Who was Major John André?

Major John André

The story of John André is somewhat short but interesting.  By fairly short, I mean that he lived for only 30 years, and by interesting, I mean that he led a heck of a life in those thirty years.  Well, actually, ten years as an adult. John’s parents were Antoine André and Marie Louise Girardot.  They were Huguenots from Geneva and Paris, respectively, and wealthy merchant class emigrants to London, where John was born.[1]  John was educated at St. Paul’s School, Westminster School, and in Geneva.  He entered the British Army at age 20, joining the Royal Fusiliers, stationed in British Canada, in 1774 as a lieutenant. 

In November 1775, before America declared independence, Continental General Richard Montgomery captured Lieutenant André (and others) at Fort Saint-Jean (also Fort St. John) during the Quebec campaign and held him prisoner at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  While a prisoner, André gave his word that he would not try to escape — and so was given the freedom of the town while living in the home of Caleb Cope.

André was released in a prisoner exchange in December 1776 and assigned to the 26th Regiment of Foot.  He was promoted to captain early in 1777 and to major in 1778.  Captain (and later, Major) John André was a popular young officer in Philadelphia and New York.  He had a lively and pleasant disposition, a good singing voice, a talented artist, and a gift for writing verse.  He was also a prolific writer who, as General Henry Clinton’s adjutant, carried on much of Clinton’s correspondence.  André was fluent in English, French, German, and Italian.

During his nine months of service in Philadelphia, Captain André occupied the confiscated home of Benjamin Franklin.  After the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the socially prominent and loyalist Shippen family ingratiated themselves with General Clinton and his staff by hosting social gatherings; André was a frequent guest in the Shippen home, which is how he met and, for a time, courted Edward Shippen’s youngest and very talented daughter, Margaret (b. 1760).  Young Margaret (called Peggy) was a socialite known for her intelligence, charisma, and for being physically attractive.  She was an artist, musician, and addicted to the politics of the day.  Major André withdrew from Philadelphia with General Clinton’s command in June 1778, but he maintained contact with Peggy.

After the British withdrew from Philadelphia, General Washington appointed Benedict Arnold as governor and commander of Continental forces inside the city.  According to some historians, placing Arnold in a position of authority in the politically divided and wealthy city was Washington’s worst decision as commander-in-chief because no one could have been less qualified than Arnold.  The position called for someone honest, tactful, politically aware, and administratively/judicially efficient.  Arnold had none of those attributes.  When he assumed command, he almost immediately began to enrich himself.  He engaged in various business ventures siphoning money from businesses seeking to resupply the Continental army.  These schemes weren’t unusual in the Continental Army — officers routinely reached into the till to help themselves when no one was looking — but Arnold’s efforts were blatant, and it was not difficult for men such as Joseph Reed to build a case against him.

Arnold lived an extravagant lifestyle in Philadelphia — and a prominent personage on the social scene.  This placed him in contact with the Shippen family, Peggy Shippen, and through her, John André.  Arnold was introduced to Peggy Shippen in late June 1778; she was 18 years old, and he was a 38-year-old widower with three children.  He was a continental officer; she was a British loyalist.  He was a talker, and she passed this information along to Major André through Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stansbury.  Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen were married in 1779.

André was promoted to major in 1779 and appointed to head the British secret service in North America.  By 1780, André briefly took part in Clinton’s invasion of the southern colonies, starting with the siege of Charleston, South Carolina.   Around this time, Major André began corresponding with the increasingly disillusioned Major General Benedict Arnold — who was deeply in debt and accused of fraudulent behavior.

The treason of Benedict Arnold remains one of the most perplexing events in the American Revolutionary War.  Historians have been trying to understand his motivations for years, and everyone seems to have their own theory.  Possibly no theory makes better sense than one posed by novelist W. D. Wetherall: Benedict Arnold married the wrong person.

When Arnold assumed command of West Point, André talked him into surrendering the post to the British.  In exchange, General Clinton agreed to pay Arnold £20,000 (approximately £3.62 million in 2021).  André proceeded to an area just outside West Point aboard the sloop of war HMS Vulture on 20 September 1780 to visit with Arnold and cement the arrangement.  Two American privates, John Peterson and Moses Sherwood discovered a Vulture on 21 September.  The two men began firing on Vulture with their long rifles.  When they had expended their ammunition, the men went for reinforcements at Fort Lafayette, situated near Verplanck’s Point.  They reported to Colonel James Livingston.

Meanwhile, André and Arnold at the Smith House (now called Treason House) in West Haverstraw, New York.  On the morning of 22 September, Peterson and Sherwood began firing again on Vulture, forcing her to withdraw down the river.  The ship’s movement stranded André ashore.

To aid André’s escape through U.S. lines, General Arnold provided him with civilian clothing and a travel passport in the name of John Anderson.  André bore six documents in his stocking, prepared in Arnold’s hand, that instructed the British on how to seize the fortification.

André continued in safety until around 9 a.m. on 23 September, when he came near Tarrytown.  Entering the town, militiamen John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams stopped André.  Assuming that the three men were British, André identified himself and ordered these men to assist him — and they did; they arrested André after identifying themselves as Continental soldiers.  André then changed his story, attempting to convince the militia that he was a Continental officer.  They weren’t buying into that story, nor accepting at face value his passport, either.  The soldiers searched André and discovered the hidden documents.  Only one of the men, Paulding, could read.  Paulding decided to deliver André to his headquarters at Sand Hill.

Eventually, André admitted his true identity, and post commandant Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson decided to send André to his superior, General Arnold.  But before André could be sent on his way, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army intelligence, arrived and persuaded Jameson to hold off.  Jameson dispatched the seized documents to General Washington’s headquarters — but while he understood the allegation well enough, Jameson could not be convinced that his general (Arnold) was a traitor.  He insisted on sending a dispatch to Arnold.

General Arnold received Jameson’s note while at breakfast with his officers, made an excuse to leave the room, and was not seen again.  The note gave Arnold time to escape to the British.  Washington arrived at West Point an hour later and was distressed to find the fortifications in such neglect.  It was part of Arnold’s plan to turn West Point over to the British.

Some hours later, Washington received the explanatory information from Maj. Tallmadge and immediately sent men to arrest Arnold, but it was too late.  According to Tallmadge, he and André conversed during the latter’s captivity and transport.  Major André wanted to know how he should expect General Washington to treat him as a prisoner of war.  Tallmadge had been a classmate of Nathan Hale and still smarted from the British Army’s execution of Hale.  Tallmadge promised André a similar fate.

General Washington convened a board of senior officers to investigate the matter. Major General Nathanael Greene served as a presiding officer; members included Lord Stirling, Arthur St. Clair, Lafayette, Robert Howe, Samuel Parsons, James Clinton, Henry Knox, John Glover, John Paterson, Edward Hand, Jedediah Huntington, John Stark, Friedrich von Steuben, and Judge Advocate John Laurance. Lafayette cried at André’s execution.

Major André’s defense was that he was attempting to entice an enemy officer. He did not try to pass the blame to General Arnold, assured the court that he did not plan to be behind American lines and did not wish to be there, and asserted that as a prisoner of war, he was entitled to attempt escape in civilian clothing. On 29 September, the court found André guilty of spying and ordered him to suffer death. General Clinton did almost everything to save Major André — almost — but he would not agree to exchange Arnold for André (even though he despised Arnold). Major André appealed to General Washington to allow him to be executed by firing squad rather than by hanging, but Washington’s rules of war prescribed death by hanging — and that’s how Major André met his fate on 2 October 1780. The young man was well-remembered by his American captors. Witnesses recalled that Major André placed the noose around his own neck.[2]


  1. French, A.  General Gages Informers, 1932.
  2. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  3. MacLean, M.  Ann Bates — A History of American Women.  Womenhistoryblog, 2011.
  4. McBurney, C. M.  Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island.  South Carolina History, 2014.
  5. Nash, J. R.  Spies: A narrative encyclopedia of dirty deeds and double-dealing.  Evans & Company, 1997.
  6. Nathan, A. G. The Gentleman Spy: The True Story of the British Officer Who Might Have Presented the American Revolution.  Sedgewick & Jackson, 1970.
  7. Nelson, P.  William Tryon and the Course of Empire: A Life in British Imperial Service. University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  8. Nagy, J. A.  Dr. Benjamin Church: Spy — A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, 2013.
  9. Randall, W. S.  Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor.  New York: William Morrow, 1990


[1] In the 16th and 17th centuries, Huguenots were French Calvinists.  As protestants, they were persecuted by the pro-Catholic French government.  The smart Huguenots fled France for their safety.  The less-bright stayed around to see what would happen.

[2] For an eyewitness account of André’s death, see Thatcher, James.  The American Revolution: From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army Given in the Form of a Daily Journal, with the Exact Dates of all the Important Events; Also, a Biographical Sketch of the Most Prominent Generals.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in COLONIAL PERIOD, HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Who was Major John André?

  1. Andy says:

    You called that one correctly, Mustang. Andre’s life was short but interesting.
    Well done.



  2. Tom says:

    I think that Huntington’s name was Jedidiah, rather than Jeremiah.


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