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This Day in History: Benedict Arnold’s treachery exposed

On this day in 1780, British Major John André writes a letter to George Washington. He’d been caught with incriminating papers in his boots! His capture would ultimately expose Benedict Arnold as a traitor.

Arnold had become resentful during the course of the war. He felt that he’d been passed over for promotions and wasn’t getting proper credit for his achievements. After the Battle of Saratoga, he’d married a Loyalist and been introduced to André. Now he was plotting with André to turn over West Point to the British.

The two men arranged a potentially dangerous meeting. André boarded a British sloop, the Vulture, and awaited a rowboat sent by Arnold. The two men met on shore in the early morning hours, laying their plans. The meeting ended too late for André to return to the Vulture. He’d have to wait for nightfall. (See September 21 history post.)

The delay didn’t work out too well for André. Americans saw and fired upon the Vulture the next day, and the British sloop was forced to move further out to sea. André would need to return to the British via land. Arnold gave him a pass with a fake name, John Anderson. The local who had been helping Arnold, Joshua Smith, agreed to go with André.

At this juncture, André was convinced to do two things that he disliked: First, he was convinced to put papers containing information about West Point in his boots. Second, he was convinced to ditch his British uniform in favor of civilian clothing.

Both decisions turned out to be huge mistakes.

Smith accompanied André on the first part of his journey, but then he left André to traverse the last 15 miles on his own. It was during these last miles that André ran into three Americans who found the damning documents in his boots. André was turned in to a nearby American post, headed by Colonel John Jameson.

Can you believe that Jameson was a subordinate of Arnold? He sent the documents to George Washington, but he also felt duty-bound to send Arnold a letter about these events. Interestingly, Jameson nearly sent André himself to Arnold, but Benjamin Tallmadge intervened. Tallmadge, the head of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, suspected that something was amiss.

In the meantime, André knew that he was headed for the hangman’s noose. The only punishment for spies was death. Because he’d been caught behind American lines in civilian clothes, instead of his uniform, he would be labeled a spy. He wrote a letter to Washington, explaining his side of the story:

“Against my stipulation, my intention, and without my knowledge beforehand, I was conducted within one of your posts,” he wrote. “Your Excellency may conceive my sensation on this occasion, and will imagine how much more must I have been affected by a refusal to reconduct me back the next night as I had been brought. . . . [Thus] was I betrayed (being adjutant-general of the British army) into the vile condition of an enemy in disguise within your posts.”

Interestingly, the couriers carrying all these assorted messages did not seem to realize that they were supposed to be in a hurry. Thirty-six hours after André’s capture, neither Washington nor Arnold knew that André had been caught.

Neither realized that a crisis was looming.

Instead, the morning of September 25 found Washington approaching West Point for an anticipated visit and inspection. Arnold was at his headquarters with his wife, preparing to welcome the General for breakfast. He was interrupted by the courier from Jameson, carrying news of André’s capture.

What happened next? Stay tuned. 

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