20 AHMP 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. Let’s quickly review what occurred from the point in time that we left off in the last episode and move quickly through the events of the first half of 1780.
I concluded the previous podcast with the statement of J.J. Thomas. Mr. Thomas was a waggoneer who had transported confiscated property from storage in Philadelphia to the port. He did so under orders from Benedict Arnold who promptly tried to cheat the waggoneer out of several days’ pay. Arnold, who had become totally absorbed in his role as Supreme Commander of the United States in Philadelphia, was seemingly oblivious to the fact that residents such as Mr. Thomas did not take lightly to being cheated given their awareness of his opulent lifestyle.
Arnold had seized one of the finest homes in Philadelphia, formerly owned by Richard Penn and occupied by British General Howe, for his residence and command center. He traveled throughout the economically embattled city in what was known as a “horse and four” which was a carriage drawn by four horses. He had servants galore and entered into a relationship with Peggy Shippen who was one of the most socially prominent young women in Philadelphia. So, it is no surprise that J.J. Thomas would cooperate with the investigation conducted by the Supreme Executive Council of Philadelphia. It should also be no surprise that the lifestyle Arnold lived, and his loss of records during the retreat from Quebec and the resulting demand from Congress that he repay funds for which he had no records, created an ever mounting debt for Arnold. Even selling the private property of others on the black market did not save Benedict Arnold from his own poor choices.
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. On April 5, 1780, George Washington summarized the matter in this daily address known as the General Orders. It read as follows:
“At a General Court Martial whereof Major General Howe was President, held on the 1st. of June last at Middle Brook and afterwards at Morristown from the 23rd. of December to the 26th. of January, in consequence of a resolution of the Honorable the Congress, for the trial of Major General Arnold on the following Articles contained in the proceedings of the Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania at the City of Philadelphia the 3rd. of February 1779. Vizt.,
First. That while in the Camp of General Washington at Valley Forge last spring, he gave permission to a Vessel belonging to persons then voluntarily residing in this City, with the enemy, and of disaffected characters to come into a Port of the United States without the knowledge of the authority of the State or of the Commander in Chief tho’ then present.
2nd. In having shut up the Shops and stores on his arrival in the City, so as even to prevent officers of the army from purchasing, while he privately made considerable purchases for his own benefit as is alledged and believed.
3rd. In imposing menial offices upon the sons of Freemen of this State, when called for by the desire of Congress, to perform militia duty, and when remonstrated to hereupon, justifying himself in writing upon the ground of having power so to do. For that when a citizen assumed the character of a soldier, the former was intirely lost in the latter, and that it was the duty of the militia to obey every order of his Aids (not a breach of the laws and constitution) as his (the General’s) without judging of the propriety of them.
4th. The appropriating the waggons of this State, when called forth upon a special emergency last autumn, to the transportation of private property and that of Persons who voluntarily remained with the enemy last winter, and were deemed disaffected to the Interests and Independence of America.
The Court passed the following sentence:
The Court having considered the several charges exhibited against General Arnold, the evidence produced on the trial and his defence are of opinion with respect to the first charge: That he gave permission for a vessel to leave a port in possession of the enemy, to enter into a port in the United States; which permission circumstanced as he was, they are clearly of opinion he had no right to give, being a breach of article 5th., section 18th. of the rules and articles of war.
Respecting the 2nd. charge, that altho’ it has been fully proved that the shops and stores were shut by General Arnold’s orders on his arrival at Philadelphia, they are of opinion that he was justifiable in the order, by the resolution of Congress of the 5th. of June 1778, and His Excellency, the Commander in Chief’s instructions of the 18th. of June 1778. And with respect to the latter part of the same charge, ‘The making considerable purchases while the shops and stores were shut,’ they are clearly of opinion that it is entirely unsupported and they do fully acquit General Arnold of it.
They do acquit General Arnold of the third charge.
Respecting the 4th. charge, it appears to the court that General Arnold made application to the Deputy Quarter Master General to supply him with waggons to remove property then in imminent danger from the enemy; that Waggons were supplied him by the Deputy Quarter Master General on this application which had been drawn from the state of Pennsylvania for the public service; and it also appears that General Arnold intended this application as a private request, and that he had no design of employing the waggons otherwise than at this private expence, nor of defrauding the public, nor injuring or impeding the public service; but considering the delicacy attending the high station in which the General acted, and that requests from him might operate as commands, they are of opinion the request was imprudent and improper and that therefore it ought not to have been made.
The Court in consequence of their determinations respecting the first and last charges exhibited against Majr. General Arnold, do sentence him to receive a reprimanded from His Excellency the Commander in Chief.
And what was the reprimand that Washington gave to Arnold? At best, it should have been considered a bit of a frown on Washington’s forehead with no discernable implications for Arnold. Washington’s General Order went on to read: “The Commander in Chief would have been much happier in an occasion of bestowing commendations on an officer who has rendered such distinguished services to his Country as Major General Arnold; but in the present case a sense of duty and a regard to candor oblige him to declare, that he considers his conduct in the instance of the permit as peculiarly reprehensible, both in a civil and military view, and in the affair of the waggons as ‘Imprudent and improper.’”
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.
Almost a year passed as Arnold and Andre corresponded with each other. In letters, often written in invisible ink in the margins of letters that Peggy ostensibly sent to Andre, Arnold made demands for financial compensation, as well as a position in the British military. Andre promised less than Arnold demanded and requested information regarding the movements and plans of the Colonial forces. There was also a period when the negotiations stopped as Andre, himself, fought in a campaign. There is evidence that when communication between the two men broke down, it was Peggy herself who sought to maintain the negotiation.
In the spring of 1780, the now cleared 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
“On my arrival at this post, I found every thing thrown into great confusion, by the troops removing from hence, and the militia coming in. Colonel Malcom had ordered returns to be made of the militia, provisions, and stores of every kind, which I expect this morning, and will transmit a copy to your Excellency. I believe a sufficient number of militia have arrived to replace those of this State, who will leave this to-morrow or next day. I am sorry to observe, that there is not one tent for the militia (which are absolutely necessary at the redoubts), and the barracks will not contain more than seven hundred, unless they are crowded, so as to injure their health ; and many of them are daily falling sick.”
Based upon the tour General Howe provided to Arnold, as discussed in our previous edition, He described West Point to Sir Henry Clinton as “totally neglected.” Of the chain, he wrote: “I am convinced the Boom or chain thrown across the River to stop the Shipping cannot be depended on. A single Ship large and heavy-loaded with a strong wind and tide would break the Chain.”
Arnold became aware of damage made to the logs upon which the chain floated. On August 23, he communicated the following to the Quartermaster, Pickering “… I am informed in a letter of the 21st from the Engineer that the middle part of the chain across the Hudson at these posts is sinking in a dangerous situation on account of the logs which it has hitherto floated on being water-soaked, that unless this be speedily remedied it will be out of our power to raise it but with great expense of time and trouble.”
After Arnold slipped away to New York it was found that more than 50 percent of the logs had rotted. The chain was returned to the Hudson with an insufficient number of logs because somehow the replacement logs had been burned. There were whispers among some that Benedict Arnold, who had by that time become a traitor, sought to weaken the chain He may have also enlisted the help of the new engineer Villefranche.
Less than one month later, Arnold’s plot to put West Point into the hands of the British was uncovered. It was only then that the weakness in the chain was revealed, and a letter written on November 19th from Deputy-Quartermaster Hughes to his assistant, Daniel Carthy” congratulated him that “the resurrection of the chain. It afforded a pretty clever piece of business, I imagine”. However, it was never challenged by the British Fleet. It remained in use for several years and was only removed from the water during the winter months.
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. It is also unclear why Arnold, who had been found to have ‘Imprudent and improper.’ Behavior was thought to be unaware of the practice that Washington wrote to him about On August 13th: “Several prisoners have lately escaped from the provost at West point and voluntarily surrendered themselves here. Two who came in to day say they were induced to break out for want of Water, as a practice has been made of keeping it from them and obliging them to pay exorbitantly for it. Be pleased to enquire into this matter and let the Officers of the Guard look to it in future. I am confident it is an imposition without the knowledge or concurrence of any but the inferior Officers.”
Throughout the months of August and September, Arnold offered Washington advice on troop movements which was obviously suspect. Arnold also passed along intelligence regarding Continental plans to Andre.
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…at Smith’s own home. 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, 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 location where Continental soliders were in Salem, and then 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, stated that neither Tallmadge, nor other officers who he discussed the matter with, counseled him to not send a courier with news of Andre’s capture to Arnold.
Jameson wrote to Washington on September 27th: “I am very sorry that I wrote to G–Arnold. I did not think of a British Ship being up the River and expected that if he was the man he has since turned out to be that he wou’d come down to the Troops in this Quarter in which case I shou’d have secured him. I mentioned my intention to Major Tallmage and some other of the Field Officers all of whom were clearly of Opinion that it wou’d be right until I could hear from your Excellency.”
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. Arnold’s aide, Richard Varick, and Hamilton both went to check on her. Peggy was purportedly in a dressing gown, holding her newborn child, and demanding to know whether someone had been ordered to murder her child. 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. Expecting to find Arnold at West Point, they 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, Lafayette, McHenry, and Alexander Hamilton were all in the home, and Washington had just laid down for a rest. Hamilton brought the documents which had been taken from the prisoner in to the General. 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 following message: “You will see by the inclosed we are too late. Arnold went by water to the Vulture. I shall write to General Greene advising him without making a bustle to be in readiness to march and even to detach a Brigade this way, for though I do not believe the project will go on, it is possible Arnold has made such dispositions with the Garrison as may tempt the enemy in its present weakness to make the stroke this night and it seems prudent to be providing against it. I shall endeavour to find Meigs4 and request him to march to the Garrison, and shall make some arrangements here. I hope Your Excellency will approve these steps as there may be no time to be lost.”
Meanwhile, Peggy Shippen Arnold continued to sit in her bedroom. To understand what Washington, Hamilton, and the others witnessed, allow me to read to you Hamilton’s description of her as found in his letter to his love interest, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 25th, he wrote: “In the midst of my letter, I was interrupted by a scene that shocked me more than any thing I have met with—the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye. The object was to sacrifice West Point. General Arnold had sold himself to André for this purpose. The latter came but in disguise and in returning to New York was detected. Arnold hearing of it immediately fled to the enemy. I went in persuit of him but was much too late, and I could hardly regret the disappointment, when on my return, I saw an amiable woman frantic with distress for the loss of a husband she tenderly loved—a traitor to his country and to his fame, a disgrace to his connections. It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time intirely 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. We have every reason to believe she was intirely unacquainted with the plan, and that her first knowlege of it was when Arnold went to tell her he must banish himself from his Country and from her forever. She instantly fell into a convulsion and he left her in that situation.”
Peggy’s actions may have accorded her husband even more time to escape. Remember that she was just 20 years old at the time, and the combination of her age and new status as a mother may have worked in her favor. Completely deceived Washington later provided her with safe passage to her family’s home in Philadelphia.
Now that Arnold was safety aboard the Vulture, he forwarded a letter to Washington: “The Heart which is Concious of its Own rectitude, Cannot attempt to paliate a Step, which the world may Censure as wrong; I have ever acted from a Principle of Love to my Country, since the Commencement of the present unhappy Contest between Great Britian and the Colonies, the same principle of Love to my Country Actuates my present Conduct, however it may appear Inconsistent to the World: who very Seldom Judge right of any Mans Actions.
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. I beg She may be permitted to return to Her Friends in Philada or to come to me as She may choose; from your Excellencey I have no fears on Her Account, but She may Suffer from the mistaken fury of The Country.”
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. There is more to be told about Benedict Arnold, tales from periods both before and after he committed the greatest crime possible against his country. However, in the next edition, we will move on to another story, and return to lessons we can learn from this traitor in the future. Also, I will be taking a much needed bit of rest over the next two weeks.