Three Forgotten Heroes

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Williams died in 1831, but the legend of the three captors survived. A monument erected in 1853 marked the spot near Tarrytown where André was captured. Although the Civil War brought forward new popular heroes, the centennial of the “providential interposition” revived the fame of Paulding, Van Wert, and Williams once more, if only briefly. In a ceremony at Tarrytown a statue and bronze plaque were added to the Captors’ Monument erected twenty-seven years before. The statue placed on top of the monument showed John Paulding wearing the faded Hessian coat that is believed to have misled André in 1780. Coincidentally, the donor of the statue was John Anderson, a wealthy citizen of North Tarrytown who bore the same name that André had assumed on the day of his capture.

Alexander Hamilton prophesied in 1780 that “while Arnold is handed down with execration to future times, posterity will repeat with reverence the names of Van Wert, Paulding, and Williams.” Today the first part of his prophecy seems truer than the second, yet for a century or so both parts were equally true.

One reason, of course, was the considerable and immediate service to the cause of American independence performed by the three men. As Washington phrased it in another of his letters to Congress, “They have prevented in all probability our suffering one of the severest strokes that could have been meditated against us.” For this alone, if for nothing else, the three deserved the gratitude of the American people. Had the trio acted otherwise in September, 1780, Yorktown might well have been impossible in October, 1781.

No one knows what consequences might have followed a British seizure of West Point, aided by Arnold’s treachery. As it was, the consequences of the aborted conspiracy were bad enough. Revelation of the plot cast a cloud of suspicion and gloom over the entire Continental Army. “Arnold has betrayed us! … Whom can we trust now?” Washington cried out when he learned the awful truth. In this crisis of morale the three captors helped immensely, because they were recognized as symbols of rectitude. Arnold’s treason disclosed that the Tree of Liberty bore one bad apple. But the example of the three honest yeomen demonstrated that the trunk of the tree was sturdy and sound.

Finally John Paulding, Isaac Van Wert, and David Williams were remembered for a third reason. Americans loved the story of the way in which the three simple farmers confounded the artful spy. The story seemed an epitome of what Americans for more than a century believed their Revolution to have been—a victory of American honesty and simplicity over British artifice and sophistication.