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Victory at Yorktown



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About The Authors

By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

NEWT GINGRICH, recent Presidential Candidate and former Speaker of the House, is the bestselling author of Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor and the longest serving teacher of the Joint War Fighting Course for Major Generals at Air University and is an honorary Distinguished... More

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EXCERPT

One
 
NEAR TAPPAN, NEW YORK
OCTOBER 1, 1780
 
 
Despite the sun shining brightly through the autumn leaves on the Hudson Valley, he felt cold, cold and weary. They had given him a mission, and it was almost a curse that it should have fallen on him. Since this damn war had started for him, nearly four years ago, he had never felt as alone and depressed as he did now.
Major Allen van Dorn was posted to the staff of General Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of all of His Majesty’s forces in North America. He looked over at his sole escort, the rather nervous sergeant riding beside him.
“Sergeant O’Toole, keep that white flag up high, and be waving it, not hanging limp,” he sighed. “We’re most likely inside their lines now. You want one of their militia to blow us out of the saddles and only then figure they made a mistake?”
“No, sir, sorry, sir.” The sergeant took to waving the white banner with exaggerated vigor as they continued along the road to Tappan on the Hudson.
It was a path well known to Allen, a scene of near-daily skirmishing since the two armies had settled into what appeared to be positions of permanent standoff and waiting. The British army in New York City faced off against the Continental army, which was under direct command of George Washington and garrisoned near West Point. The land in between was often fought over, but never with any serious intent. Both sides were waiting on events transpiring seven hundred miles away in the South. The emphasis of the war had shifted to the South after the reversal at Monmouth Court House over two years ago, after the splitting off of a significant number of Clinton’s best troops, who were placed under General Cornwallis to try an alternative plan to break the deadlock. They had realized that New England, the birthing place and hotbed of this rebellion, could never be taken by the British with the forces at hand. The campaign to take back upstate New York in ’77 had turned into a debacle under Burgoyne. Clinton realized that pressing a campaign into Pennsylvania, as tried three years ago, would degenerate into a wild-goose chase with Washington forever drawing back deeper into the hinterland and the wilderness beyond.
The British leaders had concluded that the South was now their best chance. Reports indicated that a high percentage of the residents were, at heart, if not outright Tories, at least wishing to be loyal to the Crown and see this bloody stalemate come to an end. Split the Southern states off and bring them back to the Crown, offer freedom to slaves if they would fight, close the war off there, with Loyalists in control in the field, they reasoned. As they restored colonial governments, they thought, the Middle States would crack wide open and collapse as well. That would leave just upstate New York and New England. With their allies to the South gone, the northern states would finally seek agreement. Unfortunately, the French were now in this as well, expanding it to a global conflict. It was all madness.
It felt on this day like it would just go on forever. He was tired. He was cold, though the sun shone warmly, and he dreaded what the day ahead might bring, though Clinton had dispatched him with some little hope that all might yet be well.
He heard the deadly sound of a musket being cocked.
“Don’t you lobsterbacks move another damn inch!”
Sergeant O’Toole, by his side, seemed close to panic.
“Don’t move,” Allen hissed.
He looked over his left shoulder to where the sound had come from. A soldier wearing the uniform of the Connecticut militia stepped out from behind a tree. He was thin and lanky, in a dirty and threadbare uniform. Three more came out behind him, led by a sergeant, all of them with muskets leveled.
They had ridden straight into the Rebels’ picket line and had not even realized it.
Allen slowly raised his hands, and nodded to the white flag O’Toole was holding.
“We are under a flag of truce, sergeant. You could see our approach was in the open.”
The sergeant just gazed at him. Why was it that all these Rebels chewed tobacco, a disgusting habit? The sergeant looked straight at him as he expelled a stream of dark spittle, striking the hoof of his mount.
“A courier came to this place yesterday under a truce flag, to inform your General Washington that I would come today bearing a note from my commander, General Clinton.”
“I ain’t heard nothin’ of it,” the sergeant drawled. “Now get down slow and easy. A lot of strange things been going on around here the last two weeks. So slow and easy. Make a wrong move and, by God, you are both dead men.”
“I do like them horses,” declared the first soldier with a grin, musket still aimed directly at Allen. “Bet they’d fetch a half dozen pounds sterling each, no questions asked.”
Allen carefully dismounted, the sergeant drawing closer.
“Now let’s see this letter you’re talking about.”
“Sergeant, I am under orders to deliver it personally to General Washington and to no other.”
“Look, you bastard, I’m the one with the gun aimed at you, and not the other way around. I suggest you do as I’m telling you.”
“My orders from my general were clear,” Allen said, trying not to let fear take hold, using his best clipped officer-in-command tone.
“You ain’t one of ’em,” the sergeant said. “You sound like Jersey or Pennsylvania.”
Allen nodded.
“I’m a Loyalist. I was born in Trenton, New Jersey.”
“We got ourselves a damn Tory no less,” the first soldier announced. “I say, shoot them and take their horses. We can be drunk for a week on what we’d get.”
“I am carrying a dispatch, under flag of truce from General Clinton to General Washington. You do that and all four of you will be dancing at the end of a rope.”
“Just like that bastard Andre does tomorrow.”
With that Allen stiffened, anger showing.
“Major Andre is an honorable soldier,” he replied sharply.
“Oh really? That ain’t the way we see it, and we’re gonna snap his neck like a twig for being a spy.” The sergeant cradled his musket and made the gesture of breaking something with both hands, while behind him the private who had first stepped out held one hand up over his head as if clutching a rope, then cocked his head to one side, rolled his eyes, and stuck his tongue out. “Just wish we had that son of a bitch Benedict Arnold doing the rope dance next to him.”
“You bloody bastards.”
“What did you just call us?” the sergeant snapped again, training his musket on Allen. At that instant he knew they were, indeed, going to kill him and O’Toole. Easy enough to hide their bodies, take the horses, and sell them later. When inquiries were finally made, most likely days from now, all would shrug their shoulders and say nothing.
“All of you, stand at ease!”
The sergeant looked past Allen, stiffened slightly, and sighed. “Damn officer,” he muttered under his breath.
“You men, uncock your pieces carefully, then shoulder your weapons, now! These two are under a flag of truce.”
The four reluctantly did as ordered.
“What command are you?” the officer behind Allen snapped.
“Second Connecticut militia, Captain Randell’s company.”
“Clear out of here before I put all of you up on report and have you flogged. I’ll take over for these two. Now clear out!”
There was a moment of hesitation, the sergeant looking past Allen. He let a squirt of tobacco juice loose, striking Allen’s boots, then turned.
“Come on,” was all he said to the other three, and they drifted back into the woods.
Allen could hear the man behind him sigh, then the click of a pistol being uncocked. He turned to face the man who had just saved them and felt as if stricken a visceral blow.
It was his childhood friend, Peter Wellsley, wearing the uniform of the headquarters company of Washington, the braid of a major on his shoulder. With him were two troopers, mounted, but with pistols still raised and casually pointing in the direction of where the militiamen had retreated. They were taking no chances.
“My God, Peter,” Allen whispered.
He could see Peter’s eyes widen in recognition, but there was no exchange, no acknowledgment.
“I’ve been sent down to meet you,” Peter finally said coolly.
There was an icy chill to his voice, a distant look to his eyes.
“Get mounted and let’s get the hell out of here. Men like that can be dangerous when hungry and smelling booty.”
Allen did as suggested without hesitation. Hell, two minutes ago he had figured himself a dead man.
Peter and the two troopers set the pace at a sharp canter for a quarter of a mile or so until they passed through another picket line of Continentals. This position was obviously the “official” forward outpost for the Americans, thus the road was barricaded, a company of men guarded the approach, actually well-uniformed for Continentals. Peter slowed long enough to show a slip of paper, a few words with the commander there, a nod to the white flag held by a trembling O’Toole, and a quick exchange of words. Several of the men then moved the barricade so they could pass through.
Once past, Peter slowed the pace to a walk, said something to his two escorts, who dropped back half a dozen paces, looked over his shoulder, and motioned to Allen to come up by his side.
The two rode in silence for several minutes. Allen still felt chilled, inwardly a bit shaken by the experience with the first troops he had met. There had, indeed, been murder in their eyes, and if not for Peter’s timely arrival, he knew with utmost certainty he would have been dead by now, stripped, buttons and braid clipped from his uniform along with any identification, the dispatch he carried read, if those men could, indeed, read, then shredded.
To his right the broad Hudson reflected the afternoon sun. The rising hills on the far shore were a riot of autumn color that should have brightened any man’s day, but he looked at them vacantly, his soul torn and empty.
His closest friend on the British side, Major John Andre, was scheduled to be hanged tomorrow morning, and his closest friend from before this damn war, now a major like himself, but wearing the uniform of his sworn enemies, was riding by his side.
It was Peter who broke the silence at last.
“Your mission is futile, Major van Dorn. General Washington refuses to accept your letter from your general.”
Startled, Allen looked over at him. His old friend’s features were taut, thin, so unlike the round-faced boy, the “youngster” who would tag along with Allen and his brothers as they went afield. Was it really all that long ago, when they’d venture out to play, to hunt, to snitch apples in the fall, or darn near drown themselves in an old punt boat, fishing on the Delaware when the shad were running in the spring? He wondered if he had aged as much through these last five years.
“Peter?”
His friend finally shifted and turned to look straight at him.
“It is good to see you again.”
Peter nodded, but did not reply.
“You saved my life back at Monmouth Court House. I will never forget that kindness and the debt of life I will always owe you,” Allen said.
“You would have done the same for me, but things change.”
“Not all things.”
Peter could not respond for a moment.
“Allen, if not for Loyalists like you, your side would have given it up years ago and gone home.”
“I could say the same about your side. The king has offered you fair terms repeatedly.”
“Fair terms for slavery.”
“For reunion, for peace.”
“So the response is to continue to ravage the land in revenge? A wonderful way to convince us to fight on, knowing the treatment we would receive if ever we were to lay down our arms, were defenseless, and threw ourselves on his mercy and that of his hirelings.”
“Both sides are ravaging the land,” Allen said. “You get the same reports we do out of the South. How the war is being fought there. Farms burned, men hanged in their own front yards, women and children driven out as refugees.”
“If you were not there it would not be happening,” Peter retorted sharply. “Allen, there’s no sense in arguing that. We’re seven hundred miles away. Neither you nor I have or would take part in such things.
“Up here, instead, one of our generals is suborned, turns traitor, and tries to sell out our entire army. What your army could not win through honorable warfare, your side now tries to win through bribery and backstabbing.”
There was no denying the truth of that and Allen fell silent.
“Were you part of it? Did you know about it?” Peter asked sharply.
“I am under a flag of truce,” Allen replied a bit defensively. “You know I cannot answer that. Nor would I.”
Yes, he did know. It was his job to know as the Loyalist officer responsible for intelligence gathering in the region. He had been one of the last to see Andre before he had departed on his fatal mission. He had begged him to show caution, warning that it could be a trap, and to stay in uniform concealed under a cloak in case he was captured. At least then he would have some grounds to argue that he should be treated as a prisoner of war rather than a spy. Andre had smiled, even laughed, patted him on the shoulder and said he would be back in little more than a day, and within the week the war along the Hudson would be all but over.
There were several minutes of tense silence until Allen finally broke it.
“My family. They are behind your lines. Have you heard anything about them?”
Peter seemed to relent slightly.
“I was home in Trenton early this spring, carrying a dispatch from the general to Congress and stopped over. Your brother is prospering.” He paused. “Of course.”
“And my parents?”
“They’re alive, though I doubt they will ever recover from the death of your brother, James.”
Allen stiffened with that. James had gone with the Continentals at the start of the war, and had died of exposure after the battle for Trenton back in ’76. Allen had been captured in that fight, helped carry his dying brother back when Washington and his men withdrew across the Delaware after their stunning victory, and then helped them to bury James the following day.
He knew it was Peter’s and James’s comrades who had personally appealed to Washington and convinced the general to have him paroled and exchanged through the lines because of his young brother’s sacrifice.
“They can’t find the grave. They want to return him to the family plot,” Peter sighed.
“After this is over, I know where to find him,” Allen whispered. “I marked the spot well, remember I helped to dig his grave alongside you.”
“It’s all washed away now. Looks like a potter’s field, with several hundred sunken-in holes now. You can’t tell one from the other. Perhaps it’s best he stays with his comrades anyhow. I think he’d prefer that.”
Allen lowered his head.
“I still can’t believe you went Tory,” Peter finally sighed, a sharp edge to his voice. Your brother died on our side. We were once friends. You love this land as much as I do. I still cannot believe seeing you in that damn uniform.”
Allen looked over at him sharply.
“Yes, I do love this land as much as you do, and I ask you this: If you win, then what? You know history as well as I. Nearly all revolutions end in just replacing one ruler with another, often far worse. The king made mistakes, but was it really all that bad as compared to how you might fare and suffer under another ruler afterward?”
Peter looked at him sharply.
“We have General Washington to guide us.”
Allen shook his head. “Washington may turn into another Cromwell, another Caesar.”
“Damn, how dare you,” Peter said. “Remember, he gave you your freedom to go back and wear that damn uniform, otherwise you’d be sitting this one out in some prison camp out on the frontier with your Hessian friends.”
Peter paused for a moment.
“Remember Garth Williamson, Vincent van Hoek?”
“Yes. Hell, they used to go exploring with us as kids,” said Allen.
“They’re dead.”
“What?”
“Oh, I thought you might have heard since they died within sight of you. They were taken prisoner at Brandywine then locked up in your damn prison ships in New York. We’ve all heard about those ships. How the bodies are just dumped out a gun port when the tide is going out. Tell me, when the wind is blowing from the east, can you smell the death at your headquarters?”
Allen bristled at that, but knew there was no defense. More than a few had made appeals to Clinton to abandon the charnel houses of the prison ships, to establish a proper camp on dry land, but he refused, saying it was all that bloody Rebels against the Crown deserved. Word was that nearly four out of five men confined there died within a matter of months, and yes, their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into the river when the tide was running out.
“It’s this war, this damn war that is doing this to us,” Allen finally offered, “but you and I, Peter. I thought there was no hatred between us.”
“Live what I’ve lived through for four years while you and your comrades sit fat and happy in the city and maybe you’d understand better. At Morristown last winter, I watched comrades who had served from the beginning, dying by the hundreds from starvation and the cold. Hard to believe, but most of us say it was worse than Valley Forge. Meanwhile you and your Clinton were most likely sitting rosy faced by warm fireplaces, stuffed to bursting, and but a few hundred yards away your prisoners were huddled together without even a blanket and dying in their own filth.”
“I did not do this,” Allen replied.
“But the side you fight for did,” Peter snapped.
“There have been atrocities on both sides. We could argue this all day. That is what war does to all of us. There’ve been reports of our men nailed to trees and scalped.”
Peter, whose eyes had formed cool narrow slits, widened them slightly and he turned away.
“Not with my command.”
“Those four back there were only seconds away from performing the ritual on my sergeant and me. You can’t deny it.”
Peter sighed and nodded.
Again, long moments of silence. The road ahead curved up and to the left, following the bank of the Hudson, its surface shimmering with the red and gold reflection of autumn trees lining its banks. A company of troops was marching toward them and they edged to the side of the road. The passing infantry wore relatively new uniforms, hats adorned with sprigs of pine or hemlock, muskets polished to a sheen. No rabble, this. They were regulars, lean and hawk faced, even if some had seen only seventeen summers. Though they maintained marching discipline, nearly everyone looked up at him with a cold eye, muttering comments about “damn lobsterbacks.” These were not the type of men he recalled facing when this war had started. These men looked as tough and seasoned as any British or Hessian regular, even tougher now, in fact, because Peter was right: For two years his army had languished in near luxury in New York City, compared to this army encamped in the rain, mud, heat, and freezing cold of Morristown and now on the banks of the Hudson.
The company marched on and they resumed their ride, Peter urging his mount up to a gentle canter, Allen following suit.
“Peter?”
“Yes.”
“Do you remember Miss Elizabeth Risher?”
Just saying her name caused Peter’s throat to tighten.
Peter was silent for a moment remembering her only too well. Then he just nodded, stifling his emotion, not wishing to reveal what he had in fact carried in his heart for years, ever since meeting her long before the war.
“Her father was a merchant in Philadelphia,” Peter said, trying to act calm. “We’re distant cousins. You must remember when she used to visit us in Trenton before the war. Pretty lass. Why?”
Allen hesitated, Peter looking over at him.
“It’s just that while we occupied Philadelphia, I met her…” and his voice trailed away.
He could sense the sudden tension in Peter.
“And?” Peter finally whispered, voice tight, even trembling.
“It’s just that, well at that time…” and again he fell silent.
“Something happened?”
“No, not really,” Allen replied, though that was something of a lie. A lot had happened, and she had never left his heart after two and a half years.
Any attempt at friendliness of but a moment before seemed to have evaporated as Peter gazed at him.
Allen tried to smile.
“Peter, don’t tell me that you…” and his voice trailed off.
Peter just looked at him coldly.
“Don’t tell me,” Allen said softly. “My God, she’s nearly two years older than you and I just assumed…”
“Two years might be a big difference when I was fifteen,” Peter snapped, “but not now at twenty.”
“You do have feelings for her then?” Allen asked. He was trying to sound like an old friend, kidding a comrade about a girl both were interested in, but it came out awkwardly.
Peter, still stiff as if struggling for control, looked back at his escort, two old troopers nearly twice his age, both of them grinning over this conversation that they were obviously “eavesdropping” on.
“I don’t want to speak of it with you,” Peter finally said.
“I’ve tried to send at least a dozen letters through the lines, Peter,” Allen replied, “but never a word of reply. I worry for her. After our army evacuated Philadelphia I feared she might face reprisals as a Loyalist, especially because her father fled to New York, claiming he was going there to oversee the family business interests and leaving his daughter to oversee their home, legally signing it over to her name. Their friend Doctor Rush was supposed to keep an eye on her and vouch for her if need be.
“Peter, regardless of your personal feelings, as a gentleman may I ask a favor?”
Peter nodded, not replying, making no offer.
He took a deep breath.
“She was close friends with Peggy Shippen. I fear that association compounded by the fact that her father has fled to New York, now puts her in harm’s way.”
“That traitorous bitch Shippen!” Peter snapped. “My God, if Elizabeth is friends with her, she better lay low until Judgment Day. If Shippen wasn’t a woman, she’d be dancing at the end of a rope tomorrow morning as well.”
Allen instantly regretted telling Peter that bit of news. At this moment Peggy was the most infamous woman in North America—the wife of the arch traitor Benedict Arnold, and beyond that rumored to have been the mistress of his friend Major John Andre when they had occupied Philadelphia back in ’77. Some even saw her as the link of communication between the two.
“Could you at least make sure for me that Elizabeth is all right and inform her that I still think of her daily and,” he hesitated, “that I still love her?”
“I’m making no promises on that score,” Peter replied sharply. “As to your personal concerns, Miss Elizabeth is perfectly safe. Neither of us makes war on women and children.”
“Not what I’ve heard from along the frontier and down South,” Allen retorted.
The tension triggered by mention of Elizabeth stilled their conversation and the attempts by both, at some level, to try to show some level of friendship for a childhood friend evaporated. It was, of course, compounded by the fact that both faced each other, not just at this moment, but across the years in the game of point and counterpoint of spying in New Jersey and New York.
The road ahead dipped down into a broad open expanse, a field of several dozen acres, covered with tents, and a two-story stone farmhouse was set back a hundred yards from the road.
Alongside of it, carpenters were busy erecting a simple gallows—not the trapdoor kind, recently developed and claimed to be more humane since the victim’s neck was usually snapped, bringing instant death, but the old-fashioned kind of just vertical uprights, a crosstree, the rope already dangling from it. Next to it, shovels rose and fell rhythmically from out of the ground, the grave digging detail at work.
Allen all but came to a stop, staring at it.
“Andre is in there,” Peter said, nodding to the farmhouse. “It takes place the hour after dawn tomorrow.”
Allen, throat again tightening, could not speak for a moment.
“My orders are to proceed to General Washington’s headquarters and present a missive from General Clinton.”
“And I have told you, his Excellency the general will not receive you.”
“Major Wellsley, we are both bound by our orders, please escort me to General Washington’s headquarters. If rejected, I can at least tell my general I had made the personal appeal and that your general acted directly toward me as you claim he now will.”
Peter sighed, finally nodded, and without comment spurred his mount, Allen taking a moment to catch up. For an instant there was a childhood memory of having “borrowed” two horses from the barn of the Snyders, who lived beyond the edge of their village, and racing them bareback across the pasture. He recalled Peter falling off and cracking a rib, and how the Snyders, good people that they were, had actually rigged up their carriage to take Peter home.
They rode for a couple of miles, passing more and more troops camped in fields or out drilling, and woodcutting parties working on the stockpiles for approaching winter. It always amazed him how an army of just several thousand could devour acres of woods in but a few days. Allen took note of their appearance, and sensed their morale was high. Most were somewhat raggedy, but they were not the ill-uniformed scarecrows he had faced at Germantown and Monmouth.
The French supply ships, able to run the blockade, had brought in uniforms, new muskets, tentage, artillery, and ammunition for thousands. It showed. There was even a company of French troops, in their distinctive and somewhat absurd white uniforms, impossible to keep clean in the field, out drilling with absolute precision. He could not help but see all this, but of course, by the rules of war, while under a flag of truce he was forever forbidden on his word of honor to report on anything observed. Peter could have required him to wear a blindfold, but had not done so, at least a small concession to a memory of honorable behavior dating back to childhood.
At last, General Washington’s headquarters loomed into view, made obvious by the commander-in-chief flag flying in front and by the guard details, which had, without doubt, been doubled and doubled again since the Arnold incident started, and with it the revelation that part of the plan was to have Washington himself captured or killed.
Peter reined in, and an orderly briskly stepped forward to take his mount’s bridle, then offered the same service to Allen. It had been a long day of riding up from Manhattan, and he wished he could just walk around and stretch for a few minutes, but knew that all eyes, most of them hostile, were upon him. Peter’s two escorts and Sergeant O’Toole, still carrying the flag of truce and looking about, obviously still frightened, came up and dismounted as well.
Peter approached the door to Washington’s residence, a strongly built home, typical of this region of the Hudson Valley, influenced by Dutch designs, constructed of sturdy fieldstone with a high sloping roof. The two guards directly at the door came to attention. The door was opened and a young officer stood there, barring the way. Allen had some recollection of him. It was the Frenchman, Lafayette. Peter spoke to him for a moment. Lafayette looked past Peter to Allen and to his surprise actually bowed slightly and offered a salute; Allen instantly stiffened and returned the gesture. The door closed behind them, and Allen suddenly felt awkward, indeed. Still at attention from returning Lafayette’s salute, he just stood there for a moment, knowing nearly all eyes were upon him. O’Toole came up to his side and that at least gave him a diversion to turn and speak to him.
“Are you all right, sergeant?”
“Well, sir, we are now in the belly of the beast, are we not?” O’Toole whispered, and he could not help but smile at this comment.
“They’ll honor the flag,” Allen said.
“Those first ones weren’t about to.”
“This is General Washington’s headquarters, these are men of honor,” he said, deliberately loud enough so that those nearby could hear, “not those militia scum who nearly murdered us back on the road.”
He said it loud enough so that Lafayette and others would hear of the incident.
“If I’m granted an audience, you just remain here, go over to those trees over there so you are in the shade, and stand at ease. Don’t talk unless spoken to. Remember we are under a flag of truce so be careful of what you say. They might try and get information from you.”
“Soul of caution it is, sir,” O’Toole replied.
“Good man,” Allen replied, patting him on the shoulder to reassure him, even though the sergeant was an enlisted man nearly twice his age.
“Major van Dorn?”
He turned. It was Lafayette. Allen stiffened again to attention and saluted, the two following proper European custom.
“I hope your journey here was without incident?”
“No problem at all once I finally met Major Wellsley. Major Wellsley is a childhood friend.”
“So I have heard. It was your brother who helped to successfully guide the attack at Trenton.”
Allen could only nod.
“On that indulgence of memory, his Excellency the general has agreed to meet with you, and to receive your letter. Your friend pleaded your case most persuasively.”
“I thank you, sir.”
Given Peter’s cool reception, this information surprised him. He followed Lafayette into the house, the main corridor filled with half a dozen officers who turned and looked at him. Lafayette went through the ritual of formal presentations, nods exchanged to each—Generals Greene, Stirling, the now legendary von Steuben, and the rotund artillery commander Knox. Except for the polite words of introduction, no comments were exchanged. He scanned each of them quickly, trying to imprint the memory of them into his mind if ever a day should come when they met on the field of battle.
Lafayette tapped politely on a dark green door facing the main corridor, then slowly opened it. Within, General George Washington was looking up from behind a desk, and Peter Wellsley was standing stiffly at attention by his side.
Lafayette led the way in, then closed the door behind Allen.
“Your Excellency, I have the honor of presenting to you Major Allen van Dorn, of the staff of General Clinton. Major van Dorn, may I present to you General George Washington.”
Allen stiffened to rigid attention, doffing his hat and bowing low. Washington rose from his chair, hatless and offering a salute.
Washington then sat down, but no chair was offered to Allen.
Allen studied the man closely. They had met once before, the day after Trenton when the general had offered him parole and exchange because of his brother’s service. The impression on him then was memorable, a towering man of muscular build, still young-looking in his early forties. The only imperfection in his features was the deep scarring of smallpox, but then again, that was true of a fair percentage of people in this world.
General Washington had aged greatly since then. With wig off, his hair had gone nearly entirely to gray, his eyes were deep sunk, features slightly gaunt, a sense of weariness about him as if he had endured a sleepless night, yet nevertheless gaze fixed unflinchingly.
“Young Major Wellsley tells me that we have met before,” the general finally said, breaking the silence.
“Yes, sir. The day after the first battle at Trenton. You offered me parole and exchange because of…”
His voice trailed off for a moment and the general finished the sentence “… because your brother died a noble Patriot in service to his country.”
Allen wondered if there was the slightest hint of rebuke in Washington’s tone, questioning how he could still serve the Crown after the sacrifice of his own brother to the Rebel cause.
“I had already informed your courier yesterday that I would refuse any appeal from your General Clinton to spare the life of Major Andre unless it was to exchange him for,” he hesitated as if there was a bad taste in just saying the name, “Benedict Arnold.”
Allen watched his features closely. Yes, the general loathed Arnold now, but only weeks before, Arnold was rumored to be among this man’s closest friends and confidantes, and that if Washington should ever fall in battle it was his wish that either General Greene or Arnold assume full command of the forces in the field.
“As the party making the request, sir, may I have your permission to give to you a letter from my commanding officer?”
Washington nodded, saying nothing.
Still rigid at attention, Allen took the final three steps to Washington’s desk, reached into his uniform breast pocket, and drew out the heavy envelope, sealed with wax and bound with waxed cord. Washington, using what looked like a paring knife, cut the cords, broke the seal, and opened the letter.
His eyes darted down the page, taking not more than half a minute. With a sigh he put the letter down, leaning back in his chair, rubbing his eyes.
“As I already had sent to your general, the only consideration I will offer will be the exchange of Arnold for your Major Andre. That was refused, which was why I initially declined to even meet with you, Major van Dorn. If anything, this meeting now is a courtesy more to you than to your commander who…”
He hesitated but then continued.
“… refuses to hand over an outright traitor, for a man, who by all accounts, even from those who sat at his trial, is an honorable officer, a gallant man of noble spirit.”
“Sir, he is,” Allen blurted out. “He has been my closest friend in the army for three years, and it gladdens me to hear that even those who sit in judgment of him see that nobility of character.”
He regretted this breech of protocol even as he spoke, but his emotions had taken hold.
He caught a glimpse of his old friend Peter looking at him, standing slightly behind Washington, and subtly shaking his head.
“Yet, nevertheless, no matter how honorable his character, he was caught behind our lines, in civilian garb, and attempted to bribe his way past our pickets when stopped.”
Allen knew it was not his place to present the argument that Andre had, indeed, gone to meet Arnold, right in the middle of his own encampment, by necessity forced to disguise himself in civilian clothing. It was an action at which he had expressed doubt, but was ordered to do so by Clinton in order to consummate Arnold’s betrayal. He had, indeed, tried to bluff his way past the pickets manned by troops most likely similar to the ones who had surprised Allen on the ride in. Andre had at first mistaken them for a Loyalist unit, then, realizing his mistake, had fallen back on the subterfuge that he was just a civilian visiting a friend behind the lines, and offered a bribe to be allowed to pass. One of the guards, searching him, had found the secret plans to coordinate the betrayal and offensive strike by Clinton to take West Point and to capture General Washington as well.
Now his noble friend stood condemned.
“There is no offer here in this letter for a fair and proper exchange, as I knew there would not be,” Washington finally said, voice weary.
Allen wanted to express his contempt for Arnold, a man who had left Andre to his fate, who had even left his wife behind when he realized the plot had been unmasked. Now residing in New York, even though he had come over to the Loyalist side, his manner of betrayal made him a social pariah. He was useful to their cause, but never to be accepted into polite society—if a man would betray once, he would, without doubt, betray again. At least those Loyalists who had stayed with the Crown, such as himself, had done so openly, at the start of the conflict rather than switch horses in midstream.
Allen was, as an officer bearing a message, not graced with the latitude of discussion, debate, or appeal that would perhaps have occurred if Washington had been at a meeting of equal rank with Clinton.
“I have received the letter you bear, Major van Dorn. You have fulfilled your mission. There is no need to send a reply to your general, since there has not been an indication on his behalf of the slightest change other than an appeal to my sense of humanity.”
He sighed, looking up at the ceiling and then back to Allen.
“Do you think I relish this task?” Washington asked coldly. “I want you to know that every officer you saw out in the corridor, even General Lafayette here, was impressed by Major Andre’s nobility and seeing he was simply caught in the machinations of another, have appealed for some form of leniency.”
Allen knew better than to offer a reply.
“Regardless of my personal feelings in this case, I am in command of all armies in the field fighting for our independence from your Crown. Personal feelings must not hold sway, must never hold sway. Such personal sentiments must never overrule what must, however regretfully, be my duty.
“By the rules of war, a spy may be exchanged for an enemy of equal value, and that equal value is Arnold. If not, then he is to be hanged.”
Allen could sense Lafayette stiffening slightly, drawing in his breath. Washington shot the young French general an angry glance, and Lafayette went rigid.
“I will say this, and you may convey it to your General Clinton: Every member of the trial board spoke to me of some form of leniency, or if execution was, indeed, necessary as required by the rules of war, and that same board voted for unanimously, urged that your Major Andre face execution by firing squad rather than hanging.”
Washington fell silent for a moment, shook his head, and then lowered it.
“This is not revenge, Major van Dorn, but no such choice was offered to Nathan Hale, or many another man captured behind your lines in this conflict. In some cases our people have been strung up within minutes of being captured.”
He sighed.
“This is not revenge. These are the rules of war. I am honor bound to uphold them and it must be so.”
Allen stood silent, and General Washington finally looked up at him and nodded.
“Go and tell General Clinton my reply.”
Allen swallowed hard, and was about to remove his hat again, bow, and withdraw, but then nerve took hold.
“Then a personal request, sir, an indulgence I beg of you.”
Washington looked at him with flash of annoyance.
“Go on then, Major.”
“Sir. Major Andre was my closest friend in this conflict. It was he who taught me so much about the code of honor of a soldier. May I remain with him in his last hours as a comfort.”
Washington said nothing.
“Sir. It would enable me to report back to my general, as well, that though he was hanged, all proper military honors were observed by you and your men, which I am certain will transpire, and perhaps in some way might make this easier for both sides.”
Washington’s gaze drifted from Allen to Lafayette, and Allen, not daring to look, sensed that Lafayette was nodding an assent. Washington’s gaze fixed on him, and again there was that look of infinite weariness. Allen sensed that the betrayal of Arnold was an emotional shock from which he had yet to recover. He knew this man was educated in the classics and wondered if in his heart he was saying over and over, “et tu, Brute?”
There was finally the slightest of nods.
“You may spend the night with your friend. I regret to go through this formality, but do I have your word of honor that if there are any secrets Major Andre has kept concealed, that you will not allow him to speak of them?”
“Yes, sir,” Allen replied.
Washington looked over his shoulder at Peter.
“I am not questioning your adherence to honor, Major van Dorn, but you will be accompanied by Major Wellsley here throughout. You may remain with your friend until,” he paused, “until it is finished.”
Allen fought to hold back his emotions. This man was his enemy. On a field of battle if ever given the chance to bring him down, he would do so without hesitation. He was the heart and soul of their Revolution. Yet he could sense as well the inner conflict that Washington must be suffering at this moment, on the one hand compassion, wishing that these decisions did not confront him, and on the other, his sense of gravitas, of duty that demanded the response, ameliorated by this small act of compassion.
Again removing his hat, he bowed low. Washington, half standing, returned the salute.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

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