George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Lieutenant General James Robertson, 2 October 1780

From Lieutenant General James Robertson

Greyhound Schooner Flag of Truce
Dobbs Ferry [NY.] October 2d 1780


A Note I have from General Green leaves me in doubt if his Memory had Served him to relate to you with Exactness the Substance of the Conversation that had passed between him & myself on the Subject of Major Andrè.1 In an Affair of so much Consequence to my Friend, to the two Armies, and Humanity, I would leave no Possibility of a Misunderstanding and therefore take the Liberty to put in writing the Substance of what I said to Genl Green.

I offered to prove by the Evidence of Colonel Robinson and the Officers of the Vulture, that Major Andrè went on Shore at General Arnold’s desire in a Boat sent for him with a Flag of Truce; that he not only came ashore with the Knowledge and under the Protection of the General who commanded in the District, but that he took no Step while on Shore but by the Direction of Genl Arnold, as will appear by the inclosed Letter from him to your Excellency.2

Under these Circumstances I could not, and hoped you would not, consider Major André as a Spy, for any improper Phrase in his Letter to you. The Facts he relates correspond with the Evidence I offer—but he admits a Conclusion that does not follow. The Change of Cloaths and Name was ordered by General Arnold, under whose Direction he necessarily was while within his Command. As General Green and I did not agree in Opinion, I wished, that disinterested Gentlemen of Knowledge in the Law of War and Nations might be asked their Opinion on the Subject; and mentioned Monsieur Knyphausen and General Rochambault.

I related that a Captain Robinson had been delivered to Sir Henry Clinton as a Spy, and undoubtedly was such. But that it being signified to him that you were desirous that this Man should be exchanged, he had ordered him to be exchanged.3

I wished that an Intercourse of such Civilities, as the Rules of War admit of, might take off many of its Horrors. I admitted that Major André had a great Share of Sir Henry Clintons Esteem, and that he would be infinitely obliged by his Liberation; and that if he was permitted to return with me I would engage to have any Person you would be pleased to name set at Liberty.

I added that Sir Henry Clinton had never put to Death any Person for a Breach of the Rules of War, tho’ he had, and now has, many in his Power. Under the present Circumstances much Good may arise from Humanity, much ill from the Want of it. If that could give any Weight, I beg leave to add that your favorable Treatment of Major Andrè, will be a Favor I should ever be intent to return to any you hold dear.4

My Memory does not retain with the Exactness I could wish the Words of the Letter, which General Green show’d me from Major André to your Excellency. For Sir Henry Clintons Satisfaction I beg you will order a Copy of it to be sent to me at New York.5 I have the Honor to be Your Excellency’s Most Obedient and Most humble Servant

James Robertson

LS, DLC:GW; copy, enclosed in GW to Samuel Huntington, 7 Oct. (Document XVI), DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, P.R.O.: 30/55, Carleton Papers; copy, P.R.O.: C.O. 5/100; copy, MiU-C: Clinton Papers.

Resuming a letter begun on 26 Sept., Robertson wrote British military advisor Jeffrey Amherst on Friday, 6 Oct.: “Arnold the boldest and most enterprising of the rebel Generals, lives with me and sits by me while I write. … He squabbled with a General Reid, the Congress sided with the last, and Arnold thought himself ill used, and found means eighteen months ago to offer his service to the King. This treaty with Sir Henry has been dropt and resumed, but since Sir Henry’s return, Arnold who does nothing by halves, formed a project to do most essential service, by delivering the forts in the Highlands where he commanded and their garrisons, 2,500 men into our hands—The troops of our army embarking for an expedition supposed for the southward were to be conducted in one tide to take possession; at Arnold’s desire Majr. André Adjt. Genl. met him to concert the proper movements, so that no men might be lost, nor opposition made—André went on board the Vulture ship of war lying about 24 miles up the river—Arnold sent a boat with a flag of truce and a message by Mr. Smith brother [to] the Chief Justice desiring that John Anderson (a name he had desired André to assume) might come on shore to meet him at Smith’s house at Haverstraw; André went in his uniform, met and remained with Arnold all night—who gave him papers in his own hand writing containing every necessary and minute information; Arnold gave him a pass, and directed him to change his cloaths for Smith’s, who was to serve him as a guide by land to our first post—they stayed a night with a rebel guard near Croton; on crossing the bridge, Smith left him, and André riding on alone after passing all the rebel posts, was taken up and searched by two militia men—they carryed him and his papers to an officer—who confined him, and sent the papers to Washington, who was on his return from the visit to the french General at Hartford. Two of his Aide de Camps arrived at Arnold’s house, and told him, they had just left the General who would be with Arnold in a few minutes; at this instant, he got the report of André’s being seized and his papers sent to Washington; finding no room for palliation, with readiness of mind and great activity he escaped to a boat, was pursued, and with difficulty got on board the Vulture. Sir Henry finding that the rebels threatened André’s life, wrote to Washington, desiring that he would hear me on the subject; or that he would appoint three to converse with me, Chief Justice Smith, and Mr. Elliot on the subject—General Green met me, but Smith and Elliot were not admitted to come on shore; Green said he met me in civility as a Gentleman, but could say nothing officially on the subject of a Spy—I urged that one landing with a flag of truce sent by the General who Commanded, and who governed himself by his direction could not be considered as a Spy; I soothed and threatened civilly, and even begged—but poor André was hanged last monday. Sir Henry who is inconsolable will tell the Story in detail to Lord George. I am really too much affected to omit the mentioning of particulars, as the matter may be laid before You as Commander in Chief for Your opinion. Sir Henry has never executed a Spy; we have some here, who Sir Henry in his grief was going to offer up sacrifices to the manes of André, they are unworthy, and not worth hanging, and as Officers trusted with power should never appear to act with passion; I think it probable however that those gentlemen at Carolina who have been detected of plotting the destruction of Charlestown, with Gates, may meet with strict justice. Arnold’s escape and the discovery of his project, has created great suspicions among the rebels. …

“The rebels have changed all the garrisons, some of their Officers are put in arrest, many are suspected. Arnold is considered as a Brigadier in our service; he employed me to have that rank he left in the rebel army continued to him, not said he, that I should not be satisfyed to act as a soldier for the King—but because by promoting me His Majesty’s service will be promoted, as those who are in the State I have left, will be influenced in their Conduct, by the reception I meet with—The rank of Brigadier had been offered by André; after conversing with Sir Henry, I told him that a higher rank would offend the Brigadiers of our army, that it would be more honorable for him to get this, after performing some service of moment; he agreed, and longs for an occasion to earn his, Sir Henry’s promise—he proposes driving the Congress from Philadelphia, destroying the Stores there and the Ships in the River; and afterwards by occupying the ground between the head of Elk and Newcastle, to purchase or bring away a sufficiency of cattle, forrage, and provision for our army. …

“Since the year 1777 I have not seen so fair a prospect of calling back the provinces to their duty, nothing can prevent this, unless the patriot language gains belief, and the people are taught to think that they are to be given up to the rebels” (Klein and Howard, Letter Book of Robertson description begins Milton M. Klein and Ronald W. Howard, eds. The Twilight of British Rule in Revolutionary America: The New York Letter Book of General James Robertson, 1780-1783. Cooperstown, N.Y., 1983. description ends , 155–61, quotes on 155–58 and brackets in source; see also Documents I, XI, and XIII; GW to Henry Clinton, 6 Oct.; The Discovery of Major General Benedict Arnold’s Treachery, 25 Sept.–24 Nov., editorial note; and The Smith Family and Major General Benedict Arnold’s Treachery, 26 Sept.–30 Oct., editorial note).

Between 4 and 5 Oct., Andrew Elliot, Loyalist lieutenant governor of New York, wrote a report on Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery. He related that only Robertson was allowed ashore to consult regarding Maj. John André, even though GW “had a high respect for Mr Elliots character.” Elliot continued on 5 Oct.: “This Morning an account came to Town, that Major André was executed at Tappan … General Washington has neither answered General Robertsons last letter requesting a Copy of Major Andrés letter, nor several others General Clinton had wrote him this Neglect and the many other Instances Washington has lately given of Insult, is certainly occasioned by the Jealousy that reigns amongst them, which makes them wish to shut every door of Intercourse so necessary for us to keep open, and which I hope our Conduct and Temper will effect, by overlooking and acting as the Times require” (Stevens, Facsimiles description begins Benjamin Franklin Stevens, ed. B. F. Stevens’s Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773–1783, With Descriptions, Editorial Notes, Collations, References and Translations. 25 vols. London, 1889–98. description ends , vol. 7, no. 739; see also Commager and Morris, Spirit of ’Seventy-Six description begins Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. 2 vols. Indianapolis and New York, 1958. description ends , 750–52).

1Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote Robertson from Tappan on 2 Oct.: “Agreeable to your Request I communicated to General Washington the Substance of our Conversation in all the particulars, so far as my Memory served me. It made no Alteration in his Opinion and Determination. I need say no more after what you have already been informed” (Greene Papers description begins Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976–2005. description ends , 6:333; see also n.4 below).

3This purported spy and his exchange have not been identified.

4Robertson more fully recounted his conversation with Greene when he wrote Gen. Henry Clinton from “Off Dobbs’s Ferry” on 1 Oct.: “ON coming to anchor here I sent Murray on shore, who soon returned with notice that General Green was ready to meet me, but would not admit a conference with the other gentlemen.

“I paid my compliments to his character, and expressed the satisfaction I had in treating with him on the cause of my friend, the two armies and humanity. He said he could not treat with me as an officer; that Mr. Washington had permitted him to meet me as a gentleman, but the case of an acknowledged spy admitted no official discussion. I said that a knowledge of facts was necessary to direct a General’s judgment; that in whatever character I was called, I hoped he would represent what I said candidly to Mr. Washington.

“I laid before him the facts, and Arnold’s assertions of Mr. Andre’s being under a flag of truce, and disguised by his order. He showed me a low-spirited letter of Andre’s, saying that he had not landed under a flag of truce, and lamenting his being taken in a mean disguise. He expresses this in language that admits it to be criminal. I told him that Andre stated facts with truth, but reasoned ill upon them; that whether a flag was flying or not, was of no moment. He said he would believe Andre in preference to Arnold. This argument held long. I told him you had ever shewn a merciful disposition, and an attention to Mr. Washington’s requests; that in the instance of Robinson, you had given up a man evidently a spy, when he signified his wish; that I courted an intercourse and a return of good offices; that Andre had your friendship and good wishes, and that Mr. Washington’s humanity to him would be productive of acts of the same kind on our part; that if Green had a friend, or Mr. Washington was desirous of the release of any man, if he would let me carry home Andre, I would engage to send such a man out. He said that there was no treating about spies. I said no military casuist in Europe would call Andre a spy, and would suffer death myself if Monsieur Rochambault, or General Knyphausen, would call him by that name. I added, that I depended upon General Green’s candour and humanity to put the facts I had stated, and the arguments I had used in their fairest light to Mr. Washington; that I would stay on board all night, and hoped to carry Mr. Andre, or at least Mr. Washington’s word for his safety, along with me the next morning.

“Green now with a blush, that shewed the talk was imposed, and did not proceed from his own thought, told me that the army must be satisfied by seeing spies executed. But there was one thing that would satisfy them—they expected if Andre was set free, Arnold should be given up. This I answered with a look only, which threw Green into confusion. I am persuaded Andre will not be hurt” (Case of Andre description begins The Case of Major John Andre, Adjutant-General to the British Army, Who was put to Death by the Rebels, October 2, 1780, Candidly Represented: With Remarks on the said Case. New York, 1780. description ends , 11; see also Smith, Narrative description begins Joshua Hett Smith. An Authentic Narrative of the Causes which Led to the Death of Major Andrè, Adjutant-General of His Majesty’s Forces in North America. 1808. Reprint. New York, 1969. description ends , 103–13).

5See Document II.

William Smith, royal chief justice of New York, accompanied Robertson and wrote in his memoirs that the Greyhound arrived on 1 Oct., 3:00 P.M., “at Corbet’s Point, and the General sent Murray, his Aid de Camp, on Shore to know whether there was any Message from Washington. …

“The Officer informed him that Washington’s Messenger had not returned above 2 Hours from Poulus Hook; but that General Greene was coming and wished to recieve General Robertson alone, so that only he and his Aid de Camp went on Shore.

“A long Conference ensued apart, while Murray walked elsewhere with Hamilton, Washington’s Aid de Camp and two other Rebel Officers.

“Green said Mr. Washington considered the Right of Enquiry and Decision as theirs, and that he only met General Robertson as a Gentleman. General Robertson supposed they wished to know the Truth, and that it was immaterial, if carried to Washington, in what Light it was considered.

“General Robertson let off every Thing in Design, and tendered Colonel Robertson [Robinson] and the Officers of the Vulture to prove André’s coming under the Cover of Arnold’s Flagg. He shewed Green also Arnold’s Letter to Washington.

“Green[e] produced a Letter from André to Washington in which he faults his own Disguizes in the Transaction with Arnold, and confesses he had no Flagg.

“General Robertson observed properly that André[’s] wrong Idea of his Securities Jure Belli were of no Avail. Greene said Arnold was a Rascal and André a Man of Honor whom he believed, and they would consent to no Conferences or Additional Evidence.

“Greene hinted that André might be safe if Arnold was given up, and talked of satisfying the Army. Robertson answered with a Look. They parted with Greene’s Promise to inform Washington of what had passed” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs [1971] description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith. . .. New York, 1971. description ends , 337–38, brackets in source; see also notes 2 and 4 above).

Smith subsequently wrote in his memoirs for Monday morning, 2 Oct.: “A Letter comes from Greene intimating that as far as his Memory had served he had given a Report of what was said. General Robertson on that wrote to Washington the Substance of what he had said to Greene.

“That he had offered Colonel Robinson and the Officers of the Vulture to prove André came with Arnold’s Flagg, and conducted as he had directed. That he was no Spy. That Rochambaud and General Knyphausen would not say he was, who he wished to be consulted. That Sir H. Clinton had exchanged one Robinson, a true Spy, to oblige Washington, and he would give any Person for André. That he had Spies whom he had forborne to execute, from a Desire to spare the Horrors of War. And this Letter inclosed Arnold’s to Washington, averring that what André had done was all by his Order and Approbation. That he would retaliate if he suffered. That Sir Henry had 50 Spies who would also die if André were executed, and he called Heaven and Earth to witness that the Injustice would lay at Washington’s Door.

“It was twelve o’Clock when Murray had delivered this Letter on Shore, and as soon as he returned we weighed Anchor and came away” (Sabine, Smith’s Historical Memoirs [1971] description begins William H. W. Sabine, ed. Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith. . .. New York, 1971. description ends , 338; see also notes 1 and 3 above).

In his journal entry for 1 Oct., Dr. James Thacher also described the meeting between Robertson and Greene on that date: “The flag which came out this morning brought General Robertson, Andrew Eliot, and William Smith, Esquires, for the purpose of pleading for the release of Major Andre, the royal army being in the greatest affliction on the occasion. The two latter gentlemen, not being military officers, were not permitted to land, but General Greene was appointed by his excellency to meet General Robertson at Dobbs’ ferry, and to receive his communications. He had nothing material to urge, but that Andre had come on shore under the sanction of a flag, and therefore could not be considered as a spy. But this is not true; he came on shore in the night, and had no flag, on business totally incompatible with the nature of a flag. Besides, Andre himself, candidly confessed on his trial that he did not consider himself under the sanction of a flag. General Robertson, having failed in his point, requested that the opinion of disinterested persons might be taken, and proposed Generals Knyphausen and Rochambeau as proper persons. After this he had recourse to threats of retaliation on some people in New York and Charleston, but he was told that such conversation could neither be heard nor understood. He next urged the release of Andre on motives of humanity, saying, he wished an intercourse of such civilities as might lessen the horrors of war, and cited instances of General Clinton’s merciful disposition; adding that Andre possessed a great share of that gentleman’s affection and esteem, and that he would be infinitely obliged if he was spared. He offered that, if his earnest wishes were complied with, to engage that any prisoner in their possesion, whom General Washington might name, should immediately be set at liberty. But it must be viewed as the height of absurdity that General Robertson should, on this occasion, suffer himself to be the bearer of a letter which the vile traitor had the consummate effrontery to write to General Washington. This insolent letter is filled with threats of retaliation, and the accountability of his excellency for the torrents of blood that might be spilled if he should order the execution of Major Andre. It should seem impossible that General Robertson could suppose that such insolence would receive any other treatment than utter contempt” (Thacher, Military Journal description begins James Thacher. Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the commencement to the disbanding of the American Army; Comprising a detailed account of the principal events and Battles of the Revolution, with their exact dates, And a Biographical Sketch of the most Prominent Generals. Hartford, 1862. description ends , 225–26; see also n.2 above and Document VIII, n.14).

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