Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked

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The rest of André’s account was intended, as Washington later put it, “to show that he did not come under the description of a spy.” He had been conducted against his will and without his knowledge, André wrote, behind the American lines. He had thus been forced by circumstances beyond his control to remove his uniform and put on a civilian disguise. He had become, in effect, a prisoner of war. “I had to concert my escape. … I was taken at Tarry Town by some volunteers.”

After Washington had read all the documents, the question was what to do. A glance out the window would have shown that the wind, blowing upriver, was ideal for carrying British ships from their anchorages in New York Harbor to the West Point Arnold clearly intended to betray. Washington could not know to what extent other officers were involved in the plot; he could not be sure that, even though André had been intercepted, duplicate documents had not got through to the British. However, overriding emotions kept Washington from deciding that his first duty was to take every step to protect the endangered fortress.

The most important consideration, so it seemed to Washington, was to capture and hang the traitor. Although McHenry, who had breakfasted with Arnold, reported that the villain had disappeared immediately after receiving a letter that had thrown him “into some degree of agitation,” Washington refused to accept the conclusion that Arnold had been notified of André’s capture and had surely made his escape during the intervening five hours. Perhaps he was lurking somewhere within the lines, still ignorant of his danger. Under these circumstances, Washington thought, no move should be made that would indicate to anyone who might alert Arnold that the treason had been discovered. While all else went on as usual, Hamilton and McHenry should gallop, as fast as the swiftest horses could carry them, to King’s Ferry, eight miles downriver, where there were forts and forces that could stop Arnold’s barge “if she had not passed.”

No sooner had Hamilton and McHenry pounded off than Arnold’s senior aide, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Varick, who had been in bed with a fever, came into Washington’s room. He was flushed, a little unsteady, and clearly in the grip of strong emotion. He said that Mrs. Arnold seemed to have gone mad. She had run through the halls half dressed, and, after he had got her back in bed, she exclaimed that “there was a hot iron on her head, and no one but General Washington can take it off.” Would his Excellency please go to the anguished lady?

Washington mounted the stairs to Peggy’s room. In her disarranged bed, with her hair flying around her touching face and her nightclothes pulled awry, she exhibited, so Hamilton was told, “all the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife, and all the fondness of a mother. … One moment she raved, another she melted into tears. Sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom.” She dandled her babe wide-eyed and seemed oblivious of her visitors. Finally Varick said, “There is General Washington.”

As Washington leaned over her, his features working with pity, she stared him hard in the face.

“No! That is not Washington!”

Gently, he tried to assure her.

“No!” she cried again, gesturing with her bare, shapely arms to shield her infant. “No, that is not General Washington; that is the man who was agoing to assist Colonel Varick in killing my child.”

Washington labored to disabuse her, but when she finally admitted that he was indeed Washington, it was only to upbraid him for “being in a plot to murder her child.” Her husband, she cried out, could not protect her: “General Arnold will never return; he is gone; he is gone forever; there, there, there: the spirits have carried [him] up there. …” She pointed at the ceiling. “They have put hot irons in his head.”

As the lovely lady raved and gestured, her clothes sometimes parted to reveal charms that should have been hidden. Then she would push her baby aside and turn downward on the bed to cling to the mattress in a transport of tears. At last, finding that he could not make her respond to his reassurances, Washington sadly went away, probably hating Arnold all the more for having caused such anguish to a beauty he never doubted was innocent.

That Peggy had been in the plot from the start, and may even have instigated it, was, indeed, to remain a secret until the relevant British headquarters papers were made public in the 1930s. In any case, Washington always shied away from connecting the fair sex with the dark emotions of war. Peggy—who had been warned by Arnold before he fled that the treason had been discovered—need not have used such heavy emotional artillery to convince the courtly commander that she was a greatly wronged angel. He left her bedroom determined to protect her from every implication raised by her husband’s guilt.

He went down the stairs and joined an uneasy group of officers in the living room. “Mrs. Arnold is sick,” Washington said, “and General Arnold is away. We must therefore take our dinner without them.”