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John André

British spy master who helped Benedict Arnold betray his country

John Andre

John André was born in London on May 2, 1750. His parents, Geneva-born Antoine André (a merchant) and Paris-born Marie Louise André, were French Huguenots who had moved to London from Paris. Educated at the University of Geneva, André was a strong student known for his charismatic manner, his skill at languages (English, French, German, and Italian), and his artistic abilities (drawing, painting, lyric and comic verse, and the flute). He returned to London in 1767.

The glamour of military life appealed to André, but since he was unable to afford a commission and did not wish to spend his life as a "simple soldier" he went to work in his father's countinghouse instead. He was more interested in the arts and the social scene than business, however, and ended up spending most of his time in the company of poetess Anna Seward and her protégée, Honora Sneyd, whose portrait he painted and for whom he composed lyrical poems. André and Sneyd became engaged in 1769, but her guardian refused to consent to a marriage until André had established himself financially. While André worked to secure his finances, the relationship between him and Sneyd gradually cooled and, in 1870, she suddenly broke off the engagement and married a writer instead.

left: Anna Seward
right: Honora Sneyd

Anna Seward Honora Sneyd

Military Career

Although he had lost his betrothed, André did not give up his pursuit of financial security, as he still desired a military commission. He finally achieved that goal on March 4, 1771, when he purchased a Lieutenant's commission in the British Army. To escape the monotony of barracks life, he maneuvered himself into advanced training at Göttingen, Germany, where he was once again able to move in cultural circles. After two years in Germany, he joined the 23rd Regiment of Foot (Welsh Regiment of Fusiliers). Sent to America in 1774, he enjoyed brief sojourns in Philadelphia and Boston before making his way to Canada, where he amused himself by sketching native life and attending as many parties as possible. His "life of military leisure" ended with the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.

Rise Through the Ranks

In April of 1775, André's regiment was sent to occupy Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River. Attacked by American forces led by Brigadier General Richard Montgomery in September, the fort's garrison was able to hold out for 45 days before being forced to surrender, on November 2. André and his surviving comrades were subsequently taken to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There, the enlisted prisoners were kept in barracks, while captured officers were housed at their own expense in local inns. André took up residence in the home of Caleb Cope, whose family developed a genuine affection for him. Although André was himself fairly well treated and was even quite popular among the German-speaking majority of the town, he resented being a prisoner and developed a real hatred for the "rebellious colonists." As part of a formal prisoner exchange in late-1776, André was returned to General Sir William Howe in New York City.

During his time as a prisoner of war, André compiled a memoir of his experiences in the colonies. Upon returning to New York City he gave those memoris to General Howe, who was so impressed by them that, on January 18, 1777, he promoted him to Captain in the 26th Foot and recommended him as an aide to Major General Charles Grey. He subsequently participated in the Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777), the massacre of Continental soldiers at Paoli (September 20, 1777), and the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777). Following Germantown, Howe moved his headquarters to Philadelphia, where André took up residence in the home of Benjamin Franklin and was able to resume his social life. He was also able to pursue a flirtatious relationship with Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a Loyalist lawyer who captured his heart at least as much as Honora had a few years earlier. In May of 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton replaced Howe as Commander of the British Army in America and, as per orders from London, moved the army out of Philadelphia to New York City. Moving with the army, André participated in the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778).

Peggy Shippen
Peggy Shippen

In November of 1778, André was promoted to Major and made Adjutant-General of the British Army in America. In April of 1779, he was put in charge of the British Secret Intelligence network in America, and on May 10, 1779 he received word that American Major General Benedict Arnold, then military commander of Philadelphia, wished to defect.

"Spy Master"

By the time General Arnold took charge of Philadelphia he had already begun to become dissatisfied with his superiors due to being repeatedly passed over for promotion, and that dissatisfaction began turning into treasonous thoughts after he met, fell in love with, and married Peggy Shippen. Shippen subsequently used her prior relationship with André to initiate and carry on a series of secret communications in which Arnold expressed a desire for equal rank and pay in the British Army in exchange for his loyalties. Negotiations between Arnold and Clinton, with André acting as intermediary through Shippen, dragged on for several months, during which time Arnold tried to improve his bargaining position by supplying tidbits of information concerning American activities in and around Philadelphia. Despite Arnold's continued offerings of information, Clinton was not prepared to give him everything he wanted. Communications were cut off on December 26, 1779, when Clinton and André left New York City to participate in operations against Charleston, South Carolina, and were not resumed until after André returned to New York City on May 12, 1780. One of the first new communications from Arnold warned that Count Rochambeau's French force was on its way to Newport, Rhode Island. Upon receiving this information, Clinton immediately broke off his Southern Campaign and returned to New York City to prepare for the French assault. Arnold's bargaining position was further enhanced when he took command of West Point, a key fortress on the Hudson River, in August. When Arnold said that he would surrender the fort's plans in exchange for £20,000 and a commission in the British Army equal to his current American rank, Clinton readily agreed.

Final Mission

On the night of September 20, 1780, André sailed up the Hudson River aboard HMS Vulture to meet with Arnold. Sneaking ashore the following night, he met Arnold in person for the first time on the banks near Stony Point, New York, and the two men then made their way to the home of Joshua Sett Smith, where they finalized negotiations. By the time the deal was completed, however, the Vulture had been fired upon by an American shore battery and forced to retreat, leaving André to try and make it back to New York City by land, through American lines. Knowing that he would be quickly captured if seen in his uniform, he changed into civilian clothes for the journey. To help him get through American lines, Arnold gave him several passes bearing the name "John Anderson."

Leaving Arnold on the morning of September 21, André met with no difficulty until the morning of the 23rd, when he was intercepted by militiamen/highwaymen John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams. Exactly what transpired between André and these men is unclear, but there is no dispute that the men discovered the West Point plans on André. Believing that they had just captured a spy, the men immediately took André to Tappan, New York, and presented him to the local Continental commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson. Totally unprepared for dealing with a potential spy, Jameson sent the captured papers to his commanding officer, General Arnold; he was going to send André to Arnold as well, but was prevented from doing so by intelligence chief Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Upon receiving Jameson's dispatch, Arnold slipped out of West Point and sought safety aboard the Vulture.

Andre being accosted by Paulding, Van Wart and Williams
Andre being accosted by Paulding, Van Wart and Williams

Considered a spy because he was wearing civilian clothes and using a false name when captured, André could have been executed on the spot, but General George Washington wanted to investigate the scope of Arnold's betrayal first. Subsequently tried by a military tribunal headed by Major General Nathanael Greene and including Brigadier General Henry Knox, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, and others, André claimed that he was a prisoner of war who had every right to do whatever he could to escape capture. The tribunal rejected André's argument, however, and, on September 29, he was convicted as a spy and sentenced to die by hanging. General Clinton did what he could to try and prevent André's execution, but he was not willing to meet Washington's demand that he turn over Arnold, and André was hung at Tappan on October 2. Initially buried under the gallows, André's remains were sent back to England in 1821, following a request from the Duke of York, and re-interred at Westminster Abbey.


Independence Hall Association

See Also

General Sir William Howe
New York City
Benjamin Franklin
Battle of Monmouth
Charleston, South Carolina
Count Rochambeau
West Point
George Washington
Nathanael Greene
Baron Friedrich von Steuben
Westminster Abbey

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Spying and Espionage

This page was last updated on September 21, 2018.