Benedict Arnold: How The Traitor Was Unmasked

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‘The human problem closest to Washington’s emotions was twenty-year-old Peggy, “whose face and youthfulness [as Lafayette wrote] make her so interesting.” In the morning she admitted to no memory of her hysteria of the day before, and now spoke frankly, if tearfully, of her apprehension that “the resentment of her country will fall upon her who is only unfortunate.” Washington was all sympathy and grave reassurance; he offered to send her either to her husband in New York or to her father in Philadelphia. She chose to turn her back on the plot that had failed; Franks accompanied her to Philadelphia. “It would be extremely painful to General Washington,” Lafayette wrote to Luzerne, “if she were not treated with the greatest kindness.”

By Washington’s order, the various individuals known to have been concerned in André’s foray into American-held territory were now gathered at Robinson’s House. Interviewing them himself, Washington decided that only one man was sufficiently implicated to be tried. He was the local landowner, Joshua Hett Smith, who had served as André’s companion behind the American lines. In the end, Smith was demonstrated to have been a fool rather than a villain. He had simply believed what Arnold had told him: that André was not a British but an American spy, whom it was his patriotic duty to help. Court-martialled at their own request so that their names could be cleared, Varick and Franks were proved completely innocent. Arnold, it was concluded, had operated as a lone wolf.

After André had been brought to headquarters, Washington found him “a man of the first abilities” and treated him, so the Briton wrote Clinton, “with the greatest attention.” André was, indeed, a prisoner to wring Washington’s heart. Of French background, although born in London, he had marked temperamental resemblances to Washington’s beloved Lafayette; he was also young enough to be Washington’s son. He was quick, mercurial, brilliant, chivalrous, and much concerned with personal honor. In a situation of mortal danger, he displayed—could Lafayette have done it as well?—almost superhuman control. He behaved in the presence of his captors with charm, grace, almost relaxation.

To Washington, as to all the other officers concerned, André’s plight was particularly poignant because the young man’s own romantic impetuosity had placed him in a predicament that the eighteenth century considered far below his station. Gentlemen could be spy masters, but they did not themselves wear disguises and rummage behind enemy lines. André continued to claim that he had come ashore in his regular uniform in a high official capacity, and had been tricked by Arnold into entering an American post. Once there, so his argument went, he could not possibly have escaped as long as he was wearing the British uniform. To the captors, hatred for Arnold made this believable, yet the fact remained that André had been caught in civilian clothes, bearing incriminating papers, and functioning as a spy. The established punishment for that was not a gentleman’s death—being shot—but the death of a varlet—being dangled from a gallows.

The meanness of his situation spurred André into a high line of “candor.” To the board of general officers who conducted his trial, he confessed so much that the verdict was inevitable. The board ruled that he “ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy, and that agreable to the Law and usage of Nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death.”

From André, Washington received a letter that the condemned man signed with his proud title, Adjutant General to the British Army: Buoyed above the terror of death by the consciousness of a life devoted to honourable pursuits, and stained with no action that can give me remorse, I trust that the request I make to your Excellency at this serious period, and which is to soften my last moments, will not be rejected. Sympathy toward a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adopt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour. Let me hope, Sir, that if aught in my character impresses you with esteem towards me, if aught in my misfortunes marks me as the victim of policy and not of resentment, I shall experience the operation of these feelings in your breast, by being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.

The consideration was one that Washington, as a gentleman, could not help but find affecting—and he was always unhappy about executions. To make matters worse, his brilliant young officers were almost swooning with admiration and pity for André. Hamilton, to whom the prisoner had made a personal appeal, was particularly insistent, even rude, and went off in a rage when Washington would not agree that André be shot. “Some people,” Hamilton growled, “are only sensible to motives of policy!” Yet Washington felt he had no choice. British propaganda was shouting that Andre’s arrest had been an atrocity. If he were not executed in the manner of a spy it would be considered proof that he had not really been a spy but had been wantonly murdered.