Last week I finally achieved a long-time dream: sailing up the Hudson, from the Battery to Newburgh. While it’s the busiest time of year, and with all the sturm-und-drang over Costco I’m way behind on the cello I’ve been commissioned to make, the trip was unavoidable.
I had to take my son’s boat to its winter home in a yard at New Hamburg. The river, once you pass Haverstraw Bay, is disconcertingly narrow. Indian Point is right there – in my case, uncomfortably so, for it was in front of it that the engine decided to quit, leaving me to drift past as I cleaned the carburetor and fuel filter. Luckily it started right up again, but with it came a nice breeze – and so I killed the engine and rode the wind and the tide all the rest of the way.
Growing up in Westchester, I had always taken West Point for granted. We used to drive over with my cousins to see football games and hockey matches. It was always just there, high on the bluff, in the distance from Newburgh, or across the river in Garrison. But it was sailing by that I realized why that particular spot had been chosen; and why it was probably the best siting ever for a fort to dominate river traffic. The river runs straight north from Bear Mountain – but then narrows and right at West Point makes a dogleg before resuming its course north past Cold Spring and Storm King Mountain.
And there’s the key: as I came about to make the dogleg, the wind grew confused; and I suddenly saw it as I would have in the 18th century,standing on the deck of a sailing ship, close under the massive guns of the fort looming close above. There would have been no possibility of waiting for the tide and a favorable wind to shoot past. Any sailing ship would have to wear sail twice – and in shifting winds. It would end up, helpless and broadside, exposed to that lethal barrage.
Seeing West Point I could not help but be reminded of my own family connection;although I have to admit it's one of which we’re not too proud. Every family tree has its branches and roots; and some of those branches bear rotten fruit, which the other members would just as soon forget. In our case, a distant bad apple was none other than the woman known as “Lady Macbeth-on-the-Hudson:” Peggy Shippen, Benedict Arnold’s wife. It was a perfect marriage -- from a purely diabolical point of view. A man of immense talent, a brilliant soldier, but with a vanity and self-regard to match, wedded to a woman of overweening ambition. Rather than calm his wounded pride and imagined slights, she encouraged them. And her abilities to play the part were legendary: when Washington and Hamilton stopped at the house, within hours of Arnold fleeing after the plot was discovered, they were so concerned about her hysteria that they literally feared for her life. A misplaced concern: she soon fled to join her husband, the great betrayer of the cause and his own fellow soldiers.
The focus is always on the sulking man in the tent at Saratoga, West Point, the plans, Major Andre. But when Arnold gave the plans to Andre, he was just forty; and after the war he lived another twenty years or so, ending the balance of his days in London. It was not a happy end; business plans came to nothing, and he eked out a hard life on the half-pay of a retired officer. Expecting to be viewed a hero, the reality was quite the opposite. In the House of Commons, Edmund Burke said that it was his fervent hope that the government would not put Arnold "at the head of a part of a British army" lest "the sentiments of true honor, which every British officer [holds] dearer than life, should be afflicted." And he was reviled in the press as a “mean mercenary.”
Although hung as a spy, Major Andre, for his part, was viewed as a hero – and with respect by his captors, some of whom, prior to his execution, expressed their deep sorrow at the necessity of it. He was a spy, but his sympathies were clear; such is war. For his part, even though he lived, Arnold suffered a far worse fate. He spent the rest of his mortal life in that endless purgatory of the man who betrays his friends: reviled by those who once trusted him, and yet viewed with a barely concealed contempt by those 'friends' who will never trust him. Former friends might greet a man such as this with civility, but only because they adhere to the rules of society. As for those for whom he has betrayed them, they will smile, and slap him on the back; but he will never see (except in his mind’s eye) the quick exchange of glances after he leaves, the dismissive shake of the head. Always and forever blinded by the conviction of the rightness of his actions, he has truly become the man without a shadow.
A sad fate indeed. Far more fun to think of next spring: when the tide and the wind favor, I’ll bring the boat back down the river, and make the dogleg past West Point, and once again pass through the ghosts of history.