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An English view of Andre’s Execution – Jumonville

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

March 14.—A writer in the London Public Advertiser,1 gives the following reflections on the catastrophe of Major Andre:—

As nothing that concerns humanity can ever be imagined foreign to a British breast, any prefatory apology for a discussion of the degree of right or of wrong in the treatment of the unfortunate Major Andre, may very justly be considered as an insult to the reader, in its implication of a diffidence of his heart.

But even such a discussion is not the only motive of this address; another capital one extorts it; a wish to satisfy the public that the Marquis La Fayette, then in the colony camp, and who, in all probability, irresistibly instigated Mr. Washington to the perpetration of that horrid crime, has therein not less wounded the honor of France than the feelings of humanity; a point which, when clearly established, cannot even displease those of the colonists themselves who, unfortunately, under the force of a cruel imposture, have been betrayed into such execrable lengths of criminality, as from their very souls they would otherwise probably have detested. A presumption this, which does not, however, extend to the incendiaries of the rebellion themselves, who must be too case-hardened to receive an impression of truth and reason.

First is to the pretended right of sacrificing the major to the rigor of martial law. True it is that general usage or practice constitutes the common law of war; and according to that, certain it is that spies when taken, are liable to be put to death. But according to the best information, the laws of war, in the true spirit of military honor, make a very justifiable difference between spies; a designation which in itself interposes no disgrace or derogation from the highest rank: at least I never heard it imputed as such, to one of the greatest kings that ever illustrated the English nation. Alfred, in the Danish camp, in the disguise of a harper, even accepting gratuities in that character, assumed for the laudable purpose of gaining useful intelligence against the enemies of his country, was not, perhaps, in that adventure, less Alfred the Great, than when pompously seated on his throne. Nor has he been the only prince that personally risked a stratagem of that kind. This is only mentioned to invalidate that cruel and unfair conclusion, that if the major demeaned himself to the personage of a spy, he was bound to take a spy’s fate, an ignominious death.

Justice, severe justice, (it has been said,) making no distinction of persons, no wrong was done to him; the law of war took his forfeited life. But this is, in general, false. That very law of usage leaves a latitude to discretion in favor of a very just, and consequently an honorable distinction.

The persons who fall under the description of spies, liable, on capture, to a summary death, are in general understood to be peasants, or of the very lowest class of men; not that the life of one in such a class is not, in the eye of justice, held intrinsically as sacred as that of the highest personage; but here lies the difference: A peasant, a low-lived mercenary, taken as a spy, is currently supposed to be actuated merely by the promise or prospect of a sordid fee or reward for the mischief implied by his errand. He is looked upon as having gone out of his line of life for a vile hire, without a spark of principle or of honor, and is accordingly treated and executed with very little ceremony. Whereas, generals or commissioned officers, though taken in the very attempt at such a service, are, unless some very aggravating circumstance should attend the act, not supposed to deserve any such ignominious treatment as usage appropriates to the lower ranks of life. The difference of the motive discriminates the undertaking. Their commission, if not an authority, is at least according to that usage which forms the military code of honor, an admissible excuse, and entitles them to the courtesy of a generous enemy. Thence their being commonly considered as only prisoners of war.

Here, should any false distinction of rank have been made, any officer may easily correct the error, and will surely forgive it in favor of the innocence of the intentioned. This was certainly not to mislead, but to put the reader on his own examination of the plea adduced to justify one of the most atrocious crimes that has occurred in the course of this ever execrable war—the murder in cold blood of so estimable a member of the British community. And for what? For the being taken in the very act of recovering a British subject to his own proper nation, he having in all truth no other. It was not an enemy he had been treating with to betray his own countrymen, but with a relenting subject of Britain, to concert the deliverance of himself and country, enslaved to a tyranny the more fierce and bloody for its being founded on imposture, treason, rebellion, and ingratitude, all sanctified with the stale pretence of liberty, coupled with the nick-name of America. Oh! shocking absurdity! Britain, we all know, is in Europe; but did ever Britain pretend to be Europe, as the British colonies have assumed to be America? They modestly christen that part of-our country America, and to heighten the joke, the French king piously stands godfather. Meanwhile, such is the boasted American liberty, which this unfortunate officer found to his cost could add new horrors to the face of war, and that war, too, a civil war!

We now bring home this barbarous, cowardly act more especially to the Count de Rochambeau, or to any French officer then in the camp. None of them could have ignorance to plead of a fact that was not of a nature to be forgotten by the French nation; a fact, the notoriety of which, ought to overwhelm with confusion whoever of them that did not disdain to instigate, or but to approve the perpetration of so black a crime by a chief who ought to have been particularly obnoxious to them, as Frenchmen, for a precedent action of his; an action of this Defender of American Liberty, that proves him worthy of such a cause, as the cause is indubitably worthy of such a defender. Be the reader the judge on the following narrative, principally taken from the preface of Mons. Thomas, a celebrated French writer, to an epic poem founded on a fact which there are, I presume, many colonists actually ready to authenticate on their own knowledge or well-grounded belief. But should I have been misinformed, I have only the public’s pardon to ask, not Mr. Washington’s, as no wrong will have been done him, since nothing could now add to his guilt.

It was in the year 1753, that in consequence of various disputes about the limits of the British and the French colonies, disputes which at length brought on a war between the two nations, that a British officer (Mr. Washington) had, near the Monongahela River, and the Great Meadows, built a fort on ground falsely, perhaps, claimed by the French. Consequently, a Mons. Contrecoeur, who commanded a body of troops posted on the banks of the Ohio, sent to Mr. Washington an officer of distinction with a letter, warning him to withdraw his force from the French territories. Mr. Washington pretended, at first, to comply with the summons, but, in fact, on the expectation of being soon attacked, he hurried on the building of the fort which he had begun, and gave it the name of Fort Necessity.

Mons. de Contrecoeur, uncertain of the English having withdrawn, despatched on the 20th of May, Mons. de Jumonville, a French officer, with an escort of thirty men, in order to ascertain that point, and if he found them not removed, he was to give the English officer a second summons of the like import as the first. The officer proceeded with this not unnecessary escort, in a country at no time absolutely clear of savages. At a small distance from the fort, he was, on a sudden, surrounded by some British provincials, who kept a terrible firing on him. With his hand he made a sign to the officer, holding up his credentials, and desired to be heard. The firing ceased, they surrounded him; he announced his mission, or character of envoy, and began reading aloud the summons of which he was the bearer, but had scarce got half way through it before he was shot dead.

‘Such (says the French writer) was the answer given by a nation that pretends itself a nation of philosophers, to the credentials of an envoy whose person is rendered sacred by a title in all ages and in all countries considered as inviolable.’ The firing then immediately recommenced. The party that escorted Jumonville being surrounded, eight of them were killed, and fell by the side of their murdered chief, who lay weltering in his blood. The rest were forced to surrender prisoners, one Canadian only escaping to carry the horrid news of a fact which scandalized even the savages themselves, to whom such a crime was a novelty.

On this advice, however, Mons. de Contrecoeur, surely not unjustly provoked to revenge this shocking assassination, sent &’ detachment under the command of Mons. de Villiers, brother to Jumonville. This officer, animated at once by nature and by duty to his country, had to revenge the murder of a brother, and the outrage to his nation. The indignant savages served him for guides. On the 3d of July he came to the spot where the assassination had been committed, a spot still stained with his brother’s blood, and where the bodies of the slaughtered French still lay unburied. What a sight! On this the fort was presently invested, attacked, and reduced to capitulate.

The express orders to Mons. de Villiers having been to use no further violence than would precisely serve to force the British to evacuate the French territories, and in general, for him to avoid any extremities that might bring on a rupture between the two crowns; that officer adhered so punctually to his instructions, that under such trying provocations, he had humanity and moderation enough to protect even the murderers of his brother against the rage of the savages, who ardently sought to sacrifice them to his resentment.

It is on these incidents that Mons. Thomas has built an epic poem, under the title of Jumonville, a poem in which Mr. Washington could not well be the hero, on any other footing than that of the infernal spirit in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The author, then, without deigning to name him, throws the whole odium of the action on the British nation itself.

Here, it is but fair to obviate the candid reader’s justly presumable objection, that after all, this villanous murder might only be, on the part of Mr. Washington, an innocent mistake, or, at the worst, a rash procedure. True, and great reason there would be for admitting such a plea. Unfortunately for it, our papers, our magazines of that time, all call it, without mincing the word, a murder, which had it been only an error, would have been in them a gross injustice. Whereas, as things were, they had the clearest authority on their side. From whom? Even from Mr. Washington himself, who, in the articles of capitulation, expressly signed his confession of having assassinated (assassiné, that was the term) Mons. Jumonville. Will it here by any shameless caviller be said, that he was at the time under a compulsion of bodily fear, to sign such a confession? May be so. But here I would willingly ask Mr. Washington one question, and leave it to himself to answer: Does he believe, that, in the case of being innocent, Major Andre, that gallant officer whom he has so barbarously murdered, would, in that situation, have signed such a cowardly confession? Alas! when was cowardice not allied to cruelty?

What high heroic deeds of arms this great founder of American Empire has since produced to wash out that stain, will doubtless adorn the history of that glorious epoch; a history that will immortalize the prowess with which this colony Fabius, who having by dint of being beaten by his friends the French, learned the snug art of spinning out a rebel war against his own nation, could, without remorse, imbrue his hands in the blood of his perfectly innocent countryman, whose object indisputably was not the subjugation, but the deliverance of the colonies from the chains of imposture, treason, and tyranny, to recover them in short to their country, to restore them with honor to themselves.

But how will La Fayette acquit himself to his court, for the mean and infamous instigation of Mr. Washington to so base and inhuman a murder? The French are known to be a generous enemy; whenever the false views of their policy do not blunt their natural sensibility to honor, they feel it nobly and judge it rightly. Not a few of the worthiest of that nation have been astonished at his most Christian Majesty’s having so degraded himself as to accept the lead of a miserably deluded and betrayed multitude in our colonies; to give them, too, the appellation of Dear Friends; while without puking he can bear so much as the idea of being styled their Great and Good Ally! Well may they say, ‘En verité, c’est serieusement s’encanailler?

At the worst, however, La Fayette may not impossibly have to comfort him, the compliment paid him in some ballad of the Pont Neuf, set to a scurvy French tune, of his having been in the affair the chosen instrument of Providence to revenge the death of an innocent French officer, by his influencing his confessed assassin to the murder of an innocent British officer, while the aggravating circumstance of his being his own countryman may be reckoned in as interest for such a debt of blood. Nor let it be disowned that relatively to Mr. Washington, our own nation is not entirely exempt for blame. It was rather not over delicate, however useful he might at the time have been thought, to suffer in its service a man notoriously under such a scar, as that of his confessed assassination. What then less bad, in general, could be the retribution expected from one capable of such a procedure? A retribution in which there has, in particular, been too cruelly involved, the catastrophe of a valuable British officer, into the balance against whose life, (in his character of a loyal subject, had he been even in the lowest rank,) to put the lives of thousands of rebel chiefs, or incendiary traitors, would be an indignity to his memory. Unless, indeed, by a doctrine new and unheard of, till the blue -code of Boston produced it, imposture could give weight, rebellion, rank, and treason authority. But oh! citizens of the British empire! can it be a crime to any of you to wish well to good old Britain? which, in spite of foreign enmity and domestic treason, may Heaven ever preserve, great, happy, and free! A wish this, to which all the colonies might well say Amen! since they are most naturally and most cordially included in it.2


1 Under the signature of “A Briton.”
2 Rivington’s Gazette, March 14.