Thirty-one-year-old British Major John Andre is hanged as a spy by U.S. military forces in Tappan, New York, on this day in 1780.
Andre, an accomplice of Benedict Arnold, had been captured by Patriots John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart on September 23 after they found incriminating papers in his boot. The papers revealed that Andre was returning from a secret meeting with U.S. General Benedict Arnold, commander of West Point, who had offered to surrender the strategic Hudson River fort to the British for a bribe of £20,000. Upon hearing of Andre’s capture, Arnold fled to the British warship Vulture and subsequently joined the British in their fight against the Patriots.
After being sentenced to death by U.S. authorities on September 29, Andre was allowed to write a letter to his commander, General Henry Clinton. Andre also wrote a letter to General George Washington in which he asked, not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad. Death by firing squad was considered a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.
Members of the Continental Army respected Andre’s bravery, including Washington, who wanted to find a way to spare Andre’s life. Believing that Andre had committed a lesser crime than Benedict Arnold, Washington wrote a letter to Clinton, stating that he would exchange Andre for Arnold, so that Arnold could be hanged instead.
When he did not receive a reply to his offer by October 2, Washington wrote in his “general order” of the day, “That Major Andre General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death…The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”