August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
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
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.
“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.
Unwilling to be outdone by Congress, the New York state legislature rewarded each with two hundred acres of farm land. And, in accordance with customs of the New York militia, they were allowed to keep André’s watch, horse, saddle, and bridle. They sold these items, the watch alone bringing thirty guineas, and divided the money.
The classic account of André’s capture came at the trial of Joshua Hett Smith, who was accused of participation in the Arnold-André conspiracy but was acquitted for lack of evidence that he had knowingly taken part in the plot. At the trial the stories of John Paulding and David Williams—for some reason Isaac Van Wert did not testify—became a part of the public record. In this way their version of what they said and did and what André said and did was handed down to posterity.
Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s brilliant aide-de-camp, also helped bring Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert to public attention. In one of his letters to Elizabeth Schuyler, his fiancée, Hamilton enclosed a copy of an account of the conspiracy. In it he contrasted Arnold’s “base conduct” with that of the “three simple peasants” who, “leaning only on their virtue and an honest sense of duty,” had indignantly refused André’s offer of money in exchange for his release. Hamilton’s written recital of the dramatic events helped make the three captors well known, for a number of influential people read his account soon after he wrote it. It appeared later in several magazines and newspapers, including Hamilton’s own New York Evening Post .
Numerous songs and ballads of the time showed that the story of André’s capture caught the popular fancy. “Brave Paulding and the Spy,” printed on ballad sheets in 1783, was representative of these popular songs. One stanza went:
And the ballad concluded:
There is ample evidence to show that the story of the three simple, incorruptible farmers who captured the clever, aristocratic spy fascinated the American people for decades. The popular historian and mythmaker Mason Locke “Parson” Weems made good use of the exploit. His bestselling Life of Washington gave five pages to the account of the capture, with the names of Paulding, Van Wert, and Williams in capital letters each time they were mentioned.
Asher B. Durand, a founder of the Hudson River school, was probably the most distinguished of the many artists who painted the incident as they imagined it to have taken place. About ten thousand copies of an engraving based on his Capture of Major André were sold in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Currier and Ives also distributed several popular prints, all showing the three captors refusing André’s offer of money for his release. Still other versions of the capture or images of its principal characters were depicted on china plates and pitchers, on the lids of snuffboxes, and on other surfaces suitable for patriotic adornment.
In the early nineteenth century John Henri Isaac Browere, an American sculptor, invented a process for making life masks by spreading warm wax over the faces of consenting celebrities of the time. In this way were preserved the features of such famous persons as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James and Dolley Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Along with these Browere made life masks of John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wert that are still on display in the Fenimore House of the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown.
André’s captors lived on quietly in New York for more than a generation after the Revolution. All three continued to farm, and each held a commission in the militia for a number of years. In 1818 Paulding became the first to die. It is possible that his death inspired the Ohio legislature to immortalize him and Williams and Van Wert by giving their names to three new counties created in the northwestern part of the state in 1820. What is more likely is that the legislature chose the names because of patriotism engendered by the War of 1812, the second war with England.
Clearly that war stimulated new interest in the story of the three militiamen. For example, in 1803 William Dunlap, sometimes called “the father of American drama,” wrote a play entitled The Glory of Columbia: Her Yeomanry! in which André’s capture by the three honest yeomen was a basic part of the dramatic action. The Glory of Columbia opened at the Park Theatre in New York on July 4, 1803, playing to an enthusiastic first-night audience, and continued for a few weeks as a modest success. After that it was occasionally resurrected for presentation on patriotic holidays. In July, 1812, however, it got a new subtitle—“What We Have Done, We Can Do”—and enjoyed a second successful run before audiences that cheered loudly at the end of the second act’s first scene—the one in which Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert confound André.
The scene opens with André appearing disguised as a countryman. Then the American militiamen enter and order him to halt. André mistakes them for British scouts, and this dialogue takes place:
PAULDING : You mistake, sir, we are … freemen; independent farmers; armed to defend the property and the rights we have inherited from our fathers.
VAN WERT : You are our prisoner!
ANDRÉ : Ha! confusion? betrayed? —lost!—lost!
VAN WERT : You seem confused. Don’t be down hearted, man—tho’ you are a prisoner, Americans know what is due to humanity.
The three spurn André’s offer of his purse and gold watch. André changes his story and produces the pass signed by Arnold. The three remain doubtful, so André resumes his attempts at bribery.
ANDRÉé : … I have the power, once within the British lines, to gratify the utmost wish you ever formed for riches. … Why are you silent? Come with me to New York, giving me by your company liberty and safety, and your desires shall not suggest a sum … too great for your reward.
VAN WERT : We are soldiers, but not mercenaries.
PAULDING : We have firesides to defend.
WILLIAMS : We be but poorish lads … but we have such things among us as fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and sweethearts, and wives and children, and friends, and our good names; now tho’ all these things mayhap be only trifles, yet—what sum do you think a man ought to sell UM for?
In an aside André says, “Curse on the clowns! Their honesty o’erwhelms me!” He faces the three men once more and promises further rewards if they will escort him to the British lines or turn him loose. But now his captors are determined to take him to their superiors at the American outpost.
PAULDING : It is useless to waste time or multiply words. We mean no offence, sir, but we will do our duty. You must go with us.
ANDRÉ : Tis well. You have taught me to reverence an American farmer. You have given me a convincing proof, that it is not high attainments, or distinguished rank, which ensure virtue, but rather early habits, and moderate desires. You have not only captured—you have conquered me.
WILLIAMS : Though we wouldn’t take your coin, we’ll take your compliments, sir, and thank you heartily.
ANDRÉ : Whatever may be my fate, you have forced from me my esteem. Lead on … I am your prisoner. While I live I shall always pronounce the names of Williams, Paulding and Van Wert, with that tribute of praise which virtue forces from every heart that cherishes her image. ( Exeunt .)
By 1830 David Williams was the sole surviving captor of Major André. When he visited New York City toward the end of that year, The Glory of Columbia was performed at the Park Theatre on December 3 and the Bowery Theatre on December 4, with Williams as an honored guest in the audience.
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.