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Three Forgotten Heroes
Who today remembers John Paulding, Isaac Van Wert, or David Williams? Yet for a century they were renowned as the rustic militiamen who captured Major John André
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
“I hope, gentlemen, you belong to the lower party.… I am a British officer on business of importance and must not be detained,” André foolishly said. In this area Tories were known as the “lower party” and Patriots as the “upper party” because of the positions of the British and American armies relative to the Hudson River. When Paulding announced their true affiliation, André shifted his story and showed them the safeconduct pass made out by Arnold. But the pass failed to convince the militiamen. Consequently they ordered André into a nearby thicket, stripped and searched him, and discovered the hidden papers.
The papers puzzled the three captors, so they questioned André about them and discussed their meaning with him. During the course of this discussion André apparently offered them a generous reward if they would release him or take him to the British garrison at Kingsbridge. But Paulding put an end to this kind of talk by crying out, “No, by God, even if you give us ten thousand guineas, you should not stir a step!”
Determined not to release their captive, but with his true identity still unknown to them, André’s captors took their prize to a Continental Army outpost a few miles distant. There they told their story to Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, the commander, and turned their prisoner and his papers over to him. Thus Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert started the chain of events that revealed the conspiracy to betray West Point.
Colonel Jameson suspected the mysterious captive was a double agent, spying for both sides. Or could this be a clever British scheme, designed to discredit Arnold? Still, there remained the possibility that West Point’s commander was acting traitorously, or perhaps only unwisely, since the pass and some of the papers found on the prisoner were unquestionably in Arnold’s handwriting, with which Jameson was familiar.
One thing was certain. The prisoner could not be kept at the outpost. So Jameson started André on foot toward West Point with an escort of five soldiers, his identity still unknown. At the same time Jameson ordered a mounted courier to deliver an explanatory letter and the papers to General Washington, who was known to be travelling toward West Point after conferring with Count Rochambeau, commander of the French forces in America, at Hartford, Connecticut. Then rather stupidly, but probably to guard against the possibility that Arnold was completely innocent, Jameson sent another messenger to West Point with a letter to Arnold stating that “John Anderson” had been captured bearing a pass signed by Arnold and carrying incriminating documents.
As luck would have it, the message to Arnold reached its destination early in the morning, alerting the general and giving him a chance to escape. But the courier sent to intercept Washington missed him completely, so the commander in chief got to West Point after breakfast, unaware of Arnold’s treason and flight. Jameson’s explanatory letter and the papers found on André reached Washington two hours later, however. These, along with Arnold’s unexplained absence from West Point, aroused suspicions that were confirmed by late afternoon.
Major John André revealed his true identity on the second day of his captivity. In a gentlemanly letter to Washington he asked not for mercy but rather that “in any rigor that policy may dictate … I am branded with nothing dishonourable, as no motive could be mine but the service of my king and as I was involuntarily an imposter. …”
Aboard of fourteen general officers heard his case. Major General Nathanael Greene reported that “Major André Adjutant General to the British Army 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.” After receiving this report Washington ordered the execution “in the usual way.” On October 2, 1780, nine days after his capture, André was hanged from the gallows until dead.
And what of André’s captors? It was Washington who introduced them to history. “I do not know the party that took Major André,” Washington wrote in his initial report on Arnold’s treachery to the president of the Continental Congress. Nevertheless, he added, they must have been “men of great virtue,” for he had been told that they had refused to release their captive even though offered a large sum of money. Had Washington let it go at this, only a few would have heard of John Paulding, Isaac Van Wert, and David Williams. But eleven days later Washington sent their names to Congress and suggested that “the public will do well to make them a handsome gratuity.”
Congress responded to Washington’s suggestion within a month by voting each of the men a life pension of two hundred dollars in specie. In addition Congress ordered that silver medallions memorializing the capture be struck. Washington presented these medallions to the three heroes in a ceremony at Verplanck’s Point witnessed by selected units of the Continental Army. At the same ceremony Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert were given copies of a resolution conveying the thanks of Congress “for their fidelity and the eminent service they had rendered their country.” Afterward Washington entertained the three at dinner in his tent.