Childhood & Early Life
He was born on May 2, 1750 in London, England, to Antoine André and Marie Louise Girardot, a rich Huguenot couple. His father was a merchant.
He attended the ‘St Paul's School’, the ‘Westminster School’ and thereafter studied in Geneva.
He was enlisted in the British Army at twenty years of age and in 1774 he served as a lieutenant at the ‘7th Royal Fusiliers’ regiment while in Canada.
In November 1775 he was apprehended by General Richard Montgomery from ‘Fort Saint-Jean’ and was interned at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As he was not permitted to leave the town, he complacently rambled around the town while staying in the house of Caleb Cope. He was later released in December 1776 in a prisoner exchange.
On January 18, 1777, he became a captain and was promoted as a major in 1778.
He had a charismatic and cheerful persona that soon made him an endearing person among the colonial society in New York and Philadelphia. Apart from English, he was also fluent in German, Italian and French.
His advanced education and skill in extracurricular activities like drawing, playing flute, writing lyrics and comic verses differentiated him from his contemporaries. After General Howe resigned, André prepared a spectacular ‘Mischianza’ on May 18, 1778 before the General’s departure to England.
He gained control over the house of Benjamin Franklin during his tenure in Philadelphia. It was alleged that when the British left Philadelphia, he took out many expensive things from the house, including scientific apparatus, books, musical instruments and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, under the instruction of Major-General Charles Grey. During the early twentieth century the portrait was returned to the US by the descendants of Charles Grey.
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In 1779 the British Army appointed him the Adjutant general holding the rank of major under General Sir Henry Clinton. General Clinton was cognizant of America’s position at West Point and was aware that capturing West Point would liberate Hudson River from colonial power and the army of Washington will be forced to New Jersey.
André became chief of British secret intelligence in April 1779 in New York City and by next year he initiated a negotiation with embittered American General Benedict Arnold through secret correspondence.
General Benedict Arnold became the commandant of the fort at West Point in August 1780. John André through his correspondence, which was often aided by Peggy Shippen - a Loyalist and wife of Arnold, persuaded Arnold to surrender the fort for £20,000. The deal would allow the British to separate out New England from the dissident colonies.
On September 20, 1780 André boarded ‘Vulture’, the sloop-of-war of Britain to meet Arnold. Next night he was received by Joshua Hett Smith who sailed to the ‘Vulture’ on the ‘Hudson River’ in a small boat to bring André to shore as instructed by Arnold.
On September 21, 1780, André and Arnold had a night long discussion in the forests below Stony Point and agreed to take forward the plan. Thereafter they headed towards the house of Thomas Smith in West Haverstraw, New York that was occupied by his brother Joshua Hett Smith.
Meanwhile on September 22, 1780, ‘Vulture’ retreated down the river leaving André behind following firing by American troops led by Col. James Livingston.
Arnold gave him plain clothes and a passport with a fake name, John Anderson, to evade American borders.
However on September 23, 1780 he was intercepted near Tarrytown, New York by three military men David Williams, Isaac Van Wart and John Paulding. They recovered six papers from his stockings. The papers that bore Arnold’s handwriting revealed the plot. He was taken to the headquarters of ‘Continental Army’ in Sand Hills.
He was first confined at Wright's Mill in North Castle, New York, and then at Tappan, at the American Army headquarters.
Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson, the post commandment did not suspect Arnold to be a traitor but Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army Intelligence conveyed the possibility of a high-ranking official to defect to the British.
While the six papers were sent to General George Washington, on insistence of John Jameson a note was sent to Arnold detailing the whole episode. Arnold fled to the British territory soon after he received the note.
A board of senior officers was appointed by General George Washington to probe the matter. On September 29, 1780 the board convicted him as a spy from the enemy. According to their assessment death penalty was given to him.
Though British commander Sir Henry Clinton tried to save André, he disagreed to hand over Arnold to get back André. A request was made by André to George Washington that he be executed by firing squad but on October 2, 1780, following war rules he was hanged for his espionage at Tappan, New York.
He refused to get blindfolded at the time of hanging and wore the noose himself around his neck. His enchanting nature made him lovable even to the prison officers who mourned his death as their counterparts in Britain. The drawing he made on the day before his hanging, that somewhat reflects himself, is now in the custody of ‘Yale College’.
Personal Life & Legacy
His mother and three sisters received pension and in 1781 as a mark of honour to André, his brother William was made a baronet.
His remains that were interred under the gallows were brought to England under the direction of the Duke of York in 1821 and interred in Hero's Corner at Westminster Abbey beside remains of kings and poets. A marble monument is erected above his grave that portrays Britannia lamenting the death of André beside a British lion.
A monument was erected at Tappan at the site of his execution on October 2, 1879.