Welcome to RWA/NYC’s Hero Blog Tour.
**Spoiler Alert** This hero is an actual historical figure. If you’re hooked on the AMC drama series TURN and don’t want to know the fate of one of the historical characters, do not read any further! But if I’ve piqued your interest, read on.
John André – The Controversial Hero
by Lisbeth Eng
Major John André, a British army officer during the American Revolution, was a beloved hero to his country, though a villain to many Americans. Serving as Adjutant General to the army, he was a favorite aide of the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, General Sir Henry Clinton, and headed his intelligence service.
André is forever linked to the most despised traitor in American history, General Benedict Arnold. Embittered by petty grievances and reprimanded by General Washington for dubious business dealings as military commander in Philadelphia, Arnold sought out the British for gold. He demanded the equivalent of one million dollars in today’s money in exchange for betraying West Point, a crucial military fortification, to the British. After petitioning Washington for command of the fort, Arnold schemed to deliver the plans of West Point to the enemy. This would hand the British an important strategic advantage, and perhaps ensure victory for the Crown.
André and Arnold began a correspondence, through coded messages and go-betweens, to negotiate terms for the betrayal. Beyond his exorbitant monetary demands, Arnold wanted to retain his rank as general, but in the British army. The two met in secret on the shore of the Hudson River near the coveted fortress. Fatally for André, the British vessel, which delivered him to the rendezvous and was to return him to the safety of New York, was fired upon by the Americans and forced to sail away without him. André was now compelled to return to his post by passing through enemy lines, disguised as a civilian, with the plans to the fort tucked into his boot. Before reaching the safety of British-held territory, he was captured by suspicious American militiamen, searched and delivered to Continental commanders.
When Arnold got wind of the capture, he fled, just ahead of the pursuing Americans who now realized his duplicity. André alone was left to face the consequences. A military court found him guilty of being a spy and sentenced him to hang.
André was more than a military man; he was a poet, musician, actor and artist and was loved by his colleagues. His commander, General Clinton, was crushed by his death, and a grateful King George III ordered a memorial to André erected in Westminster Abbey.
What makes André’s story poignantly tragic and compelling is his character, and the remarkable relationship he developed with his captors. In the days between his arrest and execution, the American officers who guarded him were impressed by his civility, candor and bravery. Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington’s chief of intelligence, declared that had André “been tried by a court of ladies, he is so genteel, handsome and polite a young gentleman that I am confident they would have acquitted him.”
Witnesses who attended the execution testified to his courage and composure. Moments before he fixed the hangman’s noose around his own neck, André called Tallmadge forward and they warmly shook hands. Tallmadge would later write in his memoirs, “I became so deeply attached to Major André that I can remember no instance where my affections were so fully absorbed in any man.” Even Washington, whose hand shook when he signed the death warrant, conceded that André was “more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and gallant officer.”
André remains a controversial figure. There is no denying that he acted as a spy, by disguising himself in civilian clothes within enemy lines and carrying incriminating documents. His connection with Arnold’s treason will forever taint his reputation on this side of the Atlantic. Some historians consider him an arrogant, manipulative and calculating schemer, motivated more by ambition than by a sense of duty to his king.
It is difficult to judge the motivations and character of a historical figure from the distance of over 230 years. I am no historian, though I contend, from the research I’ve done, that André was an honorable man, motivated by patriotism and the chance for military acclaim. Colonel Alexander Hamilton’s words perhaps sum up the feelings of the Americans who got to know André and regretted his death. "Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less."
Young, handsome and brave, André exemplified the classical romantic hero. One witness described his execution as “a tragical scene of the deepest interest,” his grave at the foot of the gallows “consecrated by the tears of thousands.” Remarkably, those were the tears of his enemies.♥
Lisbeth Eng writes historical romance and loves doing research. Her World War II romance, IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, is available in paperback and e-book at Amazon, B&N and other online booksellers. Her current work-in-progress is a romance set during the American Revolution. Please visit her at www.lisbetheng.com.