” of the “Commander in Chief and the army from imminent dangers, at the moment when treason was ripened for execution.”
For Sir Henry Clinton, the failure of the plan ended any aspiration to take West Point for some time. To be sure, he was disappointed but this feeling paled compared to how he felt for the loss of his adjutant general with whom he felt more of a friendship than most others. As was Clinton’s modus operandi, however, he proceeded to write a defense of his actions. It was a masterful deflection of blame: André had disobeyed his orders by going behind enemy lines, he exchanged his uniform for civilian dress; he carried incriminating papers; he failed to return by way of the Vulture; Arnold had lost his usual “presence of mind” in sending André back by a land route; and Washington had “burnt with a desire of wreaking his vengeance” on Arnold and André.
Arnold, not content and certainly not contrite about playing Clinton and getting André killed, took up quill and ink and began formulating a defense of his own, appealing directly to the British Secretary of State for America, Lord George Germain. His “end run” included a self-serving explanation of his motives and another intelligence “teaser” entitled “The Present State of the American Rebel Army, Navy, and Finances, with some Remarks.” The eponymous work painted a dreary picture of American military and social conditions but not a word of regret or mention of André, not dead a week. He kept at it for several months trying to convince Lord Germain that West Point remained a desirable objective with a feeble defense. Eventually, Clinton had to justify his forbearance. He assured Germain that he’d attack West Point “whenever the attempt can be made with propriety” but conditions didn’t support an assault unless Arnold knew something Clinton didn’t. Germain received Clinton’s letter on June 23, 1781, just about the time the Comte de Rochambeau was starting his epic march from Rhode Island to Yorktown.
The 1780 campaign season was coming to an end with little action in the north. Understandably, actions such as Charleston and Camden and the plot to take West Point had taken their toll on the Commander-in-Chief causing him to write, “we have been half of our time without provision, and are likely to continue so. We have no magazines, nor money to form them; and in a little time we shall have no men, if we had money to pay them. We have lived upon expedients till we can live no longer. In a word, the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices, instead of system and economy.”
Washington could have written that he was pleased that the sale of West Point, like many real estate deals, had fallen through, in large part due to some well-placed shot and shell from Livingston’s lone four-pounder which may have altered the course of the War.[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Site of Arnold-André meeting around 2:00 AM on September 22, 1780. Hudson River is to the left and a marker is on the actual site up the slope to the right. Photo by John Intile. Courtesy of www.HMdb.org.]
 See Steven Paul Mark, “Too Little, Too Late: Battle of the Hudson Highlands,” Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/11/little-late-battle-hudson-highlands/ .  Dave R. Palmer, George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots (Washington: Regenery Publishing, Inc., 2006), 357.  Isaac Q. Leake, Memoir of the Life and Times of General John Lamb (Albany: Joel Munsell, 1850), 258.  Winthrop Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André, William Abbatt, ed. (New York: William Abbatt, 1902), 336.  James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953), 352-353. Flexner also asserts it was Smith who directed the change of clothes but other sources state that Arnold had suggested it.  Letter from Major André to Sir Henry Clinton, September 29, 1780, in Capt. Edward C. Boynton, History of West Point (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864), 140.  Jared Sparks, “The Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold,” The Library of American Biography (Boston: Hilliard Gray, 1835), 3:211, 213.  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), 20.  J. Watson Webb, Reminiscences of Gen’l Samuel B. Webb (New York: Globe Stationery and Printing Co., 1882), 296.  Abbatt, Crisis, 29-32.  Letter from Lt. Col. James Jameson to B. Arnold, September 23, 1780, in Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1968) (Viking Compass Edition), 486.  Palmer, George Washington, 364.  Sparks, Life and Treason of Benedict Arnold, 240-242.  Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André, 375.  Mark Jacobs and Stephen H. Case, Treacherous Beauty (Guilford: Lyons Press, 2012), 162.  George Washington to Nathanael Greene, September 25, 1780, Writings of Washington, Washington Papers, Series 3h Varick Transcripts, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw200098)), accessed March 1, 2014.  George Washington Greene, The Life of Nathanael Greene (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871), 2:229.  Boynton, History of West Point, 131.  Boynton, History of West Point, 139.  Boynton, History of West Point, 146.  Benjamin Tallmadge, Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (New York: Thomas Holman, 1858), 38-39.  Samuel Blachley Webb, Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. (New York, 1893), 2:293-294 and James Thacher, M.D., Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783 (Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1823), 275.  Hannah Adams, An Abridgement of the History of New England (London: J. Burditt, 1806), 130.  Heath’s Memoirs of the American War, Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1904), reprinted from William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General Heath, (Boston: I. Thomas and A. T. Andrés, 1798), 270.  Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Gaillard Hunt et al, ed. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 18:950.  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, xxxvii.  Clinton, The American Rebellion, 216-217.  Benedict Arnold, “The Present State of the American Rebel Army, Navy, and Finances. Transmitted to the British Government in October, 1780,” Winnowings in American History, Revolutionary Narratives, No. V, Paul Leicester Ford, ed. (Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1891).  Sir Henry Clinton to Lord George Germaine, April 5, 1781, in Clinton, American Rebellion, 505-506.  George Washington to John Cadwalader, October 5, 1780, Writings of Washington, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw200143)), accessed March 17, 2014.