Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

On the Track of a Traitor

While Major André was dying the death of a spy, General Arnold, his tempter and betrayer, was living the life of a cherished traitor, in the midst of the British army at New York. This was a state of affairs far from satisfactory to the American authorities. The tool had suffered; the schemer had escaped. Could Arnold be captured, and made to pay the penalty of his treason, it would be a sharp lesson of retribution to any who might feel disposed to follow his base example.

Washington had his secret correspondents in New York, and from them had learned that Arnold was living in quarters adjoining those of Sir Henry Clinton, at but a short distance from the river, and apparently with no thought of or precaution against danger. It might be possible to seize him and carry him away bodily from the midst of his new friends.

Sending for Major Henry Lee, a brave and shrewd cavalry leader, Washington broached to him this important matter, and submitted a plan of action which seemed to him to promise success.

"It is a delicate and dangerous project," he said. "Much depends on our finding an agent fit for such hazardous work. You may have the man in your corps. Whoever volunteers for this duty will lay me under the greatest personal obligation, and may expect an ample reward. But no time is to be lost. He must proceed, if possible, to-night."

"Not only courage and daring, but very peculiar talent, are needed for such an enterprise," said Lee. "I have plenty of brave men, but can think of only one whom I can recommend for such a duty as this. His name is John Champe; his rank, sergeant-major, but there is one serious obstacle in the way,—he must appear to desert, and I fear that Champe has too high a sense of military honor for that."

"Try him," said Washington. "The service he will do to his country far outweighs anything he can do in the ranks. Rumor says that other officers of high rank are ready to follow Arnold's example. If we can punish this traitor, he will have no imitators."

"I can try," answered Lee. "I may succeed. Champe is not without ambition, and the object to be attained is a great one. I may safely promise him the promotion which he ardently desires."

"That will be but part of his reward," said Washington.

Lee sent for Champe. There entered in response a young man, large and muscular of build, saturnine of countenance; a grave, thoughtful, silent person, safe to trust with a secret, for his words were few, his sense of honor high. In all the army there was not his superior in courage and persistence in anything he should undertake.

It was no agreeable surprise to the worthy fellow to learn what he was desired to do. The plan was an admirable one, he admitted, it promised the best results. He did not care for peril, and was ready to venture on anything that would not involve his honor; but to desert from his corps, to win the scorn and detestation of his fellows, to seem to play the traitor to his country,—these were serious obstacles. He begged to be excused.

Lee combated his objections. Success promised honor to himself and to his corps, the gratitude of his country, the greatest service to his beloved commander-in-chief. Desertion, for such a purpose, carried with it no dishonor, and any stain upon his character would vanish when the truth became known. The conference was a long one; in the end Lee's arguments proved efficacious; Champe yielded, and promised to undertake the mission.

The necessary instructions had already been prepared by Washington himself. The chosen agent was to deliver letters to two persons in New York, who were in Washington's confidence, and who would lend him their assistance. He was to use his own judgment in procuring aid for the capture of Arnold, and to lay such plans as circumstances should suggest; and he was strictly enjoined not to kill the traitor under any circumstances.

All this settled, the question of the difficulties in the way arose. Between the American camp and the British outpost were many pickets and patrols. Parties of marauding patriots, like those that had seized André, might be in the way. Against these Lee could offer no aid. The desertion must seem a real one. All he could do would be to delay pursuit. For the rest, Champe must trust to his own skill and daring.

Eleven o'clock was the hour fixed. At that hour the worthy sergeant, taking his cloak, valise, and orderly-book, and with three guineas in his pocket, which Lee had given him, secretly mounted his horse and slipped quietly from the camp.

Lee immediately went to bed, and seemingly to sleep, though he had never been more wide awake. A half-hour passed. Then a heavy tread was heard outside the major's quarters, and a loud knock came upon his door. It was some time before he could be aroused.

"Who is there?" he asked, in sleepy tones.

"It is I, Captain Carnes," was the reply. "I am here for orders. One of our patrols has just fallen in with a dragoon, who put spurs to his horse on being challenged, and fled at full speed. He is a deserter, and must be pursued."

Lee still seemed half asleep. He questioned the officer in a drowsy way, affecting not to understand him. When at length the captain's purpose was made clear to his seemingly drowsy wits, Lee ridiculed the idea that one of his men had deserted. Such a thing had happened but once during the whole war. He could not believe it possible.

"It has happened now," persisted Captain Carnes. "The fellow is a deserter, and must be pursued."

Lee still affected incredulity, and was with difficulty brought to order that the whole squadron should be mustered, to see if any of them were missing. This done, there was no longer room for doubt or delay. Champe, the sergeant-major, was gone, and with him his arms, baggage, and orderly-book.

Captain Carnes ordered that pursuit should be made at once. Here, too, Lee made such delay as he could without arousing suspicion; and when the pursuing party was ready he changed its command, giving it to Lieutenant Middleton, a tender-hearted young man, whom he could trust to treat Champe mercifully if he should be overtaken. These various delays had the desired effect. By the time the party started, Champe had been an hour on the road.

It was past twelve o'clock of a starry night when Middleton and his men took to horse, and galloped away on the track of the deserter. It was a plain track, unluckily; a trail that a child might have followed. There had been a shower at sunset, sharp enough to wash out all previous hoof-marks from the road. The footprints of a single horse were all that now appeared. In addition to this, the horse-shoes of Lee's legion had a private mark, by which they could be readily recognized. There could be no question; those foot prints were made by the horse of the deserter.

Here was a contingency unlooked for by Lee. The pursuit could be pushed on at full speed. At every fork or cross-road a trooper sprang quickly from his horse and examined the trail. It needed but a glance to discover what road had been taken. On they went, with scarce a moment's loss of time, and with sure knowledge that they were on the fugitive's track.

At sunrise the pursuing party found themselves at the top of a ridge in the road, near the "Three Pigeons," a road-side tavern several miles north of the village of Bergen. Looking ahead, their eyes fell on the form of the deserter. He was but half a mile in advance. They had gained on him greatly during the night.

At the same moment Champe perceived them. Both parties spurred their horses to greater speed, and away went fugitive and pursuers at a rattling pace. The roads in that vicinity were well known to them all. There was a short cut through the woods from near the Three Pigeons to the bridge below Bergen. Middleton sent part of his men by this route to cut off the fugitive, while he followed the main road with the rest. He felt sure now that he had the deserter, for he could not reach the British outposts without crossing the bridge.

On they went. No long time elapsed before the two divisions met at the bridge. But Champe was not between them. The trap had been sprung, but had failed to catch its game. He had in some strange manner disappeared. What was to be done? How had he eluded them?

Middleton rode hastily back to Bergen, and inquired if a dragoon had passed through the village that morning.

"Yes; and not long ago."

"Which way did he go?"

"That we cannot say. No one took notice."

Middleton examined the road. Other horses had been out that morning, and the Lee corps footprint was no longer to be seen. But at a short distance from the village the trail again became legible and the pursuit was resumed. In a few minutes Champe was discovered. He had reached a point near the water's edge, and was making signals to certain British galleys which lay in the stream.

The truth was that the fugitive knew of the short cut quite as well as his pursuers, and had shrewdly judged that they would take it, and endeavor to cut him off before he could reach the enemy's lines at Paulus Hook. He knew, besides, that two of the king's galleys lay in the bay, a mile from Bergen, and in front of the small settlement of Communipaw. Hither he directed his course, lashing his valise, as he went, upon his back.

Champe now found himself in imminent peril of capture. There had been no response from the galleys to his signals. The pursuers were close at hand, and pushing forward with shouts of triumph. Soon they were but a few hundred yards away. There was but one hope left. Champe sprang from his horse, flung away the scabbard of his sword, and with the naked blade in his hand ran across the marshy ground before him, leaped into the waters of the bay, and swam lustily for the galleys, calling loudly for help.

A boat had just before left the side of the nearest galley. As the pursuers reined up their horses by the side of the marsh, the fugitive was hauled in and was swiftly rowed back to the ship. Middleton, disappointed in his main object, took the horse, cloak, and scabbard of the fugitive and returned with them to camp.

"He has not been killed?" asked Lee, hastily, on seeing these articles.

"No; the rascal gave us the slip. He is safely on a British galley, and this is all we have to show."

A few days afterwards Lee received a letter from Champe, in a disguised hand and without signature, transmitted through a secret channel which had been arranged, telling of his success up to this point, and what he proposed to do.

As it appeared, the seeming deserter had been well received in New York. The sharpness of the pursuit and the orderly-book which he bore seemed satisfactory proofs of his sincerity of purpose. The captain of the galley sent him to New York, with a letter to Sir Henry Clinton.

Clinton was glad to see him. For a deserter to come to him from a legion so faithful to the rebel cause as that of Major Lee seemed an evidence that the American side was rapidly weakening. He questioned Champe closely. The taciturn deserter answered him briefly, but with such a show of sincerity as to win his confidence. The interview ended in Clinton's giving him a couple of guineas, and bidding him to call on General Arnold, who was forming a corps of loyalists and deserters, and who would be glad to have his name on his rolls. This suggestion hit Champe's views exactly. It was what had been calculated upon by Washington in advance. The seeming deserter called upon Arnold, who received him courteously, and gave him quarters among his recruiting sergeants. He asked him to join his legion, but Champe declined, saying that if caught by the rebels in this corps he was sure to be hanged.

A few days sufficed the secret agent to lay his plans. He delivered the letters which had been given him, and made arrangements with one of the parties written to for aid in the proposed abduction of Arnold. This done, he went to Arnold, told him that he had changed his mind, and agreed to enlist in his legion. His purpose now was to gain free intercourse with him, that he might learn all that was possible about his habits.

Arnold's quarters were at No. 3 Broadway. Back of the house was a garden, which extended towards the water's edge. Champe soon learned that it was Arnold's habit to seek his quarters about midnight, and that before going to bed he always visited the garden. Adjoining this garden was a dark alley, which led to the street. In short, all the surroundings and circumstances were adapted to the design, and seemed to promise success.

The plan was well laid. Two patriotic accomplices were found. One of them was to have a boat in readiness by the river-side. On the night fixed upon they were to conceal themselves in Arnold's garden at midnight, seize and gag him when he came out for his nightly walk, and take him by way of the alley, and of unfrequented streets in the vicinity, to the adjoining river-side. In case of meeting any one and being questioned, it was arranged that they should profess to be carrying a drunken soldier to the guard-house. Once in the boat, Hoboken could quickly be reached. Here assistance from Lee's corps had been arranged for.


The Benedict Arnold Mansion.

The plot was a promising one. Champe prepared for it by removing some of the palings between the garden and the alley. These he replaced in such a way that they could be taken out again without noise. All being arranged, he wrote to Lee, and told him that on the third night from that date, if all went well, the traitor would be delivered upon the Jersey shore. He must be present, at an appointed place in the woods at Hoboken, to receive him.

This information gave Lee the greatest satisfaction. On the night in question he left camp with a small party, taking with him three led horses, for the prisoner and his captors, and at midnight sought the appointed spot. Here he waited with slowly declining hope. Hour after hour passed; the gray light of dawn appeared in the east; the sun rose over the waters; yet Champe and his prisoner failed to appear. Deeply disappointed, Lee led his party back to camp.

The cause of the failure may be told in a few words. It was a simple one. The merest chance saved Arnold from the fate which he so richly merited. This was, that on the very day which Champe had fixed for the execution of his plot, Arnold changed his quarters, his purpose being to attend to the embarkation of an expedition to the south, which was to be under his command.

In a few days Lee received a letter from his agent, telling the cause of failure, and saying that, at present, success was hopeless. In fact, Champe found himself unexpectedly in an awkward situation. Arnold's American legion was to form part of this expedition. Champe had enlisted in it. He was caught in a trap of his own setting. Instead of crossing the Hudson that night, with Arnold as his prisoner, he found himself on board a British transport, with Arnold as his commander. He was in for the war on the British side; forced to face his fellow-countrymen in the field.

We need not tell the story of Arnold's expedition to Virginia, with the brutal incidents which history relates concerning it. It will suffice to say that Champe formed part of it, all his efforts to desert proving fruitless. It may safely be said that no bullet from his musket reached the American ranks, but he was forced to brave death from the hands of those with whom alone he was in sympathy.

Not until Arnold's corps had joined Cornwallis at Petersburg did its unwilling recruit succeed in escaping. Taking to the mountains he made his way into North Carolina, and was not long in finding himself among friends. His old corps was in that State, taking part in the pursuit of Lord Rawdon. It had just passed the Congaree in this pursuit when, greatly to the surprise of his old comrades, the deserter appeared in their ranks. Their surprise was redoubled when they saw Major Lee receive him with the utmost cordiality. A few minutes sufficed to change their surprise to admiration. There was no longer occasion for secrecy. Champe's story was told, and was received with the utmost enthusiasm by his old comrades. So this was the man they had pursued so closely, this man who had been seeking to put the arch-traitor within their hands! John Champe they declared, was a comrade to be proud of, and his promotion to a higher rank was the plain duty of the military authorities.

Washington knew too well, however, what would be the fate of his late agent, if taken by the enemy, to subject him to this peril. He would have been immediately hanged. Champe was, therefore, discharged from the service, after having been richly rewarded by the commander-in-chief. When Washington, seventeen years afterwards, was preparing against a threatened war with the French, he sent to Lee for information about Champe, whom he desired to make a captain of infantry. He was too late. The gallant sergeant-major had joined a higher corps. He had enlisted in the grand army of the dead.

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