Thursday, October 11, 2012

Belcher and Arnold's Treason

Benedict Arnold's betrayal of the cause of American liberty has made his name a byword for the blackest of traitors.  In late September, 1780, while in command of the important Hudson River fortification at West Point, Arnold arranged to hand over detailed plans and other information to Major John André, the British adjutant-general and spymaster, in exchange for General Rank in the British army and £20,000.  The plot was foiled when André was captured between enemy lines under an assumed name and subsequently hanged, while Arnold slipped away before he could be apprehended.  

Captain Aaron Ogden was at this time in command of a company of the 1st NJ serving as Light Infantry under Maj. General Lafayette in the Hudson Highlands.  In a posthumous personal memoir published by one of his descendants, Ogden recounted how he was engaged by General Washington to pass through the lines under a flag of truce and offer to exchange the unfortunate André for Arnold, only to be informed that "a deserter is never given up."  

Ogden makes no mention of his waiter Constant Belcher during this episode, but fortunately for posterity the Belcher Journal also covers this time period.  It sheds new light not only on his activities at the time of Arnold's treason but on a personal brush with history that might well have changed the course of the war, not to mention American literature, had not the hand of fate intervened.

21st  Sept. [1780]  To Day Cap. Ogden instrustd  me with Dispatches for Genl. Washington, off avisitin' ye Froglanders in Neuport / Accordingly did take Passage over ye water to  Continental Village where I oated my horse & did have a dram or 2 ye weather being Very Cold & Blustering & so missd  my Road & got most Confoundedly lost /  Towards night had no fire & hobbld my horse lest ye Cow Boys or Skinners Abscond with it, tho' did Fashion a Wigwam so as not to perish from Cold. 

22nd Sep. - This Day a hard Frost & Prodigious fog / Met on ye way a Dutchman one Brom Bones a hard looking rascal learnt I was far off course for Yankeedom & even now on Neutral Ground / Did tarry at Tarrytown at van Tassel's wair they had much merriment for a Harvest Home / Did find ye cyder much to my liking & also th' Psalmody of Crane ye Schoolmaster /  A curious tradition in these Parts is to fashion Lanthorns from ye flesh of ye Pompion /  Ye wind blew Very chilly & they had a Warm fire I sat down close to it / Did share a flask of Malmsey with a merchant of Nieu Yorck one James Anderson had a round hat & blue Cloak his features most delicate / Anderson claimed a fair hand at scribbling & offered to make for me my Portrait if he had but Paper & it seemd to me that I had Some & found a few Leaves in my Dispatch case that had writing on one side only & these I give to him at which he appeard most pleased / I know not whether or no he made of them a Good Likeness for at Last ye Heat of ye fire overcame me & I fell down like a Log & faintd away.

23rd Sept. - Awoke before ye cock's Crow to find my horse gone & Dispatches as well without even a Rude sketch in recompense / Apprehending my condition to be Most Perilous did find another Mount in ye great black horse of Menheer Bones & taking up a Grate Pompion for a glim went Hell for Leather after ye villain Anderson /  On passing a boneyard did see a figure that skulkd thair & taking Him for ye Thief let fly with the landhorn / He did fall like a Stone but unhappily proved to be Crane & thot it best not to Tarry more in Tarrytown but to cross the North River & so return to my Duty.

24th  Sept.  -  Nothing of importance this day /  No mention of Dispatches.

25th Sep. -  Genl Washington 'tis said to be most vexed with Genl Arnold./  Maj Tallmadge in conference with Capt. Ogden on matters of Base Treachery could make but little sense of thair Talk tho' appears to involve Vultures or Buzzards & Plans of ye Fort at the Point & other documents of a Sensitive nature found on a British Officer now a Prisoner.

26th Sept. - Genl Arnold proved a traitor & gone over to the British /  Prisoner one Maj. John Andray had on him such documents as to shew his Crime /  Cap. Ogden says this Andray was taken ye very Time I staid by Tarrytown by three roguish chaps who found him on ye Road without Uniform in disguise even as a Niew Yorck Merchant with Dispatches in his Stockings /  Am now most unwell.

27th  Sept.  - Still feeling poorly / Understand the Prisoner is a gentleman with no little talent for portrait-making / Had a puke & went early to bed.

29th Sep. - Maj Andray under Sentence of Death as a Spy.

30th Sept - Summonded to Head Quarters with Cap. Ogden expecting the Worst /  Grate Relief to learn we are to Pass through the Lines under a Flag & seek to Exchange Maj. Andray or Anderson for ye Traitor Arnold /  Accordingly went together with an Escort to the British post wair Cozen Aaron gave his message & ye officer sent down to Genl Clinton at thair Head Quarters for instruction / Took some refreshment & also some first quality Sausages for ye Journey back / After 2 houres came ye reply a Dessert is Never given up so left without prospect of anything Sweet after our meal.

October ye Second -  On this Day Maj. Anderson or Andray so called was hangd as a Spy / Many Officers much affectd to see a fellow Gentleman meet a low End on a halter, but for me it seemd Just Deserts /  In ye After noon Cap. Ogden did shew me some of the papers as were Found on the Spy, including Returns of ye Strength of diverse battalions & a fair rendition of one of our Light Infantry, perhaps says he even of our own good Jersey Regiment / Did venture in reply that this could not be, for ye fellow in that picture did Lie at ease in a most Unsoldierly fashion & appeard to have ye head of a Pompion / Beyond this saith not.

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