Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 19: Arnold's Treason; Faction and Army Policy in Congress (August to December 1780) - The Life of George Washington
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CHAPTER 19: Arnold’s Treason; Faction and Army Policy in Congress (August to December 1780) - John Marshall, The Life of George Washington 
The Life of George Washington. Special Edition for Schools, ed. Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Arnold’s Treason; Faction and Army Policy in Congress (August to December 1780)
Treason and escape of Arnold.—Execution of Major André.—Proceedings of Congress respecting the army.—Major Tallmadge destroys the British stores at Coram.—The army retires into winter quarters.—Irruption of Major Carleton into New York.—European transactions.
1780While the public was anticipating great events from the combined arms of France and the United States, treason lay concealed in the American camp.
The great military services of General Arnold had secured to him a high place in the opinion of the army, and of his country. Not having recovered from his wounds, and having large accounts to settle, which required leisure, he was, on the evacuation of Philadelphia, appointed to the command in that place. Unfortunately, he did not possess that strength of principle, and correctness of judgment, which would have enabled him to resist the seductions to which his rank and reputation exposed him, in the metropolis of the Union. His expenses having swelled his debts to an amount which it was impossible to discharge, he entered into speculations which were unfortunate, and took shares in privateers1 which were unsuccessful. He relied on his claims against the United States, for the means of extricating himself from embarrassments in which his indiscretion had involved him; but they were greatly reduced by the commissioners, to whom they were referred; and, on his appeal to Congress, a committee reported that the commissioners had allowed more than he was entitled to receive.
He was charged with various acts of extortion on the citizens of Philadelphia, and with peculating2 the funds of the continent. Soured by these various causes of resentment, he indulged himself in angry reproaches against what he termed the ingratitude of his country; which provoked those around him, and gave great offence to the government. The executive of Pennsylvania exhibited formal charges against him to Congress, who directed that he should be brought before a court-martial.
In January, 1779, he was sentenced to be reprimanded by the commander-in-chief; which sentence, being approved by Congress, was carried into execution. His proud, unprincipled spirit revolted from the cause of his country, and determined him to seek an occasion to make the objects of his hatred the victims of his vengeance. Turning his eyes to West Point, as an acquisition which would give value to treason, he sought the command of that fortress, and addressed himself to the delegation of New York. One of the members recommended him to General Washington for that station; and soon afterwards, General Schuyler mentioned a letter from Arnold, intimating his wish to rejoin the army, but stating his inability to perform the active duties of the field. General Washington said that if, with a knowledge that West Point would be garrisoned by invalids and a few militia, he still preferred that situation to a command in the field, his wishes should certainly be indulged. Arnold caught at the proposition; and, in the beginning of August, repaired to camp, where he renewed the solicitations which had before been made indirectly; and was invested with the command he solicited.
He had previously, in a letter to Colonel Robinson,3 signified his change of principles, and his wish to restore himself to the favor of his prince by some signal proof of his repentance. This letter opened the way to a correspondence with Sir Henry Clinton, the immediate object of which, after obtaining the command of West Point, was to concert the means of betraying that important post to the British General. This business was entrusted to Major John André, an aid-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton, and Adjutant-General of the British army.4 A correspondence was carried on between that officer and Arnold, under a mercantile disguise, in the feigned names of Gustavus and Anderson; and at length, to facilitate their communications, the Vulture sloop of war moved up the North river, and took a station convenient for the purpose.5
Sept. 1780The time when General Washington met the Count de Rochambeau at Hartford, was selected for the final adjustment of the plan, and Major André came up the river and went on board the Vulture. Both parties repaired in the night to a house, without the American lines, which had been selected for the interview—André being brought under a passport for John Anderson, in a boat despatched from the shore. While the conference was yet unfinished, daylight appeared, and Arnold proposed that André should remain concealed till the succeeding night. When, in the following night his return to the Vulture was proposed, the boatmen refused to carry him, because she had shifted her station in consequence of a gun which had been moved to the shore without the knowledge of Arnold, and brought to bear upon her. Being thus reduced to the necessity of endeavoring to reach New York by land, he put on a plain suit of clothes, and received a pass from General Arnold, authorizing him, under the name of John Anderson, to proceed on the public service to the White Plains, or lower if he thought proper.
With this permit he had passed all the guards and posts on the road, and was proceeding to New York, when one of their militia men employed between the lines of the two armies, springing from his covert, seized the reins of his bridle and stopped his horse. André, instead of producing his pass, asked the man where he belonged? He replied, “to below;” a term implying that he was from New York. “And so,” said André, “am I.” He then declared himself to be a British officer, on urgent business, and begged that he might not be detained. The appearance of the other militia men disclosed his mistake too late to correct it. He offered a purse of gold and a valuable watch, with promises of ample reward from his government if they would permit his escape; but his offers were rejected, and his captors proceeded to search him. Papers in Arnold’s hand-writing, containing valuable information concerning West Point, were found concealed in his boots. To Lieutenant-Colonel Jameson, who commanded the scouting parties on the lines, he still maintained his assumed character; and requested Jameson to inform his commanding officer that Anderson was taken. On receiving the express conveying this communication, Arnold took refuge on board the Vulture. When sufficient time for his escape was supposed to have elapsed, André acknowledged himself to be the Adjutant-General of the British army. Jameson, seeking to correct the mischief of his indiscreet communication to Arnold, immediately despatched a packet to the commander-in-chief, containing the papers which had been discovered, with a letter from André.
Every precaution was immediately taken for the security of West Point; after which a board of general officers was called to report a state of André’s case, and to determine on his character and punishment. The board reported the essential facts which had appeared, with their opinion, that he was a spy, and ought to suffer death. The execution of this sentence was ordered to take place on the succeeding day. André wished to die like a soldier, not as a criminal, and requested this mitigation of his sentence, in a letter replete with the feelings of a man of sentiment and honor; but the occasion required that the example should make its full impression, and this request could not be granted.6 He met his fate with composure and dignity.
Great exertions were made by Sir Henry Clinton to have André considered, first as protected by a flag of truce, and afterwards as a prisoner of war. Even Arnold had the hardihood7 to interpose. He stated, among other arguments, that many of the most distinguished citizens of South Carolina who had forfeited their lives, and had hitherto been spared, could no longer be the subjects of clemency, should André suffer.
It may well be supposed that the interposition of Arnold could have no influence on Washington. He conveyed Mrs. Arnold to her husband in New York, and transmitted his clothes and baggage for which he had written. In no other respect were his letters noticed.
From motives of policy or of respect for his engagements, Sir Henry Clinton conferred on Arnold the commission of a brigadier-general, which he preserved throughout the war.*
When the probable consequences of this plot, had it been successful, were considered; and the combination of apparent accidents by which it was defeated, was recollected, all were filled with awful astonishment; and the devout perceived in the transaction, the hand of Providence guiding America to independence.
The thanks of Congress were voted to John Paulding, David Williams, and John Vanwert, the three militia men who had rendered this invaluable service; and a silver medal, with an inscription expressive of their fidelity and patriotism, was presented to each of them. As a farther evidence of national gratitude, a resolution was passed granting to each two hundred dollars per annum during life, to be paid in specie, or an equivalent in current money.
Aug. 1780The efforts of General Washington to obtain a permanent military force, or its best substitute, a regular system for filling the vacant ranks with drafts who should join the army on the first day of January in each year, were still continued. Great as were the embarrassments with which the governments of the states as well as that of the Union were surrounded, it is not easy to find adequate reasons for the neglect of representations so vitally interesting.
Private letters disclose the fact, that two parties still agitated Congress. One entered fully into the views of the commander-in-chief. The other, jealous of the army, and apprehensive of its hostility to liberty, were unwilling to give stability to its constitution. They seemed to dread the danger from the enemy to which its fluctuations must expose them, less than that which might be apprehended from its permanent character. They caught with avidity at every intelligence which encouraged the hope of a speedy peace, but entered reluctantly into measures founded on the supposition that the war might be of long duration. Perfectly acquainted with the extent of the jealousies entertained on this subject, although, to use his own expressions, in a private letter, “Heaven knows how unjustly,” General Washington had forborne to press his opinions on it so constantly as his own judgment directed. But the uncertainty of collecting a force to co-operate with the auxiliaries from France, was so peculiarly embarrassing that he at length resolved to conquer the delicacy by which he had been in some degree restrained, and to open himself fully on a subject which he deemed all-important to the success of the war.
In August, while looking anxiously for a reinforcement to the Chevalier de Ternay, which would give him the command of the American seas, and apprehensive that a failure on the part of the United States might disappoint the hopes founded on that superiority, he transmitted a letter to Congress, freely and fully imparting his sentiments on the state of things.
This very interesting letter contains an exact statement of American affairs, and a faithful picture of the consequences of the ruinous policy which had been pursued, drawn by the man best acquainted with them.
After long delays, a committee, which had been appointed for the purpose, presented their report for the reorganization of the army. This report being approved, was transmitted to the commander-in-chief for his consideration. His objections to it were stated at length and with great respect. Among them was its omission to make an adequate provision for the officers. “This,” he said, “should be the basis of the plan.” He was aware of the difficulty of making a present provision sufficiently ample to give satisfaction; but this only proved the expediency of making one for the future, and brought him to that which he had so frequently recommended as “the most economical, the most politic, and the most effectual that could be devised;” this was “half-pay for life.” He then enters into a full defence of this measure, and an examination of the objections to it.
This letter was taken into serious consideration; and the measures it recommended were pursued in almost every particular. Even the two great principles which were viewed with most jealousy—an army for the war, and half-pay for life—were adopted. It would have greatly abridged the calamities of America, could these resolutions have been carried into execution.
To place the officers of the army in a situation which would hold out to them the prospect of a comfortable old age in a country saved by their blood, their sufferings, and the labors of their best years, was an object which had been always dear to the heart of General Washington, and he had seized every opportunity to press it on Congress. That body had approached it slowly, taking step after step with apparent reluctance.
The first resolution on the subject, passed in May, 1778, allowed to all military officers who should continue in service during the war, and not hold any office of profit under the United States, or any of them, half-pay for seven years, if they lived so long. At the same time, the sum of eighty dollars was granted to every non-commissioned officer and soldier who should serve to the end of the war. In 1779, this subject was resumed. After much debate, its farther consideration was postponed, and the officers and soldiers were recommended to the attention of their several states, with a declaration that their patriotism, valor, and perseverance, in defence of the rights and liberties of their country, had entitled them to the gratitude, as well as the approbation of their fellow-citizens.
In 1780, a memorial8 from the general officers, depicting in strong terms the situation of the army, and requiring present support, and future provision, was answered by a reference to what had been already done, and by a declaration “that patience, self-denial, fortitude, and perseverance, and the cheerful sacrifice of time and health, are necessary virtues, which both the citizen and soldier are called to exercise, while struggling for the liberties of their country; and that moderation, frugality, and temperance, must be among the chief supports, as well as the brightest ornaments of that kind of civil government which is wisely instituted by the several states in this Union.”
This unfeeling, cold, philosophic lecture on the virtues of temperance to men who were often without food, and always scantily supplied, was ill calculated to assuage irritations fomented by past neglect. In a few days afterwards a more conciliating temper was manifested. The odious restriction, limiting the half-pay for seven years to those who should hold no post of profit under the United States, or any of them, was removed; and the bounty allowed the non-commissioned officers and privates was extended to the widows and orphans of those who had died, or should die in the service. At length the vote passed which has been stated, allowing half-pay for life to all officers who should serve in the armies of the United States to the end of the war.
Resolutions were also passed recommending it to the several states to make up the depreciation on the pay that had been received by the army; and declaring that their future services should be compensated in the money of the new emission, the value of which, it was supposed, might be kept up by taxes and by loans.
While the government was employed in maturing measures for the preservation of its military establishment, the season for actionNov. 1780 passed away. Towards the close of the campaign, a handsome enterprise was executed by Major Tallmadge, of Sheldon’s regiment of light dragoons, who had been generally stationed on the east side of the North river.9 He obtained information that a large magazine of forage had been collected at Coram, on Long Island, which was protected by the militia of the country, a small garrison in its neighborhood, and the cruisers in the Sound.
At the head of a detachment of eighty dismounted and ten mounted dragoons, he passed the Sound, where it was twenty miles wide, marched across the island in the night, surprised the fort, and entered the works without resistance. The garrison took refuge in two houses, and commenced a fire from the doors and windows. These were instantly forced open, and the whole party, amounting to fifty-four, among whom were a lieutenant-colonel, captain, and a subaltern, were killed or taken. The fort was demolished, and the magazines consumed by fire. The object of the expedition being accomplished, Major Tallmadge returned without the loss of a man. On the recommendation of General Washington, Congress passed a resolution expressing a high sense of the merits of those engaged in the enterprise.
Nearly at the same time, Major Carleton, at the head of one thousand men, composed of Europeans, tories, and Indians, made a sudden irruption into the northern parts of New York, and took possession of forts Ann and George, with their garrisons.10 At the same time, Sir John Johnson, at the head of a corps composed of the same materials, appeared on the Mohawk.11 Several sharp skirmishes were fought; and General Clinton’s brigade was ordered to that quarter, but before his arrival the invading armies had retired, after laying waste the country through which they passed.12
In December the troops were distributed in winter quarters, near Morristown, at Pompton, at West Point and its vicinity, and at Albany.
While the disorder of the American finances, and the debility of the government, determined Great Britain to persevere in offensive war against the United States, Europe assumed an aspect not less formidable to the permanent grandeur of that nation than hostile to its present views. In the summer of 1780, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, entered into the celebrated compact which has been generally denominated “the armed neutrality.” Holland had also declared a determination to accede to the same confederacy; and it is not improbable that this measure hastened the declaration of war which was made by Great Britain against that power towards the close of the present year. Had it been delayed till the actual accession of Holland to the league, Great Britain must have allowed her immense navigation to be employed in the transportation of belligerent property, or have engaged in war with the whole confederacy.
[1. ]In this sense, ships equipped by private men for plundering commercial ships of enemy nations; those underwriting the fitting of such a ship would receive a portion of the plundered goods.
[2. ]Stealing public money; embezzling.
[3. ]Beverly Robinson (1721–92) of Virginia and New York, Loyalist (Tory) leader in New York. In 1777 he raised the Loyal American Regiment in the British Provincial forces, and was named Colonel; however, his main service to the British was in espionage.
[4. ]John André (1751–80), Major in the British army; after being taken prisoner in St. John’s, Canada, in 1775 and released, he became aide-de-camp to General Grey and then to General Clinton, who named him Adjutant-General (chief administrative officer of the army in America).
[5. ]A sloop of war was a sailing ship next below in size to a frigate, carrying eighteen to thirty-two guns; at the time of the Revolution, the Hudson River was alternately referred to as the North River.
[6. ]André had requested that he be shot as a soldier rather than hanged. In referring to André as “a man of sentiment,” Marshall means not only emotion, as in the modern usage of “sentimental,” but a man of thought, opinion, sense.
[7. ]Stoutness, bravery.
[* ]General Washington used great exertions to cause Arnold to be seized in New York and conveyed to the American camp. John Champe, sergeant-major in Lee’s legion, was employed in this important and critical service, and was near effecting it. [In October 1780, John Champe (c. 1756–c. 1798) of Virginia, an adjutant (Sergeant Major) in Lee’s Legion, successfully infiltrated the legion of Tories and deserters being raised by Arnold in New York City, and devised a plan for Arnold’s abduction; it is unclear whether a move of Arnold’s quarters, or the embarkation of Arnold’s legion for Virginia, prevented the plan’s execution.]
[8. ]A statement of facts addressed to a government and often accompanied by a remonstrance or petition.
[9. ]Benjamin Tallmadge, Jr., (1754–1835) of New York, Major in the Continental army (breveted Lieutenant Colonel in 1783), manager of Washington’s secret service. By “handsome,” Marshall means noble.
[10. ]Christopher Carleton (d. 1787), Major (ultimately Lieutenant Colonel) in the British army, who also operated as a spy behind enemy lines in northern New York; younger brother of Sir Guy Carleton (later Lord Dorchester), British General and Governor of Canada.
[11. ]Sir John Johnson (1742–1830) of New York, Loyalist leader, Lieutenant Colonel (ultimately Colonel) in the British army.
[12. ]Governor George Clinton (1739–1812) of New York, Brigadier General (brevet rank of Major General) in the Continental army, occasionally resumed field command after assuming office in 1777, mostly in defending against such “border warfare.”