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John André

Gentleman Spy
Drawing of three men and a horse.
Library of Congress

While Benedict Arnold is the best-known traitor in American history, Arnold’s British confidant and accomplice in the plot to turn the American garrison at West Point over to the British, Major John André  is less well known. Unlike Arnold, who survived the war, André lost his life on the gallows, executed as a spy.

André was born and raised in luxury in London to wealthy Huguenots. A quick student, André could speak several languages fluently. He attended both Saint Paul’s and Westminster School’s in England before moving to Geneva to continue his education. He had a passion for theatrics and enjoyed writing short plays for fun. In 1770, he joined the British Army, and shortly before the start of the American Revolution, found himself in Canada where he was captured during the Americans ill-advised and aborted campaign in the Winter of 1775. He was paroled and a year later and exchanged. In January 1777, he was promoted to Captain of the 26th Foot.

Somewhat of a dandy, André moved with great ease in the social circles of British occupied New York City and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he caught the eye of Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, the daughter of a wealthy Loyalist. Shippen would eventually marry Benedict Arnold and play a role in the treasonous plot. It is suspected that Shippen at one point was a paramour of André.

In 1779, André was promoted to Major and named the Adjutant General of the North American British Army. By April, he was the head of the British Secret Service. By 1780, through Shippen, André began to secretly correspond with Arnold who was now a disgruntled American general officer who felt himself betrayed by, and disgusted with, the Continental Congress. It was through this channel that Arnold sought to betray the American cause. On the day the deal was consummated, André was stopped in Westchester County, New York by several patriot militiamen. On him were found papers that proved Arnold’s betrayal to the United States. After a brief military trial, André was found guilty and sent to the gallows as a spy. He requested that he be shot by a firing squad as a courtesy of war, but George Washington refused. Many historians argue André's execution was retaliation for Nathan Hale's, who executed by the British for spying. André’s ignoble fate took place on October 2, 1780 in Tappan, New York. Lore tells us he died bravely by placing the noose around his neck.

During his incarceration André endeared himself to officers of the Continental Army. Writing after the execution, Alexander Hamilton penned a letter stating, “Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less."