In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse. André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of Philadelphia and New York.
John André was a spy.
Major André was a favorite of Colonial-era Loyalist society. For a time, André dated Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia loyalist. She married an important Patriot General in 1779, a relationship which provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history as one of the top tier of our founding fathers.
Had he not turned his coat. Peggy Shippen’s husband was Benedict Arnold.
Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground, overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.
John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold that would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”. General Arnold would receive £20,000, over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.
André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, Major André was returning to his own lines on the 23rd, six papers written in Arnold’s hand hidden in his sock. André was stopped by three Patriot Militiamen; John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. One of them was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the reply, and André said “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André replied that he was a British officer and must not be detained. That was as far as he went.
The discovery of those papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light. Arnold immediately fled on hearing of André’s arrest, even as George Washington was headed to his place for a meeting over breakfast.
John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington. In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.
General Washington thought that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery. Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.
Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André 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. 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.
John André had lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house during his nine month stay in Philadelphia, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, a Swiss-born citizen named Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find a Gentleman such as André looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no explanation or response to Du Simitiere’s protests.
Long afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from the General himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, the oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.