Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked

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Washington must have been moved as the fortress came closer. This was the great engineering feat of his command, the only truly strong point created by the Continental Army. Volunteer engineers from abroad had designed it. During more than three years of hard labor, soldiers had shaped the towering ramparts. Inflated dollars, raised with anguish, had been spent by the millions. And there the fortress stood, serene in the pellucid autumn air, while Benedict Arnold—so Washington believed—was preparing the garrison for a military greeting to the Commander in Chief.

As Washington’s barge drew close to the beach and landing wharf these proved to be surprisingly empty—no bustle of officers lining up men; only the usual sentries somnolently pacing. Washington then saw Colonel John Lamb, the resident commandant of the fortress, come running down the steep road from the main redoubt. Still out of breath when Washington stepped ashore, Lamb puffed out apologies for having prepared no suitable reception. If only he had been notified!

To Washington’s startled query, Lamb replied that he had not seen Arnold that day. This seemed strange—but there were various landing places under the redoubts. Perhaps Arnold had come another way.

The inspection began. As Washington climbed over the hillsides, ducked through blockhouse doors, and visited gun emplacements, he asked everywhere for Arnold. “No one could give me any information where he was,” the General wrote later. “The impropriety of his conduct, when he knew I was to be there, struck me very forcibly.” Washington became increasingly anxious. “My mind misgave me, [but] I had not the least idea of the real cause.”

Washington was later to insist that he had found the post in “a most critical condition.” However, he probably was not particularly upset about this at the time. If some of the redoubts were weak, broken, or unfinished, if work seemed to be progressing slowly, he could hardly have been surprised. Perfection rarely hovered over the Continental Army.

Dinner at the Arnolds’ had been set for four o’clock. Washington completed his inspection in time to permit his rowers to get him back to Robinson’s House by three thirty. He strode anxiously up the steep bluff from the riverbank, but again the opening door revealed neither Arnold nor Peggy. It was Alexander Hamilton who greeted him. No, Hamilton had heard nothing of Arnold. No, Peggy had not emerged from her bedroom; she had sent down word that she was indisposed.

Washington walked along a hallway to the chamber that had been assigned to him and began to freshen up for the meal. There was a knock on the door. Hamilton came in carrying a handful of papers. Washington reached out for the packet and began to read.

In another room on the same floor Lafayette was washing up when Hamilton suddenly burst open the door. He begged the Marquis to attend instantly on his Excellency. Lafayette sprinted down the hall to find Washington trembling with emotion. “Arnold has betrayed us!” Washington cried out. “Whom can we trust now?”

The first task, as soon as the men had regained enough control to think rationally, was to determine by a careful examination of the many papers exactly what the situation was. There must have been (although it is now lost) a covering letter from the outpost commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, stating that three irregulars had been prowling in the British-dominated territory beyond the Croton River on Saturday, September 23, when they stopped a lone rider in civilian clothes. The rider, who stated that his name was John Anderson, behaved so strangely that they stripped him. They found documents in his shoes. Jameson was holding the man and was herewith forwarding the documents.

There was an official pass allowing “John Anderson” to move between the lines—made out by Benedict Arnold. Also in Arnold’s handwriting were a transcript of secret information Washington had given a council of war, pages of material about West Point that would be useful to a besieger, and a rough accounting of the fort’s 3,086 men, patriots whom Arnold had slated for death or capture.

A later addition to the packet was a letter, meticulously executed in an elegant script. It proved to be from the prisoner: “I beg your Excellency will be persuaded that no alteration in the temper of my mind, or apprehension for my safety, induces me to take the step of addressing you, but that it is to secure myself from an imputation of having assumed a mean character for treacherous purposes or self-interest, a conduct incompatible with the principles that actuate me, as well as with my condition in life. … The person in your possession is Major John André, Adjutant General to the British army.”

For a general to try to capitalize on the wavering loyalty of an adversary, André continued, was a legitimate “advantage taken in war.” To further such an end, “I agreed to meet, upon ground not within the posts of either army, a person who was to give me intelligence; I came up [the Hudson] in the Vulture, man of war, for this effect, and was fetched by a boat from the shore to the beach. Being there I was told that the approach of day would prevent my return, and that I must be concealed until the next night. I was in my regimentals and had fairly risked my person.”