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This Week in History:
September 22 - 28, 1780
'Treason of the Darkest Dye'

September 2013

Benedict Arnold.

On Sept. 21, 1780, General Benedict Arnold, the Commander of the Continental Army garrison at West Point, traveled down the Hudson River to a secret meeting with British Major John Andre. Andre served as Adjutant General to Sir Henry Clinton, who commanded the British troops at New York City. The meeting lasted almost until dawn, and when it ended, the two had settled the final details of how Arnold would put up only token resistance to a surprise British attack, and would then surrender the strategically crucial Hudson River post to His Majesty's troops. It was a goal the British had failed to reach in 1778, when General John Burgoyne moved south from Canada, but was stopped short and his entire army captured at Saratoga. British control of the Hudson would have separated the five New England colonies from the other eight, leading to an almost impossible situation for the Continental Army.

How had Benedict Arnold, up until this time a hero of the American Revolution, come to this pass? Several American generals, such as John Sullivan, Daniel Morgan, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam, had been sounded out by the British as to whether gold could induce them to change sides, and they had all indignantly refused. But Arnold himself had initiated contact with the British, despite his brave service in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, his winter march from Maine to Quebec where he was badly wounded, and his spectacular charges against the British at Saratoga, where he was again injured.

After Saratoga, Arnold joined Washington at Valley Forge, but he was still smarting from the fact that Congress had promoted five brigadier generals ahead of him, when all five were junior to him in service. After his brilliant victory at Danbury, Connecticut, Arnold had been promoted to Major General by Congress, but his seniority was not restored. General Washington, who greatly admired Arnold's military ability, twice persuaded him not to resign from the Army in a pique over his offended dignity. When the British ended their occupation of Philadelphia in the spring, Washington appointed Arnold as the military governor of Philadelphia, hoping that he would recuperate from his injuries and then rejoin the Army in a leading position.

But the British occupation of Philadelphia had created an atmosphere which Arnold, filled with resentment against his treatment by Congress, was not able to handle. While the Continental Army froze and starved at Valley Forge, the British officer corps indulged in a constant round of parties, plays, dances, gambling, and social events with Philadelphia's wealthy Tories. Some officers were even invited to live in the Tory houses, while others commandeered the houses of patriots. Captain John Andre, who often dealt with intelligence matters, occupied the home of Benjamin Franklin, who later discovered that his portrait painted by Benjamin West was missing, as well as some of his books and a printing press.

Life for the less well-off citizens of Philadelphia began to be singularly unpleasant. Ten thousand British troops were billeted in the city, plus the officers and camp followers. As a result, prices skyrocketed, shortages developed, and the filth and garbage mounted. Independence Hall was converted into a prison for American officers and a barracks for the British troops. The sanitation became so bad that the barracks commander had to issue an order in February of 1778 which stated that "some of the men have been so Beastly as to ease themselves on the Stairs and Lower area of the House between Doors." The sentries were ordered to confine "any man who shall presume to make use of any other place whatever than the Privy for his Necessary Occasions."

When British General William Howe, who was in charge of the occupation, was about to return to London, Captain Andre designed and coordinated a lavish farewell entertainment called the Mischianza, an Italian term for an extravagant medley of medieval tournament jousting followed by music, dancing and a banquet. The lady whose colors Andre wore in the jousting tournament was Peggy Shippen, the socially prominent daughter of a merchant with Tory leanings. At midnight, the lavish banquet, served by 24 black servants in Oriental costumes, featured a total of 1,200 dishes. The degeneracy of the affair even disturbed some of the British. The London Chronicle criticized it as "nauseous" and proof that General Howe preferred "the pleasure of indolence to a discharge of his duty to the country." Admiral Howe's private secretary wrote that "Every man of Sense, among ourselves, tho's not unwilling to pay a due respect, was ashamed of the way of doing it."

As soon as the British left, Benedict Arnold entered the city as its military governor, and was soon enjoying the hospitality of the Tories just as General Howe had done. He was desperate for money, since his accounts had not yet been reimbursed by Congress, and borrowed from anyone he could. He engaged in several questionable transactions regarding trade, and soon aroused the suspicion and enmity of many of the patriot members of the Pennsylvania Government.

Peggy Shippen and daughter.

Having recently become a widower, Arnold began to court Peggy Shippen, although he was more than twice her age. Peggy was used to luxuries, and Arnold spent freely to impress her. Soon, he and Peggy were corresponding with Peggy's former jousting champion, John Andre, who served as a go-between to Sir Henry Clinton in New York. Arnold offered to join the British cause and demanded a large sum of money, but Clinton replied that what he had to offer in his present situation was not worth the price.

For over a year, Arnold corresponded with Andre while trying to convince Clinton of his worth. Finally, General Washington offered Arnold the command of the left wing of the Continental Army, but Arnold convinced him that his leg was still unhealed, and that a quiet post like West Point would better suit his diminished abilities. Washington unwillingly granted him the post, and Arnold arrived at West Point in early August. Now, he controlled something of the highest value to Henry Clinton.

After Arnold and Andre met on Sept. 21, Arnold gave Andre a safe conduct pass so that he, in civilian garb, could make it back to the British lines. As he entered Tarrytown, which was located in what was called "the neutral ground" between the two lines, Andre was stopped by three American irregulars. Seeing one in a British Army coat, he thought he had reached safety and blurted out that he was a British officer. When he realized his mistake, he changed his story and showed Arnold's pass, but his captors were suspicious and took him to an American post.

The papers found in his boot were extremely incriminating—a map of the West Point fortifications, a report by an American engineer on how to defend the post, and a copy of the minutes of Washington's last staff meeting. The papers were sent to Washington, who was travelling back to West Point from meeting with his French allies at Hartford. But a report was also sent to Arnold at West Point, for Andre's captors did not realize how Andre had obtained the maps. Expecting Washington to arrive any minute, Arnold threw himself onto his barge and had his crew row him down the Hudson to the British ship "Vulture," pretending he was going on a diplomatic mission. When safe on the British ship, he offered promotions in the British Army to his soldiers, but his coxswain, James Larvey, replied, "No, Sir. One coat is enough for me to wear at a time." Arnold then turned on his faithful crew and arrested them as prisoners of war.

When Washington learned of Arnold's treachery he sent Alexander Hamilton down the Hudson to cut him off, but it was too late. Fearing that the British would immediately attack, because now that they had Arnold they had no need of the maps, Washington put West Point on alert, placed Major Andre under heavy guard (he admitted he would have led one of the attacking parties), and sent messages to Nathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne to rush reinforcements up the Hudson. A court martial was convened on Sept. 29, and Major Andre was found guilty of acting as a spy. He was executed on Oct. 2 at Washington's headquarters at Tappan, New York.

Benedict Arnold reached New York City safely and received six thousand pounds and a provisional generalship in the British Army. But many younger British officers refused to serve under him, and the older officers avoided him. His treachery goaded him to excesses, as he led his troops in plundering and burning towns in Virginia and his native state of Connecticut. Finally, he settled in London after the American victory at Yorktown but before Britain had agreed to a peace. Ironically, King George III, who was still desperate to exert his authority over both Parliament and his lost American colonies, consulted Arnold about how the war could still be won. But Arnold's relation to the king was short-lived, for he had to be very careful not to become a double traitor. Sentiment in Britain had turned against the war, especially against its high cost, and the House of Commons had passed a resolution stating that anyone who opposed making peace with America was a traitor to Great Britain!


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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