“Major Andre's Capture”


The young gentleman, John Paulding, escapes from a British prison and helps capture Major Andre. American general Benedict Arnold escapes and leaves Andre to be executed. "And every one wished Andre clear, and Arnold in his stead."


The story of Benedict Arnold and John Andre perhaps demonstrates why the American Revolution lasted so long: Neither side could really get its armed forces organized or find good officers to put in charge. In the case of Arnold, that very nearly cost the Americans deeply.

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was one of the best American officers of the Revolutionary War; he was the key figure, e.g., in the first great battle of the war, at Saratoga (Ketchum, p. 404, reports that he "managed to be everywhere when needed" and lists him first among those responsible for the victory. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note).

What he didn't have was political clout. A bullet in the knee during the attack on Quebec had lamed him (Marrin, p. 80), which should have made him a hero -- but his victories were never properly recognized in Congress, and there were questions about his financial dealings (Lancaster, p. 243; Ferguson, pp. 217-218; Marrin, p. 228, describes how easily he fell into debt once he left field command, and Weintraub, p. 206, says he actually faced a court-martial, though he didn't suffer any real punishment). After being passed over for promotion too many times (allegedly on the grounds that his state of Connecticut had too many generals already; Weintraub, p. 206), he turned to the British. (There may have been more to it than that; Cook, p. 328, writes of how he was making profit off the black market as early as 1778, and in 1779 he married as his second wife Peggy Shippen, who was half his age and came from a family with Tory sympathies.) Within weeks of his wedding, he was making covert contacts with the British (Marrin, pp. 228-229) -- though he wanted a high price (10,000 pounds!) for his betrayal. This initial proposal was rejected.

Meanwhile, the British had their eyes on West Point. The Saratoga offensive had been intended to slice the northern colonies in two, but had failed. But they could achieve much the same end by capturing West Point, a narrow point in the Hudson River valley. If it were in British hands, they would be able to control the whole Hudson, and prevent contact between New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies (Marrin, p. 229). West Point was perhaps the most strategic point in the whole state of New York.

In 1780, Benedict Arnold asked George Washington to give him control of the West Point fortifications. Washington didn't want to waste Arnold on a post where so little action was expected.He would have preferred to give Arnold charge of his left wing -- an important field command. But Arnold had a pretty good argument: His lame knee had been hit again at Saratoga (Lancaster, p. 221; Marrin, p. 140; Ketchum, p. 403 tells how, after being hit, his horse went down and his leg was broken), and he simply wasn't the same physically. He claimed that field command was too strenuous (Marrin, p. 230).

I've read that he asked for command of West Point under British orders (e.g. Marrin, p. 229), but Cook implies that he had not yet gone over to the British. The other possibility is that he was toying with the British, giving them a certain about of information but not really doing anything to support their cause (this seems to be the situation described on p. 207 of Weintraub). The only thing that is sure is that he would be serving the British soon -- and being called upon to do more than just release a little stale intelligence. If he wanted a traitor's fee, he had to do something that would really help win the war. In short, he had to work out a deal. Which meant talking to John Andre.

Andre (1751-1780) was, according to Marrin,p. 227, "a remarkable person... [H]e was a gentle, lovable man who wrote poetry and enjoyed putting on plays for brother officers. Always cheerful and polite, he had a way of making others want to be his friend." Washington Irving wrote of him "The character, appearance, deportment, and fortunes of Andre had interested the feelings of the oldest and sternest soldiers around him, and completely captivated the sympathies of the younger ones.... Never has any many, suffering under like circumstances, awakened a more universal sympathy even among those of the country against which he practiced" (Walsh, p. 4).

Even George Washington, who had him executed, later said, "He was more unfortunate than criminal, and there was much in his character to interest, while we yielded to the necessity of rigor, we could not but lament it" (Walsh, p. 6). Yet Walsh, on the very same page, notes pointely that "he made a blundering failure of his supremely important mission" and calls it "an incredibly inept performance." And he declares, on p. 7, that Andre was "Not at all the open, accomodating personality he seemed, he was as I see it one of the most calculating of individuals, keenly aware of his peculiar power to impress and fascinate."

Andre was eventually appointed the adjutant of the British commander Henry Clinton, and as such acted as British intelligence chief -- which in turn made him the liason with Arnold.

Arnold by this time was working to weaken the West Point defences (Marrin, p. 230), but the British would need a plan of the fortifications and other details if they were to take adcantage of these weaknesses. (According to Walsh, p. 72, the British even hoped to capture George Washington, which would make the blow doubly severe.) To this point, Arnold had been using a go-between by the name of Joseph Stansbury (Weintraub, pp. 206-207), who helped furnish Arnold's lodgings. But this information could hardly be sent by coded letter. Arnold was using what is called a "book code," which forced him to dig through a volume looking for a code for each word. It took forever (Kippenhahn, pp. 45-46, says that Arnold eventually switched to a dictionary, which made things a little faster, but still too slow -- and not especially secure). For a long description, with drawings, that sort of manual encoding was simply impossible. Someone had to physically collect the plans. Andre was the logical candidate. (Walsh, p. 73, says that Andre was under orders not to carry any papers. It?s hard to imagine how anyone could have considered this a viable idea.)

On September 20, 1780, the British ship _Vulture_ dropped Andre off for a meeting with Arnold. Andre was in uniform at this time (Walsh, p. 26). But they didn't just exchange plans; they also talked until four in the morning (Cook, p. 329). Caught in the fire of American guns, the _Vulture_ slipped a short distance downstream, leaving Andre behind (Walsh, pp. 79-81, who adds that the ship suffered some minor damage but no casualties). It left Andre behind, what's more, with the tide going against him; rowing to the ship was out of the question (Walsh, pp, 74-75). The ship in fact didn't go far, but apparently far enough to be out of sight from where Andre and Arnold were meeting (Walsh, p. 82). Walsh also reports (though I supect it is only his conjecture) that Arnold expected a tightening of security, making it impossible for Andre to simply go back to the ship (p. 85). Plus George Washington was in the vicinity, so everyone was especially vigilant,

Andre was close to neutral ground, but either he or Arnold apparently decided he had no choice but to return to the British lines on land, through the American positions. A British sympathizer outfitted him with civilian clothes, and Arnold gave him a pass with a false name (Walsh, pp. 32, 85; he quotes the passes, with the name "John Anderson," on pp. 87-88). It was at this point that Andre became, formally, a spy. Worse, he was an ignorant spy; he needed a guide (Walsh, p. 90), and the guide chose a long and, as it turned out, dangerous route. They were soon stopped by a patrol, and ended up making an unexpected stop for the night (Walsh, pp. 94-95). When they set out the next morning, they were again stopped, though they were allowed to proceed soon after. Later, they encountered an American officer who actually knew Andre's appearance (Walsh, p. 96), but managed to slip by him. Finally Andre left the guide behind and set out on the last leg of his journey. It was then that he was caught.

Sergeant John Paulding (1758-1818) was almost as romantic a figure as Andre; twice captured by the British, he had twice escaped to return to his regiment (Walsh, pp. 99-100, tells how, in his latest escape, he had pretended to be a British soldier and stolen a rowboat to get away. Thus Paulding, we note, was guilty of the very crime for which Andre was hung -- more guilty than Andre, in fact, since Andre was merely out of uniform but Paulding wore a Hessian uniform coat). A force led by Paulding found Andre, seemingly by accident, and captured him with the plans to West Point in his boots. (Walsh, p. 30, says they were actually inside his stockings. One wonders what sort of state they were in by the time the authorities saw them.)

According to Marrin, p. 231, the men who captured Andre were robbers as well as militia; this seems to have been based on Andre's own statement that they probably would have let him go had they found any money (so Walsh, p. 37, while noting that Paulding denied it). But Andre had no cash to give them, so they searched him closely and found the plans. Andre, it should be noted, was taken on "neutral ground," between the lines, so it was formally proper for him to be out of uniform (Walsh, pp. 40-41). Possessing the papers was another matter.

Unfortunately, the papers did not reveal Arnold as the traitor. Lt. Colonel John Jameson, into whose command Andre fell, sent a message to Arnold describing Andre's capture (Cook, p. 330). Arnold managed to flee and make it to the _Vulture_ (Marrin, p. 232). Still, with Arnold gone, the West Point plans safe in American hands, and the whole plot revealed, the fortifications were safe.

Andre was captured September 23. Once he realized his predicament, made no secret of his situation; he seems to have hoped for leniency. He was tried before a court of six major generals and eight brigadiers (Walsh, p. 17, but don't take that as too impressive -- the Colonial Congress made far too many generals; those 14 officers would have been majors and colonels in a proper army -- assuming they were promoted that far; many were not worthy of the rank). Walsh, p. 46, says that Washington wanted the Court Martial to return a verdict quickly. So the trial was very speedy; neither side called witnesses, and Andre had no lawyer or counsel. Andre was tried and convicted as a spy on September 29. All 14 judges signed the paper recommending death (Walsh, p. 48). Washington approve the order and scheduled Andre to be executed at once (Walsh, p. 54) -- though he delayed the sentence for a day during negotiations with the British.

General Clinton tried to have Andre's execution postponed. But the American rebels wanted blood, and were not very courteous anyway (note, e.g., their refusal to parole the British soldiers after Saratoga). Walsh, pp. 55-57, described what amounts to mutual blackmail concealed as a prisoner exchange: Clinton threatened American prisoners, and the Americans would accept no less a prize than the betrayal of Arnold. Neither side would give in on the crucial point, and so Andre went to the gallows on October 2; he was denied a firing squad (Cook, p. 331).

The ballad's praise of Andre and dislike of Arnold seems to reflect widespread opinion. Even the men who condemned and hanged Andre respected him; one called him his brother; Lancaster reports (p. 248) that "Unnumbered Americans" felt deeply about his execution. Lafayette, one of the men who condemned him, called him a "charming man" and said he deeply regretted the sentence (Walsh, p. 61). George III gave his mother and sisters pensions, and made his brother a baronet. Arnold, by contrast, was hated in America and despised in Britain.

By contrast, it was Arnold's incompetence which had caused the whole thing to fail: He talked too long, and he refused to make sure Andre made it home. Had it not been for his failures, the capture of West Point would have gone off as planned.

Despite his failure, Arnold was well rewarded for his treachery: a British brigadier's commission, six thousand pounds in cash, pensions for his family, and land in Canada (Marrin, p. 234). Walsh, p. 73, say that the offer made to him was for six thousand pounds in cash, plus a brigadier's commission, with the total payout rising to twenty pounds if West Point fell -- and that Arnold held out for at least ten thousand pounds, even if things fell through. Andre supposedly agreed during their conference -- but since Clinton never approved Andre's deal, Arnold was paid only the previously promised six thousand.

Arnold proved unable to use the rewards of his treachery; troops refused to serve under him, and in the end he lost most of his ill-gotten gains in bad business deals (Marrin, p.236).

Walsh does consistently try to change the image of Andre, painting him as a manipulative schemer who lied, e.g., about the girl he claimed to be in love with (Walsh, p. 60), and accuses him of briefly losing his composure upon being sentenced to death (p. 61. One wonders what Walsh would do is suc a situation). He credits Andre's ability to make a good sketch of himself to the major's repeated use of himself as a subject (p. 62). It really does seem to be the picture of a man grasping at straws to find a reason to condemn Andre.

This was, incidentally, one of the last major events of the American Revolution in the north. The British navy at this time was at a rather low ebb; you would never know that it was the fleet that, 25 years later, would win Trafalgar. Despite their theoretical naval superiority, the British were in effect fighting two wars, one from New York and one from Charleston. And, by this time, most of the effort was going into Charleston. Had Arnold's treachery succeeded, the war in the north might have heated up again -- but Arnold failed.

Spaeth (_A History of Popular Music in America_, p. 24) refers to a song called "Sergeant Champe" which has this precise plot, and which was published in 1780 to the tune of "Barbara Allen," but I have never encountered his title in tradition.


Cook: Don Cook, _The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American colonies 1760-1785_, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995

Ferguson: E. James Ferguson, _The American Revolution: A General History 1763-1790_, revised edition, Dorsey Press, 1979

Ketchum: Richard M. Ketchum, _Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War_, Henry Holt, 1997

Kippenhahn: Rudolph Kippenhahn, _Code Breaking: A History and Exploration_, English translation/adaption by Kippenhahn and Ewald Osers, Overlook Press, 1999

Lancaster: Bruce Lancaster (with a chapter by J. H. Plumb), _The American Revolution_ (originally published as _The American Heritage Book of the Revolution_, 1971), Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Marrin: Albert Marrin, _The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution_, Athenaeum, 1988

Walsh: John Evangelist Walsh, _The Execution of Major Andre_, Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2001

Weintraub: Stanley Weintraub, _Iron Tears: Amerca's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783_, Free Press, 2005 - RBW

Historical references

  • Oct 2, 1780 - Execution of Major Andre


  1. Laws A2, "Major Andre's Capture"
  2. Eddy 114, "Major Andrews' Execution" (1 text)
  3. Scott-BoA, pp. 84-86, "The Ballad of Major Andre" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Roud #798
  6. BI, LA02


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1817 (New American Songster)
Found in: US(MA,MW)