John Andre’ Self Portrait The Night Before His Execution
Henry Knox felt a surge of relief as the silhouette of Fort George emerged from a backdrop of tall Adirondack pine. More shadow than substance in the flat winter light, the former British outpost offered a welcome respite from the bitter chill. After a grueling 300 mile trek by horseback from Cambridge, Massachusetts the former book store owner turned artillery officer welcomed the possibility of a solid meal and a warm bed. The first half of his journey was almost complete. In the morning he would sail the final 25 miles up Lake George to Fort Ticonderoga on the southern tip of Lake Champlain. His mission was daunting – secure 59 tons of cannons, howitzers and mortars from the captured British stronghold, and transport the train of artillery across the Hudson River and through the Berkshire Mountains to Cambridge.
His commander-in- chief General George Washington desperately needed the artillery to end the long and tedious siege of Boston. Six months after the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill a large British force commanded by General Gage still controlled the Boston peninsula. Although Washington’s force of 10,000 strong occupied the high ground around the city, a lack of artillery nullified their strategic advantage. Washington feared the imminent arrival of powerful British warships packed with thousands of reinforcements. The unsteady alliance of thirteen colonies faced an ominous reality. Defeat in the heartland of the nascent American rebellion would tighten the vise grip of British tyranny and deliver a severe blow to patriot dreams of liberty.
The fate of the city of Boston and perhaps the rebellion as well, rested on the ability of Henry Knox to deliver the artillery to with all possible speed. The black choppy surface of Lake George had not yet been gripped by winter ice. In a week Knox would pray for every stream, lake and river from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston to freeze rock solid. A successful mission depended on snowy trails and frozen waterways to allow him to transport the big guns on ox-drawn sleds. But this was a problem for another day. On the evening of December 4th, 1775 Knox’s primary concern was a hot meal and a warm bed.
As Knox approached the small cabin where he would spend the night, he was greeted by an armed sentry. The guard informed Knox that he would be sharing his sleeping quarters with a British captive, Lieutenant John Andre. The prisoner, a member of the 7th British regiment, had been captured at the American siege of Fort St. Jean by the American invasion force led by General Richard Montgomery. During the early years of the rebellion relationships between individuals who supported the monarchy and those who supported colonies were fluid and shifting like eddies in a tidal pool.
The suave British officer and the gregarious patriot immediately found that they shared a number of interests. Physically the two men were opposite mirror images. Slim and handsome Andre’ exuded the charm of a man equally comfortable on the dance floor and the battleground. Formally educated, he was proficient in several languages. He played the flute, enjoyed the theater, and was a fine artist. The self-educated Knox was a large man weighing over 250 pounds. On his left hand a silk handkerchief covered the scar from two fingers he lost in a hunting accident. Knox’s rotund features belied his toughness and energy. He had fought gallantly at Bunker Hill, and he was on the cusp of a career that would make him one of George Washington’s most trusted aides.
Having not yet been formally commissioned as a colonel by the Continental Congress, Knox wore civilian clothes. Consequently Andre’, who was being transported to Pennsylvania as part of a prisoner swap, did not suspect that the “civilian” he was sharing the cozy cabin with was in fact on a critical military mission. In an ironic twist of fate five years after their evening together, Major Andre’ would don civilian clothes to disguise a military mission. But unlike Knox, Andre’s subterfuge would come to a disastrous conclusion. As the evening wore on, and despite their political differences, the two men found they shared many interests. Late into the night they engaged in affable conversation about literature, music, and art. In the morning they parted, if not as friends, with mutual admiration.
Over the next five years Andre’ rose rapidly in rank to major and adjutant general to British commander in-chief, General Henry Clinton. During the British occupation of Philadelphia the handsome young officer was a constant fixture in the city’s social life. One of his admirer’s was Peggy Shippen, the beautiful nineteen year old daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest Loyalists. When the American’s regained control of Philadelphia Andre’ took residence in British held New York City and Peggy Shippen found a new suitor, the renowned and controversial American officer, Benedict Arnold.
After a whirlwind courtship Shippen and Arnold married. Soon afterwards Arnold made his fateful decision to switch sides and join the British forces. But he needed a contact, someone who could be trusted and who was close to the British commander Clinton. Andre’ was that person. After negotiating financial terms with the British, Arnold schemed with Andre’ to turn the plans for the defensive fortifications of West Point over to the British. On 23 September near Tarrytown, New York local militia captured Andre’ and discovered in his boot the West Point documents. A letter of passage was signed by Benedict Arnold.
Andre’ was dressed as a civilian when he was arrested A military tribunal sentenced him to death by hanging as a spy. Sitting on that tribunal was Henry Knox. On October 2, 1780 Andre’ climbed on to a wagon, placed a noose around his neck, and said “I pray you bear witness that I met my fate like a brave man.” No one among the witnesses, including Henry Knox, applauded the death of the charming and courageous British major. Knox continued to serve Washington and the Revolution gallantly as chief artillery officer. He died in 1806 from an infection three days after swallowing a chicken bone.