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Benedict Arnold

'The Capture of John Andre' by John Toole. Wikimedia Commons

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

But for the fact that three militia men were playing cards and having lunch in the bushes alongside the Albany Post Road south of the West Point fort in 1780, we might be speaking English with a British accent. 

It was down this road that British Major John Andre came galloping, and when the three stopped him near Tarrytown, N. Y. to ascertain his business, they searched him and found detailed maps in one of his boots. It was key information about the fort, and the men realized the rider was a spy, trying to get behind the British lines in New York City.

As it turned out, Andre was coming from a meeting with Benedict Arnold, the commander at West Point, who was about to turn over the fortification to the British and join them in the Revolutionary War. The fort was a most important installation, blocking the British garrisons from moving up the Hudson, splitting New England from the rest of the colonies and connecting with their troops in Canada. This strategy could well have ended the war. 

The British troops had tried to overwhelm the fort but failed. There was a British ship moored in the Hudson, and when Arnold got word that Andre had been captured, he boarded the ship and crossed over to the other side of the river where the British were camped, making his escape and marking him for all of history as a traitor to his country.

The Fidelity Medal

Andre was recognized as an important figure and turned out to be head of British intelligence. The Colonists questioned him in detail. The map and information he carried would have allowed the British to enter and capture West Point. Andre confessed his role and ultimately was hanged as a spy, much as Nathan Hale had been four years earlier.

During the time Andre was held prisoner, he succeeded in charming his captors. A well educated man, of keen wit and culture, he was appealing to the upper-class American officers, including Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, of the Colonial Army for his patriotism to his country. Ironically, we have heard of “Poor” Andre and Benedict Arnold, but most of us have never heard of John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart, the three who captured the Brit. That is, until now.

Van Wart and the other two were farmers in their early twenties and were part of a local militia attempting to protect the much harassed residents sandwiched between Washington’s forces in the Hudson Highlands and the British army in Manhattan. That is why the three were stationed along the dirt road. Andre tried to bribe the men to release him, but they handed him over to American forces. 

The men “were recognized by the Continental Congress with hand-wrought, silver military medals, now considered to be the first ever awarded to American soldiers,” according to a New York Times article in last Saturday’s issue. And while two of the three medals were stolen from the New York Historical Society in 1975 and never found, the third was held by the Van Wart family for over two hundred years and has now been donated to the New York State Museum in Albany, where it can be seen starting in the fall.

The three men met with Washington, were given the medals, and each a plot of land and a lifetime annual pension of $200, which was then a “princely sum.”

Van Wart died in 1828, and the medal was passed down through the generations of his family until it reached Rae Faith Van Wart Robinson in White Plains. She was inordinately proud of her ancestor and kept the medal in a shoe box under her bed, taking it out to display at historical events. She never married, had no children or siblings, and when she died in 2020, she instructed that the medal be given to a museum where it could always be viewed and the story told. The front of the medal prominently bears one word: “Fidelity.”

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.