The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission

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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.