—Henry Steiner’s Remarks on the Anniversary of the Capture of Major Andre
By Henry John Steiner
Hello, my name is Henry John Steiner, I am the historian of Sleepy Hollow. It is very good to be here today as part of this celebration and commemoration of John Paulding and his fellow captors of British Major John Andre during the American Revolution. I would like to tip my hat to the members of the board of the Old Cemetery of Van Cortlandtville, who invited me to be here today, to the dignitaries and supporters of this event who have come to honor John Paulding and his fellow American soldiers, and to Colonel Scully, of West Point Military Academy, who we will also hear from today. The new plaque unveiled today will help to spell out and clarify the contribution of a man who did so much for the United States of America in its infancy. John Paulding’s remains lie not very far from where we are assembled. He died 199 years ago this year.
I’d also like to acknowledge my old friend, Jeff Canning, one of your own very astute local historians. Long ago, as children in Tarrrytown, Jeff and I were rigorously schooled in the importance and achievement of John Paulding. I’m sure neither of us has forgotten those early lessons, and I must confess I was somewhat daunted to learn that my old schoolmate was going to be here listening to my remarks. But knowing how generous Jeff has long been with his considerable knowledge of local history, I take great solace in knowing that he will be content to ignore everything I have to say.
I thought that today I would talk about John Paulding the man. His identity is so caught up in the Andre-Arnold Affair that it may be hard to get a good look at him through the centuries. Who was he? It’s very hard to separate him from the momentus event that he was part of, what one historian called “The Crisis of the Revolution.” Many of you are familiar with the story—Arnold was disgruntled with Congress and hard-up for money. He colluded with the wily John Andre, adjutant general and spy-master of the British Army in North America. Later, Andre was often cast as an innocent, unfortunate victim. He was not. He was a very intelligent, ambitious, and interested “player” whose plans went awry. In a high stakes game, he bet future acclaim and a very comfortable life on one roll of the dice. He lost. He was not cuddly and well-intentioned. He sought to deal a death blow to the American military, the American government, and the cause of American Independence. And from the grave he managed to muddy the reputations of John Paulding and the other captors.
One of the problems with doing a short talk involving the Andre-Arnold affair is the question—what do you leave out? There is so much to discuss, but I would like to concentrate on John Paulding himself.
In speaking of John Paulding (and his two compatriots), posterity’s loudest and most recurring theme is Honesty with a capital “H.” He was offered the promise of a great deal of money to let Andre go. But that one-word summation of John Paulding’s character and his motives is somehow unsatisfying and doesn’t do much to explain the man and the things that actuated him. It boils the whole thing down to money, and although in those desperate times money may have been a great motivator—I think, for instance, Benedict Arnold was driven by money and probably resentment—but I believe John Paulding was spurred on by other things. In several accounts of the capture, there is a moment when David Williams enters into a “hypothetical” conversation with Andre, asking him what he would give to be set free. The exchange wears on uncomfortably, until John Paulding, clearly the presiding spirit of the three captors, forcefully interjects:
“No by God, if you would give us ten thousand guineas you shall not stir one step.”
I don’t know whether Paulding actually spoke these exact words, but I believe they were in keeping with the nature of the man and in the character of a zealous, common soldier who led from the ranks.
The Paulding Family
John Paulding was born on the Manor of Philipsburgh in 1758, that is to say he was born on a tenant farm rented by his father and grandfather, near what we now call Eastview. It was situated by the Sawmill River on land now occupied by a large Con Edison facility. His great grandfather, Joost Paulding, arrived in New York from Holland in the late 17th century. The farmhouse was still standing in the 1920s. John’s father was named Joseph and his mother was Sarah Gardiner. One of his uncles, William, who was also raised at the Sawmill River homestead, became a prosperous merchant who settled with his family at the Tarrytown waterfront. But John’s side of the family was not blessed with prosperity. He had other assets though; he was over six feet tall and he was as strong as an ox and agile as a bobcat.
His uncle’s family, two miles to the west, included some first cousins who would emerge as distinguished figures in decades to come. Cousin Julia Paulding would would marry Washington Irving’s oldest brother, William Irving, uniting the Paulding family with the Irving family. Cousin James K. Paulding would become Washington Irving’s guide into the wooded recesses of Sleepy Hollow, becoming Irving’s friend and literary collaborator, a nationally famous author in his own right, and the Secretary of the U. S. Navy. Cousin William Jr. would become Adjutant General of the State of New York, a member of Congress, the Mayor of New York City. He was the first owner of Lyndhurst at Tarrytown.
During the American Revolutionary War there were three kinds of Westchester County residents: Those who were neutral and content to wait out the conflict, those who were Loyalists—actively supporting the crown of Great Britain, and those who were Whigs or Patriots who served the cause of American Independence. A “warm Whig” was someone who passionately favored American Independence. John Paulding was known to his compatriots as a “hot Whig.” And a “very brave man.”
The family of John’s father was not prosperous, but it may have been of some help to it that the family relatives at the Tarrytown waterfront were fairly well off. At least that was the case before the Revolution. By late in the war, however, John’s uncle, William Paulding, commissary of the state militia, was financially ruined due to his guarantees of militia debts. He himself was imprisoned for debt at White Plains, while his family struggled to get by. So there was no further help in that quarter, if there ever was any help to begin with.
John Paulding Soldier
John was a youth of eighteen when Westchester County became something called “the neutral ground,” a no man’s land that existed in Westchester County from the time of the Battle of White Plains onward. He was twenty-five when the last shots were fired. It is said that, early in the war, John was left behind at the homestead to work the farm and watch over his mother and grandmother. One day he was out in the fields when he got word that the farmhouse had been raided by enemy “Loyalists” and his mother subjected to some unrecorded “indignity.” He got his gun and made for the place where the men were encamped, but he was forced to withdraw when confronted by a dozen horsemen.
A fellow soldier described John Paulding as “very brave.” Our portrait of him would have to include the words “loyal,” “fearless,” and “determined” as well. He also could be characterized as enterprising, freelancing, undisciplined, and… wily. These are not all qualities that armies relish in their private soldiers. But in this particular case these were all important characteristics of a man who was to change the destiny of the United States.
Another soldier remembered John Paulding as a “bold and enterprising man.” One example of this quality at play was an incident that occurred at Sleepy Hollow. John Romer recalled that Paulding was with a body of militia on Kykuit Hill, where the Rockefeller Mansion is located today. John encouraged his compatriots to attack a larger contingent of Loyalist troopers that was sighted in the direction of Tarrytown. When his compatriots refused the idea, Paulding determined to attack the enemy himself, shooting at them from cover and just managing to escape. Another time Paulding, John Requa, David Martlings, and Isaac Lent assaulted a landing party coming from a British frigate at Sparta, inflicting four casualties and capturing five.
Two Escapes and the Green Coat
Paulding himself was captured by the enemy three times. There is some disagreement regarding the details, but I’ll give you a sampling here:
The first time Paulding was captured was at White Plains when he was under the command of Captain Requa. He was captured and imprisoned at the Sugar House in lower Manhattan, near Liberty Street. Eventually a plan was hatched among the American prisoners to dig an escape tunnel across the street. During the breakout one man was killed and the rest were retaken—except for John Paulding who got away. Paulding had an amazing record amid a tragic chronicle of hopeless exposure, disease, and starvation that then typified the narratives of American prisoners of war.
The second time John was captured was rather late in the war when he was in the militia company of Lieutenant Peacock. He said later that he was taken by the enemy near Tarrytown and sent to the North Dutch Church in Manhattan at Fulton and Williams Streets, which was then being used by the British to hold prisoners of war. They were building a high picket fence around the church, and the prisoners were allowed to take turns walking in the yard. Paulding attempted to climb the fence several times, but was ordered off by the guards. He was not at the prison long when he was assisted by American Captain Harry Chichester, a fellow prisoner, who distracted a sentry while Paulding made his escape by jumping from a window onto a pile of boards. Captain Chichester later documented the escape.
According to General Pierre Van Cortlandt’s later testimony, after Paulding escaped from the prison he went to the livery stables of Nathan Levinus in Chatterton Street. It was here that John was given his famous, green, red-trimmed coat — the coat of a Hessian Jaeger or rifleman. He commandeered a boat at the Hudson River waterfront and got himself across the river to the American post at Weehawken, New Jersey, where, clad in his green jacket, he was promptly arrested as a spy. He was brought before the American commander, who happened to be General Lafayette. Fortunately, at that moment, Lafayette was accompanied by Pierre Van Cortlandt, then a colonel, who knew Paulding and was able to vouch for him.
Now, I’m not an expert in such matters, but it is my impression that John Paulding might have been hanged anywhere between the livery stable in lower Manhattan, where he received the coat, and the American position at Weehawken. It certainly would have been tragic if he had been hanged by his own army.
John then crossed the Hudson near Tarrytown (still in possession of the coat). He went to Reed’s Tavern, which stood not far from today’s dam at the Tarrytown Lakes. This happened a few days before Andre was taken. Paulding then linked up with American forces at North Salem. There, in short order, he joined the party of six or seven other militia men who were given permission to stake out the roads near Tarrytown.
Appointment with Major Andre
According to Isaac Van Wart, on the day before the earthshaking capture of Andre, it was John Paulding who proposed to him that they go on a scouting party, “Isaac, have you any objection to going with me on a scout, below?” Van Wart recalled, “We started between three and four in the afternoon with our English rifles on our shoulders.”
The group of American militiamen spent the night in a barn at Pleasantville and continued south early the next day, actually skirting John Paulding’s homestead by only a couple of hundred yards. They walked on to the humble cottage of a tailor and his wife, which was located rather close to Reed’s Tavern on the east side of a ridge that today overlooks the Tarrytown Lakes.
There Jacob and Frena Romer had a small patch of land sequestered among trees and off the crossroad that led from Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown to the county seat at White Plains. There the men stopped to get breakfast before crossing the next ridge that overlooked the Hudson River and the Albany Post Road. At the top of that ridge the party divided in two. Four or five remained on that height to guard what was called the “Refugee’s Path.” The remaining three—Paulding, Van Wart, and Williams—descended to the Post Road and took a hidden position there off that highway.
Simply put, they were there to stake out members of Delancey’s Loyalist American Corps. These were both mounted and unmounted troopers stationed in the Bronx. They were also known as “Refugees” and “Cowboys”—cowboys because they were ordered to take all livestock from Westchester farmers to feed the British headquarters and garrison of Manhattan. On this occasion the militia party was there to additionally retaliate for a death that had occurred a few days before.
The reason we are not totally clear on the number of militiamen guarding the Refugee’s Path at the top of the hill is because there is some doubt concerning a mystery participant in the event. Sergeant John Dean may or may not have been a member of that party. If he was, he was the ranking American participant and was likely the man who chose the positions of both groups. A majority of the men were locals and intimately familiar with the terrain. A shot was to be the signal for the two groups to reunite.
In position off the road, at about 9 o’clock in the morning, Paulding’s group drew cards and Van Wart got the first watch while Paulding and Williams played cards. A few locals known to Van Wart went by, not noticing the militiamen in the bushes. About 9:30 that morning Van Wart noticed a stranger dressed in civilian clothes, riding slowly south and up the rise to where the three were positioned. The men stepped out onto the road and John Paulding pointed his weapon at the chest of the rider (Major Andre) at near point-blank range. It appears very likely that they stood close to where Andres’ Brook intersected the post road in September 1780.
One can imagine there were several reasons that John Paulding was the man to confront the rider. He was the biggest, the strongest, and —I would guess — most daring of the three, a man most likely to take the lead. But the most obvious reason he was the man standing front and center was the fact that HE WAS WEARING A HESSIAN COAT.
I am going to make a somewhat controversial proposition. I propose that had John Paulding not been personally present that morning, Major Andre would have passed through to Manhattan, the American fortress at West Point would have fallen, and America’s struggle for Independence would have failed. I believe that, had any other soldier stood in Paulding’s place, that would have been the result. The very first words Andre spoke strongly suggest that.
There are many versions of the conversation that ensued, but they all pretty much amount to the same thing. Here is one of the likely renderings:
Andre: Lads, I hope you belong to our party.
Paulding: What party?
Andre: The lower party. (The lower party being that allied with the British Army.)
Paulding: We do. My dress shows that.
Andre: I am a British officer, have been up in the country on business, and would not wish to be detained a minute.
Andre showed Paulding his watch, as verification of what he had said. Then Paulding told him they were Americans and ordered him to get down from the horse. Then Andre responded with something pretty smart and pretty wily. He said, “God bless my soul, a body must do anything to get along now-a-days.” And he showed Paulding Benedict Arnold’s pass allowing him to proceed through the lines.
It was the consummate moment. What’s the old saying? “Never try to kid and kidder?” Paulding knew precisely what Andre was referring to. Because that is exactly what Paulding had been doing —he was doing what he needed to—to get along and to support his cause.
So the disguised, polished, persuasive, intellectual, spy-master—the adjutant-general of the British Army — someone comparable to Alexander Hamilton on the American side — had met his match. He played his ace, and the ace had no value, because, thanks to John Paulding, he played it too late. The wily Andre had lost out to an equally wily common soldier, who also happened to be out of uniform. Two very determined men confronted each other that morning of September 23, 1780.
And as I mentioned, without John Paulding, Andre would not have been stopped. If he had only shown his pass and refrained from discussion, he would have been on his way. If Paulding had not been there, that is exactly what Andre would have done.
Andre was ordered from his horse and strip-searched. Papers were found in his stockings, read by John Paulding (who was said to be the only one of the party capable of reading), and pronounced by Paulding a spy. Andre was ordered to dress and remount, and the reunited American party marched their prisoner back to the top of the hill with Paulding holding the bridle of the horse.
Paulding then went ahead of the party back to the Romer house, where all were headed. He said to Frena Romer (who he knew to be a “warm Whig”) “Aunt Fanny, take care what you say now; I believe we’ve got a British officer with us.” This affecting care proffered to a neighbor displays another side of the man who took great risks with his own welfare.
Andre was tried, sentenced, and hanged at Tappan, New York, a short distance from Washington’s headquarters there. Paulding and his two compatriots were present at Tappan, called there as witnesses. The captors divided the money realized from Andre’s belongings, which they were officially entitled to. These included his horse, saddle, watch, and some Continental currency he had with him. The proceeds were not only divided between the three, but among the members of the larger party. Paulding, Van Wart and Williams were each awarded a silver medal and $200 annually by Congress. The State of New York gave each of them a farm worth 500 pounds.
The Congressional medals were presented to the three when they dined with General Washington at Verplanck’s Point. On that occasion, General Washington also presented each of them with a set of pistols. Washington had written to Congress earlier urging that the nation needed to make an strong example of how it rewarded fidelity. He felt that every American soldier needed to witness this generosity. And he was probably right.
In the final weeks of the war, John Paulding was wounded and captured again in one final effort to capture Colonel James Delancey of Delancey’s Rangers. Paulding was part of a fairly sizable force ambushed at Ossining. He was one of fifteen soldiers captured, and a prisoner of “special interest,” as the enemy was well aware of his achievements. He was placed on a horse with his legs tied beneath to prevent his escape. The prisoners were taken to Morrisania in the Bronx, then to Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island), and then to the Provost Prison in lower Manhattan. But Paulding alone did not remain there. As a famous prisoner, he was taken to live and dine with the British captains and lieutenants, a remarkable circumstance given the course of the previous seven years of war. All the prisoners were released a few weeks later, on news of the armistice toward the end of April, 1783.
Afterward, Paulding took possession of his farm on Crompond Road near Peekskill, a farm which had been seized by the state from a Loyalist named Doctor Huggeford. He later sold it and moved to Mohegan Lake where he died impoverished in 1818. He was married three times and had nineteen children, one of whom was still living in 1894. His most famous child was Admiral Hiram Paulding, who died in1878. John Paulding is commemorated by the monument erected by the City of New York that stands at his grave site — the monument and plaque that we rededicate today.
Thank you all for listening.