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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
André occupied the same position in Clinton’s heart that Lafayette did in Washington’s. Across the lines came letters in which Clinton insisted that his friend had gone on an official mission to Arnold, and had subsequently merely obeyed orders that Arnold, as commander in the area, had a right to give. This argument was specious (a spy is not blameless because he obeys the orders of the traitor he is suborning), and it also contradicted Andre’s own contention that Arnold had carried him behind the American lines without his knowledge and against his will. However, Washington saw in Clinton’s concern a chance of saving the young man whom he considered “more unfortunate than criminal” and who had “much in his character to interest.”
Washington might “lament,” but he recognized a “necessity of rigor”: the Army was in effect on trial in the eyes of the American people. To spare the British agent outright would be interpreted as softness about treason. But supposing Washington could substitute on the gallows the real, the heinous criminal?
Captain Aaron Ogden of the light infantry had been ordered to appear at headquarters, now at Tappan, New York, at the dot of eight o’clock on the morning after André was sentenced. To his surprise, he found his Excellency waiting for him outside the door. Washington handed him some letters to take under a flag of truce to the British lines, and then told him to go to Lafayette’s tent for further instructions. Lafayette was also eagerly awaiting him. Suggesting what Washington could not personally, Lafayette urged Ogden to whisper to the British commander “that if Sir Henry Clinton would … suffer General Washington to get within his power General Arnold, then Major André should be immediately released.”
Ogden did as he was told, and the British officer who had met his flag leaped on a horse and galloped away. In two hours he was back with a glum face and the verbal answer: “A deserter was never given up.” He also brought written information that a high-level British delegation would come to the American lines to intercede for André.
The resulting meeting was useless. The British representatives had nothing more to present than the arguments that had already been submitted to Washington in writing. Deeply disappointed, Washington set the execution for noon the next day, October 2.
The macabre procession from André’s place of confinement to the gallows would pass close to Washington’s headquarters; the death march would pound in, even through closed windows. To allow the sufferer hope, Washington had not notified him of how he was to be executed, and there would be the dreadful moment when the young British gentleman saw the gallows. It was not an agreeable moment to contemplate.
When the execution was over, Washington was surrounded by men in tears. They recounted how André had himself bared his neck for the hangman and had drawn the knot close under his right ear. His last words had been, “I have nothing more to say, gentlemen, than this. You will all bear witness that I have met my fate as a brave man.”
In Washington’s headquarters, eyes were still wet when a belated dispatch appeared from the British lines. It was a letter from Benedict Arnold threatening that if André were executed, he personally would “think myself bound by every tie of duty and honour to retaliate on such unhappy persons of your army as may fall within my power. … I call Heaven and earth to witness that your Excellency will be justly answerable for the torrent of blood that may be spilt in consequence!”
“There are no terms,” Washington wrote of Arnold, “that can describe the baseness of his heart.” Shortly afterward he instigated an elaborate plot (which misfired) to kidnap the traitor from his lodgings in New York City and bring him out alive for hanging to patriot cheers (see “The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission” in the October, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE).
As British propagandists ground out statements attributed to Arnold in which he described his treason as true patriotism and urged his former associates to imitate him, hatred for the traitor swept the nation. Washington, who was not without enemies, had in the past consistently supported Arnold to the civilian authorities; he had personally placed him in command at West Point. And the whole conservative wing of the Revolutionary leadership was liable to the charge of guilt by association, since they had backed Arnold when he had been attacked by the radicals who controlled the government of Pennsylvania. As the leader of those radicals, Joseph Reed did make gestures at demonstrating that Washington had shown gross favoritism to the traitor, but even Reed was halfhearted—glad, it seemed, quickly to abandon his efforts. In the end, the Pennsylvania radicals contented themselves with banishing Peggy from her father’s house in Philadelphia. She was forced to join her partner in treason behind the British lines.
One trembles to think what a modern “superpatriot” rabble-rouser might have done with the issue. However, our forefathers resisted all temptation to shatter the precarious national unity. Washington’s own attitude was expressed in dismissing a rumor that another American general, Robert Howe, was in the pay of the British. He wrote the Board of War that they ought not to “neglect any clues that may lead to discoveries, but, on the other hand, we ought to be equally circumspect in admitting suspicions or proceeding upon them without sufficient evidence. It will be the policy of the enemy to distract us as much as possible by sowing jealousies …”