The Hudson River was shrouded in fog with the night sky overcast as the rowboat was lowered from the British sloop Vulture anchored just south of West Point. The sole passenger in the rowboat was inching upriver on a mission mired in secrecy, intrigue and treachery.
On that night of September 21, 1780 he slipped ashore where he met his contact in the woods near Stony Point, New York, and now both of them traveled to the home of Joshua Smith, a British loyalist and collaborator to complete the deal.
The man in the rowboat was John Andre, head of the British Secret Intelligence in North America. The one he met was Major General Benedict Arnold, commander of American forces at West Point.
This was to be the culmination of negotiations that had dragged on for months, regarding Arnold’s defection to the British and his surrender of West Point, the key to the control of Hudson River Valley and, ultimately, all of New England.
Talking through the night Arnold agreed to sell his loyalty for 20,000 British pounds, surrendering West Point and accepting equal rank and pay in the British army. Andre accepted a sheaf of documents and prepared to return to the Vulture. During the night, however, the Vulture was bombarded from shore by American artillery and withdrew downriver. Smith escorted Andre back to the Vulture, only to find it missing. Now he needed to cross overland through American held territory.
To aid Andre’s escape through American lines he was given civilian clothes and a pass from Arnold under the name Andre Anderson. Hidden in his boot were the papers, in Arnold’s handwriting, showing the British how to take West Point.
Andre rode safely until 9 in the morning when he was stopped near Tarrytown, New York by three armed men. Andre, assuming that they were British since one of the men was wearing a Hessian soldier’s overcoat, identified himself as a British officer telling them that he must not be detained. The three men in turn told him they were Americans and that he was now their prisoner.
Andre was interrogated at American army headquarters in Tappan, New York, and with the documents found in his boot finally admitted who he really was. All went well at first for Andre since the post commander decided to send him to West Point, never suspecting that a high ranking officer of the revolution could be a turncoat. But just in time, the head of the Continental Army Intelligence arrived, and he was aware that a high ranking officer was planning to defect to the British but was unsure who it was and put a stop to Andre’s transfer.
The post commander, however, insisted on sending a note to Arnold informing him of the entire situation, fearing that his army career would be wrecked by having wrongly believed his general was the traitor. Arnold received the note while at breakfast with his officers, made an excuse to leave the room and was never seen there again.
On September 28, 1780 Andre was found guilty of being behind American lines “under a feigned name and in a disguised habit” and was hanged on October 2, 1780. Arnold eventually reappeared, now wearing the uniform of a British major general, leading British troops against the Americans.
And for 233 years now the name Benedict Arnold has been synonymous with the word traitor.
The Hudson River valley where our son and daughter-in-law live is rich in Revolutionary war history. The locations where some of these events took place are well known to both my wife Marge and I. We have walked the grounds of West Point, and Stony Point, where the secret meeting took place, is south from the kids hometown, while Tarrytown, where Andre was arrested is just down the road.