We last left Benedict Arnold in April 1779. He had just bought a mansion in Philadelphia and married the 18 year old Peggy Shippen. He had resigned the military governorship of Philadelphia, as the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania under President Joseph Reed had accused him of misusing his office for personal gain.
The Continental Congress had already dismissed most of the charges levied by Pennsylvania. Much of public opinion seemed to be in Arnold’s favor. Many viewed this as one of the army’s greatest leaders being taken down by politicians for minor accounting problems. Arnold was looking forward to a quick court martial that would acquit him of the remaining charges and allow him to return to duty.
Washington scheduled the court martial hearings to begin on May 1, 1779. The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania led by President Joseph Reed had issued the charges and did not want to see them swept under the rug. Reed wrote to Washington telling him that he did not want a cursory hearing and demanded a delay so that the Council could gather its witnesses. Reed threatened to prevent the Continental Army’s use of any state wagons for transport of supplies if the Army did not comply. As a result, Washington delayed the hearing until June 1.
Arnold traveled to Middle Brook, New Jersey for the hearings. But just as they were about to get underway, the British attack up the Hudson River that led to the Battle of Stony Point led to another delay. Repeated delays would mean that the hearings would not actually begin until December 23.
On May 5, just a few days after the first delay, Arnold expressed his frustration in a letter to Washington. Arnold knew the political game used to destroy great men. Make accusations, then let those accusations hang over them for months or even years without clearing them up.
Arnold had to look no further than a guest in his own home, Silas Deane, for an example of this. Deane had been fighting with Congress for more than a year to clear his name and with no end in sight. Deane would leave later that year, sailing for France at his own expense, in a futile attempt to find sufficient paperwork regarding his expenses to satisfy Congress. Arnold saw how Deane’s political enemies had cut him down with innuendo, rumors, and baseless accusations in the press, without any real effort to resolve the matter. It had destroyed Deane’s reputation and career. Arnold worried that he was headed down that very same path.
In addition to threat to his reputation, Arnold had growing money problems. Following his resignation as military governor of Pennsylvania, Arnold had no income opportunities beyond the base pay of Continental paper money that he received as a major general. He had just purchased a mansion for his bride, heavily mortgaged, and had to rent a second house since the Minister of Spain was still living in the home he had just purchased. Arnold’s new wife came from a wealthy home and expected to live a lifestyle that came at a hefty cost.
|Peggy Shippen Arnold|
Over the summer, Arnold’s sister, Hannah, came to Philadelphia with his three sons, ages 7-11. They also moved into Arnold’s house, making for a crowded home. The children got into trouble and did not get along well with their new stepmother. His oldest son had gotten in trouble with the town watch. Arnold decided to ship the three boys off to boarding school in Baltimore, incurring another expense that he could not afford. Peggy also became pregnant, meaning an even larger family to support.
Arnold found it difficult to engage in any trade in Philadelphia. No one wanted to enter into business with him while the Supreme Executive Council was breathing down his neck. Local merchants knew that a partnership with Arnold would only bring more government scrutiny on themselves.
While he still had been military governor, Arnold had made a secret deal with Gideon Olmstead to help him win his case against Pennsylvania over the captured British Sloop, the Active, which I discussed in Episode 209. Arnold had hoped that the prize money from that would keep him solvent. Not only did the case not settle, Arnold had to spend another £5000 on Olmstead and his shipmates in order to keep them from selling even more shares in the collection effort.
Arnold did not want word to get around to more people about his deal, especially while his court martial was still pending. This deal would appear to the public as part of the corruption for personal benefit that he was trying to fight. If Olmstead took on more partners, he would have to disclose his deal with Arnold. Therefore, the agreement only continued to cost Arnold more money, if only to keep it quiet.
In desperation, Arnold submitted a bill for £5000 for the nine months he had served as military governor and that he needed to be paid immediately in order to cover expenses until he was reinstated to a new command.
The Chairman of the Treasury Board argued that the amount Arnold sought was far too high. Congress appointed a special committee to examine the matter. They offered to pay Arnold about half of what he had requested, and to pay in Continental paper, meaning he would be getting about 10% of what he had requested. Arnold refused to accept the settlement, meaning he got nothing while the committee put the claim on hold for further auditing.
While he was facing all these troubles in May 1779, while Arnold was stewing about his delayed hearing and his money problems, a young man asked to speak with him privately at his home. The man, in civilian clothing, introduced himself as Lieutenant Christopher Hele of the Royal Navy.
Hele had attempted to deliver a peace proposal from the Carlisle Commission in October 1778. As his ship sailed up the Delaware under a flag of truce, it crashed and wrecked, with several of the crew killed. Lieutenant Hele escaped the wreck, only to be captured several days later by local militia.
Despite the fact that Hele was under a flag of truce, Congress held him as a prisoner of war after passing a rule that anyone who attempted to release seditious materials would be held, regardless of any flag of truce. The fact that Congress passed this law about a week after Hele was captured, and the fact that an enemy officer delivering a peace proposal to Congress should not be considered sedition, did not seem to help Hele’s case.
In any event, Hele had been given parole and had been living in Philadelphia for the past six months. On his visit to see Arnold, Hele was not there to discuss any of that. After introducing himself and trying to make a bit of small talk, Hele produced a sealed envelope. Placing the envelope on Arnold’s desk, Hele told the general “You know as well as I do, General, that both sides are weary of this long war. What is needed, Sir, is a man of decision - someone with character and power - to step forward and bring this tragic conflict to an end.” With that, Hele turned and took his leave.
When the British occupied New York, Robinson threw in with the loyalists. He raised the Loyal American Regiment and became its colonel. In 1779, Colonel Robinson was serving in New York under General Sir Henry Clinton.
Robinson's letter spoke in generalities about the horror and futility of the war. It suggested that an American general would be greatly rewarded if he could be part of an effort to end the war and help to reestablish the King’s rule over the colonies. The letter gave no specific proposal, and did not suggest that Arnold simply switch sides and join the British Army. Rather, this was part of a larger effort to try to turn some American leaders, who might be able to sway public opinion in favor of a negotiated peace and a return to colonial status.
British intelligence was well aware of Arnold’s money problems, his resignation as military commander of Philadelphia, and his ongoing legal battle in Pennsylvania. It saw this opportunity to approach one of the Continental Army’s top generals, and perhaps convince him to lead his country back to the King’s authority.
Arnold was hardly the first prominent leader to be approached. The British had made a concerted effort to turn opinion leaders to their side. This was nothing new. Kings back in England often stayed in power during difficult times through offers of money, land, and titles. Rewarding powerful men for loyalty, and punishing opponents brutally, was the key to any monarch’s survival. Efforts in America tried to follow this same gambit.
I’ve already discussed efforts to get Commodore John Barry to switch sides. I’ve also mentioned attempted bribes to members of Congress, including Robert Morris, Francis Dana, and Arnold’s rival in Philadelphia - Joseph Reed. All of these men turned down these overtures and made them public very quickly.
Unlike those other men, General Arnold did not immediately reject or expose the offer. For the prior year, Arnold had been hanging out in Tory social circles around Philadelphia. That is what, in fact, had incurred the wrath of the radicals.
The people in Arnold’s social circle had long believed that permanent independence from a power such as Britain was an impossibility. At some point, there would be a negotiated peace. America simply was not powerful enough, nor united enough to govern itself. From their view, taking down a top general like Arnold on minor ethics charges, or cheating him out of compensation, were some of the many examples of why the current leadership was incapable of maintaining a government.
Arnold’s experience with the Continental Congress and state governments over the years supported this argument. It made him susceptible to the idea that the government lacked the maturity and experience to maintain a stable power structure, and that, absent a return of the king’s peace, the end result would be chaos and civil war, eventually followed by reinstatement of the king at some later time. An even worse scenario would be to come under the control of the King of France, whom many colonists despised and distrusted even more than King George. France did not have the tradition of personal liberties that the Americans were fighting to sustain. Arnold carried a life-long hatred of the French for the massacre of his friend and neighbors at Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War. Arnold’s inner thoughts at this time are not recorded. We can only speculate what combination of Tory defeatism, anger at the charges against him, and his continued money problems all weighed on Arnold as he read Robinson’s note.
There is some evidence that Arnold discussed the matter with his new wife Peggy. According to one account, Peggy admitted to a friend that she had encouraged her husband to change sides and helped introduce him to contacts that made continued negotiation with the British leadership possible.
Possibly through Peggy or through others in the Shippen family, Arnold soon contacted Joseph Stansbury, a suspected loyalist. Stansbury had only immigrated to Philadelphia from London a decade earlier. He ran a china shop in Philadelphia, and was also known for writing humorous and satirical songs. Although he expressed sympathy with many of the early colonial protests, he opposed independence and was imprisoned by the patriots for part of 1776 for signing God Save the King at a party in his home. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, Stansbury had served in several minor roles supporting the British army
After the British evacuation, Stansbury was one of those loyalists who decided to take his chances in Philadelphia. He signed an oath of allegiance to Pennsylvania, moved out of town to live with relatives in Moorestown, New Jersey, and kept his head down. Despite his newly professed loyalty, many people, including Arnold, believed that he still had contacts with the British Army in New York. He frequently visited Philadelphia on business and also was able to travel to New York.
Within days of Arnold receiving Robinson’s letter, Stansbury traveled to New York City, where he met with Major John André. The two men discussed Arnold’s willingness to play ball, if they could work out acceptable arrangements.
André gave Arnold the code name Monck which was a reference to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle. General Monck had been a Scottish military leader during the English Civil War a century earlier. Monck had supported Oliver Cromwell during the era of the Protectorate. However, when Charles II returned to Britain to take the throne, Monck accepted an offer from Charles and helped to overthrow Cromwell’s son Richard and restored the House of Stuart to the throne. For his services, Monck was absolved of his former treason and richly rewarded by King Charles II, including a peerage and a generous pension. I think it's easy to see how the British saw, or hoped there would be some parallel between Monck's behavior: first betraying his king and then being a key figure in bringing the king back to power, and what they were hoping what Arnold would do for them in the coming year.
André had taken a position as Deputy Adjutant General under Henry Clinton and had been put in charge of Britain’s Secret Service in America at the recommendation of André’s commander, General Charles Grey. His new role primarily focused on intelligence and handling spies. André also knew Arnold’s wife Peggy from his time in Philadelphia, although there has been some modern speculation that the two were linked romantically, anything beyond superficial flirtations, seems to be without evidence.
André began a correspondence with both Benedict and Peggy Arnold. He adopted the pseudonym of John Anderson, a merchant. He would often write letters that appeared to be about business deals, but which had coded messages, or included lines in invisible ink to avoid detection. Much of the correspondence took place between André and Stansbury, who would then relay the messages to Arnold.
Once he established communications with Arnold, André began discussions with General Clinton. Although André was the correspondent, he made clear that Clinton was making the decisions about how to proceed.
At the outset, André wanted Arnold to provide intelligence: troop movements, the condition of the army, or other details that would be helpful. Not only would this be helpful to the British, it also provided verifiable proof that Arnold was truly planning to break with the patriots. It also put General Arnold in a position where he was committing a little treason, and could not easily back out of it later. Although Arnold made clear at Stansbury’s first meeting with André that he was prepared to defect and join the British, André wanted to make the best use of this prize.
Over the next few months, Arnold would provide intelligence. Arnold provided information about Washington moving his army up the Hudson Valley. He also reported that the Americans would not expend too many resources to defend Charleston, South Carolina if the British attacked there.
The men discussed the terms of Arnold’s defection. Arnold wanted compensation for all of the property that he would lose. Patriot governments would seize his home and other property. He also wanted compensation for the debts that he still believed the Continental Congress owed to him. He wanted a commission as a major general in the British army, with full pay and benefits.
All of these terms were under discussion. André informed Arnold that if he were able to surrender an entire army, or an important position as part of his defection, that could result in a greater reward. He suggested that Arnold try to get command of an important post.
Later that summer, Arnold was asking for assurances that the British did not plan to give up on winning the war. Arnold feared that after he switched sides the British might pull out of America entirely. André was not willing to provide detailed information about British plans. He did not say so, but there must have been a fear that Arnold could be working as a double agent.
The two men suggested several ways Arnold might continue to assist the British without defecting. One was for Arnold to take command of an army, lead it into a trap that could be captured. The British were still interested in the return of Burgoyne’s Convention Army that was being held as prisoners. If the British had a similarly-sized army to exchange, that might move along that process. Arnold might even then be returned to the Continentals with his fellow officers none the wiser to his treasonous activity. As a reward, Arnold might receive a cash payment of 10,000-12,000 guineas.
Nothing seemed to come of the correspondence, beyond some general intelligence that Arnold provided about the positions of some armies, their numbers, and their conditions. By the end of August, 1779, the correspondence seemed to come to an end. Arnold may have been looking for an opportunity to provide a valuable prize for the British.
André made clear that the surrender of an entire army would mean more money. Arnold knew that he would not get a command until the court martial cleared him of any wrongdoing. Arnold was more eager than ever to get that court martial behind him. Despite his wishes the schedule for a hearing would continue to be delayed.
All of the plans seemed to go on hold until Arnold received a new command, one that the British would value greatly. Both sides put their discussions on hold until that could happen. Those opportunities would not come until the following year.
Next Week: we return to South Carolina where General Benjamin Lincoln continues his efforts to prevent the British army in Georgia from marching north.
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Next Episode 220 Assault on Charleston
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“To George Washington from Joseph Reed, 1 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0262.
“To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, 5 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0293.
John André Letter to Joseph Stansbury, May 10, 1779. Henry Clinton Papers https://clements.umich.edu/exhibit/spy-letters-of-the-american-revolution/gallery-of-letters/andre-stansbury-letter
Book Codes between Benedict Arnold and John André (1779-1780) http://cryptiana.web.fc2.com/code/arnold.htm
(from archive.org unless noted)
Almon, John The Remembrancer or Impartial Repository of Public Events,Vol.7, London: Almon, 1779 (pp 177-78, capture of Lt. Hele).
Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Flexner, James T. The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André, Little, Brown, & Co. 1954.
Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.
Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Thompson, Ray Benedict Arnold in Philadelphia, Bicentennial Press, 1975.
Van Doren, Carl Secret History of the American Revolution, Viking Press, 1941.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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