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Major John Andre Trial: 1780

Andre's Capture, Andre's Trial, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Major John Andre
Crime Charged: Espionage
Board of Enquiry: 14 generals of George Washington's staff headed by Major General Nathanael Greene.
Place: Tappan, New York
Date of Trial: September 29, 1780
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: Major John Andre's trial for espionage sent shock waves through the American colonies by revealing the depth of a treason plot by General Benedict Arnold to hand over the American stronghold at West Point to the British. Had Andre not been captured and the conspiracy foiled, the American Revolution might well have been crushed.

On October 2, 1780, Major John Andre, a British officer, was hanged for espionage. His executioners would have preferred to hang the man with whom Andre consorted: the traitor, General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was a talented field commander and one of that circle of men who were surrogate sons to General George Washington. Yet he was adept at making enemies. Appointed by Washington to command military forces in Philadelphia while he recovered from war wounds, Arnold's relentless ambition and greed eventually led to complaints to Congress that he was abusing his powers. Documents would later surface indicating Arnold was much more dishonest than local authorities ever suspected—documents unavailable when they lodged their complaints. After a list of eight charges wound its way first through Congress and then a haphazard court-martial (it was interrupted by wartime events), it was decided enough evidence existed to uphold two of the accusations. Arnold was found guilty of having used public wagons for private purposes and of having improperly issued a pass allowing a ship, the Channing Nancy, to leave port when all other vessels were quarantined. Arnold was sentenced to "receive a reprimand" from General Washington.

Arnold himself had asked—or more accurately, maneuvered—for a trial. "I ask only for justice," he wrote to Washington, complaining of his countrymen's treatment of him after all his sacrifices. He added, "I wish your Excellency for your long and eminent services, may not be paid in the same coin."

But, in the fall of 1779, at the same time he was trying to enlist Washington's help, Arnold opened a secret correspondence with Major John Andre, head of British intelligence. Arnold offered to either immediately enlist or "cooperate on some concealed plan with Sir Henry Clinton." Arnold sought at least 10,000 pounds for his "services." Negotiations were protracted and at one point the correspondence lapsed.

Eventually the persistent Arnold obtained command of the fort at West Point, on the Hudson River in New York, and the surrounding area. He agreed to deliver West Point to Clinton for the extraordinary sum of 20,000 pounds if the venture were completely successful and 10,000 pounds if it were not.

To plan the details of the surrender, Arnold and Andre wanted a meeting. Clinton reluctantly agreed but ordered that Andre: not go behind enemy lines; not carry any compromising papers; and never wear a disguise—he was to remain in uniform. If he were to be captured, this would protect Andre from any charge of spying (and execution).

On September 20, 1780, Joshua Smith, a loyalist friend of Arnold's, fetched Andre from the H.M.S. Vulture. The terms of the passes Smith carried allowed only one man to come. Thus, Colonel Beverly Robinson, who was to accompany Andre, was left behind.

Rather than going to Smith's house as originally planned, Andre and Arnold met six miles up river, at the foot of Long Clove Mountain. A British contingent was to attack West Point. The moves of the opposing forces had to be plotted in advance. Each order Arnold gave to his men had to appear reasonable at the time, yet still lead ultimately to the loss of the fort.

The two farmers who had been pressed into rowing the boat that had brought Andre, refused to take him back when he and Arnold were finished. As daylight broke, Arnold and Andre, his uniform covered by a cloak, rode to Smith's home on the Hudson River within sight of the Vulture. They passed an American sentry, which placed Andre behind American lines.

Several hours later, any hope of slipping Andre back aboard ship was blasted away by an American colonel at nearby Dobbs Ferry. Colonel James Livingston, with a small artillery battery, peppered the frigate, damaging her hull and driving her two miles away.

The simplest and safest action for Andre to have taken would have been to ride out in uniform carrying a flag of truce. Such actions were common as both sides made attempts to negotiate the exchange of prisoners. But Andre, a romantic who enjoyed amateur theatrics, yielded to Smith's insistence that he switch to civilian attire. Worse still, Andre carried a map and other incriminating documents, the contents of which he could have memorized.

Before leaving for West Point, Arnold wrote out three passes, one of which allowed Smith to transport Andre across the Hudson. But Smith was unwilling to venture again upon the water. Instead, the two rode toward White Plains. A day and a half later, as Andre entered a no-man's-land area, Smith left him.

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