It was in the fall of 1780 that one Benedict Arnold, being seriously inconvenienced for want of funds, employed some very questionable means of getting on his financial legs again. After laying his head together for a spell, he resolved to realize on some real estate belonging to the colonial government, and make a European tour on the proceeds.
He secretly negotiated with the British 118Commander, Lord Clinton, (then at New York,) for the sale of a few acres at West Point, where he (Arnold) happened to be in command, which he agreed to transfer to the said Lord Clinton for and in consideration of $50,000 to him, the said Arnold, paid in hand.
It is true, the property was occupied by Government as a military post of some importance, and was the repository of valuable stores and munitions of war, and besides the nucleus of the American army was garrisoned there. But Arnold was too much of a man of business to let a little drawback of that sort stand between him and a bargain. He said he would throw all these in if the other party was willing. The other party good-naturedly agreed to overlook all drawbacks, and sent his man Friday, Major André, to close the bargain and bring the property home. After a very pleasant interview with Arnold behind a haystack, which resulted to the satisfaction of both, Major André started for New York with the title-deed for the newly acquired property safely stowed away in his left coat-tail pocket. He had proceeded some distance on his journey when he was stopped by three American gentlemen whom he met, and who, with that unhappy inquisitiveness to which their race is notoriously predisposed, desired information as to whence he had come, whither he was going, and what “line” he was in.
The Major, with great ingenuity, replied that he was a representative of the press from New York, and had been to headquarters 121to interview General Washington as to what he thought his chances were in the coming presidential canvass, and whether he, as an honest man, really considered himself a fit person to be entrusted with an army? and if it were true, as had been represented, that he advocated the introduction of the new breech-loading umbrellas into the army as a military measure? whether he was not afraid of hurting himself with his sword, or putting somebody’s eyes out by the careless habit he had of pointing out beauties in the landscape (see equestrian portraits) with that weapon? also whether he had any chewing tobacco?
However plausibly the Major’s account of himself might strike most people, it failed to satisfy those to whom it was addressed.
122They said they had at first merely looked upon him as a suspicious character, but now, by his own confessed connection with the press, they could not regard him in any other light than that of a very dangerous person, to say the least, and they must trouble him to turn his pockets inside out.
With tears in his eyes he took from his pockets an oroide watch, a jackknife, and some Erie railway shares.
“Let me go hence,” he said, in a voice choked with emotion, “and these shall be your guerdons; there is just a guerdon apiece. You can toss up among you for the choice.”
But, although his captors happened to be wealthy capitalists, they declined to add to their means at the expense of honor. 123They said guerdons were out of their line, and demanded to know if he (the Major) could discern anything of a verdant tinge in their optics. The Major could not for the life of him. One of these low fellows then hinted that he more than suspected the true nature of their (now) prisoner, and he must be investigated, and further, by a very expressive pantomime (catching himself by the throat, opening his eyes very wide, protruding his tongue and breathing hard) tried to convey some idea of what would happen if his suspicions should prove correct.
The gallant Major was never so mortified in his life before. He began to wonder what would ever become of him if these vulgar persons into whose hands he had fallen should really so far misconstrue his 124conduct as to condemn him for a spy?
He was not kept long in suspense. (See illustration on page 119.)
There is one incident in connection with André’s capture which has always been unaccountably overlooked by other historians, and which if we omitted in this place we should feel that we had not conscientiously discharged our duty.
When Major André found himself a captive he felt that it would be very desirable to communicate with Arnold before their transactions should be made public. He also saw the impossibility of reaching him by telegraph, as that means of correspondence was not to be invented until half a century or more later, and to delay so long as that 125might be fatal. While casting about for some means of giving warning to his friend, his eye chanced to rest upon a specimen of the canine species of the yellow persuasion belonging to one of his captors, and a ray of hope gleamed in upon his soul.
They had halted for the night, intending to proceed with the prisoner to headquarters next morning, and preparations were being made for supper. An empty tin coffee-pot sat near the fire, and the yellow dog sat near the tin coffee-pot blinking at the fire, his mind evidently absorbed in some abstruse canine problem. By a curious, though perhaps natural association of ideas, the Briton saw here the crude materials for communicating with Arnold ready to his hand.
126Pretending to make an entry in his diary he hastily scribbled off these lines:
Owing to circumstances over which I have no control, I am unable to take any further steps in that little matter of ours at present; the boys have in point of fact scooped me. You would have been a better man in my place. Hoping to meet you in the happy hunting grounds, I am yours, in limbo,
André. P.S.—By the way, hadn’t you better drop in upon our mutual friend General Clinton at New York and remain with him for a few days until it blows over? I only throw this out as a mere suggestion. Good bye.
A.” Watching his opportunity when his captors’ backs were turned, the Major slipped 127this epistle into the coffee-pot, clapped on the lid, and, having diverted the canine’s attention by means of a piece of salt pork, which had been originally laid out for the approaching meal, hastily appended the tin vessel to his caudal extremity, and having with nice precision turned the animal’s nose in the direction of Arnold’s tent, he gave the tail an agonizing twist, and—and the party did without coffee that night.
The yellow dog came duly to hand, and Mr. Arnold was not slow in acting upon the hint contained in the message he brought. With that long-headedness which is the characteristic of the true man of business he anticipated any investigation of his conduct that might follow by resigning and changing his residence at once. We learn that he subsequently went to 128Europe, but up to the present writing has not yet returned.
If any one doubts the incident we have just related about the way in which the news of André’s capture reached Arnold, he has only to narrowly scrutinize our illustration, which treats of the moment when the sagacious quadruped reaches the American lines. With almost human intelligence he overturns the sentinel, who, doubtful of the nature of his business, has challenged his further progress.
For Mr. Arnold’s own sake we regret the imprudent course he pursued to improve the state of his exchequer. It is true his funds were low, and no one can blame him for wanting to make a “raise.” But then he ought to have remembered that there are always honest as well as lucrative pursuits 130open to the deserving poor involving but small investments; for instance, he might have started a paper, peddled matches, got an appointment in the Cabinet, blacked boots, organized savings banks, or written comic histories.
We are aware that these invaluable suggestions come too late to apply specifically to Mr. Arnold’s case, but we do hope that all who have invested capital in this book will shape their course by the few hints we have here thrown out, and above all remember that the plucking out of even the tail feathers of the American Eagle for commercial purposes is ever attended with risk.
On a more thorough investigation of the subject we learn that Benedict Arnold is dead, and has been for some time; but he lives in American history.
Return to the A Comic History of the United States Summary Return to the Livingston Hopkins Library