The museum of Raynham Hall is nestled inside a quiet neighborhood in Oyster Bay, NY. In 1779, a romance blossomed between those walls that may have decided the fate of the American Revolution.
When British officer John Graves Simcoe billeted himself in the home of influential Patriot Samuel Townsend, he planned to send a message of his own power. What he didn’t plan for was Townsend’s pretty daughter, Sarah “Sally” Townsend. It might have been easier for the serious and controlled Simcoe to ignore his attraction to Sally, if it weren’t for the frequent visits of his friend and fellow British officer, John Andre.
Andre was dashing, cultured and well-loved by everyone (but women most especially). He was everything Simcoe was not. While Andre never had real designs on any girl, a flirtatious rivalry for Sally’s attention developed between the two officers. The terrible truths of war were distant stories to Sally, and it became hard to see these two young men as her enemy. After all, they shared the same language, knew the same songs and the same dances. They read the same books…and they looked very handsome in their uniforms.
Though somewhat bombastic and rigid, Simcoe had his own hidden strengths. He was a brave and respected leader, a field officer who had been tested many times in battle. How and when Simcoe and Sally’s flirtations grew deeper is lost to the passage of time, but on Valentine’s Day 1779, Simcoe wrote Sally a Valentine.
Fairest Maid, where all is fair
Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign
O choose me for your Valentine!
Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well
Where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine
To fix thy power with spells divine;
Thou know’st what powerful magick lies
Within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires
And Heaven’s own joys around inspires;
Thou know’st my heart will always prove
The shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne
Two ways that lead are only known-
Here gay Variety presides,
And many a youthful circle guides
Through paths where lilies, roses sweet,
Bloom and decay beneath their feet;
Here constancy with sober mein
Regardless of the flowery Scene
With Myrtle crowned that never fades,
In silence seeks the Cypress Shades,
Or fixed near Contemplation’s cell,
Chief with the Muses loves to dwell,
Leads those who inward feel and burn
And often clasp the abandon’d urn,–
Say, awful God! Did’st thou not prove
My heart was formed for Constant love?
Thou saw’st me once on every plain
To Delia pour the artless strain –
Thou wept’sd her death and bad’st me change
My happier days no more to range
O’er hill, o’re dale, in sweet Employ,
Of singing Delia, Nature’s joy;
Thou bad’st me change the pastoral scene
Forget my Crook; with haughty mien
To raise the iron Spear of War,
Victim of Grief and deep Despair:
Say, must I all my joys forego
And still maintain this outward show?
Say, shall this breast that’s pained to fell
Be ever clad in horrid steel?
Now swell with other joys than those
Of conquest o’er unworthy foes?
Shall no fair maid with equal fire
Awake the flames of soft desire:
My bosom born, for transport, burn
And raise my thoughts from Delia’s urn?
“Fond Youth,” the God of Love replies,
“Your answer take from Sarah’s eyes.
This poem is the earliest known Valentine ever received on American soil…written by a British officer for a Patriot girl.
Meanwhile, Andre had kept in contact with an old girlfriend who also crossed enemy lines for love. Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Loyalist family, caused quite a stir when she married Patriot General Benedict Arnold. Through Peggy’s letters to Andre, it became clear that Arnold had grown disillusioned with the Patriot cause. He was broke, and Congress owed him money. Peggy and Andre worked together to bring Arnold to the British side, and Arnold was persuaded to hand over West Point during a feigned Naval invasion. Arnold and Andre decided it was time to meet face to face. Before he left, Andre was warned not to do any of the following:
Don’t go anywhere without a guide
Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know
Don’t get drunk
Don’t take off your uniform
Impulsive John Andre did all of the above, and he was caught returning home from his meeting with Arnold. American mythology has painted the two men who captured Andre as devout Patriots, but it is likely they were simply opportunists. Although in plain clothes, Andre told them he was a British officer. Whether they handed him back to one side or the other, they knew there was money to be made. They searched Andre and discovered papers and a map of West Point in his boot, but because they were illiterate, they did not know what they had.
And yet, these two men are the official reason George Washington arrived at West Point moments before Benedict Arnold’s traitorous act. Arnold escaped to a British ship, and left Peggy behind. (She was in labor with their first child and had recently given birth when Washington arrived. She faked a nervous breakdown, and Washington was so uncomfortable with these “feminine issues” he let her go)
The loss of West Point would have collapsed Patriot defenses. The British Navy would have continued into Patriot territory and slaughtered their weaker and smaller cause like lambs.
If Andre had been caught in his uniform, he would have been held as a prisoner of war. Because he wore civilian clothes, he was convicted as a spy. And spies were hung. The death of the beloved John Andre was painful to both sides. In the place of his execution, George Washington built a monument which is still there to this day.
How did Washington learn of Benedict Arnold’s plot so soon after Andre’s capture? Citizens of Oyster Bay will tell you that Washington already knew. He was well on his way to West Point before Andre stumbled into enemy hands.
In her comfortable love and friendship with Simcoe and Andre, Sally discovered the West Point plot. She was forced into a terrible choice that still haunts her and Raynham Hall to this day. She had to choose between loyalty to the man she loved, or loyalty to the cause she believed in. Sally chose her cause. She went to her father who sent word to his son Robert, a merchant in New York City.
Robert was able to warn Washington, and an alternative outcome to the American Revolution was thwarted by the heavy choice of a sixteen year old girl.
After Andre’s death, Simcoe left Oyster Bay and never came back. Simcoe and Sally never saw one another again. He married a wealthy woman and returned to North America as the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Ontario. Sally never married, and she never left Oyster Bay. When she died at the age of 80, a journal was one of the few things she owned. Inside was found Simcoe’s Valentine, creased and well-worn from the years she had held and read his words.
This story might be dismissed as local folklore, but at the turn of the 20th Century, historian Morton Pennypacker used handwriting analysis to uncover the members of the Culper Spy Ring, George Washington’s most successful espionage unit. One of its members? Sally’s brother, Robert Townsend.
Sally’s spirit still wanders Raynham Hall. She stands lovelorn and torn at her bedroom window. She isn’t alone. The ghost of John Andre often appears to charm and cause mischief.Sally stood firm on beliefs about American independence, but Simcoe believed just as strongly that the Colonies were legally tied to the king. To him, the betrayal of his love was also an act of treason. Simcoe never forgave Sally, but maybe Andre’s visits mean he has. I pray someday Sally can forgive herself, and Raynham Hall will become nothing more than a testament to the painful beauty of life, love and honor.