The Lament of Major André

Bath has seen many people pass through its streets over the centuries. Some stayed, some passed through. engraving young_43122 croppedSome are still famous – Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley – but there are many more who were famous in their time, but they are now forgotten or only vaguely remembered – Fanny Burney, George Wade, John Ligonier and Major John André.  I first came across Major André when I was cataloguing some of the local history books in the library, and he intrigued me. His links to Bath are a little tenuous, but they are there – and Bath does tend to hang on to any link they can get to the famous, not so famous and infamous.

So who was John André? Actually, he’s most famous for dying having been in the wrong place at the wrong time whilst doing his duty. He came from merchant stock: his father, Antonio André was a Geneva merchant settled in London with his French wife, Marie-Louise Girard. Jean was born on 2 May 1750, and baptised in the Walloon Church of St Martin Orgars, Martin Lane off Cannon Street on the 19th May. He had one brother and three sisters, and it would seem that he was destined for life as a merchant. He did try his hand at it after his father died in 1769, but it wasn’t for him, and in 1771 Jean purchased a commission in the 7th Royal Fusiliers, probably for around £300-£500.

Site of St Martin Orgar’s Church, Martin Lane, Cannon Street, London

The regiment was posted to Canada in 1774 where it was part of the defence of Fort Saint-Jean, Quebec. The fort was taken by American forces in November 1775 and André was sent as a prisoner of war to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. During the journey to Lancaster, André was entertained by Mr Hays and met his brother-in-law, Joshua Hett Smith, who was to play an important part in André’s life five years later. Freed in a prisoner exchange a year later, André came to the attention of the Commander of the British Forces, General Howe through the memoir he had drawn up of his observations of the colonies whilst a prisoner.  This brought him promotion to Captain in the 26th Regiment of Foot in January 1777 and a recommendation as an aide to Major-General Charles Grey. During the winter of 1777-8 Grey’s forces occupied Philadelphia and André occupied Benjamin Franklin’s house. When he left, André was observed to be looting the house – taking books, musical instruments and a portrait of Franklin – apparently on the orders of General Grey. By the end of 1778 Grey had left his post, and André was offered the post of Adjutant General, with a promotion to Major, on the staff of the new British Commander in Chief, Sir Henry Clinton.

West Point Defences, 1780 - Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library Call #G3804.W53S3 1780 .P5
West Point Defences, 1780 – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library Call #G3804.W53S3 1780 .P5

Six months after his new posting, including co-ordination of British intelligence activities, André was drawn into the events that were to ultimately lead to his fatal duty.  American General Benedict Arnold approached the British forces with an offer to surrender the strategically important fort at West Point on the Hudson River to the British. André was friends with Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen, whom he’d met in Philadelphia before her marriage and who acted as a contact between the two sides. The initial negotiations failed – Arnold was demanding £10,000, and Clinton balked at the sum.  Negotiations were reopened a year later, in May 1780, by which time Arnold had passed on useful intelligence to the British about American troop movements, and had positioned himself to be appointed Commandant at West Point. He now demanded £20,000 and an interview with a trustworthy officer on Clinton’s staff – essentially, André.

André set off on his fatal mission in September 1780 aboard HMS Vulture, a Royal Navy sloop, and was rowed ashore from the ship anchored in the Hudson just south of West Point. The meeting with Arnold went well, and André left to stay the night with Joshua Hett Smith far behind the American lines.  The Vulture was forced to weigh anchor and move after being bombarded by American shore batteries, and André had to make alternative arrangements to return to the British ship. Arnold provided alternative clothing to André’s British uniform – either civilian clothing or an American uniform, though André apparently retained his own greatcoat – and the Major set off with Joshua Smith towards the new anchorage of the Vulture thus disguised, with papers in the name of John Anderson, and with Arnold’s information on West Point written on pages stuffed into his boot. Smith left André just short of the British lines, and it was here, near Tarrytown, New York, that André was detained by three American freelancers. He was taken to the headquarters of the American army at Tappan, where a court of inquiry was held on 29 September on General George Washington’s orders. André made no attempt to implicate Arnold in the circumstances, and the American General escaped to the British lines. André was found guilty having “changed his dress within our lines, and under a feigned name, and in a disguised habit, passed our works… and was taken the morning of the 23d September instant, at Tarry-Town… and when taken, he had in his possession several papers, which contained intelligence for the enemy.” He was sentenced to death by hanging. General Clinton attempted to save André’s life, writing to General Washington, although Clinton refused to exchange André for Arnold. André appealed to Washington for his execution to be commuted to a firing squad, but Washington regretfully declined, and the Major was hanged at Tappan, New York on 2 October 1780.sketch_43120 cropped

Major André’s death was lamented by all, including the American officers at Tappan who had come to know him. Washington called him “an accomplished man and gallant officer”. They acknowledged André was doing his duty as an officer, and it was Benedict Arnold who was despised as a traitor. Whilst awaiting his fate André drew a sketch of himself, now at Yale University. He was buried, supposedly beneath the gallows but he no longer lies there. A monument was raised in Westminster Abbey as a memorial in 1782, designed by Robert Adam, at the expense of King George III. In 1821 the Duke of York arranged for André’s remains to be removed to Hero’s Corner in Westminster Abbey by his memorial.

In honour of John André his mother, Marie Louisa, and three sisters were awarded a pension, and his brother, William, was made a baronet.  None of them ever married, and the baronetcy died out with William’s death in 1802. The family lived at 22 Circus where his mother died in 1813, after Sir William André died in 1802. His sisters, Anne, Louisa and Mary died in 1830, 1836 and 1845.  All of the family were buried in St Nicholas Church, Bathampton in two adjoining graves.

Whilst Benedict Arnold’s name lives on as a byword for untrustworthy, ungentlemanly, defectors, André’s name is virtually unknown, except to those who read the commemorative plaques dotted around Bath.

Plaque to Major André at 22 Circus. Copyright: sleepymyf,
Plaque to Major André at 22 Circus. Copyright: sleepymyf,

All images copyright Bath in Time-Bath Central Library unless otherwise stated.

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