The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Champe was offered the opportunity to enlist in the British Army, but he convinced his benefactors that to do so would too greatly increase his risk of being captured and hanged by the rebels, and they were satisfied to turn him loose to find employment in Manhattan. His next step was to place himself in the good graces of Benedict Arnold.

That task was simplified by the prominence and proximity of Arnold’s quarters next door to Sir Henry’s green-shuttered headquarters in the slightly less imposing but equally handsome dwelling at 3 Broadway. Almost within the hour after he left Beckwith, Champe “accidentally” ran into Arnold on the street. Still wearing his Light Horse uniform, it was easy enough to catch Arnold’s eye and strike up conversation with the newly commissioned British Brigadier General. Champe’s quiet, earnest manner seemed entirely convincing to Arnold as the Sergeant told him he had been inspired to desert a lost cause by Arnold’s own example; the traitor offered him a post in his Loyalist Legion of similar rank to that which he had held in Lee’s Corps. Accommodating the misgivings he had pretended to Clinton when offered a chance to enlist, Champe joined Arnold.

As a noncom in Arnold’s Legion, Champe had easy access to the Colonels quarters and person. No. 3 Broadway, looking out upon the now unkempt Bowling Green and across its trampled sod to the houses burned out in the 1776 fire, was almost at the very tip of the island. Beyond it to the south lay only Headquarters and imposing old Fort George and the Battery. The houses were almost flush with the sidewalk, but behind and north of 3 Broadway was a large fenced garden which extended down to the black rocks of the Hudson’s shore. North of the garden a seldom-used alley, also running out to the water’s edge, separated the garden from the next property. Champe discovered that it was Arnold’s unvarying habit to stroll in the garden each midnight before retiring; this was the place to seize him.

Over a period of days Champe worked loose three or four palings of the garden fence, so that under cover of dark he and his confederate could step noiselessly through them. He planned with Mr. Baldwin upon an appointed night to pounce on Arnold, stick a gag in his mouth, and drag him through the fence into the alley. Holding him upright between them, they would drag him out of the alley, around the corner past 1 Broadway, and to a waiting boat at the pier behind the headquarters house. If the sentry at the doorstep of 1 Broadway challenged them, they would call out that they were taking a drunken companion home and hope to get off in the dark.

Establishing contact with Mr. Baldwin and through him keeping in touch with Lee had proved easy; by the twenty-fifth, two days after Champe had been examined at British Headquarters, Lee knew about the interrogation and about his fortuitous meeting with Arnold. But Champe was a cautious, deliberate sort, and he took his time perfecting the details of the kidnapping. It was December before he set a night, the eleventh, for taking Arnold. Lee was no longer in New Jersey. The Light Horse had gone south as an independent legion to join General Nathanael Greene’s army in the Carolinas, and Champe was working with new contacts at Continental Army Headquarters.

During the tense afternoon hours of the eleventh, while Champe waited impatiently for the winter darkness, Arnold suddenly confronted him with an order: he was to embark at once with the rest of the Loyalist Legion on the transports in the harbor for a voyage to Virginia. The long-deferred British expedition to the Chesapeake was under way.

Champe was trapped. There was nothing to do but join the troops toiling up the gangplanks, and there was no time to notify Mr. Baldwin. The opportunity for seizing Arnold was snatched away by a coincidence of timing; that night Continental soldiers waited in Bergen Woods in vain.

After a violent sea passage, Arnold’s transports disgorged their battered troops and surviving horses in the James River on January 4, 1781. And while Arnold, the American traitor, burned and pillaged Virginia, John Champe reluctantly marched with him. If it were not enough that Champe’s painfully nurtured plans had been smashed, he now was compelled to war against his own country and comrades. It was entirely possible that he might face his own corps in battle. If captured and identified as a former American soldier, he faced summary trial and execution unless he could somehow get word to Henry Lee, the only man in the Southern Department who knew that his desertion had been staged under the authority of the Commander in Chief. Desertion from the British Army held almost as much peril, for if caught he would be hanged by them as a deserter. However, he decided he had to chance it; he had to escape and attempt to make his way to Lee’s Legion, somewhere in the Carolinas.

So sometime before Arnold was recalled to New York in late spring, John Champe deserted from the British camp as skillfully as he once had from his own. How long he traveled the back roads of Virginia and the Carolinas no one was ever to know. Henry Lee later recalled it was May when Champe showed up at the Legion camp on the Congaree River.