George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Major Henry Lee, Jr., 20 October 1780

To Major Henry Lee, Jr.

Hd Qrs [Preakness] Octr 20th 1780.

Dear Sir,

The plan proposed for taking A——d (the out lines of which are communicated in your letter whh was this moment put into my hands without a date—has every mark o⟨f⟩ a good one—I therefore agree to the promised rewards, and have such entire confidence in your management of the business as to give it my fullest approbation; and leave the whole to the guidance of your own judgment, with this express stipulation & pointed injunction, that he A——d is brought to me alive.1

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 assasinate 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 precipitancy may defeat the project.2 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 Sergeants 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 &ca may betray the design & involve bad consequences—but I am perswaded you will place every matter in a proper point of view to the conductors of this interesting business—& therefore I shall only add that I am Dr Sir Yr Obt & Affece Servt

Go: Washington

ALS, NjP: De Coppet Collection; ADfS, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. GW wrote “Private” on the cover of the ALS, which Lee docketed “about Arnold—Champe &c.” (see n.2 below).

1Lee had written an undated letter to GW: “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.

“the cheif of the two persons is a sergeant in my cavalry. To him I have promised promotion. the other is an inhabitant of Newark; I have had experience of his fidelity, & his connexions with the enemy render him, with his personal qualifications very fit for the business—To this man I have engaged one hund. guieneas, five hundd acres of land & three negroes. I gave him the promise of negroes because he is engaged in aiding me to destroy the refugees at Bergen point: success there, puts it in my power to reward him according to compact. If nothing is done, he is to receive an additional sum of money. the outlines of the scheme which I have recommended are, that the Sergeant should join Gen. Arnold as a deserter from us, should engage in his corps now raising, & should contrive to insinuate himself into some menial or military berth about the Genl’s person—that a correspondence should be kept up with the man in Newark, by the latters visiting the former every two days. When the favorable moment arrives they should sieze the prize in the night, gag him, & bring him across to Bergen woods.

“If your Excellency approves of what is done, the sergeant will desert from us tomorrow—a few guineas will be necessary for him. I have advised that no third person be admitted into the virtuous conspiracy, as two appear to me Adequate to the execution of it.

“the sergeant is a very promising youth of uncommon taciturnity, & inflexible perseverance. His connexions, & his service in the army from the beginning of the war assure me that he will be faithful. I have instructed him not to return till he receives direction from me, but to continue his attempts, however unfavorable the prospects may appear at first. I have excited his thirst for fame by impressing on his mind the virtue & glory of the act.

“I subjoin for your Excellency’s information my last account from New-York. the fleet which saild from Sandy hook on monday last are under convoy of two 74s & four row galleys. the Sandwich & one 74 lay at New York. It is not certain, but very probable, that Gen. Clinton is gone with the fleet. Virginia pilots were taken on board. the embarkation consists of the British Grenadiers & Light Infantry. the 49, the 82, & another regt. two companys prouvincials & 70 horse—the cork fleet arrived on sunday [likely 15 Oct.]; they report in Newyork that five thousand five hund. men came with this fleet from England, that part have gone to Carolina, the other part were arrived at N. York. the fleet have some troops on board, cheifly Hessians. one of my informants counted the number of ships & says there were but 7 sail of warr the number of troops must be very inconsiderable. the cheif part of the army lays at White stone on Long Island—the 54 regt at Powles hook; one hessian regt Ansbachs & Bartons at the watering place on Staten isld, the 23 at the flags staff’, Simcoes rangers at Richmond” (ALS, DLC:GW, filed under September 1780; see also Lee, War Memoirs description begins Henry Lee. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. New ed. New York, 1869. description ends , 407–8, and Lee to GW, 21 Oct.). For the British embarkation from New York, see GW to Samuel Huntington, 17 Oct., and n.2 to that document.

2John Champe (c.1752–1796), of Loudoun County, Va., enlisted in the Continental cavalry in 1776. He became a corporal in Lee’s Legion in April 1778 and was promoted to sergeant major in January 1779. Champe’s efforts to abduct the traitorous Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold failed when he sailed in fall 1780 to Virginia as a member of Arnold’s American Legion. After deserting from the British, Champe was discharged from the Continental army for his own safety to avoid his being taken prisoner and suffering retribution. He moved to Hampshire County, Va., after the war. Champe also married and fathered several children. His widow, Phebe Champe, later lived in Franklin County, Ohio, and died in 1841. For the elusive and disappointing documentary records on John Champe, see William Buckner McGroarty, “Sergeant John Champe and Certain of His Contemporaries,” WMQ description begins The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History. Williamsburg, Va. description ends , 2d ser., 17 (1937): 145–75; see also Wilber C. Hall, “Sergeant Champe’s Adventure,” WMQ, 2d ser., 18 (1938): 322–42, and McGroarty, “Captain Cameron and Sergeant Champe,” WMQ description begins The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History. Williamsburg, Va. description ends , 2d ser., 19 (1939): 49–54. A fuller biographical sketch is in Sara B. Bearss et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography, vol. 3 (Richmond, 2006), 157–58.

Champe’s son Nathaniel petitioned Congress from Detroit on 1 Feb. 1818 with a compensation claim based largely on his father, “who after the desertion of Arnold, was selected, and ordered by General Washington in to the Enemies Camp in the feigned Character of a Deserter, to asscertain the Situation, views and movements of the Enemy, and likewise, to Seize the person of Arnold and Convey him to the american Camp if an Opportunity Offered; this Service was performed with that courage, and prudence, which at once justified the Selection, and the wisdom and penetration of him that made it, though not Sufficient in all its parts, it was Sufficiently So to answer in Some measure, the Object for which it was intended” (DNA: RG 15, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files).

Phebe Champe petitioned Congress from Franklin County on 15 Dec. 1818 in a deposition signed with her mark: “soon after the treason of the notorious General Arnold, certain papers fell into the hands of General Washington, which were calculated to impress the mind of the Commander in chief, with the belief, that Arnold was not alone in the treason—that another General, standing high in the confidence of Washington, the army and the country, was implicated in the treason of Arnold—General Washington filled with anxiety on that account; wishing to ascertain the truth if pos[s]ible; to bring back again General Arnold to head quarters, where he might suffer the punishment which his rank treason merited; and also save the life of Major Andre, who had been taken as a spy; committed the delicate and arduous task of attempting to accomplish all these objects, to your Petitioner’s late husband John Champe. With view to effecting these objects, General Washington directed the ⟨sa⟩id John Champe, then a sergeant major as aforsaid, to desert ⟨fro⟩m the American camp then near to New York, to the British Head Quarters, then in that city. The secret at the time alluded to, was known to no one, except Gen. Washington, Major Lee and the said John Champe. In order to cover the real intention, Gen. Washington ordered the said Champe, to carry away with him his horse, his cloathes, his arms, accoutrements and the muster book of the Legion. Gen. Washington in order, to induce the said Champe to enter on the perilous enterprise, promised him a lieutenant’s commission; and any pecuniary reward, which he might demand, for the faithful performance of which he pledged, his own honor, as well as the honor of congress—Your Petitioners husband obeyed the order of his beloved General—went to the British camp and for and during all the time he remained in that camp Kept up a secret correspondence with Gen. Washington; dissipated the doubts of Washington as to the fidelity of the American General whom he had suspected, but from circumstances not within his control, was not able to bring away the Traitorous Arnold. After effecting all within his power, he the said Champ returned to the Continental army, but Gen. Washington, fearing lest the said Champ might some how fall into the hands of the enemy, after giving him a few guineas, dismissed him with an assurance, ’that his faithful and arduous services should not be forgotten by his country—that congress were then poor, but when the country became more able, he should be amply rewarded.’ Before any thing more was done, your petitioner’s husband died about twenty four years since, leaving a widow and Seven orphan children, who were all Young, and with little or no property wherewith either to educate or support them—that your petitioner has by her labour supported and educated her orphan children—that she has continued a widow ever since the death of her husband John Champe—that she is now nearly Sixty years of age—that her children are all poor—that only three of the seven are married—that she is now old, infirm and poor, and no longer able to support herself by labour, heretofore her only resource—that she put her husband’s papers, which General Washington gave him, several years since, into the hands of General Lee, in order to get some lands for her children, but before he had done any thing in the premises, he died, as she has been informed—that the lands in the Virginia military district which remain unlocated are of no value and her only hope is, that Congress will redeem the pledge heretofore given by the great and good Washington” (DNA: RG 15, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files; see also The Discovery of Major General Benedict Arnold’s Treachery, 25 Sept.–24 Nov., editorial note, and n.28). A law dated 7 july 1838 granted an annual pension of $120 to Phebe Champe with payment “to commence and take effect” from 4 March 1831 (Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 6:736).

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