Coming Undone

Coming Undone

When we last withdrew from the saga of New Havener Benedict Arnold, it was early in the morning on September 22, 1780. Arnold was meeting, face-to-face for the first time, the man who’d been receiving his secret messages behind enemy lines: the redcoat major John André, close aide and confidant to Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief. The two conspirators were finalizing details for Arnold’s surrender of West Point, the rebel stronghold where he’d just been given command by General George Washington, who still believed Arnold was a loyal friend and patriot.

Less than 50 miles north of British headquarters in Manhattan, West Point constituted a pivotal location. In rebel hands, it complicated British supply chains between New York City and Canada and provided a staging point for a rebel invasion of New York. In English hands, it meant a bulwark against any future incursion and would cut off land routes between New England and the lower colonies while facilitating military and commercial activities along the Hudson River.

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Just how much was the fort worth to the British? Considering that they agreed to Arnold’s demand for £20,000 upon its delivery, it must have been quite a lot. According to online calculators, £20,000 in 1780 was the equivalent of some 3.5 million pounds (or 4.8 million US dollars) today. Arnold also requested “£10,000 and an annual stipend of £500” to be paid to him whether or not the handover succeeded; avoiding committing to those figures, the British replied that Arnold’s additional compensation would be determined later and that he wouldn’t have any “cause to complain” (James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy, 1953).

It was enough for Arnold. That September morning, he furnished André with documents detailing the weaknesses of the fortress at West Point. The pair went over their plans so exhaustively that each lost track of time, scuttling André’s intention to slip through enemy lines before sunrise under cover of dark. Instead, the pair were faced with a riskier path: Arnold wrote André an official pass meant to get him through any rebel checkpoints; the British agent also changed into clothes becoming a typical colonial civilian.

The next morning, André rode to New York City on horseback, with the treasonous documents—enough to ensure a trip to the gallows if discovered—stuffed into his boot. He was in Tarrytown, close to British-held territory, when three rebels with muskets stopped him. Flustered, André “aroused suspicions by first claiming to be British and only later showing Arnold’s pass” (Dave R. Palmer, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, 2006). The three men searched him and uncovered the incriminating documents, which they brought, along with André, to the rebel colonel John Jameson, stationed nearby. Confused by what he was seeing but aware that something was amiss, Jameson sent out two packets, one to Washington and—not realizing that the documents clearly implicated Arnold—another to the perpetrator himself, explaining in detail what had been found.

As it turned out, General Washington was at that very moment on his way to West Point to inspect Arnold’s efforts there as its new commander. Arnold, believing the plot still secret, was enjoying his breakfast, waiting for Washington to arrive, when the courier delivered Jameson’s message to him. He read it with shock, registering that his plot was undone and taking extra alarm at Jameson’s disclosure that he had simultaneously sent a similar note to Washington. Just then, Washington’s advance guard knocked on the door to say that the general would be arriving on the scene in minutes.

Arnold had to act quickly. He made an excuse to his companions for leaving the table, then hopped on a horse and rode like the wind for the British lines near New York City. He left behind his wife and co-conspirator Peggy Shippen—as well as their young child—likely on the assumption that she would escape heavy scrutiny, which she did.

Nobody gave chase, because the courier meant for Washington wouldn’t arrive for several more hours; but unlike Jameson, Washington immediately knew exactly what it all meant. He quickly set about sniffing out any co-conspirators and personally took command of West Point, preparing it for a British attack that seemed imminent and, given Arnold’s knowledge of the fortress and the forces and armaments stationed there, potentially devastating.

But the attack never came. With André captured and unable to deliver Arnold’s documents to General Clinton, the British hadn’t yet finalized a battle plan, let alone readied their troops and supplies, and they’d lost the element of surprise. Arnold and the knowledge he carried with him had made it to New York City, it’s true, but he was reeling with the potential consequences of what had just occurred. Would he ever see his wife and child again? Would he and his family still gain the fortune and prosperity they’d been promised? And what would become of André? Would the British trade Arnold back to the patriots to secure André’s life, sending Arnold to the noose instead?

Find out in our next, and final, chronicling of the life and times of Benedict Arnold.

Written by Dan Mims. Image above depicts Benedict Arnold (left) and George Washington.

Written by Dan Mims. This story was originally published on June 13, 2014.

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