Allegiance Lectures

Excerpt from Allegiance Talk:

The story of William Eustis and Benedict Arnold

In 1779, the fourth year of the War, William Eustis was assigned as surgeon in Robinson House just across the river from West Point. It was a lovely country farm with house, barns, orchards and gardens. Perfect in which to establish as a hospital. The former owner, Colonel Robinson had been a loyalist and had deserted his farm when the war began, and now lived in Manhattan.

This is where Eustis and Benedict Arnold got reacquainted. Arnold had been court-martialed, and reprimanded by General Washington for his behavior as governor of Philadelphia. After an official scolding, he was asked to take a field commission but instead asked Washington for the position as commander at West Point. He said his leg had not healed well enough to ride out leading in a battle, and indeed, he now wore a 2-inch heel on his boot, on one side. After thinking long and hard over it, Washington gave him command of West Point with the instructions to get it further improved and into good shape.

Arnold then moved– not into the fortress at West Point – but into Robinson House. His personal guard and staff came with him to set up camp outside. His young wife and new little son, Neddy, would follow. It would be a good place for a family. What no one was aware of, was the contact Arnold had worked out with the British to set up an opportunity for them to capture the fort.  Instead of strengthening the fort, he encouraged neglect and sent men out on missions to reduce the number there to defend it.

A secret British coup was in the works when General George Washington decided to go to Hartford, Connecticut to meet the French admiral who would come half way from his base in Newport, Rhode Island. On Washington’s return journey south, he sent word ahead that he would stop overnight at Robinson House, arriving in the morning for a late breakfast with Arnold.

Meanwhile – isn’t there always a meanwhile? – Arnold had met with John Andre who had come up river in the Vulture to meet and make plans. He intended to return to New York the same way. But the Vulture was damaged by colonial gun fire and left its station to get repairs. Arnold set it up that Andre would stay overnight and would ride south for New York in disguise the next morning. There are more details in my book.

As it happened, Andre was captured not far from New York with plans of West Point in his socks. Notice was sent to General Washington that they had a suspicious guy calling himself John Anderson who had a safe passage letter to go through to Manhattan from Benedict Arnold.

The whole episode came together at Robinson House. Arnold, while at breakfast with Eustis and two aides, got a packet with a letter saying Andre – now calling himself John Anderson – had been captured. Arnold knew he was in trouble. Running upstairs to inform his wife, Peggy, he immediately left to go downriver in his personal 8-man rowing bateau that he kept at the pier for his convenience, to meet the Vulture – which, repaired, was coming back to its station.

General Washington arrived outside Robinson House about half an hour after Arnold left with his entourage including Lafayette and Hamilton. He was told Arnold had gone to West Point – so Washington decided to go across the river to see the forts and the improvements. He expected a welcome. But found no salutes, no Arnold, and the fort in bad condition. Not improved as he expected. When he returned to Robinson House, he got a packet of letters telling him about the capture of a man with the plans of West Point found in his stockings – Andre. The officers were appalled. They immediately realized the situation and began quick action to protect West Point – changing commanders and calling in other companies for defense. If the British had shown up then, they could have taken the fort.

At that moment – this is a soap opera – Peggy was heard screaming up at the top of the stairs. She was falling into an hysterical fit of terror and accusing Washington of trying to kill her son, Teddy. Eustis who was downstairs in Arnold’s office treating an aide for dysentery, ran out, called to attend to her. He and the two other young men, Hamilton and Lafayette, conferred, and carried her into her bedroom to try to get her quiet. She continued shrieking, Washington was called, took one look and left. He hated scenes like that. Eustis would have to treat her, bleed her and continue to calm her down. They did not realize that she knew exactly what she was doing, of course. The hysteria would make the men think she was innocent and she could leave– which is what happened. Eustis got her packed, with nurse, slave and baby, and off in her carriage within two days to go back safely to Philadelphia. And we know what happened to John Andre.