W hen we last departed Benedict Arnold in the spring of 1779, the New Havener and American war hero, then the military commander of the colonial capital Philadelphia, was under siege, and not by the British. Having used his official position to make unseemly financial and other gains, Arnold found himself the subject of an impending court martial, with the Continental Congress—albeit, a divided one—leaving the door open to an even more dangerous civilian trial.
Lawyer and Pennsylvania congressional delegate Joseph Reed spearheaded the effort to bring Arnold up on corruption charges. As Reed set about gathering evidence and witnesses to present before the military court, Arnold—under the guise of an innocent man of principle with nothing to hide, but with the actual purpose of making it harder for Reed to put a case together—sent a plea to commander-in-chief George Washington, who would oversee the proceedings, for an expedited trial date:
If Your Excellency thinks me a criminal, for Heaven’s sake let me be immediately tried, and, if found guilty, executed. I want no favor; I ask only justice. … Having made every sacrifice of fortune and blood, and become a cripple in the service of my country, I little expected to meet the ungrateful returns I have received from my countrymen… Delay in the present case is worse than death.
By the time that dramatic correspondence was delivered in mid-May, Arnold had already initiated secret communications with the British, inquiring about his worth to them as a turncoat. His new wife, Peggy Arnold—formerly Peggy Shippen, and a member of Philadelphia’s social elite—was his co-conspirator, and she supplied the contacts they needed. The couple’s first courier was the Tory sympathizer Joseph Stansbury, a pottery and utensils trader based in Philadelphia, and their primary contact behind enemy lines was the British captain John André, stationed in New York with the British commander-in-chief Sir Henry Clinton, Washington’s red-coated counterpart, who was in on the plot. The sides would use codes written in invisible ink, hidden between the lines of innocuous-seeming letters between Peggy and her friends, to relay messages back and forth.
On June 1, Arnold’s military trial finally commenced, but the general did not get the speedy affair he’d so desperately wanted. Shortly after the proceedings began, the British were seen advancing up the Hudson, and the rebel military figures that had convened, including Washington, were forced back into battle mode. The trial—from which Arnold would emerge with a formal reprimand, nothing more—wouldn’t proceed for another six months.
In the meantime, the Arnolds, with the husband having acquired the wife’s taste for the finer things in life, became convinced that their only path to fortune lay with the British. That was not an unreasonable belief. In service to the rebel cause, Benedict Arnold’s liquid assets had run dry; so had the unfettered access to city and military stores that had allowed him to live so well during his first year in Philadelphia. His requests for outstanding compensation from Congress, believed owed to him for services rendered and investments made, but not well-documented, fell on wary ears; after long, laborious and contentious negotiations, Congress’s Treasury Board gave him a pittance. He was also unable to make money in the mercantile trade that had been his livelihood before the war, sitting as he was under the cloud of suspicion aroused by Joseph Reed and other lawmakers, where potential trade partners dared not join him. Adding further pressure, the couple’s first child together, Edward Shippen Arnold, was carried and born during this time.
Over the next many months, Benedict Arnold engaged in cautious negotiations with André that ultimately proved much more fruitful than his dealings with Congress had. Arnold’s immediate desire was to openly join the British side, trading his military leadership and great knowledge of the rebellion’s inner workings for British riches and land deeds that could set his family up for a prosperous future. André, on the other hand, wanted Arnold to play the part of mole and spoiler, becoming a consistent source of actionable intelligence while angling his way into a position where he might hand-deliver a decisive British victory at a vital moment.
The latter tack prevailed. Arnold fed information to the British while setting his sights on a command post the British considered strategically vital: West Point, located about 50 miles up the Hudson River from British-held New York City. Overtaking it would give the British breathing room in New York and control of useful land routes to and from New England and Canada.
In the spring of 1780, the Arnolds enlisted a pair of powerful pawns in their effort to persuade Washington to give West Point to Arnold, convincing New York congressmen Philip Schuyler and Robert Livingston to urge the appointment for the war hero they respected. Meanwhile, knowing that his assets would be stripped once the treason had been exposed, Arnold rushed to convert his remaining holdings to gold, sterling or cash. Returning briefly to New Haven to sell his old home in the city, he set the asking price at £1,000 in gold—or £500 in paper, an eye-raising concession which he explained by saying he had an “opportunity of making a purchase that is convenient for me.”
Leaving a representative in charge of the sale, he hurried back to Washington’s side, where he continued whispering in the commander’s unsuspecting ear. Finally, on August 3, Washington gave Arnold command of West Point. Soon after, Arnold reported to André and Clinton that Washington planned to lead an all-out attack on New York City from West Point while a brigade of 6,000 French reinforcements invaded from the direction of the Long Island Sound. If the British could take the northern fortress at just the right moment, Washington’s troops wouldn’t make it to New York, and the French forces, expecting support that wasn’t coming, would fall.
But before any of that could happen, the traitor and his redcoat benefactor needed to meet in person. Until these final stages, frustrations had attended every back-and-forth: unreliable couriers might lose or mis-deliver messages, and the messages themselves might confuse one party or the other, with no opportunity for clarification or confirmation. Misunderstandings could fester; ambiguities could swell. Uncertainty meant too much risk of finding the plot undone and their necks at the gallows.
It was under those stresses that, early on the morning of Friday, September 22, 1780, Benedict Arnold and John André met in the glow of lantern’s light, making last preparations for the pivotal handover of West Point to the British.
We all know what happened next, generally. But specifically? Find out in our next exploration of General Benedict Arnold’s tortured, tragic, traitorous tale.
Written by Dan Mims. Image depicts Benedict Arnold (left) and John André (right).