A Glimpse into the Mind of a French and Indian War Soldier: Lt. Col. Nathan Whiting, 2nd Connecticut Regiment, 1755

One of the most difficult tasks when researching the French and Indian War is uncovering primary sources that can answer the age-old question in military history: Why did men fight? What were their motives for answering the call and sustaining the struggle? What were their observations and opinions regarding the events that surrounded them?  

The letter included here in this post, written by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Whiting of the 2nd Connecticut Provincial Regiment to his wife on August 1, 1755, during the Crown Point Expedition in New York is a rarity. Not only is it filled with raw emotion, but it also highlights a soldier’s fears and concerns relating to news of the war elsewhere, as well as his hopes for the coming days and weeks. The most fascinating aspect, however, is how the letter closes with the precise reasons for why Whiting was fighting—Duty to himself, his country, and his God. The commonly cited theme of duty, honor, and country is a constant in why men fight and sustain. Even in the French and Indian War, a conflict that did not involve a fight for independence, to preserve the Union, or to free the world from oppression, Whiting’s motives were still consistent.

Here is his letter:     

My dearest wife,

I am here much Longer than I expected When I left you[.] Tis unhappy on many Accounts that we have delayed so long, but know not that it could be prevented. [W]e have orders now to March and . . . tis probable I shall not have opportunity to write you again till I get to the Carrying Place [the future site of Fort Edward along the Hudson River] I doubt your tender concern for me my dear will fill you with too many uneasy apprehensions & fears for my Safety Which I fear will be much increased upon hearing of the unhappy disaster of General [Edward] Braddock [at the battle of the Monongahela] but Let Not that trouble you my dear[.] God is my Safeguard and defense & I Trust has better things in store for his people than to give them all a prey Into the hands of their enemys—we are never more discouraged on Account of that defeat but Rather Animated with the greater Resolution to go on, we may have more enemys to encounter so that we may want more Strength, or our conquests will be more Glorious or our defeat less Shameful but the Latter I hope & believe Will Not be the Case. Pray make your Self as easy as possible I know your Dayly prayers are for my preservation Let it be an article of them that it not be obtained by any unworthy means, but in the prosecution of the Duty I owe at this time to my Self, my Country & my God.

            Whiting, a New Haven merchant and veteran of King George’s War, led the 2nd Connecticut Regiment with distinction at the battle of Lake George on September 8, 1755, the culmination of the British campaign to capture Fort Saint-Frédéric (Crown Point) along Lake Champlain. Another post highlighting that action can be found here.

Nathan Whiting

“This Sudden Expedition”: The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga – 246 Years Later

On this date in 1775, an early victory was secured for the American cause along the western shore of Lake Champlain in New York. Led by Colonel Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen, over eighty men surprised and overwhelmed Fort Ticonderoga’s garrison, capturing the strategic stronghold and much needed supplies and cannon for the Americans. On May 22, the Pennsylvania Packet reported on the news received from the north:

On Wednesday evening last arrived here, John Brown, Esq; from Ticonderoga, express to the General Congress, from whom we learn, that on the beginning of this instant, a company of about fifty men, from Connecticut, and the western part of Massachusetts, and joined by upwards of one hundred from Bennington, in New-York government, and the adjacent towns, proceeded to the eastern side of Lake Champlain, and on the night before the 11th current, crossed the Lake, with 85 men, (not being able to obtain craft to transport the rest,) and about daybreak invested the fort, whose gate, contrary to expectation, they found shut, but the wicker open, through which, with the Indian war whoop, all that could, entered one by one, others scaling the wall on both sides of the gate, and instantly secured and disarmed the sentries, and pressed into the parade, where they formed the hollow square;  but immediately quitting that order, they rushed into the several barracks on three sides of the fort, and seized on the garrison [commanded by Captain William Delaplace], consisting of two officers, and upwards of forty privates, whom they brought out, disarmed, put under guard, and have since sent prisoners to Hartford, in Connecticut. All this was performed in about ten minutes, without the loss of a life, or a drop of blood on our side, and but very little on that of the King’s troops.

In the fort were found about thirty barrels of flour, a few barrels of pork, seventy odd chests of leaden ball, computed at three hundred tons, about ten barrels of powder in bad condition, near two hundred pieces of ordnances of all sizes, from eighteen pounders downwards, at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, which last place, being held only by a corporal and eight men, falls of course into our hands.

By this sudden expedition, planned by some principal persons in the four neighboring colonies, that important pass is now in the hands of the Americans, where we trust the wisdom of the Grand Continental Congress, will take effectual measures to secure it….

The story of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga is as confusing as it is epic. Arnold, a Connecticut man, held a colonel’s commission to take the fort from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, but he rode ahead to be part of the action without the men he was ordered to raise for the expedition; and Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys of the Hampshire Grants were anti-New York and in search of their own glory after being asked to join a separately organized assault on the fort by Colonel Edward Mott sanctioned by Connecticut.

Ethan Allen demands the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga in this dramatized illustration. NYPL

The irony of all of this is that each plan formulated by those involved was done entirely without the advice or consent of New York, the very colony whose boundaries the fort was within. This occurred all during the commencement of the Second Continental Congress when New York was still weary of escalating hostilities with the King. Regardless of the awkward and unconcerted circumstances, it is undeniable that the fort’s capture helped secure victory for the Americans during the siege of Boston when fifty-eight pieces of ordnance were transported to assist General Washington in driving the British out of the city. Whether or not Allen heroically demanded Capt. Delaplace to surrender, “In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” as is remembered (he almost definitely did not), is an entirely different question.

“They Must Expect No Mercy”: Benedict Arnold’s Mohawk Valley Proclamation, August 1777

In August 1777, a British army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger surrounded and attempted to subdue American-held Fort Stanwix in New York’s Mohawk River Valley. “It is my determined resolution,” the garrison’s commander, Peter Gansvoort told St. Leger, “…to defend this fort and garrison to the last extremity.” Despite this resolve, the Americans desperately needed support in order for the siege to be lifted.

“A sketch of the siege of Fort Schuyler [Stanwix].New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Further east, help was approaching. Leading a column of over 800 men, Major General Benedict Arnold hastily made his way to Stanwix. By August 20, Arnold was at German Flatts (modern-day Herkimer, New York), roughly thirty miles away. From his headquarters he penned a proclamation directed towards the British, their Native American allies, and the region’s loyalist population.

The version of this proclamation below was republished in The Derby Mercury in Great Britain on November 14, 1777. It is a reminder, that before he donned the scarlet jacket of a British general, Arnold was a fiery Patriot devoted to the cause of liberty. Notice that a word or two describing King George III were censored out for publication:

By the Hon, BENEDICT ARNOLD, Esq; Major-General and Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States of America, on the Mohawk River.

            WHEREAS a certain Barry St. Leger, a Brigadier-General in the Service of — George of Great-Britain, at the Head of a Banditti of Robbers, Murderers, and Traitors, composed of Savages of America, and more Savage Britons, (among whom is a noted Sir John Johnson, John Butler, and Daniel Claus) have lately appeared in the Frontiers of this State, and have threatened Ruin and Destruction to all the Inhabitants of the United States. They have also, by Artifice and Misrepresentation, induced many of the ignorant and unwary Subjects of these States, to forfeit their Allegiance to the same, and join with them in their atrocious Crimes, and Parties of Treachery and Parricide.

            Humanity to those poor deluded Wretches, who are hastening blind-fold to Destruction, induces me to offer them, and all others concerned (whether Savages, Germans, Americans, or Britons) PARDON, provided they do, within ten Days from the Date hereof, come in and lay down their Arms, sue for Protection, and swear Allegiance to the United States of America.

            But if still blind to their own Interest and Safety, they obstinately persist in their wicked Courses, determined to draw on themselves the first Vengeance of Heaven, and of this exasperated Country, they must expect no Mercy from either.

B. Arnold, M. G.

Given under my Hand, Head Quarters, German Flats, 20th August, 1777

Lee’s Plight at the Widow White’s: The Capture of Major General Charles Lee, December 12–13, 1776 – 244 Years Later

December 1776 was one of the darkest months in American history. The American Revolution was on the brink of collapse. New York City had fallen, George Washington’s Continental Army was disintegrating before the country’s eyes, and the British Army under Sir William Howe was steamrolling its way across New Jersey toward the Delaware River—the only barrier preventing Howe from squeezing the life out of the rebellion.

Following the fall of Forts Lee and Washington along the Hudson River the previous month, the Continental Army fled from the British in two major wings. Washington, commanding just 3,000 men, hastily made his way across the northern part of New Jersey in an attempt to get over the Delaware and into Pennsylvania. Major General Charles Lee, who the commander in chief described as, “The first officer in Military knowledge and experience we have in the whole army….,” commanded the other wing—7,000 men at White Plains situated above New York City in case Howe attempted to head north. Lee was eccentric and erratic, but was by far the American commander with the most military experience and knowledge at this early stage in the conflict, as Washington had admitted. This could not, however, protect Lee from the enemy.

Major General Charles Lee (1732-1782), the Continental Army’s second in command. New York Public Library Digital Collections

On multiple occasions at the end of November and in early December, Washington asked, requested, and then ordered Lee to bring his command into Pennsylvania so the army may be reunited. Lee hesitated, drug his feet, and then began to grow fond of the idea of having his own independent command in New Jersey away from the reigns of his superior, whose abilities he doubted. While Washington waited, Lee wrote to Congress on December 8 that he planned to stay east of the Delaware River and “annoy, distract, and consequently weaken [the British] in a desultory war.” On December 10, his command marched into Morristown, New Jersey, and two days later moved south west to Bernardsville. It was here, that Lee decided to search for more suitable conditions for a general to make his headquarters for the evening. He found what he was looking for three miles to the east in Basking Ridge at the two-story Widow White’s Tavern. With him, he took his aide, Major William Bradford, two French volunteer officers, and fifteen guards who situated themselves around the building. That evening, Major James Wilkinson, General Horatio Gates’s aide, rode to White’s Tavern with a dispatch for Lee from his superior.

The Widow White’s Tavern, Basking Ridge, NJ.

While Lee and his party got themselves comfortable that night, British dragoons were galloping about Central Jersey trying to find out all they could about Lee’s command’s whereabouts. Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt, 22 year old Cornet Banastre Tarleton, and thirty or more horsemen of the 16th Dragoons had left General Charles Cornwallis’s headquarters at Pennington earlier in the day and rode willy-nilly to Hillsborough on their intelligence gathering mission without any success. They made their camp there in a house that was lit on fire in the middle of the night, forcing them to make a hasty escape and sleep within a hay barn. Early the next morning, they mounted up and continued on their task. Tarleton and several other dragoons were sent ahead of the rest of the group.

As the sun rose, the two groups headed in the direction of Morristown, scooping up several rebels along the way, but only receiving sketchy information about the enemy’s location. Near Basking Ridge, their luck changed as a rider from Gen. Sullivan was intercepted who had just returned from Lee’s headquarters. He led Tarleton and Harcourt within sight of White’s Tavern. Harcourt quickly formulated his plan of action—Lee was there, and he was going to capture this grand prize. Young Tarleton was ordered to rush the guards at the front of the structure, while he took his party around the back to surround and cut off their escape. It was 10 a.m.

As the dragoons prepared to make their attack, Lee was still inside White’s Tavern. Even though his command had begun to march out of Bernardsville, he chose to stay behind and finish breakfast and dictating a response to Wilkinson for Gates. His response was a clear shot at Washington: “… entre nous [between us], a certain great man is damnably deficient—He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties—if I stay in this Province [New Jersey] I risk myself and army and if I do not stay the Province is lost forever … unless something which I do not expect turns up we are lost—our counsels have been weak to the last degree….” Lee had no idea of the risk he was actually facing at that moment.

Shots rang out from outside after Lee finished his message. Tarleton and his dragoons swept out through the woods and violently fell upon the general’s guard. “I went on at full Speed,” Tarleton later recounted, “when perceiving 2 [guards] at a Door and a loaded Waggon; I push’d at them making all the Noise I cou’d. The [guards] were struck with a Panic, dropp’d their arms and fled. I order’d my Men to fire into the House thro’ every Window and Door, and cut up as many of the Guard as they cou’d.” Within minutes the fire ceased and the cornet demanded Lee and everyone inside the tavern to surrender or he set fire to it and kill them all. Lee was upstairs during the fighting hoping and watching for reinforcements. They would not come. Recognizing the inevitable, he sent Maj. Bradford outside to inform Tarleton that he would surrender.

The Capture of General Lee in Basking Ridge, NJ. NYPL

In the wake of the skirmish, Bradford, Wilkinson, and one of the Frenchmen managed to make their escape. Lee, however, would not be so fortunate. After surrendering himself to Harcourt, he was taken back to Pennington, sent to New Brunswick, and eventually to New York City for confinement. He would not be paroled and returned to the Continental Army for nearly sixteen months. The American army and the status of its cause for independence which it fought and bled for would be much different then.  

Marker at the Site of Widow White’s Tavern at the intersection of South Finley Avenue and Colonial Drive, Basking Ridge, NJ. The Historical Marker Database. http://www.hmdb.org.

Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later – The Execution of Major Andre (October 2, 1780)

Over a week had passed since Major John Andre became the Continental Army’s prisoner near Tarrytown, New York, captured by three ragged militiamen who were probably more interested in robbing him than uncovering his intentions. For a time he had been incarcerated at Robinson House, the now defector Benedict Arnold’s former Hudson Highlands headquarters, and was eventually taken to the main American camp at Tappan, New York. There, Andre awaited his trial as a spy and eventual fate.  

During his time held as a prisoner in Tappan, Andre accumulated an impressive group of intrigued and sympathetic followers, including Alexander Hamilton. Later describing his impression of the British officer to Colonel John Laurens, Hamilton wrote,

There was something singularly interesting in the character and fortunes of André. To an excellent understanding well improved by education and travel, he united a peculiar elegance of mind and manners, and the advantage of a pleasing person. ’Tis said he possessed a pretty taste for the fine arts, and had himself attained some proficiency in poe[try], music and painting. His knowle[d]ge appeared without ostentation, and embellished by a diffidence, that rarely accompanies so many talents and accomplishments, which left you to suppose more than appeared. His sentiments were elevated and inspired esteem. They had a softness that conciliated affection. His elocution was handsome; his address easy, polite and insinuating.[1]

Andre’s “elegance of mind and manner” was not enough to save him from the gallows, however, and on September 29, 1780, he was sentenced to be hanged by a board of fourteen American general officers. No witnesses were called to the stand. Andre’s previously written confession, and his admission that he had not entered American lines under a flag of truce was enough for the decision to be made. The next day, a letter was forwarded by George Washington to Henry Clinton informing him of his adjutant-general’s fate. He would be spared, however, if the British turned over Arnold. Clinton was forced to decline the ultimatum, citing military policy to his subordinates that a deserter such as Arnold must be protected. It was probably one of the most difficult responses the British general had to give in his career.

Andre’s execution was set to be carried out at 5 p.m. on October 1, but news of a delegation’s arrival sent by Clinton to make one final effort to prevent the hanging postponed it. One of the delegates, General James Robertson, met with General Nathanael Greene, and further information about Andre’s mission was forwarded to Washington. The American commander in chief would not be swayed, however. Andre would hang the next day.

This self-portrait was drawn by Andre, October 1, 1780, while he awaited his execution in Tappan, NY the next day. Wikimedia.

After first learning of the verdict issued to him by the board, Andre accepted his fate and was determined that he would face it as a gentleman and a soldier. As part of his last order of business on earth, he penned a heartfelt letter of appreciation and loyalty to Henry Clinton. Then, he made a plea to Washington that he may be executed by firing squad like a soldier rather than hanged as a spy:

Bouy[e]d 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 towards a soldier will surely induce your Excellency, and the military tribunal, to adapt 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.[2]

Andre’s request was ignored. At 12 p.m., October 2, he would hang.

The morning of his execution, Andre breakfasted at Washington’s table, and as noon approached, he was led by an escort and fife and drum to the gallows, “with as much ease and cheerfulness of countenance as if he had been going to an assembly,” recalled Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who had become an admirer of the prisoner like Hamilton.[3] He was dressed in his scarlet, gold-laced coat, and upon approaching the gallows was seen to lean back for a brief moment as if in shock to learn that his request to Washington for a military execution had been denied.  

Despite this cold revelation, Andre continued on to the gallows. After struggling at first to climb the cart below the rope, he mounted it, and from the executioner’s grasp he took the noose and tied it around his own neck, then he covered his eyes with a handkerchief. The crowd surrounding him, including Maj. Tallmadge, was seen teary-eyed and sobbing. It was one more dramatic scene in the Revolutionary War, and Andre would not make it easier for anyone to witness. Lifting the blindfold, he spoke his final words, a request: “All I request of you, gentlemen, is that you will bear witness to the world that I die like a brave man.” With that, the wagon was pulled out from beneath his feet, and with one great swing and several fleeting moments, he was gone.

The Execution of Major Andre, October 2, 1780. New York Public Library.

Major Andre’s fate was a tragedy within a tragedy. Caught up within the story of an American hero’s tragic descent towards treason, Andre became a victim of one of the darkest tales in our history. Unlike Benedict Arnold, however, whose legacy had been tarnished forever, Andre was remembered as a hero, a martyr even, by the British, and romanticized by many Americans alike. Regardless, the two men will forever be linked by history. Two-hundred and forty years later, that has not changed.    

[1] From Alexander Hamilton to Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, [11 October 1780], Founders Online, National Archives, accessed 1 October 2020,  https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0896.

[2] Charles Inglis, The case of Major John Andre, adjutant-general to the British Army, who was put to death by the rebels, October 2, 1780, candidly represented: with remarks on the said case (New York, 1780), 26, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N13232.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.  

[3] Quoted in Stephen Brumwell, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 293.

Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later – Arnold’s Escape, Peggy’s Hysteria (September 25, 1780)

Two riders rode determinedly to Benedict Arnold’s headquarters at the Robinson House across the Hudson River from West Point on the morning of September 25, 1780. The lead courier, Lt. Allen, who had initially been accompanying the captured “John Anderson,” carried with him the letters written by Lt. Col. Jameson informing Arnold of Maj. John Andre’s capture and his subsequent retrieval and return to the American camp at South Salem; the second rider possessed the incriminating papers found on Andre relating to West Point, as well as a newly signed confession the British officer had penned the day before admitting who he was. The second set of documents was meant for George Washington, who was to arrive at Robinson House to meet with Arnold and inspect the fortifications that day. It was a race against time between the two horsemen, and Arnold’s rider had the lead.

Washington was due to arrive at Robinson House for breakfast with Benedict and Peggy Arnold, but he chose to take a quick detour and inspect several American redoubts before continuing on his path from Fishkill, New York, where he had spent the evening. Instead, two of his aides, James McHenry and Samuel Shaw, were sent ahead to inform the couple to begin breakfast without him. Upon their arrival, the men sat down with the general to eat, informing him that the commander in chief would be there shortly. During this, Peggy remained upstairs.

After a few moments, Arnold excused himself from the table and stepped away to issue some daily orders. It was at this time when the walls of Benedict Arnold’s world began to close in on him. Lieutenant Allen had arrived with the news of Andre’s capture and transfer to the American camp at South Salem. The letter from Jameson also informed Arnold that the dispatches Andre carried were forwarded to Washington. If his treasonous plot had not yet been discovered, it was only a matter of time before it was. McHenry and Shaw had shown no signs of suspicion, but did Washington already know?  

As the reality of the situation overtook Arnold, he ordered his horse saddled and his boat’s crew to man the vessel below on the Hudson, and told one of his aides, David Franks, that he was travelling upriver to West Point and would be back shortly—he was preparing to make a hasty escape. Before leaving Robinson House, he quickly found Peggy and explained to her that his life was in danger and he needed to leave (if Peggy was truly part of the plot, then what was actually said will probably never be known and was left out of later recollections to avoid incriminating her as well), he then mounted and spurred his horse down toward the river. After entering his barge, he ordered the crew to take him downriver to Stony Point, where he had business to attend to. As the vessel began to sail, an armed American boat passed closely by, and the quick-thinking Arnold told its crew to go up to Robinson House and inform Washington when he arrived that he would be back before dinner. They continued south, and even outran the other craft when it turned around and began to follow them in the other direction.

Arnold’s escape to the Vulture

When Arnold’s crew finally reached Stony Point, his request of them changed dramatically. Offering up two gallons of rum, he ordered his boatmen to carry him further downriver to the enemy vessel Vulture, which was originally supposed to carry Andre to the British lines. Instead, Arnold would be the one who boarded the boat and made his way to New York City, in the process taking the Americans who had just sailed him to safety as prisoners. Arnold’s defection was complete, but his plot to turn over West Point had been foiled.

An hour so after Arnold made his escape, Washington arrived at Robinson House. The commander in chief made his way across the river and was disgusted by the condition of the American defenses. The absence of Arnold perplexed him, but he did not think anything of it until he and his subordinates returned to the general’s headquarters and were greeted by the arrival of the second messenger carrying the Andre documents. Arnold’s treachery was thus revealed to the American high command, and immediately Washington ordered several aides to move downriver and see if the traitor’s vessel had been held up. It was too late, however. Arnold was gone, and as the reality of his betrayal began to set in for Washington (who had always been one of Arnold’s most ardent supporters) the general turned to the Marquis de Lafayette and asked him, “Whom can we trust now?”

Although Arnold had beat a hasty retreat to New York City, Peggy still remained behind at Robinson House. From the Vulture’s deck, her husband had scribbled off a message to Washington pleading with him for her safety and declaring her ignorance to the entire scheme. There are many versions of what transpired next, but according to the American officers at Robinson House, Peggy Arnold broke down in hysterics, seemingly going mad at the news of her husband’s treason. According to Col. Richard Varick, one of Arnold’s aides who was recovering from a fever in the house, a shriek was heard and the staff officer found Peggy with her hair “disheveled and flowing about her neck; [in] her morning gown with few other clothes remain[ing] on her—too few to be seen even by a gentleman of the family, much less by many strangers.” She then proceeded to ask if he had ordered her child to be killed and to “spare her innocent babe.”[1]  

Pencil drawing of Peggy Shippen done by then Capt. John Andre during the British occupation of Philadelphia

It has been long debated if this was a genuine outburst of hysteria for Peggy, or if she was putting on a show to shield her own involvement in the plot. Multiple times Peggy was calmed down by the American officers arriving at the house, but her outbursts commenced again. Screaming about her husband, she was assured that he would return soon from West Point with Gen. Washington. Pointing to the ceiling she cried, “the spirits have carried [him] up there, they have put hot irons in his head!”[2] Then the hot iron went from Arnold’s head to her own and only Washington could remove it. With this, the general was brought in to see and she accused him of being an imposter. Peggy’s frenzy continued into the early evening when finally she regained control of herself and but still felt the despair of what had happened that day. If this was all a ploy, she had forced Washington, Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, Varick, and countless to fall hook, line, and sinker for it. She was safe.

That evening, Washington and those who accompanied him sat down for dinner and pondered the gravity of the situation. It is impossible to image the anger, betrayal, despair, and heaviness that they must have felt. The American Hannibal was now the American Judas.

“Arnold has betrayed us. Whom can we trust now?”

[1] Quoted in Stephen Brumwell, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2018), 278.

[2] Ibid.

Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later – The Capture of Major Andre (September 23, 1780)

Major Andre cautiously rode his horse through unfamiliar territory between American and British lines. It was a neutral zone wreathing with unforgiving bands of Cowboys and Skinners, but ground that Andre, garbed in civilian clothing, needed to cross in order to return to New York City. He had experienced several close brushes with American posts, and his guide, Joshua Smith, rather than risking any run-ins with Tories, had decided to turn around when they were some twenty miles from British lines. Andre was on his own for the final leg of the journey. All seemed to be going well until he arrived just outside of Tarrytown and three men with leveled muskets emerged from the bushes astride the path.

The capture of Major Andre during the morning of September 23, 1780 was the moment that Benedict Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point to the British officially unraveled, saving the garrison, the Hudson River, and potentially the revolutionary cause for the Americans. It was a moment that was entirely avoidable had Smith agreed to carry Andre back to the Vulture downriver rather than insisting on taking the overland route and subsequently abandoning the officer to the mercy of whatever lay between the opposing lines. Unfortunately, for Andre, his fate would be determined by a group of “volunteer militiamen,” but most likely crooked highwaymen.

The meeting exchange that occurred between the British intelligence chief and the armed men blocking his path proved to be the most costly of the latter’s short life. Seeing that one of the militiamen was dressed in the green jacket of a Hessian jaeger, Andre incorrectly assumed that they belonged to his side, or the “lower party,” as he had asked them. The man, John Paulding, duped Andre, and answered in the affirmative. Relieved, the major revealed to them that he was in fact a British officer. Paulding then informed him that they were Americans, and after Andre handed him a pass written by Arnold, he threw it aside and began searching the rider, taking the valuables he carried with him. All this could have been ignored by Andre if they had then let him continue on to New York City, but the greedy militiamen then proceeded to remove the fine boots of a British officer he was wearing, and then his socks. What he was hiding underneath would be the evidence eventually needed to incriminate him and Arnold: documents relating to West Point and its defenses. The ragtag party of Americans had just nabbed themselves a spy.

A 19th century depiction of Andre’s capture. Library of Congress.

Following his capture, Andre was taken to the Continental camp at North Castle and turned over to Lt. Col. John Jameson of the 3rd Continental Dragoons, who examined the dispatches. Seeing Arnold’s name on the papers, Jameson was not about to accuse an American hero of conspiring with the enemy. Instead, he sent Andre with an escort back to Arnold’s camp and scribbled off a message to the general: “I have sent Lieutenant Allen with a certain John Anderson [Andre’s moniker] taken going to New York. He had a pass signed with your name. He had a parcel of papers taken from under his stockings, which I think of a very dangerous tendency … The papers I have sent to General Washington.”[1] It was only a matter of time before Arnold realized that his plot was about to be discovered.

Andre, however, would never make it back to Arnold’s headquarters. Later that day, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s chief intelligence officer and famed leader of the “Culper Ring,” arrived in Jameson’s camp and after learning of the man carrying suspicious documents, convinced the lieutenant colonel to return the suspect to camp.

Riding back to Arnold with Lt. Allen, Andre must have felt relieved that he had dodged another bullet. Much to his dismay, the next day he would be turned around and delivered to Maj. Tallmadge, where his fate as a spy would be decided.

[1] Quoted in Stephen Brumwell, Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 269.  

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.

Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later – August 30, 1780

On August 30, 1780, Benedict Arnold fully committed to treason by accepting the final terms presented by Sir Henry Clinton regarding the plot to turn over the fortifications at West Point to the British. Arnold’s reply to a letter written on July 24 by Clinton’s adjutant-general and chief intelligence officer, Major John Andre, was the result of over a year’s worth of on and off negotiations between the two parties. At times it had appeared to Clinton and Andre that Arnold’s defection would not be as useful as they had hoped. The American general could not obtain a field command and could only offer intelligence that was of little value or already known. However, when Arnold assumed command of the fortifications in the Hudson Highlands, including West Point, in early August, the possibility of using his services to strike a crushing blow to the American cause became a reality.

Maj. John Andre. http://www.westminster-abbey.org

The first mention of West Point in the correspondence between Arnold and Andre appeared in a letter written by the latter in late July 1779. Andre had inquired about the “procuring of an accurate plan,” of the post. Arnold, still serving as military governor of Philadelphia and away from Continental Army headquarters, was unable to answer this request. The following month, discussions began to stall and it would not be until the next year when the prospect of Arnold obtaining command of the Hudson Highland forts reinvigorated negotiations. By this time, it was far too late for Arnold to back out. The British high command had enough correspondence and gathered intelligence from the “American Hannibal” to expose him as a traitor. Arnold knew this as well, which is why his terms for defecting and surrendering a large body of American troops and/or West Point hinged on Clinton promising him financial and personal security for himself and his new family (Peggy had given birth to their first son, Edward, in March 1780).

On July 24, 1780, Maj. Andre penned a letter to Arnold informing him that Gen. Clinton had agreed to his terms of a payment of £20,000 in exchange for the surrender of 3,000 men and the West Point fortifications. If he should be unable to accomplish this task, £10,000 was still offered for his efforts. The message did not arrive until a month later, but Arnold responded six days later under the alias “Gustavus,” and requested to set up a meeting in the near future with Andre. The dispatch never made it to the British. The courier tasked with delivering it grew suspicious of its content and instead carried it to Maj. Gen. Samuel Parsons, his neighbor, on September 10. Parsons did not believe that the letter was anything to be concerned with, since it referred only to a Mr. Moore (Arnold) and Anderson (Andre) and such topics as market goods and speculators. The message was, of course, coded. Arnold had unknowingly dodged a major bullet.

Although his August 30 correspondence did not reach the British in New York City, Arnold scribbled out another message on September 3. This time, the letter was successfully delivered by Mary McCarthy, the wife of an escaped, but recaptured member of Saratoga’s “Convention Army,” Private Charles McCarthy, 9th Regiment of Foot.

Benedict Arnold, at one point the most famous hero of America’s revolutionary war, had officially entered his treasonous plot to turn over West Point and its garrison and defect to the British into its final stage. A little over three weeks later he would meet with Maj. Andre fifteen miles south of West Point near Haverstraw, New York.


Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later

This is the first part of what will be a running series that will highlight the 240th anniversary of the events surrounding Benedict Arnold’s treason.

The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason during the Revolutionary War is one of the most infamous, yet tragic, in our nation’s history. He was the “American Hannibal,” the most brilliant battlefield commander during the conflict’s early stages. His patriotism, sacrifice, and commitment to the cause of independence were matched by few in the American high command, so too were his battle honors. Fort Ticonderoga, Quebec, Valcour Island, Ridgefield, the relief of Fort Stanwix, and the battles of Saratoga—he was always in the thick of things.

Benedict Arnold
Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. Wikimedia.

Arnold’s treason was not something that was pre-determined. His ultimate defection to the British in 1780 was a result of many factors that continued to pile up as the war progressed, but it can be rooted in a long-running feeling of being underappreciated and a growing distrust in America’s political leaders.

Following his grievous leg wound at Saratoga on October 7, 1777, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia, never to command American troops on the battlefield again. While stationed there, his downward spiral towards treason began to accelerate. An open feud with Joseph Reed and Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council led to a court martial and reprimand from George Washington, something beyond correction for a man with the personal honor of Benedict Arnold. The slippery slope became even more slippery. Continue reading “Arnold’s Treason: 240 Years Later”