Forget him for a minute, if you can. There was another horseman who came trotting out of Sleepy Hollow a long time ago. This was during the American Revolution, and this guy was real. His head was attached to his body, and he had nothing to do with Halloween, but he was even scarier than the fictional rider who terrified Ichabod Crane.
During much of the Revolutionary War, the east bank of the lower Hudson River was a lawless buffer zone, a no-man’s land between the British forces occupying Manhattan and the American Army north of Croton, defended by the stronghold at West Point. On the morning of September 12, 1780, the solitary horseman was proceeding southward through this buffer zone, along the Albany Post Road, what is now U.S. Route 9. He passed the old Dutch burial ground in Sleepy Hollow and just as he entered the largely deserted village of Tarrytown he encountered three local farmers who also happened to be armed militiamen—part-time, unpaid volunteers in George Washington’s army.
At riflepoint, the militiamen ordered the horseman to dismount. He tried to bribe them to let him pass. They stripped him and searched him, and inside his socks they found some handwritten papers. Fortunately for the future of the United States, one of the three farmers knew how to read and he quickly understood that the papers were the military plans for the defense of West Point and instructions on how it could best be attacked. “This man is a spy,” John Paulding is said to have exclaimed.
The militiamen brought their prisoner and the documents to a nearby American Army post, and the rest is history. The West Point defense plans were in the handwriting of American General Benedict Arnold, commandant of the fort, who fled to an English ship in the river when he learned of the horseman’s capture. The horseman, wearing civilian clothes, was British Army Major John André, who was trying to bring Arnold’s documents to the British headquarters in New York. Three weeks later André was hung as a spy.
Thanks to Paulding and his friends, Benedict Arnold’s traitorous plot to deliver West Point to the British failed. If André had reached British lines, the British would have taken West Point and occupied the Hudson Valley, driving a wedge between the American forces in New England and those to the south in New Jersey and beyond; the American Revolutionary War would probably have turned out quite differently. A scary prospect indeed.
A stone monument and statue now mark the spot where the three farmers stopped the spy on horseback. And on a hill a few hundred feet to the east of that point stands an even more fitting, living memorial to the triumph of literacy and to the simple farmer who had learned to read: the John Paulding Elementary School.