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An American traitor and a British spy met very different ends

Posted in America, Espionage, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

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This edited article about the American Revolution first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

 Death of Major Andre,  picture, image, illustration

The Unfortunate Death of Major Andre

Visitors to the battlefield of Saratoga in New York State, U.S.A., can see one monument so strange that it seems to make no sense.

The battle, fought in 1777 between the British under General Burgoyne and American regulars and militiamen, was a turning point in the American Revolution, for the defeat of the British helped bring France in on the side of the one-year-old United States and make their final victory certain.

The strange monument commemorates the soldier who did more than anyone else to bring about the American victory, but it does not name him! The inscription relates that he was the most brilliant American soldier and that he became a major-general after the battle. It has a cannon carved on it, also a wreath, a badge and a boot, and that is all.

Elsewhere in the state, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, is a granite memorial erected by Americans to honour a man who could have lost the war for them, a British officer they hanged as a spy in front of a vast crowd who mourned for him. His name, John André, is engraved in the stone of his memorial.

The two monuments are linked, for the first commemorates the achievements of the most famous of all American traitors. Benedict Arnold, before he betrayed his country, and the second, the man who was his link with the British High Command. Treachery and scandal bind the two forever in history, one of whom died unlamented and disliked in London in 1801, the other on that hill overlooking the Hudson. More than half a century later, John Andre’s body found a final resting place in Westminster Abbey.

The American Revolution began in 1775 after relations between Britain and her 13 American colonies had reached breaking point over many issues especially the fact that the colonists were taxed without their being represented in the British Parliament. From the beginning, many of them stayed loyal to the Crown, so it was as much a civil war as a struggle for independence.

But one person whose loyalty to the American cause was certain was Benedict Arnold, or so everyone believed.

His exploits early in the war were fabulous. He was 34 when it broke out and soon became the most dashing of all American commanders, more so even than a far greater man, the American Commander-in-Chief, George Washington.

When Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, Arnold seemed destined for immortal fame. But fame was not enough for this hot-tempered, ambitious, extravagant and generous man, who now found himself military governor of Philadelphia, while he recovered from a leg wound (remember the boot on his memorial!) received at Saratoga.

In Philadelphia, his first wife having died, he married a beautiful girl called Peggy, the daughter of a Loyalist. She had very expensive tastes, and he was already supporting a family by his first wife, and also a number of friends. Now, when he badly needed money, the American Government (Congress) refused to pay him back money he had spent out of his own pocket on his troops. Congress was practically bankrupt and wanted to see Arnold’s account books.

He could not supply them having never kept proper ones, and he was now living more expensively than ever. He abused congressmen and nearly everyone in authority who might have helped him, and rumours were soon flying that he was making money from smuggling and from selling official goods at a huge profit to himself. Charges were brought against him and, though he talked his way out of most of them at a court martial, it was only Washington’s intervention that saved him from disgrace.

Meanwhile, he had turned traitor.

Via a friend of his wife’s, one of the many Loyalist spies who somehow flitted between the armies, he had secretly written to the British Commander-in-Chief in New York, Sir Henry Clinton. The message reached Major John Andre, the adjutant-general and the head of Clinton’s Secret Service.

Andre, the son of a Swiss emigrant to Britain, was the most admired young officer in the Army, likeable and brilliant, and a painter, actor and writer who got on with every sort of person, British and American. He knew Mrs Arnold from the days when the British had been in Philadelphia, and he realised that if Arnold changed sides it would be a tremendous blow to the American cause. But the would-be traitor was asking too much money and secret negotiations broke down.

In 1780 things changed. Arnold got himself appointed commandant of the key fortress of West Point on the Hudson, officially because his wound was still troubling him, actually so he could betray it to the British and split the Colonies in two, such was the strategic importance of its position.

Andre, in uniform so that if he was captured he could not be treated as a spy, went up the Hudson on board a sloop called the “Vulture” to meet Arnold at a rendezvous on land. He was given plans of West Point and its defences and told how best the British should attack it. Arnold had already weakened the fortress by sending men away.

But now things started to go wrong. The boatman refused to row Andr√© back to the “Vulture” saying they were too tired, and the conspirators were forced to shelter at the home of a friend of Arnold’s called Smith. Then a shore battery opened up on the “Vulture,” which was forced to sail a little downstream, and the upshot was that Andre, much against his will, had to change into civilian clothes and head for New York, with the plans in his stockings resting against his feet.

Almost in sight of the British lines, he ran into a patrol he took to be Loyalist guerrillas, but they were Americans who searched him and found the plans. Their superiors were confused because Andre carried a pass signed by Arnold, but the game was soon up.

Fortunately for Arnold, news was sent to him that a stranger had been captured before it was realised who the man was. He read the message at breakfast, did not turn a hair, left his staff officers eating and went to his private rooms. There he told a near-hysterical Peggy to burn all his papers, rushed out of his house and sped away to safety on a horse.

The British failed to get West Point, but they paid up, giving Arnold £6,000, the rank of brigadier-general, commissions for his sons, and a pension for life for his Peggy, whom Washington generously allowed to follow him to the British. He fought in several campaigns, but few others deserted to him, though he had said thousands would follow his lead. Most Britons disliked or despised him. As for the Americans, nearly 200 years later his name is another way of saying “traitor.”

Poor Andre was doomed. All who met him in his last days pitied and admired him, but there could be only one verdict at his court-martial – guilty! He wrote to Washington asking to be shot, not hanged, but the General, scandalously in many people’s opinion, refused, distressed as he was by the young man’s predicament.

Andre still hoped to be shot when, arm-in-arm with two American officers, he marched out with firm steps to the execution place where thousands were waiting. As the “Dead March” blared out, he caught sight of the gallows, knew he was to hang after all, and faltered, but only for a moment, then marched bravely on. Springing on to the cart below the gallows, he took off his hat and scarf and adjusted the noose himself. “I pray you bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man,” were his last words. They say that every American wept for the gallant young man, not yet 30, that October day. Few men are honoured by the tears of their enemies.

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