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Interpreting the Evidence

Benedict Arnold Letter Offering West Point for $20,000, July 15, 1780

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Revolution and New Nation (1754 - 1820s)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    American Revolution

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    Mid Hudson
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Benedict Arnold Letter Offering West Point for $20,000, July 15, 1780 in Main Image Viewer
  2. Load Benedict Arnold Letter Offering West Point for $20,000, July 15, 1780 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Letter written in code and translated in which Benedict Arnold describes his terms ($20,000) for becoming a traitor and revealing vital information about troops and equipment at West Point, July 15, 1780.
Historical Context
In 1780, near the present day Tappan Zee Bridge, a major spy drama unfolded, changing the course of the American Revolution. General Benedict Arnold secretly attempted to help the British capture the fort at West Point. He had grown resentful of the American Army for not rewarding him for his many military victories. On the night of September 21, Arnold gave British Major John Andre documents detailing the fortifications and troop strengths at West Point. As Andre headed towards the British lines with the documents tucked in his boot, he was captured near Tarrytown on September 23. If he had reached the British command in New York City with the information that Arnold had given them, the British would likely have taken the fort at West Point. West Point was crucial to controlling the Hudson Rover, so a British capture could have changed the outcome of the entire war.

Secret communications and spy networks were a very important part of the process of intelligence-gathering during the Revolutionary War. Coded letters and spies often conveyed information that was pivotal to the outcomes of individual battles and the whole war itself.
Thirty year old Andre was hanged as a spy on October 2, 1780. Benedict Arnold escaped to New York City, eventually commanding British troops for the remainder of the war. He died in London in 1801.

Essential Question
Who was Benedict Arnold and what role did he play in the Revolutionary War?
Check for Understanding
Students will answer the questions using text evidence.
Historical Challenges
Research the difference types of codes used for communication during the Revolutionary War. How many did you find? Describe two examples.
Share the version of the letter that it is in code. Ask students to try to figure out what it says. Compare their work with the translated letter.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Recreate this letter as it may be written in the current year. What agreements would need to be in place before cooperating? What type of payment would be asked for?