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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Major John Andre...

was born in 1750 in London, the son of Franco-Swiss Huguenot parents who had settled in England because of religious persecution in their native countries. Andre was given an excellent education and learned to speak French, German, Italian, and, of course, English fluently. As he grew older his interests grew quite broad. He dabbled in art, poetry, drama, and music, and proved to be quite talented at whatever he took up.
    Andre’s lively and pleasant manner gained him many friends and earned him a prominent position in London Society. But for all his charm, his relationships with young women all went woefully awry. He courted various eligible girls, but the proceedings always ended in disappointment. Finally, Andre decided to do the only proper thing a gentleman can do when turned rejected by the feminine world: he joined the military!

    At age 20, the young British soldier was transferred to North America and installed in the 23rd Foot Regiment in Canada, being commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1774. The following year saw the outbreak of the American Revolution after the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. His regiment fought in combat against the forces of American General Richard Montgomery. Andre was captured by the enemy in November of that year and taken south, where he was held as a prisoner-of-war in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was well-treated there, and it was noted that he embarked on several fishing trips by himself, after promising his guards that he would return within a certain amount of time. He never broke his word, and as a result, he was offered various leniencies that other prisoners rarely received.

    In 1776, after a little over a year of captivity, Andre was released after a prisoner exchange. He swiftly rose in rank, being commissioned a captain in 1777 and a major in 1778. He took part in the occupations of both New York and Philadelphia and became a favorite at social functions hosted by General William Howe, General Henry Clinton, and wealthy Loyalists who wanted to celebrate the raising of the Union Flag over their cities.  

    28-year-old John Andre took up residence in Ben Franklin’s three-story brick mansion after it had been confiscated by British troops and Franklin’s daughter had been forced to find another place to live. At least she took pride in saving much of her father’s library by packing it in boxes and shipping it out of town. Meanwhile, Andre turned a Philadelphian warehouse into a theatre and put on thirteen different plays over the course of the winter. He also visited young American women, charming them with his flute playing and poetry reciting. One such young woman was Peggy Shippen, a beautiful 17 year old Loyalist. They spent hours together, chatting and drinking tea, sometimes up to f 15 cups per visit. They also went on dates together, going to dinners, balls, and sleigh rides.

    Andre also showed compassion towards the enemy, as is demonstrated in a story collected by Parson Weems from a first-hand source. Once, when a British foraging party made an inroad into a New York community, the young men of the town turned out to defend it. Two American volunteers in their early teens were captured and about to be incarcerated in a filthy British prison New York. Watching the emaciated prisoners reaching through the iron bars and the burly figures of the pitiless guards standing watching, on of the boys burst into tears, realizing that he would likely die from starvation and neglect. Just than, a richly dressed young British officer approached him and inquired tenderly, “My dear boy, what makes you cry?” 

    He made a sobbing response that he could not help it when he thought of his mother and sisters back home and how happy he had been with them earlier that day. “Well, well, my dear child,” the British officer sighed, “don’t cry, don’t cry any more.” He then ordered the guard not to do anything until he returned. When he was gone, the American got up enough courage to ask the guard who the officer was. “Why, that’s Major Andre, the adjutant-general of the army; and you may thank your stars that he saw you, for I suppose he is gone to the general to beg you off, as he has so many of  your damned rebel countrymen.” Before long, Andre returned and joyfully announced, “Well, my sons, I’ve good news, good news for you! The general has given you to me, to dispose of as I choose; and now you are at liberty! So run home to your fond parents, and be good boys; mind what they tell you; say your prayers; love one another, and God Almighty will bless you.”

    When Howe was recalled to Britain because of failure to crush the George Washington’s forces, Andre organized the farewell gala celebration. When the British Army finally pulled out of Philadelphia, Andre, in a somewhat uncharacteristic show of contempt for private property, pilfered several books and personal items from Dr. Benjamin Franklin, in whose home Andre had been billeted in for nine months. In 1779, Andre was commissioned as adjutant general of the British Army, still retaining the title of major. Soon after, he was put in charge of the British Secret Intelligence in North America. A strange series of events would set the young officer on the road to his tragic destiny.

    Peggie Shippen, an attractive young woman from a well-to-do Loyalist family, had once courted John Andre while in Philadelphia. However, rather last minute, she ran off to marry the famed American General Benedict Arnold, leaving Andre a bachelor once more. When Andre became head of the British Intelligence, she unexpectedly contacted her ex-fiancée, informing him that she had convinced him to abandon the rebel cause and come over to the British side.

    Reluctantly Andre agreed to meet with Arnold and discuss the terms for his pardon. On September 20, 1780, Andre traveled north in a British sloop-of-war “Vulture” along the Hudson River. Through the darkness of the night, he rowed ashore in a dingy and met Arnold in the wood below Stony Point. Arnold, who had been given command of the vital American stronghold at West Point, New York, promised to hand over the fort to the British, enabling them to sever the American troops from their head in New England. Andre, for his part, would have to give him 20,000 pounds in cash and promise to assist him in escaping to British-held New York City.

    Unfortunately for the two enemies-turned-allies, by the time they had finished haggling over terms and planning their escape, the sun had risen, allowing the Americans at West Point to spot the “Vulture” in the river and open fire on her. The British ship was forced to back down the Hudson without the two plotters. However, Andre was not discouraged. He insisted that Arnold ride on ahead to meet the “Vulture” at the next safe port, while Andre would don civilian attire and cross enemy lines with a pass Arnold have given him.

    Of course, Andre was not aware that American Intelligence had already discovered Arnold’s treachery and the part the British officer had played in the scheme. If he had known, perhaps he would have waited quietly instead of attempting such a risky plan. But Andre had always been impetuous, a characteristic that would cost him dearly.

    He rode on, unsuspected in his civilian attire, until 9 A.M., when he reached Tarrytown, New York. There, he was set upon by three armed men who later identified themselves as John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams. They were probably robbers under the employ of the American rebels in order to capture supplies, a practice which was used by both sides during the American Revolution. Andre remained reserved and calmly remarked, “Gentlemen, I hope you belong to our party.” Andre was alluding to the Loyalists. The men inquired as to what party he was speaking of. “The lower party,” he responded with a code that all friends of the king would understand. “We do,” they answered, possibly thinking that he was referring to the location of Tarrytown in New York.

    Andre immediately assumed they were Loyalists and told them that he was a British officer on an important mission and wished not to be detained. It was then the men informed him that they were really Patriots and that they intended to take him prisoner. Quickly, Andre changed his story, staying that he was an American officer and producing the passport papers that Arnold had given him.The robbers were incredulous and searched Andre from anything of value, although they were now more enthusiastic about receiving reward money for capturing a spy than about stealing a few coins from a traveler’s purse. They soon discovered the secret papers Arnold had given to Andre on the subject of turning over West Point to the British, which Andre had hastily stuffed in one of his stockings. For a while the men studies the papers, but were unable to read them because they were practically illiterate.

    Now in desperation, Andre offered to give the men his pocket watch and horse if they would let him go. But it was too late. Paulding, who was semi-literate had finally managed to decipher the writing and realized the shockingly serious plot they had accidently foiled. Spurning his attempts to bribe them, they took their prisoner to the headquarters of the American Army in Tappan, New York. Andre was then held under arrest at what came to be known as the “Old ’76 House”, an ordinary place of residence that had never been used as a prison, and never would be again after Andre’s time there.

    When Arnold’s papers were brought to Washington, revealing his intent to turn over West Point and Washington to the British, the commander-in-chief sat quietly, holding the papers in trembling hands. Finally he managed to croak, “Arnold has betrayed me. Whom can we trust now?”

    The beautiful Peggy, whose husband had already fled by boat when news of Andre’s capture arrived, put on a show for the American officers, hysterically shrieking, “That is not General Washington! That is the man who is going to kill my child!” She had recently given birth, and judging from her reaction, it was judged by Washington that her husband’s treachery had sent her over the edge, and she was therefore innocent. She later joined her husband in British-held New York.

    Meanwhile, the trial of Major John Andre commenced with General George Washington at the head of the board. The jury was mostly sympathetic to the young and unfortunate officer, who was merely doing his duty in the service of his country when captured. The verdict might have been more lenient if not for Washington and General Henry Knox who insisted that Andre should suffer death as a spy because he was captured out of uniform and using a feigned name.

    The court found Andre guilty of spying on September 29, 1780, and the penalty was to be death by hanging. British General Clinton, back in New York City, fought hard to negotiate a settlement which would save Andre’s life, but his efforts were in vain. The Americans would only turn over Andre to the British if the British would hand over Arnold to them. Clinton was unwilling to break his word and abandon Arnold to certain death, even though he personally hated the conceited and untrustworthy ex-rebel.

    Arnold, instead of honorably turning himself over to save Andre, wrote an arrogant letter to Washington, threatening vengeance if the British officer should be hanged. But Andre had already come to accept his fate. He did make a final appeal to Washington, informing the general that, if he had the least amount of respect pity for his doomed prisoner, he would allow him to shot by a firing squad. That way, he might die the honorable death of a soldier and spare his family the shame of having him be hanged like a common criminal. Washington curtly turned down his request.

    Perhaps this was to avenge the ill-treatment and execution of the American officer Nathan Hale who, like Andre, had been captured by the enemy in civilian clothes while conducting a spying mission and was hanged accordingly and his corpse left to rot. Or perhaps Washington saw something of what he could have been in the bright young officer who had risen so high in the ranks of the British army so quickly. Did the dismissive treatment Washington had received at the hands of the British top brass during the French and Indian War still affect his treatment of others? It is all speculative.

    With nothing left to do wait for death, Andre had a final surge of creativity and an unexpected rekindling of religious fervor. He wrote a poem about his faith and drew a self-portrait of himself. On the morning of October 2, 1780, Andre had his breakfast delivered straight was Washington’s table, as it had been through the course of his imprisonment. But this time a message was also delivered, saying that he would be taken away to be executed shortly. Andre’s manservant began to weep and his guard became solemn. Andre, on the other hand, received the news without the least bit of emotion, and requested that his manservant leave until he could show himself more manly. Then he ate his breakfast heartily, dressed himself in his uniform, shaved, and gave his self-portrait to his guard, who had become friendly with over the course of his imprisonment. Then the guards arrived, and Andre courteously walked outside with them.

    When they came in sight of the gallows, Andre instinctively took two steps back. “Why this sudden emotion, sir?” asked the guard. “I am resolved to my death, but I detest the mode,” he responding, still having hoped that Washington might honor his request and have his shot instead of hanged. Then for a brief moment Andre succumbed to a fear of the pain of death, but he quickly regained his composure and muttered under his breath, “It will be but a momentary pang.”

    The scarlet-clad figure mounted the gallows, but when a blindfold was offered to him, he took his own handkerchief out of his pocket and tied it about his eyes. He also tightened the noose around his own neck.
“Have you anything to say?” asked an American officer beside him. Andre pulled the handkerchief from his eyes and said with perfect calm, “I pray you to bear witness that I meet my fate like a brave man. As I suffer in defense of my country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious in my life. Remember that I die as becomes a British officer, while the manner of my death must reflect disgrace on your commander.”   

    These were his last words. Immediately after, the executioner pulled the latch, and Major John Andre was dead from a broken neck. When his body was taken down, the poem he had written was found in his inner coat pocket. It is now commonly titled “Hiding Place”:

Hail, Sovereign Love, which first began
The scheme to rescue fallen man!
Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace,
That gave my soul a Hiding Place!

Against the God who built the sky,
I fought with hands uplifted high,
Despised the mention of his grace,
Too proud to seek a Hiding Place

Enwrapt in thick Egyptian night,
And fond of darkness more than light,
Madly I ran the sinful race,
‘Secure’ without a Hiding Place

But thus the eternal counsel ran,
‘Almighty Love, arrest that man!’
I felt the arrows of distress,
And found I had no Hiding Place

Indignant justice stood in view;
To Sinai’s fiery mount I flew,
But Justice cried with frowning face,
‘This mountain is no Hiding Place.’

Ere long a heavenly voice I heard,
And mercy’s angel soon appeared,
He led me with a beaming face
To Jesus as a Hiding Place

Should sevenfold storms of thunder roll,
And shake this globe from pole to pole,
 No thunderbolt shall daunt my face,
For Jesus is my Hiding Place  
A few more setting suns at most
Shall land me on Fair Canaan’s coast,
Where I shall sing the song of grace,
And see my glorious Hiding Place  

    Andre came to be recognized as a hero in Britain and his name was used as a battle-cry in the British army. His enemies, too, respected his memory and lamented his tragic end. Alexander Hamilton said of him, “Never did a man suffer death with justice, or deserve it less.”

Maj. John Andre's Self-Portrait


  1. Oh that among our generals and admirals we might have men like Major Andre instead of a generation of resume'-builders swanning about in executive jets.

    1. Indeed, Mack! Although I am sure we had a mix of good, bad, and in between in our modern military. Interesting you should mention that, because I just had a photo taken with Brigadier General William Mullen!

  2. Indeed, Mack! Although I am sure we had a mix of good, bad, and in between in our modern military. Interesting you should mention that, because I just had a photo taken with Brigadier General William Mullen!

  3. I love this story. The brilliant and gallant Major Andre was a soldier, an artist and a poet, but the truth is that this is a hymn he had committed to memory. He wrote it down and carried it with him to his execution. I hope he found some comfort in it.

    From "The Believer" magazine, June 2011..."Major Andre was executed on 2nd October, 1780, exactly four years after this hymn was published in the "Gospel Magazine" (October, 1776) under a pseudonym "Sylvestris" used by the author, Jehoida Brewer."

    I am so heartened to find examples like this one that demonstrate the humanity and character of Major John Andre, a fascinating yet tragic figure whose legend is still alive and growing today in popular culture and on the web.

    Thanks for presenting this so well. I wish he had written it! He certainly was capable of it; he was that talented. I'd like to be wrong about the attribution!