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John André (2 May 1750/1751– 2 October 1780) was a major in the British Army and head of its Secret Service in America during the American Revolutionary War. He was hanged as a spy by the Continental Army for assisting Benedict Arnold’s attempted surrender of the fort at West Point, New York, to the British.
Early life and education
american revolutionary war john andr
André was born on 2 May in 1750 or 1751 in London to wealthy Huguenot parents Antoine André, a merchant from Geneva, Switzerland, and Marie Louise Girardot from Paris. He was educated at St Paul’s School, Westminster School, and in Geneva.
At age 20, he entered the British Army and joined the 7th of Foot (Royal Fusiliers) in British Canada in 1774 as a lieutenant.
During the early days of the American Revolutionary War, before independence was declared by the Thirteen Colonies, André was captured at Fort Saint-Jean by Continental General Richard Montgomery in November 1775, and held prisoner at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
He lived in the home of Caleb Cope, enjoying the freedom of the town, as he had given his word not to escape. In December 1776, he was freed in a prisoner exchange.
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.
Head of British Secret Service in America
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 in America. 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)—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.
american revolutionary war john andr
cannons and ammunition
From their position at Teller’s Point they began to assail the Vulture and a longboat associated with it with rifle and musket fire. Pausing to secure more aid, Peterson and Sherwood headed to Fort Lafayette at Verplanck’s Point to request cannons and ammunition from their commander, Col. James Livingston.
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.
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 on the river’s west bank 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.
Their repulsion of the British sloop effectively stranded André on shore.
Driven by a Broken Heart
In 1774 he went to America as lieutenant in the Royal English Fusileers traveling to Canada by way of Philadelphia and Boston.
During the American Revolution, British Major John André joined with American General Benedict Arnold in a scheme to secure British control over the American fortification at West Point, New York.
John André was born in London, England, on May 2, 1750.
He knew that taking West Point would remove the Hudson River from colonial hands and force Washington’s army into New Jersey. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and leave the American-allied French army in the vicinity vulnerable to British capture.
As Clinton’s adjutant general, André corresponded with disenchanted American General Benedict Arnold, commander of West Point, to negotiate for West Point’s surrender. To ensure Arnold’s cooperation in the scheme, André met with him on September 20, 1780.
Arnold supplied André with a map of West Point and with Washington’s war council minutes from September 6.
While returning to New York City, André was captured by three American militiamen; he failed to use the pass that Arnold had given him, and papers concerning West Point were found in one of his boots. A board of officers designated by General George Washington found him guilty of spying and condemned him to death.
Somewhat of a dandy André moved with great ease in the social circles of British occupied New York City and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he caught the eye of Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy Loyalist.
An eyewitness account of André’s last day 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.
“I am ready”
Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, “Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!” He partook of it as usual. And he 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.
He betrayed no want of fortitude. And he 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.
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 observed some degree of trepidation. He placing his foot on a stone. And he 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 he elevating his head with firmness he said. “It will be but a momentary pang”. And he 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, he 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.
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.”
american revolutionary war john andr
A Reluctant Execution
Nonetheless, the Commander in Chief ordered André hanged, partly in retaliation for the hanging of renowned Patriot Nathan Hale who, captured by the British early in his espionage endeavors, was denied a trial by court-martial and executed instead as a spy.
More than 2,000 spectators in Tappan, New York, witnessed André’s somber execution, followed by the unceremonious burial of his body in a shallow grave.
In tribute to their action, Washington stated that they had.
A Hero at Home
The fallen André became a hero in England. And in 1782, a monument was established in his honor at Westminster Abbey. Four decades later, André’s body was exhumed from its New York grave. And it transported to London, where it was entombed in a sarcophagus bearing the following inscription. “Universally beloved and esteemed by the Army in which he served and lamented even by his foes.”
This one was at the site of his execution. Inscribed on the monument is the following: “He was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer.” The quote is from George Washington.
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