George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, 25 September 1780

From Major General Benedict Arnold

On Board the Vulture Sepr 25th 1780


The Heart which is Concious of its Own rectitude, Cannot attempt to paliate a Step, which the World may Censure as wrong; I have ever acted from a Principle of Love to my Country, since the Commencement of the present unhappy Contest between Great Britian and the Colonies, the same principle of Love to my Country Actuates my present Conduct, however it may appear Inconsistent to the World: who very Seldom Judge right of any Mans Actions.

I have no favor to ask for myself, I have too often experienced the Ingratitude of my Country to Attempt it: But from the known humanity of your Excellence I am induced to ask your protection For Mrs Arnold from every Insult and Injury that the mistaken Vengence of my Country may expose Her to: It ought to fall only on me—She is as good, and as Inocent as an Angel, and is1 Incapable of doing Wrong. I beg She may be permitted to return to Her Friends in Philada or to come to me as She may choose; from your Excellencey I have no fears on Her Account, but She may Suffer from the mistaken fury of The Country.

I have to request that the Inclosed Letter may be delivered to Mrs Arnold, and She permitted to write to me.2

I have also to Ask that my Cloths & Baggage which are of little Consequence may be Sent to me, If required their Value shall be paid in Money. I have the honor to be With great reguard & Esteem Your Excellencys Most Obedt Hbl. Servt

B. Arnold

N.B. In Justice to the Gentlemen of my Family Colonel Varick & Major Franks, I think myself in honor bound to declare, that they as well as Joshua Smith Esqr. (who I know is suspected) are totally Ignorant of any Transaction of mine that they had reason to believe were Injurious to the Public.3

ALS, DLC:GW, enclosed in Alexander Hamilton to GW, this date (Document III below); copy, DNA:PCC, item 152, enclosed in GW to Samuel Huntington, 26 Sept. (Document VII below); copy, NN: William Livingston Papers. GW’s secretary Robert Hanson Harrison wrote “publishing his Infernality” on the docket of the ALS.

Maj. Gen. William Heath later wrote in his memoirs: “Gen. Arnold’s panic was so great, when he found that the plot was discovered, that he called out for a horse, any horse that first came to hand, if it were a wagon-horse; upon the horse being brought, the General mounted, and, instead of passing to the landing by the usual path, he rode down a steep bank, where it seemed impossible for a horse with a rider to get down, without being unhorsed.

“When Arnold had passed Verplanck’s Point, and had got under the guns of the Vulture, he told Corporal Larvey, who was cockswain of the barge, that he was going on board the ship, and that he should not return; that if he (Larvey) would stay with him, he should have a commission in the British service. To this, Larvey, who was a smart fellow, replied, that he would be d—d if he fought on both sides; the General replied that he would send him on shore. Arnold then told the barge crew, that if any or all of them would stay with him, they should be treated well; but if they declined staying, they should be sent on shore. One or two staid, the rest, with the cockswain, were sent on shore in the ship’s boat; the barge was kept” (Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 268–69). A man who knew James Lurvey recalled that “Larvey always declared that, had he been aware of Arnold’s intention, he would have steered to Verplanck’s Point, even if the traitor had threatened to blow his brains out” (Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book description begins Benson J. Lossing. The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution; or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the War for Independence. 2 vols. New York, 1851–52. description ends , 2:159).

1Arnold struck out “Ignorant” at this place.

2Major General Lafayette’s aide-de-camp James McHenry apparently copied the enclosed undated letter from Arnold to his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold. It reads: “Thou lovelies[t] & thou best of women words are wanting to express my feelings and distress on your account who are incapable of doing wrong yet are exposed to suffer wrong. I have requested his excellency General Washington to take you under his protection, and permit you to go to your friends in Philada—or to come to me. I am at present incapable of giving advice. follow your own intentions. But do not forget that I shall be miserable until we meet. Adieu kiss my dear boy for me. God Almighty bless & protect you … Write me one line if possible to ease my anxious heart” (DLC: James McHenry Papers).

GW’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton wrote his fiancé Elizabeth Schuyler on 25 Sept.: “In the midst of my letter, I was interrupted by a scene that shocked me more than any thing I have met with—the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye. The object was to sacrifice West Point. General Arnold had sold himself to André for this purpose. The latter came but in disguise and in returning to New York was detected. Arnold hearing of it immediately fled to the enemy. I went in persuit of him but was much too late, and I could hardly regret the disappointment, when on my return, I saw an amiable woman frantic with distress for the loss of a husband she tenderly loved—a traitor to his country and to his fame, a disgrace to his connections. It was the most affecting scene I ever was witness to. She for a considerable time intirely lost her senses. The General went up to see her and she upbraided him with being in a plot to murder her child; one moment she raved; another she melted into tears; sometimes she pressed her infant to her bosom and lamented its fate occasioned by the imprudence of its father in a manner that would have pierced insensibility itself. All the sweetness of beauty, all the loveliness of innocence, all the tenderness of a wife and all the fondness of a mother showed themselves in her appearance and conduct. We have every reason to believe she was intirely unacquainted with the plan, and that her first knowle[d]ge of it was when Arnold went to tell her he must banish himself from his Country and from her forever. She instantly fell into a convulsion and he left her in that situation.

“This morning she is more composed. I paid her a visit and endeavoured to sooth her by every method in my power, though you may imagine she is not easily to be consoled. … She received us in bed, with every circumstance that could interest our sympathy. Her sufferings were so eloquent that I wished myself her brother, to have a right to become her defender. As it is, I have entreated her to enable me to give her proofs of my friendship.

“Could I forgive Arnold for sacrificing his honor reputation and duty I could not forgive him for acting a part that must have forfieted the esteem of so fine a woman. At present she almost forgets his crime in his misfortune, and her horror at the guilt of the traitor is lost in her love of the man. But a virtuous mind cannot long esteem a base one, and time will make her despise, if it cannot make her hate” (Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 2:441–42; see also Major John André’s Capture and Execution, 23 Sept.–7 Oct., editorial note).

Lafayette wrote French minister La Luzerne from Beverly Robinson’s house on 26 Sept.: “When I left you yesterday morning, Monsieur le Chevalier, to come here to breakfast with General Arnold, we were far from imagining the event that I am going to relate to you. …

“West Point has been betrayed, and by Arnold. The same man who had covered himself with glory in rendering conspicuous service to his country had lately formed an appalling pact with the enemy. Were it not for the chance that brought us here at a certain hour and the chance that, through a combination of mishaps, caused the adjutant general of the British army to fall into the hands of a few peasants outside all our posts, West Point and the North River would now perhaps be in the possession of the enemy.

“When we left Fishkill yesterday we were preceded by one of my aides-de-camp and the aide of General Knox, who found General and Mrs. Arnold at table and joined them for breakfast. While they were there, two letters were brought to General Arnold informing him of the capture of a spy. He ordered a horse to be saddled, then went upstairs to his wife to tell her he was ruined, and commanded his aide-de-camp to tell General Washington that he was going to West Point and would return within an hour.

“On our arrival here we crossed the river and went to inspect the defenses. You can imagine our astonishment when upon our return we learned that the arrested spy was Major André, adjutant general of the British army, and when, among documents found on him, we recognized a transcript of a very important council of war, a description of the garrison and fortifications, and remarks about methods of attack and defense, all of which were written in General Arnold’s hand.” Lafayette concluded: “The general’s first concern has been to reassemble at West Point the troops Arnold had dispersed under various pretexts. We have remained here to look after the security of a post that the British will fear the less for being more familiar with it. We are bringing in Continental troops, and since Arnold’s advice may determine Clinton to move suddenly, the army has orders to be ready to march at any moment” (Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:179–80; see also Council of War, 6 Sept.; Document VII, source note; and Lafayette, Memoirs description begins Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert Du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette Published by His Family. New York, 1837. description ends , 253–56). For additional details on GW’s discovery of Arnold’s treachery, see Lafayette to his wife, 8 Oct., in Lafayette Papers description begins Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. 5 vols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1977-83. description ends , 3:194–95.

Arnold’s aide-de-camp Richard Varick, writing his sister Jane on 1 Oct., also described the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Arnold’s treachery and the scene in Robinson’s house involving Peggy Arnold: “Read this to yourself. … I now set myself down to my pen and paper to give you a small detail of the most painful scenery and the black secret transactions of my late bosom friend and social companion, but now the execrably perfidious and treacherous parricide, the late Major-General Benedict Arnold, of infamous memory, whose thirst after the accursed treasure (British gold) has at one stroke blotted out, and as with a sponge wiped away, the memory of illustrious actions and signal services rendered his country on divers occasions, and stamped his character with all that Infamy can call her own.

“You have no doubt heard the particulars. … Let me only inform you that I lay sick in my bed on Monday morning, 25th September about 10 o’clock; Arnold received advice by two letters that Major André, Adjutant-General of the British Army, was taken with sundry papers in Arnold’s handwriting, and without waiting to see General Washington, who was within one mile of us, I am informed he called for a horse, bid the officer who brought the letters to be silent, went upstairs and took leave (I suppose) of his more than amiable wife,—left her in a swoon and rode off to the lands [landing], telling Major Franks to advise General Washington that he was gone on some business to West Point, and would return in an hour; and rowed down the river with his barge crew and passed King’s Ferry as a flagg and went on board the Vulture, a British man-of-war. This infamous business had been carried on by Joshua H. Smith, brother of Billy Smith, Esquire, now in New York, who with André, have, I hope, shared their proper fate.

“General Washington came here and was informed, as Arnold had told Franks, and he to me. I then rose from my bed, dressed, and paid my respects to the General, the Marquis, General Knox, &c., but my fever obliged me to retire again. When the General had breakfasted, he went to West Point in expectation of meeting Arnold there.” Varick then described how Peggy Arnold, “with her hair dishevelled” and improperly clothed, shrieked for him. He “ran upstairs” and found her “raving distracted; she seized me by the hand with this, to me distressing, address and a wild look: ‘Colonel Varick, have you ordered my child to be killed?’ … She fell on her knees at my feet with prayers and intreaties to spare her innocent babe. A scene too shocking for my feelings, in a state of body and nerves thus so weakened by indisposition and a burning fever, I attempted to raise her up, but in vain. Major Franks and Dr. Eustice soon arrived, and we carried her to her bed, raving mad. …

“When she seemed a little composed she burst again into pitiable tears and exclaimed to me, alone on her bed with her, that she had not a friend left here. I told her she had Franks and me, and General Arnold would soon be home from West Point with General Washington. She exclaimed: ’No, General Arnold will never return, he is gone; he is gone forever, there, there, there, the spirits have carried up there, they have put hot irons in his head;’ pointing that he was gone up to the ceiling. This alarmed me much. I felt apprehensive of something more than ordinary having occasioned her hysterics and utter frenzy. Soon after General Washington returned from West Point without Arnold; this convinced me all was not right. She soon after told there was a hot iron on her head and no one but General Washington could take it off, and wanted to see the General. I waited on his Excellency, informed him of all matters, and Mrs. Arnold’s request. I attended him to her bedside and told her there was General Washington. She said no, it was not. The General assured her he was, but she exclaimed no, that is not General Washington; that is the man who was agoing to assist Colonel Varick in killing my child. She repeated the same sad story about General Arnold. Poor distressed, unhappy, frantic, and miserable lady.

“The next day, 26th, she recovered a little and remembered nothing of what happened on the 25th. On the 27th she left us, escorted by Major Franks, for Philadelphia, by leave of his Excellency.

“General Washington had by this time, 2nd, indubitable proofs of the infamous practices of Arnold. It was now four o’clock of the 25th and we sat down to dinner in a strange manner; I had a high fever, but officiated at the head of the table. Franks attended also when Mrs. Arnold’s affairs would permit. Dull appetites surrounded a plentiful table. His Excellency behaved with his usual affability and politeness to me. The matter was certain.

“After dinner some time his Excellency called to me to take my hat and walk out with him, which I did. He thus declared he had the most indubitable proofs of Arnold’s treachery and perfidy. I told him I was sorry for it, and he said he had not the least cause of suspicion of Major Franks or myself, but that his duty as an officer made it necessary to inform me that I must consider myself as a prisoner, in which I, as politely as I could, acquiesced. It was what I expected. I then told him the little all I knew” (Hart, Varick Court description begins Albert Bushnell Hart, ed. The Varick Court of Inquiry to Investigate the Implication of Colonel Varick (Arnold’s Private Secretary) in the Arnold Treason. Boston, 1907. description ends , 189–93; for subsequent related commentary, see Hart, Varick Court description begins Albert Bushnell Hart, ed. The Varick Court of Inquiry to Investigate the Implication of Colonel Varick (Arnold’s Private Secretary) in the Arnold Treason. Boston, 1907. description ends , 129–32, 179–83; see also The Smith Family and Major General Benedict Arnold’s Treachery, 26 Sept.–30 Oct., editorial note). For secondary accounts of events on 25 Sept., see Jacob and Case, Treacherous Beauty description begins Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case. Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America. Guilford, Conn., 2012. description ends , 158–66, and Stuart, Defiant Brides description begins Nancy Rubin Stuart. Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married. Boston, 2013. description ends , 95–97.

3For erroneous reports that Arnold’s aide-de-camp David S. Franks had fled, see John Hanson to Thomas Sim Lee, 9 Oct., and Hanson to Philip Thomas, 10 Oct., in Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 16:165–66, 182–84; see also Documents XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII.

Index Entries