David Williams, John Paulding, and Isaac Van Wart were celebrated as heroes during their lifetime, vaulted to fame by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and lionized in popular ballads and the play The Glory of Columbia: Her Yeomanry. Historian Mercy Otis Warren adored John André’s Captors, writing in 1805 that their names “ought never to be forgotten.” Recent historians and media portrayals have not been as kind to them. Alexander Rose labeled them rebel Skinners who mugged André in his book Washington’s Spies, which spawned the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. Robert Cray described them as irregular militiamen, an ambiguous term he did not bother to define, while implying that they belonged to the patriot guerilla force now known as Skinners. Peter R. Henriques called them “civilian roughnecks” and inferred that they might be both brigands and heroes, out to rob André but by luck catching a spy. Mark Sullivan posited that the trio belonged to the Skinners, a group that he stated had a “tenuous connection with the American cause.” John Evangelist Walsh’s book The Execution of Major Andre is an exception to the trend, describing André’s captors as patriotic New York State militiamen. My previous article about André’s captors examined of their military records and issued a clarion call for fair treatment as we approach the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. The trio continued to be celebrated as heroes throughout the nineteenth century in spite of Benjamin Tallmadge’s 1817 characterization of them as “Cow Boys,” indicating that large numbers of Americans did not take Tallmadge’s unsubstantiated accusation seriously. Ballads, theatrical performances, poems, and monuments related to André’s captors demonstrate that common folk celebrated the captors for rejecting André’s bribe, foiling Benedict Arnold’s plot and saving the American cause before and after Tallmadge’s allegations in 1817.
The Continental Army retreated behind the Croton River after the Battle of White Plains. Militia and levies became the first line of defense in the neutral zone, the area of Westchester County, New York, between American and British forces. Due to the atrocities of loyalist militia units, patriot authorities passed specific laws governing who and what could be allowed to pass the lines, and ordered all suspected Tories out of American lines. In June 1780 the New York State legislature authorized civilians to intercept cattle being driven to the enemy and awarded the confiscated cattle as payment. To add to the mayhem, there were thieves that would steal cattle, say that they recovered them from the loyalist raiders, claim the cattle as prize, and sell them back to the Patriots at public auction. These are the hoodlums that are associated with the Skinners today, the dictionary defining Skinner as “any of a band of irregular cavalry operating in the neutral ground of Westchester County, New York, during the American Revolution and claiming loyalty to both the British and American troops but preying on all persons indiscriminately.
John Yerkes, James Romer, John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, Isaac See, and Abraham Williams were members of the First Westchester Militia who had just finished a tour of duty and now had a week off to do as they pleased. New York State allowed off-duty militia to earn some money by recovering stolen cattle and contraband as prizes. Most likely the six men left North Salem for Tarrytown on September 22, 1780. In South Salem they asked David Williams to join them. At Davis’ Hill in Tarrytown they separated, leaving four to the hill while Paulding, Van Wart, and David Williams stationed themselves one-half mile away at Clark’s Kill. After capturing André, David Williams, Paulding, and Van Wart reunited with their comrades and John Dean eventually joined them. The eight men escorted André to the nearest continental army outpost in North Castle.
Brave Paulding and the Spy
After the capture of André a ballad, sometimes known as John Paulding and the Spy or The Ballad of Major André, became a widely popular account of the entire affair. There were numerous versions that varied to a small degree. This one is my favorite:
Come all you brave Americans, And unto me give ear; And I’ll sing you a ditty That will your spirits cheer,
Concerning a young gentleman Whose age was twenty-two; He fought for North America, His heart was just and true.
They took him from his dwelling, And they did him confine, They cast him into prison, And kept him there a time.
But he with resolution Resolv’d not long to stay; He set himself at liberty, And soon he ran away.
He with a scouting Party Went down to Tarrytown, Where he met a British officer, A man of high renown;
Who says unto these gentlemen, “You’re of the British cheer, I trust that you can tell me If there’s any danger near”’
Then up stept this young hero, John Paulding was his name, “Sir, tell us where you’re going, And, also, whence you came?”
I bear the British flag, sir; I’ve a pass to go this way, I’m on an expedition, And have no time to stay.”
Then round him came this company, And bid him to dismount; “Come, tell us where you’re going, Give us a strict account;
For we are now resolved, That you shall ne’er pass by.” Upon examination They found he was a spy.
He begged for his liberty, He plead for his discharge, And oftentimes he told them, If they’d set him at large,
“Here’s all the gold and silver I have laid up in store, But when I reach the city, I’ll give you ten times more.”
“I want not the gold and silver You have laid up in store, And when you get to New York, You need not send us more;
But you may take your sword in hand To gain your liberty And if that you do conquer me O, then you shall be free.”
“The time it is improper Our valor for to try, For if we take our swords in hand, Then one of us must die;
I am a man of honor, With courage true and bold, And I fear not the man of clay, Although he’s cloth’d in gold.”
He saw that his conspiracy Would soon be brought to light; He begg’d for pen and paper, And asked leave to write
A line to General Arnold, To let him know his fate, And beg, for his assistance; But now it was too late.
When the news it came to Arnold, It put him in a fret; He walk’d the room in trouble, Till tears his cheek did wet;
The story soon went through the camp, And also through the fort; And he called for the Vulture And sailed for New York.
Now Arnold to New York is gone, A-fighting for his king, And left poor Major André On the gallows for to swing;
When he was executed, He looked both meek and mild; He look’d upon the people, And pleasantly he smil’d.
It mov’d each eye with pity, Caus’d every heart to bleed, And every one wish’d him releas’d And Arnold in his stead.
He was a man of honor, In Britain he was born; To die upon the gallows Most highly he did scorn.
A bumper to John Paulding! Now let your voices sound, Fill up your flowing glasses, And drink his health around;
Also to those young gentlemen Who bore him company; Success to North America, Ye sons of liberty!
The Glory of Columbia: her Yeomanry! A Play in Five Acts
The 1803 play by William Dunlap, The Glory of Columbia, represented the characterization of the captors as sturdy independent yeomen at its zenith. It premiered in New York City on the Fourth of July and told the story of the sly British officer André captured by the incorruptible patriots Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams like nothing had before it. It was a modest success and was resurrected over the decades for special events. In 1830, the fiftieth anniversary of André’s capture, in New York City the actor playing Williams paused after saying his first lines to introduce a special guest of honor sitting in the first row—the real David Williams, now seventy-five years old. The audience went wild, and the old patriot was overcome with emotion, rose to his feet, waved to all sides, and gave a stiff little bow.
The play pays homage to Arnold’s and William’s service in the 1775 Canadian campaign. In the first act Williams is an aide to his old comrade Arnold at West Point but he is itching to be out on the front lines again where the fighting occurs, partly out of boredom with garrison duty and partly because he realizes that Arnold has changed since the old days when they served at Quebec and Saratoga and is not the same man. Arnold grants his request and David heads to Tarrytown to visit his family. On the way to his father’s house, he runs into his cousin Isaac Van Wart and childhood friend John Paulding shortly before André comes along. André is portrayed as the villain, offering riches that the trio could only dream about in exchange for his freedom while the captors are the noble good guys, firmly and resolutely rejecting André’s offer of bribe until André admits his captors have taught him reverence for the American farmer.
After Isaac Van Wart died in 1828 an anonymous poem celebrating David Williams as the last remaining captor of Major André appeared in New York newspapers. This composition demonstrated the reverence still held for André’s captors, a decade after Tallmadge questioned their credibility and ethics before Congress:
To David Williams
The Surviving Captor of Andre
They have fell all around thee, thou art left
Alone, the sole survivor of that three
Of friends and young affection’s buds bereft,
All, but they our cherished liberty.
They have all gone before thee to the rest
The sole boon worthier such a heart as thine.
Then thy own country’s weal which stood the test
Of all the tempting glitter which the mine
Yields earth to purchase souls with and with them
Soon shall thy country give thee what outweighs
Out values and outlasts a diadem
A quiet grave, and an enduring praise.
Yes, go thy way, thou incorruptible
And fearless guardian of a fearful hour,
Faithful to justice, as our annals tell,
So may a God of mercy greatly shower
Upon thy ripening time the dews of love,
Till that art gathered to thy rest above.
Nineteenth Century Monuments
Paulding passed away in 1818 and was interred in the cemetery of Old Saint Peter’s Church in Van Cortlandtville with military honors. Paulding’s grave is marked by a large marble monument that was erected in 1828 by the City of New York.
Van Wart died in 1828 and was interred in the cemetery of the Elmsford Old Dutch Reformed Church with military honors. The citizens of Westchester erected a marble and granite monument at his grave on June 11,1829.
Williams died in 1831 and was interred at the Livingstonville Cemetery with military honors. In 1876 during the Centennial of the American Revolution his remains were moved to Rensselaerville in Albany County without the permission of his descendants. David had wished to be laid to rest in Schoharie County, and a little over a year later, on July 19, 1877, his remains were again moved to the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie where they remain. On September 23, 1876, the largest crowd ever assembled in Schoharie at the time—some 10,000 people—witnessed the dedication of New York State’s David Williams monument, at the Old Stone Fort. The monument’s marble shaft is thirteen feet tall, symbolizing the original thirteen colonies. The total height of the monument is twenty-three feet nine inches to mark the date of the André capture—the 23rd of September.
In 1853 a monument was erected to the three captors near the place where they captured André near Tarrytown. It was re-dedicated on September 23, 1880—the 100th anniversary of André’s capture—and a near life-size bronze statue of John Paulding was put atop the monument. An estimated 70,000 people attended the event.
Turn: Washington’s Spies
The depiction of Paulding, Williams, and Van Wart in popular culture unfortunately reached its nadir during the third season of the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies, which first aired in 2016. André’s captors are portrayed as ruthless Skinner thugs mugging the charming John André and demanding a reward from Col. John Jameson of the Continental Army for turning André in. Paulding even steals André’s boots and wears them to Jameson’s continental outpost while poor André is forced to walk barefoot. It’s more fiction that fact.
So how did the portrayal of the captors in popular culture shift from the play The Glory of Columbia in which David Williams nobly rejects André’s bribe to the TV series in which the trio are depicted as opportunistic Skinners mugging André and demanding a big reward for turning him in?
In 1817 John Paulding applied to Congress for an increase in his pension. Congressman Benjamin Tallmadge, who had been André’s military escort in the nine days between his capture and execution, repeated a story André had told him that the three men stopped him to rob him, found the plans to West Point in his socks while searching for plunder, and refused the bribes offered by André only out of their own self-interest, expecting a lucrative reward from Congress for turning him in. Van Wart had the most direct response to Tallmadge, stating in an affidavit that at no time did the captors consider accepting André’s bribe and at all times they acted out of a sense of duty to the American cause. Sixteen of the captors’ aged comrades from the Westchester Militia supported Van Wart’s statement in another affidavit, vouching for the character and service of the captors during the war.
Defenders of André’s captors chastised and ridiculed Tallmadge and the issues that they raised are still valid today. Why did Tallmadge remain silent for thirty-seven years instead of seeking redress by reporting his grievances immediately to Washington, who had met with André’s captors and made a full investigation of the matter? Tallmadge had been a congressman for many years while the captors collected their pensions. Why had he not raised the issue before? How could André have known the intent of the captors? New York State did not pay off-duty militia for the patrols it legalized, so it allowed militia to keep contraband. The confiscation of André’s horse, saddle, bridle, gold watch and whatever other property he had with him was appropriate according to the customs of the New York State Militia. A spy’s job entailed manipulation and deception. Why did Tallmadge believe an enemy spy who repeatedly lied about his identity, over Washington and American fighting men? André’s testimony would have never held up in a court of law.
Williams testified at the trial of Joshua Smith that he asked André how much he would give them to let him go. Detractors of Williams believe that he was soliciting a bribe. I think Williams had a different intent. Using the Socratic method of cross-examination, by asking questions Williams was able to draw out the truth and eventually led André into revealing that he was a British officer when André suggested that two of his captors hold him captive while a third deliver a letter to New York City requesting gold and goods. This is partly why the story of the uneducated farm boy tricking the sophisticated British officer had so much appeal to a grateful nation.
Why did Tallmadge treat André’s captors with so much contempt and disdain in contrast to Alexander Hamilton and Washington? Washington believed the captors to be “men of great virtue,” and in a letter to Congress wrote “Their conduct merits our warmest esteem.” Hamilton foretold that “while Arnold is handed down with execration to future times, posterity will repeat with reverence the names of Van Wert, Paulding, and Williams.” Instead of being eternally grateful Tallmadge slandered and resented them. He may have been envious. Tallmadge had become a very rich man, but the fame of André’s captors eclipsed even his. No one wrote plays or sang songs about Tallmadge. He may have simply been a politician pandering to a constituency that hated to pay taxes. His memoir indicated he greatly admired André, so he could not be impartial. Tallmadge wrote in his memoir “I became so deeply attached to Major André, that I can remember no instance where my affections were so deeply absorbed in any man.”
Tallmadge’s fondness of André is confusing because Tallmadge only knew André for nine days. He did not even know who the captive was at first because André lied about his identity. Yet Tallmadge elected to believe André over the captors. Tallmadge and André had both been educated at prestigious universities and became close during André’s captivity. A quote attributed to Tallmadge is revealing: the captors belonged to “that class of people who passed between both armies.” There is no evidence of desertion in the extant military records of the eight men that turned André in—they all had clean military records. Thus, the captors’ biggest crime in the eyes of Tallmadge was that they were poor, uneducated, and landless, unlike himself and André, both well-educated men convinced of their own superiority, which led André to disobey Sir Henry Clinton’s orders and caused Tallmadge to undermine the deceased Washington’s judgment.
Society in this era differentiated between the “Better Sort” and “Meaner Sort,” a toxic characterization for poor whites. According to historian Nancy Isenberg, “the meaner sort was thought to possess a rude appearance, dull mind, and unrefined manners.” In 1780 Benjamin Franklin, himself from a humble background, “warned his grandson that society divided people into ‘two Sorts of People,’ those who ‘live comfortably in Good Houses’ and those that ‘are poor and dirty and ragged and vicious and live in miserable cabins.’” (After the war, David Williams built a log cabin on his property in Cross River.) Social stratification manifested itself in the military. The Army’s officer corps came from the upper strata of society. Washington stated that “‘only the lower class of people’ should serve as foot soldiers.” Thomas Jefferson believed that the upper class should serve in cavalry units, because their indolence or education had made them “unfit for foot service.” The eight men who turned André in had little to no formal education and served as enlisted men in the infantry. They had been forced off their farms and may have been residing in barns and outbuildings north of the Croton River, balancing military duty with whatever farm work they could find. Most of them could not read or write; on extant payroll records many of them signed their names with a X. Tallmadge, a scholar of Greek and Latin, graduated from Yale and served as an officer in the cavalry. Clearly Tallmadge and André belonged to the “better sort” while the captors belonged to the “meaner sort,” and Tallmadge predicated his biased statements against the captors on social class, elevating André while denigrating his captors.
Two baffling elements of this entire affair are that André never complained to Sir Henry Clinton that he had been mistreated or robbed by the captors, instead writing to Clinton that “I received the greatest attention from General Washington and every person under whose charge I happen to be placed,” and Talmadge, after demeaning Andre’s captors, failed to defend his position, writing evasively in a letter to Timothy Pickering in 1822 that his “remarks were sadly misrepresented,” and he did not “wish to detract from their [the captor’s] merits in the public estimation, where no duty requires it, or to wound their feelings, nor those of their friends in any degree.” Yet as time marched on, the damage Tallmadge did to the reputations of the captors has manifested itself in different arenas.
The capture of André represented a pivotal moment in American history. Yet no federal monument to the captors exists and the three men are unremembered at best or defamed at worst. A New York State Historical Marker in Tarrytown does not even list their names, stating “Here in 1780 three honest militiamen arrested Major John Andre . . . preventing disaster to the American cause.” As the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution approaches we should try to revisit the story of André’s captors in a fair manner that will do them justice. Like Washington and Hamilton, I believe they were just doing their duty.
Rand Mirante, “Justice, Mercy, and Treason: John Marshall’s and Mercy Otis Warren’s Treatment of Benedict Arnold,”Journal of the American Revolution, October 28, 2021, allthingsliberty.com/2021/10/justice-mercy-and-treason-john-marshalls-and-mercy-otis-warrens-treatments-of-benedict-arnold/.
Robert E. Cray, “Major John Andre and the Three Captors: Class Dynamics and the Revolutionary Memory Wars in the Early Republic, 1780-1831,” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 17, Number 3 (Autumn 1997), 371-397.
Victor J. DiSanto, “Major Andre’s Captors Revisited: Separating Myth from Historical Reality,” The Journal of the American Revolution, July 12, 2022, allthingsliberty.com/2022/07/major-andres-captors-revisited-separating-myth-from-historical-reality/.
www.dictionary.com/browse/skinner; Lincoln Diamont, Yankee Doodle Days (Fleishmanns: Purple Mountain Press, 1996), 116-125.
Statement of Samuel Youngs, June 1, 1837 in Pension Application of Mary Dean, widow of John Dean, pension application W. 16555, June 8, 1837; David Williams, “Major John Andre,” The Ulster Sentinel, Kingston, NY, June 20, 1827, reprinted from The New York Times; “The affidavit of John Yerks,” November 12, 1845,Tarrytown Monument Committee and Raymond Marcius Denison, Souvenir of the Revolutionary Soldiers Monument dedication at Tarrytown, NY, October 19, 1894 (New York, Rogers & Sherwood, 1894),169-70; Jeptha Root Simms, The Frontiersman of New York (Albany: George C. Riggs, 1882), 701-713; Hufeland, Westchester County During the Revolution, 348-52.
Brave Paulding and the Spy, motherbedford.com/Music073.htm.
William Dunlap, The Glory of Columbia her yeomanry! A play in five acts (New York: David Longworth, 1817). In reality, Williams left the Continental Army on December 31, 1775 after serving out his enlistment but he did serve in Canada at Fort St. Johns, Montreal, and Quebec. I am uncertain if Williams served with the militia at Saratoga.
John André to Henry Clinton, September 29, 1780, clements.umich.edu/exhibit/spy-letters-of-the-american-revolution/gallery-of-letters/andre-clinton-letter/; Talmadge, Memoir, 123-124.