Major André Popularizes Revolutionary Events

Arts & Literature

October 3, 2016
by Michelle Porter Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Historians today strive to interpret the past with a fresh, hip outlook. Long before there was talk about making history accessible and fun, Major John André of the British Army was chronicling events of the American Revolution in a style that provided mass market appeal.

Affair of Honor

Between the summers of 1777 and 1778, Patriot invasions of British-held Florida were stymied and ultimately failed due to serious in-fighting among the American ranks.[1] Part of the aftermath played out as a duel between General Robert Howe of the Continental Army and Christopher Gadsden, a general in both the South Carolina militia and the Continental Army. Howe’s resumption of command over South Carolina troops irritated Gadsden. He considered Howe to be a North Carolina interloper who possessed questionable moral character and was acting under murky orders.[2] After the dust of personal insults and political intrigues settled, Gadsden resigned his commission in an attempt to force a Congressional investigation into his claims.[3] Howe, on the other hand, demanded personal satisfaction. On August 23, 1778, he sent an envoy to “ask of General Gadsden for the last time whether he is disposed to make proper attonement [sic] for the undeserved treatment he has given General Howe—If this is refused … inform General Gadsden that General Howe takes his refusal as a proof that it is General Gadsden’s choice to meet General Howe in the field … [and] that Genl. Howe will meet him with Pistols accompanied by one Gentleman at such time & place as he shall appoint.”[4]

Howe and Gadsden were seconded by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Bernard Elliot, respectively. They paid the “usual compliment of hat in hand,” and marked off “eight very small paces” before Howe suggested that they fire simultaneously. Gadsden declined. “You brought me out, General Howe, to this ball play, and ought to begin the entertainment.”[5] Howe fired and missed, his ball slightly grazing the side of Gadsden’s face. [6] Gadsden then fired at right angles to his opponent, and instructed Howe to fire again. “No General Gadsden, I cannot after this,” was Howe’s answer.[7] Their gentlemen’s apology was concluded.

The duel could have been an incident quickly forgotten had not André turned it into pop culture. His comedy lyric, “Affair of Honor,” was published in Rivington’s Gazette.

It was on Mr. Percy’s land,
At squire Rugeley’s corner,
Great H. and G. met sword in hand,
Upon a point of honor. 

G. went before with Colonel E.
Together in a carriage;
On horseback followed H. and P.
As if to steal a marriage.

On chosen ground they now alight.
For battle duly harness’d,
A shady place and out of sight,
It showed they were in earnest. 

They met, and in the usual way
With hat in hand saluted,
Which was, no doubt, to show how they
Like gentlemen disputed. 

And then they both together made
This honest declaration,
That they came there by honor led
But not by inclination.

That if they fought ‘twas not because
Of rancor, spite or passion,
But only to obey the laws
Of custom and of fashion.

The pistols then, before their eyes,
Were fairly prim’d and loaded!
G. wished, and so did G. likewise,
The custom was exploded! 

But as they now had gone so far
In such a bloody business,
For action straight they both prepare
With—mutual forgiveness.

But lest their courage should exceed
The bounds of moderation,
Between the seconds ‘twas agreed
To fix them each a station. 

The distance stepp’d by Colonel P.
Was only eight short paces;
“Now, gentlemen, “says Colonel E.,
“Be sure to keep your places.”

Quoth H. to G.—“Sir, please to fire!”
Quoth G.—“No, pray begin, sir;”
And truly one must needs admire
The temper they were in, sir. 

“We’ll fire both at once,” said he,
And so they both presented;
No answer was returned by G.,
But silence, sir, consented.

They paus’d awhile, these gallant foes,
By turns politely grinning,
Till after many cons and pros,
G. made a brisk beginning. 

He missed his mark, but not his aim,
The shot was well directed;
It sav’d them both from hurt and shame,
What more could be expected? 

Then G. to show he meant no harm,
But hated jars and jangles,
His pistol fired across his arm,
From H. almost at angles.

G. now was called upon by G.
To fire another shot, sir;
He smiled, and “After this,” quoth he,
“No truly I cannot, sir.” 

Such honor did they both display,
They highly were commended;
And thus in short, this gallant fray
Without mischance was ended. 

No fresh dispute, we may suppose,
Will e’er by them be started,
For now the chiefs, no longer foes,
Shook hands, and so they parted.[8]

Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island

After the American triumph at the Battle of Saratoga (September 19 – October 7, 1777), France became an official American ally with troopships at the ready. British-held Newport, Rhode Island had been an enemy stronghold since late in 1776, and seemed ideal for the first joint Franco-American operation of the war. On August 9, 1778, a French fleet under Count D’Estaing combined with a force of Continental and militia units under Gen. John Sullivan. Their plan was to lay siege to the occupying British troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Sir Robert Pigot.

Aquidneck Island, the site of Pigot’s occupation, was garrisoned with approximately 6,000 British and Hessian soldiers.[9] Sullivan’s force numbered approximately 10,000, while French troops comprised 2,500 soldiers and marines, and 8,000 sailors.[10] Sullivan ferried his troops and supplies across the Sakonett River which separates eastern Newport County from Aquidneck Island. Americans were to mount an attack by land with the aid of French foot soldiers, while D’Estaing provided bombardment from Narragansett Bay. Although allies in theory, these new comrades in arms were yet to be allies in spirit. Chevalier de Pontgibaud, one of Lafayette’s aides, seemed to share the British opinion of American troops when he remarked:

Hardly had the [French] troops disembarked before the [American] militia, to the number, I believe, of about ten thousand men, horse and foot, arrived. I have never seen a more laughable spectacle; all the tailors and apothecaries in the country must have been called out, I should think; one could recognize them by their round wigs. They were mounted on bad nags, and looked like a flock of ducks in cross-belts. The infantry was no better than the cavalry, and appeared to be cut after the same pattern.[11]

Before the joint operation could get underway, a makeshift British fleet under Adm. Lord Richard Howe baited D’Estaing out into the ocean. When the French fleet bobbled back into the bay, they were ravaged not from British broadsides but from a nor’easter of hurricane force. They stayed just long enough to say that they were sailing up to Boston for repairs. Sullivan and his men were essentially stranded alone on Aquidneck, having dug in for a prolonged siege. After several skirmishes, the Americans retreated just two days ahead of British reinforcements led by Sir Henry Clinton.

André chronicled this venture in “Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island.” According to André, Conrad Alexandre Gerard de Rayneval, the first French Ambassador to the United States, emboldened the Americans to consider the joint attack on the British. The approbation of Rayneval’s plan was immediate, exuberant, and in perfect meter to fit the tune Yankee Doodle.

From Lewis, Monsieur Gerard came,
To Congress in this town, sir,
They bowed to him, and he to them,
And then they all sat down, sir. [12] 

Begar, said Monsieur, one grand coup
You shall bientot behold, sir;
This was believ’d as gospel true,
And Jonathan[13] felt bold, sir.

So Yankee Doodle did forget
The sound of British drum, sir,
How oft it made him quake and sweat,
In spite of Yankee rum, sir. 

He took his wallet on his back,
His rifle on his shoulder
And vow’d Rhode Island to attack
Before he was much older. 

In dread array their tatter’d crew
Advanc’d with colors spread, sir,
Their fifes played Yankee doodle doo,
King Hancock at their head, sir. [14] 

What numbers bravely cross’d the seas,
I cannot well determine,
A swarm of rebels and of fleas
And every other vermin.

Their mighty hearts might shrink they thought,
For all flesh only grass is,
A plenteous store they therefore brought,
Of whiskey and molasses. 

They swore they’d make bold Pigot squeak,
So did their good ally, sir,
And take him pris’ner in a week
But that was all my eye, sir. 

As Jonathan so much desir’d
To shine in martial story,
D’Estaing with politesse retir’d,
To leave him all the glory. 

He left him what was better yet,
At least it was more use, sir,
He left him for a quick retreat,
A very good excuse, sir. 

To stay, unless he rul’d the sea,
He thought would not be right, sir,
And Continental troops, said he,
On islands should not fight, sir. 

Another cause with these combin’d,
To throw him in the dumps, sir,
For Clinton’s name alarmed his mind,
And made him stir his stumps, sir. 

The Dream

André was in demand as an after-dinner entertainer at staff and social gatherings. On January 6, 1779, he delivered an unusual presentation in prose rather than verse. More vitriolic than the others, “The Dream” related a supposed vision André had had after a discussion of metempsychosis.[15] In the court of the afterlife, he observed the trials of various patriots as it was decided in what form they would spend eternity.

Thomas McKean (or M’Kean), a signer of the Declaration, was Chief Justice of Pennsylvania when the treason trials of several Tories took place after the British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer of 1778. Two respected businessmen—Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts—were found guilty of conspiring with the enemy and hanged. Records show that the treason trials were “dignified and merciful,” as well as “very long [and] very fair.”[16] Of all the cases tried during that session, only those two were convicted, and McKean even tried to have Carlisle’s sentence revoked.[17] According to André, none of that weighed into McKean’s own trial in the spirit realm.

The first person called upon was the famous Chief-justice McKean, who I found had been animated by the same spirit which formerly possessed the memorable Jeffries.[18] I could not but observe a flash of indignation in the eyes of the judges upon the approach of the culprit. His more than savage cruelty, his horrid disregard to the many oaths of allegiance he had taken, and the vile sacrifice he had made of justice to the interests of rebellion, were openly rehearsed. Not withstanding his uncommon impudence, for once he seemed abashed, and did not pretend to deny the charge. He was condemned to assume the shape of a blood-hound, and the souls of Roberts and Carlisle were ordered to scourge him through the infernal regions.[19]

After watching the fates of other notable Americans (Gen. Charles Lee mutated into an adder, New Jersey governor William Livingston into a wolf, President of Congress John Jay into a rattlesnake), the entire Continental Army came up for judgment. “They were forced to put on the shape of the timid hare, whose disposition they already possessed. With ears erect, they seemed watching the first approach of danger, and ready to fly at the approach of it. But what was very singular, a brass collar was affixed to the neck of one of their leaders, on which I saw distinctly the following lines—‘They win the fight, that win the race’—alluding to the maxim he had always pursued, of making a good and timely retreat.” [20] The collared leader is likely a reference to General Washington.

On the surface, André’s satires reduce incidents of the war to mock heroic antics. However, a careful comparison of actual events to André’s versions reveals that each satire passes the test of historical accuracy as well as popular appeal.[21]


[1] Wayne Lynch, “John Houston and the 1778 Expedition to East Florida.” Journal of the American Revolution, December 2013.

[2] E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Robert H. Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 178 – 179.

[3] Gadsden maintained that he had no intention of insulting Congress with his resignation: “Had they sent Howe to take command of me, as we were of equal rank, and he of another State, … I should certainly have … concluded it proceeded from their distrust of me … [and] have sent them my Commission…. But as I always thought … [General Charles Lee] had given [Howe] orders to come here—and found that my country would not hear me through the party intrigues of a thin house—I therefore threw up my commission here, and out of delicacy to the Congress did not send it to them myself. All I expected was the common compliment to an officer … [to give] him an opportunity before they accepted his commission to tell what hurt him.” “Letters of Christopher Gadsden, 1778.” The American Historical Review 3, no. 1 (1897): 83-89. Retrieved from doi:1. To Gadsden’s unpleasant surprise, his resignation was accepted without comment. Henry Laurens, then President of Congress, was a South Carolina native whom Gadsden called “the greatest and most inveterate enemy I have in the world.” E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. and Robert H. Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 184.

[4] “Letters exchanged between General Robert Howe, General Gadsden, and John F. Grimke, August 1778.” Lowcountry Digital Library. Retrieved from

[5] Godbold and Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution, 186.

[6] Ibid.; Frank Moore, Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution (New York: D Appleton & Company, 1856), 230.

[7] Godbold and Woody, Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution, 186.

[8] Moore, Songs and Ballads, 226 – 230.

[9] Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, “The Battle of Rhode Island.”

[10] Ibid.; Gerald Carbone, “The Battle of Rhode Island,” Sakonnet Historical,; Christian M. McBurney, “Why Did a Boston Mob Kill a French Officer?” Journal of the American Revolution, October 2014.

[11] Charles-Albert Moré, The Chevalier de Pontgibaud: A French Volunteer of the War of Independence, translated and edited by Robert Bruce Douglas (Paris: Charles Carrington, 1898), 66 – 67.

[12] A Philadelphia newspaper account of Gerard’s arrival shows how well researched André’s satires were: “The secretary of Congress then read and translated [Gerard’s credentials], after which Mr. Lee announced the minister to the President and Congress. At this time, the President, the Congress, and the minister rose together. He bowed to the President and Congress, and they bowed to him, whereupon the whole seated themselves.” Moore, Songs and Ballads, 234.

[13] Because Great Britain was personified as John Bull, the American colonies, especially New England, were often called Brother Jonathan.

[14] John Hancock commanded the second line of Massachusetts militia.

[15] Transmigration of souls, or reincarnation.

[16] William Bradford Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Military Secretary of Washington at Cambridge; Adjutant-General of the Continental Army; Member of the Congress of the United States; and President of the Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 2:33 – 34, 35.

[17] Ibid., 34; “Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts Trials: 1778 – Collaborators,”

[18] George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem. Known as the “Hanging Judge” for his actions during the Bloody Assizes of 1685.

[19] Winthrop Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André by Winthrop Sargent (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1861), 214 – 215.

[20] Ibid., 216 – 217.

[21] The lyrics “Affair of Honor” and “Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island” are attributed to André in Sargent, The Life and Career of Major John André and Benson Lossing, The Two Spies by (New York: D. Appleton, 1904). In Frank Moore’s Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution, these lyrics are listed under anonymous authorship.


  • André! So young, so handsome, clever, witty, and doomed. My younger sister was sighing over a lusciously romantic character in the TV drama TURN. I asked, “Is his name John André?” “How did you know?” I laughed: “Do you want to know what happens to him?” She cried, “No! No spoilers!”

    1. Ah yes, so romantic was Andre… and his girlfriend left him for an older (albeit wealthier) man! Part of his enduring mystique lies in his artistic endeavors. Fellow officers considered him a “charming songbird,” and at a dinner party just days before his death, he sang this haunting ballad:

      (The song was also supposedly sung by General Wolfe before his fatal battle at the Plains of Abraham, and by Alexander Hamilton before his duel with Aaron Burr. #don’tsingthissongifyouvalueyourlife)

      1. Yes, definitely an artistic temperament. I have often wondered about the thoughts that prompted André to sketch his self-portrait (and in such a casual, debonair, faintly smiling pose) while waiting for his execution.

  • Andre’s professional success was greatly assisted by his social and artistic skills rather than his military, and certainly not his intelligence, capabilities. While he was able to follow established procedures in his intelligence duties for Clinton, his lack of experience and his personality led to his death and perhaps the greatest British intelligence blunder of the war. His complete lack of respect for the “American” character was not helpful in his role with Clinton after May 1779. He excelled in the role of the “social” aide, not so much as the de facto “intelligence officer”.

      1. Okay, not Bridget, here’s one for you (finally)! There are actually rumors that Andre completed a successful intelligence mission in the South prior to the Tarrytown debacle. That aside, his detailed journal entries and observations do suggest he was better at desk work–gathering and interpreting information–than field work.

    1. Andre did have a degree of respect for the “American” character. This is evidenced by the fact that when he was a prisoner before his execution, his graciousness and resolve completely won over American officers, such as Tallmadge and Hamilton. Earlier in the war, another anecdote has Andre obtaining parole for captured young American boys who would otherwise have been sent to British prisons. But in deference to your point, these were “social skills.”

    2. Ken, I did it again. Your replies are accidentally posted under not Bridget (see below). I hope this one ends up at the right spot. So much for typing at 11 p.m.!

  • André also wrote poem titled “The Cow Chase”, satirizing a raid by General Anthony Wayne upon a loyalist outpost. Ironically, the poem — which included the lines below — was published in Rivington’s Gazette on the very day André was captured in Tarrytown:

    Yet undismayed the chiefs command, and to redeem the day,
    Cry, “Soldiers, charge!” They hear, they stand, they turn and run away.
    And now I’ve closed my epic strain, I tremble as I show it,
    Lest this same warrior-drover, Wayne, should ever catch —this poet.”

    1. I have longed to write an article about the fabulous “Cow Chase.” I just assumed too many readers would already be too familiar with it to care. Isn’t that closing stanza hilarious and haunting at the same time?

      1. The degree of respect for Americans (or lack thereof) in Andre’s Cow Chase is evident from such lines as:

        “So met these dung-born tribes in one,
        As swift in their career,
        And so to Newbridge they ran on
        But all the cows got clear.”

        That’s why, instead of the closing stanza, I prefer the following endorsement, made on the original copy, under the signature of Major Andre:

        “When the epic strain was sung,
        The poet by the neck was hung,
        And to his cost he finds too late,
        The dung-born tribe decides his fate.”

        1. Closing stanza:

          “And now I’ve closed my epic strain
          I tremble as I show it
          Lest this same warrior-drover Wayne
          Should ever catch the poet.”

          It is said that after Andre’s capture, he was actually delivered into the custody of General Anthony Wayne. One of the other Americans named in the “Cow Chase,” General William Alexander Stirling, aka Lord Stirling, (referenced in the poem as a drunken, self-made peer) sat on the military tribunal that sentenced Andre. So did General Robert Howe from the “Affair of Honor.” Yes, be careful what you say and about whom you say it.

  • Michelle, first let me say I did enjoy your article. But, I must say that I stick by my comments. Andre was quite good at interpersonal relations with his superiors or those from whom he might benefit, and this includes the American officers he interacted with as he was attempting not to get hanged. His disregard for the “common American” is well documented. His actions as a Case Officer were decent at first, in that he followed basic procedures for attempting to validate the access and intent of a “write-in”. But his lack of aggressive follow-up and his allowing the “agent” to set the agenda demonstrated his lack of experience and understanding of Case Officer skills. The “Studies in Intelligence” article you note not withstanding, Andre squandered a unique opportunity which may well have changed the course, if not the outcome, of the war.
    Should you want to read more about Andre’s life, my book lists several decent sources. Best regards and thanks again for an enjoyable article.

    1. Thank you, Ken, for your replies. I have to say, I anticipated your points which is why I said Andre’s respect for Americans was only to a degree. That degree very likely included self-preservation. I hope you’ll write an article about Andre’s intelligence activities. Meanwhile, I’ll put your book on my reading list!

  • I’ve read many books on Andre and just have a couple of comments to add to the above. It his trial he said something to the effect (I don’t have the books with me for an exact quote) that if he had any prejudices before, his present experiences (i.e. the civility shown him during his captivity) completely obliterated them. Also, he and Tallmadge became very close during those few days, as did other American officers including Hamilton. Tallmadge later wrote in his memoirs, “I became so deeply attached to Major Andre that I can remember on instance where my affections were so fully absorbed in any man.” Tallmadge also alludes to intimate conversations in such a way as to suggest that a close friendship existed between them during the few days they spent together. Many have questioned Andre’s motives but I don’t think Tallmadge’s judgement could have been too far from a true assessment of Andre’s character. I also think that it was not just an effort to evade the noose that actuated Andre’s genteel behavior towards his captors, but a genuine, mutual respect and an innate gallantry.

  • I can understand your perspective based upon your readings. However, I would suggest that Andre was quite good at developing relations with those he felt useful. This was part of his success as a Staff Officer. Many of his peers and those who served under him were not quite as impressed. Also, one must always question a personality assessment, vice an impression, developed in the course of a very short time period.

  • Dear Michelle, I am working on a project at my school and need to know the date you painted Major Andre Popularizes Revolutionary Events as well as the material you used to paint it ( oil, watercolor, etc). Thank you.

    1. Jorge, I am so sorry for not responding last November. I don’t have alerts set to my e-mail and completely was not expecting replies a year after publication! It’s probably too late, but I used Adobe Photoshop to “comic book” a painting of Andre. The painting was the frontispiece of an old book (whose title, alas, I’ve forgotten). Keep up your interest in American history!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *