More Unfortunate Than Criminal…

The Unfortunate Death of Major André

Now Arnold to New York has gone,
A-fighting for his King,
And left poor Major André
On the gallows for to swing.

From the place where Major André came ashore to the place where he was hanged is just 22 minutes on modern roads by modern car.  It actually took the major longer than that, but he took a more circuitous route and had other adventures on the way.

We drove south from Haverstraw to Tappan, New York.  The site of Major André’s hanging was on a hilltop,  a half-mile behind the tavern where he had been kept prisoner.  The sky was grey and starting to spit rain, a suitably gloomy circumstance for the visit.

Major André was hanged at 12 noon on Monday, the 2nd of October, 1780.  When it was clear that the sentence of his court-martial was death, he had only one request: that he be shot by firing squad, rather than hanged.  He wrote to General Washington:

Tappan, Oct.1, 1780


Bouy’d above the terror of death, by the consciousness of a life devoted to honourable pursuits, and stained with no action that can give me remorse, I trust that the request I make to your Excellency at this serious period,  and which is to soften my last moments, will not be rejected.

Sympathy towards a soldier will surely induce your Excellency and a military tribunal to adopt the mode of my death to the feelings of a man of honour.

Let me hope, Sir, that if ought in my character impresses you with esteem towards me, if ought in my misfortunes marks me as the victim of policy and not of resentment, I shall experience the operation of these feeling in your breast, by being informed that I am not to die on a gibbet.

I have the honour to be, your Excellency’s
Most obedient and most humble servant,
Adj. Gen. of the British army

Monument on the site of Major Andrés hanging

The place of Major André’s execution and burial is marked today by a truncated obelisk of black granite surrounded by an iron fence.  41°1′17″N 73°57′17″W (41.021389, -73.954722).  The street address is 42 Andre Hill Drive, Tappan, NY.


The West (Front) side of the monument

On the west face of the monument you can read these words:

Here died October 2, 1780,
MAJOR JOHN ANDRE of the British Army
Who entering the American lines
On a secret mission to Benedict Arnold
for the surrender of West Point
was taken prisoner, tried, and condemned as a spy.
His death
though according to the stern code of war
moved even his enemies to pity
and both armies mourned the fate
of one so young and so brave.
In 1821 his remains were removed to Westminster Abbey.
A hundred years after his execution
this stone was placed above the spot where he lay
by a citizen of the states against which he fought
not to perpetuate the record of strife
but in token of those better feelings
which have since united two nations
one in race, in language and in religion,
with the earnest hope that this friendly union
will never be broken.

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster


The Right (south) side of the monument

The south face has the Latin motto:

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt

— Virgil Aeneid 1. 462

A common quote on military monuments,  Fagles (in the Penguin edition of the Aeneid)  translates this out to “the world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.”  Note on the ground the remains of a bouquet, bound with a ribbon imprinted with the Union Jack.

The left (north) face of the monument

The north face has the words:

“He was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer.”
— George Washington

The back (east) side of the monument

On the back, the east side, there’s a plaque:

This property
acquired November 13 1905 by
the American Scenic and Historic
Preservation Society
preserves the identity of
a place of historic interest
and commemorates the fortitude
of Washington and his generals
in one of the crises of the
American Revolution

Back here there was a cellophane wrapper such as those in which bouquets are commonly sold, but the flowers had long since decayed to a black mush.

As noted, Major André’s bones were returned to England in 1821.  His sarcophagus in Westminster Abbey is far more sumptuous than this bleak monument on a hilltop in Tappan:

 It consists of a sarcophagus with the figure of a mourning Britannia (the female personification of Britain) and a sad-looking lion on top. A relief on the front shows Washington receiving Andre’s petition for death by firing squad, while Andre is led off for execution. A woman sits under a tree wringing her hands in sorrow.

Major André, himself, met his death bravely.  He placed the noose around his own neck and tied the blindfold around his own eyes.  He was left hanging for half-an-hour before being cut down, and the witnesses filed past him.  He died badly — his face had turned black, which tells me that he strangled rather than dying at once of a broken neck.

Having observed the site of Major André’s execution and first burial, we then headed off to see the places where he had been kept prisoner, and where he had been tried (with a side-trip to Washington’s headquarters).



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