Arnold's Treason

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Arnold's Treason

ARNOLD'S TREASON. May 1779–25 September 1780. Early in May 1779 Major General Benedict Arnold, then military commander at Philadelphia, decided to offer his services to the British. He sent for Joseph Stansbury, a Loyalist whose mild nature and cautious conduct had enabled him to continue living in the city, and said he was ready either to join the British outright or to undertake secret dealings. With the help of a New York City Loyalist, the Reverend Jonathan Odell, Stansbury met on 10 May with Captain (later Major) John André, an aide to General Sir Henry Clinton. The British accepted Arnold's offer and decided it would be best for him to remain in his post in the Continental army; meanwhile, secret channels were established for correspondence between Arnold and André through Stansbury. Arnold started sending information almost immediately. He used the code name "Moore" during most of the sixteen-month conspiracy.

The nineteen-year-old Peggy Shippen, whom the thirty-eight-year-old Arnold had married on 8 April 1779, was a partner in his treason from the beginning. There is no reason to believe, however, that she instigated it or that Arnold was won over by British agents. Arnold's defection came after a long series of perceived grievances coupled with a need for money.

Arnold initially demanded ten thousand pounds regardless of his specific service to the British. Clinton rejected this proposal, instead suggesting that Arnold accept a command in the British army. Negotiations broke down at this point but were revived in May 1780, when Arnold was involved in the drawn-out court-martial for his corruption in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he had been working to get command of West Point, which Clinton had indicated the previous year was of particular interest to the British. On 15 June, Arnold opened communication with General Wilhelm Knyphausen, who was in temporary command at New York City. Though he had not yet received any promises from the British, Arnold began sending valuable information, including that French General Jean Rochambeau's expeditionary force was expected soon, this intelligence persuading Knyphausen to launch the Springfield, N.J., raid of June 1780. Upon Clinton's return, Arnold pressed him for an agreement on the price: he wanted ten thousand pounds and another ten thousand pounds should he successfully hand over West Point to the British, plus an annual pension of five hundred pounds. Clinton agreed to pay Arnold twenty thousand pounds if the British got possession of West Point, its garrison of three thousand men, its artillery, and its stores. He would not agree to Arnold's demand for ten thousand pounds "whether services are performed or not," nor to an annual pension, but he did promise that if the plot failed, he would not be "left a victim."


Meanwhile, however, Arnold sent the British bits and pieces of information, including "innocent confidences" to his wife in Philadelphia, who relayed them through Stansbury to Odell to André. Since George Washington and Rochambeau were working out plans for an attack on New York City, this intelligence was extremely valuable. As late as 1 August, Arnold was slated to command a wing of the allied army in this campaign, but he pleaded physical disability (his three-year-old wound), and on 3 August, he received command of West Point. On 5 August, Arnold wrote the British from West Point that the departure of Continental troops had reduced the garrison to fifteen hundred Massachusetts militia and that these were "in want of tents, provisions and almost everything."

Arnold's new command comprised not only West Point proper but also Stony Point and Verplanck's Point some ten miles to the south; the outpost at Fishkill somewhat less than the same distance to the north; and the infantry-cavalry force at North Castle, which was roughly the same distance east of Verplanck's. Even while setting out plans to strengthen these posts, Arnold began preparations for handing them over to the British. Instead of establishing headquarters at West Point, he selected the house of a Loyalist, Colonel Beverley Robinson, across the river. Over the objections of Colonel John Lamb, who commanded the West Point garrison, Arnold detached two hundred men from that place to cut wood under the direction of Colonel Udny Hay, who commanded at Fishkill; Lamb was particularly critical of this weakening of his force because he had already sent Hay two hundred militia for guard duty. Although Arnold did not take up or partially dismantle the chain across the Hudson that had been laid to block enemy ships, he accomplished this end merely by neglecting necessary repairs.

Arnold also set up a net of secret agents. He promptly established contact with Joshua Hett Smith, who lived a short distance below Kings Ferry in the country house of his brother, William, the royal chief justice of New York who was a refugee in New York City. Joshua was known as an active Whig, and while Robert Howe commanded at West Point, he had handled the latter's secret agents. Arnold met Smith in Philadelphia, and Howe may have suggested that Arnold use him for intelligence work. Smith offered the use of his home as an overnight stop for Peggy Arnold on her trips to visit her husband.

Arnold's intimacy with Smith was one of several factors that created a tense atmosphere in his military household. Colonel Richard Varick and Major David Franks did not conceal their disapproval of their chief's dealing with a man whose brother was a famous Loyalist; yet until the end they never suspected that Arnold was up to anything more dishonorable than profiteering. In fact, Arnold was using profiteering as a cover plan for his business of treason.

In late August the conspirators worked out the following scheme: Colonel Robinson would request a meeting with Arnold ostensibly to discuss arrangements about the Loyalist's household property; John André would come along, and an opportunity would be found for him to discuss with Arnold plans for the surrender of West Point. Clinton's emissaries would use the armed sloop Vulture, which was regularly stationed at Spuyten Duyvil and occasionally sent boats up the Hudson on reconnaissance. After unsuccessful attempts to meet on 11 and 20 September, Smith was rowed to the Vulture before midnight on 21 September and returned with a certain "John Anderson" for a clandestine meeting between that person and Arnold. "Anderson," of course, was John André. As far as Joshua Smith knew, however, he was a merchant who wore a British army officer's blouse under his blue topcoat as a pretense.

By the time Arnold and André had completed their conference in the woods (at about 4 a.m.), the men who had rowed André and Smith ashore had become suspicious and refused to make the return journey. André therefore went to Smith's house, about four miles away, to wait until the following night. At around dawn, however, Colonel James Livingston, who commanded American forces in this area, on his own initiative attacked the Vulture with two cannon he had moved to Tellers Point on the east shore. Arnold and André watched the shelling from a window of Smith's house, and after the battered Vulture finally managed to escape downstream, they decided that André would have to make his escape overland.


André was getting in deeper and deeper. Although his going ashore under an assumed name was a risk he had accepted from the start, Clinton had prescribed that he would neither go in disguise nor enter the enemy lines, so that he not be deemed a spy if caught. Clinton also later insisted that he had ordered André not to carry any papers. But at Arnold's insistence, André was to travel through American lines carrying plans of the fortifications of West Point. According to André, Arnold made him put the papers between his stockings and his feet. Arnold prescribed that Smith act as guide, and he made out passes that would serve either for a boat trip to Dobbs Ferry—the route André expected to be followed—or to get "John Anderson" through the American guards at White Plains.

Arnold left in his barge to return to Robinson's house. Smith accompanied him to Stony Point and then returned to inform André that the overland route would be used. Whether this decision was on Smith's own initiative or on instructions from Arnold, the young British officer was surprised and alarmed, but he had no choice. Had Smith known who "John Anderson" really was, he might have decided differently, for although the water route was actually no safer than the one overland, it had the essential advantage of not requiring that André remove his uniform. Smith and "Anderson" stopped for a drink with some officers at Stony Point, crossed Kings Ferry, visited Colonel Livingston at Verplanck's, and stopped for the night near Crompond (about eight miles from the river). André had intended to ride straight on to White Plains, but a suspicious militia captain pointed out the dangers of meeting Loyalist partisans.

Before dawn on 23 September, André and Smith moved on. When they reached the vicinity of Pine's Bridge over the Croton River, André was left to cover the remaining fifteen miles alone; he was now beyond the normal range of Patriot patrols (but had Arnold's pass in case he did meet with any such patrols), and Smith did not want to run the risk of meeting a Loyalist patrol. At Pleasantville, André learned that rebel patrols were on the road ahead, so he turned toward Tarrytown. At about 9 or 10 a.m., he was stopped by three men at the bridge just outside the latter place. When he was challenged by John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, André made the mistake of assuming they were Loyalists. He did not produce his pass until after they had decided to search him. These three men were volunteer militiamen operating under a recent New York law permitting them to claim property found on a captured enemy. While the loftiest of patriotic motives were subsequently attributed to their actions, their real interest probably was loot.

The prisoner was taken to North Castle, where Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson commanded American troops. Arnold had previously issued instructions that a "John Anderson" might come into the lines from New York City and had ordered that this person be sent to his headquarters on the Hudson. Jameson was puzzled by the fact that "Anderson" had been brought to him from behind the lines, and also by the papers, which he subsequently characterized as being "of a very dangerous tendency." The American outpost commander devised an interesting compromise decision: he sent the prisoner to Arnold, as called for by his instructions, but sent the papers to Washington, who was believed to be around Danbury en route to Peekskill.

Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Washington's intelligence service, reached North Castle shortly after André's departure. After speaking with Jameson, Tallmadge immediately suspected the truth. Although he could not talk Jameson out of reporting the capture to Arnold, Tallmadge did succeed in having "John Anderson" called back. When the latter returned to North Castle and learned that the incriminating papers had been sent to Washington, he revealed his true identity. André did not mention his connection with Arnold but wrote Washington that he had come between the lines to "meet a person who was to give me intelligence" and had subsequently been "betrayed … into the vile condition of an enemy in disguise within your posts."

But Jameson's messenger had not found Washington and returned to North Castle, only to be sent on to Robinson's house, to which Washington was known to be traveling. Earlier in the day the other messenger, having returned with André, departed with Jameson's report to Arnold. It was a race to see whether Washington or Arnold would get the word first, but for some reason neither messenger reached Robinson's house until Monday morning, 25 September.


On 25 September things happened fast. At about 9 a.m. two officers from Washington's party reached the Robinson house to say he would be late. Arnold received Jameson's first message while at breakfast. Arnold told the militia lieutenant who brought it not to say anything to the others and, without showing his alarm, went upstairs to give Peggy the bad news before he made his own escape. He was coming back downstairs when Franks informed him that Washington was about to arrive. Arnold ordered a horse, left word for Washington that he had urgent business at West Point, hurried to his barge, and started down the Hudson to the Vulture.

Washington arrived at about 10:30 a.m. with a party that included Lafayette, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton. After eating breakfast, they were rowed over to West Point to inspect the works and meet Arnold. Franks then learned about the message from Jameson and the fact that the bearer had been ordered to keep quiet about it. Varick and Franks became suspicious but agreed that doubting their commander was "uncharitable and unwarranted," as Varick later explained. Even when they heard that Arnold had headed down the river and not across to West Point, they were not alarmed.

Peggy Arnold distracted the household's attention with a bizarre performance. She sent for Varick and hysterically accused him of ordering her child killed. Varick reported that she behaved like an insane woman, "her hair dishevelled and flowing about her neck" and too scantily dressed "to be seen even by gentlemen of the family." She fell on her knees, he said, "with prayers and entreaties to spare her innocent babe."

Washington returned to the Robinson house at 4 p.m., already beginning to have vague misgivings about Arnold's long absence, and saw the first set of papers forwarded by Jameson with a note that these had been found on a man called John Anderson. The documents included a summary of the army's strength, a report of the troops at West Point and vicinity, an estimate of the forces needed to garrison the defenses properly, a return of the ordnance on hand, the plan of artillery deployment in the event of an alarm, a copy of the minutes Washington had sent Arnold on an important council of war held 6 September, and a report by Arnold on the defects of the West Point defenses. Washington was then handed the letter identifying "Anderson" as John André. Told that Arnold had received a message at the breakfast table just before his sudden departure, Washington knew the worst. Although Arnold had more than six hours' head start, Washington sent a detachment under Hamilton's command down the Hudson in an effort to intercept the traitor. Before Hamilton could return from Verplanck's Point to confirm the traitor's escape, Washington was given a letter written by Arnold aboard the ship and sent ashore under a flag. "Love to my country actuates my present conduct," said this astounding communication, which was the start of a long apologia. Peggy was "good and innocent as an angel," he lied, but added a truthful footnote saying that Varick, Franks, and Smith "are totally ignorant of any transactions of mine that they had reason to believe were injurious to the public."

Meanwhile, Washington had to see immediately to the defense of West Point, which was dangerously exposed to a possible British attack. He recalled all the detachments Arnold had sent from the post and ordered General Anthony Wayne to march as quickly as possible to reinforce West Point. Wayne acted with typical alacrity, rushing his veterans sixteen miles through the night in just four hours.


With West Point secured, Washington ordered André brought under heavy guard to Robinson's house. He then ordered Colonel Livingston, commandant at Kings Ferry, brought to him for questioning, and Colonel Lamb was sent to command Livingston's important post. Livingston's innocence was quickly established. Meanwhile, Washington had no alternative but to tell Varick and Franks to consider themselves under house arrest, a precaution they accepted without resentment. Lieutenant Gouvion was sent to Fishkill to arrest Smith, who was found and hurried on to Robinson's house, where he arrived before 8 p.m. on 25 September. From this glib and voluble individual, Washington finally was able to get details from which he could see Arnold's conspiracy with some perspective. He realized that but for "a most providential interposition" that led to André's capture, Arnold would have delivered a vital American citadel to the enemy.

Major John André reached Robinson's house the morning of the 26th after a long night ride in the rain with a strong escort of dragoons commanded by Tallmadge. Washington declined to see André, but he did get the details of his capture and of the disagreement between Jameson and Tallmadge as to how this should be reported. André was then sent to West Point, taken by barge to Stony Point on the 28th, and imprisoned at Mabie's Tavern in Tappan. Smith accompanied him, but the two were not allowed to communicate.

On Friday, 29 September, a board of officers met to examine André as speedily as possible and consider the appropriate punishment. Nathanael Greene was president of the board that included Major Generals Alexander, Lafayette, Steuben, St. Clair, and Robert Howe and Brigadier Generals James Clinton, John Glover, Edward Hand, John Stark, Samuel Parsons, Henry Knox, and Jedediah Huntington. The only record of the trial is the abstract made by John Laurance. The board interrogated André and then examined letters from Beverley Robinson, Arnold, and Sir Henry Clinton. The most damning testimony was André's honest admission that he could not pretend that he came ashore under a flag.

The letters, on the other hand, insisted that André had come ashore under a flag, had acted on Arnold's orders while within the American lines, and therefore could not be considered a spy subject to the usual penalty. "The unhappy prisoner gave us no trouble in calling witnesses," commented Steuben to an aide, "he confessed everything." After the single day's hearing, the board concluded that André's coming ashore "in a private and secret manner" and his subsequent movements behind the American lines "under a feigned name and in a disguised habit" made him a spy and that he should be executed. Washington ordered that André be hanged at 5 p.m. on 1 October. At about 1 p.m. of 1 October, Washington received Sir Henry Clinton's request for a delay until Major General James Robertson and two others could arrive "to give you a true state of facts." Although Washington suspected that Clinton had nothing to add to the case, he postponed the execution until noon of the next day. André appealed to Washington to be shot as a soldier and not hanged. But Washington could not grant this request, for as Washington told Congress, André was either a spy to be hanged or a prisoner of war who could not be executed. Any lessening of the sentence, Washington felt, would call the justice of his conviction into question. Washington, who not surprisingly felt personally betrayed by Arnold, an officer he had long favored, hoped to exchange André for Arnold. General Robertson, Clinton's emissary, met with General Greene but offered no extenuating facts, presenting instead what, in effect, was a plea that André be released as a personal favor to Clinton. He also dismissed out of hand the possible exchange of Arnold for André.He did hint, however, at retaliation if André was hanged.

John André was hanged before noon on 2 October. He was allowed to wear his full dress uniform and strode bravely to the scaffold. Major Tallmadge, who had become friendly with André, stood at his side "entirely overwhelmed with grief," he wrote, "that so gallant an officer and so accomplished a gentleman should come to such an ignominious end." Tallmadge, like most officers on either side of the conflict, blamed Arnold for André's death. André's last words were, "I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man."

Arnold's treason had an immediate and dramatic impact on American public opinion. A patriotic revival competed with fears of further conspiracies and betrayal. Crowds dragged effigies of Arnold through the streets of nearly every American city and town. His name became, and remained, a byword for corruption and treason as well as a negative standard by which every other officer could measure his commitment to the cause. At the same time, suspicious rumors circulated about the reliability of any officer with a connection to the Loyalists. The British, meanwhile, hoped that these rumors were accurate, trusting that Arnold was just the first of many American officers and officials who would regain their reason and return to obedience to the crown. Arnold, however, had few imitators.

Colonel Varick demanded a court of inquiry and on 2 November was unanimously cleared of any suspicion. Franks testified but was not himself suspected of any complicity. Although Philip Schuyler and Robert R. Livingston had used their influence to help Arnold get the assignment to West Point, neither was suspected of treason. Joshua Smith was acquitted by a court-martial but was subsequently imprisoned by state authorities. Those three dubious patriots, Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams, were each given the thanks of Congress, a silver medal, and an annual pension of two hundred dollars in specie. When Paulding applied to Congress in 1817 for an increase, former Major Benjamin Tallmadge, then a member of the House of Representatives, presented evidence (based on his interrogation of André after the capture) that the heroes had been motivated by greed and not patriotism and had been more than compensated for their accidental contribution to the American cause.

SEE ALSO Alexander, William; André, John; Arnold, Benedict; Clinton, Henry; Clinton, James; Glover, John; Hamilton, Alexander; Hand, Edward; Howe, Robert; Huntington, Jedediah; Knox, Henry; Knyphausen, Wilhelm; Lafayette, Marquis de; Lamb, John; Livingston, James; Livingston, Robert R.; Odell, Jonathan; Parsons, Samuel Holden; Paulding, John; Robinson, Beverley; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Schuyler, Philip John; Smith, Joshua Hett; Springfield, New Jersey, Raid of Knyphausen; St. Clair, Arthur; Stansbury, Joseph; Stark, John; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von; Stony Point, New York; Tallmadge, Benjamin, Jr.; Van Wart, Isaac; Varick, Richard; Verplanck's Point; West Point, New York; Williams, David.


Flexner, James T. The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953.

Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others. New York: Viking, 1941.

                                     revised by Michael Bellesiles

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Arnold's Treason

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