A Visit to the Major John André Monument
“I had taken my station close on the left of Major Andre’s left hand officer; and continued in that station the whole march. The guard marched a short distance when it wheeled to the left, turning a corner of the road, and marched a short distance, when they again wheeled to the left, in order to pass through a fence. Having entered a field, they marched forward a short distance, wheeled to the right, and halted. The ground here was level; a little distance in front was a moderate ascending hill, on the top of which the gallows was erected. In the position where they halted, Major Andre was, for the first time, in view of the gallows. Major Andre here said, ‘Gentlemen, I am disappointed. I expected my request’ (which was to be shot) ‘would have been granted.’ No answer was given, and he continued with his arms locked with those of the two officers. — Dawson, Papers Concerning André
Early one morning, as commuters made their way to work and parents waited for the school bus on street corners throughout town, I made a quick stop to visit the Major John André Monument. André was swept up in the treason of Benedict Arnold and paid the ultimate price when Arnold wouldn’t turn himself in, hung and buried at this spot on 2 October 1780. George Washington himself would lament the death of André, stating that “he was more unfortunate than criminal”.
The Hudson River Valley was once the headquarters for George Washington. The river was a critical transportation hub, and if the British were to control it they would have cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. Benedict Arnold was once a highly-respected leader in the Continental army and the fight to protect the Hudson River and Lake Champlain from British control. But he was increasingly frustrated with his status, feeling like he wasn’t properly honored and rewarded for his leadership. His wife was also a Tory and desired a better position in society. This made him a prime candidate for recruitment by the British turn against the American Colonies.
Major John André, a rising star in the British Army, was chosen to meet with Benedict Arnold to formalize the details of engagement and Arnold’s rewards, both financial and status, for turning against the Americans. Arnold and André met on a warship in the Hudson River and again on shore not very far north from where André’s American journey would end. Unfortunately for André, his warship was chased off by cannon and during his overland journey back to British-controlled territory he was captured in enemy territory while disguised as an American. This made him a spy and subject to execution. That execution would happen on a small hill in what is now Tappan, New York.
“Every attention and respect was paid to Major Andre that it was possible to pay to a man in his situation … every officer and soldier in the army would have lifted both hands for the exchange of Andre for General Arnold. This exchange was offered by General Washington, but refused by General Clinton, the British Commander-in-chief. So the life of a traitor was saved; and Major Andre fell a sacrifice” — Dawson, Papers Concerning André
Major John André was later exhumed from the site and is now buried as a hero at Westminster Abbey. The site of his execution remained unmarked and, like so many historical places, eventually doomed to obscurity. In 1879, a wealthy American named Cyrus W. Field, who laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean, decided to put a monument up honoring Major John André. It makes sense that a man who made his fortune connecting the Old World with the New would seek to honor a dignified officer seen as more unfortunate than criminal. But it would take time for the community to see it the same way. As you might imagine, erecting a monument honoring an enemy soldier associated with the most notorious traitor in American history was unpopular at the time, and there were three attempts to destroy the monument before someone decided to add a plaque honoring George Washington and his army.
You’d never know the monument was there, in the middle of a small traffic circle on a quiet residential street, if you didn’t seek it out. Such is the nature of the Hudson River Valley today, rooted in history but built for the future. The former encampment and small hill where Major John André met his fate are today simply suburbia in Metro New York. Yet history still whispers here, and reminds us that nation-defining heroism and treachery once played out right here.