About Isaac Van Wert
Summary of: 'The Capture of Major André at Tarrytown, NY - 23 September 1780'
Westchester County was a major battleground for the main armies of both sides during the Revolutionary War. During the majority of the war, the combatants were encamped within striking distance of each other, and the disputed territory between their lines was the setting for continual raids and small conflicts, both by official detachments and by small groups of brigands who 'changed their allegiance as they did their coats.' During the seven years and four months of the War, perhaps no area fought longer and more continuously or suffered more than Westchester County.
At the time of this incident, the war had gone poorly for the American colonies. After four years of fighting, the South had been largely lost to the British and the American forces had been unable to drive the British out of New York. The British policy of wearing down the poorer and less well equipped colonial armies was working. The ill-paid and underfed American soldiers were increasingly reluctant to fight, Washington's internal political enemies were growing in strength and he was at risk for being replaced as Commander-in-Chief. The Congress was locked in what seemed like unending debate and the Articles of Confederation had not yet been passed.
The American forces had essentially no navy, so the Hudson River presented a potentially unobstructed highway for British vessels and troops to move north and inland. Because of this vulnerability, major fortifications were built on the Hudson Highlands near West Point at a cost of $3,000,000 and 3 years of labor. This was the American's last (and only) major stronghold.
The French fleet had arrived and had begun pressuring the British forces in New York City with attacks from the harbor and from Long Island. Washington and the French commander Lafayette had begun in July 1780 to discuss a combined attack aimed at driving the British out of NYC. The fortifications at West Point were critical to this plan, as the site for America troops to gather and store provisions and armaments. The British commander, General Clinton, anticipating this and hoping to neutralize the threat of attack on both sides planned to have Benedict Arnold surrender West Point with its troops and provisions and weaponry just as it was preparing to attack.
Benedict Arnold had been born in Norwich, CT on 3 January 1740. From his youth on he was arrogant, aggressive, and without abiding principles. He ran away to join the British Army twice as a teenager. The first time his mother petitioned to have him released; the second time he deserted when he did not get his way in a dispute. After the Revolutionary War broke out, he joined the Colonial Army and was part of the bloodless capture of Ticonderoga. In that campaign he nearly caused a mutiny when he was not permitted to command. Later he served with General Montgomery in the Campaign for Quebec and was wounded in the Battle on the Heights of Abraham. He was promoted to brigadier General and briefly commanded a small fleet on Lake Champlain before he was posted to Rhode Island. In February 1777 Congress appointed five major generals, omitting Arnold but naming five who were his juniors. He was deeply offended that his previous service record was not recognized (he is variously regarded as hot headed, arrogant, brave, creative, and foolish). In response to his complaints, Washington wrote him a soothing letter promising to support him and 'promote justice,' and although Arnold replied with a moderately phrased letter, his resentment persisted. When the American Army evacuated Philadelphia, Arnold (still not fit for active duty because of his wounds) was placed in command of a small residual force. This was a posting that was important but unfortunately required talents that Arnold did not possess in abundance: tact, good character, and common sense. He had ongoing problems with the civil authorities and on 18 March 1779 resigned his command but remained in Philadelphia, where he was so unpopular that he was mobbed in the streets. He was officially reprimanded by a court martial in January 1780. In addition to his military and legal problems, he developed financial and social problems. He and his second wife, the youngest daughter of the prominent Loyalist Edward Shippen, lived beyond their means ('indulged in every kind of ostentatious profusion which could gratify his vanity and his passion for luxury ad parade') and his debts grew and his credit failed. He spent much of his time socializing with the extensive Loyalist community in Philadelphia. In this setting he decided to betray his country, apparently partly out of spite or anger and partly in order to better his social and financial position. His arrangement with General Clinton was to turn over West Point in return for 6315 pounds sterling and the rank of Colonel in the British Army.
He petitioned Washington for command of West Point. Washington initially felt this an inappropriate post for a young and ambitious officer and offered him an important role as commander of a wing of the army in the proposed attack on NYC, but Arnold pleaded incapacity due to his war wounds and was ultimately appointed as commander of the forces at West Point on 3 August 1780. He established his headquarters at the Beverly Robinson House on the Albany Post Road. His request of a list of spies for the colonists was refused by Lafayette.
John André was born in 1751 in England where his initial career was that of a merchant. In 1771 he purchased a commission as Second Lieutenant. He served at an 'observer' (reporting about conditions and troop positions and movements) in Canada for General Carleton and in Boston for General Gage. On 3 November 1775 he was capture during the defense of St. John and was a prison of war in Lancaster, PA until his release in an exchange in December 1776. He was promoted to Captain in 1777 and became friends with General Howe and then was appointed to serve as aide de camp to General Grey. He was posted in Philadelphia and became good friends with Edward Shippen, father of Benedict Arnold's future second wife. When General Clinton succeeded General Howe as commander of the British Army, André was promoted to Major and served as Clinton's aide, entrusted with correspondence with various loyalists who provided information about American affairs, troop positions and movements. In this setting he assumed a correspondence that had begun in March of 1779, when General Clinton had begun receiving letters from a 'Gustavus' about American forces and activities. This 'Gustavus' was Arnold. At this time, André also renewed his friendship with Arnold's wife, Edward Shippen's daughter.
André had arranged for Arnold to turn over the American forces at West Point at the critical juncture during the campaign for NYC that the Americans were planning and the British were expecting. In order to cement this plan, he convinced a reluctant General Clinton that he needed to meet personally with Arnold.
Arnold initially proposed that André come disguised as a spy for the Americans but André refused and instead quote to the American General Sheldon at Salem requesting permission to land at Dobbs Ferry and meet with a 'Mr. G'. Sheldon was surprised and passed the request on the Arnold, who OK'ed it. Arnold attempted to cross the river to meet with him but was turned back by gunfire from British vessels in the Hudson. An alternative meeting plan was then arranged (Arnold wrote to André). André went upstream on the 20th of September on the sloop Vulture and waited and about midnight of the 21st of September Arnold sent a boat to bring André to Long Cove, about 6 miles below Stony Point, where Arnold was waiting. André arrived at about dawn and they went to the Joshua Hill Smith house near Haverstraw to look at the plans and papers Arnold had brought.
Colonel Livingston had observed to movements of the Vulture and had requested from Arnold several large guns, believing he could sink the vessel. Arnold refused, but Livingston on his own moved some smaller guns and shelled the Vulture when she was briefly beached near shore. The rising tide barely allowed the vessel to escape downstream.
After the meeting between Arnold and André, Arnold returned to his headquarters after writing passes for André who was to be taken back to the British by Smith. Smith refused André's request to return to the Vulture, convincing him to change out of uniform and going to King's Ferry, crossing from Stony Point to Verplanck's Point, and beginning the fateful trip through Westchester. (Clinton had instructed André to remain in uniform and not to bring any papers back. André disobeyed both instructions. It is not known why he did not dress as an officer. It has been surmised that he brought the documents - which he did not need - back as leverage in case Arnold threatened to change his mind.)
From Verplanck's Point, André and Smith headed in the early evening of 22 September along the Ferry Road to the Albany Post Road, which they took through Peekskill to the Road to Crompond and the house of Andreas Miller, where they arrived by 9 pm. They stayed overnight (sharing a bed) and in the morning began eastward along the road leading to Pine's Bridge, where they turned south. At this point they met Colonel Samuel B. Webb, who had been a prisoner of war in NYC and knew André but either did not recognize him or for some reason did not challenge him. (There is evidence that Webb thought himself lost.) Smith and André went to the house of Isaac Underhill and had 'high breakfast' before André went on alone, Smith refusing to go any closer to British lines. André went south, crossed the Croton River, traversed Pine's Bridge to Bedford Road, went west to the Albany Post Road which he followed to a brook name then Clark's Kill but since renamed Andre Brook, which he crossed between 10 and 11 am, whereupon he was stopped by three off duty militiamen, John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams.
John Yerks had requested and received permission to take a party of six off-duty militiamen on a scouting expedition. This was common practice among the militiamen, who served alternate weeks on duty. In addition to occasional military encounters, the scouts looked for things they could 'capture' as they were entitled to retain anything they confiscated from captured British soldiers. This group went south from Salem as close to enemy lines as they deemed safe, and stopped near Tarrytown and split into two groups. Yerks, with Abraham Williams, Isaac See and James Romer went to look for cattle thieves.
The three captors hid in some woods near the Albany Post Road, about 150 feet south of Clark's Kill, with a good view up the road. Van Wart, the youngest at 20, kept watch while Williams (26) and Paulding (22) played cards. Accounts of the day indicate only Paulding could read. In less than an hour they spied André and stopped him. Information about their encounter derives primarily from their subsequent descriptions of the event, which do not conflict and are generally supported by André's descriptions as well. Paulding was wearing a red Hessian coat which may have misled André, as he asked them: 'Gentlemen, I hope you belong to our party.' When asked which party, he said, 'The Lower Party.' He showed his gold watch as evidence that he was a 'British officer out of the country on particular business...' André first offered substantial payment if they were to let him pass, and then showed his pass from Arnold. They identified themselves as American militiamen, had him dismount, enter the woods and remove his clothes and boots. At that point they discovered the papers in his stockings. The group of seven then returned with André to Reed's Tavern, where he was fed a small meal, and then to Robin's House at Kensico where they expected to find an American outpost. It had been moved, so they brought him (joined along the way by Sergeant John Dean) to the outpost at Sand Mills near Armonk and there turned him and the papers over to Lt. Col.. John Jameson. Jameson failed to suspect any treachery and agreed to André's request to send him (traveling under the name of John Anderson) to Arnold in the custody of a guard detail of five, but for reasons never explained sent the papers on to General Washington.
The papers, in Arnold's hand, consisted of six items: A description of the exact location of each corps stationed at West Point. An account of the forces stationed at the garrison. The number of men needed to fully man the garrison and works. The ordnance located at the various positions around West Point. A description of the strengths and weaknesses of the positions. An account of a council of war with Arnold, Washington and others, discussing past and future campaigns.
This was information that clearly should not have been in possession of a anyone without high rank, and it is not clear why Jameson sent André back to the officer who had given him the information.
Shortly after the detail had left with André, Major Tallmadge returned to the outpost and when he learned what had occurred he realized the true nature of the events, but was unable to fully convince Jameson. Jameson recalled the party with André (who was brought to Gilbert House in South Salem) but sent a message to Arnold indicating that André had been captured with military papers pertaining to West Point.
General Washington had gone through and North Salem on his way to Hartford and was expected to return by the same route. Instead, he took a more northerly return route and therefore did not earn of these events for a further twenty-four hours.
Arnold was having breakfast and waiting for the arrival of General Washington when he received Anderson's letter telling of André's capture. He left hurriedly, telling those with him he had to go to West Point but would be back shortly. Instead, he took a barge to the Vulture and sailed south to General Clinton's headquarters. From there he sent a letter to Washington requesting protection for his wife, whom he said was innocent of any knowledge of his actions. Washington, in the meantime, arrived at Arnold's headquarters and was told Arnold had left for West Point; on arriving at West Point he was told that Arnold had not been there in several days. Upon learning the details of André's capture, the papers, and Arnold's disappearance south to Clinton, Washington feared immediate attack by the British and moved General Greene down from Tappan for reinforcements.
Major André was tried at the Reformed Dutch Church at Tappan by a Board of Officers (five major generals and eight brigadier generals) with no defense presented. The Board recommended to Washington that André be executed as a spy, and he was hanged on 2 October 1780 at Tappan and buried under the gallows. His body was exhumed in 1821 and returned to England where it was interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1880 monument was erected at the site of the execution.
Washington wrote in a letter to Congress, dated in Paramus on the 7 October 1780:
I have now the pleasure to communicate the names of three persons who captured Major André, and who refuse to release him, notwithstanding the most earnest importunities and assurances of a liberal reward on his part. Their conduct merits our warmest esteem; and I beg leave to add, that the public will do well to make them a handsome gratuity. They have prevented in all probability our suffering one of the severest strokes, that could have been meditated against us. Their names are John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wart.
The three militiamen were awarded $200 annually for life by Congress, and the State of New York gave them each a farm valued at 500 pounds. Paulding lived on his farm east of what became Peekskill, was highly respected in his community, and in 1802 was commissioned a Major in the Westchester militia. He died in 1818 and was buried in St. Peter's Churchyard in Cortlandtville. Van Wart lived on a farm east of Tarrytown and died in 1828, being buried in the churchyard of the Dutch Reformed Church at Elmsford where he was a member and chorister. He was a Captain in the Westchester militia from 1799 to 1803. Williams farmed in Eastchester until 1805 when he moved to Livingston Village, Schoharie County, where he died in 1831. Life masks of the three, made in old age, are at the Cooperstown Museum. Many other artifacts are in the 'Captor's Room' at the Headquarters Building of the Historical Society of the Tarrytowns.
It is interesting to reflect upon how easily things could have had a different outcome, with only very slight alterations in the events:
West Point would have fallen (and the colonists' position would have been terrible) if: Benedict Arnold had reached the Vulture instead of being turned back by gunfire. Major André had gone back to the Vulture as he preferred, instead of being convinced to go overland. Major André had simply worn his uniform (as instructed by his superior) and quietly presented his pass to the captors, instead of trying to talk his way free. Major André had obeyed orders and not brought back any papers. Major André had reached the point where he was captured two hours earlier.
Major André would have escaped if: Major Tallmadge had been one hour later.
Benedict Arnold would have been arrested if: Major Tallmadge had been in camp when Major André was brought in. General Washington had taken his expected route back. Washington hadn't gone to Fishkill with the French envoy. Webb had recognized André when they met.
Bibliography: Abbott, William. Crisis of the Revolution. Empire State Society (1889) (Contains many photographs of the locations and maps, and traces the route.) Hufeland, Otto. The Capture of Major John André at Tarrytown, NY, September 23, 1780. Historical Society of the Tarrytowns, 1960. (An excerpt of his larger excellent work: 'Westchester County During the American Revolution, 1775-1783' published in 1926 by the Westchester County Historical Society. Husted, Nathaniel C. Centennial Souvenir. Reprint of speeches and historical documents of the celebration in 1870. Printed 1881. (Much historical material.) Raymond, Marcus D. David Williams and the Capture of André. Published 1903. Sargent, Winthrop. Life and Career of Major John André. Published 1861, 1871, 1900. (Definitive biography of André.) Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Westchester County. L. E. Preston & Company, Philadelphia (1886), 2 Volumes. (Contains full copies or transcripts of many of the original documents.) Van Dorn, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution. Viking Press, New York (1941). (Full documentation of Arnold's treason.)
Isaac Van Wert's Timeline
October 25, 1758
Westchester, NY, USA
March 24, 1782
Westchester, NY, USA
August 12, 1785
May 12, 1793
Westchester, NY, USA
September 28, 1799
Greenburgh, NY, USA
May 23, 1828
Westchester, NY, USA