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Why Benedict Arnold Did It
To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
Arnold now asked Clinton for command of a Loyalist army as well as for financial compensation for the losses he said he had sustained as a result of Congress’s refusal to settle his accounts. He also suggested a way to bring about the surrender of the vital American fortress at West Point. By mid-June 1780, when he rode north to join Washington on the Hudson, Arnold wrote to Maj. John André, Clinton’s adjutant general and head of his secret service, “I expect soon to command West Point.”
Never losing faith in his troublesome field officer, Washington was perplexed by Arnold’s reluctance to accept his left wing but nevertheless changed his command assignments and gave Arnold West Point, augmenting it with responsibility for all works and men between Albany and New York City.
From his new headquarters on the Hudson, Benedict Arnold began systematically to weaken West Point’s defenses. On September 16 he learned that Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Knox, and their combined staffs would be crossing the Hudson at Peekskill en route to Hartford for secret talks with the French command. “I shall be at Peekskill on Sunday evening,” Washington wrote confidentially to Arnold. Arnold was to hand-pick fifty guards and forty spare horses to escort them. “You will keep this to yourself, as I want to make my journey a secret.” Arnold knew how rarely Washington traveled without his army and how vulnerable he would be. At once he sent off his most trusted courier to Clinton under an illegal flag of truce. If the message arrived in time and the British chose to move quickly, they could easily capture Washington as he crossed the Hudson on September 18. Arnold also informed Clinton that Washington would be spending the night at an inn at Peekskill within an easy ride of the nearest British dragoons.
Although Arnold personally led his hand-picked guards to meet Washington on the eighteenth, ostensibly to deliver a memo on conditions at West Point, his message did not reach Clinton in time, and the British raid never came. Instead, a solitary vessel, the three-masted sloop of war Vulture , arrived in Haverstraw Bay, twelve miles south of West Point. Aboard was Maj. John André, Arnold’s inexperienced twenty-nine-year-old spymaster, who, like Arnold, had insisted to Clinton that a face-to-face meeting between Arnold and André was needed to confirm Arnold’s identity and to plan in detail the surrender of the key American stronghold. The British commander had reluctantly acquiesced to sending André on the mission, and he had given three orders intended to safeguard the young officer: He was not to go behind enemy lines; he was not to disguise himself but was to wear his British uniform; and he was to carry no compromising papers. If he violated any of these rules of war, he could be hanged as a spy.
André violated all three. Shortly after midnight on September 23, he landed at the foot of Long Clove Mountain, two miles below Haverstraw and well behind American lines. He concealed his British uniform under a dark caped coat. After talking with Arnold until first light, André left carrying Arnold’s pass, made out under a false identity, “John Anderson,” and five documents in Arnold’s undisguised handwriting, among them a summary of the American army’s strength and displacement and a report of the troops and ordnance at West Point and their weak spots. Concealing the messages between a sock and a conspicuously English boot, he changed his uniform for an old claret coat, a yellow waistcoat, and breeches.
Arnold then made arrangements for André to be rowed back to the Vulture , but the oarsman, up all night and increasingly suspicious, refused to take him, and André wound up riding south through the American lines and hiding for the night in a farmhouse. The next morning, as he approached a British outpost near Tarrytown, André mistook three men who sprang out into his path as Loyalists; one of them wore a captured green and red Hessian uniform. André identified himself as a British officer and then foolishly presented Arnold’s pass, which said he was a civilian. The three American militiamen, who were absent without leave from their unit and had intended to rob him, now searched the oddly dressed spy and found the compromising documents. They decided they would receive a reward if they turned their captive over to the nearest American outpost.
At nearby North Castle, John Jameson, the American colonel in charge, had earlier received instructions from Arnold that a John Anderson might cross the lines from New York City. But although he did not recognize the handwriting, Jameson was puzzled by the papers “Anderson” carried and by the fact that he had been found behind the lines. He rushed word to Arnold of Andr»’s capture but dispatched the confiscated papers, which he characterized as being of “a very dangerous tendency,” to Washington. The messenger, unable to find the general that night, returned to North Castle. Only Jameson’s unintentional warning allowed Arnold to escape in his barge to the Vulture .