Jeannette Holland Austin Profile
Does Anyone Remember the Heroism of John Champe?
John Champe was born in the year of 1752 in Loudoun County. At the onset of the American Revolution, he enlisted in the Virginia forces and served as a dragoon in the cavalary legion of "Light Horse" Harry Lee where he attained the rank of sergeant major. At the time, Lee had just captured the British-held fort at Paulus Hook and his troops were assembled with General George Washington along the Hudson River. Many years later, when he wrote his famous Memoirs of the War, he related the exploits and heroism of Champe. According to the story, certain anonymous papers had fallen into the hands of General Washington which implicated certain of his soldiers in treason, and particularly one of his generals. He gave Lee the papers to study carefully. When asked his counsel, Lee said that he thought the letters represented a contrivance of Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief, to destroy confidence between Washington and his men. In other words, the papers had intentionally fallen into the hands of Washington. Nevertheless, Washington feared a possible defection of one of his highest officers.
"I have sent for you" Lee quotes Washington as saying, "in the expectation that you have in your corps individuals capable and willing to undertake an indispensable, delicate and hazardous project. Whoever comes forward upon this occasion, will lay me under great obligations personally, and in behalf of the United States I will reward him amply. No time is to be lost: he must proceed if possible this night. My object is to probe to the bottom the afflicting intelligence contained in the papers you have just read; to seize Arnold, and by getting him, to save Andre (General Andre was accused of Treason). They are all connected. While my emissary is engaged in preparing means for the seizure of Arnold, the guilt of others can be traced; and the timely delivery of Arnold to me, will possibly put it into my power to restore the amiable and unfortunate Andre to his friends. My instructions are ready, in which you will find my express orders that Arnold is not to be hurt; but that he be permitted to escape if to be prevented only by killing him, as his public punishment is the sole object in view. That you cannot too forcibly press upon whomsoever may engage in the enterprise; and this fail not to do. With my instructions are two letters to be delivered as ordered and here are some guineas for expenses."
Lee mentioned the name of an unknown sergeant major. "Being told his name," continues Lee "that he was a native of Loudoun County in Virginia; about twenty-three or twenty-four years of age; that he had enlisted in 1776; rather above the medium size; full of bone and muscle; with a saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtful and taciturn; of tried courage and inflexible perseverance, and as likely to regret an adventure coupled with ignominy as any officer in the corps; a commission being the goal of his long and anxious exertions, and certain on the first vacancy; the general exclaimed that he was the very man for the business; and that going to the enemy by the instigation and at the request of his officer, was not desertion though it appeared to be so. And he enjoined that this explanation, as coming from him, should be pressed on Champe."
Lee hastened to the camp of his cavalry corps and arriving at night, sent for Champe and placed the matter before him, stressing the great obligation he would confer on the commander-in-chief to carry out the assignment. "Champe listened with deep attention, and with a highly excited countenance; the perturbations of his breast not being hid even by his dark visage. He briefly and modestly replied, that no soldier exceeded him in respect and affection for the commander-in-chief, to serve whom he would willingly lay down his life; and that he was sensible of the honour conferred by the choice of him for the execution of a project all over arduous; nor could he be at a loss to know to whom was to be ascribed the preference bestowed, which he took pleasure in acknowledging, although increasing obligations, before great and many." Champe was not deterred by the danger of enlisting with the enemy but concluded that if any mode could be contrived free from disgrace, that he would do so. Then, he prayed to be excused. Lee understood the reluctance of Champe to join the camp of the enemy as a spy, however, the plan could yield tremendous results, so exerted his utmost power of persuasion. He pointed out that Washington himself had declared that (in this case) the desertion was not a crime. Slowly, Lee persuaded Champe to execute the plan and gaving him three guineas as expense money, sent him promptly to New York. But Chance was not gone a half an hour before his absence was discovered and reported. To buy more time, Lee pretended not to understand the report. The reporting officer returned to his men and ordered them to assemble, thus quickly learning that Champe, "his horse, baggage, arms and orderly book" were missing. His worst fears thus confirmed, he hurriedly arranged a party of pursuit. Lee, however, once again delayed by telling the officer that he was assigned to other duties that evening and that another officer would have to lead the pursuit. The officer chosen was young Cornet Middleton, a sympathetic and rather tender-hearted soldier who might be moved to protect Champe, should he be taken. The reluctant orders signed by Lee read: "Pursue as far as you can with safety Sergeant Champe, who is suspected of deserting to the enemy and has taken the road leading to Paulus Hook. Bring him alive that he may suffer in the presence of the army; but kill him if he resists or escapes after being taken." Still, Lee continued to procrastinate, contriving to hold Middleton by giving him instructions in trivial details.
Meanwhile, soon after the departure of Champe, rain had begun to fall. His horse was shod in a manner peculiar to the Legion enabling Middleton to easily follow the trail. Middleton and his men left the American camp soon after midnight, over an hour after Champe had made his escape. Actually, the pace of the party was slowed by examining the ground for horse shoeprints on which meant the frequent dismounting of troopers. When daylight came, the shoeprints were clear enough and better time could be made. Thus, as the Middleton party reached a hill outside of Three Pigeons, they spotted Champe. Champe, realizing that he was not more than half a mile ahead and could be overtaken if he continued the plan to reach Paulus Hook (now part of Jersey City), So, instead sought immediate refuge in the British galleys which he knew lay a few miles to the west of Bergen. But he was sited again on the new course, his determined pursuers coming within two or three hundred yards of their quarry; but Champe, coming abreast of the galleys, dismounted and ran through the marsh to the river. As he plunged into it, he called upon the galleys for help. "They fired upon our horse" writes Lee "and sent a boat to meet Champe, who was taken in and carried on board and conveyed to New York with a letter from the captain of the galley stating the circumstances he had seen." Escape had been achieved by a narrow margin, yet it also created a realistic background for Champe to join the British.
Middleton returned to camp carrying the horse of the sergeant and its equipment, cloak and scabbard to Lee. Champe had lost his sword in the river. After several days passed, an unsigned letter in a disguised handwriting was received to Lee. It was Champe, relating his further adventures. He wrote that he was kindly received on the galley and taken to the British Commandant in New York who was deeply interested in his story of his escape. Upon which Champe took the opportunity to assure the British officers that after the example of Benedict Arnold, there existed a certain spirit of defection among the American troops. The British believed him, but recorded a description of their new ally, "his size, place of birth, form, countenance, hair, the corps in which he had served, with other remarks in conformity with the British usage." Then Champe was taken before Sir Henry Clinton himself who closely examined the fugitive as to the possibility of the encouraging more desertions from the American forces. After the examination, Sir Henry gave Champe a couple of guineas and assigned him to the service of General Arnold, with a letter telling the latter who and what he was. Arnold also received Champe cordially, expressed much satisfaction upon hearing the manner of his escape and the grand effects his own example had upon the patriots. Arnold attempted to persuade Champe to join his legion; but the sergeant was so devoted to General Washington, that he told Arnold that for his part, he had enough of war and that if he ever were captured by the rebels would be hung. Arnold understood and devised a plan whereby Champe could make contact with his American friends within the British lines who were to procure for him the information sought by Washington as to the loyalty of certain of his officers. Thus a convenient line of communication established between Champe and Lee. The detention of General Andre by the Americans was getting desperate, so Lee promptly sent word urging Champe to learn if the suspected general was guilty. But before anything could be resolved, Andre confessed, freely acknowledging the truth of the charges against him. Andre was promptly condemned as a spy and duly executed. Despite the fate of Andre, Washington still wanted to learn if the suspected general were guilty and urged Champe to learn the answer. Champe soon vindicated that suspect. However, the task of securing the person of Benedict Arnold was at hand. On the 19th October, 1780, Major Lee received from him a full report of his progress toward that end and the plan he had made. Meanwhile, the written communications between Champe and Lee continued. In ten days Champe had added the final touches to his plan for the abduction and so informed Lee, asking that a party of dragoons meet him at Hoboken to whom he hoped to deliver Arnold. By this time, sergeant Champe was quite familiar with the movements of Arnold and planned to seize and gag him upon his returning home about midnight and visiting the garden before retiring. They would remove him to a nearby alley into a boat manned with trusted conspirators at one of the wharves on the Hudson River. When the appointed day arrived, Washington directed Lee to take command of the small detachment of dragoons who were to meet Champe and his prisoner. "The day arrived," quoting Lee again "and Lee with a party of dragoons left camp late in the evening with three led horses; one for Arnold, one for the sergeant and the third for his associate; never doubting the success of the enterprise from the tenor of the last received communication. The party reached Hoboken about midnight, where they were concealed in the adjoining woods, Lee with three dragoons stationing himself near the river shore. Hour after hour passed and no boat approached. At length the day broke and the major retired to his party and with his led horses returned to camp, where he proceeded to headquarters to inform the general of the disappointment as mortifying as inexplicable."
"Headquarters October 20, 1780. Dear Sir: No circumstance whatever shall obtain my consent to his (Arnold) 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; and this should be strongly impressed upon those who are employed to bring him off. The Sergeant must be very circumspect; too much zeal may create suspicion, and too much precipitency may defeat the project. The most inviolable secrecy must be observed on all hands. I send you five guineas; but I am not satisfied of the propriety of the sergeant 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 this article. The interviews between the party in and out of the city, should be managed with much caution and seeming indifference; or else the frequency of their meetings may betray the design, and involve bad consequences; but I am persuaded that you will place every matter in a proper point of view to the conductors of this interesting business, and therefore I shall only add that I am, dear sir, G. Washington."
When Champe failed to deliver Benedict Arnold, Washington and Lee were very apprehensive as to the fate of sergeant Champe and were relieved to receive his letter detailing the circumstances which prevented him from seizing Benedict Arnold. It seems that on the day preceding the planned abduction, Arnold unexpectedly removed his quarters to another part of the town to supervise the embarkation of troops on a special mission, which was an expeditionary force made up largely of American deserters. "Thus it happened" Lee explains " that John Champe, instead of crossing the Hudson that night, was safely deposited on board one of the fleet of transports, from whence he never departed until Arnold landed in Virginia!" Nor was he able to escape from the British Army until Lord Cornwallis was at Petersburg, when he deserted. Champe proceeded into Virginia, then passed into North Carolina where he joined the army soon after it had passed the Congaree in pursuit of Lord Rawdon. "His appearance excited extreme surprise among his former comrades, which was not a little increased when they saw the cordial reception he met with from Lieutenant Colonel Lee. His whole story soon became known to the corps, which reproduced the love and respect of officer and soldier, heightened by universal admiration of his daring and arduous attempt. Champe was introduced to General Green, who cheerfully complied with the promises made by the commander-in-chief, so far as in his power; and having provided the sergeant with a good horse and money for his journey, sent him to General Washington, who munificently anticipated every desire of the sergeant, and presented him with a discharge from further service lest he might in the vicissitudes of war, fall into the enemy's hands, when if recognized, he was sure to die on a gibbet." Source: Legends of Loudoun by Harrison (1938).
What Happened to Champe Afterwards
By Jeannette Holland Austin
The story goes that after the war ended, upon the personal recommendation of General Washington, Sergeant Champe was appointed to the position of doorkeeper or sergeant-at-arms of the Continental Congress, then meeting at Philadelphia, but obliged, on account of rioting, to remove to Trenton. His name appeared on a roll of the 25th August, 1783, as holding that position. Soon afterwards he returned to Loudoun, married and acquired a small holding near what is now Dover, between the later towns of Aldie and Middleburg, close by the present Little River Turnpike. Nearby there is a pool of water still known locally as Champe's Spring. According to local tradition, after the war Champe resided in a log cabin on the old Military Road near the old Ketoctin Baptist Church and on lands afterward owned by Robert Braden. Then he removed to Kentucky where it is believed he died in or about the year 1797.
The narrative from the notes of General Lee is as follows:
" When General Washington was called by President Adams to the command of the Army prepared to defend the country from French hostility, he sent to Lieutenant-Colonel Lee to inquire for Champe, being determined to bring him into the field at the head of a company of infantry. Lee sent to Loudoun County, where Champe settled after his discharge from the Army, and learned that the gallant soldier had removed to Kentucky, and had soon after died."
Source: Legends of Loudoun by Harrison (1938).
Loudoun County Genealogy, Wills, Estates, Marriages, Minute Books
Loudoun County was created in 1757 from Fairfax County and was named after John Campbell, the Fourth Earl of Loudoun and Governor of Virginia from 1756 to 1759. Between 1720 and 1730 settlers were Quakers, Scots-Irish, Germans and others who removed south from Pennsylvania and Maryland into Virginia.
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