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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The History of West Point

Edward C. Boynton

published by
D. Van Nostrand,
New York, 1864

The text is in the public domain.

This page has not been proofread.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p87  Chapter VI

Major-General Arnold ordered to Relieve General Howe. — Dis affection of Arnold. — Disheartening Condition of the American Cause. — Advantages of West Point if Captured by the Enemy. — Sir Henry Clinton's Idea. — The Secret Correspondence with Arnold. — Appointment to meet John Anderson. — The "Robinson House," and its Original Proprietor. — The Meeting between Arnold and Anderson Thwarted. — A Flag of Truce from the Vulture, and its Purport. — Smith's House. — Joshua Hett Smith. — Meeting between shrine and Anderson. — Attempt of Anderson to Return to New York by Land. — Cow‑boys and Skinners. — Capture of Anderson.

On the 3d of August, Major-General Arnold was instructed from general head-quarters at Peekskill, to proceed to West Point and relieve General Robert Howe of the command of that Post, and its dependencies. In pursuance of this order, Arnold arrived on the 5th, and established his Head-Quaestors at the "Robinson House."1

Real and imaginary grievances had already unsettled  p88 this officer's attachment to the cause of the Revolution, and later evidences have brought to light the fact, that he sought this command with a predetermination to abandon the cause, and betray his trust and associates into the hands of the enemy. The moment was truly a favorable one. The English were weary of the continued strife, and really anxious for peace with America on any terms that might not involve Independence. The mess-roms no more, as in Howe's days, echoed the toast of 'A glorious war, and a long one!' The Royal officers now pledged 'A speedy accommodation of our present unnatural disputes!' On the other hand, America too was tired of the war. A cloud of witnesses of the best authority, testify to the probability of a majority of our people being desirous of accommodating the quarrel, and of reuniting with England on conditions of strict union, if not of mediated dependence. The public chest was empty. The miserable bubble by which it had hitherto been recruited was on the verge of explosion, and the Continental paper-money, always really worthless, though long sustained by the force laws and bayonets, was now rapidly approximating its ultimate value. The ranks were supplied with children, whose service for nine months was bought for $1,500 apiece. 'Hundreds even of the staff officers,' said Greene, in May, 1780, 'were ruined by the public charges they had been forced to incur, while every obstacle was opposed to a settlement of their accounts, lest their demands on government should become fixed.' 'However important our cause, or valuable the blessings of liberty,' he continues to Washington, 'it is utterly impossible to divest ourselves of our private feelings  p89 while we are contending for them.' 'It is obvious that the bulk of the epo are weary of the war,' said Washington, 'in which the dissatisfaction has been as general and as alarming.' The army, ill‑paid, ill‑fed, ill‑clad, avenged its sufferings and its wrongs by such means as lay in its power. Martial law was published to procure its supplies in States that had not a hostile ensign within their borders. Regiment after regiment rose in mutiny; nor could the rope or the scourge check the devastation and desertion that marked the army's course. At this very period, despite the repeated sentences of courts‑mll, and the general order for the officer of the day, on his individual authority, to flog any straggler within the limit of fifty lashes, we find in Washington's own words the most unwelcome evidences of the necessities of his followers, and their consequent marauds along the banks of the Hudson.

"Not until the end of August, was the pay due in the preceding March forthcoming. In September, Hamilton found the army a demoralized, undisciplined mob; disliking the nation for its neglect, dreaded by the nation for its oppressions. Our chiefs, with mortification and regret, confessed the day impending, when, unless the war was carried on by foreign troops and foreign treasure, America must come to terms.

" 'Send us troops, ships, and money,' wrote Rochambeau to Vergennes, but do not depend upon these people, nor upon their means.' Yet it was known that the aid of France and Spain was merely sporadic; and there was now reason to fear that, without some great stroke on our part, the former would soon abandon us  p90 as a profitless ally, and make her own peace with Britain.

"Congress too, rent by faction and intrigue, no longer commanded the entire confidence of the Whigs. Its relations with the States were not satisfactory, and with the army were decidedly bad. Jealousy on the one hand, aversion and distrust on the other, daily widened the unacknowledged breach. *** The party hostile to the Chief — deep-rooted in New England, and pervading Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — which, from the beginning of the war to its end, dread lest the tyranny of a Commodus should lurk behind the wise virtues of a Pertinax, though foiled in a former effort to displace him, still retained power to hamper his movements and embarrass his designs. It was very evident that his removal would be the signal for the army's dissolution, and the inevitable subjection of the infant State; but it was yet feab to lim his powers, deny his requirements, and in a hundred ways exhibit a distrust of his capacity or integrity that would have caused many soldiers to throw up the command."

"Much of this was known to the British, and the down of West Point had long been their hope; but to accomplish it without loss of life would indeed have been a triumph for Sir Henry Clinton, and a most brilliant conclusion to the campaign. Mr. Sparks has clearly mapped out the advantages he must have contemplated in this contingency. In the first place, the mere acquisition of a fortress so important, with all its dependencies, garrison, stores, magazines, vessels, &c., was an achievement of no secondary magnitude. The supplies gathered here by the Americans were very  p91 great, and, once lost, could not have been readily, if at all, restored. The works were esteemed our tower of salvation, an American Gibraltar, impregnable to an army 20,000 strong. Even though yet unfinished, they had cost three years' labor of the army, and $3,000,000, and were thought an unfailing and secure resort in the last extremity. But the ulterior consequences of its possession were of even greater importance. It would have enabled Sir Henry to have checked all trade between New England and the Central and Southern States. It was in Washington's eyes the bolt that locked its communication. The Eastern States, chiefly dependent for their breadstuffs on their sisters in the Union, were commercial rather than agricultural communities; and the power that at once cmdd the seaboard and the Hudson might easily bring upon them all the horrors of famine.

"From Canada to Long Island Sound, a virtual barrier would have shut out New England from its supplies, as the wall of Antonine barred the free and rugged Caledonians from the Roman colonies and the south of Britain. But even these advantages were of less moment than those more immediate. The French, under D'Estaing, had already bickered weight Americans. It was hoped that similar ill‑blood might arise in Rochambeau's camp, and be fanned into a flame. It was shrewdly and correctly suspected by Clinton, that the allies meditated a combined attack on New York. To execute this movement, with West Point strongly garrisoned by the British, would be impossible'; and nothing was more likely than that the French should have all their jealousies aroused by the defection of one of the most distinguished  p92 American generals, and the surrender of the most important American citadel, on the very ground of repugnance to the alliance. Ignorant of the extent of the plot, it would be difficult for them to repose in confidence with an American army by their side, and a British before them and in their rear.' 'My idea,' said Sir Henry Clinton, 'of putting into execution this concerted plan with General Arnold with most efficacy, was to have deferred it till Mr. Washington, co‑operating with the French, moved upon this place to invest it; and that the Rebel magazines should have been collected and formed in their several dépôts, particularly that at West Point. 'General Arnold surrendering himself, the forts, and garrisons at this instant, would have given every advantage that could have been desired. Mr. Washington must have instantly retired from King's bridge, and the French troops on Long Island would have been consequently left unsupported, and probably would have fallen into our hands.' "

A secret correspondence had been commenced as early as 1779, between John Anderson, who afterwards proved to be Major John André, the Adjutant-General of the British army, and Arnold, in which the latter wrote over the pseudonym of "Gustavus." The value of the information imparted in this way had, at an early day, attract don't attention of the British Commander, and led him to infer the character and rank of the writer.

The kind of information thus obtained was greatly enhanced in importance by the assignment of Arnold to the command at West Point; and that the correspondence was regular and rapid will be seen from the following letter, written five days after Arnold arrived at his station:

 p93  "August 30th, 1780.

"Sir:— On the 24th instant, I received a note from you without date, in answer to mine of the 7th of July; also a letter from your house of the 24th July, in answer to mine of the 15th, with a note from Mr. B––––– of the 30th of July; with an extract of a letter from Mr. J. Osborn of the 24th. I have paid particular attention to the contents of the several letters: had they arrived earlier you should have had my answer sooner. A variety of circumstances has prevented my writing you before. I expect to do it very fully in a few days, and to procure you an interview with Mr. M–––––e, when you will be able to settle your commercial plan, I hope, agreeable to all parties. Mr. M–––––e assures me that he is still of opinion that his first proposal is by no means unreasonable, and makes no doubt when he has had a conference with you that you will close with it. He expects when you meet, that you will be fully authorized from your House; that the risks and profits of the copartner­ship may be fully and clearly understood.

A speculation might at this time be easily made to some advantage with ready money, but there is not the quantity of goods at market which your partner seems to suppose, and the number of speculators below, I think, will be against your making an immediate purchase. I apprehend goods will be in greater plenty and much cheaper in the course of the season: both dry and wet are much wanted, and in demand at this juncture: Some quantities are expected in this part of the country soon. Mr. M–––––e flatters himself that in the course of ten days he will have the pleasure of seeing you: he requests  p94 me to advise you, that he has ordered a draft on you in favor of our mutual friend S–––––y for £300, which you will charge on account of the tobacco.

"I am, in behalf of Mr. M–––––e & Co.,

"Your obedient, humble Servant,


"Mr. John Anderson, Merchant.

"To the Care of James Osborne — to be left at the Reverend Mr. Odell's, New York."

Translated from its commercial phraseology into plain English, this letter teaches us that on the 7th of July, Arnold had declared the probability of his obtaining the command of West Point, and the tour of inspection he had just made of its defences; and had written on the 15th, when the project connected with the arrival of the French may have been mentioned. The terms on which he was to surrender were also doubtless named. To these Anderson replied in two notes; and if we suppose B. stood for Beverly Robinson, and J. Osborn for Sir H. Clinton, communications from these were apparently conveyed. It may be easily gathered that the present strength of the garrison, both in militia and in Continentals, was indicated, and that the feasibility of a coup de main, and the danger of the troops at Verplanck's retarding such an undertaking, were suggested.

"It will be suggested, that Gustavus writes as agent for Mr. M–––––e; elide the dash and we have Mr. Me — in other words, himself."

"It became necessary at this instant" [says Sir Henry Clinton], "that the secret correspondence under feigned names, which had so long been carried on,  p95 should be rendered into certainty, both as to the person being General Arnold, commanding at West Point, and that in the manner in which he was to surrender himself, the forts, and troops to me, it should be so conducted, under a concerted plan between us, as that the King's troops sent upon this expedition should be under no risk of surprise or counterplot; and I was determined not to make the attempt but under such particular security.

"Of knew the ground on which the forts were placed, and the contiguous country, tolerably well, having been there in 1777; and I had received many in this respecting both from General Arnold. But it was certainly necessary that a meeting should be held with that officer for settling the whole plan. My reasons, as I have described them, will, I trust, prove the propriety of such a measure on my part. General Arnold had also his reasons, which must be so very obvious as to make it unnecessary for me to explain them.

"Many projects for a meeting were formed, and consequently several attempts made, in all of which General Arnold seemed extremely desirous that some person, who had my particular confidence, might be sent to him — some man, as he described it in writing, of his own mensuration.

"I had thought of a person under this important description, who would gladly have undertaken it, but that his peculiar situation at the time, from which I could not release him, prevented him from engaging in it. General Arnold finally insisted that the person sent to confer with him should be Adjutant-General Major André, who indeed had been the person on my  p96 part, who managed and carried on the secret correspondence."2

On the 7th of September, Anderson wrote Colonel Sheldon, the commander of an American cavalry outpost [page 135, Proceedings of the Board], that he desired mention to meet a friend near his lines on Sunday, the 11th, at 12 o'clock.

This letter was artfully designed to secure two objects; for presuming, as was the case, that the note would be transmitted to the Commanding General, it inform darn that the writer sought an interview with him, and afforded the former an opportunity to instruct Colonel Sheldon to esco Anderson to head-quarters, in case he should arrive within the American lines.

Arnold accordingly notified Sheldon that he expected to meet a person at his quarters, with whom he had opened a regular "chain of intelligence;" to which Sheldon replied, pleading his inability to be present at the meeting with the emissary, on account of ill health, and advising Arnold to meet him at Dobb's Ferry at the appointed time.

Arnold left the Robinson House in his barge on the afternoon of the 10th, and reaching Haverstraw, passed the night at the house of Joshua Hett Smith. on the next morning, he proceeded in the barge down the river twenty miles to Dobb's Ferry, where lay the Vulture, which had brought up Anderson and Colonel Beverly Robinson.

The "Robinson House" yet stands in the Highlands on the east side of the Hudson, two miles below West  p97 Point. Three buildings joined together, extending east and west, and fronting north and south, constitute the mansion. Nearest to the river is the farm-house, one story high. Next east are the main buildings, each two stories high. A neat piazza surrounds the eastern structure on the north, east, and south sides, which extends also along the south side of the central building. IMAGE

The house now belongs to Colonel Thomas B. Arden, of the U. S. Volunteer Service, who, in making the needful repairs, has in no way changed its original appearance, either inside or out. The same low ceiling, with large bare beams overhead; the same panel‑work and polished tiles adorn the fireplace without a mantel; and the absence of all ornament, so characteristic of progress in architecture, preserves complete the interest which the stirring scenes of the Revolution have flung around the Robinson House.

 p98  "Beverly Robinson was gentleman of high standing. His father, speaker of the Virginia legislature, was an early friend of Washington, whose modesty and valor he complimented in language that is yet remembered. The son was married to a great heiress of the day, the day of Frederic Philipse, and with her acquired large estate on the Hudson. At his house Washington had met, and sought to win, the younger sister and co‑heiress. His country-seat in the Highlands, surrounded by pleasant orchards and gardens, and environed by sublime scenery, was the head-quarters of the American generals, who, considering it public property, since its owner was in arms for the crown, were wont to use it as their own. It was now Arnold's, and sometimes Washington's Head-Quarters.

"Robinson's circumspect and cautious character was thought needful to check the buoyancy of his comrade, and he was likewise fully acquainted with the pending negotiations. Indeed, it was probably through him that Arnold's first overtures were made. Better large acquaintance and interests he had in the region, and his knowledge of the country, made his presence additionally desirable.

"The interview was to occur on the east side of the river, at Dobb's Ferry; but as Arnold drew near, one of those circumstances which the pious man calls providence, and the profane calls luck, prevented an encounter, that must in all human probability have resulted in the consummation of plot. Some British gunboats were stationed at the place, which opened such a fire on the American barge that Arnold, though twice he strove hard to get on board, was put in deadly peril of his life  p99 and obliged to fall back. How this came to pass without Robinson's intervention we cannot imagine; for it is impossible but that an intimation from him would have caused the firing to cease. Or had he repaired, with Anderson and his flag, to meet the solitary barge that evidently belonged to an officer of rank, an interview might at once have been effected in the most plausible manner in the world. The circumstances of the case would have rendered it easy for Arnold to publicly say that he would, since they were thus thrown together, waive the prerogative of rank that otherwise might have induced him to refer the enemy's flag to an officer of an equal grade, and to grant an interview on shore. The condition of Robinson's estate was a ready pretext for even a private reception, and there was no obstacle to Anderson being of the party. In the hope of being thus followed, Arnold retired to an American post on the west shore, above Ferry, where he remained till sundown, be no flag came. It is scarcely possible that the statement attributed to Rodney could have had an actual foundation here. At all events, he went back that night to West Point, and his coadjutor returned to New York. The failure of the meeting can only be accounted for by supposing that the English messengers were on the east bank of the Ferry when Arnold was fired at, and could not interfere in season. They could hardly have been on the Vulture, since its boat was lowered to pursue the American barge, which it did so far and so vigorously as to have nearly captured it."

To avoid suspicion, Arnold wrote on the same day, dating his letter "Dobb's Ferry," to the Commander-in‑chief, informing him of his trip to that point for the  p100 purpose of establishing a beacon on the mountain, and a set of signals to give the alarm, in case the enemy came up the river.

On the 16th of September the Vulture again appeared up the river, with Colonel Robinson on board, and anchored off Teller's Point, in full view of King's Ferry, and about fifteen miles from Arnold's quarters. From this anchorage, on the 17th, under a flag of truce, and with the pretext of desiring to inquire about his property affairs, he thus managed to signify to Arnold his presence, and wish to renew negotiations with him.

On Monday, the 18th, Washington and his south arrived at King's Ferry, and crossed the Hudson with Arnold in the ferry-barge, on his way of meet the French Commander at Hartford.

With the Vulture in full view, the object of her visit was discussed, during which Arnold exhibited the letter of Robinson, but only received the strong disapproval of his Commander upon the propriety of the proposed interview. The night was passed at Peekskill, and on Tuesday, the 19th, Arnold parted from Washington for the last time, and returned to the Robinson House, leaving the Chief to puhs journey. The same day, Arnold replied to Robinson's note, and dlid to hold further communication with him in relation to private affairs, declaring that all such ought to be referred to the civil, and not to the military authorities; but within the official letter were enclosed and sealed two notes, one for Colonel Robinson, and the other from "Gustavus" to John Anderson.

To Robinson he wrote that he would send a trusty person that Vulture, or to Dobb's Ferry, with a boat  p101 and a flag of truce, on Wednesday night, the 20th. To Anderson he signified his wish to meet him, and that a person would be at Dobb's Ferry, on the east side of the river, on the night of the 20th, who would conduct him to a place where a meeting could be held in safety.

These letters were forwarded to New York, and on the morning of the 20th, Anderson left the city and arrived at Dobb's Ferry in the afternoon, where, instead of remaining, he proceeded up to Teller's Point, and went on board the Vulture at 7 o'clock that evening. The night passed, and no person appeared.

On Thursday, the 21st, an excuse was found to send a flag to the shore, with a complaint signed by the captain of the vessel, be countersigned by John Anderson as his secretary, and by this expedient the presence of the latter in the vessel was made known to Arnold.

A ride of thirteen miles south from West Point, on the Hudson River Railroad, carries the traveller to Verplanck's Point, on the east side of the river. King's Ferry, the principal channel of communication between the Eastern and southern States, crossed from this point to Stony Point, on the west side. Two and a half miles below Stony Point is yet to be seen a commodious two‑story stone he, standing on an elevated position, and commanding an extensive view southward of Haverstraw Bay and Teller's Point. Joshua Hett Smith, the former occupant of this mansion, was a man of education and ample estate. Politically opposed to the Convention which adopted the Declaration of Independence, he was, with his family in general, classed among those who were not cordial in their attachment to the American cause.  p102 He was hospitable and courteous in his demeanor; and as no stronger evidence existed oh disaffection than suspicion, his society, and his services in obtaining supplies, made him acceptable to General hose, Arnold, and other American officers. To this man Arnold had recourse, to assist him in the fulfilment of the plan which thus far had so signally failed.

To what extent he was admitted into Arnold's confidence will never probably be known; but under the pretence that a guest from the enemy was to communicate valuable information to the American Commander, Arnold induced him to become the messenger before designated to proceed to Dobb's Ferry, on the night of the 20th September. Why he failed in his mission at that time does not appear; but having determined to select Smith's house for the interview, should concealment become necessary, Smith's family were sent on a visit to Fishkill; and on Thursday, the 21st, at about midnight, Smith, with two of his tenants as boatmen, was despatched by Arnold without a flag to the Vulture, while himself, accompanied by Smith's negro servant, both mounted, proceeded to an appointed spot some two miles from the house, down the river's bank.

A favorable tide, and a calm sea in the bay, soon brought the boat with muffled oar alongside of the Vulture. The object of his mission was quickly made known, and after a slight delay, Anderson, in his uniform, entered the boat with Smith, and was swiftly rowed to the western bank. On its arrival Arnold was found — "hid among the firs" — and, leaving Anderson in consultation with him, Smith was dismissed, to return to the boat and its oarsmen.

 p103  The interview was prolonged until the morning of Friday approached, when smith sought the conspirators and proclaimed that concealment was no longer practicable.

The difficulty of returning to the Vulture was here increased by an insurmountable obstacle: the boatmen, weary, and alarmed at the risk before them, positively refused to act, nor were the inducements or threats of Smith or Arnold sufficient to change their purpose.

Leaving Smith and the remainder of the party to return by the boat to the starting-place, Arnold, accompanied by Anderson, mounted on the servant's horse, returned to Smith's house.

The day had fully dawned when Smith joined his two companions, and while waiting within the house for breakfast to be served, attention was directed down the river by the report of artillery. The proximity of the Vulture, and her prolonged stay so near the works at Verplanck's Point, aroused the anger of the vigilant commander,​3 who, planting a field-piece upon the lesser of the two promontories known as Gallows Point, opened such an incessant fire upon the vessel that for a time she seemed to have been set on fire by the shot.

From the widow a Smith's house, the Vulture was  p104 seen to swing off her anchorage, and slowly drop down the river with the ebbing tide. Breakfast was despatched, when the two plotters, ascending to a chamber, passed the greater part of the day in perfecting their plans. Late in the afternoon, Arnold, bidding an adieu to his companion, returned in his barge to the Robinson House.

The shadows of evening sunset were fast disappearing when Smith, accompanied by Anderson, disguised in a coat belonging to the former, rode forth on horseback  p105 and crossed King's Ferry, in the hazardous attempt to reach New York by the land route, on the east side of the river.

Furnished with the necessary passes, in Arnold's own writing, to go by any of the practicable routes, the party pursued the road in a northeast direction to the little village of Crompond, six miles from Verplanck's Point, where they passed the night. On the morning of Saturday, the 23d, the journey was resumed in a direction almost due north, until Pine's Bridge, crossing the Croton River, was reached, where Smith, separating from his companion, returned to the Robinson House, dined with Arnold, and pushed on up to join his family at Fishkill there are night.

At this time a local war raged over the thirty miles of territory along the river separating the two armies, between two factions known as the Cow‑Boys and Skinners.

The former ostensively aged to be in the interest of the enemy, and the latter were supposed to be identified with the Americans. Both parties were in truth unprincipled robbers and perfidious villains, plundering alike the inhabitants, the enemy, each other, Congress, and the King.

The country below Pine's Bridge, in the direction of Tarrytown having been represented to the travellers at Crompond as infested with Cow‑Boys, Anderson, after parting from Smith, resolved to leave the road to White Plains, whither his pass took him, and trust himself on the Tarrytown road, doubtless in the belief that protection would be secured from partisans in the friendly faction.

 p106  He had advanced so far as to have left the Bridge some ten miles behind him, when, drainage a hill, and crossing a little rivulet at its foot, three armed men sprang from the bushes and interrupted his further progress.

The Author's Notes:

1 On the 8th of August, Arnold wrote Washington: "I wish your Excellency would be kind enough to order Mr. Erskine [Geographer to the Army] to send me a map of the Country from this place to New York, particularly on the east side of the river, which would be very useful to me." ***** "Major Villefranche has surveyed the works at West Point, and informs me that there is a vast deal to do to complete them." *** — [Correspondence of the Revolution, III, 57. — Sparks.]

[decorative delimiter]

2 Clinton to Lord G. Germain. — Sparks's Arnold, 168.

[decorative delimiter]

3 The ammunition for this purpose was furnished from West Point, accompanied by the following letter to Colonel Livingston, commanding at Verplanck's Point: —

"West Point, Sept. 20th, 1780.

"Sir:— I have sent you the ammunition you requested, but at the same time I wish there may not be a wanton waste of it, as we have little to spare. Firing at a ship with a four-pounder is, in my opinion, a waste of powder; as the damage she will sustain is not equal to the expense. Whenever applications for ammunition are made, they must be through the commanding officer of artillery, at the Post where it is wanted.

"I am, sir, yours, &c., John Lamb."

[Life John Lamb, 258. — Leake.]

Page updated: 29 Jan 15