Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On this day in 1780 British spy John Andre sentenced to death by George Washington

Capture of Major John Andre, 1780 at Tarrytown, NY

British spy John André (1750-1780) is court-martialed, found guilty & sentenced to death by hanging on this day in 1780. André, an accomplice of Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), had been captured by Patriots John Paulding, David Williams & Isaac Van Wart 6 days earlier on September 23, after they found incriminating papers stashed in his boot.

Andre conspired with Continental Army Brigadier General Benedict Arnold to surrender the fort at West Point to the British. Arnold had just been appointed commandant at the fort, but greed & resentment compelled him to turn traitor. The British offered to pay him 20,000 pounds for the deed, more than $1 million today.

Benedict Arnold

American militiamen captured Andre on his way to New York City. He was 30 years old, a wealthy, London-born Huguenot who had served 10 years in the 7th Royal Fusiliers. He’d been captured once before, at Fort Saint-Jean in Quebec & held in Lancaster, Pa. Andre gave his word that he wouldn’t try to escape & was allowed to roam the town freely. He was exchanged for an American prisoner in 1776.

Andre joined the British occupations of New York & Philadelphia, where he lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house. He was a favorite among colonial society as he was a charming conversationalist, a good singer & a talented artist. In Philadelphia he had become friendly – & possibly more than friendly – with Peggy Shippen, a Loyalist. She later married Benedict Arnold & acted as their go-between.

Peggy Shippen Arnold and child, by Daniel Gardner

In late September 1780, Andre left his sloop-of-war anchored in the Hudson River & met Arnold on land. The next day, American troops fired on the ship, forcing it to move downriver. Andre was stranded.

Arnold gave him civilian clothes, a fake passport & 6 papers showing the British how to take West Point. He was captured by American militiamen in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Capture of Major John Andre, 1780 at Tarrytown, NY

It was the discovery of these papers that revealed the traitorous actions of Benedict Arnold to the U.S. authorities. Upon hearing of André’s capture, Arnold fled to the British warship Vulture & subsequently joined the British in their fight against his country.

After being sentenced to death, André was allowed to write a letter to his commander, British General Henry Clinton. André also wrote a letter to General George Washington in which he asked, not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad. Death by firing squad was considered a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

Even members of the Continental Army respected André’s bravery, including General Washington, who wanted to find a way to spare André’s life. Believing that André committed a lesser crime than Benedict Arnold, Washington wrote a letter to Clinton, stating that he would exchange André for Arnold, so that Arnold could be hanged instead. When he did not receive a reply to his offer by October 2, Washington wrote in his “general order” of the day, “That Major Andre General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy & that agreeable to the law & usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. “The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was executed by hanging in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780. He was 31 years old. Dr. James Thacher, a Continental Army surgeon, gave an eyewitness account of Andre’s last day in his memoir, The American Revolution, “So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, & at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness he said, "It will be but a momentary pang," & taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, & with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat & stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts & 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 & 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, & 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, & instantly expired; it proved indeed "but a momentary pang." He was dressed in his royal regimentals & boots, & his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, & interred at the foot of the gallows...”