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The Execution of Major Andre

By John Evangelista Walsh  

Review by Richard Sheppard 

 

February 14, 2002 -- The name Benedict Arnold rightly and forever stands in American history as a synonym for “traitor,” but Arnold was not the only player in the plot to help the British capture West Point in 1780, and effectively end the American War of Independence. His British counterpart and primary contact for the treachery was British Major John Andre, a “gentleman officer” who is hero-hailed in British history, but who in fact is exposed in this volume as a seriously flawed and fatally incompetent spy. The author, historian John Evangelista Walsh hasn’t written or intended to write a definitive or meticulously documented volume, but opts instead for a kind of surmizical telling of an overlooked but critically important Revolutionary War episode. It’s a fascinating story and he tells it briskly if not to scholastic standards.

Walsh begins the story during Major Andre’s trial, with Andre’s blithe and calculated efforts to convince the American generals sitting in judgement that he wasn’t a spy.  Here we see what Walsh somewhat successfully argues is the real Major Andre, fleshed out as he is in his testimony before the tribunal, and his letters to both his commanding general in Manhattan, and George Washington.  Andre comes across through these documents as condescending and eager for glory. And despite his adulation in British history and his final resting place in Westminster Abbey, Andre has no one to blame but his own venal and foolish actions for his true place in American history: as a mere spy who was justifiably hanged.

"..While Major Andre is quite unknown to most Americans, his story is timeless if for no other reason that it wonderfully illustrates how an accumulation of small events and bad timing can radically change the course of history..."

 The book also contains a detailed and informative account of Major Andre’s movements following his meeting with Arnold during which he received the defense plans for the important American military post at West Point on the Hudson River. Using these plans, the British were to attack West Point, and after Arnold’s perfunctory defense and pre-arranged surrender, cut the Colonies in two, likely a fatal blow to the American cause. Instead, three alert militiamen (true American heroes all) stopped Andre on his way back to Manhattan, and on finding Arnold’s plans in his boot, sent him off to higher authorities.  One of those higher authorities, not realizing Arnold was in on the plot, detained Andre but sent a messenger along to alert Arnold, who fled to a British warship in the Hudson. George Washington, in just another merely super-heroic incident, arrives at West Point, and upon being alerted to Arnold’s treason, quickly put the defenses in order. It was too late for the British. As in so many other near misses during the Revolution, slim chance once again ended British chances of finishing off the aborning American nation.  Oh, sweet slim chance!

The denouement has Arnold, who would have been paid twenty-thousand pounds for his betrayal, instead living for another twenty or so years in England after settling for six-thousand pounds.  Washington, who desperately wanted to trade Andre for Arnold – something the British could not and would not do – and hang the former American hero – had to settle for trying and hanging the scoundrel spy Major Andre.  Contemporary accounts have a troubled Andre stoically facing the fate of spies – the hangman, as opposed to his preferred “soldierly” execution in front of a firing squad. Washington neither granted Andre’s preferred execution by firing squad, nor attended the hanging. Walsh argues that Andre, recognizing his life was over, took a brave front to enhance post-mortem impressions of him, which given his high place in British lore, proved successful. He also needed to cover the cold fact that his decisions during his meeting with Arnold, and his poorly executed escape, demonstrate that despite his high station in life and his fleeting chance at lasting glory, he was a vain and arrogant man who deserved his noose-bedecked fate. While Major Andre is quite unknown to most Americans, his story is timeless if for no other reason that it wonderfully illustrates how an accumulation of small events and bad timing can radically change the course of history.

There’s an added bonus for metropolitan NYC residents: many of the places where the events of “The Execution of Major Andre” occurred are within a ninety-minute drive of the city and would likely make for a fun day trip. In this regard, and perhaps to follow the story more closely a more-detailed map of the places in the story would have been considerably more helpful than the sketchy map provided.

-- Rich Sheppard