John Andre, Benedict Arnold and concepts of heroism in the American Revolution

Among the many men (and often forgotten women) that made the American Revolution, Major John Andre and General Benedict Arnold are especially controversial characters. One a British spy caught by the Americans, the other a successful military leader who changed sides, both their life stories and how they were commemorated reflect eighteenth-century concepts of heroism and patriotism that crossed political and military front lines.

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), whom Kenneth A. Daigler has described as a “hero turned traitor”[1], defected to the British side in 1780 and was prominently aided by his second wife Peggy, daughter of a leading loyalist family from Philadelphia, and her acquaintance British Major John Andre. Peggy’s influence over Arnold is contested, but historians agree that she wasn’t the only driving force. Benedict Arnold was physically exhausted and personally disappointed in fellow American military officers when he resolved to turn coats.

Unknown artist (1780). John Andre esqr., late Adjutant General of the British forces in America. United States, 1780. [Dec] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2001696985/.

After a tough winter campaign in Canada, Arnold had hoped for military promotion but Congress denied it. He was named Major General in 1776, but five junior generals were placed before him. He nevertheless went north again to face the British plan of isolating New England along the Hudson River, and in 1777, he heroically won the day but was confined for breaking orders. Moreover, the French joined the American cause, and Arnold was unhappy with this alliance.

George Washington tried giving him an easy command in Philadelphia, which had only recently been deserted by the British. However, there were strong loyalist sympathies in the city and Arnold moved in these circles. He engaged as a businessman and met Peggy, who was twenty years his junior and came from a renowned loyalist family. Peggy was connected with British officers including John Andre, former aide to Generals Howe and Clinton as well as Adjutant General of the British forces in America.[2] In 1778, Arnold moved to General Howe’s former home and got married. In winter 1778 to 1779, he contacted British officers for the first time to negotiate. He offered the British help to capture West Point, “the most carefully fortified military post in America at this time.”[3]

Blauvelt, C. F. (ca. 1874) Treason of Arnold Arnold persuades Andre to conceal the papers in his boot / / painted by C.F. Blauvelt. United States, ca. 1874. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Co., publishers. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2010651755/.

The plans drawn up by Arnold were to be carried in Andre’s boots, who travelled as a civilian with a passport signed by Arnold, but patriot highwaymen caught him and handed him over. As Arnold’s own soldiers informed him that a spy had been arrested and that Washington had already been alerted, Arnold escaped to New York.

Meanwhile, British officials had to fight for the life of spy John Andre who faced capital punishment in Washington’s camp.[4] In order to facilitate his release, General Clinton and his staff tried to prove that Andre had merely disguised as a civilian in imminent danger and crossed enemy lines involuntarily.[5] Andre claimed to have come to his meeting point with his informer “in [his] regimentals and had fairly risked [his] person.”[6]

This exchange highlights how important clear demarcations of territory, military dress, flags and martial law were to war-time communication and concepts of lawful warfare. Not only in the British and American camps, but also among German observers of the time, those who respected military rules of conduct and reliably applied martial law were held in high esteem.[7] Therefore, the British side tried to appeal to the soldierly virtues and honour of the Americans as well as internationally recognised regulations. Alongside General Clinton from New York, Colonel Bev. Robinson wrote to Washington that the prisoner could not be legally retained in his view.[8]

Arnold himself pointed out that he had given Andre “a flag of truce” and a lawful passport, “all which I had then a right to do, being in the actual service of America, under the orders of General Washington.”[9] Andre mentioned that the British, for their part, held American patriots prisoners, “some gentlemen, (…) who being either on parole or under protection were engaged in a conspiracy against us.”[10]

During Andre’s trial by the military Board presided over by General Washington, a letter from Arnold to Washington, dated September 25, 1780, was also considered as evidence. This letter reflected Arnold’s uneasiness and showed he had not taken his decisions lightly:

“I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country, since the commencement of the present unhappy contest between Great-Britain and the Colonies; the same principle of love to my country actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”[11]

More than for his own reputation, Arnold feared for his wife left behind as she might have been exposed to the “mistaken vengeance of my country”[12] and the “mistaken fury of the country.”[13]

But only a short while later, the British were informed of the final verdict that

“the Board having maturely considered these facts, do also report to His Excellency General Washington, that Major Andre, Adjutant 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.”[14]

The three major reasons given for the death sentence were that Andre had come to see Arnold “in the night” and in “private and secret manner”, that “he [had] changed his dress within out lines, and under a feigned name, and in a disguised habit”, and that “when taken, he had in his possession several papers, which contained intelligence for the enemy”[15].

On September 30, 1780, Clinton hoped to send Robertson and two other commissioners in person to meet with Washington under “safe conduct”, but only Robertson was received by Major General Greene as Washington’s representative. Upon Robertson’s return two days later, the British openly doubted that Greene was sufficiently concerned for a solution “in an affair of so much consequence to my friend, to the two armies, and humanity.”[16]

On October 1, Benedict Arnold let Washington know that he considered himself “no longer acting under the commission of Congress”[17] and threatened to see forty American prisoners from South Carolina killed “if Major Andre suffers”[18]:

“But if, after this just and candid representation of Major Andre’s case, the Board of General Officers adhere to their former opinion, I shall suppose it dictated by passion and resentment; and if that Gentleman should suffer the severity of their sentence, I shall think myself bound by every tie of duty and honour, to retaliate on such unhappy persons of your army, as may fall within my power, that the respect due to flags, and to the law of nations, may be better understood and observed.”[19]

Arnold also stressed that Andre’s execution would “in all probability [-] open a scene of blood at which humanity will revolt”, but he also addressed Washington’s ethics:

“Suffer me to intreat Your Excellency, for your own and the honour of humanity, and the love you have of justice, that you suffer not an unjust sentence to touch the life of Major Andrè.”[20]

At the same time, Andre had already been informed of his death sentence and accepted the verdict, but asked to be shot rather than hanged in a final note to Washington:

“Sympathy towards a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adapt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour (…) being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.”[21]

Although this final wish was not granted, Andre died esteemed by his enemies. Arnold, on the other hand, was loathed by Americans and treated with suspicion by the British. As Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin wrote, Arnold’s

“New London raid was a tactical success, demonstrating that Arnold was as audacious a commander in a red British uniform as he had been in Continental blue; he had lost none if his élan. He was also unapologetic about the severity of the attack he had led in a region the Arnold family had called home for generations (his great-great-grandfather and namesake had been a governor of colonial Rhode Island).”[22]

Nevertheless, Arnold could never inspire his new British troops with the same confidence that he used to inspire in patriots. In historiography, the perceived moral gap between Arnold’s treason and Andre’s gentlemanly demeanour widened.

Currier & Ives. (ca. 1845) The Capture of Andre. United States, ca. 1845. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/93510375/.

The later eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prints and drawings kept at the Library of Congress generelly depict Andre as a dashing young soldier whose death must be considered “unfortunate”.

Benedict Arnold, by contrast, became the epitome of treason for generations to come. Even World War II caricatures referred to him. One such World War II cartoon kept at the LOC is entitled “Salute from an expert” and “shows a group of men (labeled ‘Norwegian Traitors’) seated around a table holding a box of money labeled ‘German Pay.'” A portrait of Hitler in the cartoon indicates that these Norwegian men are planning to collaborate with the Nazis. The ghost of Benedict Arnold is shown offering his advice to them.


Select bibliography on the treason of Benedict Arnold and John Andre’s execution:

  • “A Traitor’s Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for Reconciliation.”, by LENDER, MARK EDWARD, and JAMES KIRBY MARTIN. In: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 125, no. 4, 2017, pp. 314–357. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26322642.
  • “Benedict Arnold: Hero Turned Traitor.” Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War, by KENNETH A. DAIGLER, Georgetown University Press, 2014, pp. 145–170. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wpkz8.13.
  • Enemy Spies: Nathan Hale and John Andre, by Karen Deal Robinson, Lulu Press, Inc., 2014.
  • The Trial of Major John Andre: With an Appendix, Containing Sundry Interesting Letters Interchanged on the Occasion, edited by the United States Army. Palmer, Mass.: Ezekiel Terry, for James Warner, Wilbraham, 1810.
  • Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War (review), by: Mayer, Holly A.(Holly Ann). In: The journal of military history, ISSN 0899-3718, Bd. 72 (2008), 4, S.1287
  • Tracking a Traitor – On the Trail of Benedict Arnold – Some of the infuriating questions surrounding the man can be answered by visiting the fields where he fought, by: Wetherell, W.D.. – In: American heritage, ISSN 0002-8738 (2007), S.58-69
  • Movie Reviews – Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, by: Martin, James Kirby. – In: The journal of American history, ISSN 0021-8723, Bd. 90 (2003), 3, S.1121-1122
  • Reviews of Books – CANADA AND THE UNITED STATES – Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered, by: Martin, James Kirby. – In: The American historical review, ISSN 0002-8762, Bd. 104 (1999), 1, S.186
  • Benedict Arnold as Hero – Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (review), by: Shalhope, Robert E. – In: Reviews in American history, ISSN 0048-7511, Bd. 26 (1998), 4, S.668-673
  • Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (review), by: Newcomb, Benjamin H. – In: Pennsylvania magazine of history and biography, ISSN 0031-4587, Bd. 122 (1998), 3, S.301
  • A Spy under the Common Law of War, by Wade Milis, Addison, MI: Courier Printing House, 1925.

[1] Lender, Mark Edward, and Martin, James Kirby. “A Traitor’s Epiphany: Benedict Arnold in Virginia and His Quest for Reconciliation”. In: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 125, no. 4, 2017, pp. 314–357. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26322642.

[2] Millis, Wade. A Spy under the Common Law of War. Addison, MI: Courier Printing House, 1925, 4.

[3] Millis, 3.

[4] Millis, 16.

[5] ‘I am branded with nothing dishonourable, as no motive could be mine but the service of my king and as I was involuntarily an impostor.’ United States Army (ed.), The Trial of Major John Andre: With an Appendix, Containing Sundry Interesting Letters Interchanged on the Occasion, Palmer, Mass.: Ezekiel Terry, for James Warner, Wilbraham, 1810, 13.

[6] United States Army, 12.

[7] “Über das britische Kriegsrecht und dessen Ausübung” Korn, Christoph Heinrich. Geschichte der Kriege in und ausser Europa. Nürnberg: Gabriel Nikolaus Raspe, Volume III, 1777-1785, 12.

[8] United States Army, The Trial of Major John Andre, 21

[9] United States Army, 22

[10] United States Army, 14

[11] Proceedings of a board of general officers, held by order of His Excellency Gen. Washington, commander in chief of the army of the United States of America. Respecting Major John André, adjutant general of the British Army. September 29, 1780, Evans Early American Imprint Collection: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/n13491.0001.001?view=text&seq=11

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] United States Army, The Trial of Major John Andre, 23

[15] United States Army, 23 and 44.

[16] United States Army, 31.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Proceedings of a board of general officers, held by order of His Excellency Gen. Washington, commander in chief of the army of the United States of America. Respecting Major John André, adjutant general of the British Army. September 29, 1780: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N13491.0001.001/1:12.8?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

[19] Ibid.

[20] Inglis, Charles. The case of Major John Andre, adjutant-general to the British Army, who was put to death by the rebels, October 2, 1780, candidly represented: with remarks on the said case. [Three lines from Lord Clarendon], Evans Early American Imprint Collection: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?cc=evans;c=evans;idno=n13232.0001.001;node=N13232.0001.001:3;seq=12;page=root;view=text

[21] Inglis, Charles. The case of Major John Andre, adjutant-general to the British Army, who was put to death by the rebels, October 2, 1780, candidly represented: with remarks on the said case. [Three lines from Lord Clarendon], Evans Early American Imprint Collection: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?cc=evans;c=evans;idno=n13232.0001.001;node=N13232.0001.001:3;seq=25;page=root;view=text

[22] Lender and Martin, A Traitor’s Epiphany, 316.


Cite this article as: Monika Barget, "John Andre, Benedict Arnold and concepts of heroism in the American Revolution," in Revolts as Communication, December 9, 2020, https://revolt.hypotheses.org/1240.

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