Major John Andre Trial: 1780

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Major John Andre Trial: 1780

Defendant: Major John Andre
Crime Charged: Espionage
Board of Enquiry: 14 generals of George Washington's staff headed by Major General Nathanael Greene.
Place: Tappan, New York
Date of Trial: September 29, 1780
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: Major John Andre's trial for espionage sent shock waves through the American colonies by revealing the depth of a treason plot by General Benedict Arnold to hand over the American stronghold at West Point to the British. Had Andre not been captured and the conspiracy foiled, the American Revolution might well have been crushed.

On October 2, 1780, Major John Andre, a British officer, was hanged for espionage. His executioners would have preferred to hang the man with whom Andre consorted: the traitor, General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was a talented field commander and one of that circle of men who were surrogate sons to General George Washington. Yet he was adept at making enemies. Appointed by Washington to command military forces in Philadelphia while he recovered from war wounds, Arnold's relentless ambition and greed eventually led to complaints to Congress that he was abusing his powers. Documents would later surface indicating Arnold was much more dishonest than local authorities ever suspecteddocuments unavailable when they lodged their complaints. After a list of eight charges wound its way first through Congress and then a haphazard court-martial (it was interrupted by wartime events), it was decided enough evidence existed to uphold two of the accusations. Arnold was found guilty of having used public wagons for private purposes and of having improperly issued a pass allowing a ship, the Channing Nancy, to leave port when all other vessels were quarantined. Arnold was sentenced to "receive a reprimand" from General Washington.

Arnold himself had askedor more accurately, maneuveredfor a trial. "I ask only for justice," he wrote to Washington, complaining of his countrymen's treatment of him after all his sacrifices. He added, "I wish your Excellency for your long and eminent services, may not be paid in the same coin."

But, in the fall of 1779, at the same time he was trying to enlist Washington's help, Arnold opened a secret correspondence with Major John Andre, head of British intelligence. Arnold offered to either immediately enlist or "cooperate on some concealed plan with Sir Henry Clinton." Arnold sought at least 10,000 pounds for his "services." Negotiations were protracted and at one point the correspondence lapsed.

Eventually the persistent Arnold obtained command of the fort at West Point, on the Hudson River in New York, and the surrounding area. He agreed to deliver West Point to Clinton for the extraordinary sum of 20,000 pounds if the venture were completely successful and 10,000 pounds if it were not.

To plan the details of the surrender, Arnold and Andre wanted a meeting. Clinton reluctantly agreed but ordered that Andre: not go behind enemy lines; not carry any compromising papers; and never wear a disguisehe was to remain in uniform. If he were to be captured, this would protect Andre from any charge of spying (and execution).

On September 20, 1780, Joshua Smith, a loyalist friend of Arnold's, fetched Andre from the H.M.S. Vulture. The terms of the passes Smith carried allowed only one man to come. Thus, Colonel Beverly Robinson, who was to accompany Andre, was left behind.

Rather than going to Smith's house as originally planned, Andre and Arnold met six miles up river, at the foot of Long Clove Mountain. A British contingent was to attack West Point. The moves of the opposing forces had to be plotted in advance. Each order Arnold gave to his men had to appear reasonable at the time, yet still lead ultimately to the loss of the fort.

The two farmers who had been pressed into rowing the boat that had brought Andre, refused to take him back when he and Arnold were finished. As daylight broke, Arnold and Andre, his uniform covered by a cloak, rode to Smith's home on the Hudson River within sight of the Vulture. They passed an American sentry, which placed Andre behind American lines.

Several hours later, any hope of slipping Andre back aboard ship was blasted away by an American colonel at nearby Dobbs Ferry. Colonel James Livingston, with a small artillery battery, peppered the frigate, damaging her hull and driving her two miles away.

The simplest and safest action for Andre to have taken would have been to ride out in uniform carrying a flag of truce. Such actions were common as both sides made attempts to negotiate the exchange of prisoners. But Andre, a romantic who enjoyed amateur theatrics, yielded to Smith's insistence that he switch to civilian attire. Worse still, Andre carried a map and other incriminating documents, the contents of which he could have memorized.

Before leaving for West Point, Arnold wrote out three passes, one of which allowed Smith to transport Andre across the Hudson. But Smith was unwilling to venture again upon the water. Instead, the two rode toward White Plains. A day and a half later, as Andre entered a no-man's-land area, Smith left him.

Andre's Capture

A few miles later Andre encountered three Patriot "skinners." Andre mistook them for Loyalists and introduced himself as a British officer "on business of importance." He soon realized his mistake and showed them Arnold's pass made out to John Anderson, the name Andre had used in his correspondence. Andre tried to bluff them with threats that Arnold would be displeased if Andre were detained, implying that his first statement had been a ruse to protect himself from Loyalist "cow boys." Skinners and cow boys often relieved their respective enemies of worldly goods.

The men, John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wert, of the New York militia, stripped and searched Andre. They found papers between his stocking and his English boot. Only Paulding could read. He realized Andre was a spy. After a brief conversation about the possibility of delivering Andre to British hands, for a consideration, the men took Andre to Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson at North Castle.

Jameson had received orders several days earlier to permit a John Anderson to pass through to West Point to visit Arnold. But this Anderson was headed in the wrong direction. The handwriting on all the papers, including the pass, was the same. However, Jameson was unfamiliar with Arnold's handwriting. Andre insisted he be taken to Arnold. Jameson reluctantly agreed. However, unbeknownst to Andre, Jameson sent the documents to General Washington.

Shortly after Andre left, under guard, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the able head of Washington's secret service, arrived. Tallmadge convinced Jameson to recall this "John Anderson" but failed to convince him to recall the messenger sent to inform Arnold of Anderson's detention. Arnold escaped to the Vulture shortly before Washington reached West Point. The incriminating documents caught up with Washington there and he sent men in pursuit of Arnold. But it was too late.

Andre realized he could no longer carry on the pretense of being John Anderson. He wrote to Washington. "What I have as yet said concerning myself was in the justifiable attempt to be extricated." Without naming Arnold, Andre stated that he had come, in uniform, "to meet, upon ground not within posts of either army, a person who was to give me intelligence." Andre insisted that his presence behind American lines was unplanned and undesired. Andre's argument was that he was, in effect, a prisoner of war and as such had a right to attempt escape in civilian clothes. This would be his defense at his trial.

Washington also received a letter from Arnold:

I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country, since the commencement of the present unhappy contest between Great Britain and the colonies. The same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions.

He exonerated his wife (who had plotted with him) of any complicity and asked Washington to protect her.

Andre's Trial

At Washington's order, on September 29, 1780, a board was convened to examine and try Major John Andre. Andre's testimony conflicted on a major, damning point with evidence presented in letters from Arnold, Clinton, and Robinson. They all claimed that Andre had traveled to Arnold under a flag of truce. When asked the question directly, Andre, unaware of the letters, said:

that it was impossible for him to suppose he had come on shore under that sanction; and added that, if he had come ashore under that sanction, he might certainly have returned under it.

The board could not take seriously Andre's arguments about being made a prisoner of war, subject to Arnold's orders. Historian James Flexner pointed out, "Had Andre been acting legally, he would have had no need for an assumed name. An officer is not obligated to obey an enemy's orders." Flexner also wrote, "Flags do not cover suborning of treason." However, a flag would have given the board a semblance of an excuse to avoid a judgment of espionage, which it would have preferred to do. Andre's conduct brought him respect and sympathy. However, the evidence was overwhelming and the decision of the board was unanimous:

Major Andre, Adjutant General of the British Army, ought to be considered 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 next day Washington confirmed the verdict and ordered that Andre's execution take place the following day.

Sir Henry Clinton, under a flag of truce, sent a delegation to present arguments that Andre was not a spy, thus giving Washington an excuse to delay the execution. The British produced another letter from Arnold in which he took all blame upon himself. There were veiled threats that if Andre were executed, there might be a retaliation against American prisoners of war.

Hints reached Clinton that Andre could be exchanged for Arnold. Although Clinton despised Arnold, and Andre was his favorite aide, he rejected the idea; as members of the same side could not be exchanged as if prisoners of opposing sides. Moreover, returning Arnold to Washington would hardly encourage further defections from the revolutionary cause.

Eventually all negotiations fell through. Washington again set an execution date for Andre. He rejected an appeal from Andre for a soldier's death by firing squad over what was considered the less honorable mode of execution "on the gibbet." In the 18th century, spies were always hanged. To deviate from this practice would have thrown doubt on Andre's guilt. If Andre was not a spy, then he was a prisoner of war and should not be executed at all.

Until he saw the gallows, Andre was unaware that Washington had denied his request. He blanched briefly. Asked if he had any last words, Andre requested that those present "bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man." He, himself, adjusted his noose and the handkerchief over his eyes. He supplied the handkerchief with which his arms were tied. Andre, in uniform, was hanged about noon. As he died, many of those watching wept.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Richard C. "Three Forgotten Heroes," American Heritage (August 1975): 25.

Flexner, James Thomas. The Traitor And The Spy. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1953.

Ford, Corey. A Peculiar Service. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1965.

Hatch, Robert McConnell and Don Higginbotham. Major John Andre. A Gallant in Spy's Clothing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins, Vol. II. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.