Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later – “The Tempter and the Traitor” (September 22, 1780)

It was a meeting that decided the fates of Benedict Arnold and John Andre. Not necessarily because of what had been discussed, but because of the unraveling circumstances surrounding it. Within several days, Arnold would be fleeing his once beloved country’s cause to the safety of the British lines in New York City, and in less than two weeks, Andre, not as lucky, would be dead.

Not long after 1 a.m., September 22, 1780, Major Andre was rowed ashore near Haverstraw, New York, less than twenty miles below West Point. There, for several hours in the dark woods aside the Hudson River, he conversed with Arnold in a rendezvous that had been over a year in the making. His orders from Sir Henry Clinton stipulated that he was to confirm with Arnold “the manner in which he was to surrender himself, the forts, and troops…,” so the operation against West Point could be “conducted under a concerted plan between us … that the King’s troops sent upon this expedition should be under no risk of surprise or counter-plot.”[1] The British would attack the fortifications, and overwhelmed by superior numbers, Arnold would surrender the garrison and the river defenses.

“The Tempter and the Traitor.” Arnold and Andre’s Meeting near Haverstraw, NY. New York Public Library.

It is possible that another prize was discussed between the two men: the capture of George Washington. The American commander in chief was due to arrive to inspect the post on September 25 after meeting with the French high command at Hartford, Connecticut. Capturing West Point, as well as bagging Washington could spell an end to the rebellion once and for all.

After several hours, the meeting came to an end as daylight loomed. Waiting to procure some men to row Andre back to the Vulture, the vessel that was to return him to his own side, Arnold took the major to a house within the American lines. Everything seemed to be in order for the operation to be successfully executed now. That was until Continental artillery on the shore was directed by Col. James Livingston to open fire on the Vulture, forcing the craft to flee several miles downriver. Andre’s transportation back to New York City had been compromised. Though they did not know it yet, the plot to surrender West Point officially began to unravel. Arnold was now forced to send Andre back to British lines via an overland route through hostile territory.

[1] Quoted in Stephen Brumwell, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2018), 264.

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