Thursday, June 27, 2013

Featured Manuscript: Major André Series (Anna Seward Poem)

Just three days prior to his execution by the Continental Army on October 2, 1780, Major John André, adjutant-general of the British Army in America, penned a letter to his commanding officer, Sir Henry Clinton.  With his death impending, André had accepted his fate.  He confided to Clinton, “I am perfectly tranquil in mind, and prepared for any fate, to which an honest zeal for my King’s service may have devoted me.”[1]  André’s letter is one of several documents that comprise a pamphlet produced in 1780, which outlines the major’s capture and subsequent execution as a spy.  In fact, this valuable resource is just one of many addressing Major André which can be found here in Morristown NHP’s very own Lloyd W. Smith collection.  

Andre to Clinton. Highlighted text reads,
“I am perfectly tranquil in mind, and prepared for any fate, to which
an honest zeal for my King’s service may have devoted me.”

Having risen steadily through the ranks of the British Army, André seemed destined to enjoy an illustrious military career, yet the young major’s life was cut short by a series of events which transpired in the autumn of 1780.  In the months before his death, André had consistently corresponded with the notorious Benedict Arnold.  Like the rest of the British high command, André recognized that General Arnold’s willingness to abandon the American cause could derail the momentum of the Revolution.  In 1780, Arnold accepted the command of the important fortifications at West Point and before Arnold would be allowed to accept a commission within the British Army, the treasonous general would be required to turn over the post.  Eager to finalize the arrangements with Arnold, André agreed to join the general for a meeting along the banks of the Hudson in late September, 1780.  The general was promised the pay and commission he desired, but Arnold’s plan to betray the Americans hinged on André’s successful return to the British lines.  However, André would never see the British lines again; he was captured by three American militiamen just north of Tarrytown, New York, and within a week he was executed as a spy.[2]
            Much debate surrounded André’s execution.  Having missed his opportunity to rendezvous with a British warship that would carry him back down the Hudson River to safety, André decided to conceal his true identity during his cross-country journey by changing out of his regimental uniform and into civilian attire.  He carried with him important military maps and documents given to him by General Arnold, from which the British could gather valuable intelligence.  Therefore, following his capture, General George Washington summoned a military tribunal, which decided that André “ought to be considered as a spy from the enemy, and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations . . . he ought to suffer death.”[3]  Both Americans and British questioned the legitimacy of André’s sentence.  Was Major André truly a spy or should he have been regarded as a prisoner of war?  Should he have been executed by the Continental Army under Washington or would a different sentence have been more just? 
Many reactions to André’s death were penned in both America and Britain, but one of the most fascinating accounts can be found in the collection here at the Morristown NHP.  Produced by the aspiring English poet Anna Seward, the “Monody on Major André” suggests the executed officer was a victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances.  Dozens of pages long, Seward’s poem expresses her grief at having learned of André’s death.  Seward wrote, “Lamented Youth!  While with inverted spear / The British Legions pour th’ indignant tear! / Round the dropt arm the funeral-scarf entwine / And in their hearts deep core thy worth enshrine.”[4]  Seward, whom André had known prior to his military service, described the major as a martyr for the British cause.  She exclaimed, “Bright as the silver Star that leads the Day! / His modest temperance, his wakeful heed / His silent diligence, his ardent speed / Each warrior-duty to the Veteran taught / Shaming the vain Experience Time had Brought!”[5] 

Seward’s “Monody on Major André” assigned the blame for André’s death to General Washington.  “Oh Washington!  I thought thee great and good / Nor knew thy Nero-thirst of guiltless blood! / Severe to use the pow’r that fortune gave / Thou cool determin’d Murderer of the Brave!”  In Seward’s opinion, Washington had the power and authority to save André’s life.  Viewed by many on both sides of the conflict to be a gentleman and an exemplary officer, André’s pardon never came.  On the contrary, Washington was intent on executing André.  Seward remarked, “Remorseless Washington!  The day shall come / Of deep repentance for this barb’rous doom! / When injur’d André’s memory shall inspire / A kindling Army with resistless fire.”[6]  Seward’s forceful verse implied that Washington would likely come to regret his decision as it would inspire a backlash that would crush the Revolution.  Seward believed the British would rally around the memory of their fallen martyr to avenge his death and restore order to their North American colonies. 
            This was a sentiment shared by many, including Benedict Arnold.  In a letter to General Washington dated October 1, 1780, Arnold argued that André should be released.  The treasonous general took responsibility for the drama which had unfolded along the banks of the Hudson and suggested that he had forced André to cross the American lines and carry military documents against his will.  Arnold wrote, “As commanding officer in the department, I had an undoubted right to transact all these matters; which, if wrong, Major André ought by no means to suffer for them.”  Like Seward, Arnold suggested to Washington that if André was killed, the consequences would be calamitous.  Arnold wrote, “I call heaven and earth to witness, that your Excellency will be justly answerable for the torment of blood that may be spilt in consequence.”[7]  The threatening language employed by both Arnold and Seward implies that Washington should not have allowed André to be executed.   Yet it can also be said that Washington had been left with little choice.  Since Arnold’s actions had jeopardized the American cause and created an atmosphere of suspicion, Washington had to reassert his authority and the vitality of the Revolution to avoid any further treason.  As historian Richard C. Brown noted, “The situation demanded a sacrifice – someone had to be punished and with Arnold gone André was the logical victim.”[8]  The American cause was foundering and any display of weakness on the part of Washington may have doomed the Revolution to failure. 

Although André acknowledged that he had made several significant mistakes, including coming within the territory of the enemy army, changing his clothing, and taking a treacherous route back to the British lines, he asked that Washington grant him the death of a soldier rather than that of a spy.  According to standard military procedure, individuals found guilty of espionage were sentenced to death by hanging.  André believed this mode of execution was dishonorable for an officer and gentlemen, so he desired to be shot.  On the day before his death, André wrote to Washington: “Sympathy towards a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adopt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour.”  André elaborated, “Let me hope, Sir, that if ought in my character impresses you with esteem towards me, if ought in my misfortunes marks me as the victim of policy and not of resentment, I shall experience the operation of these feelings in your breast, by being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.”[9] This was a request which Washington denied since granting such a request would undermine his firmness.  Allowing André to be shot would potentially cast doubt over his guilt, thus further exacerbating the atmosphere of suspicion which had consumed the Continental Army.  According to Brown, Washington possessed a firm grasp on the “principles of mass psychology.”[10]  To restore order and discipline to his army, an example had to be made.  A lack of leniency on the part of Washington helped to confirm André’s significance as both a principle figure in one of our nation’s most well-known incidents of treason as well as the American Revolution in general.


[1] Letter from John André to Sir Henry Clinton, 29 September 1780, in Proceedings of a Board of General Officers, Held By Order of His Excellency General Washington, Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States of America Respecting Major John André Adjutant General of the British Army, (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1780), 14-15.
[2] For a more comprehensive discussion of André’s life, capture, and execution, see Robert McConnell Hatch, Major John André: A Gallant in Spy’s Clothing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986) and James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1953).
[3] Nathanael Greene, et al., “Board Report,” in Proceedings of a Board of General Officers, 13.
[4] Anna Seward, “Monody on Major André” (Lichfield: J. Jackson, 1781), 27.
[5] Ibid., 18.
[6] Ibid., 25.
[7] Letter from Benedict Arnold to George Washington, 1 October 1780, in Proceedings of a Board of General Officers, 19-20.
[8] Richard C. Brown, “How Washington Dealt with the Crisis of 1780,” The History Teacher, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Nov. 1971), 48.
[9] Letter from John André to George Washington, 1 October 1780, in Proceedings of a Board of General Officer, 21.
[10] Brown, “How Washington Dealt with the Crisis of 1780,” 44.

Self-Portrait of Andre sketched the eve of his execution 1780, via Wikicommons. Yale University Gallery.

This blog entry by Michael King, Drew University. Read more about Michael here.

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