Benedict Arnold and Major Andre: The 54th Regiment of Foot in America by Oli Horn
The 54th Regiment of Foot in America
The 54th Regiment of Foot was first raised in the 1750s, and involved in several major conflicts, including the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The 54th were also sent to the United States at the advent of the revolutionary war, and were involved in multiple engagements with colonial troops.
The 54th arrived in America in 1776, under the command of General Clinton and Commodore Parker, and attempted to attack Charleston, South Carolina, the largest town of the southern colonies. The regiment landed on Long Island, just outside Charleston Harbour, and began their attack.
From here, the 54th regiment was sent north to occupy Rhode Island, where they remained for the next two years, missing larger battles at Brandywine, Monmouth, and Germantown, but becoming entangled in smaller battles.
Benedict Arnold and Major Andre
18 months after the Battle of Rhode Island, the British also evacuated, and the 54th regiment returned to New York, where they would remain for the remainder of the revolutionary war. This was where the André/Arnold affair would take place.
Arnold is a household name in the States, but Benedict Arnold and Major Andre have largely slipped under the radar in Britain.
Major John André was born and raised in London in 1750, and first served in the 23rd Regiment of Foot in 1771. He was charming, well educated, and wrote poetry and plays – the ideal 1700s gentleman. He transferred to the 54th Regiment of Foot in 1779.
American General Benedict Arnold had become disillusioned with the American side, and he attempted to defect to the British. The exact motivations behind his actions are still debated today – debt, resentment over his lack promotion, influence from his loyalist in-laws, or a simple change of heart are all explanations that have been considered.
No one really knows why Arnold chose to betray his command, but nevertheless he offered information that would ensure the British could capture a facility at West Point that he commanded – which the British believed would give them control the Hudson River and deal a blow to the cause of American independence. In return, Arnold asked for £20,000 and a promotion in the British army. General Clinton accepted Arnold’s offer, on the condition that the British were able to capture West Point, and arranged for him to meet with André to settle the details of the deal.
On the 22nd of September 1780, under the careful and cautious instruction of General Clinton, André left the British ship Vulture, in a rowing boat, to meet Benedict Arnold.
The meeting took two hours, and André came away with detailed plans from Arnold as to how to capture West Point, but on attempting to return to the Vulture, the exhausted rowers of the boat refused to row André back to the boat during the evening, and the Vulture had been forced to move down river under threat of American gunfire – making a return to it that night impossible.
The plans had to be changed, which is where things began to fall apart for Major André. André had been under strict instructions not to carry any incriminating papers, not to change out of his uniform, and not to enter enemy lines. On the night of the 22nd of September, he did every single one of those things.
André was first escorted through rebel lines to a safe house belonging to Joshua Hewett Smith, where Benedict Arnold then suggested that André should return to British lines on horseback, a 40-mile ride that would take him through American checkpoints and leave him vulnerable to capture and exposition. In order to complete the ride, André donned civilian clothes and was provided with a passport identifying him as John Anderson. André set off for the British lines escorted by Smith, who was unaware of the details of what Arnold and André had discussed. The pair parted ways at Pines Bridge, and André continued onwards, alone.
The major was nearly home when he was stopped by 3 American militiamen. André identified himself as British, believing the men to be loyalists, who told him they were in fact American, and he was now their prisoner. André then told them he was an American officer, showing them the passport he had been provided by Arnold, but the men became suspicious of André and his contradictions. When they searched him, they found the papers belonging to Arnold hidden in his boot. If André had been wearing his uniform, he would have been a prisoner of war, protected by that status and potentially traded for an American prisoner. But he wasn’t wearing his uniform, and so could be deemed a spy.
André was brought in front of George Washington and the Board of General Officers and attempted to defend himself by saying that he had not wanted or intended to cross into enemy lines, that the “influence of one commander in the army of his adversary is an advantage taken in war,” and that he was simply serving his king. His pleas made no impact on his case – the evidence against him was clear.
On the 29th of September 1780, the board found André guilty of “[changing] his dress within our lines, …under a feigned name,” being “in a disguised habit,” and stated that “when taken, he had in his possession several papers which contained information for the enemy.” The board decided that “Major André, Adjutant 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.”
André’s request to be executed as a gentleman by firing squad was rejected, and so in October 1780 he was hung. Upon viewing the gallows, eyewitnesses report that André recoiled, and then stated that he was “reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” André’s last words were “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The museum contains a model of his hanging.
As no one initially suspected him of being involved, Benedict Arnold was informed of the capture of André and was able to flee successfully, defecting to the British side. He was paid £6315, made Brigadier-general in the British army, and when the 54th Regiment embarked on their last action of the war by storming Fort Griswold in Connecticut, he was amongst their number, leading the charge. Whilst prisoner, André was well liked by the American officers, with Washington writing “he was more unfortunate than criminal, an accomplished man and a gallant officer,” and Hamilton writing “never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice or deserve it less.” In 1821, 41 years after
The British evacuated New York in 1783, and the 54ths were transferred to Nova Scotia.
The museum collection includes a several items relating to Benedict Arnold and Major Andre, most notably one of his shoe buckles, a snuff box and a lock of his hair, along with numerous correspondence in the archives relating to the affair.
Written by Oli Horn, work experience student at the Keep from Parkstone Grammar School, Poole
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To learn more about Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution, visit the Museum of the American Revolution!
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