Three Forgotten Heroes

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Before September 23, 1780, the three seemed unlikely stuff for heroes. But on that day Major John André came their way, and fame for the trio followed.

David Williams was the oldest at twenty-five. John Paulding, acknowledged as their leader, was twenty-two. Isaac Van Wert was the youngest— hardly twenty years of age. Only Paulding could read, for all three lacked formal education. When fighting began in the American Revolution, they were hardly more than boys living on farms in Westchester County, New York.

By 1780 fighting in the Revolution had been going on for five years. In September of that year General George Washington had his Continental Army drawn up in an arc on both sides of the Hudson River. Fortifications at West Point lay in the center of the arc. They provided the main defense against a thrust up the Hudson by the British, who occupied New York City under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton. Washington had honored General Benedict Arnold’s request to be placed in command of West Point, although he considered this a rather passive assignment for an officer of Arnold’s proven aggressiveness.

Unknown to Washington or to anyone else on the American side, Arnold had been corresponding for more than a year with British agents in New York, offering information or other services for a suitable reward. Finally the disgruntled American general struck a bargain whereby he agreed to surrender West Point in return for twenty thousand pounds sterling and a commission in the army of King George III. [See “Benedict Arnold: How the Traitor Was Unmasked,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October 1967.]

Major John André—talented, dashing, only twenty-nine years old but already adjutant general to the British Army in North America—then travelled up the Hudson on the British man-of-war Vulture to arrange lastminute details with Arnold. The two first met at night in the no man’s land between the British and American armies. Before morning they went behind the line of American outposts to the home of Joshua Hett Smith, an acquaintance of Arnold’s. There they examined in a better light the documents Arnold had brought with him. These consisted of maps and descriptions of West Point’s defenses as well as minutes of a war council Washington had recently held with his generals.

André had planned to return to New York aboard the Vulture , but daylight prevented this. Although he vigorously objected, he was persuaded by Arnold to shed his military coat and don the disguise of a country gentleman in order to travel by land through American lines. Smith, convinced (he said later) that André was John Anderson, a business friend of Arnold’s from New York, provided the British adjutant with a civilian coat and hat. André hid the incriminating papers, as he later put it, “between my stockings and my feet.”

 

André also accepted a pass signed by General Arnold. It read “Permit Mr. John Anderson to pass the guards; to the White Plains’ or below, if he chuses, he being on public business by my direction.”

With their business finished, Arnold and André separated. Smith furnished André with a horse and guided him as far as Pine’s Bridge, on which the British adjutant crossed the Croton River. André had been told he would find only British soldiers or friends of the British on the south side of the river. Actually partisans of both sides roamed and raided in the area he had entered.

André rode south along the Albany Post Road until he crossed, just north of Tarrytown, a little stream known at the time as Clark’s Kill but now called André’s Brook. Near there, in a woods west of the road, John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wert were playing cards. On this day the three were part of an informal group of seven holding a permit to search for stolen cattle. The group had divided, with Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert taking up a position that enabled them to make what General George Washington would later call “a most providential interposition.” As André approached they ceased their cardplaying, stepped from the woods, and halted him.

Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert were not regularly enlisted soldiers in the Continental Army. Instead they were members of the New York state militia, interspersing short terms of service with spells of work on nearby Westchester County farms. Each had his own gun, but none of the three wore a complete, recognizable uniform. Paulding had on a faded Hessian military coat that he had somehow come into possession of—perhaps a relic of the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga nearly two years before. No doubt this coat caused André to mistake the three for British partisans such as he expected to find in this neighborhood.