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This Day in History: Washington discovers Benedict Arnold’s betrayal

On this day in 1780, George Washington discovers Benedict Arnold’s treachery. “Arnold has betrayed us!” he reportedly lamented. “Whom can we trust now?”

What a shock! Arnold was one of Washington’s most trusted generals, but now Washington knew that he’d been plotting to turn over West Point to the British.

What gave Arnold away? Mere days before, Arnold had met with British Major John André. Unfortunately for the conspirators, André was caught with incriminating papers on his way back to British lines. Couriers were dispatched to both Washington and Arnold, informing them of the capture. The couriers were slow, however, and the morning of September 25 dawned with both men completely unaware of the situation. (See September 21 and 24 posts.)

Instead, Washington was headed toward West Point for a pre-planned visit. Arnold was at his headquarters, planning to meet Washington for breakfast.

Washington was in no hurry to get to Arnold’s that morning! He stopped to inspect a some defensive lines. When his aides urged that he hurry to breakfast, he joked that they were simply impatient to see Arnold’s pretty wife. In the meantime, Arnold was at his headquarters receiving a messenger. He thought it was simply a routine matter—until he read what was inside.

André had been captured. Arnold could be exposed at any minute!

Arnold dashed upstairs to tell his wife, a Loyalist and a co-conspirator, that he was leaving. She was a woman and a young mother. No one would suspect her. He fled the building just moments before Washington arrived, vaguely yelling to observers that he needed to prepare West Point for Washington’s arrival.

That’s not where he went, of course. By noon, he’d made his way to a British sloop, the Vulture. He’d escaped!

Washington and his aides were puzzled when Arnold never showed up, but the pieces began to come together as the day progressed: A courier finally arrived, passing on the message about André’s capture and delivering the papers that had been found. Peggy Arnold began raving like a mad woman! The American officers assumed that she was reeling from the shock of Arnold’s treachery.

Little did they know that she was play-acting, giving Arnold more time to escape and protecting herself from suspicion.

Alexander Hamilton certainly fell for the act! He wrote of Peggy, an “amiable woman frantic with distress for the loss of a husband she tenderly loved . . . . It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time intirely lost her senses. . . . one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom . . . . 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.”

“Peggy Arnold,” Washington biographer Ron Chernow notes, “played her mad scene to perfection. Blinded by chivalry, Washington, Hamilton, and Lafayette were duped by her lunatic ravings, if not aroused by her immodest getup.”

Did I forget to mention that Peggy had on only her “morning gown with few other clothes . . . too few to be seen even by a gentleman of the family, much less by many strangers”?

I guess that girl knew what she was doing?

At the end of the day, Arnold had escaped, Peggy had the men around her fooled, and poor André was still in American custody.

So what happened to André? I’ll post the finale to the story in a few days.

Primary Sources:

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