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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > Benedict Arnold

Two years have elapsed since we left Washington at White Plains, where he encamped soon after the battle of Monmouth. During the two years little was done in the North but watch Clinton, who held the city of New York. A few minor operations, however, were not without significance. Sullivan's raid into the Indian country we have noticed. Another exploit of this same general, occurring at an earlier date was less successful. The only part of the United States held by the British in the autumn of 1778, aside from Manhattan Island and a few western posts on the frontier, was Newport, with the island on which it stands. This was occupied by Sir Robert Pigott with a garrison of six thousand men, and Washington determined to make an effort for its recovery. He sent Sullivan with fifteen hundred picked men, who were to cooperate with a French fleet under Count d'Estaing, lately arrived in American waters. Sullivan's army was increased to several thousand by New England volunteers, and success seemed to be in reach when a terrific storm crippled and scattered the fleet, and the project came to naught.

Far more picturesque was the capture of Stony Point the following year by Anthony Wayne. Stony Point is a bold, rocky promontory within a sharp curve of the Hudson River a few miles below West Point. The Americans had determined to fortify this gateway to the Highlands, and while they were engaged in doing this Clinton came up the river in May, 1779, and captured it. He then erected powerful fortifications, manned them with six hundred men, and believed the place impregnable. So it might have been by regular sieges; but the Yankee finds the way, if there is a way.

At midnight on July 15, 1779, "Mad Anthony" Wayne, with twelve hundred light infantry, crept stealthily along the causeway that led from the mainland to Stony Point. The assault was to be a pure bayonet charge, and to prevent a possible betrayal by a random shot, Wayne did not permit his men to load their muskets. To guard further against noise, every dog for miles around was killed.1 The sleeping garrison was awakened by the impetuous rush of the Americans. The British sprang to arms, but scarcely did they fire the first volley when the Americans were at their throats. A fierce encounter ensued, in which fifteen of Wayne's men and over sixty of the enemy were killed. But the British soon gave way, and the fort was surrendered. Washington did not, however, choose to hold the place against an attack that Clinton prepared to make. He ordered the fortifications destroyed and the prisoners, stores, and cannon removed to the Highlands, and Clinton was left to occupy the demolished works at his leisure. Now, with the mere mention of the bold dash of "Light Horse Harry" Lee upon the British fort at Paulus Hook, and his capture of one hundred and fifty-nine prisoners, the mutiny and desertion of thirteen hundred Pennsylvania troops, afterward pacified and sent back to the army, and a similar movement of the New Jersey troops which resulted in the execution of two of the ringleaders, we pass on to the most painful episode of the Revolution.

We have seen and admired the intrepid Arnold at Quebec and Saratoga. The wound he received at the latter place incapacitated him for a season; but by the time the British evacuated Philadelphia, in the spring of 1778, Arnold had recovered, and he was placed in command of the city. From this moment his downward course seems to have begun. He soon had a quarrel with the state government amid another with Congress. He was accused of extravagant living, and even of fraudulent transactions, and was censured for inviting lovalists to his entertainments. Arnold was a high-spirited, sensitive soul, and he chafed under public criticism. At length formal charges were brought against him. He demanded an investigation, which was granted, and he was acquitted by a committee of Congress. But the charges were renewed, other evidence was adduced, and at a second trial by a court-martial he was sentenced to a reprimand from the commander in chief for "imprudence." Washington was a true friend of Arnold, and he carried out the sentence in the mildest manner consistent with the dignity that the case required.

Up to this point our sympathies are with Arnold. We regret with his friends that he did not receive the promotion that was his due; we feel indignant at his enemies that they could so readily forget his noble service to his country, and pursue him with such hatred, when a rigorous court-martial, sitting for five weeks, could find him guilty of only a little imprudence we rejoice with his friends that Washington administered the reprimand so graciously as to show his confidence at the same moment. But here we must part companv with Benedict Arnold. Whatever his grievances, his means of revenge were altogether unwarranted and utterly to be condemned. His crime is one of the blackest in history. He sought to betray his country into the hands of its enemy, and to do this he must first betray the confidence of the one unswerving friend who had ever trusted him, -- the commander in chief.

At what time Arnold contemplated treason is not known, nor can it be proved that his beautiful loyalist wife, whom he had married in Philadelphia, had anything to do with his perfidy but it is quite possible that she unconsciously influenced him to take this step. His correspondence with Clinton, under an assumed name, began early in the spring of 1780, and in midsummer he received, at his own urgent request, the command of the powerful fortress of West Point, the gateway of the Hudson Valley. This he determined to hand over to the enemy, together with the great valley for which Burgoyne had fought and lost. No doubt Arnold believed that the possession of the Hudson, with the foothold the British had gained in the South, would speedily terminate the war in their favor, and that he would be the hero of the hour.

On a dark night in September, 1780, Benedict Arnold lay crouching beneath the trees on the bank of the Hudson a few miles below Stony Point, just outside the American lines. Presently the plash of oars from the dark, silent river broke the stillness, and a little boat bearing four men came to the shore. Two were ignorant oarsmen who knew not what they did, the third was the steersman, one Joshua Smith, who lived in the neighborhood, while the fourth was a young and handsome man who concealed beneath his great overcoat the brilliant uniform of a British officer.

The young man, Major John André, adjutant general of the British army, was put ashore, and he and Arnold, who had long been secret correspondents, spent the night in the dense darkness beneath the trees. Here the plot to place West Point into British hands was consummated; and at the coming of dawn André did not return, as at first intended, to the English sloop of war, the Vulture, which was lying in the river waiting for him, but accompanied Arnold to the house of Smith, the steersman, a few miles away. Arnold returned to West Point, and André waited his opportunity to reach the Vulture; but shore batteries began firing on her, and Smith refused to venture out in his little boat. At length it was decided that André return to New York by land.

It was a perilous journey, but the first part was made in safety. The lonely traveler was nearing Tarrytown and his hopes were rising, when suddenly three men with muskets sprang from the thicket, stood in his path, and ordered him to stop. One of the men wore a Hessian coat, and André, thinking them his countrymen, frankly informed them that he was a British officer. To his dismay he then discovered that the men were Americans and that he was under arrest.2 No offers of money, threats, nor entreaties could move the men, and André was disarmed and searched; and beneath his feet, within the soles of his stockings, were found important papers in the handwriting of Arnold.

The prisoner was taken up the river to Colonel Jameson, who, all unsuspicious of Arnold, decided to send André to him with an explanatory letter, while the papers found on André were sent to Washington, who had gone to Connecticut for a conference with Rochambeau. Before André under an escort had reached West Point, Jameson was persuaded to recall him. This was done, but the letter to Arnold was allowed to go on its way, and it was this letter that saved the traitor's life. Washington returned from Connecticut sooner than was expected. Near Fishkill he sat down to supper at an inn and chatted with the same Joshua Smith who had but the day before sent André down the river; and he sent to Arnold at the Robinson house near West Point, stating that he and his staff would be there for breakfast next morning.

In the morning, however, Washington sent Alexander Hamilton and others of his staff to take breakfast with Arnold, while he stopped to examine some redoubts. Arnold was annoyed at the near approach of Washington, but his countenance remained unperturbed. As they sat at the table a messenger entered and handed Arnold a letter. It was the one sent by Colonel Jameson stating that a British officer had been caught with certain papers in his possession, which had been forwarded to Washington. Arnold showed little emotion he quietly folded the paper and put it into his pocket without betraying to any of the company that there was anything wrong. He then rose and left the room, saying that he was suddenly called to West Point, but that he would soon be back to meet Washington.

The quick eye of his wife detected something wrong, and she followed him. Going to their bedroom, he informed her that he was ruined and must fly for his life. She swooned and fell fainting in his arms. Ha laid her across the bed, called a maid to care for her, kissed their sleeping babe, and a minute later was galloping toward the river.3 In a few hours he had boarded the British sloop of war, the Vulture, having protected himself from the American shore batteries with a white flag made of a handkerchief tied to a cane. The stupid blunder of Colonel Jameson had saved Arnold from the most ignominious death that can come to a soldier -- the death of the gallows.

"Arnold is a traitor, and has fled to the British! Whom can we trust now?" said Washington to his officers a few hours later, while the tears rolled down his cheeks. He soon recovered from his emotion and sent officers to intercept Arnold; but it was too late, and the following morning the traitor was safely landed in the city of New York. He received the price of his perfidy -- six thousand pounds sterling and a command in the British army.

André was duly tried by a court-martial of which General Greene was president, was convicted as a spy, and was sentenced to be hanged. Clinton exhausted every method in trying to save his brilliant young subordinate. It was intimated that in one way only could André be saved -- that he would be exchanged for Arnold. But this Clinton could not in honor consent to, and André was executed. Clinton had instructed André not to go within the Americans lines and not to carry compromising papers of any sort, but André disobeyed and did both, and the forfeit of his life was the penalty. His death was deplored on both sides of the Atlantic, but even British writers generally agree that the sentence was just and necessary. Andre died like a hero, calling on those about him to witness that he faced death without a tremor. We admire physical courage, especially in a soldier; yet how meaningless and insipid the final request of André when compared with the dying words of Nathan Hale.


1Fiske, Vol. II, p.112. [return]

2The names of these men were John Paulding, David Williarns, and Isaac Van Wert. Paulding alone could read. Each was rewarded by Congress with a silver medal and an annual pension of $200, and the name of each was given to a county in Ohio. Mr. S. G. Fisher in his "True History of the Revolution," asserts that these men were stragglers devoid of true patriotism, and that they held André only because they saw no way of his paying the large sum he offered for his release. André testified at the trial that the men, searched him for the purpose of robbing him. The matter was fully discussed in 1817, when Paulding, then an aged man, was denied an increased pension for which he had applied. See Sargent's "Life of Major André," p. 462. [return]

3See the fuller account of Fiske (Vol. II, p. 216 sq.) from which a number of these incidents have been taken. See also Winsor, VI, p.458 sq. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 296-301. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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