Select Page

20 QCAHMP Benedict Arnold and the 25th of September

20 QCAHMP Benedict Arnold and the 25th of September

Was there a consequence for Benedict Arnold’s egregious behavior in Philadelphia? How did the Great Chain that we learned about in a previous episode factor into Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point to the British? What were the dramatic events that took place on that fateful day in September, 1780.

Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of his country is well known. What is more interesting, perhaps, is the time immediately preceding what he anticipated to be the surrender West Point to the British, as well as what happened as the plan began to unravel.

I concluded the previous podcast by referencing Benedict Arnold’s plundering of confiscated goods from those living in Philadelphia, transporting the goods using Continental wagons, and smuggling the goods to New York to be sold on the black market.

Arnold’s lavish lifestyle and questionable practices eventually brought him under the scrutiny of the Supreme Executive Council of Philadelphia. His poor treatment of those who transported the confiscated goods to the harbor and others who altered records to protect him, led to their cooperation in the Counsel’s investigation.

After the investigation by the Council in Philadelphia , the Congress took up the matter under court martial proceedings. The matter dragged on for almost a year. In the end, Arnold was convicted of several counts originally identified by the Council in Philadelphia.  Congress also demanded he repay funds given to him for which he had no records, and that only increased Arnold’s ever mounting mountain of debt.

What were the consequences for Arnold’s bad behavior? Jail? Return of the profits from the sale of the goods which rightly belonged in the Continental coffers? No, he was sentenced (to use the term lightly) to receive a reprimanded from George Washington!

While the resulting reprimand was but a slap on the wrist, it was no doubt a tremendous blow to a narcissist such as Arnold. Whether that was the tipping point in his decision to betray his country, I can only speculate. However, it would seem to be a heavily contributing factor. Add to that the financial pressure resulting from his marriage to Peggy Shippen, in April of 1779, and Arnold may have been more than ready to “jump ship” as they say, and Peggy, who most likely was a loyalist at heart, was only too willing to help him do so. Arnold had resigned his commission in Philadelphia shortly before his marriage to Peggy ostensibly to focus solely on forcing the matter to trial in order to clear his name. However, shortly after his marriage, Arnold contacted Joseph Stansbury.

Stansbury, who was born in England, was a merchant who lived in Philadelphia. During the British occupation, he served as  the commander of the watch. Despite his clearly loyalist leanings, he remained in Philadelphia after the British left the city.

Although there is no written record as to why Arnold chose to contact Stansbury, it is possible that Peggy Shippen would have been well aware because of her social connections that he transported letters from young ladies in Philadelphia to British soldiers who had left the city. She also knew that her former suitor, John Andre had become the British Chief of Intelligence.  Stansbury used the help of Reverend Jonathan Odell to make contact with John Andre. It was Odell was who deciphered many of the letters that were exchanged between Andre and Arnold.

In the spring of 1780, with the court martial proceedings behind him, Arnold again sought a commission from Washington. Washington offered to place Arnold in the field, but Arnold declined citing continued problems with the leg that had been injured many times in battle. Yet, that was not the true reason for Arnold’s resistance. Arnold was aware that British General Clinton had designs on overtaking the fortification at West Point. If they took control of that facility, as well as the Great Chain, the Continental Cause would be severely hampered. Eventually, Washington promised Arnold command of West Point. On August 3rd, Arnold received orders to proceed to West Point, obtain intelligence on enemy troop movements, and specific instructions to strengthen the facility, and carefully attend to daily matters such as the supply of provisions.

Arnold, however, had other plans. He sought to weaken the facility, demoralize the troops, and bring it to the point where the British would have little resistance to take control of it. He wrote to Washington of the dismal condition of West Point on August 6, 1780 and later described West Point to British General Sir Henry Clinton as “totally neglected.”  He also told Clinton of the weakness of the Great Chain across the Hudson and speculated that a large heavily loaded ship could break it. After Arnold slipped away to New York it was found that more than 50 percent of the logs which supported the chain had rotted. The chain was returned to the Hudson with an insufficient number of logs because somehow the replacement logs had been burned.

In retrospect, there were other signs that all was not well at West Point, and it is unclear why so much time passed before Washington, or a committee which he appointed, came to inspect the facility.

But the story becomes much more interesting as we focus on the third week of September. West Point had been weakened. The terms of Arnold’s defection and betrayal of his country and his commanding officer had been agreed to. The British were in position to move toward and overtake the facility. All was ready. There was only one more meeting which was to take place between Arnold and Andre. Andre had visited Arnold before, but on September 21st, Arnold would give Andre detailed plans of West Point.

On September 21st, the two concluded their meeting, and Arnold gave Andre documents which he could use to pass through the checkpoints near West Point. It was then that a series of very strange events happened. Andre was to return to his boat, the Vulture, with the assistance of Joshua Hett Smith. Mr. Smith seems to have been a double or possibly even a triple agent. He had facilitated Andre’s meetings with Arnold several times. This time, however, Andre had been unable to bring a field agent, who had accompanied him in the past, because Smith had not included that person’s accommodations in the arrangements.  Andre was left to fend for himself. The morning that Andre was to return to his ship, the ship was shot at by colonists and forced to move down the Hudson. What a coincidence that colonists would choose to fire on a British vessel on that particular morning without any apparent provocation.  Smith also told Arnold there were no boats available to return Andre to the Vulture. How odd that the commander of the installation could not somehow summon a boat on his own. Why Arnold simply accepted Smith’s statement that no boat was available is unclear. Odder still the neighbor, whose boat Smith had used in the past for such meetings, stated that Smith told him that he could leave the meeting if he was bored or tired. Naturally, the neighbor took his boat and went home. Andre was then forced to return to the Vulture on horseback. Smith then convinced Andre to change from his uniform which was a factor in convicting Andre as a spy and thus be hanged as the British had done to Nathan Hale. What was Smith’s reasoning, and why did Andre agree to take off his uniform?  Finally, Smith took Andre on trails which were near West Point itself, and clearly within control of the Continental Army. Again, that was a piece of evidence at his trial that determined Andre was a spy rather than a captured British officer. Had he remained in his uniform and travelled through a different area, he might have been exchanged rather than hung. Smith left him at a fork in the road, and suggested the route which Andre should take in order to return to the Vulture.  Acting on instinct, and an inherent distrust of Smith, Andre chose another path. Who might have been waiting on the path that Smith directed Andre to take will be forever unknown. However, it is very curious indeed that Benjamin Tallmadge, who was a spy himself and one two men who were charged with guarding Andre after his capture, predicted to Andre that he would hang just as Tallmadge’s good friend, Nathan Hale, had done. Is it possible that Smith and Tallmadge were working together?

As Andre traveled along his chosen path, he encountered men named Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams. The men questioned Andre who first identified himself as a British officer.  Realizing that the men were not loyalists, he showed them the pass which Arnold had given him. Finding his explanation quite curious, they searched Andre and found the plans. They took Andre, who was only known as John Andersen, to Colonel John Jameson. Jameson sent the now prisoner Anderson to Benedict Arnold. In yet another amazing twist of fate, the same Benjamin Tallmadge who was mentioned above was there when Jameson made the decision which would have allowed both Arnold and Andre to escape. What you should know about Benjamin Tallmadge is that he happened to be one of George Washington’s chief intelligence officers and the organizer of the Culper Spy Ring in New York. He convinced Jameson to recall the men who were in the process of delivering Andre to Arnold at his home, and instead send Andre to a camp of Continental soldiers in Salem. Tallmadge also convinced Jameson to send the documents which were found on Andre directly to Washington rather than giving the damning documents back to Arnold. Tallmadge later contended that he could not convince Jameson to not send word to Arnold about Andre’s capture. Jameson, who of course was the focus of Washington’s displeasure, denied that either Tallmadge, nor other officers who he discussed the matter with, told him not send a courier with news of Andre’s capture to Arnold.

As it turned out, Arnold was actually breakfasting with Alexander Hamilton and James Mc Henry when he received Jameson’s note which included not only notice of John Anderson’s capture, but mentioned the documents that he was carrying. McHenry and Hamilton described Arnold as agitated and said that he excused himself from the table without explanation. Arnold then went into the room where his wife was located, reappeared, only to leave the house again without explanation. They had no way of knowing that he was not going to West Point, but would hop on a boat that would take him to the Vulture. Funny how Arnold was able to find a boat to commandeer when Smith had been unable to do so, isn’t it?  It was not long afterward that Washington and his entourage arrived at the home. Washington remained there to eat breakfast himself. During that time, they heard Peggy Arnold crying, in fact screaming. She was well aware of the precarious position she now found herself in and either was truly hysterical or, she was beginning what could be described as an academy award winning performance. Washington and his party left the residence to tour West Point without any knowledge of what had happened. It is curious that they left the seemingly delusional Peggy to go about their business. Of course, while they were gone, Peggy most likely took the opportunity to destroy whatever evidence may have existed at the house of her part in Arnold’s deception.

So how did George Washington learn of Arnold’s plot? He had actually just inspected the West Point fortification and perhaps even the Great Chain, with Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington and the others had been somewhat surprised not find him absent during their inspection. The party had returned to Arnold’s headquarters and home, which was at the home of Beverly Robinson – who, in yet another odd twist, reportedly had loyalist leanings. The group had returned to the residence shortly after 4:00 p.m. George Washington had just laid down for a rest. Hamilton awakened Washington with the documents which had been found on Andre.  Some of the documents included Arnold’s handwriting which was familiar to Washington because of their frequent correspondence. Hamilton latter described Washington upon realizing what had happened as being on the verge of tears and exclaiming, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”

After composing himself, Washington immediately dispatched Alexander Hamilton on horseback to capture Arnold. Hamilton quickly sent an express back to Washington with the message that Arnold had already escaped.

Meanwhile, Peggy Shippen Arnold continued to sit in her bedroom. Alexander Hamilton wrote to his love interest, Elizabeth Schuyler, about her on September 25th, he described Peggy as having entirely lost her senses. “The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct.” As I said, it was an academy award winning performance.

Now that Arnold was safety aboard the Vulture, he forwarded a letter to Washington saying: “I have no favor to ask for myself, I have too often experienced the Ingratitude of my Country to Attempt it: But from the known humanity of your Excellence I am induced to ask your protection For Mrs Arnold from every Insult and Injury that the mistaken Vengence of my Country may expose Her to: It ought to fall only on me She is as good, and as Inocent as an Angel, and is Incapable of doing Wrong.”

Did you notice that he once again used the phrase “ingratitude of my countrymen.” As with his love letters, it would seem that there were certain themes upon which Arnold ruminated.

So as the 25th of September drew to a close, we will end this edition.