Various evil winds had blown up the "rebel posts in the Highlands," as the British liked to style West Point, and its surrounding fortifications. Now the most adverse of all was brewing.
On August 3, 1780, Washington appointed General Benedict Arnold to command at West Point. How did this appointment, pregnant with disaster not only to West Point but to the United States, come about? Three circumstances contributed: the character of Benedict Arnold; the discouraging aspect of the American cause at that time; and Washington's natural admiration for Arnold's military bravery, which in this case biased his usual sagacious judgment.
Arnold's dramatic dual personality all but wrecked the American Revolution, yet in truthfully evaluating history we are forced to admit that he contributed much to the country he finally sought to ruin.
Benedict Arnold was thirty-five years old when the news of the Battle of Lexington was brought to New Haven, where he was then living. He was a captain in the Governor's Guards, one of the two companies of state militia in Connecticut. Some of the townspeople of New Haven regarded him with admiration; others hated him. His admirers saw in him a man of splendid military promise, one brave to recklessness. Their confidence in these qualities was not misplaced. But other citizens looked another way as he passed.
Arnold was descended from one of the first families to p18 settle Rhode Island and from that Benedict Arnold who had succeeded Roger Williams as Governor of the province, but his father had sunk low in public esteem; he was a man of suspicious integrity, a heavy drinker, a debtor.
His son ran away to war when he was fifteen, was brought back by his excellent mother. Later he reenlisted and did not have to be brought back; he deserted.
There was another ugly story. Arnold was by turns rich and poor; was engaged in many businesses, among them West Indian trading and the navigating of his own ships. A sailor who had been with him on one of his voyages accused Arnold of smuggling. Arnold, when a personal beating failed to subdue the man, gathered a party of his friends and tied the sailor to a whipping post and laid on forty lashes. The sailor received a judgment against him.
Arnold had been a bankrupt. Yet now he was Captain of the Governor's Guards.
His career, in 1775, had only begun. He made a fiery speech to the people of New Haven; he proposed to lead a company straight into the scene of action. About forty men volunteered to follow him, members of the Guard and a few Yale students. But the selectmen of the town thought that more formal authority ought to be awaited; they issued no arms to the soldiers.
Arnold drew up his men in front of the public arsenal. "Give us arms," he said in effect, "or we will break open the building and seize them!"
The arms were issued.
Arnold, away from home, made rapid military progress. Massachusetts created him a colonel; about five days later he was disputing with another colonel, Ethan Allen, for the command of the task of storming Fort Ticonderoga.
He formed a plan to conquer all of Canada and made an p19 incredible march through the Maine wilderness in midwinter, laid siege to Quebec, and was severely wounded in the leg. But he did not conquer Canada. Certain charges were brought against him which concerned the seizure of goods at Montreal. He was made a brigadier general in the Continental Army by Congress, but complained bitterly because almost all the other generals in this army ranked him. At this time, in common with many other persons, he began to despair of the American cause.
We cannot here attempt even to sketch the intensely dramatic career of Benedict Arnold. He achieved a reputation for gallant behavior and for pecuniary dishonesty. Bitter quarrels, long contentious disputes, impeded his progress.
It was this black and white in his character which led to his appointment to the command of the Highlands. The black was brought out during his command at Philadelphia. Washington was always partial to Arnold and, when the general complained that his wound would not permit him active service and that Congress had treated him ungratefully, the commander in chief appointed him to the military command of the city of Philadelphia, which had been only recently evacuated by the British.
The English were very much at home in this the largest and most genteel of American cities. Many Tory families welcomed them; many Americans were beginning to feel that the American Revolution had been a rash mistake. Gay parties were given for the British officers; the most splendid of these was that Mischianza, or costume fete, given to honor Sir William Howe, who was returning to Europe. There was a belle at this ball. The eighteen-year‑old daughter of Mr. Edward Shippen was as gay as she was beautiful; her father was a stanch Tory. At the ball she danced with many English officers — with none more frequently than with the charming p20 Major André, the favorite of Sir Henry Clinton himself.
An American general also knew how to live magnificently in America's finest city. Benedict Arnold had rented the Penn mansion; his uniforms were gorgeous; his equipage was second to none. He fell in love with the popular Miss Shippen and she married him. Yet Arnold was already in serious trouble in Philadelphia. That Quaker city was not wholly composed of persons like Mr. Edward Shippen. General Arnold did not pay his debts. He rode with a high hand over civilian rights. Serious charges were preferred against him by the President and the Council of Pennsylvania. He was summoned to appear before a court-martial. Mobs set upon him in the street.
The court-martial acquitted Arnold of the more serious charges but convicted him of two minor ones and sentenced him to be reprimanded by the commander in chief, his friend.
Washington's reprimand when Arnold was brought before him is so noble that it should be repeated even if it did not have a direct bearing on the general's future appointment to the command at West Point. Monsieur de Marbois wrote down the words as Washington spoke them:
Our profession is the chastest of all. The shadow of a fault tarnishes our most brilliant actions. The least misadventure may cause us to lose that public favor which is so hard to be gained. I reprimand you for having forgotten that in proportion as you had rendered yourself formidable to our enemies, you should have shown moderation towards our citizens. Exhibit again those splendid qualities which have placed you in the rank of our most distinguished generals. As far as it shall be in my power I will myself furnish you with opportunities for regaining the esteem which you have formerly enjoyed.
The commander in chief had been more concerned with the Hudson line than with recent events in Philadelphia. He had been much more impressed by the defeat of Burgoyne and the complete subjugation or dispersal of his entire army, which had saved the American cause from the perhaps fatal blow of having the British forces meet to control the river. He knew what a decisive part Arnold had played in the victories around Saratoga which had strengthened the Americans.
It was Benedict Arnold who had routed Colonel St. Leger from Fort Schuyler by sending a spy, with his coat shot through with holes, to exaggerate the American numbers so that all St. Leger's Indians deserted; it was Arnold who had marched to the aid of Colonel Gainsvoort, who was flying five embroidered British standards below an American flag made of strips cut from a petticoat and a red overcoat. Arnold had urged the sluggish Gates to the first action at Bemis Heights and fought like a madman — against Gates' orders — in the second action there. This was the bright side of Arnold's character; in Washington's eyes it outshone the sinister rumors. Arnold had been severely wounded at Saratoga; he was able to make the most of this misfortune, as we shall see.
When Washington, fulfilling his promise made during his "reprimand," offered him the command of the left wing of the Continental Army, Arnold was able to refuse, saying that his wounds still gave him too much trouble to permit to be much on horseback. The truth was that at this time he was desperately pressed for money. He knew what he wanted. He visited his chief, who had his headquarters at Moores' House at West Point; but the conversation concerned general topics only. He had but one view, an object so close to his black heart that he dared not mention it to his commander. He could p22 not sell the left wing of the American Army; his sole aim was to obtain control of the great line of the Hudson through its key position, West Point.
Finally, through Colonel Livingston, he openly requested to be placed in command of the fortifications in the Highlands. Washington was surprised. It was not like the ardent soldier, happiest where the battle was thickest, to want this comparatively safe berth. But the garrison was large, almost three thousand men. General Howe, who was then the commander, was a quiet officer and it was represented to Washington that a man of Arnold's type would have more authority over the militia, who were always, when their short-term enlistments ended, going home to their farms. But there was nothing against General Howe, and Washington remarked that it would be an unjust slur on his military standing to remove him without due cause. Nevertheless on August the third, at Peekskill, orders were signed which put Benedict Arnold in charge of the Continental Army's most important fort.
Arnold made himself very comfortable in the house of Beverly Robinson on the east bank of the Hudson. Beverly Robinson, an old friend of Washington, had become a Tory and his property had been confiscated. The house was nobly situated — looking up the river at the gap in the Highlands and down the river toward Stony Point, below which the American line was stabilized.
When Arnold sat on the porch of Robinson's house and looked at the scenery, changing under the lights and shades of late summer, it must have seemed to him that his brigadier generalcy in the British Army, his fortune, and his freedom from his unpayable debts were assured. His appointment to West Point was not the first link in the chain of his conspiracy; it was almost the last.
The beautiful Miss Shippen, as we have noted, had had many p23 British admirers in Philadelphia, among them an adjutant general of the British Army — Major John André. Miss Shippen had been writing to André regularly when she married General Arnold. It was now the American general who was continuing the correspondence. He well knew how to write business letters. Was he not a former merchant? These were business letters between one Gustavus (Benedict Arnold) and John Anderson (Major John André), but the business itself other than it appeared. It was the great line of Hudson itself which was being bartered. More, it was the very existence of the United States of America. There can be little doubt that at this time our country hung on the fate of West Point.
No matter how clever you are it is hard to express yourself fully in a letter with a double meaning which must be proof against prying eyes. Besides, time pressed. Both Arnold and Sir Henry Clinton were anxious to conclude their business. Winter approached. Winter in the Highlands of the Hudson did not appeal to the Englishman. Gustavus and Mr. John Anderson must meet.
Arnold's first plan was to have André come directly to him at Robinson's house. Accordingly he prepared Colonel Sheldon, who was in command at Salem, a town to the east of Peekskill, by telling him that he expected an agent from New York who would bring him news of the enemy's movements. As both English and Americans were in the habit of getting information by whatever channels they could employ, this created no suspicion on the part of Colonel Sheldon.
André, however, did not want to assume the character of spy. He sent a mysterious letter saying that he could not keep the appointment as suggested but would meet Mr. G. under a flag of truce at Dobbs Ferry on Monday the eleventh of September at twelve o'clock. This part of the letter Arnold understood well enough.
p24 On the day appointed he set off down the river in his barge. He was more than half seaman and he must have reflected as he floated down the peaceful waters of the Hudson that he was in reality making an eventful voyage. It turned out to be eventful in a way he had not anticipated.
As he approached the British lines, in an American craft undisguised, two British gunboats promptly opened fire on him. Their aim was good and Arnold barely made the shore in time to save his life. There was, therefore, no meeting between Gustavus and Mr. John Anderson on that day.
General Arnold returned to his headquarters at Robinson's house. Washington was preparing to make a journey to Hartford to hold a conference with the French; he was to cross the river at King's Ferry and this seemed to Arnold a better time than most to push his business forward.
Washington saw in Arnold the efficient commander, devoted to himself, zealous in the performance of his duty, commanding the respect of the entire garrison of the post. For the first time in many months he felt safe in leaving the Highlands. Even his superb confidence and steadfastness had been tried of late. We see these thoughts, which as yet he had not fully expressed, find the light a few weeks after this time. Washington in a letter to Congress written in October, 1780, strikes a note of despair so rare in his writings that we cannot help being deeply moved. He writes:
Our present distresses are so great and complicated that it is scarcely within the powers of description to give an adequate idea of them. With regard to our future prospects unless there is a material change both in our civil and military policy it will be vain to contend much longer. We are without money, without provisions of forage except what is taken by impress, without clothing and shortly shall be without men. p25 In a word we have lived on expedients till we can live no longer. The history of this war is a history of temporary devices instead of system, and the economy which results from it.
In his secret discouragement the commander in chief clung to the fiery Arnold.
Yet in the minute of starting for Hartford to meet his French allies Washington had put gloomy thoughts from his mind. He was crossing the Hudson with his staff at King's Ferry in General Arnold's barge. The British sloop of war Vulture was in plain sight to the south. Washington trained his glass on her. At this time he expected Count de Guichen with a French squadron to arrive off New York.
Lafayette spoke of this. "General Arnold," he said, "since you are in communication with the enemy perhaps you can tell us what has become of Guichen?"
Arnold uttered an ugly red. Then before it was too late he saw that the young Frenchman was joking. It was well known that the post at West Point was always getting information from the city of New York. City newspapers were delivered in the Highlands almost with regularity. Arnold's quick anger was noted by all, but his temper was well known. The truth was that the traitor thought his plot was discovered and that this crossing of the river had been planned so that the patriots might seize him when he was alone among them.
As he saw the staff mount and ride up those precipitous defiles which led toward Connecticut he must have reflected that his time was short. It was now or never. Accordingly Arnold sent letters-within-letters to the Vulture requesting that André meet him on the twentieth of September on board the Vulture or at Dobbs Ferry.
Again André left New York on his hazardous mission. He received three commands from Sir Henry Clinton and we p26 shall see how wise were these commands and how in disobeying them André came to disaster. He was ordered not to go within the American lines, not to accept papers of any kind, and not to quit his uniform.
Although Arnold's ambiguous letter to André seemed to imply that he would himself come to the Vulture, the traitor had really no such design. Throughout the showed a caution with regard to himself, little concern for his accomplice.
Not far from the thirty-mile no man's land which separated the two armies dwelt Joshua Hett Smith. His house was a substantial one overlooking the river. This Smith had been employed by General Howe, Arnold's predecessor at West Point, to procure information from the enemy. His character has never been clear. No contemporary court could determine whether or not he was guilty of keeping Arnold's confidence or whether he was his dupe. In any case this man was persuaded by Arnold to go to the Vulture and bring Major André on land.
That was the plan, but it was frustrated by the boatman's refusal to go near the British vessel. As a sort of punishment perhaps and to vindicate himself, Smith sent the man, whose name was Colquhoun, to Robinson's house to explain how matters stood. Arnold, no doubt cursing his weak-minded accomplices, came down the river at once, sent up a creek for a rowboat, and himself began to reason with Colquhoun to try to induce him to set off. But the man would not yield to argument.
Meanwhile André, riding in the river, was taking anxious council with the only two persons who knew the true state of affairs: Beverly Robinson and Captain Southerland, who commanded the Vulture. He wrote to Clinton saying that as this was his second trip so near American territory it was probably his last, as a third would be sure to excite suspicion.
p27 Even Arnold could not break the resistance of Colquhoun. Why must he go at night to the British ship? the man asked. He went for his brother, but on their way they both agreed not to accede to General Arnold's demands. Coercion was necessary. Arnold threatened to lock them both up if they refused this service "for the benefit of the public."
Finally Smith, with the brothers Colquhoun at the muffled oars, set out into the river. The night was quiet; moonlight lay on the water. Suddenly a hoarse hail sounded from the deep-throated tars on board the man-of‑war. When they heard Smith's American voice a cataract of round British profanity broke the stillness of the night. But there were commands from the cabin. Smith was to be brought on board — Captain's orders.
The night was already advanced when André, his uniform concealed by a worn greatcoat with a cape which buttoned tight at the neck, came on shore and saw Arnold. They met in the woods. The betrayal of the country which we love was the subject of this conversation! Smith, shut away from these councils, reminded Arnold that day would overtake them. Still the business between the conspirators was not concluded. They were, however, forced to consent when Smith proposed that he should depart with the boat and the boatmen. André and Arnold were to follow to his house. As they proceeded over the road the challenge of an American sentry was the first indication André had that he was within enemy lines. He had disobeyed the first command of Sir Henry Clinton.
In Smith's house, which was deserted, the master having sent his family thirty miles away to Fishkill, the plans were completed which were to have delivered West Point to the enemy. Arnold was to disperse the garrison, surrender as soon as possible, and — as some historians allege — weaken the great iron chain. He gave vital papers to André which revealed the exact p28 plans of the works, and all military details of the garrison's strength and the placing and exact listing of the artillery. These papers André accepted and placed in his stockings; thus he disobeyed the second of Sir Henry Clinton's orders.
During the morning there was the thunder of artillery. It was Colonel Livingston firing upon the Vulture. She had come too close to shore. The American aim was good; the Vulture, under André's anxious eyes, dropped down-river. At evening André requested Smith to take him out to his vessel. Arnold had already been gone some hours. But Smith would not. André for the first time felt the full peril of his situation.
He pleaded with Smith, but the best he could get out of him was the offer to accompany him through the American territory, and to cross King's Ferry with him. He urged André to accept some of his clothes and to leave his uniform behind; this had also been Arnold's advice should they not get back to the Vulture. Thus was the last of Sir Henry's commands disobeyed. They began a weary and anxious journey. King's Ferry was crossed easily enough, Smith joking with the boatmen and other passengers. The first serious delay was caused by Captain Boyd at Crom Pond when they had been on their way about twenty-four hours. He was excessively curious.
Nevertheless the pass which bore General Arnold's name quieted his suspicions. But Boyd was full of black tales concerning the Cowboys and the Skinners. These marauders infested all Westchester County and, in fact, all that territory which separated the American and British lines. It was a no man's land of terror for the landholders who dwelt in it. The Cowboys professed to have Tory sympathies and the Skinners to be attached to the patriot cause; actually they had one business in common, cattle thieving and robbery. The extreme difficulty of finding forage forced the commanders on both sides to deal with these gentry. As a man was declared a Tory p29 by the laws of the State of New York if he did not take an oath of allegiance to the United States, his property might be legally confiscated; yet if he did think such an oath, there were always the Cowboys to steal it away. Thus were the rich farmsteads of Westchester laid waste.
At Pines Bridge, a place not far above White Plains, Smith took his leave of the Adjutant General of the British Army, who was a dirty and bedraggled figure. Yet there was something about him as he rode along the lonely road buttoned into that worn garment which bespoke the gentleman. Or was it that the three Skinners hidden in the bushes not far above Tarrytown had had slim pickings for a few days? Undoubtedly the words of Captain Boyd had induced André not to go by way of White Plains but to turn off toward Tarrytown; for Boyd had said that that was the territory of the Lower Party, or of the Cowboys who were the pro-British outlaws. André had come many lonely miles; he now looked on these supposed Cowboys with something like relief, even though there were three of them and they presented a musket to his chest.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I hope you belong to our party."
"What party?" asked the Skinners, and André fell into the trap.
"The Lower Party, of course," he said.
The names of the Skinners were Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams. It was Paulding who answered André as he wished to be answered. He was told that these were indeed Cowboys.
André pulled out his watch, and said, "I am a British officer out of my country on particular business and I hope you will not detain me a minute."
He must then have known that he had made a mistake, for he showed them General Arnold's pass. But he had already said he was a British officer!
Williams took him into the bushes and they undressed him. p30 They found nothing. And then they commanded that he take off his boots; he seemed reluctant about this. But something inside the socks seemed to crackle. . . . The three read the papers with great interest.
Then they asked him how much they could expect if they were to let him go. This game, which was their own, seemed to give them great pleasure.
André offered everything: his horse, his bridle, his watch, a sum of money, merchandise.
And then they, as if in a play, said, "No, if you would give us ten thousand guineas you should not stir one step!"
The Skinners took their captive to Colonel Jameson at Pines Bridge. With incredible stupidity, for no one seems ever to have cast a suspicion on his honesty, Colonel Jameson sent his prisoner and a note explaining his capture straight to General Arnold! But the papers captured he sent to Washington.
Washington returned sooner than he had planned from his trip to Hartford, and by the upper route via Fishkill. The plan was that he and his staff would breakfast at Robinson's house with Arnold and his beautiful wife, who with her infant son had arrived only a few days before. At the last minute the commander in chief turned off toward the river to inspect some forts and sent Hamilton and the others ahead.
The substantial breakfast was laid out, in Robinson's house, in that long room with the fireplace and paneling at one end. The general was all affability; Mrs. Arnold was as yet upstairs. A letter was brought in. Observers said that Arnold read it intently, seriously.
Then he said, "Gentlemen, you must excuse me. I have immediate business at West Point."
But he went upstairs to Mrs. Arnold's room, and some officers afterward thought they had heard a scream.
Very soon Washington rode up. He was told that General p31 Arnold had had pressing business at West Point and had crossed the river. The commander in chief took a hasty breakfast — he had ridden the eighteen miles from Fishkill and was hungry — and then he decided to go over to West Point himself.
It was a lovely morning and Washington kept his eyes on that moving scenery which meant so much to the cause that had become his life. He felt a pride in those forts rising securely above the river which was the precious possession of American arms.
He remarked, "Well, gentlemen, I am glad, on the whole, that General Arnold has gone on before us; for we shall have a salute, and the roaring of cannon will have a fine effect among these mountains."
But there was no salute.
Their boat was nearing the shore. An officer was seen running down the rocky road. He was covered with confusion when the commander in chief landed. He excused himself for being unprepared for the visit.
"How is this?" inquired Washington. "Is not General Arnold here?"
But the officer said he had not see Arnold in two days.
"This is extraordinary," said Washington. "We were told he had crossed the river and that we should find him here. However, our visit must not be in vain. Since we have come, although unexpectedly, we must look around a little and see what state things are in with you."
For nearly two hours Washington conducted his inspection.
Hamilton had remained at Robinson's house and he was seen running to meet the boat as Washington returned.
It had happened that the carrier whom Colonel Jameson had sent with the papers found on Major André had proceeded on the road toward Hartford; but, finding that Washington p32 had gone by the upper road, he had turned in his course and, passing through Salem, received in his care the letter which André had written while a captive in that place, for Colonel Tallmadge had sent after André and recaptured him. Hamilton, whose brains were quicker than Jameson's, opened the dispatches at once.
In André's letter to Washington, written at Salem, he said: "The person in your possession is Major John André, Adjutant-General to the British Army." Then he recounted his moves since leaving the Vulture.
The whole extent of the plot was now clear.
Washington ordered Hamilton to ride with all possible speed to Verplanks Point to catch the traitor if he could.
To Lafayette he said, "Whom can we now trust?"
He was exceedingly calm, gave detailed orders for the movements of his armies and for the immediate defense of the Highland posts. Mrs. Arnold's hysteria could be heard; no one could calm her. Washington did not immediately share the news with his other officers.
He said, when dinner was announced, "Come, gentlemen; since Mrs. Arnold is unwell and the general is absent, let us sit down without ceremony."
The plot to betray West Point had failed.
The sentry whose duty it was to guard General Washington's door heard him pacing up and down throughout the long night.
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