Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

The most famous, or infamous, traitor in American history was Major General Benedict Arnold—a brilliant officer, a whirlwind hero, a trusted military comrade of George Washington’s. The culmination of his treachery was a plot to deliver up West Point, America’s strongest and most important fortification, to the British. AMERICAN HERITAGE presents in this issue two segments of Benedict Arnold’s complex story. “How the Traitor Was Unmasked,” by James Thomas Flexner, is the exciting and moving account of General Washington’s discovery of his friend’s “villainous perfidy”—an excerpt from Mr. Flexner’s book, George Washington in the American Revolution, to be published early in 1968 by Little, Brown and Company. In “The Aftermath of Treason,” Milton Lomask tells the story of the Arnolds’ subsequent life in England and Canada. —The Editors

As he rode back toward his army after a frustrating conference with his French allies at Hartford, Connecticut, on September 24, 1780, George Washington felt the need of some gaiety to raise his melancholy spirits. He looked forward eagerly to a relaxed evening at the home of old friends—his military comrade Benedict Arnold and Arnold’s pretty wife, Peggy, whom Washington had known since she was a girl. The Commander in Chief intended to enjoy his dinner and a good night’s rest, and then to spend the next clay inspecting the great patriot fortification at West Point, which Arnold now commanded.

Business, however, intervened. On the road he met the French ambassador, Chevalier Anne Cesar de la Luzerne, and had to pause for further involved negotiations. He spent the night at Fishkill, New York.

Early the next morning, as soon as the autumnal sky began to lighten, Washington set out again on his interrupted journey. It was only a short ride to Arnold’s headquarters, but there were redoubts along the river that Washington felt he ought to visit. As he repeatedly turned off the highroad down lanes rutted by the wheels of cannon, his companions—the Marquis de Lafayette, the artillery general Henry Knox, and a flock of aides—became impatient. Eventually, Lafayette (so it is reported) reminded Washington that Mrs. Arnold was waiting breakfast for them.

The Commander replied genially, “Ah, I know you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold. … You may go and take your breakfast with her, and tell her not to wait for me.” Lafayette and most of the party decided to stay with his Excellency, but two aides, Captain Samuel Shaw and Major James McHenry, rode ahead with the message.

Inspection takes time, and the morning was far advanced before Washington finally glimpsed Arnold’s headquarters through the trees. Robinson’s House stood on the east bank of the Hudson, about a mile and a half below West Point. Correct eighteenth-century gentlemen considered that the location—“surrounded on two sides by hideous mountains and dreary forests, [and] not a house in view but one within a mile”—could appeal only to “a taste for romantic singularity and novelty.” But Washington looked forward to a warm welcome: the firm handshake of Arnold, and the winning smiles of sweet, blonde, girlish Peggy.

He spurred his horse slightly and approached the rambling, capacious two-story mansion house. Since he had sent four light-horsemen to alert the Arnolds of his immediate arrival, he expected to find that friendly couple waiting at the door to greet him. He saw instead a foppish young man who stood alone, bowing a meticulously powdered head, while embarrassment marked his features. Washington probably recognized Arnold’s aide, David Salisbury Franks. In voluble sentences punctuated by nervous giggles, Franks stated that Mrs. Arnold had not yet arisen and that the General had left by water for West Point. The General had told Franks that he was on his way to prepare a suitable welcome for his Excellency. Had his Excellency breakfasted? When Washington said he had not, Franks bustled off to get food on the table.

This greeting was disappointing. But Washington knew that it was natural for belles to sleep late, and he could not have been displeased that Arnold was preparing a reception for him, since he believed that ceremonies of respect to high officers improved both the appearance and the discipline of an army. He ate a leisurely breakfast. Then, leaving his aide Colonel Alexander Hamilton behind to receive any dispatches, he descended with a small group to the landing where a barge and its oarsmen were waiting to transport him to West Point.

The oarsmen created ripples in the water as they rowed, and the fortress came ever more clearly into view. It seemed to slant backward as it mounted the precipitous west shore of the river. Not very far above the water, Fort Arnold, the main redoubt, clung to a sheer crag like a monstrous crab. As the surrounding hills billowed higher, they revealed ramparts pierced for cannon, while near the sky three peaks were topped with semi-independent forts. The mazelike, interweaving walls were built of a mixture of wood, turf, and stone. Scars on the hillsides spoke of quarrying too recent to have greened over, and piles of rocks and logs indicated construction still only planned. Washington knew that a short distance downstream the river washed from bank to bank over the links of a tremendous iron chain resting on huge logs. On this spot the main cannon were trained.