The American militiamen were hiding in the bushes eating lunch and playing cards when they heard a horse galloping toward them. Leaping out of a lookout near Tarrytown, New York, they were confronted by a seemingly hurried stranger.
He was Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service. However, on this day, September 23, 1780, he disguised himself as a civilian, “John Anderson.”
André’s trunk was filled with documents on how to successfully capture the American fort at West Point. André had received the information from the fort commander, Benedict Arnold, only two days earlier, and was riding south in hopes of getting back behind the British lines.
However, militiamen John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wort interrogated André, realizing he was a spy and arresting him. West Point was not attacked, André was later hanged, and Arnold, whose name became synonymous with treason, fled.
Paulding, Williams, and Van Wort were awarded handcrafted silver military medals by the Continental Congress. This medal is believed to be the first currently awarded to a US soldier. Two of his three were stolen from his 1975 New York Historical Society. The third, however, has been kept by the Van Heirt family for more than two centuries and is now donated to the New York State Museum in Albany, where it will remain. display this fall.
“It’s the only medal out of three, so it’s very unique,” said Sarah Massia, executive director of the Sleepy Hollow Tarrytown Historical Society. “It’s invaluable. I don’t think you can put a number on it.”
After Van Wort’s death in 1828, the medal was passed down through the family to his descendant, Ray Face Van Wort Robinson, who lived in White Plains. It became her prized possession, kept in a shoebox under her bed until her death in 2020, and taken out from time to time to display at events organized by the Historical Society.
“That was the only thing she cared about,” said her executor’s attorney, Henry Neal.
Massia said Robinson was never married and had no siblings or children, but found the description of the pivotal role a distant relative played in American history to be moving. It says. “She used to say, ‘I’m very proud of my ancestors,'” Mascia said.
Neil donated the medal to the New York State Museum in February based on Robinson’s request to donate the medal to a museum where the world can see it.
“I love this piece because it tells the story of three ordinary guys who happen to be the main characters at national and international events,” said Jennifer Remack, chief curator at the State Museum of New York.
When André was captured, the prospects were not bright for the American side. The British were placed under house arrest in New York City. With the Continental Army nearly depleted of funds and supplies, the fortifications at West Point were one of the remaining barriers to the British advance. If the British were able to secure West Point, they would be able to connect their forces from Canada and at the same time cut off the American forces by cutting New England from the rest of the colony.
“If Washington and the American patriots had lost West Point, we would have lost our independence,” said Cole Jones, an associate professor of history at Purdue University.
Van Wert and his two companions were young farmers in their twenties living in a war-torn area. Sandwiched between Washington’s forces on the Hudson Plateau and British forces in Manhattan, Van Wort and his neighbors live in no man’s land, where a band of followers called “Cowboys” settlers called “Skinners”. was engaged in guerrilla warfare against a group of Both factions ravaged the inhabitants of Tarrytown, burned farms and plundered fields.
Residents formed their own militias to guard the roads and protect their families. That’s why Van Wert, Paulding and Williams were in the bushes near Albany Post Road when André arrived.
The handwritten documents he carried exposed West Point’s operations and vulnerabilities. Detailed notes outlined the positions of the artillery, described the size of the American force, and described the nature of the fortifications that the besieging British would face. Arnold sneaks out of his post to deliver documents to Andre at a secret meeting in the town of Haverstraw.
However, Andre’s ships, which were anchored in the Hudson River, sailed to avoid American artillery fire, and the spies found themselves stranded and were forced to flee by land if possible.
Van Wert and his two companions might not have been able to unmask Andre without Paulding’s coat – obtained while Paulding was imprisoned by the British. , the coat of a Hessian mercenary green with red trim. André saw the coat, mistook the men for allies, and asked if they belonged to the “Lower Party”, the British. This immediately aroused the men’s suspicions, leading to further interrogations and a search that eventually found documents in the trunk. André unsuccessfully tried to bribe the men, and André was handed over to the American army.
“These three saved the Revolution by capturing Andre and saving West Point,” Jones said. “There is no doubt in my mind that their heroic actions that day prevented the British from occupying perhaps the most strategic position in all of North America.”
News of Andre’s capture reached Washington and Arnold, who managed to escape to the British camp. The three met with Washington and each received a medal, land and a lifetime annuity of $200 a year, the amount of a prince at the time. (U.S. officials consider the Order of the Purple Heart, whose predecessor was created in 1782, to be the country’s oldest military award because it is still awarded, unlike the medals awarded to militiamen.)
During his imprisonment, André charmed many high-ranking American officers, including Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. A refined poet and amateur sketcher, he was fluent in his three languages and could handle both pen and sword. Unlike Van Wert, an illiterate farmer, André shocked some as the embodiment of the gentlemanly ideal held by many upper-class American officers.
“He became ‘poor Andre,’ the man American military officers wanted to emulate,” said historian Robert Cray of Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Reactions to André’s arrest were soon divided along class lines. Andre was “remembered as a sentimental spy, an honorable enemy of the genteel part who was unfortunately executed as a commodity of war,” while the three peasants were largely ignored, Mr. Clay wrote in his diary. ing. article Title: Major John André and Three Prisoners of War: Class Dynamics in the Early Republic and the Revolutionary War of Memory, 1780-1831.
The 1798 play “Andre” didn’t even include the three prisoners as characters. The painting showed him as the central figure and the other men as marginal figures. His grave in Tappan, New York became a tourist attraction, and a woman planted a peach tree there.
“Washington officials wrote a letter praising Andre, and it went viral,” said historian Sarah Knott, who teaches at Indiana University. “But the civilians who arrested André and put him on trial in the United States were largely ignored.”
In 1817, when Paulding petitioned Congress for an increase in his pension, one legislator accused the three of being loyalist cowboys rather than patriots, an accusation that was later discredited.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century that these figures received more admiration and attention, as the American public began to get used to the idea of celebrating ordinary heroes.
Van Wert eventually sold the land to buy a farm and became a respected choirman in the local Presbyterian church. He died on his May 23, 1828. Today at Elmsford a marble obelisk marks his tomb and is inscribed with the long words:
“Nearly half a century before this monument was erected, America’s drafted fathers were voting on the Senate floor that Isaac Van Wort was a loyal patriot whose love of his country was unbeatable. And this tomb is one whose record proves that “Truth.” “
His medal has just one prominent word on the obverse, ‘Fidelity’, and three featured words on the reverse. But they are enough.
Vincit Amor Patlier.
(Love of country conquers.)