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October 2, 1780: Death of Major John Andre

After a court martial composed of senior generals of the Continental Army, Major John Andre, who had been captured on a mission to Major General Benedict Arnold who was about to betray West Point to the British, was executed on October 2, 1780.  Andre made a positive impression on all American officers who came in contact with him, universally praised for his courage and good humor in adversity.  However, the rules of war were the rules of war.  He had been captured in civilian garb within enemy lines on the mission of a spy.  He must therefore meet the fate of a spy.  Andre appealed his sentence to Washington, not to spare his life, but that his mode of execution be an honorable firing squad rather than the dishonorable gallows.  Washington declined the appeal although he esteemed Andre, in his phrase, as an “accomplished man and gallant officer.”

We have an eyewitness account of Andre’s death from James Thatcher, a surgeon in the Continental Army:

October 2d.– Major André is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged. Having left a mother and two sisters in England, he was heard to mention them in terms of the tenderest affection, and in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, he recommended them to his particular attention. The principal guard officer, who was constantly in the room with the prisoner, relates that when the hour of execution was announced to him in the morning, he received it without emotion, and while all present were affected with silent gloom, he retained a firm countenance, with calmness and composure of mind. Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, “Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!” His breakfast being sent to him from the table of General Washington, which had been done every day of his confinement, he partook of it as usual, and having shaved and dressed himself, he placed his hat upon the table, and cheerfully said to the guard officers, “I am ready at any moment, gentlemen, to wait on you.” The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency and staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful. I was so near during the solemn march to the fatal spot, as to observe every movement, and participate in every emotion which the melancholy scene was calculated to produce.

Major André walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most conformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.”

Andre, who wrote poetry in his spare time, had a poem in his pocket written by Jehoida Brewer in 1776 that Andre had transcribed during his captivity from memory:

The Hiding Place

Hail, sovereign love, which first began
The scheme to rescue fallen man!
Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace,
That gave my soul a Hiding Place!

Against the God who built the sky
I fought with hands uplifted high,
Despised the mention of His grace,
Too proud to seek a Hiding Place.

Enwrapt in thick Egyptian night,
And fond of darkness more than light,
Madly I ran the sinful race,
Secure without a Hiding Place.

But thus the eternal counsel ran:
“Almighty love, arrest that man!”
I felt the arrows of distress,
And found I had no hiding place.

Indignant justice stood in view.
To Sinai’s fiery mount I flew;
But justice cried, with frowning face:
“This mountain is no hiding place”.

Ere long a heavenly voice I heard,
And Mercy’s angel soon appeared;
He led me with a placid pace
To Jesus, as a Hiding Place.

On Him almighty vengeance fell,
Which must have sunk a world to hell.
He bore it for a sinful race,
And thus became their Hiding Place.

Should sevenfold storms of thunder roll,
And shake this globe from pole to pole,
No thunderbolt shall daunt my face,
For Jesus is my Hiding Place.

A few more setting suns at most,
Shall land me on fair Canaan’s coast,
Where I shall sing the song of grace,
And see my glorious Hiding Place.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. and Andre would have us be subjects to a monarchy without morals, obeisance to a cruel dictator. A free people living in peace do not have to fight a Revolutionary War to exercise their human rights. Mephistopheles
    Perhaps, Andre had not read our Unanimous Declaration of Independence of the United States ratified by every state to which Andre did not adhere.

  2. The nobility of the man is nonetheless inspiring and a lesson on the virtue of fortitude. The things we are moved to memorize say much about our character. “The Hiding Place” brought to mind, ” Intra tua vulnera absconde me.”

  3. To support the unsupportable as Andre did leads me to believe that he was seduced by the devil, and made to appear as a patriot. For whom? Was it fortitude or studborness, contempt for the reality of a peoples’ innate human rights?

  4. Mary De Voe,
    No, Major John Andre` as a loyal British army officer was doing his duty as head of the British Secret Service and was considered a patriot by his countrymen. His remains were sent to England where they were re-interred in Hero’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. I doubt that he was seduced by the devil. He was known to be a religious man and had written a religious poem two days before his death that was found in his uniform pocket after his execution. Two quotes about Maj. Andre` written by Gen George Washington in his correspondence to Comte de Rochambeau, “He was more unfortunate than criminal.” and to a Col. Laurens, “An accomplished man and gallant officer.” The traitor in this episode was the treasonous Gen. Benedict Arnold who sold out his fledgling country for a sum of over a million dollars in modern currency.

  5. I firmly regard our Constitution and founding as close an expression of the virtue of justice one can find in a secular context. I am nonetheless uncomfortable with the revolutionary impulse. There is an argument to be made for a crown and altar conservative sentiment and would not condemn Andre on that basis. Ours’ was not a revolution but a war for independence and Major Andre just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. May he rest in peace.

  6. WPW, The ship left without him so he truly was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
    Thank you for making a distinction between wars of revolution and independence. Well put.

  7. I f only George III had been an honest man and a just king, then Andre would have been an ambassador. Andre was about betraying American colonists, I have no respect for him. England does and that gives the truth to his life.

  8. Mary De Voe”
    I say with respect that your view of England and its government of that day strikes me as being rather Manichean. England, prior to the revolution, did not treat the American colonies badly on balance. Many Americans, who stayed loyal to England had to flee to Canada after suffering persecution and the seizure of their property. Their descendants are known here in Canada as United Empire Loyalists.

    If it were as simple as evil tyrannical England against noble democratic Americans seeking independence and self-determination, how do you explain the invasion of Canada in the War of 1812-14? Where were the democratic ideals in the decision to invade a neighbour.

    Ironically, many descendants of Loyalists joined Canadian regiments and fought with the British Army against the American army sent to conquer my country, Canada. In the end we stood firm and, with much blood shed on both sides, sent the Yankee army home to think again.

    We are friends and allies now, thank God, but for many decades the military threat to Canadians came from the imperial aspirations of the USA embodied by the concept of Manifest Destiny. The history is not as simple as you indicate. Major Andre was a patriot, carrying out his sworn duty as a commissioned officer.

  9. Hello John. My great Uncle Bill, a Newfie, joined the British Army in 1939 because, as he said, “Somebody has to teach the Limeys how to fight!” Some of my relatives in Newfoundland in 1967 were still ticked at the outcome of the 1948 referendum!

    In many ways the American Revolution made two nations: the United States of America and British Canada. Although many of the Loyalists who fled to Canada at the conclusion of the War ultimately returned to the United States, the portion that remained were all important in the forging of Canada. As an American with 50% Newfie blood, I take a fair amount of pride in that.

  10. Major John. Have you read our Founding Principles? Perhaps you do not agree with being created equal and enjoy being a subject and subject to taxation without representation and without habeas corpus and trial by jury. The human being has innate unalienable human rights that become his civil rights. Having a monarch above the law is for lack of a better word, unconstitutional.
    Major Andre was a patriot. For whom?

  11. Many years ago, I read Kenneth Roberts’ “Oliver Wiswell”, a novel based on a large number of historical sources, it gives an interesting perspective. I should say it is a mistake to over simplify history. That said, let us pray we defeat Hillary and save our beloved country from becoming a kakistocracy.

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