Biography of Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold's 'Handler'

John Andre at the time of his capture, 1780
Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major John Andre (May 2, 1750–Oct. 2, 1780) was a British intelligence officer during the American Revolution. In 1779, he assumed oversight of secret intelligence for the British army and opened contact with American traitor Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. Andre was later captured, convicted, and hanged as a spy.

Fast Facts: Major John Andre

  • Known For: Handler for infamous American traitor Major General Benedict Arnold
  • Born: May 2, 1750 in London, England
  • Parents: Antione Andre, Marie Louise Girardot
  • Died: Oct. 2, 1780 in Tappan, New York
  • Notable Quote: "As I suffer in the defense of my country, I must consider this hour as the most glorious of my life."

Early Life and Education

John Andre was born May 2, 1750, in London, England, the son of Huguenot parents. His father Antione was a Swiss-born merchant, while his mother Marie Louise hailed from Paris. Though initially educated in Britain, he was later sent to Geneva for schooling. A strong student, he was known for his charisma, skill at languages, and artistic ability.

Returning to England in 1767, he was intrigued by the military but lacked the means to purchase a commission in the army. Two years later, he had to enter business following his father's death. During this period, Andre met Honora Sneyd through his friend Anna Seward. They became engaged but delayed a wedding until he had built his fortune. Over time, their feelings cooled and the engagement was terminated.

Having accumulated some money, Andre revisited his desire for an army career. In 1771, he purchased a lieutenant's commission and was sent to the University of Göttingen in Germany to study military engineering. After two years, he was ordered to join the 23rd Regiment of Foot (Welsh Regiment of Fusiliers).

American Revolution

Andre reached Philadelphia and moved north via Boston to his unit in Canada. With the April 1775 outbreak of the American Revolution, Andre's regiment moved south to occupy Fort Saint-Jean in Quebec province. In September, the fort was attacked by American forces under Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery.

After a 45-day siege, the garrison surrendered. Andre was captured and sent south to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he lived with the family of Caleb Cope in a loose house arrest until freed in a prisoner exchange in late 1776.

Rapid Rise

During his time with the Copes, he gave art lessons and compiled a memoir regarding his experiences in the Colonies. Upon his release, he presented this memoir to Gen. Sir William Howe, commander of British forces in North America. Impressed by the young officer, Howe promoted him to captain on Jan. 18, 1777, and recommended him as an aide to Maj. Gen. Charles Grey. He saw service with Grey at the Battle of Brandywine, Paoli Massacre, and Battle of Germantown.

That winter, as the American army endured hardships at Valley Forge, Andre enjoyed the British occupation of Philadelphia. Living in Benjamin Franklin's house, which he later looted, he was a favorite of the city's Loyalist families and entertained numerous ladies, including Peggy Shippen. In May 1778, he planned an elaborate party for Howe before his return to Britain. That summer, the new commander, Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, abandoned Philadelphia and returned to New York. Moving with the army, Andre participated in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28.

New Role

After raids in New Jersey and Massachusetts later that year, Grey returned to Britain. Because of his conduct, Andre was promoted to major and made adjutant-general of the British Army in America, reporting to Clinton. In April 1779, his portfolio was expanded to include overseeing the British intelligence network in North America. A month later, Andre received word from American Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold that he wished to defect.

Arnold had married Shippen, who used her prior relationship with Andre to open communication. A secret correspondence ensued in which Arnold asked for equal rank and pay in the British Army in exchange for his loyalty. While he negotiated with Andre and Clinton regarding compensation, Arnold provided a variety of intelligence. That fall, communications broke off when the British balked at Arnold's demands. Sailing south with Clinton late that year, Andre took part in the operations against Charleston, South Carolina, in early 1780.

Returning to New York that spring, Andre resumed contact with Arnold, who was to take command of the fortress at West Point in August. They began corresponding regarding a price for Arnold's defection and the surrender of West Point to the British. On Sept. 20, Andre sailed up the Hudson River aboard HMS Vulture to meet with Arnold.

Concerned about his aide's safety, Clinton instructed Andre to remain vigilant and in uniform at all times. Reaching the rendezvous point, Andre slipped ashore on the night of Sept. 21 and met Arnold in the woods near Stony Point, New York. Arnold took Andre to the house of Joshua Hett Smith to complete the deal. Talking through the night, Arnold agreed to sell his loyalty and West Point for 20,000 pounds.

Trapped

Dawn arrived before the deal was completed and American troops fired on the Vulture, forcing it to retreat down the river. Trapped behind American lines, Andre had to return to New York by land. He expressed concern about taking this route to Arnold, who provided Andre with civilian clothes and a pass for getting through American lines. He also gave Andre papers detailing West Point's defenses.

Smith was to accompany him for most of the journey. Using the name "John Anderson," Andre rode south with Smith. They encountered little difficulty through the day, though Andre decided that wearing his British uniform was dangerous and donned the civilian clothes. 

Captured

That evening, Andre and Smith encountered a detachment of New York militia, who implored the two to spend the evening with them. Though Andre wanted to press on, Smith felt it prudent to accept the offer. Continuing their ride the next morning, Smith left Andre at the Croton River. Entering neutral territory between the two armies, Andre felt comfortable until around 9 a.m., when he was stopped near Tarrytown, New York, by three American militiamen.

Questioned by John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, Andre was tricked into revealing that he was a British officer. After being arrested, he denied the charge and offered Arnold's pass. But the militiamen searched him and found in his stocking the West Point papers. Attempts to bribe the men failed. He was taken to North Castle, New York, where he was presented to Lt. Col. John Jameson. Failing to grasp the situation, Jameson reported Andre's capture to Arnold.

Jameson was blocked from sending Andre north by American intelligence chief Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, who ordered him held and forwarded the captured documents to Gen. George Washington, who was en route to West Point from Connecticut. Taken to American headquarters at Tappan, New York, Andre was imprisoned in a local tavern. The arrival of Jameson's letter tipped Arnold that he had been compromised and allowed him to escape capture shortly before Washington's arrival and join the British.

Trial and Death

Having been captured behind the lines under a false name wearing civilian clothes, Andre was immediately considered a spy. Tallmadge, a friend of executed American spy Nathan Hale, informed Andre that he expected he would hang. Held in Tappan, Andre was exceptionally polite and charmed many Continental officers including the Marquis de Lafayette and Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton.

Though the rules of war would have allowed for Andre's immediate execution, Washington moved deliberately as he investigated the scope of Arnold's betrayal. To try Andre, he convened a board of officers headed by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene with notables such as Lafayette, Lord Stirling, Brig. Gen. Henry Knox, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, and Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair.

At trial, Andre claimed that he had been unwillingly trapped behind American lines and as a prisoner of war was entitled to attempt escape in civilian clothes. These arguments were dismissed. On Sept. 29, he was found guilty of being a spy behind American lines "under a feigned name and in a disguised habit" and sentenced to hang.

Though he wished to save his favorite aide, Clinton was unwilling to meet Washington's demand to release Arnold in exchange. Andre was hanged on Oct. 2, 1780. His body, initially buried under the gallows, was re-interred in 1821 in London's Westminster Abbey at the Duke of York's behest.

Legacy

For many, even on the American side, Andre left a legacy of honor. Although his request for execution by firing squad considered a more honorable death than hanging, was rejected, according to lore he placed the noose around his own neck. Americans were taken by his charm and intellect. Washington referred to him as being "more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man, and a gallant officer." Hamilton wrote, “Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less."

Across the Atlantic, Andre's monument in Westminster Abby bears a mourning figure of Britannia that is inscribed, in part, to a man "universally Beloved and esteemed by the Army in which he served and lamented even by his FOES."

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