CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 49
By Judy Leithe
Ever since his collusion with the British was discovered, the name Benedict Arnold has been synonymous with the word traitor! There were other colonists who, out of a lack of conviction, chose to side with their British overlords. However, had Benedict Arnold’s treacherous plan succeeded, it would have cost America its war for independence, as well as the life of George Washington.
After the withdrawal of British troops from Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, General Washington appointed Arnold as the Military Commander of the city. In his new and impressive role, Arnold wasted no time taking part in the social scene of the nation’s capital. He cut a dashing figure in his general’s uniform and made it a point to be invited to the dinner parties of the elite, where he met the popular and vivacious eighteen-year-old, Peggy Shippen. Unlike most of her peers, Shippen had received a formal education and could maintain interesting conversations with either Continental officers or British officers – depending upon which army was in control of Philadelphia at the time.
Privately, the Shippen family were staunch loyalists to the King of England. Nonetheless, along with being attracted to Peggy, Arnold was also impressed with the family’s wealth and social status: two attributes he desired for himself. Despite the twenty-year difference in their ages, the older Arnold married Peggy Shippen, and sought opportunities to enrich his financial standing. Thus, began his unholy alliance with the British, who were willing to pay handsomely for Arnold’s potential to subvert his country’s quest for freedom.
Now that her husband had committed himself to clandestinely work for the British, Peggy Arnold made contact with Major John Andre, a close aide to General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander of the British forces. Secret correspondence between Clinton and Arnold would be disguised in letters between Mrs. Arnold and Major Andre.
Fort West Point, with its strategic position overlooking the Hudson River, was key to the Continental Army’s ability to fend off British troop and supply ships. Conversely, General Clinton wanted to seize West Point, which would allow him to control all of the Northern Colonies. The plan was to have Arnold convince Washington to appoint him as Commander of West Point. Having recently concluded the intense Battle of Monmouth, Washington was unaware of Arnold’s double dealings with the British. Somewhat puzzled by Arnold’s request, Washington granted him the post at West Point.
As the new Fort Commander, Arnold conveyed to Washington that he was making much-needed repairs to fortify West Point. In actuality, he was weakening the fort’s defenses to pave the way for the planned British takeover.
Washington had given Arnold his detailed plans for troop movements heading north from New Jersey. Washington’s plans included a stop at West Point, even describing his various encampments along the way. With this information in hand, Arnold wasted no time in sending for Major Andre who, disguised in civilian clothes, made his way to West Point. Arnold instructed him to hide Washington’s plans in his boot and deliver them to General Clinton in New York.
On the road, Andre was detained by three American militiamen who distrusted the Englishman, looking very much out of place in his lace-trimmed purple coat and beaver hat. Even after Andre showed them General Arnold’s note-of-passage, they stripped him and found Washington’s plans in one of his boots. They handed Andre over to Lt. Col. Jameson, who held Andre prisoner, but unsure of what to do with him, sent a letter to his superior, General Arnold. At the same time, Benjamin Tallmadge arrived and, recognizing the importance of these papers, immediately dispatched a courier to deliver the papers to Washington.
Arnold was with his wife and baby at their home, which was two miles from West Point. When Jameson’s letter reached him, Arnold abruptly left his residence, telling his military aides that he had to attend to something at the fort. Later that day, when Washington and his entourage arrived at the Arnold’s home, and was told of his departure, Washington decided to ride on and meet Arnold at the fort. He not only found Arnold missing but, upon closer inspection, found the fort to be in serious disrepair.
When Washington returned to the Arnold’s house, he was told that Mrs. Arnold was in a state of hysteria over the absence of her husband. Her behavior was a ruse, giving Arnold time to escape to the British ship, The Vulture, anchored nearby on the Hudson River. The next morning, Mrs. Arnold appeared quite composed and ready for her pre-arranged safe passage back to her parents’ home in Philadelphia.
By this time, the courier had delivered the stolen papers to Washington and, staring in disbelief at the plans he had earlier entrusted to Arnold, Washington exclaimed, “In whom can we trust?”The British not only failed to take West Point, they now had to contend with America’s new alliance with the French and their 6,000 fresh troops. The Arnolds were reunited and lived out their days in England but, at the end of his life, Benedict Arnold voiced regret for having disgraced himself by turning against his true country.