Art & Intrigue: A Work By Revolutionary War Spy John André

Everyone loves a good spy thriller, and in the case of British Army officer Major John André, it seems everyone loved a spy. Our upcoming auction of Printed & Manuscript Americana features a storied engraving with a history of intrigue, conspiracy and death behind it.

Major John André is famous for his collusion with the notorious traitor Benedict Arnold during the American Revolutionary War. The two met in secret on September 20, 1780 near West Point, the fort Arnold held, and negotiated its surrender. André was arrested days later under a false name, carrying documents and the map of West Point Arnold had provided him. 

Lot 29: John André, A Representation of Major John André…going from the Vulture Sloop of War, aquatint, circa 1781. Estimate $15,000 to $25,000.

After being tried by a court of fourteen generals organized by George Washington, André was sentenced to death for espionage. This engraving was done from a sketch drawn by André on the morning of his execution. It depicts him being rowed across the Hudson River to his fateful meeting with Benedict Arnold. The caption reads in part: 

“A representation of Major John André, Adjutant General to the Kings Forces in North America, going from the Vulture Sloop of War to the shore of Haverstraw Bay in Hudsons River the Night of the 23d. of September 1780, in a Boat which was sent for him . . . under the Sanction of a Flag of Truce, by Major General Arnold, who then commanded the Rebel Forces in that district. The above is an exact Copy of a Drawing sketch’d with a Pen by Major André himself, the Morning on which he was to have been executed . . . and found on his Table with other Papers the next day (being that of his Death) by his servant, and delivered by him on his arrival at New York to Lieut. Colonel Crosbie of the 22d. Regiment, who has caused this Engraving to be taken from the Original in his Possession, as a small Mark of his Friendship for that very valuable and unfortunate officer.” 

Self-portrait of Major John André drawn on the eve of his execution, from the George Dudley Seymour papers at the Yale University Library

During André’s time as a prisoner prior to his execution, he managed to make quite an impression on his captors. Many of the generals in the court that tried him seemed to regret sending the 30-year-old officer to his death. The Marquis de Lafayette noted, “All the court … were filled with sentiments of admiration and compassion for him. He behaved with so much frankness, courage and delicacy that I could not help lamenting his unhappy fate. This was one of the most painful duties I ever had to perform.”

John André, Contemporary Copy of the British spy’s final letter from an American prison, Tappan, NY, 29 September, 1780. Sold September 17, 2015 for $2,750. 

In his final letter from prison, André informed his superior officer General Henry Clinton, “I am perfectly tranquil in my mind, and prepared for any fate.” General Washington noted, after André walked to the gallows and fitted the noose around his own neck, “André has met his fate, which we could not but lament, with that fortitude which was to be expected from an accomplished man and a gallant officer.”

For a look at more thrilling Revolutionary War items, check out the complete catalogue.