For more than two hundred years, the gallant British cavalier John André has inspired the literary imagination and piqued the historical curiosity of Americans. André, acting adjutant general of the British army stationed in New York in 1780, is one of those figures who, though of minor importance in the historical events of their time, still capture the emotions of those who come across their intriguing stories.
By the time Winthrop Sargent wrote the first full-length biography in 1861, André was already a kind of cult figure, hero of eight plays and twenty-seven poems. Books devoted to the relationship between André and Benedict Arnold, or to André himself, number more than a score, as British and American scholars and artists try to shed new light on one of the key incidents in America’s struggle for independence. The most detailed of these studies, James Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy (1953) and R. M. Hatch’s Major John André: A Gallant in Spy’s Clothing (1986), give ample indication of the extent to which this minor figure has been vilified or venerated.
John André, son of an English businessman, was reared in Switzerland and began his adult career in the family business, but soon gave up the countinghouse for the more glamorous life of a soldier. An actor and an artist of some ability, and a man given to furthering his own career, André quickly impressed superiors with his skills as a staff officer. Before he traveled with his regiment to the American Colonies to put down the rebellion there, he had managed to lose his heart to a young coquette named Honora Sneyd, the ward of Anna Seward, a poetess who was known as the Swan of Lichfield. Marriage was forbidden, however, by Honora’s father, so the dejected André, carrying a sketch of his beloved in a locket, crossed the Atlantic in much the same state of mind as the fictional hero of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Maud (1855), who throws himself into a war to ease the pain of a lover’s rejection.
Dedication to Honora did not prevent André from flirting with the women he met in America, including young Philadelphia belle Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, whom he met when the British occupied that city. When André went north with General Sir Henry Clinton, Peggy Shippen shifted her affections to one of the Americans who moved swiftly into the abandoned capital of Pennsylvania: General Benedict Arnold.
That irony is not lost on novelist Anthony Bailey, nor are the other details of André’s exciting life, which found its close outside New York City, at the end of a hangman’s rope. Bailey’s Major André focuses on the final week of the British officer’s life, a week crucial to the outcome of the American Revolution. André was the go-between sent to negotiate with Arnold for the surrender of the American garrison at West Point, an act that, had it been successful, might have thwarted the Americans’ chances for throwing off the British yoke.
The details of the plot, the reasons for Arnold’s decision to defect to the British and to sell out his countrymen in the bargain, and André’s role in arranging for the surrender have been known for some time—in fact, too well-known even from the start, as the plans outlined in Arnold’s own handwriting were taken from André when he was captured while returning to British lines after meeting with the general. André had gone ashore from the British ship Vulture to meet with Arnold on what was to be neutral territory, but a series of events took him beyond the American lines. After ironing out details for the capture of West Point, André was forced to return by land to British-occupied territory rather than row out to his ship. On the circuitous route he was forced to follow toward New York City, he was captured by American irregulars, taken to a garrison, and interrogated. The suspicious Major Benjamin Tallmadge, fearing the worst about General Arnold, foiled an attempt to return André to Arnold and instead presented the...
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