So, very exciting — I found the exact site where the American traitor Benedict Arnold met the British Major John Andre to negotiate the surrender of West Point. Honestly, it shouldn’t have been that hard — if I’d only walked five more minutes up the trail the other day, PAST the switchbacked Treason Trail, I would have come upon this sign. But no matter — here it is. Now I can start planning a midnight re-creation of Andre’s rowboat trip from the HMS Vulture to the Rockland shore . . . Check back here in September.
I thought today was a good day to post about treason, because we’ve been throwing this word around a lot. However, I wonder how much we really understand what it means. So let’s talk treason and why Benedict Arnold’s name is still synonymous with it.
First, I think we all need to start on the same page when it comes to a definition of treason, and what better page than the Oxford English Dictionary? They define “High Treason” as “Violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or his state.” I think we can all agree that this means doing something that knowingly harms your country. So what did Benedict Arnold do? Read on, MacDuff . . .
Come back to the Revolutionary War with me, back to 1741 when the aforementioned Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut to a fairly wealthy, well-connected family. Private school and Yale were in the cards for him, but for his father’s drinking problem and business failures. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his engrossing historical novel, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, describes Benedict thusly:
He was short, solidly built (one acquaintance remembered that “there wasn’t any wasted timber in him”), and blessed with almost superhuman energy and endurance. He was handsome and charismatic, with black hair, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose, and carried himself with the lissome elegance of a natural athlete. A neighbor from Connecticut remembered that Benedict Arnold was “the most accomplished and graceful skater” he had ever seen.
First, may I recommend Mr. Philbrick’s book as an engaging, informative read about a complex, challenging and difficult man? To say Benedict Arnold was just a traitor not only oversimplifies the story, it also de-fangs it of some of its potency. Valiant Ambition gives a nuanced, in-depth look at what caused Arnold to do what he did, without excusing or defending him. Go read it.
I personally was surprised to learn what a courageous and successful general Arnold had been. George Washington thought him one of his most reliable officers in the Continental Army. Combining daring, skill and audacity, Benedict Arnold notched up significant triumphs over the British in battles such as Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Ridgefield, just to name a few. (Of course, he could also be accused of losing far too many of his men due to his risky strategies, an accusation that could also be levied against George Washington in the early years of the Revolution.)
Arnold was wounded badly several times — in one battle having two horses shot out from under him in as many days — and at one point John Adams suggested that the Continental Congress have a medal struck in Arnold’s honor to acknowledge his bravery and sacrifices for the Patriots’ cause.
But Arnold’s personality contained an arrogance and sense of entitlement that caused him to feel keenly any perceived slight or lack of respect. Perhaps it was his rather Dickensian childhood that fueled his zeal for money, accolades and flattery. Dogging his career were ongoing rumblings of war profiteering, the proceeds of which he used to finance a wildly extravagant lifestyle. Combine this with an increasing bitterness on his part for not being promoted as quickly as he felt he should have been, and you have the recipe for a traitor.
Around June of 1779, Benedict Arnold’s profiteering caught up with him, and a court martial was begun. In January of 1780, he was acquitted of all but two of the most minor charges. His punishment, it seems, was just a snarky letter from General Washington expressing his disappointment in Benedict’s “imprudent and improper” actions. Washington went on to give Arnold command of West Point almost as a consolation prize. Pretty light punishment I’d say, but it just served to wind Benedict up. By July of 1780 he was giving the British classified military information.
At last, let’s talk about that fateful night of September 22, 1780, shall we? West Point, which was just a fort then, not the famed military academy it is today, was key to the British strategy of splitting the colonies and ending their troublesome revolution. For several months, bitter, lame and juggling creditors, Arnold had been secretly corresponding with Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Service in America and Adjutant General to General Henry Clinton, hatching a plot to turn West Point over to the British in exchange for L20,000. (It should be mentioned here that Major Andre had briefly courted Arnold’s young, Loyalist second wife, the lovely Peggy Shippen, and continued corresponding with her after she married Arnold. She seems to have played a major role in connecting the two men.)
One of my favorite details about Arnold’s correspondence with Andre is that not only was it written in code AND invisible ink, but they used noms de guerre — Arnold was Gustavus and Andre was John Anderson.) Because of the uncertainty as to Gustavus’ actual identity, General Clinton insisted that Major Andre have a face to face meeting with this mysterious double agent before any deal was finalized.
After several missed connections with Arnold, Major Andre went up the Hudson River in the British sloop the HMS Vulture, which anchored right off Teller’s Point (aka Croton Point.) Two young patriots, Jack Peterson and George Sherwood, spied it and began shooting at it with their muskets. See this plaque commemorating their heroism that can be still found at Croton Point Park:
They ran out of ammunition, and headed off the Fort Lafayette in Verplanck to secure more. During the lull, Joshua Hett Smith and two oarsmen, commissioned by Arnold, silently rowed up to the Vulture to take Major Andre to the appointed meeting place. All three maintained they had no idea they were being used in service of treason, having only been told that Arnold was gathering intelligence about the British strategy.
So it was right here, on the west bank of the Hudson River, right in this very forest that Major Andre and Benedict Arnold negotiated the price and logistics of Arnold’s treason: For 20,000 British pounds sterling (which is over $3 million in today’s dollars), Arnold was not only going to give the British the plans to West Point, but, as its commander, he was also going to make sure that the majority of the fighting men weren’t there when the British made their assault. Even worse, George Washington had just indicated his plan to inspect West Point in the coming days, and Arnold was ready to sacrifice Washington as well.
As the night began to turn to day, Joshua Hett Smith became increasingly anxious about the tide and the light and feasibility of rowing Andre back to the Vulture without being seen. Arnold had anticipated that his negotiations would take time, and had arrived with two horses. He and Andre rode them the few miles back to Smith’s house and continued negotiating. Smith and oarsmen, I guess, retreated upstream to stow their boat.
Here’s an old photo of the so-called “Treason House” — it was demolished in the 1920s and the Helen Hayes Hospital sits on this site today:
However, soon after sunrise, our friends Jack Peterson and George Sherwood returned to Croton Point Park with a cannon and began shelling the Vulture. Seeing no sign of Andre, the sloop retreated down the Hudson, back to the British line. Andre is said to have watched in horror from an upstairs window in Smith’s house as he saw the boat disappear, leaving him alone behind enemy lines in his telltale red coat.
Arnold was unruffled, giving Andre a change of clothes, a passport, and instructions to hide the plans to West Point in his stockings. Joshua Hett Smith, the most oblivious man in history, was tasked with accompanying Andre back down to the British lines. They rode up what is now 9W to King’s Ferry, took said ferry across the Hudson to Verplanck, and rode down towards Tarrytown. Smith left Andre at the bridge in Croton, near Van Cortlandt manor, which was the southern border of the American lines at the time. Andre continued south until he was captured by “three honest militiamen” named John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams. Andre was frisked, the plans found, his disguise unmasked and he was hanged as a spy three days later in Tappan, NY.
And Arnold? Well, he had hotfooted it back to his house, and on September 23rd was waiting to breakfast with George Washington in advance of the General’s inspection of West Point. Right before Washington’s arrival, Arnold learned that Andre had been captured. He told his wife Peggy the gig was up, promised he’d send for her and their infant son, then dashed to the shore to be rowed down the Hudson to the Vulture. Peggy, upon Washington’s arrival, created a scene that both detained Washington and convinced him of her instability (and thus, the unlikelihood that she would have been involved with the plot of which Washington was soon to learn.)
The Arnolds eventually escaped to England, and despite the fact that Peggy was presented to the court and received a token of the Crown’s appreciation, to the tune of 100 pounds sterling per annum, the couple found themselves to be personae non gratae there. They moved to Canada, where Benedict continued his downward spiral with bad business deals and petty lawsuits. Finally, they returned to London where he fought duels to protect what honor he had left, and possibly spied for the British during the French Revolution. He died London, deep in debt, in 1801 and is buried there.
For a country that generally has a short historical memory, Benedict Arnold’s treachery lives on. In 1865, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon equating Arnold with Jefferson Davis, depicting them sharing a “treason toddy” in Hell.
To this day, Benedict Arnold’s name is one of the more recognizable ones from the Revolutionary War years. While we may not all remember the details of his treachery, we all seem to know that his name is synonymous with treason — which, according to Article III, section 3 of the US Constitution is defined as “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”