Monday, August 31, 2009

'Ill Met By Moonlight': The Arnold-André Affair, 1


Aristotle defined tragedy as a drama recounting the fall of persons of high degree and exemplifying the tragic sense of life. One September 229 years ago in the lower Hudson Valley, a profoundly moving Aristotelean tragedy of errors played itself out. Two human beings, one, British Major John André, and the other, American General Benedict Arnold, were each inevitably doomed by their own failings and by fate or destiny.

Theirs is a story that celebrates one man's courage and dignity in the face of disaster and another man's craven willingness to abandon his wife and children to save his own skin. It is a story that portrays both the grandeur and the baseness of the human spirit. First, allow me to set the scene:

British troops have held New York City for four years. The Americans hold the area north of the Croton River, Peekskill and the fortified Hudson Highlands. The bastion at West Point commands a key navigation point and denies the British access to the upper Hudson. Because of the dogleg in the river formed by the jutting Point, sailing ships must tack to change direction. Slowing down exposes enemy ships to artillery fire from the batteries on the heights above. A great iron chain also hinders navigation.

Much of Westchester is a veritable no man's land ravaged by four years of marauding by both sides. In this so-called "Neutral Ground" of shifting allegiances, roving bands carry on an unrelenting campaign of raiding, plundering and retaliation.

Here are the major players in the drama about to unfold:

Sir Henry Clinton, 37, the British commander-in-chief headquartered in New York City. He knows the strategic value of West Point. In 1777, he moved up the Hudson to capture and briefly hold two American forts near Bear Mountain, south of West Point.

Benedict Arnold, 39, short (5' 4"), scrappy American general, a wounded hero of the attack on Quebec and the battles at Saratoga. In command of West Point for only two months, he is deeply in debt and bitter that others have received recognition he feels should be his. For nearly eighteen months Arnold has been secretly carrying on coded correspondence with Clinton that will lead to the surrender of West Point.

John André, 29, major in the British Army, son of a Swiss merchant from Geneva who settled in London. He is Clinton's Adjutant General; among his duties is handling spies and informers. In these dealings, he calls himself "John Anderson."

Beverley Robinson, 59, wealthy Tory leader and colonel in the Loyal Americans, the loyalist regiment he raised. Married to Susanna Philipse and with friends in high places, Robinson is extremely useful to the British.

Joshua Hett Smith, 44, a successful lawyer. Unlike his brother, William, a well-known Tory and Chief Justice of New York, he has patriot sympathies.

John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, members of a band of eight "volunteer militiamen" from Salem, who have come down to Tarrytown to intercept anyone trading with the British. Under a recently passed New York law, they can claim any property seized from enemy prisoners.

Cooped up in New York City, British General Clinton has ambitious plans to capture West Point and drive a wedge between the colonies. But he needs details about its defenses and its garrison of 3,000 men, artillery and supplies. Clinton is willing to pay Arnold 20,000 pounds if the attack is successful. But Arnold insists on a minimum payment 10,000 pounds for his cooperation, whatever the outcome. André has been authorized to make a counteroffer of 6,000 pounds.

To make negotiations with the enemy easier, Benedict Arnold moves his headquarters from West Point across the river to the confiscated Beverley Robinson house in Garrison. The conspirators finally work out a plan: Robinson is to request a meeting with Arnold, ostensibly to discuss his confiscated property. André will accompany Robinson to this meeting and negotiate details with Arnold for West Point's surrender. Clinton gives André specific instructions: He is not to enter the enemy lines; he is not to carry papers of any kind; and he is not to disguise himself.

After unsuccessful attempts to meet on September 11th and again on the 20th, contact is finally made. The drama now begins:

Thursday, September 21, 1780, near midnight. Robinson and André have traveled upriver from Dobbs Ferry on the armed British sloop Vulture, anchored for the past two days off Haverstraw, opposite Croton Point (then called Teller's Point). Evading the small American patrol boats in the river, Joshua Hett Smith, Arnold's emissary, rows downriver and arrives at the Vulture in a rowboat whose oarlocks are muffled with pieces of sheepskin.

Apparently expecting Arnold himself, Robinson refuses to go ashore. André, who has identified himself as John Anderson, impulsively offers to go ashore. and conceals his elegant staff officer's red tunic under a long blue outer cloak. Smith brings André to the west shore at the Long Clove, below Stony Point. (A marker erected by the Historical Society of Rockland County identifies the site of the landing.) André climbs the bank and finds Arnold waiting in a clump of fir trees. They hold a long conversation.

Friday, September 22, about four a.m. Smith comes up from the boat and warns of the approach of daylight. Arnold convinces André to accompany him to Smith's house about two miles to the north and wait there until nightfall before returning to the Vulture. Arnold tells Smith the mysterious John Anderson is a merchant who likes to pretend he is an officer.

Smith, Arnold and André ride up the road to Haverstraw. At the southern edge of the hamlet, an American sentry challenges them. Arnold gives the countersign, and they pass though. In penetrating the American lines, André violates the first of Clinton's orders. The trio reaches the Smith house on a hill in West Haverstraw (later called Treason Hill). It has a commanding view of the river. (Helen Hayes Hospital now occupies the site.) Arnold and André breakfast together.

As they watch in amazement from the Smith house, a four-pounder patriot cannon on Croton Point bombards the Vulture. Well-placed shots cause the warship to retreat downriver with the tide. André appears to have been abandoned in enemy territory.

Arnold advises him to dispose of his scarlet uniform jacket and to travel by land. He gives André six pages of detailed plans and descriptions of West Point's defenses and tells him to hide them in his stockings. In taking these, André violates the second of Clinton's orders.

Breakfast over, Arnold returns by boat to his headquarters in the Robinson House. Before leaving, he writes official passes for André as John Anderson and for Smith. Arnold instructs Smith to see that John Anderson returns to the British lines safely. Resigning himself to an overland journey, André violates the third of Clinton's orders. He exchanges his British officer's tunic for one of Smith's jackets. Over this, he dons the same long blue cloak he wore when he left the Vulture.

Friday, September 22, late afternoon. Riding a brown horse provided by Arnold, "at the decline of the sun" André leaves for the western terminus of King's Ferry at Stony Point with Smith and his Negro servant. King's Ferry is a crucial communication link between New England and the colonies to the south, with a permanent force of 166 boatmen on duty. The trip across the river to Verplanck's Point is by a flat-bottomed boat.

Once ashore, King's Ferry Road brings them to the Albany Post Road (now Route 9A). An interior route through Westchester offers less likelihood of interception. To bypass checkpoints at Peekskill, a local resident, Angus Sutherland, guides them over back roads. At what will one day be the site of the Hudson Valley Hospital Center, they turn east on Crompond Road (now Route 202).

André's intention is to ride to White Plains that night. Four miles east of Peekskill, however, the three riders are stopped at a militia checkpoint west of Stony Street. Arnold's pass is honored, but they are warned not to ride at night because of roving bands of marauding loyalists.

They turn back to the little farmhouse of Andreas Miller, on the south side of old Crompond Road a third of a mile past Hog's Lane (now Lexington Avenue). Inns are infrequent on back roads, and it is a common practice for farmers to take in travelers. Smith spends a restless night sharing the one available bed with André, who does not remove his clothes or even his boots and spurs.

Saturday, September 23, morning. At break of day, the three riders are on their way. Another militia checkpoint is near Strang's tavern at Crompond Corner, where Arnold's pass works its magic again. André has some fearful moments when they meet Col. Samuel B. Webb, an American officer just freed by the British, but Webb fails to recognize him.

In what is now the village of Yorktown Heights, they reach the farm of Isaac Underhill, where they hope to take breakfast. (The house still stands at the corner of California Road and Hanover Street.) Because of recent depredations, Mrs. Underhill can only give them a dish of "suppawn" (corn meal mush and milk).

Joshua Hett Smith, fearing loyalist partisans below the Croton River, announces he will go no farther. Smith pays Mrs. Underhill for breakfast and divides his Continental paper money with André. Accompanied by his servant, Smith turns back, headed toward Arnold's headquarters at the Robinson House.

Carrying a rough sketch map drawn by Smith, André rides on alone and crosses Pine's Bridge at the Croton River. Now he is in the notorious "Neutral Ground" and less likely to meet armed Americans. Roads are unmarked. Unsure of his way, he seeks directions frequently.

On the road to Chappaqua (now Quaker Street), he spots 12-year-old Jesse Thorne standing on a woodpile at a house at the corner of Kipp Street (now Hardscrabble Road). André asks directions and decides to turn south on Kipp Street. Ironically, in the crazy quilt of warring parties that is the "Neutral Ground," had he ridden on to Chappaqua he would have reached British forces.

He stops to water his horse at a roadside spring just north of Pleasantville Road, chatting amiably with unsuspecting militia member Sylvanus Brundage, the occupant of the house across the road. (The spring still flows and is marked by a plaque.) Continuing through Mekeel's Corners (the intersection of Bedford Road and the old Saw Mill River Road) without incident, he comes to Hammond's Mills (now Hawthorne) on the Saw Mill River.

The Hammond children, 14-year-old David and 12-year-old Sally, offer him water. He gives Sally a sixpence. David tells him troubling news: an American patrol is on the road to White Plains at Young's Corners (the junction of Bradhurst Avenue and Grasslands Road), about four miles to the south. A worried André hastily returns to Mekeel's Corners and heads southwest on the old Tarrytown-Bedford Road (Route 448) through the Pocantico Hills. He reaches the Albany Post Road (Route 9) just north of Clark's Kill (now called "André's Brook").

Saturday, September 23, 11 a.m. Consulting his sketch map, André crosses the bridge over the little stream and makes his way up the slope. A grim-faced John Paulding pointing a musket directly at him suddenly confronts him. Paulding, recently a prisoner of the British, wears the uniform jacket of a Jaeger, a mercenary German rifleman. It is unmistakable--green with red piping. The jacket had helped Paulding to escape from captivity in the North Dutch Church in New York City. Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, two other members of Paulding's group, gather around. Paulding's jacket convinces André he is among friends. Instead of showing the pass from Arnold that had worked so successfully at other patriot checkpoints, he makes a monumental blunder.

"My lads," he says, "I hope you belong to our party."
"What party might that be?" Paulding asks, innocently.
"The lower party," André answers. The term is a geographical euphemism for the loyalists in British-occupied New York City.
Paulding assures him, "Oh, we do." He adds, "My dress shows that."
Relieved that his ordeal is over, André announces, "I am a British officer and have been up the country on business, and would not wish to be detained a minute." To prove that he is an officer, he takes out a gold watch, something no ordinary soldier would carry.

At this, Paulding reveals that they are patriots and orders him to dismount. André blanches and sighs deeply. Thinking fast, he says "God bless my soul, a body must do anything to get along nowadays." Now he belatedly produces Arnold's pass.

Paulding, the only one of the three who can read or write, studies it. "You had best let me go, or you will bring yourselves into trouble," André warns, "for your stopping me will detain General Arnold's business. I am going to Dobbs Ferry to meet a person there and get information for him."

Paulding reflects for a minute. "I hope you will not be offended. We do not mean to take anything from you, but there are many bad people on the road, and I don't know but that you may be one. What is your name?"André tells him, "John Anderson," It is the name on General Arnold's pass.

Nevertheless, the three escort him into a nearby clump of bushes. Paulding tells Williams to search the prisoner. André removes his outer clothing. It reveals nothing incriminating. Next, he is told to remove his boots, which also conceal nothing. His captors notice that his stockings fit badly and order him to remove them. Inside one, three sheets of paper are found.

Paulding examines these and exclaims, "He's a spy!" The other stocking contains three other papers. Some are in Arnold's handwriting. He refuses to say how he came by the incriminating papers, offering only the patently lame excuse that he received them "of a man at Pine's Bridge, a stranger to me."

An unusual exchange ensues that has troubled historians ever since. Based on their later testimony, the captors of André may have been less than patriotic in their motives. Paulding asks what he would give to be let go. "Any sum you want," is the answer.

"A hundred guineas with the horse, saddle, bridle--and your watch?" (A guinea was a gold coin worth a pound and a shilling, a total of 21 shillings. The gold coin has not been minted since 1813. Certain amounts, such as philanthropic contributions and bequests, are still quoted in guneas.)

"Yes, and the money shall be sent here if you want."

"Will you give more?" asks Paulding. "Any amount you may name, in cash or dry goods," André assures him.
Eventually, the amount promised is raised to 10,000 guineas--a king's ransom. He offers to write a letter to be sent to the British outpost at Dobbs Ferry for the money. Fearing this might result in their capture or in a retaliatory attack, the militiamen decline. His captors take his horse, bridle and saddle, gold watch, and the Continental paper money Smith had given him. He also surrenders a silver watch. With this climactic incident, the curtain comes down on the first act in the drama of American General Benedict Arnold and British Major John André.

(To be continued)

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