The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission

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.