“Whom can we trust now?” cried out General Washington when he discovered his friend’s “villainous perfidy.”
As he rode back toward his army after a frustrating conference with his French allies at Hartford, Connecticut, on September 24, 1780, George Washington felt the need of some gaiety to raise his melancholy spirits. He looked forward eagerly to a relaxed evening at the home of old friends—his military comrade Benedict Arnold and Arnold’s pretty wife, Peggy, whom Washington had known since she was a girl. The Commander in Chief intended to enjoy his dinner and a good night’s rest, and then to spend the next clay inspecting the great patriot fortification at West Point, which Arnold now commanded.
Business, however, intervened. On the road he met the French ambassador, Chevalier Anne Cesar de la Luzerne, and had to pause for further involved negotiations. He spent the night at Fishkill, New York.
Early the next morning, as soon as the autumnal sky began to lighten, Washington set out again on his interrupted journey. It was only a short ride to Arnold’s headquarters, but there were redoubts along the river that Washington felt he ought to visit. As he repeatedly turned off the highroad down lanes rutted by the wheels of cannon, his companions—the Marquis de Lafayette, the artillery general Henry Knox, and a flock of aides—became impatient. Eventually, Lafayette (so it is reported) reminded Washington that Mrs. Arnold was waiting breakfast for them.
The Commander replied genially, “Ah, I know you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold. … You may go and take your breakfast with her, and tell her not to wait for me.” Lafayette and most of the party decided to stay with his Excellency, but two aides, Captain Samuel Shaw and Major James McHenry, rode ahead with the message.
See also "George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution," AMERICAN HERITAGE, September 2017, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Inspection takes time, and the morning was far advanced before Washington finally glimpsed Arnold’s headquarters through the trees. Robinson’s House stood on the east bank of the Hudson, about a mile and a half below West Point. Correct eighteenth-century gentlemen considered that the location—“surrounded on two sides by hideous mountains and dreary forests, [and] not a house in view but one within a mile”—could appeal only to “a taste for romantic singularity and novelty.” But Washington looked forward to a warm welcome: the firm handshake of Arnold, and the winning smiles of sweet, blonde, girlish Peggy.
He spurred his horse slightly and approached the rambling, capacious two-story mansion house. Since he had sent four light-horsemen to alert the Arnolds of his immediate arrival, he expected to find that friendly couple waiting at the door to greet him. He saw instead a foppish young man who stood alone, bowing a meticulously powdered head, while embarrassment marked his features. Washington probably recognized Arnold’s aide, David Salisbury Franks. In voluble sentences punctuated by nervous giggles, Franks stated that Mrs. Arnold had not yet arisen and that the General had left by water for West Point. The General had told Franks that he was on his way to prepare a suitable welcome for his Excellency. Had his Excellency breakfasted? When Washington said he had not, Franks bustled off to get food on the table.
This greeting was disappointing. But Washington knew that it was natural for belles to sleep late, and he could not have been displeased that Arnold was preparing a reception for him, since he believed that ceremonies of respect to high officers improved both the appearance and the discipline of an army. He ate a leisurely breakfast. Then, leaving his aide Colonel Alexander Hamilton behind to receive any dispatches, he descended with a small group to the landing where a barge and its oarsmen were waiting to transport him to West Point.
The oarsmen created ripples in the water as they rowed, and the fortress came ever more clearly into view. It seemed to slant backward as it mounted the precipitous west shore of the river. Not very far above the water, Fort Arnold, the main redoubt, clung to a sheer crag like a monstrous crab. As the surrounding hills billowed higher, they revealed ramparts pierced for cannon, while near the sky three peaks were topped with semi-independent forts. The mazelike, interweaving walls were built of a mixture of wood, turf, and stone. Scars on the hillsides spoke of quarrying too recent to have greened over, and piles of rocks and logs indicated construction still only planned. Washington knew that a short distance downstream the river washed from bank to bank over the links of a tremendous iron chain resting on huge logs. On this spot the main cannon were trained.
Washington must have been moved as the fortress came closer. This was the great engineering feat of his command, the only truly strong point created by the Continental Army. Volunteer engineers from abroad had designed it. During more than three years of hard labor, soldiers had shaped the towering ramparts. Inflated dollars, raised with anguish, had been spent by the millions. And there the fortress stood, serene in the pellucid autumn air, while Benedict Arnold—so Washington believed—was preparing the garrison for a military greeting to the Commander in Chief.
As Washington’s barge drew close to the beach and landing wharf these proved to be surprisingly empty—no bustle of officers lining up men; only the usual sentries somnolently pacing. Washington then saw Colonel John Lamb, the resident commandant of the fortress, come running down the steep road from the main redoubt. Still out of breath when Washington stepped ashore, Lamb puffed out apologies for having prepared no suitable reception. If only he had been notified!
To Washington’s startled query, Lamb replied that he had not seen Arnold that day. This seemed strange—but there were various landing places under the redoubts. Perhaps Arnold had come another way.
The inspection began. As Washington climbed over the hillsides, ducked through blockhouse doors, and visited gun emplacements, he asked everywhere for Arnold. “No one could give me any information where he was,” the General wrote later. “The impropriety of his conduct, when he knew I was to be there, struck me very forcibly.” Washington became increasingly anxious. “My mind misgave me, [but] I had not the least idea of the real cause.”
Washington was later to insist that he had found the post in “a most critical condition.” However, he probably was not particularly upset about this at the time. If some of the redoubts were weak, broken, or unfinished, if work seemed to be progressing slowly, he could hardly have been surprised. Perfection rarely hovered over the Continental Army.
Dinner at the Arnolds’ had been set for four o’clock. Washington completed his inspection in time to permit his rowers to get him back to Robinson’s House by three thirty. He strode anxiously up the steep bluff from the riverbank, but again the opening door revealed neither Arnold nor Peggy. It was Alexander Hamilton who greeted him. No, Hamilton had heard nothing of Arnold. No, Peggy had not emerged from her bedroom; she had sent down word that she was indisposed.
Washington walked along a hallway to the chamber that had been assigned to him and began to freshen up for the meal. There was a knock on the door. Hamilton came in carrying a handful of papers. Washington reached out for the packet and began to read.
In another room on the same floor Lafayette was washing up when Hamilton suddenly burst open the door. He begged the Marquis to attend instantly on his Excellency. Lafayette sprinted down the hall to find Washington trembling with emotion. “Arnold has betrayed us!” Washington cried out. “Whom can we trust now?”
The first task, as soon as the men had regained enough control to think rationally, was to determine by a careful examination of the many papers exactly what the situation was. There must have been (although it is now lost) a covering letter from the outpost commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, stating that three irregulars had been prowling in the British-dominated territory beyond the Croton River on Saturday, September 23, when they stopped a lone rider in civilian clothes. The rider, who stated that his name was John Anderson, behaved so strangely that they stripped him. They found documents in his shoes. Jameson was holding the man and was herewith forwarding the documents.
There was an official pass allowing “John Anderson” to move between the lines—made out by Benedict Arnold. Also in Arnold’s handwriting were a transcript of secret information Washington had given a council of war, pages of material about West Point that would be useful to a besieger, and a rough accounting of the fort’s 3,086 men, patriots whom Arnold had slated for death or capture.
A later addition to the packet was a letter, meticulously executed in an elegant script. It proved to be from the prisoner: “I beg your Excellency will be persuaded that no alteration in the temper of my mind, or apprehension for my safety, induces me to take the step of addressing you, but that it is to secure myself from an imputation of having assumed a mean character for treacherous purposes or self-interest, a conduct incompatible with the principles that actuate me, as well as with my condition in life. … The person in your possession is Major John André, Adjutant General to the British army.”
For a general to try to capitalize on the wavering loyalty of an adversary, André continued, was a legitimate “advantage taken in war.” To further such an end, “I agreed to meet, upon ground not within the posts of either army, a person who was to give me intelligence; I came up [the Hudson] in the Vulture, man of war, for this effect, and was fetched by a boat from the shore to the beach. Being there I was told that the approach of day would prevent my return, and that I must be concealed until the next night. I was in my regimentals and had fairly risked my person.”
The rest of André’s account was intended, as Washington later put it, “to show that he did not come under the description of a spy.” He had been conducted against his will and without his knowledge, André wrote, behind the American lines. He had thus been forced by circumstances beyond his control to remove his uniform and put on a civilian disguise. He had become, in effect, a prisoner of war. “I had to concert my escape. … I was taken at Tarry Town by some volunteers.”
After Washington had read all the documents, the question was what to do. A glance out the window would have shown that the wind, blowing upriver, was ideal for carrying British ships from their anchorages in New York Harbor to the West Point Arnold clearly intended to betray. Washington could not know to what extent other officers were involved in the plot; he could not be sure that, even though André had been intercepted, duplicate documents had not got through to the British. However, overriding emotions kept Washington from deciding that his first duty was to take every step to protect the endangered fortress.
The most important consideration, so it seemed to Washington, was to capture and hang the traitor. Although McHenry, who had breakfasted with Arnold, reported that the villain had disappeared immediately after receiving a letter that had thrown him “into some degree of agitation,” Washington refused to accept the conclusion that Arnold had been notified of André’s capture and had surely made his escape during the intervening five hours. Perhaps he was lurking somewhere within the lines, still ignorant of his danger. Under these circumstances, Washington thought, no move should be made that would indicate to anyone who might alert Arnold that the treason had been discovered. While all else went on as usual, Hamilton and McHenry should gallop, as fast as the swiftest horses could carry them, to King’s Ferry, eight miles downriver, where there were forts and forces that could stop Arnold’s barge “if she had not passed.”
No sooner had Hamilton and McHenry pounded off than Arnold’s senior aide, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Varick, who had been in bed with a fever, came into Washington’s room. He was flushed, a little unsteady, and clearly in the grip of strong emotion. He said that Mrs. Arnold seemed to have gone mad. She had run through the halls half dressed, and, after he had got her back in bed, she exclaimed that “there was a hot iron on her head, and no one but General Washington can take it off.” Would his Excellency please go to the anguished lady?
Washington mounted the stairs to Peggy’s room. In her disarranged bed, with her hair flying around her touching face and her nightclothes pulled awry, she exhibited, so Hamilton was told, “all the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife, and all the fondness of a mother. … One moment she raved, another she melted into tears. Sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom.” She dandled her babe wide-eyed and seemed oblivious of her visitors. Finally Varick said, “There is General Washington.”
As Washington leaned over her, his features working with pity, she stared him hard in the face.
“No! That is not Washington!”
Gently, he tried to assure her.
“No!” she cried again, gesturing with her bare, shapely arms to shield her infant. “No, that is not General Washington; that is the man who was agoing to assist Colonel Varick in killing my child.”
Washington labored to disabuse her, but when she finally admitted that he was indeed Washington, it was only to upbraid him for “being in a plot to murder her child.” Her husband, she cried out, could not protect her: “General Arnold will never return; he is gone; he is gone forever; there, there, there: the spirits have carried [him] up there. …” She pointed at the ceiling. “They have put hot irons in his head.”
As the lovely lady raved and gestured, her clothes sometimes parted to reveal charms that should have been hidden. Then she would push her baby aside and turn downward on the bed to cling to the mattress in a transport of tears. At last, finding that he could not make her respond to his reassurances, Washington sadly went away, probably hating Arnold all the more for having caused such anguish to a beauty he never doubted was innocent.
That Peggy had been in the plot from the start, and may even have instigated it, was, indeed, to remain a secret until the relevant British headquarters papers were made public in the 1930s. In any case, Washington always shied away from connecting the fair sex with the dark emotions of war. Peggy—who had been warned by Arnold before he fled that the treason had been discovered—need not have used such heavy emotional artillery to convince the courtly commander that she was a greatly wronged angel. He left her bedroom determined to protect her from every implication raised by her husband’s guilt.
He went down the stairs and joined an uneasy group of officers in the living room. “Mrs. Arnold is sick,” Washington said, “and General Arnold is away. We must therefore take our dinner without them.”
“I had a high fever,” Varick later wrote, “but officiated at the head of the table.” Both he and Franks, who had taken no part in the plot, had by now inferred that Arnold had gone to the enemy. Unwilling to accuse their superior without real evidence, and realizing that if treason had taken place they would be under suspicion, they watched Washington covertly for indications of what he knew and how he felt toward them. Washington and his staff were at the same time surreptitiously watching them for signs of guilt. “Never,” Lafayette is quoted as reminiscing, “was there a more melancholy dinner. The General was silent and reserved, and none of us spoke of what we were thinking about. … Gloom and distress seemed to pervade every mind, and I have never seen General Washington so affected by any circumstance.” However, Washington’s courtesy did not desert him. Varick noted that “his Excellency behaved with his usual affability and politeness to me.”
The food, “plentiful” but hardly touched, was finally cleared away. The parties separated. After a while, Washington asked Varick to put on his hat. As they walked outside, Washington told him of Arnold’s perfidy. Then (so Varick wrote), “with delicacy, tenderness, and civility,” Washington stated that, although “he had not the least cause of suspicion of Major Franks or myself,” the two must consider themselves under arrest. “I then told him the little all I knew.”
André had now been a captive for more than two days. It would have been a poor spy network indeed that was not pulsing out warnings, and any hope of gain to be achieved through secrecy would seem to be over. The wind was still blowing upriver. If Arnold had placed at key positions officers who were his partners in the plot, they still held their commands. West Point had not been alerted. Yet Washington still took no active steps. The man who had admired and trusted Arnold, and to whom treason was personally inconceivable, was circling in the murky mazes of what Varick called “the most affecting and pungent anxiety and distress.”
Between six and seven that evening, Washington received a letter from Hamilton at King’s Ferry stating that Arnold had escaped to the Vulture, ‘the British warship that had brought André and then anchored in the river. “I do not believe the project will go on,” Hamilton continued, “yet it is possible Arnold has made such dispositions with the garrison as may tempt the enemy, in its present weakness, to make the stroke tonight.”… “Without making a bustle,” Hamilton was notifying the commander of the main army in New Jersey, General Nathanael Greene, “to be in readiness to march and even to detach a brigade this way.” He hoped Washington would approve, “as there may be no time to lose.”
Hamilton enclosed two letters that had been sent from the Vulture to King’s Ferry. Both were in Arnold’s familiar handwriting. The one addressed to Washington contended defiantly that, whatever the misguided might think, it was true patriotism that had carried Arnold to the British. The second letter was addressed to Peggy. Washington sent it upstairs unopened, accompanied by a message saying that, although it was his duty to try to capture Arnold, he was happy to relieve her anxiety by telling her that her husband was safe.
Washington could hardly have helped recognizing that he had been derelict in not ordering Hamilton to do what the aide had done on his own: warn the commander of the main army to be prepared. This realization, plus the news that Arnold had actually escaped, seems to have shaken him out of his lethargy. In a series of hasty dispatches he changed the commanders at outposts where Arnold might have placed collaborators; and he alerted West Point, ordering that it be reinforced and put in readiness for an attack.
Washington’s long and dangerous delay in acting to protect West Point is sometimes overlooked in history books as a matter that does not contribute to the conventional image of the General’s unshakable perfection. The author of his most massive biography, Douglas Southall Freeman, who did recognize the facts, tried to explain them away by stating that not until evening did Washington know “enough about the situation” to take action. However, many of the orders Washington finally gave did not depend on specific information, and, in any case, Colonel Lamb, the officer most familiar with the situation at West Point, had returned with Washington from the fort to Robinson’s House and was available for consultation. The truth seems to be that Washington’s mind was thrown into such a turmoil that he was for a time immobilized, incapable of clear thought.
Luckily, no harm resulted. During the night the wind changed; blowing downriver, it erased the possibility that the British could gain any direct military advantage from Arnold’s treason. They had not, indeed, planned any immediate action. Nor did they even know that Arnold and André had actually concerted a plan until, to their amazement, Arnold appeared alongside the Vulture and reported André’s capture, which had given everything away.
As the possibility of a successful British attack evaporated, the immediate tension at Robinson’s House eased. However, Washington still had to handle his own emotions; to question whether there were more traitors to be discovered; and to face the frightening problem of how the treason of so conspicuous an officer could be prevented from psychologically damaging the already flagging Revolutionary cause.
‘The human problem closest to Washington’s emotions was twenty-year-old Peggy, “whose face and youthfulness [as Lafayette wrote] make her so interesting.” In the morning she admitted to no memory of her hysteria of the day before, and now spoke frankly, if tearfully, of her apprehension that “the resentment of her country will fall upon her who is only unfortunate.” Washington was all sympathy and grave reassurance; he offered to send her either to her husband in New York or to her father in Philadelphia. She chose to turn her back on the plot that had failed; Franks accompanied her to Philadelphia. “It would be extremely painful to General Washington,” Lafayette wrote to Luzerne, “if she were not treated with the greatest kindness.”
By Washington’s order, the various individuals known to have been concerned in André’s foray into American-held territory were now gathered at Robinson’s House. Interviewing them himself, Washington decided that only one man was sufficiently implicated to be tried. He was the local landowner, Joshua Hett Smith, who had served as André’s companion behind the American lines. In the end, Smith was demonstrated to have been a fool rather than a villain. He had simply believed what Arnold had told him: that André was not a British but an American spy, whom it was his patriotic duty to help. Court-martialled at their own request so that their names could be cleared, Varick and Franks were proved completely innocent. Arnold, it was concluded, had operated as a lone wolf.
After André had been brought to headquarters, Washington found him “a man of the first abilities” and treated him, so the Briton wrote Clinton, “with the greatest attention.” André was, indeed, a prisoner to wring Washington’s heart. Of French background, although born in London, he had marked temperamental resemblances to Washington’s beloved Lafayette; he was also young enough to be Washington’s son. He was quick, mercurial, brilliant, chivalrous, and much concerned with personal honor. In a situation of mortal danger, he displayed—could Lafayette have done it as well?—almost superhuman control. He behaved in the presence of his captors with charm, grace, almost relaxation.
To Washington, as to all the other officers concerned, André’s plight was particularly poignant because the young man’s own romantic impetuosity had placed him in a predicament that the eighteenth century considered far below his station. Gentlemen could be spy masters, but they did not themselves wear disguises and rummage behind enemy lines. André continued to claim that he had come ashore in his regular uniform in a high official capacity, and had been tricked by Arnold into entering an American post. Once there, so his argument went, he could not possibly have escaped as long as he was wearing the British uniform. To the captors, hatred for Arnold made this believable, yet the fact remained that André had been caught in civilian clothes, bearing incriminating papers, and functioning as a spy. The established punishment for that was not a gentleman’s death—being shot—but the death of a varlet—being dangled from a gallows.
The meanness of his situation spurred André into a high line of “candor.” To the board of general officers who conducted his trial, he confessed so much that the verdict was inevitable. The board ruled that he “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.”
From André, Washington received a letter that the condemned man signed with his proud title, Adjutant General to the British Army: Buoyed above the terror of death by the consciousness of a life devoted to honourable pursuits, and stained with no action that can give me remorse, I trust that the request I make to your Excellency at this serious period, and which is to soften my last moments, will not be rejected. Sympathy toward a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adopt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour. Let me hope, Sir, that if aught in my character impresses you with esteem towards me, if aught in my misfortunes marks me as the victim of policy and not of resentment, I shall experience the operation of these feelings in your breast, by being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.
The consideration was one that Washington, as a gentleman, could not help but find affecting—and he was always unhappy about executions. To make matters worse, his brilliant young officers were almost swooning with admiration and pity for André. Hamilton, to whom the prisoner had made a personal appeal, was particularly insistent, even rude, and went off in a rage when Washington would not agree that André be shot. “Some people,” Hamilton growled, “are only sensible to motives of policy!” Yet Washington felt he had no choice. British propaganda was shouting that Andre’s arrest had been an atrocity. If he were not executed in the manner of a spy it would be considered proof that he had not really been a spy but had been wantonly murdered.
André occupied the same position in Clinton’s heart that Lafayette did in Washington’s. Across the lines came letters in which Clinton insisted that his friend had gone on an official mission to Arnold, and had subsequently merely obeyed orders that Arnold, as commander in the area, had a right to give. This argument was specious (a spy is not blameless because he obeys the orders of the traitor he is suborning), and it also contradicted Andre’s own contention that Arnold had carried him behind the American lines without his knowledge and against his will. However, Washington saw in Clinton’s concern a chance of saving the young man whom he considered “more unfortunate than criminal” and who had “much in his character to interest.”
Washington might “lament,” but he recognized a “necessity of rigor”: the Army was in effect on trial in the eyes of the American people. To spare the British agent outright would be interpreted as softness about treason. But supposing Washington could substitute on the gallows the real, the heinous criminal?
Captain Aaron Ogden of the light infantry had been ordered to appear at headquarters, now at Tappan, New York, at the dot of eight o’clock on the morning after André was sentenced. To his surprise, he found his Excellency waiting for him outside the door. Washington handed him some letters to take under a flag of truce to the British lines, and then told him to go to Lafayette’s tent for further instructions. Lafayette was also eagerly awaiting him. Suggesting what Washington could not personally, Lafayette urged Ogden to whisper to the British commander “that if Sir Henry Clinton would … suffer General Washington to get within his power General Arnold, then Major André should be immediately released.”
Ogden did as he was told, and the British officer who had met his flag leaped on a horse and galloped away. In two hours he was back with a glum face and the verbal answer: “A deserter was never given up.” He also brought written information that a high-level British delegation would come to the American lines to intercede for André.
The resulting meeting was useless. The British representatives had nothing more to present than the arguments that had already been submitted to Washington in writing. Deeply disappointed, Washington set the execution for noon the next day, October 2.
The macabre procession from André’s place of confinement to the gallows would pass close to Washington’s headquarters; the death march would pound in, even through closed windows. To allow the sufferer hope, Washington had not notified him of how he was to be executed, and there would be the dreadful moment when the young British gentleman saw the gallows. It was not an agreeable moment to contemplate.
When the execution was over, Washington was surrounded by men in tears. They recounted how André had himself bared his neck for the hangman and had drawn the knot close under his right ear. His last words had been, “I have nothing more to say, gentlemen, than this. You will all bear witness that I have met my fate as a brave man.”
In Washington’s headquarters, eyes were still wet when a belated dispatch appeared from the British lines. It was a letter from Benedict Arnold threatening that if André were executed, he personally would “think myself bound by every tie of duty and honour to retaliate on such unhappy persons of your army as may fall within my power. … I call Heaven and earth to witness that your Excellency will be justly answerable for the torrent of blood that may be spilt in consequence!”
“There are no terms,” Washington wrote of Arnold, “that can describe the baseness of his heart.” Shortly afterward he instigated an elaborate plot (which misfired) to kidnap the traitor from his lodgings in New York City and bring him out alive for hanging to patriot cheers (see “The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission” in the October, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE).
As British propagandists ground out statements attributed to Arnold in which he described his treason as true patriotism and urged his former associates to imitate him, hatred for the traitor swept the nation. Washington, who was not without enemies, had in the past consistently supported Arnold to the civilian authorities; he had personally placed him in command at West Point. And the whole conservative wing of the Revolutionary leadership was liable to the charge of guilt by association, since they had backed Arnold when he had been attacked by the radicals who controlled the government of Pennsylvania. As the leader of those radicals, Joseph Reed did make gestures at demonstrating that Washington had shown gross favoritism to the traitor, but even Reed was halfhearted—glad, it seemed, quickly to abandon his efforts. In the end, the Pennsylvania radicals contented themselves with banishing Peggy from her father’s house in Philadelphia. She was forced to join her partner in treason behind the British lines.
One trembles to think what a modern “superpatriot” rabble-rouser might have done with the issue. However, our forefathers resisted all temptation to shatter the precarious national unity. Washington’s own attitude was expressed in dismissing a rumor that another American general, Robert Howe, was in the pay of the British. He wrote the Board of War that they ought not to “neglect any clues that may lead to discoveries, but, on the other hand, we ought to be equally circumspect in admitting suspicions or proceeding upon them without sufficient evidence. It will be the policy of the enemy to distract us as much as possible by sowing jealousies …”
Washington labored to turn the popular emotion against Arnold to gratitude that the plot had been foiled. “In no instance since the commencement of the war,” he stated, “has the interposition of Providence appeared more conspicuous than in the rescue of the post and garrison of West Point from Arnold’s villainous perfidy.”