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Major John Andre Trial: 1780 - Andre's Trial

arnold washington spy execution

At Washington's order, on September 29, 1780, a board was convened to examine and try Major John Andre. Andre's testimony conflicted on a major, damning point with evidence presented in letters from Arnold, Clinton, and Robinson. They all claimed that Andre had traveled to Arnold under a flag of truce. When asked the question directly, Andre, unaware of the letters, said:

that it was impossible for him to suppose he had come on shore under that sanction; and added that, if he had come ashore under that sanction, he might certainly have returned under it.

The board could not take seriously Andre's arguments about being made a prisoner of war, subject to Arnold's orders. Historian James Flexner pointed out, "Had Andre been acting legally, he would have had no need for an assumed name. An officer is not obligated to obey an enemy's orders." Flexner also wrote, "Flags do not cover suborning of treason." However, a flag would have given the board a semblance of an excuse to avoid a judgment of espionage, which it would have preferred to do. Andre's conduct brought him respect and sympathy. However, the evidence was overwhelming and the decision of the board was unanimous:

Major Andre, Adjutant General of the British Army, ought to be considered a spy from the enemy, and that, agreeable to the law and usage of nations, it is their opinion he ought to suffer death.

The next day Washington confirmed the verdict and ordered that Andre's execution take place the following day.

Sir Henry Clinton, under a flag of truce, sent a delegation to present arguments that Andre was not a spy, thus giving Washington an excuse to delay the execution. The British produced another letter from Arnold in which he took all blame upon himself. There were veiled threats that if Andre were executed, there might be a retaliation against American prisoners of war.

Hints reached Clinton that Andre could be exchanged for Arnold. Although Clinton despised Arnold, and Andre was his favorite aide, he rejected the idea; as members of the same side could not be exchanged as if prisoners of opposing sides. Moreover, returning Arnold to Washington would hardly encourage further defections from the revolutionary cause.

Eventually all negotiations fell through. Washington again set an execution date for Andre. He rejected an appeal from Andre for a soldier's death by firing squad over what was considered the less honorable mode of execution "on the gibbet." In the 18th century, spies were always hanged. To deviate from this practice would have thrown doubt on Andre's guilt. If Andre was not a spy, then he was a prisoner of war and should not be executed at all.

Until he saw the gallows, Andre was unaware that Washington had denied his request. He blanched briefly. Asked if he had any last words, Andre requested that those present "bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man." He, himself, adjusted his noose and the handkerchief over his eyes. He supplied the handkerchief with which his arms were tied. Andre, in uniform, was hanged about noon. As he died, many of those watching wept.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Richard C. "Three Forgotten Heroes," American Heritage (August 1975): 25.

Flexner, James Thomas. The Traitor And The Spy. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1953.

Ford, Corey. A Peculiar Service. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1965.

Hatch, Robert McConnell and Don Higginbotham. Major John Andre. A Gallant in Spy's Clothing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.

Smith, Page. A New Age Now Begins, Vol. II. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.

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