On October 2, 1780, British intelligence officer Major John André was hanged as a spy in Tappan, New York. Captured on his return to New York City by American militiamen fighting in the War of Independence, Major André was found to have papers hidden in his boot concerning Continental army Brigadier General Benedict Arnold‘s negotiation for the surrender of West Point. (Arnold had recently been appointed commandant of the fort at West Point.)
The Honorable the Congress have been pleased in just Abhorrence of the perfidy of his conduct to pass the following Act…Resolved, That the Board of War be and hereby are directed to erase from the register of the names of the officers of the army of the United States, the name of Benedict Arnold.
George Washington, October 19, 1780, General Orders. Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3G, General Orders, 1775-1783, Letterbook 5. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division
General George Washington designated a board of officers to hear the case. André was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death.
Arnold, motivated by greed, by his opposition to the French alliance of 1778, and by his resentment towards authorities who had reprimanded him for irregularities during his command in Philadelphia, had maintained a secret correspondence with Major André since May 1779. On September 21, 1780, Arnold had agreed to surrender West Point to the British in exchange for 20,000 pounds.
Upon hearing of André’s arrest, Arnold fled to the Vulture, a British warship on the Hudson River. That same day, he wrote to General Washington, begging mercy for his wife, Loyalist sympathizer Peggy Shippen Arnold:
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 vengeance of my Country may expose her to.
It ought to fall only on me. She is as good, and as Innocent as an Angel, and is incapable of doing wrong.
Unaware of her participation in her husband’s duplicitous dealings with the British, Washington provided an escort for Mrs. Arnold back to her family home in Philadelphia. Authorities in that city forced her to flee to her husband in New York where he was shunned as a traitor by British officers.
During the remainder of the Revolutionary War, Arnold served as a brigadier general in the British army, leading raids on Virginia and Connecticut. After the surrender of the British army at Yorktown in October 1781, he and his family moved to England, where he died in 1801. In the United States, his name became synonymous with traitor.
- Search on traitor or spy in the collection American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to read stories of other conspirators. See the Today in History feature on Nathan Hale to learn about the patriot hanged by the British for spying.
- Search Today in History on Revolutionary War to read about more events in the fight for American independence.
- Read more correspondence between Washington and Arnold in the George Washington Papers. Search the collection on Benedict Arnold or on John André.
- Search on Benedict Arnold in the pictorial collections to see images of the man, cartoons depicting his treachery, as well as photographs of his birthplace and his homes in Philadelphia and New Haven.