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Your Local History: British Agent Detained in Tarrytown, Executed in Rockland

Revolutionary War history in the Hudson Valley.

Not quite recent news, but pretty big news nonetheless. 

In 1780. 

That’s when Major John André, conspiring with General Benedict Arnold in an act of treason, was captured, tried and executed by American revolutionaries.

If you need a refresher, here goes.

Although Independence from Britain had been declared in 1776, the Revolutionary War continued to rage in 1780. Once General George Washington was defeated at the Battle of Long Island, the region north of Manhattan saw plenty of action as the battleground moved to Westchester County—where André’s woes began.

Meanwhile, even further north, Benedict Arnold had been appointed commander of West Point, and had traitorous plans in mind. West Point, renowned as the greatest army academy in the United States today, was the fortress safeguarding the Hudson River from seizure by the British who, by this time, had the upper hand in the war. 

By the time Arnold was appointed to the post, he had been overlooked for a promotion, had grown discontent with his compatriots and was ready to defect to the British Army.

Enter Major André.

André and Arnold had been corresponding in secret prior to their clandestine meeting near Haverstraw, New York. Their plan? Arnold would provide André with detailed plans of West Point’s fortifications—strength and weaknesses—thereby facilitating a British attack and takeover of the fort. André’s task was to safely delivery the blueprint for battle to British headquarters in Manhattan.

But it didn’t work out quite as planned.

André travelled southward from Yorktown, after ferrying across the Hudson from Haverstraw, intending to further his journey to Manhattan. André was furnished with directions by members of a local family, the Underhills, which would eventually land the British Major on Hardscrabble Road, near the border of what is now Briarcliff Manor and Pleasantville. A historical plaque marks the site to indicate where André paused to provide water for his horses. This is where André‘s problems begin to escalate.

The British spy ignored a critical piece of advice given to him by his commander, British General Henry Clinton: that he should absolutely abstain from carrying any compromising documentation on his journey to New York City. Historians also tend to agree that he should have equipped himself with a map.

After the stop on Hardscrabble Road, he asked directions from a child, which led him on the path to New York City via Tarrytown, rather than a path through the eastern part of Mount Pleasant. For André, it was an unfortunate choice.

Local militia men (David Williams, Isaac Van Wart and John Paulding) were patrolling the Albany Post Road in Tarrytown when André rode through. He was detained for questions and, after the men conducted a search, the plans for West Point were discovered in André’s boot. He was taken captive and eventually held prisoner in Tappan, New York. After a trial at the Old Dutch Church, André faced the gallows and was hanged.

The capture of André proved to be instrumental in preventing the British from controlling West Point, which could have easily ended the Americans attempt to win freedom from the British.

Much controversy surrounded the condemnation and eventual execution of the well-liked, amiable and capable British officer. Even the young, patriotic Alexander Hamilton—Washington’s aide-de-camp—attempted to intervene on André’s behalf after spending time with Andre during his imprisonment in Tappan.

Andre was buried in Tappan, but his remains were subsequently exhumed and interred at London’s Westminster Abbey.

A visit to each of these historic sites can easily been accomplished in a day, perhaps even culminating with a stop—and a meal—at the Old 76 House in Tappan, the historic tavern where Andre was imprisoned and for years had been the meeting place of many American patriots. 

Letitia Woods July 05, 2013 at 06:20 PM
Wow, great story! I had no idea of the history that is literally in my own back yard!
Honora Firth-Jones July 05, 2013 at 10:51 PM
I would welcome a Revolutionary War tour of Westchester County. It probably could not be on foot!
Jerry Eimbinder July 06, 2013 at 07:11 AM
Looking forward to seeing more. Maybe a series? Major André is also one of many ghosts believed to haunt the Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow area. He didn't want to die by hanging but his pleas to be executed by a firing squad went unheeded by General George Washington and he was taken to the gallows on October 2, 1780. Angry at both the Americans for the style of his execution and the British for refusing an offer of exchange for Arnold, Andre died in a state of rage. His ghost is said to roam the grounds of Patriot’s Park in Tarrytown to this day. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, commander of the American forces, was assigned to protect the Hudson and prevent British ships of war from proceeding upriver. By a twist of fate, Wayne received and carried out the order to hang Andre, yet, he too has apparently refused death’s finality; his ghost is said to patrol the river looking for enemy ships but that, out of respect for Andre’s ghost, it carefully avoids Patriot’s Park.
Kathleen Reilly July 07, 2013 at 09:09 PM
Jerry, thank you for your kind words! Local history is fascinating and a series would be wonderful. Very true about the firing squad vs. hanging... there is so much history to include. Maybe one day I will visit Patriots Park at night... and see the ghost for myself.
CBSheridan August 26, 2013 at 11:41 AM
Here's your chance to visit the Rockland Sites involved in these events: http://www.rocklandhistory.org/event.cfm?page=307

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