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Spymaster John André, Seven Months before His Capture and Execution
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Major André, then Adjutant-General for General Henry Clinton at his New York City headquarters, relays Clinton’s authorization to purchase rum. André was also empowered to direct the British Intelligence Service in North America. This letter was written only seven months before the spymaster’s capture and execution for his plotting with Benedict Arnold. “The Commander in Chief bids me inform you with respect to the Rum…

JOHN ANDRÉ. Autograph Letter Signed, to Gregory Townsend, Commissary General of the British army in New York. Head Quarters, February 19, 1780. 1 p., with integral address leaf, 7¾ x 12⅝ in.

Inventory #21467.99       Price: $30,000

Complete Transcript

                  Head Quarters the 19 Feb. 1780


            The Commander in Chief bids me inform you with respect to the Rum, that you are to make such an Agreemt with the Owner as you think (considering Circumstances) Mr Weir will approve.

            I have the honour to with Regd:

Sir / Your most obedient / & most hum. Servt.

John André Dy Adj Gen

Mr Townsend

[Address on verso:] Gregory Townsend Esqr / Dy Comm: Gen: / Dy Adjt Gen

Historical Background

Starting in the summer of 1779, André (under the code names “Lothario” and “John Anderson”) proved adroit in his handling of the surreptitious negotiations with Benedict Arnold, involving elaborate ciphers, invisible ink, furtive go-betweens, secret meetings and concealed papers.

In late September 1780, to finalize plans for the turnover of the key American garrison at West Point, André was rowed ashore from a British warship anchored up the Hudson, for a face-to-face interview with Arnold. The conference ended at dawn and it was deemed too dangerous to row André back to the British vessel. Sighted at anchor, the ship was shelled by an American battery and forced downriver, stranding André behind American lines. On September 23, wearing civilian garb (having discarded his red regimental coat), and calling himself “John Anderson,” André was captured attempting to cross American picket lines into British-held parts of Westchester County, New York. His official pass, signed by Benedict Arnold, was ignored, and highly compromising documents—including information regarding the West Point fortifications—were retrieved from his stockings. The plot was revealed and the traitor Arnold fled on horseback, leaving his wife and child behind. Within days, André was condemned to death by a court-martial whose members included Lafayette and von Steuben. On October 2, in spite of Sir Henry Clinton’s last-minute request for clemency, André was hung as a spy and buried at the foot of the gallows.

Major André was courageous and charming to the end, even though his petition to Washington to be executed by firing squad rather than by ignominious hanging was denied. André’s death was mourned by his American captors as well as by the British and Tories. Alexander Hamilton wrote of him: “Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less.” André’s letters are quite rare.

John André (1750-1780) was born in London and joined the British Army at the age of twenty. He was sent to North America and served as a lieutenant in the 23rd Regiment of Foot in Canada. Captured at St. Johns in 1775, he was exchanged in 1776 and quickly was promoted to captain and then to major in 1778. Andre was popular in Philadelphia society under British occupation. He courted young Margaret Shippen before her marriage to Benedict Arnold, and it is supposed that she provided the means of contact between André and the traitorous general who was prepared to turn over West Point and Washington himself to the British. André was captured on September 23, 1780 and executed by hanging on October 2. His remains were returned to Britain in 1820 and he was buried as a hero in Westminster Abbey.

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