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During the American Revolution, British Major John André joined with American General Benedict Arnold in a scheme to secure British control over the American fortification at West Point, New York. Before it could be carried out, however, minutemen captured John André and informed General George Washington of the plot. Arnold managed to evade Washington's arrest warrant, but André was executed by Washington's order in October 1780.
John André was born in London, England, on May 2, 1750. By 1771, André had joined the British Army and was sent to serve in Canada in 1774. In November 1778, André was promoted to major and named adjutant general by General Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief. At this point in the American Revolution, Clinton was aware of the significance of the American position at West Point. He knew that taking West Point would remove the Hudson River from colonial hands and force Washington's army into New Jersey. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and leave the American-allied French army in the vicinity vulnerable to British capture.
As Clinton's adjutant general, André corresponded with disenchanted American General Benedict Arnold, commander of West Point, to negotiate for West Point’s surrender. To ensure Arnold's cooperation in the scheme, André met with him on September 20, 1780. Arnold supplied André with a map of West Point and with Washington's war council minutes from September 6. He also provided André with a pass stating that André, using the undercover pseudonym John Anderson, was on business for Arnold and should be allowed free travel in the region.
On September 23, André was returning to British lines when he was stopped by three minutemen. The men interrogated André, whose answers, along with his pass from Arnold, aroused their suspicions. The men then searched André and discovered the map of West Point. André was arrested and transported to the nearest military post.
André's confiscated documents were then sent to General Washington. Before these materials reached Washington, however, the General was already making his way to visit Arnold. Not finding Arnold at home, Washington proceeded to the fort only to discover that Arnold had not fortified it as ordered. Returning to the Arnold residence, Washington received the confiscated André's papers and it became clear that the American cause had been betrayed.
Washington ordered Arnold's arrest, but Arnold had already reached the safety of British lines. As for André, Washington organized a court of fourteen military generals to examine the case. After questioning the prisoner, the board decided that he should be executed as a spy. Washington accepted this determination, though he offered the British the opportunity to save André's life by exchanging him for Arnold. The British refused, lest it dissuade others from deserting to the British cause. As a result, Washington ordered André's execution which took place on October 2, 1780 at Tappan, New York. Though André had requested an honorable execution by firing squad, Washington denied this request, insisting that André hang to fit the crime of espionage.
T. K. Byron, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
Dalton State College
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Leckie, Robert. George Washington's War: The Saga of the American Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
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Van Buskirk, Judith L. Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Central Intelligence Agency. "John Andre: Case Officer."
New York State Archives Photographic Collection. "Treason in New York."