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Print: "The Unfortunate Death of Major Andre" (1783)

"The Unfortunate Death of Major Andre" (1783)

This image serves as a somewhat gruesome reminder of the fate that awaits the unfortunate spy who is caught in action. The man seen hanging here is British Major John Andre, who was captured and hanged as a spy during the American Revolution. Why, then, is there a monument in New York in his honor, bearing the following inscription?

"He was more unfortunate than criminal,
An accomplished man and a gallant officer."
—George Washington

In 1779, Andre was put in charge of the British Secret Intelligence. In this role he negotiated with American traitor Benedict Arnold. It was this alliance that ultimately led to Andre's downfall. Arnold regularly delivered key information about West Point's weaknesses to British General Henry Clinton by meeting Andre on the banks of the Hudson River. In September of 1780, Andre was sent on a secret mission to negotiate the surrender of West Point to the British. However, through a series of mishaps, Andre was captured behind enemy lines, wearing civilian clothing.

This presented a dilemma for George Washington. Congress had made it clear that spies would be hanged. The following is an announcement found in the Virginia Gazette dated October 18, 1776.

In CONGRESS, August 21, 1776.

RESOLVED, that all persons not members of, or owing allegiance to, any of the United States of America, as described in a resolution of Congress of the 24th of June last, who shall be found lurking as spies in or about the fortifications or encampments of the armies of the United States, or any of them, shall suffer death, according to the law and usage of nations, by sentence of a court-martial, or such other punishment as such court-martial shall direct.

By order of the Congress.
John Hancock, president.

The British, however, believed that the Americans would not dare execute a British Adjunct General as there was a trust between sides that generals would be taken as prisoners and not executed. Washington asked for the Court of Inquiry to study the incident and decide whether Andre was acting as a spy. The verdict was decided that Andre was, in fact, acting as a spy by going behind enemy lines and disguising his uniform.

All the men on both sides were amazed at the turn of events. The American men admired Andre for his gallantry, the British for his leadership. Andre sent a plea to Washington, not asking that his life be spared, but that he be shot ("a gentleman's death") rather than be hanged. Most Americans believed that Benedict Arnold should have been the one to die because of his treason. Andre was just in the proverbial "wrong place at the wrong time." Washington even communicated to General Clinton that he would trade Andre for Arnold so Arnold could be hanged instead, but such an exchange did not take place. Andre, age 31, was hanged as a spy at Tappan, New York on October 2, 1780, mourned even by his enemies.

A song called "The Ballad of Major Andre" was found in a copybook in New York in 1822. The excerpt below demonstrates the admiration and sympathy Americans felt for this British soldier.

Now Arnold to New York has gone,
A-fighting for his King,
And left poor Major Andre
On the gallows for to swing.

Andre was executed,
He looked both meek and mile,
His face was fair and handsome,
And pleasantly he smiled.
It moved each eye with pity,
And every heart there bled,
And everyone wished him released
And Arnold in his stead.

He was a man of honor!
In Britain he was born,
To die upon the gallows
Most highly he did scorn.
And now his life has reached its end
So young and blooming still—
In Tappan's quiet countryside
He sleeps upon the hill.

Andre became a hero in England as well. After the war, a monument was erected to his honor in the Hero's Corner of Westminster Abbey, where his remians were brought from America and reburied in 1821. Another monument was erected in 1879 on the site of Andre's execution in New York, where Washington's quote is inscribed.

This article was written by Beth Burney, elementary school teacher, Atlanta, GA.