In 1876 Currier and Ives issued a lithograph titled The Escape of John Champe: In the endeavour to carry out Washington’s plan to capture Arnold and to save the life of the traitors victim the Gallant Major Andre, 1780. It showed a mounted Continental dragoon looking over his left shoulder as he outraced another Continental dragoon pursuing him. The print contributed to the glorification and victimization of the British spy, Maj. John André, who had met his death on a gibbet in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780.
The problem with the Currier and Ives lithograph is that Champe embarked on his mission to capture Arnold on October 20, eighteen days after the execution of André. We can blame Light Horse Harry Lee for dreaming up this myth. In his memoir, first published in 1812, Lee misled readers to believe that the rescue of André was a motivating factor for Champe. Champe had died in 1798 and was not around to disagree.
How did this all come about? George Washington wished to make an example of Benedict Arnold. He wanted the infamous traitor brought back to American lines, court martialed, and hung. There was also a concern that another American general had been working with Arnold and he wished to gather intelligence about this matter. Washington turned to Maj. Henry Lee of Lee’s Legion, a regiment that included elements of both cavalry and foot. In the autumn of 1780 the Legion was encamped by Bergen, New Jersey. Lee’s plan was bold and dangerous but simple. Sgt. John Champe would feign desertion to the British in New York, kidnap Arnold, and row him across the Hudson, bound and gagged, to waiting Americans. Lee promised Champe a promotion if he undertook the mission. Washington thought Lee’s plan was a good one but warned Lee that “The Sergeant must be very circumspect—too much zeal may create suspicion—and too much precipitancy may defeat the project. The most inviolable secrecy must be observed on all hands.”
Champe was a native of Loudon County, Virginia, who had enlisted in 1776. The Continental Army promoted him to corporal on April 7, 1778, and to sergeant on January 1, 1779. In an undated letter from Lee to Washington, Lee wrote:
the sergeant is a very promising youth of uncommon taciturnity, & inflexible perseverance. His connexions, & his service in the army from the beginning of the war assure me that he will be faithful. I have instructed him not to return till he receives direction from me, but to continue his attempts, however unfavorable the prospects may appear at first. I have excited his thirst for fame by impressing on his mind the virtue & glory of the act.
In his memoir, Lee expanded on his description stating that Champe “was about twenty-three or twenty-four years of age, had enlisted in 1776, rather above the common size, full of bone and muscle, with a saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtful, and taciturn, of tried courage and inflexible perseverance.”
Lee wrote in his memoir that Champe was not “deterred by the danger” of the mission, “but was deterred by the ignominy of desertion, to be followed by the hypocrisy of enlisting with the enemy.” Lee convinced Champe it was not a desertion since it was sanctioned by Washington and impressed upon Champe that “he would be the instrument of saving the life of Major André.” This latter detail was, of course, impossible because André was already dead, but this assertion in Lee’s memoir was repeated by later writers and on the Currier and Ives lithograph.
The mission was extremely dangerous because Champe had to “to pass the numerous patrols of horse and foot crossings from the stationary guards.” Also, once any desertion was discovered, a search party was sent out. After Champe made his break, Lee attempted to delay the pursuing party for as long as possible, but they eventually caught up to Champe and came within 200 to 300 yards of him. Champe made his escape by plunging into the Hudson River and swimming toward a British warship. The warship sent a boat to pick him up and fired upon the chasing Americans.
After being interrogated, Champe was eventually introduced to Arnold and made a recruiting sergeant in Arnold’s new regiment, the American Legion. The kidnapping mission had to be called off when the American Legion—Champe and Arnold included—embarked for a campaign in Virginia at the end of 1780. Champe spent several months in the British Army before escaping back to American lines. This journey was also extremely dangerous because now the armies of both sides considered Champe a deserter. American soldiers were surprised to see Champe welcomed back by Lee.
Eventually the true story behind the sergeant’s desertion became known. Washington insisted on discharging Champe because he would be executed as a spy if caught by the British Army. His mission was celebrated in a ballad and today there is a high school in Loudoun County, Virginia, that is named after him. The intrepid double agent married a woman named Phebe in 1782 and they had seven children. He died in 1798 at about age forty-six.
George Washington to Henry Lee, Jr., October 20, 1780, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-28-02-0338;Lee, Revolutionary War Memoirs, 394-395.
John Champe, 2nd Troop, Lee’s Legion, Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC; Pension Application of Phebe Champe, Widow of John Champe, W. 4153, Revolutionary War Pensions, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
George Washington to Henry Lee, Jr., October 20, 1780, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-28-02-0338.
Sergeant Champe, www.americanrevolution.org/war_songs/warsongs80.php.