Tuesday, September 29, 2009

'How Hard Is My Fate': The Arnold-André Affair, 3


The curtain now opens on the third and final act in our drama of the treason that nearly succeeded. Traitorous American Major General Benedict Arnold has reached the British after his precipitous escape. British Major John André and American attorney Joshua Hett Smith have been transported to the Continental Army's encampment at Tappan, N.Y., and are being held there for separate trials.

Friday, September 29, 1780, morning. The board convened by General Washington meets in the Old Dutch Church in Tappan. It includes six major generals and eight brigadier generals, with Nathanael Greene as its head. This is in sharp contrast to the British treatment of American patriot Nathan Hale, who was arrested as a spy on the night of September 21, 1776, and hanged the next morning without a trial. Taking no part in the proceedings, Washington remains in his headquarters at the DeWint house in Tappan (now a museum).

André describes in detail the circumstances of his coming ashore, his inadvertent penetration into American-held territory and his capture at Tarrytown on his way to the British lines. He is asked whether his impression was that he had come ashore under the protection of a flag of truce. André virtually seals his doom by testifying that he does not believe that he did. He adds that if he came ashore under such protection he certainly would have returned under it.

André is excused following his testimony. Letters from Beverley Robinson, Benedict Arnold and Sir Henry Clinton are read. All three insist that André had come ashore under the protection of a flag of truce. Under the etiquette of war, however, no flag of truce can cover an act of treason. Anyway, André's own testimony belies their claim.

After deliberating, the board concludes that André had come ashore (1) "in a private and secret manner"; (2) "he changed his dress within our lines and under a feigned name and in a disguised habit" crossed at King's Ferry and traveled to the place where he was captured, "being then on his way to New York" with "several papers which contained intelligence to the enemy."

The unanimous verdict: "Major André, Adjutant General to the British Army, ought to be considered as a spy from the enemy; and, agreeable to the law and usage of nations, he ought to suffer death."

Saturday, September 30, morning. Washington approves the sentence and orders the execution to take place the next day at five in the afternoon. Now aware of his fate, André sends a gracious letter to Sir Henry Clinton. In it, he absolves his superior of "any suspicion that I was bound by your Excellency's orders to expose myself to what has happened."

"I am perfectly tranquil in mind, and prepared for any fate to which an honest zeal for my King's service may have devoted me," he tells him, ending with assurances of his good treatment in captivity. "I receive the greatest attention from his Excellency General Washington, and from every person under whose charge I happen to be placed." André's meals have been sent to him from Washington's own table. Since his capture, Washington has not seen him.

Saturday, September 30, afternoon. Sympathetic to André, Washington arranges for a message to be passed to Clinton. It suggests that if the exchange of Arnold for André were to be proposed, the Americans would agree to it. The same trial balloon has been floated within Clinton's staff, but he is not about to accede to the suggestion. To him, Arnold's desertion is not a crime but an act deserving of high praise; his crime had been his service in the rebel cause. Having promised to reward and protect Arnold, Clinton cannot give him up to be hanged, whatever André's predicament.

Clinton writes a letter to Washington telling him that three royal officials will be at Dobbs Ferry (across from Tappan) the next day. They are British Lt. Gen. James Robertson, governor of New York, Andrew Elliott, lieutenant-governor, and William Smith, the colony's chief justice. They desire a meeting to present "a true state of the facts." Washington postpones the execution to Monday "at twelve o'clock precisely."

Sunday, October 1, morning. André sends a note to Washington asking for a soldier's death before a firing squad instead of being hanged like a felon. Washington does not answer André's appeal. His feeling is that it is more considerate to keep the truth about his fate from him for as long as possible.

Sunday, October 1, afternoon. The British ship Greyhound anchors off Dobbs Ferry. Only General Robertson is allowed to come ashore to meet with General Nathanael Greene. (Greene would emerge from the Revolution with a military reputation second only to Washington's.) Robertson offers to produce Beverley Robinson and the officers of the Vulture to attest that André had gone ashore under Arnold's flag of truce. He shows Greene a copy of Arnold's letter to Washington claiming responsibility for André's use of an assumed name--although André has used the name John Anderson in secret correspondence for sixteen months.

Greene points out that André has already taken responsibility for wearing a disguise and has testified that he did not have the protection of a flag. Greene promises to report to General Washington the substance of their meeting. Washington takes no action to change the method of execution or to stay it.

Monday, October 2, morning. This will be André's last day of life. His personal servant has been allowed to bring him clean clothing, and André dons his full dress uniform--scarlet tunic, buff vest and knee breeches, and high boots. Five hundred Continental soldiers line the road to the execution site on a hill outside of Tappan (today known as "André Hill"). Fifes and drums play as André is conducted from his cell in the Mabie Tavern (now a restaurant named the '76 House) for the march to the execution site. He still hopes he will die a soldier's death by firing squad.

Ever polite, André compliments the officers escorting him, "I am very much surprised to find your troops under such good discipline, and your music is excellent," he tells them. André hesitates when he catches sight of the gallows silhouetted against the sky.

"I have borne everything with fortitude," André protests, "but this is too degrading." Major Tallmadge, the American escorting officer assures him, "It is unavoidable, sir," explaining that the manner of his death had been fixed at the trial and could not be changed..

"How hard is my fate," André says with uncharacteristic self-pity, then consoles himself with, "It will soon be over." Major Tallmadge, who has been impressed with the prisoner's composure and personal conduct throughout his ordeal, shakes hands with André under the gallows.

Built of two forked trees with a horizontal crosspiece, the gallows is high. The wagon bearing André's coffin is positioned under it. Without being prompted, André leaps up into the wagon and stands on his coffin, surveying the assembled troops and spectators.

The order for his execution is read. André is asked if he has any final words. In a clear voice he says, "I have nothing more to say, gentlemen, than this: I pray you to bear witness that I meet my fate like a brave man."

The hangman is a captive Tory named Strickland, recruited for the task in return for his freedom. He has tried to conceal his identity by blackening his face, but only succeeds in achieving a ridiculous effect. Repelled by the hangman's blackened hands, a proud André passes the noose over his own head and tightens it around his neck. He offers the hangman two handkerchiefs; one is to cover his eyes and the other is used to bind his hands behind his back. At a signal, the wagon moves forward. The body drops and stops abruptly, swinging like a giant pendulum in a wide arc.

As defined by Aristotle, a tragedy is a dramatic series of events culminating in the fall of someone, often of high degree. It captures the tragic sense of life because the protagonist is doomed--through frailties, or errors, or fate--to fail, suffer and die. The André story is a classic tragedy in every sense of the word. Not only is John André the victim, but the villain, Benedict Arnold, goes unpunished.

André's fate--and that of Arnold and the American cause--was determined by a series of random events: André's inability to return to the Vulture after his first meeting with Arnold; the cannonading from Croton Point that drove the Vulture away; André's indifference to Clinton's orders not to carry any papers, not to go in disguise or to enter American-held territory; his willingness to return by a roundabout overland route; his failure to present Arnold's pass on first being stopped in Tarrytown; Major Tallmadge's appearance at headquarters after André was brought in; Colonel Jameson's insistence on notifying Arnold of John Anderson's capture; Washington's decision to detour to Fishkill, thus delaying his receipt of the incriminating documents.

In American hands, West Point immobilized and neutralized British forces on the lower Hudson. With its fortifications on high cliffs, it was almost impregnable from the landside and beyond the reach of guns on ships in the river below. Besides the loss of its garrison and a large store of ordinance, capture of this strong point would have made King's Ferry, a crucial link between the colonies, no longer tenable. Loss of control of the Hudson would have driven a giant wedge between the colonies. With the river opened to British warships and supply vessels, the consequences for the patriots would have been catastrophic.

The Aftermath
John André was buried at the spot where he died. His capture and tragic fate became the subject of folk ballads, engravings and lithograps. In 1821, a request was made by the British for the return of his body to his homeland. After locating the gravesite, the coffin was taken to the British frigate Phaeton and brought to Portsmouth. André was buried in Westminster Abbey with full military honors. In 1879, Cyrus W. Field, of Irvington, N.Y., the industrialist who planned and oversaw the laying of the first transatlantic cable, erected a monument at the execution site. It was attacked by vandals within a few years but was restored.

The British welcomed Benedict Arnold, but his defection caused violent reactions among patriots. Philadelphia, Boston and Providence all held public demonstrations against Arnold. Some suggested that September 25th be made a holiday to remind future generations of "the eternal disgrace of the traitor." Even Benedict fell into disfavor as a name for male children.

Arnold never enjoyed the full trust of the British. Because of his penchant for telling any who would listen how they had mishandled the war, he made few new friends among them. He led a force of loyalist troops by sea to Virginia in December of 1780. During this campaign, he asked a subordinate what he thought he might expect if patriots should capture him. He was shaken by the response. "They will cut off that leg of yours wounded at Quebec and at Saratoga, and bury it with all the honors of war, and then they will hang the rest of you on a gibbet."

In the summer of 1781, Arnold attacked the Connecticut seaport of New London, a center for privateers. One objective was Fort Griswold, where rebel defenders were brutally bayoneted to death after they had surrendered. New London was put to the torch.

After Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781, Arnold sailed for England aboard a British man-of-war; he did not dare risk a crossing in a vessel likely to be taken by the enemy. His wife and children followed separately in a merchant ship. By the time he reached London, he found to his dismay that peace sentiment was rife, and negotiations were already under way.

Arnold became obsessed with a desire to make a large fortune quickly. He fought a duel in 1792 with the Earl of Lauderdale, who had impugned his character. After several unsuccessful attempts to start mercantile ventures in Canada and the West Indies, he died in London in 1801. His wife was to follow him in death three years later. Some of their children became officers in the British Army. One son rose to the rank of lieutenant general, and a grandson was a major general in the First World War.

The lone monument to Arnold in America has stood since 1887 at the site of the Saratoga battlefield. On one side it shows in high relief a boot, such as the one he wore when he received his crippling leg wound. The inscription on the back of the stone reads, "in memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot." Arnold's name discreetly does not appear.

In the Old Cadet Chapel adjoining the West Point Cemetery, incised shield-shaped black marble plaques on the walls show the ranks, names, and birth and death dates of all Continental Army generals. One reads only "Major General," and the notation, "Born 1740." The general's name has been chiseled from the stone, leaving a deep rectangular indentation. Legend has it that the missing name is that of Benedict Arnold. Readers interested in seeing this curious and little-known artifact can easily find it. Climb the stairs to the organ loft, where it can be found on the east wall.

Joshua Hett Smith was tried by a court martial and acquitted, only to be arrested by local authorities and held in the Goshen, N.Y., jail as a suspected Tory sympathizer. In May of 1781 he escaped and made his way to Manhattan. When the British evacuated the city in 1783, he went to England. He left there for South Carolina eighteen years later and died in obscurity in New York in 1817.

Col. Beverley Robinson, whose confiscated home in Garrison had been Arnold's headquarters, retired to England devoutly believing he had done his duty for his king and country, and died near Bath in 1792.

Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, who had immediately perceived the treason of Benedict Arnold, was in charge of André as a prisoner and developed a deep respect for him, as did others who guarded him. He served in Congress from 1801 to 1817 and died in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1835.

Lt. Col. John Jameson, whose actions were responsible for Arnold's escape, returned to his home in Virginia and died there in 1810. Washington later said about Jameson's conduct in the André case that because of "his egregious folly or bewildered conception, he seemed lost in astonishment, and not to know what he was doing."

The three militiamen who had participated in André's capture were each rewarded with a silver medal and a pension for life. John Paulding died in 1818; his grave is in St. Peter's Cemetery in Van Cortlandtville, near Peekskill, N.Y. Isaac Van Wart died in 1828 and is buried in the cemetery adjoining the Elmsford Reformed Church on Route 9A just south of Route 119. David Williams died in Schoharie County in 1830 and is buried in the Old Stone Fort Cemetery in Schoharie, N.Y.

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