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The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission

June 2024
10min read

General Washington wanted Benedict Arnold taken alive, right in the heart of British-held New York.

On the night of October 20, 1780, the weathered tents of the Continental Army were pitched in the rolling cattle country around Totowa above the Great Falls of the Passaic in New Jersey. Rain was making, and the night was moonless and black.

About ten o’clock, Sergeant Major John Champe of Lee’s Light Horse Corps slipped past the camp guards and trotted out on the road that ran southeastward toward Bergen. Two British warships lay in Communipaw Bay, just beyond Bergen, and the deserting sergeant figured that with fair luck he would be safely aboard one of them by good daylight.

It was a full night’s ride to the bay, and big John Champe settled to it. He was more than two miles on his way when a Continental outpost patrol came upon him from a side road. As the patrol halted and flung out a challenge, Champe spurred past and in a short race outran them. Furiously the patrol turned about and galloped for camp to report to the officer of the day that a deserter had managed to escape them.

A few minutes later, Captain Patrick Carnes stood before Major Henry Lee, asking permission to send off a pursuit party at once. Surprisingly, instead of agreeing to instant action, Lee reprimanded the captain severely for rousing him from sleep and professed to believe the whole report was exaggerated. He reminded Carnes that although desertions were common enough in the Continental Army, they were almost unheard of in his corps and ordered the captain to check the picket line for a missing horse. When Carnes returned and declared vehemently that not only was a horse missing but that he had discovered the deserter was Sergeant John Champe, Lee patronizingly told him he must be mistaken. Surely, said Lee, Champe had only gone off on an “excursion of pleasure,” an offense grave enough, but not desertion.

If Captain Carnes was exasperated by the stubborn incredulity of his major, he would have been astounded could he have known that Lee was deliberately delaying pursuit in order to help Champe get off safely to the enemy. For Champe’s desertion had been intricately planned by Lee and the commander in chief, General Washington himself. While Lee temporized by preparing long written orders for the pursuit party, he alone knew that Champe was away upon the most bizarre secret mission of the Revolutionary War.

Less than a month before, the Continental Army had been stunned by the treachery of Benedict Arnold. Outwardly General Washington had taken Arnold’s perfidy with the same cool reasonableness that usually marked his judgment. He had immediately sent two of his aides on a vain ride to intercept the fleeing traitor. He had reordered the positions of his army to protect the jeopardized fortress at West Point. Unhesitatingly he had endorsed the death sentence pronounced by a board of officers upon amiable and admired Major John André, Arnold’s go-between, who had been unfortunate enough to fall into American hands.

But beneath his apparent calm, Washington was a man shaken and outraged. He desperately wanted Arnold—not merely to destroy him, but by a proper trial and sentence to make an example of him before his army and the world. But there was only one way to get him, and that was to snatch him bodily from the British Army in New York.

Washington talked it over with Henry Lee, and Lee, who had worked with the Continental espionage system and whose corps was full of men of enterprise, came up with the man for the job, Sergeant Major John Champe. Champe, a tall, muscular veteran of 23 or 24, had been singled out as a “very promising youth of uncommon taciturnity and inflexible perseverance.” Lee, a fellow Virginian, also knew the Champe family of Loudoun County and was confident from both John Champe’s “connections and his service in the army” that under every circumstance he would be “faithful” to his command.

Lee summoned Champe to his headquarters about nine o’clock the night of October 19, and after bolting the door behind him revealed to the dumfounded sergeant a daring plan: Champe was to desert to the British at New York. There he must manage to enlist in the corps that Benedict Arnold was known to be raising. He was to “insinuate himself” into a berth close to the traitor, while maintaining correspondence and meetings every second day with an American agent who would come in from Newark and make himself known as Mr. Baldwin. When a favorable night presented itself, they were somehow to seize Arnold and under cover of darkness get him across the Hudson to Bergen Woods, where an American patrol would meet them to escort them to headquarters. Mr. Baldwin would provide a boat on the appointed night.

To assure absolute secrecy, however, Champe must actually run every risk of any real deserter. The only aid Lee could promise him was to delay pursuit as long as possible after his desertion was discovered to give him a better chance to reach the enemy.

At first, Champe hesitated, not from fear but from repugnance at the idea of acting the deserter. Persuaded, however, by promise of a coveted promotion if he should succeed and the assurance that Lee would clear his name if he should meet with accident, he finally agreed to go after the traitor.

Lee immediately wrote to Washington, “I have engaged two persons to undertake the accomplishment of your Excellency’s wishes. In my negotiation I have said little or nothing concerning your Excellency, as I presumed it would operate disagreeably should the issue prove disastrous.” He had offered Champe promotion, he reported, and Mr. Baldwin, “one hundred guineas, five hundred acres of land, and three Negroes.” If the scheme should fail, Mr. Baldwin still was to be paid the hundred guineas and “an additional sum of money.”

“A few guineas,” said Lee, “will be necessary ” for Champe.

Washington promptly approved the plan as Lee outlined it, “with this express stipulation and pointed injunction, that he, A———d, is brought to me alive. No circumstance whatever shall obtain my consent to his being put to death. The idea which would accompany such an event would be that ruffians had been hired to assassinate him. My aim is to make a public example of him.”

The General sent five guineas for the sergeant, but shrewdly observed he was “not satisfied of the propriety of the sergeant’s appearing with much specie. This circumstance may also lead to suspicion, as it is but too well known to the enemy that we do not abound in that article.”

So on the night of the twentieth, Champe had conferred for the last time with Major Lee, packed his company orderly book and his personal belongings into his knapsack, and started his strange journey.

In all, Lee contrived to gain about an hour and a quarter’s head start for Champe, before a squad of some fifteen dragoons thundered out of camp to chase him down. For hours Champe kept his lead, through Liberty Pole and the seven miles of forest called the English Neighbourhood to the vicinity of a popular tavern, the Three Pigeons, on the western slope of the ridge that flanked the salt marshes of the Hudson. But daylight caught him just emerging from the woods into the broad plain below the tavern. Suddenly the sound of horses came down to him on the sharp morning air. Glancing up he saw the dragoons on the eminence above the Three Pigeons.

Bergen was still four miles ahead. The village was the entry from the north to both the usual road to the British post at Paulus Hook and below it the road to Communipaw Bay. Champe guessed his pursuers would think he was bound for Paulus Hook and they would take a well-known short cut to the Paulus Hook road to intercept him. When he reached the spot where the short cut forked left, he was momentarily hidden from the squad by a clump of woods. Instead of turning he roweled his mount and “at a venture” took the road straight to Bergen.

He had guessed well. His pursuers split into two parties to trap him at the bridge between Bergen and Paulus Hook, while he dashed through the village and sought the road running east a mile and a half to the bay. He had nearly reached the marshes on the shore when the squad, having discovered his deception and traced him through Bergen, came into sight again. He had just discarded his belt and scabbard, strapped his knapsack high on his shoulders, and plunged into the water when the dragoons enveloped his abandoned horse.

A British officer, observing the scene from the rail of one of the frigates, realized that an American deserter was trying to reach them and ordered a gun crew to cover him with grape shot, while a boat pushed off to pick him up. By a margin of fifty or sixty yards, and with the succor of the enemy, Champe was saved from the pistols of his own corps.

Aboard ship, Champe gave his name to his rescuers and said he wished to take British protection in New York. Very likely he was soon in the city, but it was Saturday, the twenty-first of October, and he was held until Monday for questioning.

The first hazardous step of the plot had been accomplished.

On Monday, October 23, 1780, in the beautiful high-ceilinged rooms of British Army Headquarters in the Kennedy mansion at 1 Broadway, John Champe was examined by Assistant Adjutant General George Beckwith. As the Continental sergeant told his story, Beckwith recorded it:

“October 23d. John Champe, Sergeant Major in Major Lee’s Corps deserted from Passaic fall last Thursday night [it was Friday]. Major Lee’s Corps consists of 90 mounted and one hundred dismounted. Marquis De Lafayette’s infantry are there. Provisions very irregularly given out some days none. The Ration a pound fresh beef and ditto flour. The soldiery very much dissatisfied with the French.”

Beckwith and the British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, found the “deserter’s” story altogether acceptable. It added up. Many other malcontents had come over from the Continental Army with similar reports. The defection of a sergeant from a corps known even in the British Army for its staunch loyalty to the rebel cause, instead of arousing suspicion, on the contrary was taken as especially indicative of growing unrest among the Continentals.

Champe was offered the opportunity to enlist in the British Army, but he convinced his benefactors that to do so would too greatly increase his risk of being captured and hanged by the rebels, and they were satisfied to turn him loose to find employment in Manhattan. His next step was to place himself in the good graces of Benedict Arnold.

That task was simplified by the prominence and proximity of Arnold’s quarters next door to Sir Henry’s green-shuttered headquarters in the slightly less imposing but equally handsome dwelling at 3 Broadway. Almost within the hour after he left Beckwith, Champe “accidentally” ran into Arnold on the street. Still wearing his Light Horse uniform, it was easy enough to catch Arnold’s eye and strike up conversation with the newly commissioned British Brigadier General. Champe’s quiet, earnest manner seemed entirely convincing to Arnold as the Sergeant told him he had been inspired to desert a lost cause by Arnold’s own example; the traitor offered him a post in his Loyalist Legion of similar rank to that which he had held in Lee’s Corps. Accommodating the misgivings he had pretended to Clinton when offered a chance to enlist, Champe joined Arnold.

As a noncom in Arnold’s Legion, Champe had easy access to the Colonels quarters and person. No. 3 Broadway, looking out upon the now unkempt Bowling Green and across its trampled sod to the houses burned out in the 1776 fire, was almost at the very tip of the island. Beyond it to the south lay only Headquarters and imposing old Fort George and the Battery. The houses were almost flush with the sidewalk, but behind and north of 3 Broadway was a large fenced garden which extended down to the black rocks of the Hudson’s shore. North of the garden a seldom-used alley, also running out to the water’s edge, separated the garden from the next property. Champe discovered that it was Arnold’s unvarying habit to stroll in the garden each midnight before retiring; this was the place to seize him.

Over a period of days Champe worked loose three or four palings of the garden fence, so that under cover of dark he and his confederate could step noiselessly through them. He planned with Mr. Baldwin upon an appointed night to pounce on Arnold, stick a gag in his mouth, and drag him through the fence into the alley. Holding him upright between them, they would drag him out of the alley, around the corner past 1 Broadway, and to a waiting boat at the pier behind the headquarters house. If the sentry at the doorstep of 1 Broadway challenged them, they would call out that they were taking a drunken companion home and hope to get off in the dark.

Establishing contact with Mr. Baldwin and through him keeping in touch with Lee had proved easy; by the twenty-fifth, two days after Champe had been examined at British Headquarters, Lee knew about the interrogation and about his fortuitous meeting with Arnold. But Champe was a cautious, deliberate sort, and he took his time perfecting the details of the kidnapping. It was December before he set a night, the eleventh, for taking Arnold. Lee was no longer in New Jersey. The Light Horse had gone south as an independent legion to join General Nathanael Greene’s army in the Carolinas, and Champe was working with new contacts at Continental Army Headquarters.

During the tense afternoon hours of the eleventh, while Champe waited impatiently for the winter darkness, Arnold suddenly confronted him with an order: he was to embark at once with the rest of the Loyalist Legion on the transports in the harbor for a voyage to Virginia. The long-deferred British expedition to the Chesapeake was under way.

Champe was trapped. There was nothing to do but join the troops toiling up the gangplanks, and there was no time to notify Mr. Baldwin. The opportunity for seizing Arnold was snatched away by a coincidence of timing; that night Continental soldiers waited in Bergen Woods in vain.

After a violent sea passage, Arnold’s transports disgorged their battered troops and surviving horses in the James River on January 4, 1781. And while Arnold, the American traitor, burned and pillaged Virginia, John Champe reluctantly marched with him. If it were not enough that Champe’s painfully nurtured plans had been smashed, he now was compelled to war against his own country and comrades. It was entirely possible that he might face his own corps in battle. If captured and identified as a former American soldier, he faced summary trial and execution unless he could somehow get word to Henry Lee, the only man in the Southern Department who knew that his desertion had been staged under the authority of the Commander in Chief. Desertion from the British Army held almost as much peril, for if caught he would be hanged by them as a deserter. However, he decided he had to chance it; he had to escape and attempt to make his way to Lee’s Legion, somewhere in the Carolinas.

So sometime before Arnold was recalled to New York in late spring, John Champe deserted from the British camp as skillfully as he once had from his own. How long he traveled the back roads of Virginia and the Carolinas no one was ever to know. Henry Lee later recalled it was May when Champe showed up at the Legion camp on the Congaree River.

Although his mission had failed, Champe had performed an extraordinary duty with faithfulness, courage, and daring. In order to prevent his being taken in battle by the enemy and hanged, Lee granted him an honorary discharge, and sent him as a civilian back to the remote security of Loudoun County, Virginia, to sit out the rest of the war.

Had Sergeant Champe succeeded in taking Arnold, he would at least have won his promotion. As it turned out, he received no reward whatever. He died years before the Congress, in 1818, established pensions for Revolutionary veterans, although his widow in 1837, when nearly eighty, was granted $120 per annum as the needy relict of a Revolutionary soldier. Ironically, however, in 1847, Sergeant Champe was awarded a sort of posthumous promotion: that year, in consideration of his special service, the Congress of the United States granted his descendants an amount equal to the commutation pay of an ensign in the Continental service.

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