Benedict Arnold's Treason

To understand the proximate causes of Arnold’s treason, we must start from the summer of 1778, when Philadelphia was evacuated by the British. On that occasion, as General Arnold was incapacitated for active service by the wound he had received at Saratoga, Washington placed him in command of Philadelphia. This step brought Arnold into direct contact with Congress, toward which he bore a fierce grudge for the slights it had put upon him ;1 and, moreover, the command was in itself a difficult one. The authority vested in the commandant was not clearly demarcated from that which belonged to the state government, so that occasions for dispute were sure to be forthcoming. While the British had held the city many of the inhabitants had given them active aid and encouragement, and there was now more or less property to be confiscated. By a resolve of Congress, all public stores belonging to the enemy were to be appropriated for the use of the army, and the commander-in-chief was directed to suspend the sale or transfer of goods until the general question of ownership should have been determined by a joint committee of Congress and of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. It became Arnold’s duty to carry out this order, which not only wrought serious disturbance to business, but made the city a hornet’s nest of bickerings and complaints. The qualities needed for dealing successfully with such an affair as this were very different from the qualities which had distinguished Arnold in the field. The utmost delicacy of tact was required, and Arnold was blunt, and self-willed, and deficient in tact. He was accordingly soon at loggerheads with the state government, and lost, besides, much of the personal popularity with which he started. Stories were whispered about to his discredit. It was charged against Arnold that the extravagance of his style of living was an offense against republican simplicity, and a scandal in view of the distressed condition of the country; that in order to obtain the means of meeting his heavy expenses he resorted to peculation and extortion ; and that he showed too much favor to the Tories. These charges were doubtless not without some foundation. This era of paper money and failing credit was an era of ostentatious expenditure, not altogether unlike that which, in later days, preceded the financial break-down of 1873. People in the towns lived extravagantly, and in no other town was this more conspicuous than in Philadelphia; while perhaps no one in Philadelphia kept a finer stable of horses or gave more costly dinners than General Arnold. He ran in debt, and engaged in commercial speculations to remedy the evil; and, in view of the light afterward thrown upon his character, it is not unlikely that he may have sometimes availed himself of his high position to aid these speculations.

The charge of favoring the Tories may find its explanation in a circumstance which possibly throws a side-light upon his lavish use of money. Miss Margaret Shippen, daughter of a gentleman of moderate Tory sympathies, who some years afterward became chief justice of Pennsylvania, was one of the most beautiful and fascinating women in America, and at that time the reigning belle of Philadelphia; and no sooner had the new commandant arrived at his post than he was taken captive. The lady was scarcely twenty years old, while Arnold was a widower of thirtyfive, with three sons ; but his handsome face, his gallant bearing, and his splendid career outweighed these disadvantages, and in the autumn of 1778 he was betrothed to Miss Shippen, and thus entered into close relations with a prominent Tory family. In the moderate section of the Tory party, to which the Shippens belonged, there were many people who, while strongly opposed to the Declaration of Independence, would nevertheless have deemed it dishonorable to lend active aid to the enemy. In 1778, such people thought that Congress wrong in making an alliance with France instead of accepting the liberal proposals of Lord North. The Declaration of Independence, they argued, would never have been made had it been supposed that the constitutional liberties of the American people could any otherwise be securely protected. Even Samuel Adams admitted this. In the war which had been undertaken in defense of these liberties, the victory of Saratoga had driven the British government to pledge itself to concede them once and forever. Then why not be magnanimous in the hour of triumph ? Why not consider the victory of Saratoga as final, instead of subjecting the resources of the country to a terrible strain in the doubtful attempt to secure a result which, only three years before, even Washington himself had regarded as undesirable ? Was it not unwise and unpatriotic to reject the overtures of our kinsmen, and cast in our lot with that Catholic and despotic power which had ever been our deadliest foe ?

Such were the arguments to which Arnold must have listened again and again, during the summer and autumn of 1778. How far he may have been predisposed toward such views it would be impossible to say. He always declared himself disgusted with the French alliance,2 and in this there is nothing improbable. But that, under the circumstances, he should gradually have drifted into the Tory position was, in a man of his temperament, almost inevitable. His nature was warm, impulsive, and easily impressible, while he was deficient in breadth of intelligence and in rigorous moral conviction ; and his opinions on public matters took their hue largely from his personal feelings. It was not surprising that such a man, in giving splendid entertainments, should invite to them the Tory friends of the lady whose favor he was courting. His course excited the wrath of the Whigs. General Reed wrote indignantly to General Greene that Arnold had actually given a party at which " not only common Tory ladies, but the wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the .State, and now with the enemy at New York,” were present in considerable numbers. When twitted with such things, Arnold used to reply that it was the part of a true soldier to fight his enemies in the open field, but not to proscribe or persecute their wives and daughters in private life. But such an explanation naturally satisfied no one. His quarrels with the Executive Council, sharpened by such incidents as these, grew more and more violent, until when, in December, his most active enemy, Joseph Reed, became president of the Council, he suddenly made up his mind to resign his post and leave the army altogether. He would quit the turmoil of public affairs, obtain a grant of land in western New York, settle it with his old soldiers, with whom he had always been a favorite, and lead henceforth a life of Arcadian simplicity. In this mood he wrote to Schuyler, in words which to-day seem strange and sad, that his ambition was not so much to “ shine in history” as to be “a good citizen;” and about the 1st of January, 1779, he set out for Albany to consult with the New York legislature about the desired land.

His scheme was approved by John Jay and others, and in all likelihood would have succeeded ; but as he stopped for a day at Morristown to visit Washington, a letter overtook him, with the information that as soon as his back had been turned upon Philadelphia he had been publicly attacked by President Reed and the Council. Formal charges were brought against him : 1, of having improperly granted a pass for a ship to come into port; 2, of having once used some public wagons for the transportation of private property ; 3, of having usurped the privilege of the Council in allowing people to enter the enemy’s lines ; 4, of having illegally brought up a lawsuit over a prize vessel; 5, of having “imposed menial offices upon the sons of freemen ” serving in the militia ; and 6, of having made purchases for his private benefit at the time when, by his own order, all shops were shut. These charges were promulgated in a most extraordinary fashion. Not only were they laid before Congress, but copies of them were sent to the governors of all the States, accompanied by a circular letter from President Reed requesting the governors to communicate them to their respective legislatures. Arnold was naturally enraged at such an elaborate attempt to prepossess the public mind against him, but his first concern was for the possible effect it might have upon Miss Shippen. He instantly returned to Philadelphia, and demanded an investigation. He had obtained Washington’s permission to resign his command, but deferred acting upon it till the inquiry should have ended. The charges were investigated by a committee of Congress, and about the middle of March this committee brought in a report stating that all the accusations were groundless, save the two which related to the use of the wagons and the irregular granting of a pass; and since in these instances there was no evidence of wrong intent, the committee recommended an unqualified verdict of acquittal. Arnold thereupon, considering himself vindicated, resigned his command. But Reed now represented to Congress that further testimony was forthcoming, and urged that the case should be reconsidered. Accordingly, instead of acting upon the report of its committee, Congress referred the matter anew to a joint committee of Congress and the Assembly and Council of Pennsylvania. This joint committee shirked the matter by recommending that the case be referred to a court-martial, and this recommendation was adopted by Congress on the 3d of April. The vials of Arnold’s wrath were now full to overflowing; but he had no cause to complain of Miss Shippen, for their marriage took place in less than a week after this action of Congress. Washington, who sympathized with Arnold’s impatience, appointed the court-martial for the 1st of May, but the Council of Pennsylvania begged for more time to collect evidence. And thus, in one way and another, the summer and autumn were frittered away, so that the trial did not begin until the 19th of December. All this time Arnold kept clamoring for a speedy trial, and Washington did his best to soothe him while paying due heed to the representations of the Council.

In the excitement of this fierce controversy the Arcadian project seems to have been forgotten. Up to this point Arnold’s anger had been chiefly directed toward the authorities of Pennsylvania : but when Congress refused to act upon the report of its committee exonerating him from blame, he became incensed against the whole party which, as he said, had so ill requited his services. It is supposed to have been about that time, in April, 1779, that he wrote a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, in disguised handwriting and under the signature of “ Gustavus,” describing himself as an American officer of high rank, who, through disgust at the French alliance and other recent proceedings of Congress, might perhaps be persuaded to go over to the British, provided he could be indemnified for any losses he might incur by so doing. The beginning of this correspondence — if this was really the time — coincided curiously with the date of Arnold’s marriage, but it is in the highest degree probable that down to the final catastrophe Mrs. Arnold knew nothing whatever of what was going on.3 The correspondence was kept up at intervals, Sir Henry’s replies being written by Major John André, his adjutant-general, over the signature of “John Anderson.” Nothing seems to have been thought of at first beyond the personal desertion of Arnold to the enemy ; the betrayal of a fortress was a later development of infamy. For the present, too, we may suppose that Arnold was merely playing with fire, while he awaited the result of the court-martial.

The summer was not a happy one. His debts went on increasing, while his accounts with Congress remained unsettled, and he found it impossible to collect large sums that were due him. At last the court-martial met, and sat for five weeks. On the 26th of January, 1780, the verdict was rendered, and in substance it agreed exactly with that of the committee of Congress ten months before. Arnold was fully acquitted of all the charges which alleged dishonorable dealings. The pass which he had granted was irregular, and public wagons, which were standing idle, had once been used to remove private property that was in imminent danger from the enemy. The court exonerated Arnold of all intentional wrong, even in these venial matters, which it characterized as “ imprudent; ” but, as a sort of lame concession to the Council of Pennsylvania, it directed that he should receive a public reprimand from the commander-in-chief for his imprudence in the use of wagons, and for hurriedly giving a pass in which all due forms were not attended to. The decision of the court-martial was promptly confirmed by Congress, and Washington had no alternative but to issue the reprimand, which he couched in such words as plainly to indicate his opinion of the trivial nature of the offense, while he seized the occasion to characterize Arnold’s military services in terms of magnificent eulogy.

It was too late, however. The damage was done. Arnold had long felt persecuted and insulted. He had already dallied with temptation, and the poison was now working in his veins. His sense of public duty was utterly distorted by the keener sense of his private injuries. We may imagine him brooding over some memorable incidents in the careers of Monk, of the great Montrose and the greater Marlborough, until he persuaded himself that to change sides in a civil war was not so heinous a crime after all. Especially the example of Monk, which had already led Charles Lee to disgrace, seems to have riveted the attention of Arnold, although only the most shallow scrutiny could discover any resemblance between what the great English general had done and what Arnold purposed t o do. There was not a more scrupulously honorable soldier in his day than George Monk. Arnold’s thoughts may have run somewhat as follows. He would not become an ordinary deserter, a villain on a small scale. He would not sell himself cheaply to the devil; but he would play as signal a part in his new career as he had played in the old one. He would overwhelm this blundering Congress, and triumphantly carry the country back to its old allegiance. To play such apart would require the blackest treachery. Fancy George Monk, “ honest, old George,” asking for the command of a fortress in order to betray it to the enemy !

When once Arnold had committed himself to this evil course, his story becomes a sickening one, lacking no element of horror, whether in its foul beginnings or in its wretched end. To play his new part properly, he must obtain an important command, and the place which obviously suggested itself was West Point.

Since Burgoyne’s overthrow, Washington had built a chain of strong fortresses there, for he did not intend that the possession of the Hudson River should ever again be put in question, so far as fortifications could go. Could this cardinal position be delivered up to Clinton, the prize would be worth tenfold the recent triumphs at Charleston and Camden. It would be giving the British what Burgoyne had tried in vain to get ; and now it was the hero of Saratoga who plotted to undo his own good work at the dictates of perverted ambition and unhallowed revenge.

To get possession of this stronghold, it was necessary to take advantage of the confidence with which his great commander had always honored him. From Washington, in July, 1780, Arnold sought the command of West Point, alleging that his wounded leg still kept him unfit for service in the field ; and Washington immediately put him in charge of this all-important post, thus giving him the strongest proof of unabated confidence and esteem which it was in his power to give : and among all the dark shades in Arnold’s treason, perhaps none seems darker than this personal treachery toward the man who had always trusted and defended him. What must the traitor’s feelings have been when he read the affectionate letters which Schuyler wrote him at, this very time ? In better days he had shown much generosity of nature. Can it be that this is the same man who on the field of Saratoga saved the life of the poor soldier who in honest fight had shot him and broken his leg ? Such are the strange contrasts that we sometimes see in characters that are governed by impulse, and not by principle. Their virtue may be real enough while it lasts, but it does not weather the storm ; and when once wrecked, the very same emotional nature by which alone it was supported often prompts to deeds of incredible wickedness.

After taking command of West Point, the correspondence with Andr#233;, carefully couched in such terms as to make it seem to refer to some commercial enterprise, was vigorously kept up; and hints were let drop which convinced Sir Henry Clinton that the writer was Arnold, and the betrayal of the highland stronghold his purpose. Troops were accordingly embarked on the Hudson, and the flotilla was put in command of Admiral Rodney, who had looked in at New York on his way to the West Indies. To disguise the purpose of the embarkation, a rumor was industriously circulated that a force was to be sent southward to the Chesapeake. To arrange some important details of the affair, it seemed desirable that the two correspondents, “Gustavus” and “John Anderson,” should meet, and talk over matters which could not safely he committed to paper. On the 18th of September, Washington, accompanied by Lafayette and Hamilton, set out for Hartford, for an interview with Rochambeau ; and advantage was taken of his absence to arrange a meeting between the plotters. On the 20th André was taken up the river on the Vulture, sloop-of-war, and on the night of the 21st Arnold sent out a boat which brought him ashore about four miles below Stony Point. There in a thicket of fir-trees, under the veil of blackest midnight, the scheme was matured; but as gray dawn came on before all the details had been arranged, the boatmen became alarmed, and refused to take André back to the ship, and he was accordingly persuaded, though against his will, to accompany Arnold within the American lines. The two conspirators walked up the bank a couple of miles to the house of one Joshua Smith, a man of doubtful allegiance, who does not seem to have understood the nature and extent of the plot, or to have known who Arnold’s visitor was. It was thought that they might spend the day discussing their enterprise, and when it should have grown dark André could be rowed back to the Vulture.

But now a quite unforeseen accident occurred. Colonel Livingston, commanding the works on the opposite side of the river, was provoked by the sight of a British ship standing so near; and he opened such a lively fire upon the Vulture that she was obliged to withdraw from the scene. As the conspirators were waiting in Smith’s house for breakfast to be served, they heard the booming of the guns, and André, rushing to the window, beheld with dismay the ship on whose presence so much depended dropping out of sight down the stream. On second thoughts, however, it was clear that she would not go far, as her commander had orders not to return to New York without André, and it was still thought that he might regain her. After breakfast he went to an upper chamber with Arnold, and several hours were spent in perfecting their plans. Immediately upon André’s return to New York, the force under Clinton and Rodney was to ascend the river. To obstruct the approach of a hostile flotilla, an enormous chain lay stretched across the river, guarded by water-batteries. Under pretense of repairs, one link was to be taken out for a few days, and supplied by a rope which a slight blow would tear away. The approach of the British was to be announced by a concerted system of signals, and the American forces were to be so distributed that they could be surrounded and captured in detail, until at the propeimoment Arnold, taking advantage of the apparent defeat, was to surrender the works, with all the troops—3000 in number — under his command. It was not unreasonably supposed that such a catastrophe, coming on the heels of Charleston and Camden and general bankruptcy, would put a stop to the war and lead to negotiations, in which Arnold, in view of such decisive service, might hope to play a leading part.

When André set out on this perilous undertaking, Sir Henry Clinton specially warned him not to adopt any disguise or to carry any papers which might compromise his safety. But André disregarded the advice, and took from Arnold six papers, all but one of them in the traitor’s own handwriting, containing descriptions of the fortresses and information as to the disposition of the troops. Much risk might have been avoided by putting this information into cipher, or into a memorandum which would have been meaningless save to the parties concerned. But André may perhaps have doubted Arnold’s fidelity, and feared lest under a false pretense of treason he might be drawing the British away into a snare. The documents which he took, being in Arnold’s handwriting and unmistakable in their purport, were such as to put him in Clinton’s power, and compel him, for the sake of his own safety, to perform his part of the contract. André intended, before getting into the boat, to tie up these papers in a bundle loaded with a stone, to be dropped into the water in case of a sudden challenge; but in the mean time he put them where they could not so easily be got rid of, between his stockings and the soles of his feet. Arnold furnished the requisite passes for Smith and André to go either by boat or by land, and, having thus apparently provided for all contingencies, took leave before noon, and returned in his barge to his headquarters, ten miles up the stream. As evening approached, Smith, who seems to have been a man of unsteady nerves, refused to take André out to the Vulture. He had been alarmed by the firing in the morning, and feared there would be more risk in trying to reach the ship than in traveling down to the British lines by land, and he promised to ride all night with André if he would go that way. The young officer reluctantly consented, and partially disguised himself in some of Smith’s clothes. At sundown the two crossed the river at King’s Ferry, and pursued their journey on horseback toward White Plains.

The roads east of the Hudson, between the British and the American lines, were at this time infested by robbers, who committed their depredations under pretense of keeping up a partisan warfare. There were two sets of these scapegraces, — the “Cowboys,” or cattle-thieves, and the “ Skinners,” who took everything they could find. These epithets, however, referred to the political complexion they chose to assume, rather than to any difference in their evil practices. The Skinners professed to be Whigs, and the Cowboys called themselves Tories ; but in point of fact the two parties were alike political enemies to any farmer or wayfarer whose unprotected situation offered a prospect of booty ; and though murder was not often committed, nobody’s property was safe. It was a striking instance of the demoralization wrought in a highly civilized part of the country through its having so long continued to be the actual seat of war. Rumors that the Cowboys were out in force made Smith afraid to continue the journey by night, and the impatient André was thus obliged to stop at a farmhouse with his timid companion. Rising before dawn, they kept on until they reached the Croton River, which marked the upper boundary of the neutral ground between the British and the American lines. Smith’s instructions had been, in case of adopting the land route, not to leave his charge before reaching White Plains ; but he now became uneasy to return, and André, who was beginning to consider himself out of danger, was perhaps not unwilling to part with a comrade who annoyed him by his loquacious and inquisitive disposition. So Smith made his way back to headquarters, and informed Arnold that he had escorted “ Mr. Anderson ” within a few miles of the British lines, which he must doubtless by this time have reached in safety.

Meanwhile, André, left to himself, struck into the road which led through Tarrytown, expecting to meet no worse enemies than Cowboys, who would either respect a British officer, or, if bent on plunder, might be satisfied by his money and watch. But it happened that morning that a party of seven young men had come out to intercept some Cowboys who were expected up the road ; and about nine o’clock, as André was approaching the creek above Tarrytown, a short distance from the far-famed Sleepy Hollow, he was suddenly confronted by three of this party, who sprang from the bushes and, with leveled muskets, ordered him to halt. These men had let several persons, with whose faces they were familiar, pass unquestioned ; and if Smith, who was known to almost every one in that neighborhood, had been with André, they too would doubtless have been allowed to pass. André was stopped because he was a stranger. One of these men happened to have on the coat of a Hessian soldier. Held by the belief that they must be Cowboys, or members of what was sometimes euphemistically termed the “ lower party,” André expressed a hope that such was the case; and on being assured that it was so, his caution deserted him, and, with that sudden sense of relief which is apt to come after unwonted and prolonged constraint, he avowed himself a British officer, traveling on business of great importance. To his dismay, he now learned his mistake. John Paulding, the man in the Hessian coat, informed him that they were Americans, and ordered him to dismount. When he now showed them Arnold’s pass they disregarded it, and insisted upon searching him, until presently the six papers were discovered where he had hidden them. “ By God, he is a spy ! ” exclaimed Paulding, as he looked over the papers. Threats and promises were of no avail. The young men, who were not to be bought or cajoled, took their prisoner twelve miles up the river, and delivered him into the hands of Colonel John Jameson, a Virginian officer, who commanded a cavalry outpost at North Castle. When Jameson looked over the papers, they seemed to him very extraordinary documents to be traveling toward New York in the stockings of a stranger who could give no satisfactory account of himself. But so far from his suspecting Arnold of any complicity in the matter, he could think of nothing better than to send the prisoner straightway to Arnold himself, together with a brief letter in which he related what had happened. To the honest Jameson it seemed that this must he some foul ruse of the enemy, some device for stirring up suspicion in the camp, — something, at any rate, which could not too quickly be brought to his general’s notice. But the documents themselves he prudently sent by an express-rider to Washington, accompanying them with a similar letter of explanation. André, in charge of a military guard, had already proceeded some distance toward West Point when Jameson’s second in command. Major Benjamin Tallmadge, came in from some errand on which he had been engaged. On hearing what had happened, Tallmadge suspected that all was not right with Arnold, and insisted that André and the letter should be recalled. After a hurried discussion, Jameson sent out a party which brought André back ; but he still thought it his duty to inform Arnold, and so the letter which saved the traitor’s life was allowed to proceed on its way.

Now, if Washington had returned from Hartford by the route which it was supposed he would take, through Danbury and Peekskill, Arnold would not even thus have been saved. For some reason Washington returned two or three days sooner than had been expected ; and, moreover, he chose a more northerly route, through Farmington and Litchfield, so that the messenger failed to meet him. It was on the evening of Saturday, the 23d, that Jameson’s two letters started. On Sunday afternoon Washington arrived at Fishkill, eighteen miles above West Point, and was just starting down the river road when he met Luzerne, the French minister, who was on his way to consult with Rochambeau. Wishing to have a talk with this gentleman, Washington turned back to the nearest inn, where they sat down to supper and chatted, all unconsciously, with the very Joshua Smith from whom André had parted at the Croton River on the morning of the day before. Word was sent to Arnold to expect the commander-in-chief and his suite to breakfast the next morning, and before daybreak of Monday they were galloping down the wooded road. As they approached the Robinson House, where Arnold had his headquarters, opposite ’West Point, Washington turned his horse down toward the river, whereat Lafayette reminded him that they were late already, and ought not to keep Mrs. Arnold waiting. “ Ah, marquis,” said Washington, laughing, “ I know you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold: go and get your breakfast, and tell her not to wait for me.” Lafayette did not adopt the suggestion. He accompanied Washington and Knox while they rode down to examine some redoubts. Hamilton and the rest of the party kept on to the house, and sat down to breakfast in its cheerful wainscoted dining-room, with Arnold and his wife and several of his officers.

As they sat at table, a courier entered, and handed to Arnold the letter in which Colonel Jameson informed him that one John Anderson had been taken with compromising documents in his possession, which had been forwarded to the commander-in-chiefWith astonishing presence of mind, he folded the letter and put it in his pocket, finished the remark which had been on his lips when the courier entered, and then, rising, said that he was suddenly called across the river to West Point, but would return to meet Washington without delay; and he ordered his barge to be manned. None of the officers observed anything unusual in his manner, but the quick eye of his wife detected something wrong, and as he left the room she excused herself and hurried after him. Going up to their bedroom, he told her that he was a ruined man and must fly for his life ; and as she screamed and fainted in his arms, he laid her upon the bed, called in the maid to attend her, stooped to kiss his baby boy who was sleeping in the cradle, rushed down to the yard, leaped on a horse that was standing there, and galloped down a by-path to his barge. It had promptly occurred to his quick mind that the Vulture would still be waiting for André some miles down stream, and he told the oarsmen to row him thither without delay, as he must get back soon to meet Washington. A brisk row of eighteen miles brought them to the Vulture, whose commander was still wondering why André did not come back. From the cabin of the Vulture Arnold sent a letter to Washington, assuring him of Mrs. Arnold’s innocence, and begging that she might be allowed to return to her family in Philadelphia, or come to her husband, as she might choose. Then the ill-omened ship weighed anchor, and reached New York next morning.

Meanwhile, about noonday Washington came in for his breakfast, and, hearing that Arnold had crossed the river to West Point, soon hurried off to meet him there, followed by all his suite except Hamilton. As they were ferried across, no salute of cannon greeted them, and on landing they learned with astonishment that Arnold had not been there that morning ; but no one as yet had a glimmer of suspicion. When they returned to the Robinson House, about two o’clock, they found Hamilton walking up and down before the door in great excitement. Jameson’s courier had arrived. with the letters for Washington, which the aide had just opened and read. The commander and his aide went alone into the house, and examined the papers, which, taken in connection with the traitor’s flight, but too plainly told the story. From Mrs. Arnold, who was in hysterics, Washington could learn nothing. He privately sent Hamilton and another aide in pursuit of the fugitive ; and coming out to meet Lafayette and Knox, his voice choking and tears rolling down his cheeks, he exclaimed, “ Arnold is a traitor, and has fled to the British ! Whom can we trust now ? ” In a moment, however, he had regained his wonted composure. It was no time for giving way to emotion. It was as yet impossible to tell how far the scheme might have extended. Even now the enemy’s fleet might be ascending the river (as but for André’s capture it doubtless would have been doing that day), and an attack might be made before the morrow. Riding anxiously about the works, Washington soon detected the treacherous arrangements that had been made, and by seven in the evening he had done much to correct them and to make ready for an attack. As he was taking supper in the room which Arnold had so hastily quitted in the morning, the traitor’s letter from the Vulture was handed him. “ Go to Mrs. Arnold,”said he quietly to one of his officers, “ and tell her that though my duty required no means should be neglected to arrest General Arnold, I have great pleasure in acquainting her that he is now safe on board a British vessel.”

But while the principal criminal was safe, it was far otherwise with the agent who had been employed in this perilous business. On Sunday, from his room in Jameson’s quarters, André had written a letter to Washington, pathetic in its frank simplicity, setting forth his high position in the British army, and telling his story without any attempt at evasion. From the first there could be no doubt as to the nature of his case, yet André for the moment did not fully comprehend it. On Thursday, the 28th, he was taken across the river to Tappan, where the main army was encamped. His escort, Major Tallmadge, was a graduate of Yale College and a classmate of Nathan Hale, whom General Howe had hanged as a spy four years before. Tallmadge had begun to feel a warm interest in André, and as they rode their horses side by side into Tappan, when his prisoner asked how his case would probably be regarded, Tallmadge’s countenance fell, and it was not until the question had been twice repeated that he replied by a gentle allusion to the fate of his lamented classmate. “ But surely,” said poor André, “ you do not consider his case and mine alike! ” “ They are precisely similar,” answered Tallmadge gravely, “ and similar will be your fate.”

Next day a court-martial of fourteen generals was assembled, with Greene presiding, to sit in judgment on the unfortunate young officer. “ It is impossible to save him,” said the kindly Steuben, who was one of the judges. “ Would to God the wretch who has drawn him to his death might be made to suffer in his stead ! ” The opinion of the court was unanimous that André had acted as a spy, and incurred the penalty of death. Washington allowed a brief respite, that Sir Henry Clinton’s views might be considered. The British commander, in his sore distress over the danger of his young friend, could find no better grounds to allege in his defense than that he had, presumably, gone ashore under a flag of truce, and that when taken he certainly was traveling under the protection of a pass which Arnold, in the ordinary exercise of his authority, had a right to grant. But clearly these safeguards were vitiated by the treasonable purpose of the commander who granted them, and in availing himself of them André, who was privy to this treasonable purpose, took his life in his hands as completely as any ordinary spy would do. Andre himself had already candidly admitted before the court " that it was impossible for him to suppose that he came ashore under the sanction of a flag;” and Washington struck to the root of the matter, as he invariably did, in his letter to Clinton, where he said that André “ was employed in the execution of measures very foreign to the objects of flags of truce, and such as they were never meant to authorize or countenance in the most distant degree.” The argument was conclusive, but it was not strange that the British general should have been slow to admit its force. He begged that the question might be submitted to an impartial committee, consisting of Knyphausen from the one army and Rocliambeau from the other; but as no question had arisen which the court-martial was not thoroughly competent to decide, Washington very properly refused to permit such an unusual proceeding. Lastly, Clinton asked that André might be exchanged for Christopher Gadsden, who had been taken in the capture of Charleston, and was then imprisoned at St. Augustine. At the same time, a letter from Arnold to Washington, with characteristic want of tact, hinting at retaliation upon the persons of sundry South Carolinian prisoners, was received with silent contempt.

There was a general feeling in the American army that if Arnold himself could be surrendered to justice, it might perhaps be well to set free the less guilty victim by an act of executive clemency; and Greene gave expression to this feeling in an interview with Lieutenant-General Robertson, whom Clinton sent up on Sunday, the 1st of October, to plead for André’s life. No such suggestion could be made in the form of an official proposal. Under no circumstances could Clinton be expected to betray the man from whose crime he had sought to profit, and who had nowthrown himself upon him for protection. Nevertheless, in a roundabout way the suggestion was made. On Saturday, Captain Ogden, with an escort of twenty-five men and a flag of truce, was sent down to Paulus Hook with letters for Clinton, and he contrived to whisper to the commandant there that if in any way Arnold might be suffered to slip into the hands of the Americans André would be set free. It was Lafayette who had authorized Ogden to offer the suggestion, and so, apparently, Washington must have connived at it; but Clinton, naturally, refused to entertain the idea for a moment. The conference between Greene and Robertson led to nothing. A petition from André, in which he begged to be shot rather than hanged, was duly considered and rejected ; and, accordingly, on Monday, the 2d of October, the ninth day after his capture by the yeomen at Tarrytown, the adjutant-general of the British army was led to the gallows. His remains were buried near the spot where he suffered, but in 1821 they were disinterred and removed to Westminster Abbey.

The fate of this gallant young officer has always called forth tender commiseration, due partly to his high position and his engaging personal qualities, but chiefly, no doubt, to the fact that, while he suffered the penalty of the law, the chief conspirator escaped. One does not, easily get rid of a vague sense of injustice in this, but the injustice was not of man’s contriving. But for the remarkable series of accidents — if it be philosophical to call them so — resulting in André’s capture, the treason would very likely have been successful, and the cause of American independence might have been for the moment ruined. But for an equally remarkable series of accidents Arnold would not have received warning in time to escape. If both had been captured, both would probably have been hanged. Certainly both alike had incurred the penalty of death. It was not the fault of Washington or of the court-martial that the chief offender went unpunished, and in nowise was André made a scapegoat for Arnold. It is right that we should feel pity for the fate of André ; but it is unfortunate that pity should be permitted to cloud the judgment of the historian, as in the case of Lord Mahon, who stands almost alone among competent writers in impugning the justice of André’s sentence. One remark of Lord Mahon’s I am tempted to quote, as an amusing instance of that certain air of “ condescension ” which Mr. Lowell has observed in our British cousins. He seeks to throw discredit upon the court-martial by gravely assuming that the American generals must, of course, have been ignorant men, “who had probably never so much as heard the names of Vattel or Puffendorf,” and, accordingly, “could be no fit judges on any nice or doubtful point ” of military law. Now, of the twelve American generals who sat in judgment on André, at least seven were men of excellent education, two of them having taken degrees at Harvard, and two at English universities. Greene, the president, a self-educated man, who used in leisure moments to read Latin poets by the light of his camp-fire, had paid especial attention to military law, and had carefully read and copiously annotated his copy of Vattel. The judgment of these twelve men agreed with that of Steuben (formerly a staff officer of Frederick the Great) and Lafayette, who sat with them on the court-martial ; and, moreover, no nice or intricate questions were raised. It was natural enough that André’s friends should make the most of the fact that when captured he was traveling under a pass granted by the commander of West Point; but to ask the court-martial to accept such a plea was not introducing any nice or doubtful question; it was simply contending that “the willful abuse of a privilege is entitled to the same respect as its legitimate exercise.” Accordingly, historians on both sides of the Atlantic have generally admitted the justice of André’s sentence, though sometimes its rigorous execution has been censured as an act of unnecessary severity. Yet if we withdraw our attention for a moment from the irrelevant fact that the British adjutant-general was an amiable and interesting young man, and concentrate it upon the essential fact that he had come within our lines to aid a treacherous commander in betraying his post, we cannot fail to see that there is no principle of military policy upon which ordinary spies are rigorously put to death which does not apply with tenfold force to the case of André. Moreover, while it is an undoubted fact that military morality permits, and sometimes applauds, such enterprises as that in which André lost his life, I cannot but feel that the flavor of treachery which clings about it must somewhat weaken the sympathy we should otherwise freely accord ; and I find myself agreeing with the British historian, Mr. Massey, when he doubts “whether services of this character entitle his memory to the honors of Westminster Abbey.”

As for Arnold, his fall had been as terrible as that of Milton’s rebellious archangel, and we may well believe his state of mind to have been desperate. It was said that on hearing of Captain Ogden’s suggestion as to the only possible means of saving André, Arnold went to Clinton and offered to surrender himself as a ransom for his fellow-conspirator. This story was published in the London Morning Herald in February, 1782, by Captain Battersby, of the 29th regiment, — one of the “Sam Adams” regiments. Battersby was in New York in September, 1780, and was on terms of intimacy with members of Clinton’s staff. In the absence of further evidence, one must beware of attaching too much weight to such a story. Yet it is not inconsistent with what we know of Arnold’s impulsive nature. In the agony of his sudden overthrow it may well have seemed that there was nothing left to live for, and a death thus savoring of romantic self-sacrifice might serve to lighten the burden of his shame as nothing else could. Like many men of weak integrity, Arnold was over-sensitive to public opinion, and his treason, as he had planned it, though equally indefensible in point of morality, was something very different from what it seemed now that it was frustrated. It was not for this that he had bartered his soul to Satan. He had aimed at an end so vast that, when once attained, it might be hoped that the nefarious means employed would be overlooked, and that in Arnold, the brilliant general who had restored America to her old allegiance, posterity would see the counterpart of that other general who, for bringing back Charles Stuart to his father’s throne, was rewarded with the dukedom of Albemarle. Now he had lost everything, and got nothing in exchange but £6000 sterling and a brigadiership in the British army. He had sold himself cheap, after all, and incurred such hatred and contempt that for a long time, by a righteous retribution, even his past services were forgotten. Even such weak creatures as Gates could now point the finger of scorn at him, while Washington, his steadfast friend, could never speak of him again without a shudder. From men less reticent than Washington strong words were heard. “ What do you think of the damnable doings of that diabolical dog ? ” wrote Colonel Otho Williams to Arnold’s old friend and fellow in the victory of Saratoga, Daniel Morgan. “ Curse on his folly and perfidy,” said Greene, “ how mortifying to think that he is a New Englander ! ” These were the men who could best appreciate the hard treatment Arnold had received from Congress. But in the frightful abyss of his crime all such considerations were instantly swallowed up and lost. No amount of personal wrong could for a moment excuse or even palliate such a false step as he had taken.

Within three months from the time when his treason was discovered, Arnold was sent by Sir Henry Clinton on a marauding expedition into Virginia, and in the course of one of his raids an American captain was taken prisoner. “ What do you suppose my fate would be,” Arnold is said to have inquired, “ if my misguided countrymen were to take me prisoner ? ” The captain’s reply was prompt and frank : “ They would cut off the leg that was wounded at Quebec and Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and the rest of you they would hang on a gibbet.” After the close of the war, when Arnold, accompanied by his wife, made England his home, it is said that he sometimes had to encounter similar expressions of contempt. The Earl of Surrey once, seeing him in the gallery of the House of Commons, asked the Speaker to have him put out, that the House might not be contaminated by the presence of such a traitor. The story is not well authenticated ; but it is certain that in 1792 tire Earl of Lauderdale used such language about him in the House of Lords as to lead to a bloodless duel between Arnold and the noble earl. It does not appear, however, that Arnold was universally despised in England. Influenced by the political passions of the day, many persons were ready to condone his crime ; and his generous and affectionate nature won him many friends. It is said that so high-minded a man as Lord Cornwallis became attached to him, and always treated him with respect.

Mrs. Arnold proved herself a devoted wife and mother ; and the record of her four sons, during long years of service in the British army, was highly honorable. The second son, Lieutenant-General Sir James Robertson Arnold, served with distinction in the wars against Napoleon. A grandson who was killed in the Crimean war was especially mentioned by Lord Raglan for valor and skill. Another grandson, the Rev. Edward Arnold, is now rector of Great Massingham, in Norfolk. The family has intermarried with the peerage, and has secured for itself an honorable place among the landed gentry of England. But the disgrace of their ancestor has always been keenly felt by them. At Surinam, in 1804, James Robertson Arnold, then a lieutenant, begged the privilege of leading a desperate forlorn hope, that he might redeem the family name from the odium which attached to it; and he acquitted himself in a way that was worthy of his father in the days of Quebec and Saratoga. All the family tradition goes to show that the last years of Benedict Arnold in London were years of bitter remorse and self-reproach. The great name which he had so gallantly won and so wretchedly lost left him no repose by night or day. The iron frame, which had withstood the fatigue of so many trying battlefields and still more trying marches through the wilderness, broke down at last under the slow torture of lost friendships and merited disgrace. In the last sail days in London, in June, 1801, the family tradition says that Arnold’s mind kept reverting to his old friendship with Washington. He had always carefully preserved the American uniform which he wore on the day when he made his escape to the Vulture; and now as, broken in spirit and weary of life, he felt the last moments coming, he called for this uniform and put it on, and decorated himself with the epaulettes and sword-knot which Washington had given him after the victory of Saratoga. " Let me die,” said he, in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever putting on any other ! ”

As we thus reach the end of one of the saddest episodes in American history, our sympathy cannot fail for the moment to go out toward the sufferer, nor can we help contrasting these passionate dying words with the last cynical scoff of that other traitor, Charles Lee, when he begged that he might not be buried within a mile of any church, as he did not wish to keep bad company after death. From beginning to end the story of Lee is little more than a vulgar melodrama ; but into the story of Arnold there enters that element of awe and pity which, as Aristotle pointed out, is an essential part of real tragedy. That Arnold had been very shabbily treated, long before any thought of treason entered his mind, is not to be denied. That he may honestly have come to consider the American cause hopeless, that he may really have lost his interest in it because of the French alliance, — all this is quite possible. Such considerations might have justified him in resigning his commission ; or even, had he openly and frankly gone over to the enemy, much as we should have deplored such a step, some persons would always have been found to judge him leniently, and accord him the credit of acting upon principle. But the dark and crooked course which he did choose left open no alternative but that of unqualified condemnation. If we feel less of contempt and more of sorrow in the ease of Arnold than in the case of such a weakling as Charles Lee, our verdict is not the less unmitigated. Arnold’s fall was by far the more terrible, as he fell from a greater height, and into a depth than which none could be lower. It is only fair that we should recall his services to the cause of American independence, which were unquestionably greater than those of any other man in the Continental army except Washington and Greene. But it is part of the natural penalty that attaches to backsliding such as his, that when we hear the name of Benedict Arnold these are not the things which it suggests to our minds, but the name stands, and will always stand, as a symbol of unfaithfulness to trust.

John Fiske.

  1. See Atlantic Monthly, March, 1889.
  2. The story of his attempt to enter the service of Luzerne, the French minister, rests upon very insufficient authority.
  3. The charge against Mrs. Arnold, in Parton’s Life of Burr, i. 126, is conclusively refuted by Sabine, in his Loyalists of the American Revolution, i172-178, I think there can be no doubt that Burr lied.