"The Interposition of Providence" 


by Ronald Mann
Former deputy director of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution

The carefully laid plot for General Benedict Arnold, the commander of West Point, to turn it over to the British as well as to make possible the capture or death General Washington, had been under way for more than a year. All the conspirators involved were convinced that their plot would succeed and the war would end favorable to Britain shortly thereafter. "The fact that this plot didn't succeed struck all at the time with astonishment, so much so that for many the only possible explanation involved the hand of God. "The interposition of Providence" Washington called it, using a phrase often echoed by others, then and since. (Much of the material for this account comes from the book The Execution of Major Andre , by John Evangelist Walsh, 2001, Palgrave.)

General Arnold was a hero of the early years of the war for Independence. He had fought in many battles, in Canada, and at Saratoga for example. General Washington and others felt he had earned the right to be made a major general, nevertheless he had been rejected by congress several times and the rank given to more politically correct generals. This among other things had caused him to turn against the American cause. He had initially negotiated his planned treason with General Clinton, commander of the British forces, who later turned it over to Major Andre, Adjutant-General to the British army. "Major Andre ...was a starkly ambitious, cunningly self-willed manipulator, crudely arrogant beneath that pleasing exterior" (Ibid., 8).

In exchange for his treason General Arnold would receive 20,000 pounds, plus indemnification for loss of various properties. In addition he would also be made a brigadier general in the British army. If by some accident it didn't turn out as planned he would still receive 10,000 pounds as well as all the other agreed upon terms. General Green had said of the "hellish plot", if it had been successful it would "... have given the American cause a deadly wound, if not a fatal stab," (Ibid., 29)

The First Interposition of Providence

For several days Major Andre had been waiting on the Hudson River in the sloopVulture for his meeting with General Arnold. The Vulture was moored about twenty miles south of West Point. Shortly after midnight, September 22, 1780, Major Andre was taken from the Vulture in a rowboat manned by two men - the Cahoon brothers. The strong ebb tide was going out making the two mile row upstream much more difficult and time consuming than had been expected. It had been expected to take only a half hour to row to the shore, but ended up taking nearly two hours. This is the first Interposition of Providence since they arrived at shore at about 2:00 A.M., two hours later than scheduled, which disrupted all subsequent schedules.

The Second Interposition of Providence

Discussions between Andre and Arnold lasted until about 4:00 A.M., when it was decided that Major Andre should get back to the ship so the attack could be launched on schedule. General Arnold had prepared detailed plans consisting of five pages, too much data to memorize, making it necessary for Major Andre to carry it on his person. This would subsequently be discovered and result in Andre being hanged. When they returned to the row boat, the Cahoon brothers protested against rowing back to the Vulture , since they would now have to row against a flood tide, adding time to the trip which would make it light when they were only about half back to the ship--too risky for them. In spite of a lengthy harangue they were unable to convince the Cahoon brothers. Arnold then suggested Andre stay overnight with a friend at Haverstraw, the Smiths, and then leave the next evening. The fact that they had overlooked the tides quickly became an egregious mistake that doomed the whole mission. This oversight was the second Interposition of Providence, causing further delays - others would follow.

The Third Interposition of Providence

They rode to the Smiths where they stayed overnight. The next morning Andre and Arnold were eating breakfast when they heard cannon fire coming from the river. The Vulture had been anchored about a half-mile off Teller Point about two miles south of Haverstraw, waiting for, Major Andre. The Vulture was visible from the Smith house making it possible to see an on-going battle between a shore battery and the Vulture .

Entirely on his own an American officer commanding that part of the shoreline started firing on the Vulture , driving it from its mooring and down the river. This now forced Major Andre to go by land, a longer, more dangerous and circuitous route. The genesis of how the battery got to Tellers Point is nothing short of a miracle. Stationed about ten miles north of Tellers point, was Verplanck's Point, an American unit under the command of Colonel James Livingston. For weeks he had received complaints from Americans living along the shore about enemy vessels anchored off their shore unmolested. The possibility of a quick strike against the Americans living there to get supplies, captives or do damage bothered all the Americans. Since no American ships were available to drive it off, Colonel Livingston, on his own, not asking permission from his commander at West Point - General Arnold, had on the 20th of September ordered three field pieces moved to Teller's Point; two small cannons capable of throwing solid shot and a howitzer throwing shells. By the 21st they were placed behind an earthwork built up for protection and ready for action. On the 22nd, the day Andre was scheduled to re-board, somewhere between 5:00 and 5:30 A.M. the shore battery started firing on the Vulture , determined to drive it out of American territory. The exchange lasted for about 2 hours until the Americans' magazine was hit. During the firing theVulture had been hit six times forcing it to relocate down river a couple of miles for safety. This resulted in the Vulture now being outside the vision of Andre and Arnold from the Smith house. The action by Colonel Livingston of locating the cannon on Teller's Hill only one day before Andre went ashore, without seeking approval from General Arnold, is the third Interposition of Providence. Surely General Arnold would not have allowed it to happen had he known.

Because of the incident, Arnold now feared that guard boats and telescopes from shore would be watching more carefully to see where the Vulture went or what she did thereby closing the option of traveling by boat down the Hudson. Arnold gave Andre a pass and assurance that all would be well, besides he would send his friend Joshua Smith with him. But of course he would have to change from his uniform into civilian clothing.

The Fourth Interposition of Providence

Joshua Smith and Major Andre, alias Mr. John Anderson, traveling the new route ran into the first sentries at King's Ferry on the west side, of the Hudson River. Verplanck's Point was on the eastern side of the Hudson. It was from here that Colonel Livingston had moved the cannons. As they approached the guards they each leaned down from their horses to show their pass; luckily the guard hardly gave them a glance. They had successfully passed their first test which lifted their spirits. They still had another 36 miles to travel before reaching neutral ground. By 9:00 P.M. they had traveled fifteen miles and ready to rest for the night. Suddenly they were stopped in a wooded section by another patrol. This time the guards were more cautious. After a very tense twenty minutes they were allowed to continue. The Captain of the patrol had warned them that they should go back a few miles and stay at a friend's house rather than continue on. Apparently there had been a lot of terrorist activity, giving cause for concern. The captain's friend was Andreas Miller and he would, if they used his name make them welcome. After a very uncomfortable night they were up at the first approach of light and on their way. Before they reached Pines' Bridge, the beginning of neutral territory, they had two separate incidents that were hair-raisers.

Less than a half-hour on the road they were stopped by an American patrol which demanded to see their identification. After a long discussion about the conditions in the area they were allowed to continue. A little later they ran into a lone rider coming towards them from the south. Major Andre recognized the rider immediately, Colonel Sam Smith, who, while a prisoner of the British, Andre had gotten to know and even like. There was no question that he would recognize Andre. All Andre could do was to pull his hat down over his face and hike his coat collar up around his ears, hunch his shoulders and hope he wasn't recognized. As they came abreast the colonel stared at him but continued past. Soon the bridge was in sight. They stopped at a small cottage to inquire if they could buy some breakfast. After knocking several times an old Dutch woman opened the door and said apologetically that all she had was some cornmeal mush which she would gladly share. They gratefully accepted and sat on the back steps of the house and ate their mush. When finished they thanked the old lady gave her some money and headed for the bridge. At the bridge Smith, explained that he was going to turn back and that he thought Major Andre would be OK. Recognizing he didn't have any money he asked Mr. Smith if he could loan him some. He gave him half of the money he had left, explained the remaining route and took leave. Had they not have made these stops it is very likely they would have missed the militiamen. Andre felt confident, he only had fifteen miles to go, all of which was in neutral territory. Shortly thereafter he would be safe in New York City where he would be celebrated as a great hero.

As of this moment no one has been able to explain why Smith, who knew the territory well would have allowed Andre to go on alone. Andre knew nothing of the region! Surely with Smith's knowledge of the territory and its inhabitants he would have been able to have gotten Andre safely through, especially since he had committed to take his companion to New York City. This is the fourth Interposition of Providence. Also unexplained is why Andre had not gotten a pistol from Arnold, something he could have hid under his coat. Certainly no secret agent with any sense or experience would have ventured into such a territory unarmed.

The Fifth Interposition of Providence

That night, September 23 rd , a patrol of seven off-duty militiamen had banded together to watch the road leading to Tarrytown. Tarrytown is located about eight miles below Teller's Point and about three miles above Tappan (which is located on the opposite side of the Hudson, where Andre would later be hung) The patrol was divided Into two smaller squads. Four men stationed themselves on higher ground to the east. Sergeant Paulding and two privates, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart, placed themselves among some trees where a narrow creek crossed the road, a half-mile out of Tarrytown. Traffic that night was slow so they entertained themselves by playing cards. Van Wart and Williams were dressed more or less alike. The fifth Interposition of Providence is the fact that Sergeant Paulding, was wearing a dark green, red-trimmed Hessian Jaeger uniform coat in which he had made his escape from New York City. He had been captured twice by the British and escaped both times. Why he wore that jacket on that particular night is another unanswered question. Perhaps he thought it might give him and his squad some advantage. Posted close to the British lines they could pose as Tories, British sympathizers, throwing any traveler off guard, which is exactly what happen to Major Andre. Sergeant Paulding happened to be wearing his Hessian Jaeger jacket when Andre came galloping by.

The Sixth Interposition of Providence

Another oversight of Andre was the fact that he hadn't gotten a map from Smith or Arnold, which may have reduced the likelihood of him being capture. Nearing Tarrytown he came to a crossroad, both leading in a southern direction. Nearby stood a house with a boy playing in the front yard. Unconcernedly, he walked his horse over to the boy and asked him which road lead to Tarrytown. At the some instance the front door opened and a man came out. Asking him the same question, Andre received his answer and sped on his way. One more time he stopped to get a drink of water. Again, had he not stopped, he would have mostly likely not have been caught. After cantering for a mile or two, he spurred his horse into a full gallop. His excitement grew, soon his journey would be over and his mission accomplished. Ahead he saw a small bridge over a creek. Slowing his horse down to a walk he crossed the bridge then spurred up again - only to be commanded to HALT! A man appeared holding a musket pointed at him, then two more men appeared. The first man walked closer, his name was John Paulding. Paulding noticed right away the rider's expensive boots, of a military type, good clothes - quality saddle and bridle and expensive horse with a brand on the shoulder "U.S.A." "You're in a hurry." said Paulding. "Where you headed?" The major's thoughts had been shattered, refocusing the only thing that made any impression was the green Hessian Jaeger uniform jacket worn by the man. "I see you belong or our party!" Andre blurted. "What party is that?" Paulding asked. "Why the lower party, of course," (the lower party was employed by both the British and American in New York for the British, the upper party was used for the Americans.) "Yes we do," Paulding replied confidently and relaxed. "Thank God" Andre rushed on unable to stop himself. ''I am a British officer. I've been upcountry on important business for General Clinton. Please don't delay me."' When Andre finally realized he had made a mistake, and that he was talking to Americans, he tried to talk his way out by saying he was using this as a way of getting through to the .British lines. However that didn't work. He also tried to bribe them with a gold watch and money - which they obviously could have used, but with no success. The three militiamen placed their liberty above any amount of money or prizes offered by the Major. This is the sixth Interposition of Providence. It would have been an easy matter for the militiamen to have accepted his offer and let him go. It is not likely anyone would have ever known. But thanks to their integrity and commitment to freedom they didn't and our notion was saved from bondage. At this point the rest of the story is common history. Andre was taken to the little town of Tappan, New York where he was tried by twelve general officers and found guilty. Meanwhile General Arnold had escaped and ended up serving in the British Army. Washington attempted to get the British to swap General Arnold for Major Andre but the British refused. As a result Major Andre was hung on October 2, 1780, thus putting an end to one of the sad stories of treason in American history.

The six examples of what I chose to call the "Interposition of Providence" made possible the demise of the well-laid plans of General Arnold and Major Andre. Had they succeeded it is most likely we would have lost the war and General Washington killed. Had that happened the whole history of America and the world would have been changed for the worst. Each of these events - Interposition of Providence - led to next which eventually led to the capture of Major Andre and ended that treason. There were just too many events that seem to deter the final treason to be just a coincident.

In the whole course of this affair of Arnold's treason, Washington, according to the habitually religious turn of his mind, distinctly recognized the hand of Divine Providence. Writing to Col. John Laurens he says: "in no instance since the commencement of the war has the interposition of Providence appeared more remarkably conspicuous than in the rescue of the post and garrison of West Point from Arnold's villainous perfidy. How for he meant to involve me in the catastrophe of this place does not appear by any indubitable evidence, and I am rather inclined to think he did not wish to hazard the more important object of his treachery by attempting to combine two events, the less of which might have marred the greater. A combination of extraordinary circumstances, an unaccountable deprivation of presence of mind in a man of the fiat abilities, and the virtue of three militiamen, threw the adjutant-general of the British forces, with full proofs of Arnold's treachery, into our hands. But for the egregious folly, or the bewildered conception, of Lieutenant ­Colonel Jameson, who seemed lost in astonishment and not to know what he was doing, I should undoubtedly have got Arnold." ( The Life & Times of Washington , Vol. ill, pages 1311-1312, Schroeder-Lossing, 1903)

"It seems to have been the design of Providence that Americans, in all ages should learn to detest treason by seeing it exhibited in all its hideous deformity, in the person of Arnold, The Traitor," (Ibid., 1312).

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