Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

A Narrow Escape

On the very night when Washington was taking leave of Rochambeau and De Terney at the hospitable house of Colonel Wadsworth in Hartford a mysterious business was going forward on the Hudson River. Out from a wooded point on the western shore of the stream, which widens below King's Ferry, a small boat, the oars muffled with sheepskin to prevent any sound, stole about midnight. Two men were rowing, a third sat silent in the stern. The latter was a lawyer named Joshua Hett Smith, and the boat and the oarsmen were under his command.

With the tide favoring them, the boat was not long in reaching the sloop-of-war Vulture, which stood out big and black against the clear, starlit sky. A sentry on the ship gave a challenge, which was quickly answered, and the rowboat was ordered to come alongside. Joshua Smith climbed up a ladder and boarded the British sloop. He went into the cabin and spoke to several officers, and then, his visit being a short one, he returned to the deck and so over the side to his little craft again.

He brought a passenger with him, however; a young man, handsome and slender, whose long blue cloak, fastened tight, concealed the bright scarlet uniform of a British officer. As silently as before the boat was rowed back to the shore, and landed Joshua Smith and his companion, who was Major John Andre, Adjutant-General in the British Army, and one of Clinton's favorite officers.

The two men walked up from the beach into a thicket at Long Clove, below Haverstraw, and there in the woods they met another cloaked figure. Greetings were exchanged; and then Joshua Smith, having brought the two together, left them and went back to his boat.

The two cloaked men had much to say to each other, and what they said was of vital concern to the cause of American freedom. For it happened that the man who had been hiding in the woods was none other than Major-General Benedict Arnold, one of Washington's most trusted commanders.

Arnold was a man who had long cherished a grievance, a very ambitious man who felt that he had never received the advancement that his talents deserved. In Philadelphia he had been spoiled by admiration, and had married Margaret Shipper, a great beauty, and daughter of a very rich and important Tory family. He had a fine house on the Schuylkill, and spent his wife's money with lordly lavishness, got into debt, quarreled with his superior officers, and finally was brought up before a Committee of Congress and a court-martial. He was acquitted, but the trial made him morose and vengeful. He determined to get even with the leaders of the American cause, and managed by intrigue to obtain command of the post at West Point on the Hudson. It was his plan to surrender the Hudson Valley to the British General Clinton and so divide the Union. Burgoyne had tried to do this with his army and had failed; now Benedict Arnold saw his chance to do it by treachery.

This was what he discussed with Major Andre in the woods at Long Clove on the night of September twenty-first. They talked for a very long time, so long in fact that Joshua Smith, waiting down on the beach, began to grow uneasy. At last Smith returned to the woods and whispered a warning to the conspirators that dawn had almost come. Arnold and Andre left the thicket, but either because they thought there was too much risk of detection if the British officer should attempt to row out to the Vulture again, or because they had not yet finished their discussion, they decided to go to Smith's house and await a later chance to escape. In doing this Andre disobeyed his instructions, with, as it turned out, disastrous results for himself.

Their way led through a small village, and an American sentry challenged the three night prowlers. Arnold gave a satisfactory answer, and they were allowed to pass. But Andre realized his danger and went on in growing alarm until they reached Smith's stone dwelling-house on the crest of a hill.

They entered the house about daybreak, and hardly were they inside when they heard the sound of firing on the Hudson. Looking from a window they saw the Vulture, which was to have waited for Andre, being driven from her place in the river by cannon-fire from the shore. The young Britisher, who was still in his twenties, and to whom the role of a spy was entirely unfamiliar, turned in consternation to the older American officer. Arnold encouraged him, assured him there was no risk; and for several hours more discussed the surrender of his post to his country's enemies.

At last all arrangements were made, every detail decided as to how the British were to attack West Point and how Arnold was to give it up. In return for his treachery Arnold was to receive a large sum of money and a high commission in the English army. He handed Andre some papers in his own handwriting that had to do with the bargain. Then he provided the Englishman with passes, gave him to understand that he would be rowed out to the Vulture in safety that evening, and set off for his own headquarters.

Andre stayed at Smith's house most of the day, growing more and more uneasy as he thought of the possibility that he might be caught within the American lines as a spy. His fears were lessened, somewhat, however, when, several hours after Arnold had left him, he saw the Vulture sailing back up the Hudson and coming to anchor not far from her old position. Eagerly he waited for the protection of night, when he might in safety be rowed out to the sloop. But to his horror he found, when he spoke to Smith, that the latter had no intention of carrying out that part of the plan. Smith would not make another venture to the Vulture. He pointed out the dangers and offered all kinds of excuses, but remained perfectly firm. It was in vain that the young Englishman entreated him and demanded that he do as General Arnold had ordered. After much heated talk Andre was compelled to agree to make the attempt to get back to the British lines by land.

Twilight had come when the two men set out on what was a much more dangerous expedition than the trip by boat would have been. Andre had put on a disguise and had hidden the papers that General Arnold had given him in his boots. This made his situation many times more perilous than it had been before. If he had been captured wearing his own uniform and without these papers he would probably only have been held as a regular prisoner of war; but in disguise and carrying these messages his capture would necessarily mean his death as a spy. He knew the risk he ran, but felt that he had no choice.

Smith had provided good mounts. Andre had a big brown horse, prominently branded with the initials "U. S. A." By a circling, hilly road they went up the shore of the Hudson to King's Ferry, no one attempting to stop them. The Englishman breathed more freely when he found that the boat that crossed the river was ready to start as soon as they were aboard. They reached the eastern side, and set off with greater confidence in the direction of the outposts of the British army above New York.

Their road led through a wild and lonely country. The September night came soon, and they were shut in by the looming heights of the hills. Smith tried to talk, but Andre rode mostly in silence. For a night and a day he had lived in constant fear and suspense, and now that the second night had come he appreciated fully what would happen if he were caught.

Suddenly out of the dark came the challenge of a sentry. They had ridden unawares into an American patrol. The riders showed the passes that Benedict Arnold had given them. The captain of the patrol made them go with him to his quarters, where he examined the passes carefully and the two travelers as well.

Smith made up a likely story to explain their riding so late at night toward the enemy's lines. The captain still seemed doubtful; and possibly to quiet his fears they arranged to stop and spend the rest of the night at a house near by. Andre went to bed with his clothes on, and long before dawn he was up again and urging Smith to ride on.

The day was foggy and cold. As they stole out of the house they found no one to oppose them. Regaining their horses, they mounted and quickly struck into the road. Through the murky dawn they galloped, but they had not gone far when they came to a small tavern, and here another picket stepped out and challenged them.

The passes were produced and taken into the tavern to be scrutinized by lamplight. The two horsemen waited a long time, apprehensive of some mischance. At last a shadowy figure came out from the inn and told them that General Arnold's passes had been found correct and that they might continue their journey. Andre sighed with relief. Apparently his fortunate star was safeguarding his steps.

Next came a long, slow climb up a stony hill, and when they reached the top the daylight was breaking through the mists of dawn. The light was cheerful, the damp and cold were leaving, and as they rode down into a little valley Andre began to talk hopefully to Smith of the end of their adventure.

But in the midst of his talk he faltered and his smile fled. A horseman was coming toward them, and the Englishman recognized in him an American officer who had been a prisoner of the British in New York and whom Andre had met there. The chances seemed a hundred to one that the American would remember the Englishman. The American stared hard as he came up with the two riders going in the opposite direction. But that stare was all. Andre's fortune still held. The American rode past without asking any questions.

A little farther and the two came to a fork in the highroad. Near by was an old house, and as the travelers were very hungry by now they decided to ask for breakfast.

They rode around the house, and dismounting, ate the food the farmer's wife brought them on the back steps, from where they could keep an eye in each direction and not be seen themselves. And when they had finished their breakfast Smith bluntly told his companion that he had now come as near to the British lines as he intended to go, and that Andre must go on alone.

More protests and arguments followed. It had been agreed that Smith should see the English officer clear to the British outposts, and here he was deserting him, with those outposts fifteen miles off. But again Andre's protests were useless. Smith would not go on. And so, under the circumstances, there was nothing left for Andre to do but continue by himself.

So the unfortunate young officer rode on, while Smith turned back to safety. Andre was now entering a sort of No Man's Land, or country lying between the two armies, not really in the possession of either, a strip of territory where sometimes American, and sometimes British, troopers were to be found scouting. This country was altogether strange to him, and now, without the ready tongue of Smith to help him allay suspicion, he feared to ask questions. The fog settled again in the river valley and presently turned to a steady rain. Andre began to wonder whether he had taken the wrong turn at one of the forks. In growing confusion he tried one road, then turned back and tried another. At last he found himself obliged to ask his way, although the people he spoke to showed their suspicion of this cloaked rider who was so ignorant of his whereabouts.

However, people answered his questions, and by the middle of the morning he was hastening along the post-road in the neighborhood of Tarrytown. The British lines were now so near that he was expecting almost any turn in the road to reveal their welcome outposts. He came to a ravine, where a plank bridge crossed a stream, and was galloping over, the planks clattering under his horse's hoofs, when suddenly three men stepped out from the bushes to one side, and he found the muzzle of a musket pointed at his head.

And now Andre at last, after having passed safely through so many dangers, made a fatal mistake. He did not know whether the three men were American or British scouts, they wore no uniforms;—but if he had promptly shown them General Arnold's passes he would in all likelihood have been safe in either case. If Americans, the passes would probably have satisfied them; if British, they would have taken him to their commander and Andre could have revealed his identity. But something about the appearance of the three made him believe that they were Tory scouts, and he boldly told them that he was an English officer.

He had guessed wrong. The three were American militiamen, young fellows named John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. They told him what they were. In dismay he hurriedly brought out General Arnold's passes. The militiamen paid no attention to his explanations, but made him dismount and searched him from head to toe. The papers he had hidden were discovered in his boots. Paulding, looking at these, declared, "The man is a spy!"

Andre offered them a thousand pounds to set him free. His captors were not to be bought. They took him immediately to Lieutenant-Colonel Jameson at the nearest American post.

Jameson read the papers of General Arnold that had been concealed in Andre's boots, but could not believe that Arnold was a traitor. He sent Andre with a letter and the papers toward West Point, but at the same time sent a letter to General Arnold telling him of Andre's capture. Major Benjamin Tallmadge, a much shrewder man, brought Andre back, closely guarded. The letter to Arnold, however, went on its way, and presently reached the traitor.

A courier, with a note from Jameson, set off at once over the road to Hartford to notify Washington. At the same time the American commander-in-chief, with his escort, was riding away from Hartford by another route. On the morning of September twenty-fourth they came down the eastern shore of the Hudson toward Benedict Arnold's headquarters at the Robinson house, which stood across the river from West Point. Washington was coming back several days earlier than he had expected, and had sent a message on ahead telling Arnold that he would breakfast with him that morning.

The commander-in-chief, however, absorbed in his own plans, turned his horse from the road that led to the Robinson house into a lane that ran down to the Hudson. Lafayette reminded him that Mrs. Arnold was expecting them to breakfast. Washington laughed. "Ah, Marquis," he said, "you young men are all in love with Mrs. Arnold. I see you are eager to be with her as soon as possible. Go and breakfast with her, and tell her not to wait for me. I must ride down and examine the redoubts on this side of the river, but will be with her shortly."

Lafayette and Knox, however, preferred to ride on with the General, and sent their apologies to Mrs. Arnold by two aides, Colonel Hamilton and Major McHenry.

The two aides soon reached the Robinson house and were welcomed by the hostess. Young and fond of society, Mrs. Arnold was always glad to have officers at her table. Breakfast proceeded gaily. Even Arnold himself seemed entirely at his ease. Yet it must have been a trying experience for him. He supposed that of course Andre had by this time reached the British lines and he had himself already prepared his fortifications for surrender to the enemy; but this unexpectedly early return of Washington might still defeat all his plans.

They were at the breakfast-table when a messenger galloped up to the door with a letter for Arnold. He opened it at once, it was from Jameson, and read that Andre had been captured, and that the secret papers found upon him had been sent to Washington. Arnold rose from the table at once, saying that he had received news that would take him immediately to West Point, and beckoned his wife to follow him to her room. There he told her that he was a ruined man and must fly for his life. Mrs. Arnold, horrified at her husband's confession, fell fainting on the floor.

There came a knock at the door; a servant said that a messenger had arrived to announce the coming of General Washington. Arnold was in a panic. Leaving his wife, he ran from the house, mounted the messenger's horse, and dashed down to the river through a ravine. His barge was waiting, he ordered the rowers aboard, and pushed out into the river. With pistol in hand, he made his men row down the Hudson to his only refuge now, the British sloop Vulture.

Almost immediately after Arnold's hurried departure Washington, Lafayette and Knox reached the Robinson house. They were told that General Arnold had been called to West Point, and that Mrs. Arnold was unwell. The commander-in-chief supposed that Arnold had gone to West Point to prepare for his reception, as he intended to visit the fortifications, and so, having eaten a hasty breakfast, crossed the river with his companions.

He was somewhat puzzled, however, when no salute was fired as he approached the fortress. But immediately Colonel Lamb, the officer in command, came hurrying down to the landing, full of apologies, saying that he had received no word of General Washington's visit.

"Is not General Arnold here?" Washington inquired.

"No, sir," said Lamb. "He has not been here for two days, nor have I heard from him in that time."

Surprised, but still unconscious of anything wrong, the commander and his escort spent the morning inspecting the works. He was somewhat disturbed at the unprepared condition in which he found the fortifications, but it never occurred to him to suspect his trusted General Arnold of having intentionally weakened the place.

About noon they recrossed the Hudson and rode back to the Robinson house. Colonel Hamilton met them, spoke a few low words to the commander, and handed him the secret papers that had been found on Andre. At once the whole plot was clear. Washington turned to Lafayette and Knox, and told them the news, saying how much he had always trusted General Arnold, and adding, "Whom can we trust now?"

Lafayette wrote later to a friend, "Judge of our astonishment when, upon our return, we were informed that the captured spy was Major Andre, the adjutant-general of the English army, and that among the papers found upon him was a copy of a very important council of war, a statement of the strength of the garrison and of the works, and certain observations upon the methods of attack and defense, all in General Arnold's handwriting."

Washington lost no time; the traitor's plot had failed, but West Point was now vulnerable. He gave orders right and left. Hamilton was sent at breakneck speed down to Verplanck's Point, but found that Arnold had reached the Vulture, and was now out of reach.

Couriers dashed through the hills, carrying the commander's orders to troops that Arnold had scattered to return to the fortress at once, and directing General Greene to send a whole division of the main army. Fortunate it was that Washington had arrived at this particular place at this particular moment; otherwise no one can tell what harm might have befallen the American cause.

No one but Lafayette and Knox knew the real reason for the commander's massing of forces, although others soon suspected it. Toward evening Washington, calm as ever, joined his officers at the Robinson house for dinner. "Come, gentlemen," he said, "since Mrs. Arnold is indisposed and the General is absent, let us sit down without ceremony."

Later in the evening, with two of his aides, he went to see Mrs. Arnold and tried to comfort her. Everyone felt the distress of her situation keenly. In his letter Lafayette wrote, "The unhappy Mrs. Arnold did not know a word of this conspiracy. Her husband told her before going away that he was flying, never to come back, and he left her lying unconscious. . . . The horror with which her husband's conduct has inspired her, and a thousand other feelings, make her the most unhappy of women."

Night came, with torrents of rain. But under Washington's orders sentries were watching every road and pass, guards were patrolling the Hudson in small boats, troops were returning to West Point, and Anthony Wayne was marching in haste with a detachment from the main army through the defiles of the mountains.

The enemy had not seized their chance. Another day and West Point would be as impregnable as ever.

Washington stayed at the Robinson house a day or two longer, until all danger of an attack by Clinton had passed. He saw Mrs. Arnold, with her baby and her maid, started back to her home in Philadelphia in her own carriage, under a sufficient escort. Lafayette expressed the opinion of all when he wrote to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, "General Washington and everyone else sympathize warmly with this estimable woman whose face and whose youthfulness make her so interesting. She is going to Philadelphia, and I implore you, when you return, to use your influence in her favor. . . . Your influence and your opinion, emphatically expressed, may prevent her from being visited with a vengeance which she does not deserve. General Washington will protect her also. As for myself, you know that I have always been fond of her, and at this moment she interests me intensely. We are certain that she knew nothing of the plot."

When Mrs. Arnold had left, Washington with his officers set out to join the main army. They crossed the Hudson at King's Ferry, and rode down the west shore to a small Dutch town called Tappan. Here he had directed General Greene to collect his forces, and here on the evening of September twenty-eighth the commander-in-chief was joyfully welcomed by his soldiers.

Washington took up his headquarters in a tiny, one-story cottage. Major Andre, under a strong guard, was lodged in the stone tavern. And immediately the American commander appointed a military_ court, of which Greene, Knox, Lafayette, and Von Steuben were members, to try the young Englishman.

The court-martial was held in the village church. Andre was given a fair trial. He had a most attractive personality and his youth and high character made a strong appeal to his judges. Moreover, in a way it seemed as though Benedict Arnold had forced Andre into his role of a spy, and had left the less guilty man to pay the penalty of his treason, while he himself went free. But the judges had to do their duty, and that duty was plain. There was no doubt of Andre's guilt as a spy, and the court convicted him and sentenced him to be hung.

Lafayette was a generous judge. A letter to Madame Lafayette, written after Andre's death, shows that the Frenchman felt the charm of the unfortunate young English officer, as did everyone else who knew him. "He was a very interesting man," wrote Lafayette; "he conducted himself in a manner so frank, so noble, and so delicate that I cannot help feeling for him an infinite pity."

Benedict Arnold meantime had donned the uniform of a British general and was doing his best to defeat his former comrades. But he was not trusted by his new friends, and two English colonels who were supposed to be under his orders were secretly given the duty of keeping an eye on him. It was in Virginia that he and Lafayette were to meet and cross swords the next year.