Self-portrait by Major John André,
drawn on the eve of his execution
|Born||2 May 1750|
|Died||2 October 1780 (aged 30)|
Tappan, New York
|Allegiance||Kingdom of Great Britain|
|Years of service||1770–1780|
|Battles/wars||American War of Independence|
John André (2 May 1750 – 2 October 1780) was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War for assisting Benedict Arnold's attempted surrender of the fort at West Point, New York to the British.
During his nearly nine months in Philadelphia, André occupied Benjamin Franklin's house, from which it has been claimed that he removed several valuable items on the orders of Major-General Charles Grey when the British left Philadelphia, including an oil portrait of Franklin by Benjamin Wilson. Grey's descendants returned Franklin's portrait to the United States in 1906, the bicentennial of Franklin's birth. The painting now hangs in the White House.
Intelligence work, capture and execution
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In 1779, André became Adjutant General of the British Army in America with the rank of Major. In April of that year, he took charge of British Secret Service. By the next year (1780), he had briefly taken part in Clinton's invasion of the South, starting with the siege of Charleston, South Carolina.
Around this time, André had been negotiating with disillusioned American General Benedict Arnold. Arnold's Loyalist wife Peggy Shippen was one of the go-betweens in the correspondence. Arnold commanded West Point and had agreed to surrender it to the British for £20,000 (approximately $3.65 million in 2018 dollars)—a move that would have enabled the British to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.
André went up the Hudson River on the British sloop-of-war Vulture on Wednesday, 20 September 1780 to visit Arnold. On the following night, a small boat furnished by Arnold was steered to the Vulture by Joshua Hett Smith. At the oars were two brothers, tenants of Smith's who reluctantly rowed the boat six miles on the river to the sloop. Despite Arnold's assurances, the two oarsmen sensed that something was wrong. None of these men knew Arnold's purpose or suspected his treason; all were told that the purpose was to do good for the patriot cause. Only Smith was told anything specific, and that was the lie that it was to secure vital intelligence for the American cause. The brothers finally agreed to row after threats by Arnold to arrest them. They picked up André and placed him on shore. The others left and Arnold came to André on horseback, leading an extra horse for André's use.
The two men conferred in the woods below Stony Point until nearly dawn, after which André accompanied Arnold several miles to the Joshua Hett Smith House (Treason House) in West Haverstraw, New York, owned by Thomas Smith and occupied by his brother Joshua. Soon thereafter on the morning of 22 September, American troops commanded by Col. James Livingston guarding Verplanck's Point across the river began firing on the Vulture, which sustained many hits and was forced to retire down river without André.
Taken into custody
To aid André's escape through American lines, Arnold provided him with civilian clothes and a passport which allowed him to travel under the name John Anderson. He bore six papers hidden in his stocking, written in Arnold's hand, that showed the British how to take the fort. This was unnecessary, since Clinton already knew the fort's layout. Joshua Hett Smith, who was accompanying him, left him just before he was captured.
André thought that they were Tories because one was wearing a Hessian soldier's overcoat. "Gentlemen," he said, "I hope you belong to our party." "What party?" asked one of the men. "The lower party," replied André, meaning the British. "We do," was the answer. André then told them that he was a British officer who must not be detained, when, to his surprise, they said that they were Americans, and that he was their prisoner. He then told them that he was an American officer and showed them his passport, but the suspicions of his captors were now aroused. They searched him and found Arnold's papers in his stocking. Only Paulding could read and Arnold was not initially suspected. André offered them his horse and watch, if they would let him go, but they did not accept the bribe. André testified at his trial that the men searched his boots for the purpose of robbing him. Paulding realized that he was a spy and took him to Continental Army headquarters in Sands Hill.
The prisoner was at first detained at Wright's Mill in North Castle, New York, before being taken to the headquarters of the American Army at Tappan, where he was held at the tavern The Old '76 House. There he admitted who he really was.
At first, all went well for André since post commandant Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson decided to send him to Arnold, never suspecting that a high-ranking hero of the Revolution could be a turncoat. But Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army Intelligence, arrived, and persuaded Jameson to bring the prisoner back. He offered intelligence showing that a high-ranking officer was planning to defect to the British but was unaware of who it was.
Jameson sent General George Washington the six sheets of paper carried by André, but he was unwilling to believe that Benedict Arnold could be guilty of treason. He therefore insisted on sending a note to Arnold informing him of the entire situation. Jameson did not want his army career to be wrecked later for having wrongly believed that his general was a traitor. Arnold received Jameson's note while at breakfast with his officers, made an excuse to leave the room, and was not seen again. The note gave Arnold time to escape to the British. An hour or so later, Washington arrived at West Point with his party and was disturbed to see the stronghold's fortifications in such neglect, part of the plan to weaken West Point's defenses. Washington was further irritated to find that Arnold had breached protocol by not being about to greet him. Some hours later, Washington received the explanatory information from Maj. Tallmadge and immediately sent men to arrest Arnold, but it was too late.
According to Tallmadge's account of the events, he and André conversed during the latter's captivity and transport. André wanted to know how he would be treated by Washington. Tallmadge had been a classmate of Nathan Hale while both were at Yale, and he described the capture of Hale. André asked whether Tallmadge thought the situations similar; he replied, "Yes, precisely similar, and similar shall be your fate," referring to Hale having been hanged by the British as a spy.
Trial and execution
General Washington convened a board of senior officers to investigate the matter. The trial contrasted with Sir William Howe's treatment of Hale some four years earlier. The board consisted of Major Generals Nathanael Greene (the presiding officer), Lord Stirling, Arthur St. Clair, Lafayette (who cried at André's execution), Robert Howe, Steuben, Brigadier Generals Samuel H. Parsons, James Clinton, Henry Knox, John Glover, John Paterson, Edward Hand, Jedediah Huntington, John Stark, and Judge Advocate General John Laurance.
André's defense was that he was suborning an enemy officer, "an advantage taken in war" (his words). However, he did not attempt to pass the blame onto Arnold. André told the court that he had neither desired nor planned to be behind American lines. He also asserted that, as a prisoner of war, he had the right to escape in civilian clothes. On 29 September 1780, the board found André guilty of being behind American lines "under a feigned name and in a disguised habit" and ordered that "Major André, Adjutant-General to the British Army, ought to be considered as a Spy from the enemy, and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations, it is their opinion, he ought to suffer death."
Glover was officer of the day at André's execution. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, did all that he could to save André, his favourite aide, but refused to surrender Arnold in exchange for him, even though he personally despised Arnold. André appealed to George Washington to be executed by firing squad but by the rules of war, he was hanged as a spy at Tappan, New York on 2 October 1780.
A religious poem was found in his pocket after his execution, written two days beforehand.
While a prisoner, he endeared himself to American officers who lamented his death as much as the British. Alexander Hamilton wrote of him: "Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less." The day before his hanging, André drew a likeness of himself with pen and ink, which is now owned by Yale College. André, according to witnesses, placed the noose around his own neck.
An eyewitness account of the last day of Major André can be found in the book The American Revolution: From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army Given in the Form of a Daily Journal, with the Exact Dates of all the Important Events; Also, a Biographical Sketch of the Most Prominent Generals by James Thacher, M.D., a surgeon in the American Revolutionary Army:
October 2d.-- Major André is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged. Having left a mother and two sisters in England, he was heard to mention them in terms of the tenderest affection, and in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, he recommended them to his particular attention. The principal guard officer, who was constantly in the room with the prisoner, relates that when the hour of execution was announced to him in the morning, he received it without emotion, and while all present were affected with silent gloom, he retained a firm countenance, with calmness and composure of mind. Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, "Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!" His breakfast being sent to him from the table of General Washington, which had been done every day of his confinement, he partook of it as usual, and having shaved and dressed himself, he placed his hat upon the table, and cheerfully said to the guard officers, "I am ready at any moment, gentlemen, to wait on you." The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency and staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful. I was so near during the solemn march to the fatal spot, as to observe every movement, and participate in every emotion which the melancholy scene was calculated to produce.
Major André walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most conformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. "Why this emotion, sir?" said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, "I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode." While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness he said, "It will be but a momentary pang," and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, "I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man." The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed "but a momentary pang." He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands...
On the day of his capture, James Rivington published André's poem "The Cow Chase" in his gazette in New York. In the poem, André muses on his foiling of a foraging expedition in Bergen across the Hudson from the city. Nathan Strickland, André's executioner, who was confined at the camp in Tappan as a dangerous Tory during André's trial, was granted liberty for accepting the duty of hangman and returned to his home in the Ramapo Valley or Smith's Clove, and nothing further of him is known. Joshua Hett Smith, who was connected with André with the attempted treason, was also brought to trial at the Reformed Church of Tappan. The trial lasted four weeks and ended in acquittal for lack of evidence. The Colquhon brothers who were commanded by Benedict Arnold to bring André from the sloop-of-war Vulture to shore, as well as Major Keirs, under whose supervision the boat was obtained, were exonerated from all suspicion.
A pension was awarded to his mother and three sisters not long after his death, and his brother William André was made a baronet in his honour in 1781 (see André baronets). In 1804 a memorial plaque by Charles Regnart was erected in the Grosvenor Chapel in London, to John's memory. In 1821, at the behest of the Duke of York, his remains, which had been buried under the gallows, were removed to England and placed among kings and poets at Westminster Abbey, in the nave, under a marble monument depicting Britannia mourning alongside a British lion over André's death. In 1879 a monument was unveiled on the place of his execution at Tappan.
The names of André's captors were John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wart. The United States Congress gave each of them a pension of $200 a year and a silver medal, known as the Fidelity Medallion. All were honoured in the names of counties in Ohio, and in 1853 a monument was erected to their memory on the place where they captured André. It was re-dedicated in 1880 and is located in Patriot's Park, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
- "He was more unfortunate than criminal." – from a letter of George Washington to Comte de Rochambeau, 10 October 1780
- "An accomplished man and gallant officer." – from a letter written by Washington to Colonel John Laurens on 13 October 1780
In popular culture
André was portrayed by Michael Wilding as an eloquent and dignified idealist in the 1955 Hollywood film The Scarlet Coat. He is portrayed by JJ Feild in the TV series Turn: Washington's Spies. He is also portrayed briefly by Eric Joshua Davis in the TV series Sleepy Hollow.
- André, play
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
- John Champe (soldier)
- Jane Teurs
- Maj. John Andre Monument
- Honora Sneyd
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