Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/André, John

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ANDRÉ, JOHN (1751–1780), major in the British army, was the son of a Genevese merchant settled in London. He received his education at Geneva, and upon his return to England became intimately connected with Miss Seward and her literary coterie at Lichfield, where he conceived an attachment for Honora Sneyd, subsequently the second wife of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. His relinquishment of mercantile for military pursuits has been attributed to the disappointment of his passion for this lady, whose marriage, however, did not take place till two years after the date of his commission, 4 March 1771. He joined the British army in America, and in 1775 was taken prisoner at St. John's. Upon his release he became successively aide-de-camp to General Grey and to Sir Henry Clinton, who entertained so high an opinion of him as to make him adjutant-general, notwithstanding his youth and the short period of his service. This position unhappily brought him into connection with Benedict Arnold, who was plotting the betrayal of West Point to the British. As Clinton's chief confidant, André was entrusted with the management of the correspondence with Arnold, which was disguised under colour of a mercantile transaction, Arnold signing himself Gustavus, and André adopting the name of John Anderson. When the negotiations were sufficiently advanced (20 Sept. 1780), André proceeded up the Hudson River in the British sloop Vulture to hold a personal interview with Arnold. To avoid treatment as a spy, he wore his uniform, and professed to be aiming at an arrangement with respect to the sequestrated property of Colonel Beverley Robinson, an American loyalist. His letter to Arnold on the subject having been shown by the latter to Washington, the American generalissimo so strongly protested against any interview that Arnold was compelled to resort to a secret meeting, which took place on the night of 21 Sept. Arnold then delivered to André full particulars respecting the defences of West Point, and concerted with him the attack which the British were to make within a few days. Meanwhile the Vulture had been compelled by the fire of the American outposts to drop further down the river, and André's boatmen refused to row him back. He spent the day at the farmhouse of Joshua Smith, a tool, but probably not an accomplice, of Arnold's, and had no alternative but to disguise himself as a civilian, which, as he was within the American lines, brought him within the reach of military law as a spy. He started the following morning with a pass in the name of Anderson signed by Arnold, and under the guidance of Smith, who only left him when he seemed past all danger. By nine on the morning of the 23rd he was actually in sight of the British lines when he was seized by three American militiamen on the look-out for stragglers. Had he produced Arnold's pass, he would have been allowed to proceed, but he unfortunately asked his captors whether they were British, and, misunderstanding their reply, disclosed his character. He was immediately searched, and the compromising papers were found in his boots. Refusing the large bribes he offered for his release, the militiamen carried him before Colonel Jameson, the commander of the outposts, who had actually sent him with the papers to Arnold, when, at the instance of Captain Talmadge, André was fetched back, and the documents forwarded to Washington. Jameson, however, reported his capture to Arnold, and the news came just in time to enable the latter to escape to the British lines. André acknowledged his name and the character of his mission in a letter addressed to Washington on 24 Sept., in which he declared: ‘Against my stipulation, my intention, and without my knowledge beforehand, I was conducted within one of your posts.’ On 29 Sept. he was brought before a military board convoked by Washington, which included Lafayette and other distinguished officers. The board found, as it could not possibly avoid finding, that André had acted in the character of a spy. He was therefore sentenced to execution by hanging. Every possible effort was ineffectually made by the British commander to save him, short of delivering up Arnold, which of course could not be contemplated. Washington has been unreasonably censured for not having granted him a more honourable death. To have done so would have implied a doubt as to the justice of his conviction. André was executed on 2 Oct., meeting his fate with a serenity which extorted the warmest admiration of the American officers, to whom, even during the short period of his captivity, he had greatly endeared himself. A sadder tragedy was never enacted, but it was inevitable, and no reproach rests upon any person concerned except Arnold. Washington and André, indeed, deserve equal honour: André for having accepted a terrible risk for his country and borne the consequences of failure with unshrinking courage; and Washington for having performed his duty to his own country at a great sacrifice of his feelings.

André's countrymen made haste to do him honour. The British army went into mourning for him. A monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, and in 1821 his remains were transferred to the spot. His early friend Miss Seward published a monody on his fate, not devoid of poetical merit, and containing some valuable biographical particulars in the notes. To the charm of his character and manners there is a unanimous testimony, confirmed by every recorded trait and everything we have from his pen. His military promise must have been great to have justified such rapid promotion. He possessed considerable literary ability: the style of his letters is exceedingly good, and he left a satirical poem, ‘The Cow Chace’ (New York, 1780), in which the marauding exploits of the American general Wayne are ridiculed with much spirit. A pen-and-ink portrait by himself, sketched on the morning originally appointed for his execution, attests both his talent as an artist and his firmness of mind. It is engraved in Sparks's ‘Life of Arnold’ and in ‘Andreana,’ in which collection there are three other portraits. The original of the sketch is at Yale College.

[The fullest authority for André's life is the biography by Winthrop Sargent (Philadelphia, 1862), of which, however, only 75 copies were printed. Mr. Sargent has been somewhat more liberal with his ‘Andreana,’ a collection of documents relating to André's trial, of which he has printed no less than 100 copies. See also Benson's Vindication of the Captors of Major André (1817, and reprinted in 1865); and Joshua H. Smith's Narrative of the Causes which led to the Death of Major André (London, 1808); Miss Seward's Monody, with the notes; the lives of Benedict Arnold by Jared Sparks and Isaac T. Arnold; and the various biographers of Washington and historians of the American war.]

R. G.