John André: Officer, Gentleman…and Spymaster

Officer, Gentleman…and Spymaster

John André was fluent in four languages and a gifted writer and poet. At the age of nineteen, he inherited his father’s fortune, and two years later bought a military commission as a lieutenant in the British Army.

Sent to America in 1774, André became friend, confidant, and ultimately Adjutant General and intelligence chief to General Sir Henry Clinton, the commanding British general in North America.

Major John André, British intelligence chief for North America
Major John André, British intelligence chief for North America

John André was fluent in four languages and a gifted writer and poet. At the age of nineteen, he inherited his father’s fortune, and two years later bought a military commission as a lieutenant in the British Army.

Sent to America in 1774, André became friend, confidant, and ultimately Adjutant General and intelligence chief to General Sir Henry Clinton, the commanding British general in North America.

Suborning Benedict Arnold

In 1779, the 29-year-old André began a secret correspondence with American General Benedict Arnold, facilitated by Arnold’s wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, a socialite and friend.

The following year, Arnold was placed in command of West Point, a defensive post located on the Hudson River, just sixty miles north of New York City. The British were aiming to seize control of the region, effectively cutting off New England from the other colonies. By that time, Arnold, a hero of previous battles, was feuding with the Continental Congress and souring on the American cause. He was also on the cusp of financial ruin due to his wife’s extravagant lifestyle.

In a midnight meeting with André at a house on the banks of the Hudson River, Arnold agreed to surrender West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds, an amount equal to nearly $4 million in today’s currency.

Arnold provided sensitive notes about the West Point fortifications, which André hid in his boot. On his return to British headquarters, André was captured by three local American militia, who discovered the incriminating documents. The militia commander notified the Continental Army, and fortuitously, it was Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s spy chief, who received the report. Immediately recognizing Arnold’s treachery, Tallmadge advised the militia commander to forward the captured documents to Washington.

A note allowing safe passage of John André, signed by Benedict Arnold
A note allowing safe passage of John André
André and Arnold, just prior to André’s capture
André and Arnold, just prior to André’s capture
He was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer.
—General George Washington,
on the execution of John André
Monument to André near the site of his execution
Monument to André near the site of his execution
André and Arnold, just prior to André’s capture
André and Arnold, just prior to André’s capture

A Reluctant Execution

The gentlemanly and charismatic André was admired by his American captors, Washington included. Nonetheless, the Commander in Chief ordered André hanged, partly in retaliation for the hanging of renowned Patriot Nathan Hale who, captured by the British early in his espionage endeavors, was denied a trial by court-martial and executed instead as a spy.

More than 2,000 spectators in Tappan, New York, witnessed André’s somber execution, followed by the unceremonious burial of his body in a shallow grave. The men who captured André were later each rewarded with a farm, a large pension, and a silver medal. In tribute to their action, Washington stated that they had “prevented in all probability our suffering one of the severest strokes that could have been meditated against us.”

He was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer.
—General George Washington,
on the execution of John André
Hanging of John André
André’s hanging, 1780

A Hero at Home

The fallen André became a hero in England, and in 1782, a monument was established in his honor at Westminster Abbey. Four decades later, André’s body was exhumed from its New York grave and transported to London, where it was entombed in a sarcophagus bearing the following inscription: “Universally beloved and esteemed by the Army in which he served and lamented even by his foes.”

Nearly a century after his death, another monument was erected in André’s honor, this one at the site of his execution. Inscribed on the monument is the following: “He was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer.” The quote is from George Washington.

Hanging of John André
Hanging of John André, 1780