Sunday, February 19, 2023

ARP266 Hanging Major André

In our last episode, Arnold’s treasonous plot to give up West Point and General Washington to the enemy, was exposed when Major John André was captured near the British lines while carrying a pass from Arnold and documents relating to the defenses at West Point.

Washington had been returning from his meeting with French General Rochambeau in Connecticut when the plot fell apart.

Defending West Point

André Hanged
Washington, who was now sitting in Arnold's home near West Pint, first had to get over the shock that one of his top generals, the man who weeks earlier Washington had wanted to be his second in command of the army, had been working with the enemy for some time and had plotted to hand the British a major victory.

What became immediately clear to Washington from the documents seized with Major André was that Arnold’s plans involved a British capture of West Point.  Washington had just inspected those defenses and now understood why they were such a mess.  The plans captured with André could have meant that an attack was imminent.  He didn’t know that any attack was dependent on Arnold’s successful cooperation and Washington had to assume that the British attack was coming either way.

Washington immediately appointed Nathanael Greene as the new West Point Commander. He then sent dispatches to some of his best units in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut to march directly to West Point and prepare to defend against a British attack.  If the attack was imminent, there would be no time to fix the defenses or wait for the arrival of reinforcements, but Washington had General Greene do what he could to prepare.

Finding the Conspirators

As I also mentioned last time, Peggy Arnold was sent back to Philadelphia to be with her family.  She was probably the only actual American conspirator in Continental hands, but was never tried, or even seriously questioned.

 Arnold’s two aides, Colonel Varick and Major Franks were initially arrested. It quickly became clear though that neither man had any knowledge of Arnold’s treason.  A court martial led by General William Heath acquitted both men in November. Franks faced a bit more suspicion since he was originally from Canada, and his father was a known loyalist.  Franks had also testified on Arnold’s behalf at his earlier court martial.  There were now questions about whether Franks had committed perjury to help Arnold escape some of the more serious convictions at that earlier court martial.  But in the end, men were acquitted and continued their military careers.

Although they went through the formality of a trial, it seems clear that Washington did not consider either man to be part of any plot.  Although he told both of them they should consider themselves under arrest, Washington then allowed Major Franks to accompany Peggy back to her family in Philadelphia.

Washington also arrested Joshua Hett Smith, the man who had accompanied André to the meeting with Arnold, and then led him most of the way back to British lines.  Smith had been a lawyer in New York.  His father and brother were known loyalists.  But he personally had backed the patriots.  He was a member of New York’s Provincial Congress and a member of the militia.

When General Robert Howe took command of West Point years earlier, Smith already knew him.  Smith’s wife was from South Carolina and the two men had met when Smith visited Charleston in 1778.  Since Smith knew the area around West Point and many of the loyalists through his family, Howe appointed him to do intelligence work, something he continued when Arnold took command of the fort.

Many local intelligence agents, like Smith, often proved to be of dubious loyalty, trying to work with both sides so they could claim support of the winning side whatever the result of the war.  Others turned out to be double agents who professed to be patriots but just flat-out actively supported the loyalists.  

Washington had Smith arrested and brought in for immediate interrogation.  The men found him that night at the home of his in-laws in Fishkill, NY.  They dragged him out of bed and dragged him back to West Point for interrogation. There, Washington personally interrogated him, along with five other interrogators.

Smith told his interrogators that he believed that General Arnold was using him to gain some intelligence from loyalists in New York.  The man that Smith knew as John Anderson was a loyalist merchant from New York with intelligence for Arnold.

Washington informed Smith that Arnold fled to the enemy and that Mr. Anderson was Major John André, the adjutant general of the British Army.  He threatened Smith with immediate hanging unless he gave up his accomplices.

Smith quickly understood the truth behind his actions and his unwitting role in a treason plot that would give the British Army control of West Point.  Smith protested his innocence.  The fact that André had a British officer’s coat when they first met was explained in that he had acquired the coat from an officer, but he was really a civilian.  It seems a stretch to believe that, but many civilians did wear military jackets.

Smith would stand trial a few weeks later.  He would be acquitted of all charges.  His claim that he was an unwilling dupe, trying to assist the great General Arnold in an intelligence operation was accepted by the court.  Even though the Continental Army released him, New York authorities arrested him as a suspected loyalist.  Several months later, he escaped his jail and traveled to New York City.  At the end of the war, he evacuated to England.  Despite the sentiment against him, Smith stuck to his story that he was an unwilling dupe.  He eventually returned to New York many years after the war ended.

Washington had also been upset with Colonel John Jameson, who had sent General Arnold the letter notifying him of the capture of André and allowing Arnold to escape.  To Washington, it was obvious that Arnold was a part of the conspiracy and that informing the general simply allowed him to escape arrest.  They decided very quickly however, that Jameson’s actions were simply foolhardy, not motivated by any disloyalty.

Prisoner John André

Of course, the number one suspect in custody was Major John André.  The prisoner was still being held by Colonel Jameson and Major Tallmadge when he wrote a letter to General Washington, making clear that he was, in fact, Major John André - Adjutant General of the British Army.  He made clear in his letter that he was not begging to save his life, but rather to make clear that he thought he had acted honorably and wanted to protect his reputation.

A heavy guard transported André back to West Point where he was interrogated further, then sent to Tappan, a small village along the Hudson, about 25 miles south of West Point.  Major Tallmadge took custody and refused to allow anyone to converse with the prisoner.  Tallmadge, however did speak with him personally.  As the two men rode along the banks of the Hudson, André pointed out where he had come ashore, and where he had met with Arnold.  

The two men also discussed André’s likely fate.  Tallmadge reminded André of the fate of Tallmadge’s friend and college classmate Nathan Hale, who the British had hanged as a spy in 1776.  André responded “surely you do not consider his case and mine alike?”.  Tallmadge responded that they were similar and André would probably suffer a similar fate. This seemed to leave André a bit shocked as he came to terms with his likely fate, and that he would not be treated as a simple prisoner of war

On the day following the discovery of Arnold’s Plot, the Continental Army’s general orders read:

Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered! General Arnold who commanded at Westpoint, lost to every sentiment of honor—of public and private obligation—was about to deliver up that important Post into the hands of the enemy. Such an event must have given the American cause a deadly wound if not a fatal stab. Happily the treason has been timely discovered to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it affords the most convincing proof that the Liberties of America are the object of divine Protection.

The orders went on to note that Arnold had escaped to the British Army but that André was in custody.  Arnold was, of course, universally condemned. But he was safely behind enemy lines.  André would likely feel the full wrath of the Continentals.

On September 26, the day after the plot’s discovery, British General Henry Clinton wrote to Washington, hoping to save André’s life.  He noted that André had been sent under his orders and was under a flag of truce.

Such appeals were futile.  Perhaps if Clinton had been willing to trade Arnold for André, there might have been a deal.  But the British had to protect a high profile officer who had traded sides.  Doing otherwise would dissuade anyone else from trying to make a similar move in the future.

The Trial

One September 29, several days after André’s capture, General Washington ordered a Court Martial convened at Tappan, New York, to try Major André as a spy.

Major Nathanael Greene headed the court, along with Major Generals Lord Stirling, St. Clair, La Fayette, Robert Howe, and Von Steuben.  Also on the court were brigadier generals Parsons, James Clinton, Knox, Glover, Patterson, Hand, Huntington, and Stark.  The prosecutor was John Lawrence, the same officer who had overseen the courts martial of most of the top Continental officers to face trial.

André Trial
The prosecution submitted into the record the documents that André had on his person when captured.  They included intelligence about the defenses at West Point, and a pass from General Arnold for “John Anderson,” the name used by André in their correspondence.  

The prosecution also submitted a letter written by André to Washington, shortly after his capture, in which he admitted to being behind enemy lines, out of uniform, for the purpose of meeting with General Arnold to collect information about the defenses at West Point.

According to the court record, André acknowledged all of these facts, answered a few questions and then returned to custody to await the board’s determination.

The only real question for the court was a determination of whether André had come behind the lines under a flag of truce.  The loyalist, Beverly Robinson, General Benedict Arnold, and British Commander Henry Clinton, had all sent letters stating that this was the case.  They demanded that André be returned to British lines under respect for that flag of truce.

The court wasted little time coming to its conclusion about André:

First, that he came on shore from the Vulture sloop of war in the night of the twenty-first of September instant, on an interview with General Arnold, in a private and secret manner.

Secondly, that he changed his dress within our lines, and under a feigned name, and in a disguised habit, passed our works at Stoney and Verplank's Points, the evening of the twenty-second of September instant, and was taken the morning of the twenty-third of September instant, at Tarry Town, in a disguised habit, being then on his way to New York, and when taken, he had in his possession several papers, which contained intelligence for the enemy.

The Board having maturely considered these facts, DO ALSO REPORT to His Excellency General Washington, that Major André, Adjutant 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 Execution

The following day, Washington confirmed the verdict.  He ordered André to be executed the following day, October 1, at 5:00 PM.

Before the execution could take place, British General Henry Clinton sent a delegation under a flag of truce to argue that André was not a spy and should not be executed.  Clinton was deeply affected by André’s capture, and wanted to do whatever he could to secure the major’s return. He called a conference with seven of his top generals and leading New York Loyalists to discuss strategies to convince the Continentals to return André.

André led to execution
Clinton initially wrote a letter to Washington, calling on his humanity to spare André.  His advisors found the tone of the letter too undignified, and convinced him to focus on the notion that, because André had come under a flag of truce, that he should be protected from any punishment.

The delegation sent to Tappan to seek the release of André had a letter from Benedict Arnold taking all the blame on himself, and also stating that failure to return André meant that the British would also no longer respect flags of truce.  Arnold, in his letter, and the British delegation that traveled to Tappan also hinted that if the Americans executed André, that they might retaliate by executing American prisoners of war.

Greene met with the delegation on the river, but would not allow them to come to shore.  He would only speak with Robinson, whom he knew personally.  Robinson passed along the delegation’s position and the letter from Arnold.  

Greene took this information back to Washington to consider.  Washington’s position, however, remained firm.  The only way André might avoid execution was if the British were willing to exchange him for Arnold.  Since that was a non-starter for the British, negotiations went nowhere.  They had only delayed the execution of sentence for a day, now scheduled for October 2, at noon.

Personally, Major André had only one request.  Rather than be hanged as a traitor, André requested the more honorable death by firing squad.

Since André’s capture, two of Washington’s officers, Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge and Colonel Alexander Hamilton spent a fair amount of time with the prisoner.  Both men were greatly taken with the British officer, and spoke with Washington on André’s behalf.

Washington remained unmoved.  Even granting André a firing squad, rather than hanging, the traditional fate of spies, would only fuel loyalist claims that André was not truly a spy - that his execution was only a fit of pique by the Americans for being unable to capture Arnold.

On the morning of October 2, guards led André out of his cell and to the field of his execution. By all accounts, André remained calm and poised.  It was only when he caught sight of the gallows that he realized that his request to be shot had been denied.  This realization caused him to pause for a moment and take a step backward. He asked “Must I then die in this manner?”  After confirmation, he said “I am reconciled to my fate, but not to the mode.” He then continued his walk toward the gallows.

André mounted the wagon that would soon drop out from under him.  An officer read the death sentence and asked if he had any last words.  André responded “I have nothing more to say, gentlemen, but this: you all bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man.”  He handed the executioner a handkerchief to tie his hand behind his back and another as a blindfold.  The wagon pulled away and Major André hanged until he was dead.

Arnold’s Red Coat

Back in New York, General Clinton received the news of André’s death.  He issued orders granting Arnold a commission as a British colonel and with a provincial rank of brigadier.  Although André had promised Arnold £10,000 for the capture of West Point, Clinton only gave Arnold £6000. 

The British hoped that Arnold’s desertion would inspire others Americans to desert and to join his new provincial legion.  His fellow British officers tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, and still hoped his defection might alter the course of the war.  But in their hearts, most of them still looked at Arnold and thought You are part of a Rebel Alliance, and a traitor

Arnold would raise a provincial brigade, and we will get into some of his further adventures as a British general in future episodes.  But he never inspired anyone else to follow him into the enemy camp.  There was no large conspiracy, and the Americans quickly put out the message that Arnold had betrayed his country for money, and nothing more.  He was universally despised.  In the end, only about forty Continental soldiers joined Arnold’s provincials.

Arnold did find one deserter in New York that claimed he had left Light Horse Harry Lee’s dragoons to join Arnold in New York.  Sergeant Major John Champe soon became an aide to Arnold.  Champe had not really deserted though.  He had been sent to New York by George Washington with the intent of kidnapping Arnold and returning him to American justice.  Champe, however, never found the opportunity to put this plan into action.

A few weeks later, Arnold’s wife Peggy also arrived in New York.  She had originally returned to Philadelphia to live with her parents. But after the Pennsylvania Supreme Council found letters between Peggy and Major André, it banished her from Pennsylvania, and forced her to join her husband in New York.

The Pennsylvania council looked into others who had been close to Arnold, including John Jay, Robert Livingston, and Philip Schuyler.  In the end, it determined that there really was no conspiracy and all of them were exonerated.

The standoff between the British in New York City and the Americans surrounding them continued on with almost nothing changed.

Next week, we will return south, where the Overmountain men prepare to confront the loyalists at the battle of King's Mountain.

- - -

Next Episode 267 Taking Charlotte 

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Further Reading


Testimony at the Trial of Joshua Hett Smith:

“To George Washington from Major John André, 24 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, 25 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, 25 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [25 September 1780],” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From Alexander Hamilton to Major General Nathanael Greene, 25 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Samuel Huntington, 26 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 26 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Colonel Beverly Robinson, 25 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

 “To George Washington from General Henry Clinton, 26 September 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major John André, 1 October 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Knight, John “The Death and Resurrection of Major John Andre” Journal of the American Revolution

Executing Major André:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Benson, Egbert Vindication of the captors of Major André, New York, Reprinted for J. Sabin, 1865 (originally published 1817). 

Bolton, Robert History and Capture of Major André. Taken from the revised history of Westchester County, New York: Chas F. Roper & Co. 1880. 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858. 

Sargent, Winthrop The Life of Major John André, Adjutant-General of the British Army in America, New York: Appleton & Co. 1871. 

Smith, Horace W. Andreana: Containing the Trial Execution and Various Matter Connected with the History of Major John Andre, Adjutant General of the British Army in America, A. D. 1780, Philadelphia : H. W. Smith, 1865. 

Smith, Joshua Hett An Authentic Narrative of the Causes Which Led to the Death of Major Andre, Adjutant-General of His Majesty's Forces in North America, New York: Printed for Evert Duyckinck, 1809. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Flexner, James T. The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André, Harcourt, Brace, and Co. 1953 (borrow on 

Lea, Russell M. A Hero and A Spy: The Revolutionary War Correspondence of Benedict Arnold, Heritage books, 2008 

Malcolm, Joyce Lee The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold: An American Life, Pegasus Books, 2018. 

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990 (read on 

Ronald, D.A.B. The Life of John André: The Redcoat Who Turned Benedict Arnold, Casemate Publishers, 2019. 

Tillotson, Harry S. The Beloved Spy: The Life and Loves of Major John André, Caxton Printers 1948 (borrow on

Walsh, John E. The Execution of Major Andre, Palgrave, 2001 (borrow on

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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