A Revolutionary Idea

While reading a story in The New York Times about Tarrytown, New York, a village of 11,000 people about 25 minutes from Midtown Manhattan, it suddenly occured to us that we know very little about the American Revolution. According to The Times, the area was first inhabited by the Weckquaesgeeks Indians. Tarrytown was settled by Europeans in 1640, and incorporated in 1870. Some believe the name comes from tarwe, the Dutch word for wheat.

We had our “Revolution revelation” when we saw an image of a statue in Patriot’s Park that commemorated the capture, during the Revolutionary War, of the British Army Major John André, who was hanged as a spy by the Continental Army for assisting American General Benedict Arnold’s attempted surrender of the fort at West Point to the British.

Despite having studied American history in high school and college, we had no idea who this guy was, nor had we a clue about his connection to the region. Clearly, we needed to do some digging.

By sheer coincidence, Jon had spent the morning investigating his fourth great grand uncle, Edward Willett, who was born in Maryland around 1750, and Cliff had discovered a distant relative of his own born in 1750–the same year that André was born in England–which prompted Jon to turn his attention to André. It seemed more providential than serendipitous.

John André was born of French Protestant parents who were among the wealthy merchant class. Well-educated, fluent in four languages, an accomplished floutist, poet and painter, the young André was considered by his contemporaries to be handsome, charismatic and charming.

When André was 19 years old, his father died, leaving him to provide for his family. The glamour of military life lured him into service, and soon he found himself in Canada as a British Army officer. Captured at Fort Saint-Jean in 1775, he was taken as a prisoner of war to Lancaster, Penn., where he lived in the home of Caleb Cope. It was the custom in those days for officers to have relative freedom in exchange for their promise to not escape (similar to our modern-day ankle-bracelet monitoring). He was freed in a prisoner exchange a year later, and soon promoted to Adjutant-General of the British Army in America. He stayed nine months in the Philadelphia home of Benjamin Franklin, and was suspected of looting the house upon his departure (a portrait of Franklin, stolen from the house at the time of André’s stay, was later recovered and now hangs in the White House).

Within a few months, André was placed in charge of British intelligence. In this role, he leveraged his relationship with Peggy Shippen, a Loyalist who had married Arnold. She funneled correspondence between the two men, and had a likely role in the downfall of both. After a series of clandestine meetings, André was apprehended near Tarrytown. Eventually, his cover as civilian John Anderson was blown, exposing him as a spy. Placed on trial, André was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

George Washington was among André’s many admirerers, evidenced by the fact that every day of André’s imprisonment, Washington sent him breakfast from his own table. Washington later referred to him as “an accomplished man and a gallant officer,” and as someone “more unfortunate than criminal.” Yet even Washington was unable to intervene. Although André requested death by firing squad, which he considered more fitting for a soldier, he accepted his fate, going so far as to place the noose around his own neck so as to spare the executioner his guilt.

We share this story as a way of demonstrating how much we have to learn about the American Revolution, and about our own families–a fact that came into sharp focus while camping at Loyd Park on the hottest weekend of the year.