John Evangelist Walsh
On a deserted country road just north of Tarrytown on a bright, cool September morning in 1780, two young men stand facing each other. No other moment in American history has been, or can ever be, so crucial. Depending on what happens next between these two strangers, America’s Revolutionary War, its brave bid for freedom, will live or die.
For long the true facts about this brief encounter, deliberately distorted by one of the two participants, have been among both the best, and the least known in the country’s annals. The following short narrative, the result of a fresh investigation of the original sources, attempts to recover the minute-by-minute story in which occur the most critical ten seconds in our history.
One of the two men is a husky six-footer dressed in a military uniform, and cradling a musket in his left arm. This is John Paulding, age twenty-two, a sergeant in the Westchester Volunteer Militia, part of General Washington’s ragtag forces. The other man, slighter of build, is dressed in civilian clothes, and is unarmed. This is John André, age twenty-nine, adjutant general of the British 90 The Hudson River Valley Review army, a major in rank, and at the moment operating in disguise as a spy (It was the vengeful André’s later insinuating lies about his captor that so badly, and for so long, skewed the truth of the historic meeting.)
Holding out his hand, André shows a pass which identifies him as John Anderson, New York businessman. A small slip of paper, it is signed by the American General Benedict Arnold, commander of the American stronghold at West Point. If Paulding accepts the pass as genuine—there is no obvious reason that he shouldn’t—and allows André to continue his journey, the four-year-old rebellion, split in two by the fall of West Point, will shortly afterward almost certainly collapse.
Only minutes before this, André on horseback had been galloping along at his leisure, certain that he’d soon be back in New York City, where the British commander, General Henry Clinton, eagerly waited his return with the plans for the taking of West Point. His clandestine meeting with the traitorous General Arnold, at midnight on the Hudson shore, had gone well. Now it was only a matter of launching the British forces upriver for an attack on the deliberately weakened and unprepared West Point fortifications. General Arnold, it is agreed, will surrender soon after the shooting starts.
Preoccupied as he rode along with thoughts of his reward for his pivotal role in the operation—a dukedom would be the 1east of it—André had been taken by surprise when three men emerged from the woods on either side of the road to block his path, muskets leveled. Sergeant Paulding, with a small detachment of two other militiamen, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, had been assigned to watch the main north-south road above Tarrytown, stopping all suspicious persons.
After an initial, confused exchange, André produces the pass. Quickly scanning its few words, Sgt. Paulding appears to be impressed. “We have to be careful, sir,” he says apologetically. “There are bad people all around here, Tories and traitors, and such. Please don’t be offended.”
André smiles. “Of course not,” he replies affably as he turns back to his horse, putting a foot in the stirrup to draw himself up into the saddle. Two hours more, he thinks in silent relief. Another two hours riding through safe, open country, and it’s all over.
Between André’s handing the pass to Paulding, and what Paulding did next, hardly ten seconds passed. In that fleeting interval his soldierly instincts had been stirred (a combat veteran, he’d twice been captured by the British, and had twice escaped). Something was wrong, he felt… André’s guarded demeanor, his nervous little laugh…something.
“Not yet, sir,” calls out Paulding as he motions to Van Wart and Williams. “Just a little routine search, if you don’t mind.”
The three march the complaining André into the woods. His overcoat is removed and searched, then his jacket, and his shirt. His shiny black leather boots are pulled off, then his pants. Nothing is found. The annoyed André, sitting on alog, reaches to retrieve his boots.
“Now the stockings,” softly orders Paulding.
Eyes cast down, André sits still, making no move to reach for his woolen, knee-length stockings. Paulding nods to Van Wart and Williams, who kneel and pull down both stockings. As they come off, out from the bottom of each falls a small sheaf of folded paper. Carried in the stockings under the soles of André’s feet, they’d been crumpled and wrinkled by his weight: six sheets of information about the number and disposition of the men and guns at West Point, all bearing the signature of Benedict Arnold.
“Dress him and tie him up,” growls Paulding as he compares the Arnold signatures on pass and papers. “This man’s a spy!”
Ignoring André’s frantic offers of bribery, involving huge sums, the three take him to Dragoon headquarters at North Castle. Ten days later, on October 2, 1780, after a full military trial before a board of American generals that judged him to be “a spy from the enemy,” Major John André was executed by hanging.
The full story of André’s capture, and of John Paulding’s part in it, his background and subsequent life, as well as those of Isaac Van Wart and David Williams, can be read in the author’s book, The Execution of Major André (St. Martin’s Press, 2001). In a review of the book, the Boston Globe said that “Walsh, who is that rarest of literary creatures, a first-rate historical detective and a gripping storyteller, provocatively burrows through centuries of revisionist history to reveal the real heroes and villains of the saga.”