By H.G. Warrender
General Washington pushed away his pen for the fourth time that night and leaned back in his mahogany chair. Though there was much work to be done here, what with the inspections remaining to be conducted on West Point and the upcoming campaign to plan, his mind was still on the matter that had come up earlier that day.
Benedict Arnold, a traitor.
They had discovered it earlier that day, arriving at the turncoat’s home as invited to discover he was not there. Shortly after, in a pile of dispatches handed him by his aide, General Washington found a message that spoke of the capture of a John Anderson, British major in disguise. This major had papers on his person that revealed Arnold’s intent to betray the fort at West Point to their enemies. Arnold, who spoke so eloquently of the American cause, had turned his back on it.
All the speeches the man had given about his loyalty to his country were true. They were just about a different country than General Washington and his army had thought.
A thought struck the general’s mind, and he gripped the pen in his hand tightly. He himself had given Arnold this command which he so desired, and all the troops accompanying it. After Arnold’s brilliant performances on the field, and professed loyalty, it had seemed a sound idea – though he had partially agreed to get Arnold off his back, as the other general was always pestering him and begging for the post. But had the knave’s plot succeeded, Washington himself would have been entirely to blame. It was only by the stroke of greatest fortune that they had avoided such an end.
General Washington felt his shoulders sag slightly, and he leaned his elbows onto the desk. There was little he would like more than to have Arnold in his power, to string the man up as he deserved. A coward’s death would suit him… as it would likely end up suiting that major who had been caught earlier. He leaned his forehead onto his palms and closed his eyes against the work that lay ahead for him. Grappling with the betrayal of General Arnold, trying to discern what he knew and what he had likely revealed to his new patrons, and figuring out what it was they were to do with the major – it was all work that required time and deliberation. But the latter could not be had without the former, and there was very little of that.
A loud creak sounded out, signifying that the front door had just been opened, and General Washington sighed. That would be his aides returning – Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, who had ridden after Arnold once the betrayal was discovered. He doubted they had caught up, but he might as well go down.
The house – Arnold’s house – was too large and too silent. Earlier that day it had been filled with the hysterical Mrs. Arnold’s screams, but she had long since cried herself to sleep, and the rest of the household were nowhere to be seen. Washington closed the door and made his way down the hall towards the stairs. He halted suddenly as he realized that someone had already beaten him to questioning his aides. Straining his ears, he leaned forward to make out what was being said. One of the voices clearly belonged to Hamilton; the other, to his friend – and Washington’s favorite of his young officers – the Marquis de Lafayette. They conversed in rapid French, and in tones too low for much other than the language to be discernible, though a sense of urgency was . Washington descended to the first step of the staircase, and, hearing him, the voices fell silent.
He walked down the stairs and over to the door, where Hamilton and Lafayette were standing near each other. McHenry hovered behind removing his coat.
“Gentlemen,” Washington said, turning from one aide to the next as he spoke. “I assume your mission was unsuccessful?”
“Unfortunately, yes, Your Excellency,” said McHenry. “We found that Arnold has already departed on the Vulture.”
“The British warship,” Hamilton added bitterly. “The damned rascal has already joined the company of-”
“That will do, Colonel Hamilton,” said Washington coolly. He turned towards McHenry. “Thank you for making the trip, James. The other aides have left some supper for you. You may eat it and then go to your bed – not you, Alexander,” he said as the other man turned to go as well. “I should like to speak to you in my office for a moment. Marquis, if you would be so kind as to accompany us?”
“Of course, mon General.” Lafayette cast a glance at Hamilton and then fell in step as Washington led the way.
The general beckoned Hamilton over to his desk once they were inside; Lafayette, after shutting the door, swept over to them.
“This is the letter which revealed Arnold’s treachery,” said Washington, sliding a sheet of paper over to Hamilton. “It spoke of the capture of a ‘John Anderson’ and the contents of a note found upon his person. I have not sorted through all the dispatches you gave me, though I have read the one several times over.” He fixed his eyes on Hamilton, and the man lifted his gaze from the sheet of paper to meet the general’s. “I must now ask you if there is any other message from Arnold of which you are aware.”
“In fact there is.” Hamilton reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. “While Arnold has left no message for his intimates that we can discover, he did leave one for you.”
“Mon dieu, Alexander,” Lafayette murmured. “You could not have given him that first thing?”
“I wished to present it when the General could read it in peace,” Hamilton replied, though he did not look at the Marquis as he spoke; instead, those violet-blue eyes remained trained on Washington. “As I did not know what his… what your – reaction would be, Your Excellency.”
General Washington barely paid these remarks any mind. Instead, he turned the page over in his hands, studying his name across the front. How strange, to know t had been penned by a man he once considered an ally and friend, who had now betrayed all that was right and fair in their cause. For a moment, he was tempted to throw the letter into the fire, and let whatever it contained – explanations, or pleas on behalf of the lovely Mrs. Arnold, or perhaps even an apology – be lost to the flickering flames. But instead, he set it down on his desk and stood up straighter.
“Thank you, Colonel Hamilton.” He looked between the two young men. “I hardly need say that there is much work ahead of us… all of us. I will rely on both of you to help me sort through this mess.”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” said both men together.
“I have decided to turn the command of West Point over to Nathaniel Greene. I believe he will assemble a court martial to try this British major, and Lafayette, I expect you will be placed upon the committee.”
“What does that mean?” asked Lafayette.
“That you will play a part in determining his fate – whether he is to be executed or not. Hamilton, I would like you to attend and take notes for me. I shall not be able to do it myself.”
“Yes, sir. Sir…?”
“Yes, Colonel Hamilton?”
Hamilton glanced back at Lafayette, who gave him a slight nod that Washington assumed was meant to be reassuring. “We were both wondering if you had any news… about Colonel Laurens.”
“If there will be a prisoner exchange for him,” Lafayette added.
“At the moment, no such measure is being discussed,” said Washington. Both of their faces fell, and he felt a twinge of pity. Throughout the few years they had known each other, in spite of – indeed, perhaps because of – the war’s hardships, Hamilton and Lafayette had become unusually close to each other and to one of his other aides, Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens. Currently the third member of their trio was a prisoner of war in South Carolina. This news had been hard for them to grapple with, and every day since they received it, Washington heard concern for their missing friend spoken by one or the other. Washington considered all three young men as sons, and besides that, Laurens was both a good aide and a good soldier. He wanted his return to take place as quickly as possible.
“Rest assured that I desire Colonel Laurens back every bit as much as you do,” he said gently. “At present, though, this business with Arnold must be our chief concern.”
“Yes, General Washington,” said Lafayette quietly.
“Is there anything else?” asked Hamilton.
“No, not tonight. I shall have need of you both tomorrow, though. For now…” He gestured to the door. “Good night, gentlemen.”
“Good night, sir.”
“Bonne nuit, mon general,” said Lafayette. He slipped his hand into Hamilton’s and led him away.
The door closed behind them, and Washington turned his attention to Arnold’s note. He picked it up, unfolded it, and read by the light of the candle:
The heart which is conscious of its own rectitude, cannot attempt to paliate a step, which the world may censure as wrong. I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country. Since the commencement of the present unhappy contest between Great Britain and the Colonies, the same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world: who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”
Washington closed the paper and set it aside.
He had all night to read through this man’s excuses, to oblige the self-pitying remarks of a traitor and a scoundrel by letting his eyes take them in. He did not, however, have the patience that would enable him to do so. Nor the self-control.
Instead, he turned back to the letter he had been drafting before Hamilton and McHenry came through the door. The words of Arnold – now safe among the men he had betrayed this country for – could wait.
For now, Washington had work to do.
H.G. Warrender is a self-published author with a passion for the American Revolution. When not writing short stories or working on one of her books, she can be found reading biographies on her back porch. You can find some more of her work on her blog theeccentricauthor.wordpress.