During the ‘American War of Independence,’ John André was a British Army commander who was tried and executed by the ‘Continental Army’ for espionage. He served as top intelligence officer in New York City under General Sir Henry Clinton, the then British commander in chief, after being dispatched to the United States. He secretly corresponded with the enraged American General Benedict Arnold in order to secure British authority over the fort at West Point, New York. On September 21, 1780, General Benedict Arnold, who had been appointed commandant of the fort in August 1780, was persuaded by John André to surrender the fort for £20,000. However, before the plan could be carried out, André was apprehended by three military officers, who took the documents pertaining to the plot from him. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by a board of officers convened by General George Washington. Following General Sir Henry Clinton’s removal to replace him with American General Benedict Arnold, who had fled to British territory by that time, he was finally hung in October 1780.
Childhood and Adolescence
He was born on May 2, 1750, in London, England, to wealthy Huguenot parents Antoine André and Marie Louise Girardot. His father was a businessman.
He went to the ‘St Paul’s School,’ the ‘Westminster School,’ and then to Geneva to study.
He entered in the British Army when he was twenty years old, and while in Canada, he served as a lieutenant in the ‘7th Royal Fusiliers’ regiment.
General Richard Montgomery seized him from ‘Fort Saint-Jean’ in November 1775 and imprisoned him in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Because he was not allowed to leave town, he lazily wandered around the town while staying at Caleb Cope’s house. In a prisoner exchange in December 1776, he was liberated.
He was promoted to captain on January 18, 1777, and major in 1778.
He possessed a bright and upbeat demeanor that quickly made him a popular figure in colonial society in New York and Philadelphia. He spoke German, Italian, and French in addition to English.
His superior education and extracurricular skills in sketching, playing the flute, penning lyrics, and writing funny verses set him apart from his peers. André staged a spectacular ‘Mischianza’ on May 18, 1778, before General Howe’s departure to England, after he resigned.
During his time in Philadelphia, he took ownership of Benjamin Franklin’s home. Under the orders of Major-General Charles Grey, he allegedly seized numerous valuable items from the residence as the British left Philadelphia, including scientific apparatus, books, musical instruments, and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. The image was returned to the United States by Charles Grey’s relatives in the early twentieth century.
Career of John André
In 1779, he was named Adjutant General of the British Army, with the rank of major, under General Sir Henry Clinton. General Clinton was well aware of America’s position at West Point, and he understood that seizing the fort would free the Hudson River from colonial control, forcing Washington’s army to relocate to New Jersey.
André was appointed chief of British secret intelligence in New York City in April 1779, and by the following year, he had begun private correspondence with enraged American General Benedict Arnold.
In August 1780, General Benedict Arnold was appointed commandant of the fort at West Point. Arnold was convinced to surrender the fort for £20,000 by John André’s correspondence, which was often aided by Peggy Shippen, a Loyalist and Arnold’s wife. The agreement would allow the British to divide New England from the rebel colonies.
André boarded the British sloop-of-war ‘Vulture’ on September 20, 1780, to meet Arnold. The next night, he was met by Joshua Hett Smith, who sailed to the ‘Vulture’ on the ‘Hudson River’ in a small boat, as instructed by Arnold, to bring André to land.
André and Arnold conducted a night-long talk in the trees below Stony Point on September 21, 1780, and agreed to carry out the plan. Following that, they went to Thomas Smith’s house in West Haverstraw, New York, which was occupied by his brother Joshua Hett Smith.
Meanwhile, under fire from American troops headed by Col. James Livingston, ‘Vulture’ retreated down the river on September 22, 1780, leaving André behind.
To go around American borders, Arnold outfitted him in plain clothing and handed him a passport with the fictitious identity of John Anderson.
Three military men, David Williams, Isaac Van Wart, and John Paulding, intercepted him in Tarrytown, New York, on September 23, 1780. Six papers were found in his stockings. The scheme was uncovered by the papers written in Arnold’s handwriting. He was taken to the Sand Hills headquarters of the ‘Continental Army.’
He was originally imprisoned at Wright’s Mill in North Castle, New York, and subsequently at the American Army’s headquarters in Tappan, New Jersey.
Although the post commandant, Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, did not believe Arnold was a traitor, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army Intelligence, warned of the likelihood of a high-ranking official defecting to the British.
While the six papers were submitted to General George Washington, a memo outlining the entire scenario was sent to Arnold at the request of John Jameson. Soon after receiving the note, Arnold retreated to British territory.
General George Washington formed a board of senior commanders to investigate the incident. On September 29, 1780, the board found him guilty of being a spy for the enemy. According to their findings, he was sentenced to death.
Despite Sir Henry Clinton’s best efforts to preserve André, he refused to hand over Arnold in exchange for André. André requested that he be executed by firing squad, but on October 2, 1780, he was hanged for his espionage in Tappan, New York, in accordance with military rules.
He refused to be blindfolded during his execution and instead wore the noose around his neck. His captivating nature made him adored even by jail officers, who, like their British counterparts, lamented his demise. The drawing he did the day before he was hanged, which resembles him in some ways, is now in the possession of ‘Yale College.’
Personal History and Legacy
His mother and three sisters got pensions, while André’s brother William was appointed a baronet in 1781 as a gesture of respect.
Under the direction of the Duke of York, his remains were transferred to England in 1821 and placed in Hero’s Corner at Westminster Abbey alongside the remains of kings and poets. Above his tomb, a marble memorial depicting Britannia lamenting André’s death beside a British lion is constructed.
On the location of his execution on October 2, 1879, a monument was constructed in Tappan.
Estimated Net Worth
The estimated net worth of John André is unknown.