Biography of John André
John André was a British officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War and was involved in Arnold’s Treason — a plot devised by Benedict Arnold to turn over West Point to the British. In 1774, André was sent to serve in Canada, where he was captured by American forces on November 2, 1775, during the Siege of Fort St. John, an early battle fought during the American Invasion of Quebec. He spent a year on parole in Pennsylvania and then rejoined the British Army for the Philadelphia Campaign. He participated in the Battle of Brandywine, the Paoli Massacre, and the Battle of Germantown. When the British withdrew from Philadelphia, he fought at the Battle of Monmouth. Afterward, he became the aid to General Henry Clinton and operated in New York and Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, he courted a young woman, Peggy Shippen, who ended up marrying Benedict Arnold. Soon after, Arnold approached the British with his scheme to help them take control of West Point. André served as the messenger between Arnold and General Clinton. On September 21, 1780, André met with Arnold, and Arnold gave him confidential documents, including a map of West Point. André intended to return to General Clinton and give him the documents. However, as André, in disguise, tried to return to the British lines, he was stopped by three men from the New York militia. They searched him, found the documents, and arrested him. General George Washington was notified, and André was put on trial for spying. The court, which was made up of 14 officers from the Continental Army, recommended André be hanged. Washington offered him to the British in a prisoner exchange, but the British refused. André was hanged on the morning of October 2, 1780, at Tappan, New York.
This illustration depicts the New York Militia finding the documents hidden in André’s boot. The documents had been given to him by Benedict Arnold. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
5 Things to Know About John André
- John André was born on May 2, 1751, in London, England. He died on October 2, 1780, in Tappan, New York.
- During his time in Philadephia and New York, André was well known and was involved in the arts. He was an artist, singer, and poet. He also spoke several languages fluently. He was also a prolific writer and kept a detailed journal of his experiences during the American Revolutionary War. He lived in Philadelphia for nine months, in the house of Benjamin Franklin.
- Arnold first approached André about West Point on May 10, 1779. Arnold intended to become the Commandant of West Point and he offered it to the British for a fee. However, the two sides could not agree on the fee for quite some time. If the British had been able to take West Point, it would have helped them control the Hudson Valley and New England.
- On the night of September 21, the British sloop Vulture dropped him off to go meet with Arnold. André spent the rest of the night at the home of Joshua Hett Smith. However, American ships spotted the Vulture and fired on it, which forced it to leave.
- Four years before André was captured, an American, Nathan Hale, had been captured by the British, treated poorly, and hanged for spying, which outraged the Americans. Just before he was executed, legend has it Hale said, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” When André was captured, he was delivered to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who had been a close friend to Hale. André asked Tallmadge how he thought Washington would treat him. Tallmadge told him to expect the same treatment — and outcome — as Hale.
John Andre’s Trial
General Washington ordered a Board of Inquiry to examine the evidence and try André. The board convened on September 29, 1780. The board was made up of 14 officers. General Nathanael Greene presided over the trial. Some of the prominent members were:
André argued he had been behind the American line under a flag of truce and should be allowed to return to the British line. However, he had been in disguise and using an assumed name. Although some members of the board felt that he conducted himself with honor during the proceedings, he was convicted as a spy and sentenced to death.
André requested to die by firing squad, which he considered to be more admirable. Washington denied the request. His last words were “bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man.” After the incident was over, Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to John Laurens and provided a detailed account of the André Spy Affair. Hamilton expressed regret at André’s fate.
This illustration depicts André being led to his execution. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Eyewitness Account of John Andre’s Execution
James Thacher, a surgeon in the Continental Army, wrote this account of André’s execution:
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…
John André is important in United States history because of his involvement in Arnold’s Treason and link to Nathan Hale. He also served as the head of the British Secret Service for a short time during the war.