“Washington could not agree with one of his aides that Arnold must, after the catastrophe, be under- going the torments of a mental hell. He wants feeling! From some traits of his character which have lately come to my knowledge, he seems to have been hackneyed in villainy, and so lost to all sense of honour and shame that while his faculties will enable him to continue his sordid pursuits there will be no time for remorse.”
This, in proper 18th century verbiage was George Washington’s way of saying that Benedict Arnold was a scumbag who cared only for himself. On today’s date, September 24, in 1780 General Benedict Arnold of the Continental Army had been unmasked as a traitor, and had just barely escaped capture. Arnold had been negotiating with the British to hand over the American fortress at West Point, New York, when his main partner on the British side, Major John Andre’ had been captured with incriminating documents hidden in his shoe (above). The plot then quickly unraveled leading Arnold to run for his life.
Benedict Arnold – A Very Strange and Difficult Man
One could scarcely invent a man stranger and more mercurial than Benedict Arnold (below). Born in 1741 to a merchant father, he was given the name of an older brother who had died before him and seemed to spend his life enviously living in the shadows of others. Joining the Americans in 1775 as an officer he rose rapidly by showing imagination, bravery and a shrewd tactical sense. But a persistent sense of insecurity left him always feeling slighted. Congress promoted
Arnold to major general in 1777, but at the Battle of Saratoga (Sept. 19, Oct. 7, 1777), Gen. Horatio Gates, relieved him of command during the battle due to insubordination, in spite of his having been wounded in the led in action. He was given command of Philadelphia when that city was recaptured from the Brits (June, 1778). There he began to court and ultimately married the beautiful and vivacious Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of a prominent loyalist (Pro-British) family who was nearly twenty years younger. Between the two of them they lived a lavish lifestyle well beyond their means and managed to ring up huge debts which brought him under the scrutiny of Congress. This lead to a court-martial for shady book-keeping. He was acquitted on most of the charges and was mildly rebuked by Washington.
Arnold Turns Traitor…
“Arnold, a heroic and valiant soldier, was a low, sly Iago among traitors, but this defector was also the most senior mole in espionage history. His betrayal poleaxed (knocked back)Washington. Even his peers, who thought him arrogant and snotty, had respected his undoubted martial talents, and none suspected him capable of treachery of the blackest dye.” – Alexander Rose
During the spring of 1779, Arnold took the step of nursing his grievances and his wounded pride into actual treason. He sent for John Stansbury, a loyalist merchant in Philadelphia, and through him made overtures to Sir Henry Clinton (the British commander in New York) that his “co-operation” (his word) was for sale. But the Brits
held back, wanting him to bring them a real prize. And this he did by lobbying for and obtaining from General Washington command of the American fortress at West Point, New York. West Point (above) was situated on a spot on the Hudson River wherein artillery placed there could control the Hudson River and, in British hands effectively cut off New York and most of New England from the rest of the colonies. Its fall to the British could have ended the Revolution in one fell swoop.
Major Andre’ Travels North to Get the Goods
“Those who argued against him pointed to his quick temper, his growing pessimism toward the success of the American war effort, and his apparent motivation by glory and personal gain. Col. John Brown, one of Arnold’s rivals, prophetically wrote of him in 1777: ‘Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it, he would sell his country.'” – Brian Kilmeade
Arnold haggled with the Brits for the exact amount of cash he should get for his skulduggery; at first 10,000 then 20,000 pounds was his price. And he sent out orders that a certain James Anderson traveling from British lines on business was to be given safe passage through American lines. On the evening of Thurs. Sept. 21, Arnold ordered a boatman, Joshua H. Smith, to row out on the Hudson to pick up Anderson aboard the British sloop Vulture (below). James Anderson
was in fact Major John Andre’, a personal assistant to British General Sir Henry Clinton who had come to pick up documents which Arnold had provided with the defense plans of West Point. After the exchange, Andre’ was to return to Vulture, but American gunfire had forced her down river. So they spent the night at Smith’s home and on Sept. 22, looked over the plans and conferred on the best approach for the Brits to use in bagging the fort. Washington himself would be inspecting the place, so if Andre’ could get the plans to Gen. Clinton in time, the Brits could take Washington along with West Point. But by that evening the Vulture, damaged by American gunfire was had left, so Andre’ was forced to make his way back on foot. On Saturday, Sept. 23, Andre’ was nearing safety when he was stopped by an American patrol who quickly went through his goods, hoping to find loot, but instead found his sock stuffed with papers. He was taken by these three marauders to a nearby post.
Andre’ is Discovered and the Plot Unravels
The officer in charge of the post was one Colonel John Jameson. James Anderson was obviously the man about whom Gen. Arnold had written the orders that he be given safe passage. But here he was with these incriminating documents – in Arnold’s handwriting – stuffed in his sock, heading for British lines instead of coming from them. Jameson, quite puzzled, hedged his bets by sending Anderson on to Gen. Arnold,
sending a note ahead of the prisoner to Arnold telling of this odd situation, and sending the documents themselves on to General Washington who was on his way to West Point. At this time, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (above) arrived at the post. Tallmadge was the man in charge of the Culper Spy Ring which was sending intelligence from New York City about British activities. Tallmadge had also gotten the order concerning this Mr. Anderson, and where Jameson was merely puzzled, Tallmadge smelled a rat. With considerable difficulty Tallmadge, convinced his doubtful Colonel at least to recall Anderson. Upon meeting Anderson, he was able to discern by his manners that this was a military gentleman. After being told that the documents found hidden in his sock were going to Washington, Andre’, on the 24th, realizing his situation asked after dinner for pen and paper, and wrote out in a letter to Gen. Washington a confession of the whole plan.
Arnold Receives Word…. Washington Does Too
“When I received and read the letter (for he handed it to me as soon as he had written it), my agitation was extreme, and my emotions wholly indescribable.” – Major Benj. Tallmadge
Tallmadge’s reaction when James Anderson gave him his letter to George Washington in which he finally confessed his true identity: “Major John Andre’, Adjutant General to the British Army.” may have been extreme agitation. But it must have paled compared to Arnold’s reaction when early on this date, Sept. 24, he got Jameson’s letter. He learned that James Anderson had been captured and these papers he
had been carrying were on their way to General Washington who was expected to arrive at any time. In fact Washington’s aide, Alexander Hamilton had already arrived. “Arnold’s reaction, a picture of forced calm as his terrified eyes focused on Jameson’s handwriting, can only be imagined.” says Alexander Rose. As Washington related the story “… a letter was delivered to Arnold which threw him into the greatest confusion. He told Colonel Hamilton that something had occurred on the opposite side of the river to his quarters..” he would be back soon. He went upstairs to say a few words to his wife and then galloped off (above) to a barge which he hoped would take him to safety in the Vulture .
A short time later, Washington arrived at West Point. Of course, he had been expecting to meet Arnold who, following breakfast was to take him on an inspection tour of the fort. But Arnold was not there. Hamilton told him that Arnold had received a letter and had to go tend to something. This was a strange way for Arnold to treat his Commander, but as Brian Kilmeade has pointed out: “Arnold was, admittedly, something of a strange man.” But when Arnold was not there following his inspection, Washington knew that something was
amiss. “The impropriety of his conduct when he knew I was to be there struck me very forcibly, and my mind misgave me; but I had not the least idea of the real cause..” he said. Then Jameson’s packet with the documents found on Andre’, as well as the letter from Andre’ arrived. This information “…immediately brought the matter to light. I ordered Col. Hamilton to proceed with the greatest dispatch… in order to stop the barge if she had not passed; but it was too late.” Arnold had escaped (above), and was indeed safely aboard HMS Vulture, As to Washington’s personal feeling we again can only guess. He remained as cool headed as ever he did under fire, though this must have felt a deeply stinging personal blow. All that we know is that he later was said to have remarked “Whom can we trust now?”
Arnold Escapes, Andre’ Does Not
Arnold had indeed escaped. Major Andre’ was not so fortunate. Although negotiations were conducted with the British authorities for Andre’s release, it wouldn’t work. Andre’ had been captured in civilian clothes and as such had to be court-martialed as a spy and given the death penalty. The only deal which Washington would accept was a prisoner exchange: Arnold for Andre’ but of course the Brits could not agree to hand Arnold over… this would only serve to warn off any others who might spy for the British. So Andre’, who impressed everyone on the American side with his wit and courage as he faced the
hangman (above is a sketch which the man did of himself on the eve of his execution) was hung as a spy on October 2, 1780. Arnold on the other hand took his wife (who had been released to him on Washington’s orders.. he was convinced that she was innocent of her husbands treachery, although she wasn’t really) to live in England. He was given a Brigadier General’s commission in the British Army and even took part in some raids on Virginia – during which time he narrowly avoided kidnapping by the Americans. He lived on in Britain after the war, but had little success. His old leg wound flared up and after four days of delirium he died on June 14, 1801 at age 60. And his name has of course ever after become synonymous with the word “TRAITOR”. And the great riches he had hoped to get for his attempt at stabbing his country in the back never materialized. He wound up getting slightly more than 6000 pounds. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, upon learning the low price that Arnold had gotten for selling out wryly remarked: “Judas sold only one man, Arnold 3,000,000. Judas got for his one man 30 pieces of silver, Arnold, not a halfpenny a head. A miserable bargainer.”
“George Washington’s Secret Six” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, Sentinel Publ., New York, 2013.
“Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose, Bantam Books, New York, 2006.
“Secret History of the American Revolution” by Carl Van Doren, Viking Press, New York, 1941
“General Washington’s Spies” by Morton Pennypacker, Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York, 1939
“Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge” by Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, Arno Press, N.Y., 1968
“The Neutral Ground” by Bruce A. Rosenberg, Greenwood Press, London, 1994