On 2 May 1750 in London, England the first of five children was born to Huguenots Anthony and Marie Louis (Giradot) André. They named their firstborn son John André. At a young age John demonstrated a knack for drawing. He was also quite skilled in foreign languages being fluent in French, German, Italian and with some knowledge of Dutch. In addition to being an artist and a flutist John was also handy with verse. When John was 19 years old, Anthony died, leaving John to shoulder quite a bit of responsibility.
Sometime after Anthony’s death the family made a trip to Buxton, Derbyshire. Here André had the misfortune to make the acquaintance of Honor Sneyd. André was besotted with Honora although she frequently rebuffed him. Nevertheless the two made plans to marry. The match wasn’t looked on well by the couple’s elders. It was decided a marriage would have to be delayed. Nineteen-year-old André agreed and promised to keep in contact with Honora. It was all in vain as Honora would soon jilt André. With nothing to hold him back, André pursued his dream of going into the military. In 1771 he purchased a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. His new comrades pronounced André an honorary Welshman after he ceremoniously swallowed a raw leek. The young lieutenant was well liked by many people and found little trouble getting along with his new friends.
The American Revolution found André living among the detestable “rebels” (he had a rather low opinion of his enemies).When war erupted in the colonies André was stationed in Canada. After some action with colonial forces at Fort Saint-Jean, he was taken prisoner. One night the prisoners were allowed to take shelter in an inn while on the road to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. André was informed that he would have to share a bed with a certain Henry Knox. The pair met one another and found they shared common interests. Their next meeting would be under less than ideal circumstances. In a prisoner exchange that took place in late 1776 André was returned to duty. Once back on duty he purchased a captain’s commission in the 26th Foot. Soon he had been named aide-de-camp to the ruthless General Charles Grey. One night, in what André called “a prodigious slaughter”, Grey’s forces crept up on sleeping colonial troops and attacked. André appears to have approved of Grey’s methods.
When winter came around, André was living at ease in Philadelphia. Until next Spring the war had come to a standstill and André intended to put the spare time to use. Particularly in theater. While André himself was not a good actor, he did take part in some of the writing and creating backdrops. When General Howe resigned from his position André threw the Mischianza in Howe’s honor. The affair included knights, jousting and scandalous costumes. The joy that André got out of the event was short lived, however. The British were forced to evacuate the city. At the time André had been living in Benjamin Franklin’s vacant home. When the captain left he also took a great deal of things belonging to Franklin at Grey’s orders.
Hard-to-please Sir Henry Clinton was Howe’s replacement. While many people no doubt set about avoiding the man, André set his sights on Clinton. If anyone could get through Clinton’s less than friendly demeanor it was André. Not surprisingly, André became aide-de-camp to Clinton and the pair got along marvelously. It was a stroke of luck for the ambitious officer but one that would ultimately lead to dire consequences.
By 1779 André had attained the rank of major and position of adjutant general. As he was managing the British Secret Intelligence he also handled a certain infamous defector. On 10 May 1779 André learned the celebrated American general, Benedict Arnold, wanted to defect to the British. Arnold was a big catch. So began the conspiracy. Letters written in code were exchanged over the months. The conspiracy came to a standstill when André sailed South for action in Charleston, South Carolina. Communication was reestablished when André returned to New York. Eventually a face to face meeting was set up. On 20 September 1780 André, aboard the HMS Vulture, went to meet with Arnold. He was told by Clinton not to go behind enemy lines, change into civilian clothes or to carry incriminating papers. André would do all of the above.
In a home near their meeting place André and Arnold collaborated with one another. They didn’t come to an agreement until daylight had arrived and by then André couldn’t return to the ship. Instead Arnold wrote several passes out for André and gave him some papers before returning back to his own duties. Matters worsened when American fire drove the Vulture away. André now had no choice but to travel overland. His travel companion, who was blissfully unaware of the traitorous dealings, gave André some civilian clothes to change into. Arnold had cleared up any of the man’s suspicions about André’s redcoat. André or “John Anderson”, as he was calling himself, was probably relived when he and the man parted ways on the road.
On September 23, three militiamen stopped André. One was wearing a Hessian coat and André slipped up. He was a British officer, he told them. The three men took one look at the fancy clothing and at Andre’s watches and proceeded to rob him. While searching for money they had André remove his boots. Arnold’s paper were immediately found. The game was up.
When he was taken before authorities André made a clean breast of everything. He was tried by the Board of General Officers (Henry Knox was among its members) and his fate decided. As a spy, which technically he had been, André was to be executed by hanging on 1 October 1780. The date was later delayed until October 2. Clinton, although he wanted very much to help André, could not do so. His only alternative was to swap Arnold for André but this Clinton would not do. In the meantime, André requested he be shot rather than hanged. General George Washington did not respond to the letter. It was impossible. On the day of his execution André willingly walked his way to death arm-in-arm with his two captors. His pallor was deathly white but he mustered a smile anyway. When he came to the noose, he balked. He had thought his request to be shot had been granted. “I am reconciled to my death but not the mode” André stated. People openly wept as André placed the noose around his neck and blindfolded himself. The wagon rolled out from his feet and he hanged.
In 1821 André’s bones were exhumed and reburied at Westminster Abbey.