Saturday 8 December 2018

Book Review: John André by D.A.B. Ronald (Biography)

Title: John André
Author: D.A.B. Ronald
Casemate Publishers

Publication Date: 19 January 2019
eBook - PDF
ARC via NetGalley

John André was head of the British Army’s Secret Service in North America as the Revolutionary War entered its most bitter and, ultimately, decisive phase. In 1780, he masterminded the defection of a high-ranking American officer—General Benedict Arnold. Arnold—his name for ever synonymous with treason in American folklore—had recently been appointed commander of West Point and agreed, through André, to turn over to the British this strategically vital fort on the upper reaches of the Hudson River. Control of the fort would interrupt lines of communication between New England and the southern colonies, seriously impeding military operations against the British. The plan was also to simultaneously kidnap General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. By these two masterstrokes, the British believed they could end rebel resistance.

The secret negotiations between Arnold and André were protracted and fraught with danger. Arnold’s new wife, Peggy became the go-between in the negotiations. Arnold insisted that, to complete negotiations, he and André must meet face to face. At the dead of night on September 21st 1780 the two rendezvoused in no-man’s-land. Sir Henry Clinton, commander of British forces in North America and André’s immediate superior, agreed to this meeting but with three strict conditions: that André not go within the American lines; that he remain in uniform; and that he carry away from the meeting no incriminating papers. Thus, if caught, André could not be treated as a spy.

Yet, when André was captured forty-eight hours later, he was within American lines, had changed into civilian clothes and was carrying maps of West Point hidden in his boots. The Americans had no option other than to treat him as a spy, especially when he himself admitted this. He was convicted by military tribunal and hanged—his death lamented both in America and England.

While biographers agree on the facts of this tragic episode, they disagree on André’s motives and why he chose to sacrifice himself. This new biography of André puts forward a new answer to this mystery—not only why he acted as he did, but how he wished others to see his actions.

I have been deeply interested in John André for several years now. I have read anything and everything I can find on him, from contemporary documents (including his own writings) to later biographies, and of the latter, this one by D.A.B. Ronald is my favourite so far. I appreciate the amount of time he spends on André's early years, which many authors gloss over in order to get to the Revolutionary days. This is a nicely balanced work that takes time to assess what in André's psychology and background led him to make the choices he did. The biography is well researched, and it's clear Ronald is passionate about his subject. This is definitely a book I would like to acquire in hard copy to keep on my shelf as it's a gripping and detailed account of the life of cher Jean.

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