John Andre’s body hung in silence for thirty minutes before being taken down. It was placed carefully in a simple open coffin crudely painted black. The guard detail then withdrew and the “country people” of the villages around Tappan respectfully filed past his corpse. It was estimated upwards of 2,000 viewed his execution, a remarkable number given the speed with which he had been tried and condemned. Many noted his face had quickly mortified; his handsome features already black, his neck swollen and distorted. He was buried without ceremony or marker in an unusually shallow grave just over three feet deep. It was so shallow that decades later at his exhumation his skull was reported to have been embalmed by the fibrous roots of a peach tree planted “by some kind woman’s hand to mark the grave.” It was an ignominious fate for one the British army’s best-loved and most talented officers.
Five days later the men who had captured Andre, John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wart were commended by Washington himself as “having prevented in all probability our suffering one of the severest strokes that could have been meditated against us.” He went on to recommend that “the public will do well to make them a handsome gratuity.” Both Congress and New York State readily complied. Each was awarded a farm, a sizable lifetime pension, and—unusually for common soldiers—a repoussé silver medal inscribed “Fidelity” and “Amor Patriæ Vincit.” The men were lauded throughout the thirteen colonies as “Peasant Patriots.”
And that should have been the end of the story. Death by hanging of a treacherous enemy spy, and an enduring tribute to the patriotism of three virtuous Americans. Except history does not always follow a predictable and impartial path.
On the morning of his execution, John Andre shaved and cast aside the dusty civilian clothing he had been wearing since his fateful meeting with Benedict Arnold just nine days earlier. He now wore an immaculate dress uniform sent up from New York, a “brilliant scarlet trimmed with the most beautiful green.” As he looked in his glass he may have brooded briefly on the irony of this imposing martial reflection. For there is little doubt that had he worn his regimentals during his dealings with Arnold (as his commanding officer Sir Henry Clinton had ordered him to do) he would not now be facing execution as a spy.
Andre did not know it, but his uniform was not the only thing that had crossed the Hudson from British New York. Promises, appeals, even threats flashed from Clinton to Washington in the desperate hope that Andre could be saved. His army colleagues, mortified at his capture, offered to lead “forlorn hope” missions to rescue him from his prison in Tappan. Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe pleaded to lead a handpicked troop on what would have been a suicidal mission. But Clinton refused all, naively putting his faith in the power of diplomacy. It was to no avail. A Court martial of fourteen senior officers headed by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene unanimously condemned Andre and sentenced him to the most shameful death any officer could contemplate. A common hanging.
The esteem Andre was held in at all levels of the army could be gauged from the shock that lay like a shroudover New York in the weeks following his execution. Whole regiments dyed their cockades and plumes black. Ominous threats of retaliation and vengeance were proclaimed in print and on parade ground, and Clinton was urged to take advantage of the universal anger and lead his army out of his New York bastion and confront Washington’s army head-on. All this for a man of humble birth who a few years previous had been entirely unknown.
John Andre seems to have been one of those rare characters, a man with the ability to enthrall both sexes in equal measure. He undoubtedly possessed an effortless capacity to charm anyone who made his acquaintance. Musical, artistic, and fluent in several languages, his “renaissance” veneer hid a fiercely ambitious nature allied to a keen intellect. His dashing good looks were commented on by male and female alike and in an army where privilege and money too often bought undeserved rank, Andre was the personification of a new breed of British officer: the ones who had raised themselves purely on merit.
It was all the more remarkable then that as adjutant general in Sir Henry Clinton’s army his handling of the Benedict Arnold negotiations bordered on the farcical and inept. Instead of their secret meeting being the catalyst for a significant blow at Washington’s army, the scheme ended as an amateurish and deadly failure. Overly complicated and often unnecessary parlaying between Andre and Arnold was convoluted further by a British high command seemingly unsure of what they actually wanted to achieve from his treachery. Eventually, the delayed meeting on the banks of the Hudson between “Gustavus” and “Anderson” settled little that couldn’t have been attained without them meeting face to face. Andre left dressed in the civilian attire that condemned him, concealing plans in his stockings that were already militarily irrelevant, before accidentally stumbling upon a trio of dubious partisans and proceeding to talk himself into capture.
Though there has been much debate about the severity of the sentence passed upon Andre, there is little doubt that in accordance with the rules of eighteenth century warfare he was guilty of espionage. The board of inquiry determined that he was “under a feigned name and in a disguised habit” and there is no disputing this. Indeed, Andre himself seemed more concerned about the nature of his execution than the justice of his sentence. He spent his final days pleading to be shot rather than suffer the disgrace of the gallows. On the day of his execution, he was clearly unaware that Washington had denied his request. Andre’s only sign of emotion came when he realized he was to suffer a common hanging, and he blanched briefly at the foot of the gibbet, startled that this should be the crude method of his demise.
Importantly for Andre’s posthumous resurrection, his last words were probably not reported accurately. His servant Peter Laune recounted that Andre said, “As I suffer in the defence of my country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious of my life. Remember, that I die as becomes a British Officer while the manner of my death must reflect disgrace on your Commander.” This version appeared in British newspapers within a month of his execution. American eyewitness accounts, however, while agreeing that Andre uttered the first phrase (though they differ on the exact wording) always stop at the condemnation of Washington. Even today this last line is rarely seen in accounts of Andre’s execution. It was important for Americans that no stain should attach itself to the memory of Washington. Although it can never be proven whether Andre actually uttered this denunciation, the important point is that its very possibility was denied by American historians. The nineteenth century writer Winthrop Sargent who published the most authentic narrative of Andre’s life dismissed out of hand Laune’s version stating it was “distorted from the truth by political bias. . . Andre’s dying words are given in palpable error,” though he gives no reason for this conclusion other than that the valet must have been “bewildered and grief-stricken.” The result was that Andre was allowed to die as a gentleman, his patriotism and loyalty applauded by those of his class on both sides of the Atlantic. It is doubtful he would have been granted the same memorial if his condemnation of Washington had been more widely circulated.
The beatification of John Andre started almost immediately after his death. Elegies were printed in England within months of his execution. The writer Anna Seward reflected the British mood in her 1781 “ Monody on Major Andre,” dedicating it “to his murdered saint . . . who fell a martyr to the cause of his king and country with the firm intrepidly of a Roman and the resignation of a Christian Hero.” By the late Regency, Andre’s name had become a byword for fidelity, his death a symbol of the stoicism Britain expected from its officer class. He had championed a system of monarchical government that by the first part of the nineteenth century was tottering throughout continental Europe. It was not surprising therefore that George III, the Prince Regent, and the Duke of York all went to extraordinary lengths to promote the memory of Andre and to pay particular homage to his gallows declaration. “As I suffer in the defence of my Country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious of my life –Remember that I die as becomes a British Officer.”
In 1821, John Andre was exhumed with great reverence and ceremony in New York. Initially, the British consul James Buchanan feared a public backlash in removing Andre’s body and planned a clandestine transfer of his remains. This proved to be impractical, but much to his surprise, his expectations of public abuse were largely unfounded. Though he had been apprised to expect universal and perhaps even violent opposition, on his arrival at Tappan opinion was symbolically divided between those “of a lower caste” who believed the exhumation “a disgrace to the memory of George Washington” and the local clergy and gentry who were supportive and aided in the exhumation. Importantly this show of support by many “respectable” and prominent residents in a such a close-knit community as Tappan dampened all violent objections to Buchanan’s plan. In the end, the consul placated the protesters by simply taking them to the local inn and buying them all a drink. “The bones were then carefully uplifted and placed in a costly sarcophagus of mahogany, richly decorated with gold . . . ladies sent garlands to decorate the bier . . . and six young women of New York united in a poetical address that accompanied the myrtle tree they sent with the body to England.”
His remains were then transported across the Atlantic and entombed in that most scared of Britain’s resting places, Westminster Abbey. The sarcophagus, inscribed “universally beloved and esteemed by the Army in which he served, and lamented even by his foes,” now lay alongside medieval kings, Renaissance statesmen, and Georgian poets.
Like Andre, Paulding, Williams, and Van Wart became hostage to political forces beyond their control—though in their case it produced a far less laudatory outcome.
In 1817, John Paulding petitioned the House of Representatives for an increase in his pension. Startlingly it was opposed by one the Revolution’s greatest heroes, Benjamin Tallmadge. Worse, not only did Tallmadge seek to deny the captors an increase, he openly cast aspersions on both their loyalty and motivation. His motion passed with a large majority and by default Andre’s resurrection from dishonourable criminal to venerated martyr was complete. But was this remarkable reversal of reputation justified, or was it evidence that even in this new and supposedly meritocratic republic, class played as large a part in honoring virtue and commemorating patriotism as it ever did in aristocratic Britain?
By 1817, American politics had changed dramatically from the Revolution. The Jeffersonian versus Hamiltonian debate about who should rule the new republic was in full flow. Federalists believed that the United States should be governed by the “best people.” “Those who own the country,” wrote Federalist John Jay bluntly, “ought to govern it.” Theirs was to be an America run by an educated, wealthy, elite men with “breeding” like Benjamin Tallmadge. Or indeed, John Andre.
In contrast, agrarian democracy was the goal of Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism. Jefferson believed that it was the humble farmer—owning his own land, tilling it with his own hands, and at one with nature—who formed the bedrock of American democracy. He wrote, “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” Though they were far from this ideal, Paulding, Williams, and Van Wart were lauded by Republicans as if they were its very embodiment. All three, not coincidentally, became partisan Jeffersonian Republicans.
Washington’s army recruited heavily from America’s artisan and farming classes. It was undoubtedly a propaganda coup that Paulding, Williams, and Van Wart were all “farmers.” It was significant that initially each was honored not just as a selfless adherent to the Continental cause but also as an incorruptible representative of his class. Within weeks all three men were officially honored for their morality and “simple” patriotism, with much being made of their refusal to accept the bribes offered to them by Andre.
Interestingly, in light of the later attitude of Federalists like Tallmadge, Alexander Hamilton himself had originally said of the three, “posterity will repeat with reverence the names of Van Wart, Williams and Paulding.” But this attitude, at first seemingly universal, gradually declined alongside the practical need for a Continental army composed of yeoman farmers. By 1817, a mercantile, peaceful America had different priorities and more contemporary heroes.
The “facts” of the encounter between Andre and his captors became a political football for decades. As the military significance of Andre’s capture diminished with each passing year, a romantic but politically potent myth began to flourish. That of the gallant, educated, and honourable officer robbed by three lower-class illiterate thieves leading to his regrettable execution.
Andre in conversation with Tallmadge—who as Washington’s senior advisor on intelligence matters spent much of his last hours with the major—referred to them as mere brigands. He solemnly asserted that they first ripped up the housings of his saddle and the cape of his coat in search of money, but finding none said, “He may have it [money] in his boots.” Tallmadge seems to have been almost in thrall to Andre and was sickened by his death. He clearly accepted Andre’s opinion of his captors without question. In 1817, opposing Paulding’s petition, he described them as “of that class of person who passed between both armies,” and insinuated that had he come across them on the day would have arrested them as soon as Andre. His use of the word “class” to describe the three is especially relevant. Though officially described as “yeoman,” all were certainly on the economic periphery of that relatively affluent class. Williams and Van Wart were illiterate.
Tallmadge’s accusations were backed up by other former Continental officers. Joshua King, a lieutenant in Sheldon’s regiment, had been among the first to converse with Andre concerning the circumstances of his capture. His opinion was particularly damning. He scornfully concluded, “the truth is to the impudence of the men and not the patriotism of any one is to be attributed the capture of Major Andre.” An “anonymous” officer of the Massachusetts line who walked beside Andre in the funeral cortege was even more incriminating. In a report of the events by the New York Courier, he made a particularly specific attack: “It was an opinion too prevalent to admit of any doubt, that these men were of that description of persons usually called ‘cow-boys,’ or those who, without being considered as belonging to either party, made it a business to pillage from both. He has frequently heard it expressed at that time by several ofﬁcers, who were personally acquainted with all these men, and who could not have been mistaken in their general characters.” Abruptly, it was now the captors, not Andre, who required vindication for their actions that day.
Political opponents of Tallmadge and the Federalist party sprung to the defense of the injured party, but it was significant that they came to champion the class they represented as much as the individuals themselves. The New York Courier editorialized its objections as “Col. Tallmadge has endeavoured to tear the fairest leaf from our history, and to deprive the yeomenry (sic) of our country of a theme in which they gloried.”
This is not to say there was not considerable embroidering of the facts on the part of adherents to Paulding, Williams, and Van Wart. As the years went by the capture became more idealized. Paulding’s supposed acclamation,”No by God if you give us ten thousand guineas you should not stir a step! We are Americans and above corruption. Go with us you must” when Andre offered him money for his escape seems especially melodramatic and unlikely.
Ultimately the real issue was not whether these men were Loyalist “cowboys,” Patriot “skinners,” or self-serving banditti. What is remarkable is that within their lifetime they had gone from vaunted heroes of the Revolution to disreputable opportunists on no other evidence than the testimony of an enemy spy. That Andre’s evidence was not questioned for its credibility and given such a prominent voice showed just how much American society had changed since the Revolution.
The result of this political ferment on both sides of the Atlantic was that all four men came to be misrepresented in similar ways but for opposite reasons. As far as Britain’s aristocracy was concerned Andre’s reputation had to be salvaged. For America’s elite, that of his captors needed to be diminished: Andre embodied the European model of a gentleman to which they aspired. For them this was not yet the age of the “common man.” Britain’s goal was achieved with success. The latter less so.
Ironically, Andre is better known today in America than his captors, whose lives though commemorated in lofty marble throughout New York are largely a historical footnote. In contrast, in a quiet suburb in Tappan, a small blasted, stump of a monument sits in commemoration to John Andre. Once known as “treason Hill” it now goes under the name “Andre Hill,” and with the name change, the resurrection of John Andre seems complete.
”Never since has Tappan had an assemblage of equal size. Many hundreds, if not thousands were present.” Quoted in W. Abbatt, The crisis of the revolution: being the story of Arnold and André, now for the first time collected from all sources, and illustrated with views of all places identified with it (New York: W. Abbatt 1899).
H. J. Raymond, An oration pronounced before the young men of Westchester County, on the completion of a monument, erected by them to the captors of Major Andre, at Tarrytown, Oct. 7, 1853 (New York: S. T. Callahan, 1853), 92.
John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s military journal: a history of the operations of a partisan corps, called the Queen’s Rangers, commanded by Lieut. Col. J.G. Simcoe, during the war of the American Revolution; now first published, with a memoir of the author and other additions (New York: Bartlett & Welford.1844), 292.
Proceedings Oo a Board of General Officers, Held by Order of His Excellency General Washington, Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States of America: Respecting MajorAndre, Adjutant General to the British Army, Sept.29, 1780. (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1780).
Ibid. Andre wrote to Washington, “Sympathy towards a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adopt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour. . . . I shall experience the operation of these feelings in your breast, by being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.” Washington did not reply.
James Thacher was a Continental Army surgeon. His memoir quotes,“I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” Eli Jacobs was chosen to guard Andre on the day of his execution. His pension application quotes Andre’s final words as, “Bear me witness that I bear my fate like a brave man.”
3,300 people have been buried or commemorated at Westminster Abbey, many of them among the most significant in the nation’s history. See www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/famous-people-organisations.
Attributed to John Jay; in Frank Monaghan, John Jay, chapter 15, p. 323 (1935). According to Monaghan, this “was one of his favorite maxims.” Unverified in the writings of Jay, although the essence of this is expressed in several passages.
Benson J. Lossing, The pictorial field-book of the revolution; or, illustrations, by pen and pencil, of the history, biography, scenery, relics, and traditions of the war for independence (New York: Harper & Bros., 1850), 206.
John Paulding Memorial at Patriots Park, Tarrytown, NY. The Issac Van Wart grave obelisk at the Elmsford Reformed Church and Cemetery David Williams Monument Old Stone Fort, 145 Fort Rd, Schoharie, NY.