We last left Benedict Arnold in Episode 238, in the spring of 1780. Under pressure from Pennsylvania, the Continental Army put General Arnold before a court martial. The court found him guilty of relatively minor offenses and ordered General Washington to issue a reprimand. General Washington began his reprimand by noting Arnold’s great services to his country, but also that some of his conduct was “reprehensible” and that it was “imprudent and improper.”
With Arnold’s reputation in tatters, Congress also went after Arnold’s finances. Arnold had received a great deal of money to conduct the Quebec campaign in 1776. When that money ran out, he used his personal funds to keep the campaign going. Arnold kept careful financial records of his expenses, but the British captured those records during his retreat from Quebec.
Arnold ended up having to sell the new home in Philadelphia that he had purchased for his new wife, and moved into a smaller home owned by his father-in-law. During this same time, Arnold had permitted Silas Deane to stay with him. Deane, you will recall, was fighting with Congress over the French loans that he had acquired on behalf of Congress to help fund the war. Thanks to lies, Deane was fighting accusations that he had profited from these transactions. Like Arnold, Congress was unwilling to repay Deane for personal loans he had made to the cause, and for which he expected to be reimbursed.
All of this had deeply soured Arnold against Congress. It probably made him more open to ideas from his new loyalist wife, and her friends and family, about how these outrages would never happen under the King’s rule, and how Congress was simply not fit to rule over the American people. Arnold also seemed to conclude that he was one of the key reasons why the British had not yet won the war, and that Congress simply did not appreciate that fact.
Arnold had begun his correspondence with British officials in early 1779. He had concluded that Congress would never compensate him for the many sacrifices that he had made for his country, but perhaps Britain would. He started asking himself "What's in it for me?"
If he did switch sides, he would certainly lose all of his existing property in America to confiscation. In his correspondence, Arnold wanted reimbursement for his lost property, repayment of the debts he had incurred on behalf of the army. He also wanted a commission as a general in the British Regular Army, a rank that would provide him with a pension after the war.
The parties reached an agreement in principle at that time, but waited for the right time for Arnold to turn. The British wanted more than Arnold. They wanted him to turn over a valuable post. Arnold began providing valuable intelligence via secret couriers at this time. After that, the correspondence seemed to pause for a while. When the French army arrived in 1780, Arnold provided intelligence about that. For more than a year, British intelligence had a mole at the highest levels of the Continental Army. Arnold remained on the Continental side, waiting for the right time to make his move.
Arnold had originally requested reimbursement of £10,000 from the British. In the spring of 1780, General Phillip Schuyler met with Arnold about giving him command of West Point. Washington had thought Arnold would want a larger command, one that would offer him an opportunity to redeem himself on the battlefield and restore his reputation. Arnold, however, had other plans. He claimed that his battlefield injuries rendered him unable to take to the field and requested the command of West Point.
Arnold proposed to the British that in addition to the £10,000 in reimbursements, the British should give him another £20,000 when he turned over West Point.
The fortifications at West Point had grown increasingly important over the course of the war. The Continentals had designated the area in 1774 as one of four choke points along the Hudson River where they could block British ships. A sharp turn in the river there made it a more difficult place for ships to pass.
In 1778, the Americans began building permanent fortifications around the area to prevent any unauthorized river passage. These included the West Point chain across the river, and a series of fortifications to protect the chains from any attack.
The defenses there continued to grow, mostly under the supervision of Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish engineer who had joined the Continental Army. Kosciuszko built a series of about thirty fortifications, all of which were designed to support one another in any attack. If the British attacked some of the fortifications, others could fire on the attack. The British would not likely have the numbers to attack all the fortifications at once. This made West Point virtually impregnable.
In 1779, the British moved up the Hudson, getting within twelve miles of West Point before withdrawing back to New York City. After that attack, Washington kept a larger garrison at West Point. It was far enough away from the British lines in New York that they could not launch a surprise attack in a single day, but close enough that the Continentals could deploy forces south if the British did make any new foray up the Hudson River.The British came to see West Point as key to controlling the lower Hudson River. If they could do so, they would sit in between Washington’s Continentals in northern New Jersey, and the French army in Newport, Rhode Island. Capturing West Point, on the heels of the fall of Charleston and the American loss at Camden might have driven American morale so low that it might lead to an end of the war.
|View of West Pont from Constitution Island|
British attempts to take West Point by force had proven fraught with risk. The British commander, General Henry Clinton, had attempted to launch an offensive out of New York City in the summer of 1780, after he returned from his victory at Charleston. But he found that the farther he tried to move his army into enemy territory, the greater the defense and the more difficult it was to maintain supply lines.
While the British could run ships up the Hudson River, putting together an invasion fleet that could disembark and attack well defended entrenchments up a mountainside seemed too risky. On the other hand, if the British could get the commander of West Point to turn over the 3000 man garrison there, the British could establish themselves behind the defenses and fend off any attack launched by the enemy against them.
The key to all of this was getting Benedict Arnold to take command at West Point.
Although both sides considered West Point to be important, Washington had never put one of his top generals in command there. The garrison at West Point was meant to deter a British advance, but Washington did not anticipate that West Point’s commander would be leading men into battle. Washington had given command to Major General William Heath. Washington had found Heath’s leadership lacking early in the war, but could not discharge him from the army without upsetting Heath’s political allies in New England. In such cases, Washington tried to put such leaders in a position of prominence but where they would be unlikely to have their military skills put to the test.
At times, Heath left for other duties, including handling the British prisoners captured after Saratoga, or for recruitment drives in New England. During these absences, Brigadier General Alexander McDougall took command. McDougall was also a patriot and politician turned military officer, without any impressive military record that would entitle him to a more active post. After General Heath left for good in early 1780, the post command went to Major General Robert Howe, another politically prominent general who had lost command in the south because of his ineffectiveness.
As late as June of 1780, Arnold was still in Philadelphia. Washington was trying to convince him to take a field command. Arnold, however, wanted West Point. It was about this time that Arnold contacted General Knyphausen about his request for £10,000. He also demanded an immediate payment of £200 so that he could pay for continued communications through a private trusted channel. At the time General Clinton and Major André were still in Charleston. Knyphausen sent Arnold the money along with a ring. He said that an agent would contact him and wear a matching ring as evidence that he was sent by the British command.
As part of his good faith, Arnold provided details about a planned invasion of Quebec, to be led by the Marquis de Lafayette. In fact, Washington had circulated information about this proposed invasion in hopes of word reaching the British and getting them to remove forces from New York in order to support Quebec. Arnold, however, did not know that this was disinformation. Arnold also informed the British that he planned to leave Philadelphia to head home to Connecticut, and after that he would meet with Washington in Morristown in early July.
On his way to Connecticut, Arnold stopped in West Point to survey the defenses. He wrote that many of the garrison was being deployed elsewhere, and gave detailed information about the defenses and their weaknesses. He even advised where the enemy could land to begin an effective land assault on the fortifications. He coded this assessment and sent it to the British in New York.
Arnold then continued on to Hartford Connecticut. There, he tried to sell his house and collect on some debts, but had little luck with either. Part of the problem was that he did not want to take Continental dollars. He wanted notes drawn on European banks.
We don’t have any record of what Arnold discussed with Washington when they met at Morristown in early July. But we do know that Washington still hoped to convince Arnold to take command of the entire left wing of his army. Washington was still hoping to cooperate with the French in a joint invasion of Manhattan, and wanted Arnold to be a key field commander. West Point would be well back behind the lines of any offensive. Washington said in a letter that the fort could be left in “the care of invalids and a small garrison of militia” during this time.
Arnold however left his meeting with Washington in early July with a very different view. A few days after the meeting, Arnold wrote a coded message to his handlers in New York, letting them know that he would soon be in command of West Point and that he was ready to hand it over to the British for £20,000. He also wanted a down payment of £1000 ahead of time.
British General Clinton received word of the offer, but allowed his chief of intelligence, Major John André, to handle the correspondence. André responded that Arnold would receive a payment of £20,000 for his role in capturing West Point and its garrison, but nothing further for reimbursement of his losses. Clinton also authorized a down payment of £500, half of what Arnold had requested.
On August 1, Washington met with Arnold at King’s Ferry near New York. Washington encouraged Arnold once again to take a field command that would make him second in command of the Continental Army, behind only Washington himself.
When Washington gave Arnold the news, he assumed Arnold would be delighted. He even had already written general orders to be released later that day making public Arnold’s new command. Washington recalled later though, that when he informed Arnold, that the general seemed disappointed. Other witnesses recalled that Arnold’s face went red and that he appeared angry but that he said nothing. Later that day at headquarters, Arnold told Washington that he was in no condition for a field command and insisted on taking command of West Point. Two days later, Washington issued peremptory written orders to Arnold, having him take command of West Point and the other Hudson River forts.
Finalizing the Deal
Arnold finally took command of West Point in early August 1780. One of his first acts was to send an aide to Philadelphia to collect his wife Peggy and their infant son.
In mid-August, less than two weeks after taking command of West Point, Arnold received a coded letter from André informing him of Clinton’s counter-offer: the flat £20,000 for the capture of West Point. Arnold did not respond to Clinton or André.
Arnold did write to General Washington, informing him that the fort’s defenses were a mess. Even so, everything he did seemed to weaken the defenses even further. He raised no objection when Washington requested four of the artillery companies under his command for field duty. Arnold sent hundreds of soldiers far from the fort, some on wood cutting duty, or to other outposts. Within a few weeks, the garrison at West Point had fallen to four or five hundred men. Arnold also removed much of the food stores from the fort, putting them in his personal store room at the mansion he used for a residence, several miles from the fort. This would prevent the garrison from having enough food to withstand a siege of any length. It also became quickly apparent that Arnold was selling some of the food on the black market.
Arnold attempted to respond to André, but the courier he chose to deliver his coded message got suspicious and turned it over to Continental General Samuel Parsons. Since he could not decode its meaning, Parsons simply put the letter in a drawer. A few days later, Arnold found another courier who got through a message to André, calling for a meeting near an American outpost, Arnold would meet either with André, or an agent of his choosing, to go over the final details of the plan.
André worked out a plan to meet with Arnold where the two officers could talk privately without giving away Arnold’s plans to the Americans. Arnold was living in a mansion owned by a loyalist named Beverly Robinson. Early in the war, Robinson had fled to British controlled New York but had returned once under a flag of truce to handle some of his personal property. By this time, Robinson was a colonel in the provincial militia. Colonel Robinson, accompanied by Major André, would meet with General Arnold at an American outpost near Dobbs Ferry, under the pretext of discussion the disposition of some of his remaining property at the house. This would give Arnold and André time to confer privately.
On September 11, André and Robinson boarded the British ship Vulture and sailed up the Hudson to Dobbs Ferry. Arnold sailed down from West Point to meet with them. Although the Americans controlled the land in this area, British patrol boats controlled the water. As Arnold approached the Ferry, a British patrol boat fired on his bateau. Arnold had to take cover near an American block house and could not make the meeting. When Arnold returned to West Point, he said he had been on an inspection tour when he was attacked, and ordered more artillery to Dobbs Ferry to chase off the British patrol boats.
As Arnold and André tried to arrange another meeting, Peggy and Neddy finally arrived at West Point. Around this same time, Arnold learned he would have another visitor. General Washington wrote to inform him that he was on his was traveling north to meet with French General Rochambeau at Hartford, and requested an armed escort for his secret journey. Washington also wanted a report on the West Point defenses.
Arnold put together the report for Washington, making a second copy for Major André. He also tried to get a courier to take a message to New York that General Washington would be crossing the Hudson on September 18, hoping the British might arrange a raid to capture him and his other top officers.
As Arnold prepared to lead the honor guard that would accompany General Washington across the Hudson, he received another letter from Colonel Robinson, indicating that André wanted to try to meet once again. Arnold confided in his artillery Colonel John Lamb that he intended to meet with Robinson. Lamb counseled against meeting with a notorious loyalist and suggested he speak with Washington about the propriety of such a meeting when the men met at Peekskill.
Arnold did have dinner with Washington at Peekskill, along with Lafayette, Knox, Hamilton, and others. As the officers dined, the British warship Vulture approached. The ship continued to sail by, unaware of the valuable group of diners nearby. Arnold’s warning letter about Washington’s presence arrived in New York too late.
Washington warned Arnold not to meet with Colonel Robinson. The loyalist could send a letter to New York Governor George Clinton if he had anything to discuss. Washington was concerned more about the security of West Point. One of his spies in New York had warned that an American general was working in league with the British. Whoever that general might be, Washington was more concerned that Arnold work to improve the West Point defenses to deter any attack. Given Washington’s denial, Arnold could not meet publicly with Robinson and André without raising suspicion.
Arnold could, however, meet with André alone since no one knew who he was. Arnold sent word to André that Washington, Lafayette and others would be dining with him at his home near West Point on September 24. It would be a perfect time for the British to attack. They might capture, not only West Point, but the leader of the Continental Army as well.
Even with all this information, Clinton and André still thought a personal meeting with Arnold was critical to seal the deal. They arranged one final attempt for a meeting.
And we will get to that meeting next time in an episode that may not go very well for Major André.
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Logistical and Quartermaster Operations at Fortress West Point, 1778-1783: https://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/documents/401021/1055071/westpointlogistics_cubbison.pdf
Bradley, J. H. West Point and the Hudson Highlands in the American Revolution, 1976: https://www.westpoint.edu/sites/default/files/inline-images/vietnam/West%2520Point%2520and%2520the%2520Hudson%2520Highlands%2520in%2520the%2520American%2520Revolution.pdf
THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR IN THE HUDSON HIGHLANDS: FORTIFYING WEST POINT, 1775-1779: https://msaag.aag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/8-MSG-2010-Galgano.pdf
(from archive.org unless noted)
Boynton, Edward C. History of West Point and its military importance during the American Revolution, London: Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, 1864.
Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858.
Sellers, Charles Coleman Benedict Arnold The Proud Warrior, NY: Minton, Balch & Co. 1930.
Todd, Charles Burr The Real Benedict Arnold, New York: A.S. Barnes and Co.1903.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Lea, Russell M. A Hero and A Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, Heritage books, 2008
Malcolm, Joyce Lee The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life, Pegasus Books, 2018.
Palmer, David R. The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783, Greenwood Publishing, 1969 (read on archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.