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The Key to the Continent: Why Both George Washington and the British Fought Over This One Bend in This One River

02/18/2014 09:45 am 09:45:50 | Updated Apr 20, 2014

It's a familiar piece of American earth, and a fixture in our nation's history. A visitor to West Point sees sweeping Hudson River vistas, stately academic halls, well-groomed athletic fields, and even better groomed students.
 
West Point is known the world over -- the nation's preeminent educational institution for patriotic young men and women who wish to serve their country and receive a stellar academic diploma.
 
But why was it here, in this sparsely populated and mountainous stretch of the Hudson River, that a cluster of colonies fighting to become a new nation sunk in its roots and decided to establish its most vital fortress? Why was this stretch of granite cliffs the place the commander in chief, George Washington, dubbed "the key to the continent?"
 
This was precisely the question I asked when I set out to write my novel, The Traitor's Wife, which tells the story of Benedict Arnold, his wife, and their ignominious attempt to sell the fort at West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War.
 
Had Benedict and Peggy Arnold succeeded, the American Revolution would have been crushed; both sides acknowledged that. But why?
 
My research took me back to the early days of the Revolutionary War, when the idea to plant a garrison atop those remote and rugged cliffs was as new and roughshod as the very idea of the new nation.
 
Following defeat at Saratoga in the fall of 1777, British General Henry Clinton retreated down the Hudson River, regrouping with his men to pass the winter season in British-occupied New York City.
 
Washington, following the victory that constituted the turning point of the war, knew the significance of the land -- and river -- from which the British retreated.
 
The British would need to re-take the Hudson, the colonies' critical waterway, in order to break the rebellion. Control of the Hudson would allow the British to divide the colonies, strangle New England, and prevent the passage of troops, munitions, and supplies between north and south, coastal and inland.
 
Retain control of the Hudson, Washington knew, and the patriots commanded the supply line from the economically and geographically critical harbor of New York City all the way north to Lake George, Lake Champlain and Canada. The Continental Army had to prevent all future British naval encroachment, or risk being divided. They chose West Point as the bastion from which to do this.
 
Why was it here, in this one bend, that Washington staked the new nation's hopes? Because the location proved optimally defensible; there were hazards of which the locals knew, and of which the British quickly learned.
 
The "point" that came to be known as "West Point," is a protrusion of tree-lined granite that juts out into the Hudson, narrowing the river and creating a sharp curve. High terrain flanks the river on both the eastern and western shores, providing the perfect ground for defending forces to dig in.
 
At this bend in the river, winds and currents swirl, forcing ships to slow before tacking. Not even the world's mightiest navy was impervious to the laws of nature. As the majestic English warships slowed to negotiate this treacherous pass, colonial cannons on the hills above took their direct shots; his Majesty's warships were, for a moment, rendered as defenseless as a flock of sitting ducks.
 
The British, frustrated in their need to move their forces north, sought in vain for a way to break this impenetrable Hudson Highlands stronghold. To their delight, an opportunity soon presented itself, in the form of a vague, handwritten letter.
 
Commanding West Point was General Benedict Arnold, a disgruntled war hero, crippled from battle injuries and embittered from the feuds and critics he faced on his own side.  For the right price, Arnold offered to share information that would make the capture of West Point not only possible, but also easy. The British accepted.
 
It all unraveled as part of a sordid plot that was Shakespearean in its drama. At the center of it was Benedict Arnold's beautiful young wife, Peggy. Benedict, disillusioned with Washington and the American cause, met Peggy's former lover, the British spy John André. Together, the Arnolds and André hatched a plot to deliver West Point to the British and, with it, the all-important Hudson River.
 
This bend in the river had proven so critical that, if the Arnolds had succeeded, their success would likely have spelled defeat to the dream of American independence.
 
In an illicit midnight meeting on the banks of the Hudson, Benedict Arnold delivered to André everything the enemy army would need to deal the crushing blow they had so long sought. This included maps of the fort, troop lists, battle plans, secret colonial communications, and more. Arnold had also worked in secret for months to weaken the fort's defenses and dispatch men away from the fort.
 
West Point was weak, and vulnerable. And the British were ready to make their move.
 
Just a few days later, on the same morning Arnold and his wife and co-conspirator, Peggy, were set to receive George Washington in their home for breakfast, Arnold received a confused and road-weary messenger. The man told Arnold that a spy had been captured in No Man's Land, just north of the British line. The man, a "Mr. John Anderson," bore papers that only Arnold should have possessed.
 
Realizing that his partner had been apprehended, and that his own role as a traitor would soon be unearthed, Arnold fled, leaving his beloved wife and riding at breakneck speed for the river. With West Point as his backdrop, Arnold rowed south to the British warship HMS Vulture and declared his allegiance to the King of England.
 
The story of Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy includes all manner of human vices and virtues- from Benedict Arnold's insatiable desire for power and validation, to Peggy Arnold's amorous liaisons with the British spy John André, to Washington's heartbreak at the loss of his trusted friend and mentee.
 
However, there is some good as well. Arnold was thwarted, and West Point never fell. The Americans pulled off their improbable victory against the world's mightiest military, and the love triangle that could have ended America's young existence became a mostly forgotten part of history -- until now.