Last time, we left off with General Benedict Arnold planning to hand over West Point, its garrison, and General Washington himself to the British, in exchange for £20,000 and a general’s commission in the regular army.
In 1780, Major John André was serving as the Adjutant General of the British Army and as chief spymaster. I’ve discussed André’s career in many past episodes, but it’s worth a quick review.
|Flight of Arnold|
The following year American rebels led by General Richard Montgomery in a joint attack with Colonel Benedict Arnold, attempted to capture Quebec City. Almost the entire British army in Canada at the time was taken prisoner, Lieutenant André among them. André was sent as a prisoner to be held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he lived in a private home on parole.
A year later, he was freed in a prisoner exchange and promoted to captain. He served as an aid to Major General Charles “no flint” Grey on the Philadelphia Campaign and was present at Brandywine, the Paoli Massacre, and Germantown. André famously organized the massive party in Philadelphia for General Howe’s return to London. After that, he became aide-de-camp to General Henry Clinton, a deputy adjutant general, and received a promotion to major.
In 1779 André became Adjutant General for the entire British Army in North America, and also head of its intelligence service. In 1780, in this role, André organized the logistics for the British siege and capture of Charleston, South Carolina.
Although his military career advancement was rather rapid, and perhaps because of it, many of André’s fellow officers resented him. Although he came from a wealthy family, his family money came from merchants, not landed nobility. His parents were not even British. André’s relatively speedy rise through the ranks came, not through bravery on the battlefield, but through ingratiating himself to powerful men, and using his administrative skills.
Men who had spent decades as lieutenants and captains were not particularly happy taking orders from a twenty-something major with no real experience leading troops in combat and with no family pedigree to explain his rapid rise.
It did not help that André wrote a report for General Clinton on looting by British soldiers. Many of André’s loyalist friends encouraged him to write the report. Clinton also received the report favorably. But for many field officers, who had to deal with the realities of soldiers who fought in poverty and really only had any opportunities through plundering during wartime, the report came across as someone out of touch with the realities of warfare.
Much of André’s notoriety came from his ability to write humorous plays and poems enjoyed by his fellow officers. He was popular and an entertainer and party guest, but not respected as a military leader. His party for General Howe in Philadelphia became legendary among officers, but also a disgusting example of excess for many others.
André was also known as a ladies man. While in British occupied Philadelphia, this young, handsome, and exciting officer caught the eye of many young women, including a 17 year old daughter of a Philadelphia loyalist family named Peggy Shippen. Although there is no evidence that they ever had a physical relationship, or that André ever saw it as more than a flirtation, the two continued to correspond after the British army abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York. When Peggy Shippen married American General Benedict Arnold a few months later, she served as the perfect person to introduce the two enemy officers.
After André and Clinton returned from Charleston in July 1780 André was eager to score another big win. If he was primarily responsible for the capture of West Point, it would likely mean promotion to lieutenant colonel, and also improve the respect of his fellow officers for his military value.
After several failed attempts to meet with Arnold to finalize plans that I discussed in the last episode, André made one final attempt to meet on September 20. Clinton had been reluctant to let André meet with Arnold, for fear that André would be captured as a spy. When Clinton finally agreed to the plan, he told André to avoid three things. First, he should not go behind enemy lines. André and Arnold should meet in Westchester County, which was no-man’s land, or on a British ship on the river. Second, he should not disguise himself, but should remain in uniform at all times. Third, he must not carry any compromising papers that would give the enemy evidence that he was engaged in espionage.
André set off aboard the Vulture arriving at a point about fifteen miles downriver from West Point. When Arnold was a no-show, he sent a note in his own handwriting, which Arnold would recognize, sent under a flag of truce to General Arnold stating that Colonel Robinson needed to meet with him. Arnold sent a courier back to the ship, granting a pass to “John Anderson” which was the name André had been using to correspond with Arnold. André did not receive the courier until late on the 21st.
|Arnold and André Meet|
André then broke Clinton’s first rule, by getting into the courier’s boat and traveling behind enemy lines at night. At last though, André and Arnold met in person, near a grove of fir trees along the shore of the river. By this time it was past midnight, into the morning of September 22. There were no other witnesses to their conversation, but Arnold later recounted that André brought word that the amount of money the British were prepared to offer him was less than he wanted but that André gave his word he would try to help him get more. Arnold had also brought sketches of West Point defenses and information about the garrison. André took the documents, breaking General Clinton’s second rule.
As dawn approached, Arnold tried to help André return to his ship. The men who had rowed him upriver could not be found. A local man named Joshua Smith had accompanied André to the meeting site. Smith was of questionable loyalties, and probably liked it that way since he lived in the no-man’s land between the two armies. Arnold suggested that the men return to Smith’s house where they could take cover until the next night.
Still in his British uniform, André returned to the home where the men had breakfast. While there, they heard cannon fire from the river. The Americans brought down artillery to fire on the Vulture, which by this time had been anchored in the river for two days. After exchanging fire for nearly two hours, the damaged Vulture eventually retreated downriver, back toward British lines.
|Arnold's Pass for "John Anderson"|
Smith, however, decided they needed to ride to the ferry on horseback. Smith gave André a civilian coat and hat in order to avoid being seen in uniform. André was reluctant but felt he had no choice but to break General Clinton’s third rule.
Later, several witnesses reported seeing Smith, André, and a servant riding downriver. Smith stopped to speak with Major John Burroughs of the New Jersey Line, and Colonel James Livingston. It was Livingston’s cannon that fired on the Vulture. Neither officer asked about Smith’s quiet companion, and allowed the men to continue on their way.
A few miles further down the road, a group of New York militia men stopped the riders and demanded to see their papers. Smith provided them with Arnold’s passes. The militia offered to put up the riders for the night, warning them that cowboys were in the area making it dangerous to travel at night. Cowboys were men who lived in this no-man’s land, taking advantage of the lawlessness to rob travelers and locals when the opportunity arose. Reluctantly, Smith and André spent a few sleepless hours in a strange bed, with their clothes on. Before dawn, they were up again and on the move.
André thought they were finally past American lines when another New York militia captain stopped them and demanded their passes. Again, Arnold’s passes worked and the men continued on their way. A short time later, another officer stopped them. This time, André thought the gig was up. The officer was Colonel Samuel Bachley Webb, an officer who had recently been released as a prisoner of war. Colonel Webb had been on parole in New York City for years, and knew André by site. André recognized him instantly, but Webb did not take a close look at the men in the civilian coat and let them pass.
|Capture of John André|
Having passed all the American checkpoints, Smith decided it was time for him to turn back. He was concerned about coming into contact with a British check point. He told André to continue down the road, that he was only a few miles from the British lines.
Arnold continued riding for a few miles and another group of men jumped out of the woods and took the reigns of his horse. André could see the British lines just ahead. One of the men who grabbed him was wearing the coat of a Hessian jaeger. André addressed the men “Gentlemen, I hope you belong to our party” The leader responded “what party” André rejoined “the lower party” which was a reference to loyalists. The men pointed their guns at him and responded “we are Americans.” André then offered them his gold watch to allow him to pass, but the men refused, demanding all of his money.
André showed him Arnold’s pass, but the men were not impressed. They order him off of his horse and into the woods where they forced him to strip. The men went through his clothing looking for hidden money. Finally, they found the documents in his boots.
After allowing him to dress, the men took him to the nearest American outpost commanded by militia Colonel John Jameson. Jameson wrote out a letter about the capture of the suspected spy and sent it along with the captured documents to General Arnold.
While there, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the Continental Army’s head of intelligence, happened to stop in New Castle. Tallmadge immediately suspected that Arnold was a part of a plot and said the letter and documents should go directly to General Washington, who was on his way to meet with Arnold. But Colonel Jameson outranked Tallmadge and insisted Arnold be informed. Tallmadge did, however, convince Jameson to move André to a secure location rather than sending him directly to Arnold. Tallmadge also had Jameson send a courier directly to find General Washington and inform him of the capture.
By this time, it was the morning of the 24th. Washington was due to arrive at Arnold’s residence at Beverly Mansion near West Point. Arnold was having breakfast with several of his officers, when a messenger arrived. The message was the letter from Colonel Jameson informing the general that he had detained a man calling himself John Anderson, who was headed to the British lines with a pass signed by Arnold. The letter also informed Arnold that the papers in the man’s possession had been forwarded to General Washington.
|Arnold boards the Vulture making his escape|
A couple of minutes later, a knock came at the bedroom door. A servant informed Arnold that Washington’s servant had arrived at the front door informing him that the general would be at the house at any moment. Arnold left the home in a hurry, informing his officers that he had to ride over to West Point and would return in an hour. Arnold then rode directly to the docks and told his rowers that he would give them two gallons of rum if they could get him downriver to Stoney Point then back in time to meet with Washington.
The rowers sped Arnold down to Stoney Point. Along the way, Arnold passed an American patrol boat, shouting to the captain to inform Washington that he would be back shortly. When his bateau reached Stoney point, Arnold told them to row further downriver to the Vulture. Upon boarding the Vulture, Arnold told the British crew to take his two American rowers as prisoners of war.
Moments after Arnold departed his home, Washington’s retinue arrived. The messenger that Jameson had sent to inform Washington had not managed to find his party. So Washington was still planning on a quiet day inspecting the West Point defenses with one of his top generals. Washington sent ahead a servant to announce their arrival. Major Franks sent a message from the house with apologies that breakfast was not ready, that Mrs. Arnold was sick, and that General Arnold had gone over to West Point. With that, Washington crossed over the river to go directly to West Point himself. He was surprised that there was no cannon salute for his arrival, and that Arnold was nowhere to be found. He was also surprised to find the fort’s defenses in disarray, after Arnold had assured him that he had put everything in order. After about two hours, Washington return to Arnold’s home to see if he could figure out what was going on.
|Arnold's HQ near West Point|
Several hours later, Colonel Hamilton returned to the home with the news that General Arnold had boarded the Vulture and was headed back to British lines. Arnold wrote a letter to Washington which Hamilton delivered. In it, Arnold claimed that his wife Peggy was completely ignorant of his actions, as were his aides, Colonel Varick and Major Franks, as well as Joshua Smith, who has accompanied André through most of his attempted escape.
Arnold asked that Washington allow Peggy either to join him in New York or to return her to her parents in Philadelphia. He also asked Washington to send along his clothing and personal baggage to New York.
It is unclear if Arnold’s attempted exoneration of Peggy held any weight. But Peggy was putting on her own act to save her skin. Before Washington’s arrival, Peggy ran through the house in her nightgown, with her hair disheveled screaming at the top of her lungs. The first person to find her was Colonel Richard Varick.
Colonel Varick was a longtime aide to General Arnold. Varick had been an aide to General Philip Schuyler. When Schuyler lost his command after the fall of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, Arnold had taken on Varick as an aide. Because Varick was close to Schuyler, Schuyler’s replacement General Horatio Gates requested that Arnold discharge Varick. Arnold’s refusal to do so was the beginning of the rift between the two generals.
Varick remained loyal to General Arnold, but after Arnold lost his position as military commander of Pennsylvania, Varick’s military career faded. He returned to his civilian legal practice in New Jersey. But when Arnold took command at West Point, Varick happily joined him there.
Varick lived in Arnold’s home and was a very close aide to the general and his family. On the morning of the 24th Varick had enjoyed breakfast with General Arnold before his abrupt departure. Now he was faced with a raving woman. Upon seeing Varick, Peggy dropped to her knees and begged him to spare her baby. Varick still had no idea what was going on.
Soon, Arnold’s other close aide, Major David Franks and the fort physician, Dr. Eustis arrived. The three men forcibly took Peggy back to her bedroom. Peggy continued to rave that she would never see her husband again, that the spirits had carried him away and put hot irons in his head.
After Washington arrived at the home, Peggy demanded to see him. The men led Washington up to the room, where Peggy shrieked that he was not General Washington. He was a man who was going to help Varick kill her baby. A disconcerted Washington quickly retreated from the room, unsure how to handle a hysterical woman.
The following day, Peggy met with Hamilton and Lafayette, asking if she could get a pass to leave with her baby. Washington offered to send her to her husband in New York City, or to her father in Philadelphia. Peggy chose Philadelphia. This convinced the men that she was not a part of Arnold’s treason. I think they were just happy to get rid of this crazy woman.
With Peggy out of the way, Washington now had to figure out the extent of this conspiracy and what needed to be done for damage control.
And we’ll get into all that next time. when we discuss the fallout of Arnold's treason.
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Mirante, Rand "Justice, Mercy and Treason. John Marshall's and Mercy Otis Warren's treatment of Benedict Arnold" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 28, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/10/justice-mercy-and-treason-john-marshalls-and-mercy-otis-warrens-treatments-of-benedict-arnold
Flexner, James "Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked" American Heritage, Vol. 18, Issue 6, Oct. 1967. https://www.americanheritage.com/benedict-arnold-how-traitor-was-unmasked
Philbrick, Nathaniel "George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution" American Heritage, Vol. 62, Issue 4, 2017: https://www.americanheritage.com/george-washington-benedict-arnold-and-fate-american-revolution
Randall, Willard Sterne "Why Arnold Did It" American Heritage, Vol. 21, Issue 6, Sept/Oct 1990: https://www.americanheritage.com/why-benedict-arnold-did-it
John Jameson and the Arnold Conspiracy: https://www.jamesonnetwork.com/digest.php?id=19&cat_id=&p=&search=
(from archive.org unless noted)
Benson, Egbert Vindication of the captors of Major André, New York, Reprinted for J. Sabin, 1865 (originally published 1817).
Bolton, Robert History and Capture of Major André. Taken from the revised history of Westchester County, New York: Chas F. Roper & Co. 1880.
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.
Smith, Horace W. Andreana: Containing the Trial Execution and Various Matter Connected with the History of Major John Andre, Adjutant General of the British Army in America, A. D. 1780, Philadelphia : H. W. Smith, 1865.
Smith, Joshua Hett An Authentic Narrative of the Causes Which Led to the Death of Major Andre, Adjutant-General of His Majesty's Forces in North America, New York: Printed for Evert Duyckinck, 1809.
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.