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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Execution of John André

By James Thacher (1754–1844)

[Born in Barnstable, Mass., 1754. Died at Plymouth, Mass., 1844. Military Journal of the American Revolutionary War. Revised Edition. 1827.]

MAJOR ANDRÉ is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged. Having left a mother and two sisters in England, he was heard to mention them in terms of the tenderest affection, and in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, he recommends them to his particular attention.

The principal guard officer, who was constantly in the room with the prisoner, relates that when the hour of his execution was announced to him in the morning, he received it without emotion, and while all present were affected with silent gloom, he retained a firm countenance, with calmness and composure of mind. Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, “Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!” His breakfast being sent to him from the table of General Washington, which had been done every day of his confinement, he partook of it as usual, and having shaved and dressed himself, he placed his hat on the table, and cheerfully said to the guard officers, “I am ready at any moment, gentlemen, to wait on you.” The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency and his staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful. I was so near during the solemn march to the fatal spot, as to observe every movement, and participate in every emotion which the melancholy scene was calculated to produce Major André walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm-in-arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most conformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness, he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.” He was dressed in his royal regimentals and boots, and his remains, in the same dress, were placed in an ordinary coffin, and interred at the foot of the gallows; and the spot was consecrated by the tears of thousands.

Thus died, in the bloom of life, the accomplished Major André, the pride of the royal army, and the valued friend of Sir Henry Clinton. He was about twenty-nine years of age, in his person well-proportioned, tall, genteel and graceful. His mien respectable and dignified. His countenance mild, expressive and prepossessing, indicative of an intelligent and amiable mind. His talents are said to have been of a superior cast, and, being cultivated in early life, he had made very considerable proficiency in literary attainments. Colonel Hamilton, aide-de-camp to General Washington, having had an interview with him, entertains an exalted opinion of his character. In the line of his profession, Major André was considered as a skilful, brave and enterprising officer, and he is reported to have been benevolent and humane to our people who have been prisoners in New York. Military glory was the mainspring of his actions, and the sole object of his pursuits, and he was advancing rapidly in the gratification of his ambitious views, till by a misguided zeal he became a devoted victim. He enjoyed the confidence and friendship of Sir Henry Clinton, being consulted in his councils and admitted to the secrets of his cabinet. The heart of sensibility mourns when a life of so much worth is sacrificed on a gibbet. General Washington was called to discharge a duty from which his soul revolted; and it is asserted that his hand could scarcely command his pen when signing the warrant for the execution of Major André. But, however abhorrent in the view of humanity, the laws and usages of war must be obeyed, and in all armies it is decreed that the gallows shall be the fate of spies from the enemy. It was universally desired that Major André should experience every possible favor and indulgence, consistent with his peculiar circumstances, but it was well considered that, should he be indulged in his request to be shot, it would imply that his case admitted of extenuation, and it might be doubted whether in justice he ought to be convicted as a spy. The British general himself has not hesitated to execute several persons of the same description sent from our army into New York. Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for André, not a tear or a sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance. But General Clinton suffers the vile and infamous traitor to elude the hand of justice, and even bestows on him a reward for his crime. It may perhaps be suggested, that in the last act of his life Major André derogated from his character and station. That the laurels to adorn the brow of a soldier, can only be acquired in the field of battle, and not by encouraging acts of treason, by bribery and corruption. Surprise and stratagem, it is well known, constitute a valuable part of the art of war, by which many important objects are effected, and by some it is said that when acts of treason are practised, the infamy devolves on the head of the traitors alone. In the present instance, it is supposed that Arnold made the first overture. It is well understood that Sir Henry Clinton enjoined it on André to transact the business on board the Vulture, and it was his own determination not to land on our shore; but such was the management of Arnold and his confederate, Smith, that he was actually compelled, contrary to his own judgment and intention, to come within our lines, and this circumstance alone placed him in the character of a common spy. The commander-in-chief was generously disposed to compassionate his unhappy condition, and to soothe and mitigate his sorrow, and every officer in the army was actuated by feelings of sympathy and tenderness towards him. The base and perfidious Arnold is held in the utmost abhorrence and detestation throughout our army, and his person, with the garrison at West Point into the bargain, would have been a dear purchase to Sir Henry for the life of his valuable friend and adjutant-general.