George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 26 September 1780

To Samuel Huntington

Robinson’s house in the Highlands Septr 26th 1780.


I have the honor to inform Congress that I arrived here yesterday about 12 o’clock on my return from Hartford.1 Some hours previous to my arrival Major General Arnold went from his quarters which were at this place, and as it was supposed over the river to the Garrison at Westpoint, whither I proceeded myself in order to visit the post. I found General Arnold had not been there during the day, and on my return to his quarters, he was still absent. In the mean time a packet had arrived from Lt Colonel Jameson announcing the capture of a John Anderson who was endeavouring to go to New-York, with the several interesting and important papers mentioned below, all in the hand writing of General Arnold. This was also accompanied with a letter from the prisoner avowing himself to be Major John Andrè Adjt General of the British army, relating the manner of his capture, and endeavouring to shew that he did not come under the description of a spy.2 From these several circumstances, and information that the General seemed to be thrown into some degree of agitation on receiving a letter a little time before he went from his quarters, I was led to conclude immediately that he had heard of Major Andre’s captivity, and that he would if possible escape to the enemy, and accordingly took such measures as appeared the most probable to apprehend him. But he had embarked in a barge, and proceeded down the river under a flag to the vulture ship of war, which lay at some miles below Stoney and Verplank’s points. He wrote me after he got on board a letter, of which the inclosed is a copy.3 Major Andrè is not arrived yet, but I hope he is secure & that he will be here to-day. I have been, and am taking precautions, which I trust will prove effective, to prevent the important consequences which this conduct on the part of General Arnold4 was intended to produce. I do not know the party that took Major Andrè; but it is said, that it consisted only of a few militia, who acted in such a manner upon the occasion as does them the highest honor and proves them to be men of great virtue. They were offered, I am informed, a large sum of money for his release, and as many goods as they would demand, but without any effect. Their conduct gives them a just claim to the thanks of their country, and I also hope they will be otherwise rewarded. As soon as I know their names I shall take pleasure in transmitting them to Congress.5

I have taken such measures with respect to the Gentlemen of General Arnold’s family as prudence dictated, but from every thing that has hitherto come to my knowledge, I have the greatest reason to believe that they are perfectly innocent.6 I early secured—Joshua Smith, the person mentioned in the close of General Arnolds letter, and find him to have had a considerable share in this business.7 I have the honor to be, with regard, Sir your Excellency’s most obt & hble sert

Go: Washington

Papers alluded to:

Council of war (a State of matters laid before the Genl Officers the 6th inst.)

Estimate of the force at West-point & its dependencies.

Estimate of men to man the works at West point.

Remarks on works at West-point.

Return of ordinance at Do.

Artillery orders for the disposition of the corps in case of an alarm at West-point.

Permit dated 22 Sepr to Majr Andrè, under the discription of Mr John Anderson to pass the guards to White plains, or below if he should chuse it, being on public business.8

LS, in James McHenry’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; Df, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; copy, R-Ar; copy, NN: William Livingston Papers; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

Congress read GW’s letter on 30 Sept. and noted that it confirmed “the account given in the letter of the 25, from Major General Greene, of the treasonable practices of Major General Benedict Arnold, and his desertion to the enemy” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 18:876; see also Document III above, and n.2 to that document). For Huntington’s reply to GW, see Document XI below.

Major General Lafayette’s aide-de-camp James McHenry apparently wrote a friend in Philadelphia from Beverly Robinson’s house on this date: “I make use of the present express to acquaint you with a scene of villainy, which happened in this quarter. A very singular combination of circumstances has preserved to us West-Point and its dependencies. General Arnold, who was the commanding officer, has been bought over to the interest of the enemy, and the place in a few days must have become theirs. They had a part of their army in readiness to act on this occasion, and they could not have failed of success from the concert of Arnold within. Such was the situation of this important post, when a providential event discovered the traitor. Major Andrie, the British Adjutant General, a person of great talents, appears to have been the principal actor with Arnold. In his return to New York, after an interview with Arnold, he was stopped near Tarry-town by a few militia, (who, notwithstanding a pass written and signed by General Arnold, by which Andrie was permitted to proceed as a John Anderson,) and detained as a spy. As they were conducting him to a party of Continental troops, he offered them a large sum of money, for his release, which they rejected with as much virtue as Arnold received him with baseness.

“The state of the garrison, arrangements for its defence in case of attack, a council of war, &c., were found on Andrie, in Arnold’s own hand writing.

“Col. Jamison, of the light-dragoons, to whom he was conveyed in the first instance, and before a detection of these papers, dispatched an account to Arnold that he had a spy in his care, and described him in such a manner, that Arnold knew it to be Andrie. His Excellency General Washington, the Marquis de la Fayette, General Knox, and their aids were within a few miles of his quarters at this juncture. I had preceded them with a Major Shaw, to give notice of their coming. Arnold, I think, must have received the advice while we were present, as I observed an embarrassment which I could not at that time account for. The approach of his Excellency, left him but an instant to take measures for his own safety, or it is likely he would have attempted that of Andrie’s, and the matter might have remained in obscurity. He ordered his barge, and passing King’s ferry as a flag boat, fell down to the Vulture Ship of war, which lay below at a short distance. In the mean time an officer arrived with the papers which were discovered, and a letter from Andrie to his Excellency, in which he endeavours to shew that he did not come under the character of a spy. Upon this Col. Hamilton and myself rode to King’s ferry, but he had before this gained the enemy’s vessel.

“We expect Andrie here every minute. I lament at Arnold’s escape, that we might have punished such a high piece of perfidiousness, and prevented the enemy from profiting by his information. Andrie has adventured daringly for the accomplishment of a great end; fortunate for us his abilities failed him, as it was on the point of being finished; and he must in all human probability submit to the fate of a common spy” (Dawson, Papers Concerning André description begins Henry B. Dawson, comp. Papers Concerning the Capture and Detention of Major John André. Yonkers, N.Y., 1866. description ends , 85–86; see also n.2 below).

Capt. Samuel Shaw wrote John Eliot from Robinson’s house on 27 Sept.: “Were I writing to any friend but a reverend one, I should say, the Devil has been to pay in this quarter. His Excellency the Commander-in-chief, the Marquis de la Fayette, and General Knox, with their suites, came here on the 25th, from visiting the French general and admiral at Hartford, when a scene was unfolded, the relation of which will make your ears to tingle. Alas, my dear Eliot, how little do we know the human heart! Arnold has gone to the enemy!—America has tottered on the brink of ruin, and, had not the treachery been providentially discovered, West Point and its dependencies had probably at this time been possessed by the enemy. …

“Thus, my friend, you have a narrative of a conspiracy which, considering every circumstance, stands without a parallel. That a man, whose reputation as a soldier was universally acknowledged in all parts where the history of our contest is known, who stood so fair in the list of fame, and shared so largely in the military honors of his country, should at once plunge himself so deeply in guilt, is a consideration which reflects no honor on human nature. Avarice was his darling passion, and to that he fell a sacrifice. … Whether the enemy fulfil their engagements with him, or consider him as an acquisition to their party, is by no means material to us. His failure in this capital undertaking will soon destroy any influence he may have with them. They, on their part, will feel the loss of André. His military knowledge, his address and talents, were so exceedingly necessary to Sir Harry, that nothing of any consequence was undertaken but by his concurrence and approbation. It is said, he was the soul of their army. However, were he ten times more than he is, the fate of a common spy will be his fate” (Quincy, Samuel Shaw description begins Josiah Quincy. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton. Boston, 1847. description ends , 77–79). Shaw wrote Eliot again from Tappan on 1 Oct. and elaborated on the strategic importance of foiling Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treacherous design and of André’s significance to British general Henry Clinton: “Before you receive this, people will, I imagine, have recovered themselves a little from the horror in which the intelligence of Arnold’s villany must have thrown them. Great Heaven! what an escape we have had! The loss of any three capitals on this continent would not have been a misfortune of equal magnitude. West Point and its dependencies constitute the palladium of American independence; and, this grand link in the chain of our union being once broken, we may bid adieu to peace, liberty, and safety. Considering the many obstacles we have to surmount in keeping up the existence of our little army (owing to the supineness which pervades the whole body politic), even now that the communication is open,—certainly, had it been destroyed, the continuation of that existence would have been a miracle. The enemy would, had the treason succeeded, have had entire possession of the country from New York to Ticonderoga. This, with the impression they have already made on the Southern States, would have reduced us to an extremity from which nothing, in the present spirit of the times, but a creating power could have extricated us. …

“Somehow or other, I cannot get Arnold out of my head. Nothing has transpired more than I wrote you when on the spot, excepting the reception he met with in New York. It does not appear that he is exceedingly caressed there. The apprehensions of all ranks in their army for the fate of the accomplished, the enterprising André, make them view and curse Arnold as the cause. Sir Henry Clinton is almost frantic upon the occasion, and, it is believed, would sacrifice a thousand Arnolds to his safety, could it be done without fatal injury to the policy and faith of his nation. As it is, poor André is to make his exit at five o’clock this afternoon. A board of general officers found him guilty of a violation of the laws and customs of nations, and accordingly sentenced him to die. His behaviour previous to and at his examination was decent and manly, and I dare say his judges felt no small share of pity when they passed the fatal sentence. How much more grateful a sacrifice would the perfidious Arnold be to the just resentments of his injured country!” (Quincy, Samuel Shaw description begins Josiah Quincy. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton. Boston, 1847. description ends , 80–82; for Maj. John André’s examination on 29 Sept. and hanging on 2 Oct., see Documents VIII and XIII with Major John André’s Capture and Execution, 23 Sept.–7 Oct., editorial note).

Shaw wrote more succinctly to his father, Francis Shaw, from Tappan on the same date: “I suppose you have all been, as it were, thunderstruck at Arnold’s conduct. It wants a name. It can scarcely be matched by any piece of villany, ancient or modern. I have not time at present to detail that most diabolical piece of rascality. Thank Heaven! it was discovered in season to prevent the dreadful train of evils which might otherwise have been its consequence” (Quincy, Samuel Shaw description begins Josiah Quincy. The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw, the First American Consul at Canton. Boston, 1847. description ends , 82).

3See Document I above.

4GW’s secretary Robert Hanson Harrison, who penned the draft, first wrote “this base & perfidious conduct of General Arnold” at this place. He struck out these words and wrote “this conduct on the part of General Arnold” above the line.

5GW praised John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wart (see Document XVI and n.7 with Major John André’s Capture and Execution, 23 Sept.–7 Oct., editorial note).

6Arnold’s aides-de-camp Richard Varick and David S. Franks underwent formal investigations (see Documents XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII below).

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