- Historic Sites
Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked
“Whom can we trust now?” cried out General Washington when he discovered his friend’s “villainous perfidy.”
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
“I had a high fever,” Varick later wrote, “but officiated at the head of the table.” Both he and Franks, who had taken no part in the plot, had by now inferred that Arnold had gone to the enemy. Unwilling to accuse their superior without real evidence, and realizing that if treason had taken place they would be under suspicion, they watched Washington covertly for indications of what he knew and how he felt toward them. Washington and his staff were at the same time surreptitiously watching them for signs of guilt. “Never,” Lafayette is quoted as reminiscing, “was there a more melancholy dinner. The General was silent and reserved, and none of us spoke of what we were thinking about. … Gloom and distress seemed to pervade every mind, and I have never seen General Washington so affected by any circumstance.” However, Washington’s courtesy did not desert him. Varick noted that “his Excellency behaved with his usual affability and politeness to me.”
The food, “plentiful” but hardly touched, was finally cleared away. The parties separated. After a while, Washington asked Varick to put on his hat. As they walked outside, Washington told him of Arnold’s perfidy. Then (so Varick wrote), “with delicacy, tenderness, and civility,” Washington stated that, although “he had not the least cause of suspicion of Major Franks or myself,” the two must consider themselves under arrest. “I then told him the little all I knew.”
André had now been a captive for more than two days. It would have been a poor spy network indeed that was not pulsing out warnings, and any hope of gain to be achieved through secrecy would seem to be over. The wind was still blowing upriver. If Arnold had placed at key positions officers who were his partners in the plot, they still held their commands. West Point had not been alerted. Yet Washington still took no active steps. The man who had admired and trusted Arnold, and to whom treason was personally inconceivable, was circling in the murky mazes of what Varick called “the most affecting and pungent anxiety and distress.”
Between six and seven that evening, Washington received a letter from Hamilton at King’s Ferry stating that Arnold had escaped to the Vulture, ‘the British warship that had brought André and then anchored in the river. “I do not believe the project will go on,” Hamilton continued, “yet it is possible Arnold has made such dispositions with the garrison as may tempt the enemy, in its present weakness, to make the stroke tonight.”… “Without making a bustle,” Hamilton was notifying the commander of the main army in New Jersey, General Nathanael Greene, “to be in readiness to march and even to detach a brigade this way.” He hoped Washington would approve, “as there may be no time to lose.”
Hamilton enclosed two letters that had been sent from the Vulture to King’s Ferry. Both were in Arnold’s familiar handwriting. The one addressed to Washington contended defiantly that, whatever the misguided might think, it was true patriotism that had carried Arnold to the British. The second letter was addressed to Peggy. Washington sent it upstairs unopened, accompanied by a message saying that, although it was his duty to try to capture Arnold, he was happy to relieve her anxiety by telling her that her husband was safe.
Washington could hardly have helped recognizing that he had been derelict in not ordering Hamilton to do what the aide had done on his own: warn the commander of the main army to be prepared. This realization, plus the news that Arnold had actually escaped, seems to have shaken him out of his lethargy. In a series of hasty dispatches he changed the commanders at outposts where Arnold might have placed collaborators; and he alerted West Point, ordering that it be reinforced and put in readiness for an attack.
Washington’s long and dangerous delay in acting to protect West Point is sometimes overlooked in history books as a matter that does not contribute to the conventional image of the General’s unshakable perfection. The author of his most massive biography, Douglas Southall Freeman, who did recognize the facts, tried to explain them away by stating that not until evening did Washington know “enough about the situation” to take action. However, many of the orders Washington finally gave did not depend on specific information, and, in any case, Colonel Lamb, the officer most familiar with the situation at West Point, had returned with Washington from the fort to Robinson’s House and was available for consultation. The truth seems to be that Washington’s mind was thrown into such a turmoil that he was for a time immobilized, incapable of clear thought.
Luckily, no harm resulted. During the night the wind changed; blowing downriver, it erased the possibility that the British could gain any direct military advantage from Arnold’s treason. They had not, indeed, planned any immediate action. Nor did they even know that Arnold and André had actually concerted a plan until, to their amazement, Arnold appeared alongside the Vulture and reported André’s capture, which had given everything away.
As the possibility of a successful British attack evaporated, the immediate tension at Robinson’s House eased. However, Washington still had to handle his own emotions; to question whether there were more traitors to be discovered; and to face the frightening problem of how the treason of so conspicuous an officer could be prevented from psychologically damaging the already flagging Revolutionary cause.