Archive for October 2nd, 2008

1780: Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s handler

October 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1780, the honorable British Major John Andre got what Benedict Arnold had coming to him.

Piqued that his (quite considerable) brilliance in the field did not earn honors he thought his due, General Benedict Arnold contrived to betray West Point to the British during the American Revolution — the plot that made his name a synonym for treachery.

As the scheme ripened, the turncoat asked Sir Henry Clinton for “a personal interview with an officer that you can confide in.”

Enter Clinton’s adjutant John Andre, head of British Special Intelligence.

The dashing officer, well-liked in society on either side of the permeable divide between Tories and Patriots on the continent, slipped into Haverstraw, N.Y. to make the arrangements. On his way back — when he already thought himself safely clear of American-held territory — he was nabbed with the incriminating documents.

The narrowly-averted betrayal was mirrored by the narrowest of escapes: luckily for Benedict Arnold, Andre was received in custody by a subordinate officer of his, whose initial report to Arnold alerted the general to his danger and enabled him to escape to the British a whisker ahead of the law.

Treason, of the blackest dye, was yesterday discovered. General Arnold, who commanded at West Point, lost to every sentiment of honor, of private and public 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 dangerous, if not a fatal wound; happily the treason has been timely discovered, to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it, afford the most convincing proofs that the liberties of America are the object of Divine protection.

It was a gentlemanly war, and Andre didn’t seem like the guy to hang in the whole exchange. But his argument before a court-martial that he was merely availing “an advantage taken in war” by agreeing to talk to an enemy general who wanted to hand them the keys to a fort didn’t fly: he’d been behind enemy lines, out of uniform, sneaking around. That made him a spy.

And the British refused to obtain Andre’s liberty by trading the man the Americans really wanted to execute.

Instead, by year’s end, the hero of Saratoga was commanding redcoats in the field — perhaps a little nervously; when he asked a captured American what might happen to him should he be taken, the reply was “Cut off your right leg, bury it with full military honors, and then hang the rest of you on a gibbet.”

John Andre was left holding the bag, to the dismay of just about everyone American and British alike. This extended account of the luckless major’s last moments* is from the pen of Continental Army surgeon James Thacher.

Major Andre 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…

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 [George Washington] and his staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful … Major Andre 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 comformable 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 had 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.

Thus died, in the bloom of life, the accomplished Major Andre, the pride of the royal army, and the valued friend of Sir Henry Clinton. He was about twenty-nine years of age, in his person well proportioned, tall, genteel and graceful. His mien respectable and dignified. His countenance mild, expressive and prepossessing, indicative of an intelligent and amiable mind. … considered as a skilful, brave and enterprising officer, and he is reported to have been benevolent and humane to our people who have been prisoners in New York. … The heart of sensibility mourns when a life of so much worth is sacrified on a gibbet. General Washington was called to discharge a duty from which his soul revolted; and it is asserted that his hand could scarcely command his pen, when signing the warrant for the execution of Major Andre. … Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for Andre, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.

Andre makes a sort of loyalist counterpart to Nathan Hale. Interestingly, Thacher’s account — in which he uses his old diaries for a book that was published in 1823 — footnotes an extended narration of Nathan Hale in a comparative vein, complaining that “whilst almost every historian of the American Revolution has celebrated the virtues and lamented the fate of Andre, Hale has remained unnoticed, and it is scarcely known that such a character ever existed.” Today, in terms of their public recognizability, the two are rather reversed.

* Andre was to have been hanged October 1, but the matter was stayed when a British deputation arrived under flag of truce to make one last parley for their man’s life.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Language,New York,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Spies,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Corey R: Sample now! :)
  • Kevin M. Sullivan: Hi Mark, Thanks for the good words about my book! I really appreciate them. :) That’s a good...
  • NOEL KENTISH: The date of the murder of my father at Dobo was initially published incorrectly as 4 May 1943. At the...
  • NOEL KENTISH: In my recently published book, Eagle and Lamb”, my father’s biography, I make reference to...
  • markb: kevin: on the difference between your book and Dielenberg’s, and on it’s “staying...