|Self-portrait by Major John André, drawn on the eve of his execution. (Source)|
"I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode."Moments later the 30 year old met his death with composure and bravery. One would have thought that the execution of a British spy would have met, perhaps not with rejoicing, but with some measure of satisfaction in that the death of Nathan Hale was now avenged. No, Major André's death was a solemn occasion, he was mourned by many, including his American adversaries.
While a prisoner, he endeared himself to American officers who lamented his death as much as the British. Alexander Hamilton wrote of him: "Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less." The day before his hanging, André drew, with pen and ink, a likeness of himself, which is now owned by Yale College. André, according to witnesses, refused the blindfold and placed the noose around his own neck. (Source)Growing up in New England it often felt like the American Revolution had been just yesterday, though not a single person alive when I was a kid could remember anyone that fought in that conflict. Nevertheless, remembering Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, and the attack on Montreal were things we absorbed as kids. It seemed that the exploits of those patriots were still in the very air we breathed.
Of course, one image was in every school boy's mind when learning about the Revolution (yes, it is always capitalized). This one -
|Captain Nathan Hale, about to be hanged by the British. (Source)|
From the memoirs of Captain William Hull, quoting British Captain John Montresor, who was present and who spoke to Hull under a flag of truce the next day:
"On the morning of his execution," continued the officer, "my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal [William Cunningham] to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, 'I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.'" (Source)It was the custom of the time to bury men executed by hanging under the very gallows where they died. The exact location of Captain Hale's hanging has never been ascertained though there are a few sites in Manhattan which claim that honor.
So Captain Hale's earthly remains were lost. Yet his example, his spirit lived on and inspired many throughout our Nation's history. (Would that more were inspired by his example of selflessness and loyalty today.)
I grew up with that example. Another thing we absorbed as youths was a deep and abiding hatred of kings. And redcoats. The British soldiery were viewed by us with disdain and passionate hatred. The bloody lobsterbacks were monsters and oppressors. Or so we were taught.
I knew of Major André and his fate as a boy. We felt something akin to glee at the thought of this English beast balking at the sight of the gallows where he would "hang by the neck until dead." A firing squad? Bah, that was for honorable men, not redcoat spies consorting with the arch-traitor Benedict Arnold!
As one grows older, one learns, one discards the passions of youth for the reasoned logic of adulthood. One also forgets certain youthful hatreds and passions.
Sometime in the past few years I read a novel (I cannot for the life of me remember the title) which dealt with part of the Revolution, especially the British occupation of Philadelphia. Major André (a captain at the time) served General Howe at the time. As I remember the story, Howe was being recalled, in some disgrace, to England. Captain André decided to throw a great party for the General. Not everyone thought badly of Howe.
Well, this party which Captain André organized, was called the Mischianza (Italian for "medley" or "mixture") was thrown by Howe's officers and cost a lot of money. This novel made Captain André seem very foppish, a dandy, a fellow who wasn't much of a soldier.
I liked this book, it reaffirmed my own childish view of this most despised redcoat.
Then the series Turn: Washington's Spies came out. In that series (which is, as is typical of Hollywood, isn't very accurate from an historical standpoint) Major André is portrayed as quite a talented and great guy. Everyone seems to like him. He is talented as an artist and as a soldier. Particularly gifted as a spymaster. It is that which leads to Benedict Arnold, the attempt by the arch-traitor Arnold to turn West Point over to the British, and eventually leads to Major André's capture.
So who was Major André? Fop who consorted with traitors and deserved hanging because Nathan Hale had been hanged? Or talented soldier, doing his job, and just being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
I believe he was the latter. A good soldier and a very clever man. If the plot with Arnold had succeeded, the Revolution may have been irretrievably lost, Major André gambled. And lost. It happens. I have a much greater respect for the man than I did as a child.
Of course, I don't hate the redcoats anymore either. Those lobsterbacks did their duty as they saw fit, they obeyed their king. The patriots did their duty, answering to a higher ideal than a king on a throne in far off England.
In the years which followed the Revolution, we fought the British again. Time passed, loyalties shift, old ties are remembered. Eventually the United States and the United Kingdom became allies, friends even on many levels. We shared a common history up until the late 1700s, we still share a common language and have common interests.
Major John André, Adjutant General of the British Army in North America, deserves our respect, yes, even our admiration. He did his duty as he knew it.
One cannot ask for more than that from any man.
* From a letter written by Washington to Colonel John Laurens on 13 October 1780.