October 2, 2013

Execution of John André: not the fear of death

Major John André was a British army officer hanged as a spy on October 2, 1780 after conspiring with Benedict Arnold over the fate of West Point during the American Revolution. André pleaded with George Washington that he die honorably via firing squad; instead, he was ordered to be hanged, the traditional execution method for a spy.

The drama of the conspiracy, as well as the capture of André, his trial, and his execution all unfolded in the Hudson River Valley area of New York. Nathaniel Parker Willis would eventually settle in that area but he was, in fact, living in England at the time that he composed his poem "André's Request to Washington" (1835):

It is not the fear of death
     That damps my brow;
It is not for another breath
     I ask thee now;
I can die with lip unstirr'd
     And a quiet heart—
Let but this prayer be heard
     Ere I depart.

I can give up my mother's look—
     My sister's kiss;
I can think of love—yet brook
     A death like this!
I can give up the young fame
     I burn'd to win—
All—but the spotless name
     I glory in!

Thine is the power to give,
     Thine to deny,
Joy for the hour I live—
     Calmness to die.
By all the brave should cherish,
     By my dying breath,
I ask that I may perish
     By a soldier's death.

Some 40 years after Willis's poem, just about 100 years after André's execution, Charlotte Fiske Bates offered her own poem to the executed Major. Like Willis, Bates is mostly sympathetic, though her narrator here is not André himself but a visitor to the place of his death:

This is the place where André met that death
Whose infamy was keenest of its throes,
And in this place of bravely yielded breath
His ashes found a fifty years' repose;

And then, at last, a transatlantic grave,
With those who have been kings in blood or
fame. As Honor here some compensation gave
For that once forfeit to a hero's name.

But whether in the Abbey's glory laid,
Or on so fair but fatal Tappan's shore.
Still at his grave have noble hearts betrayed
The loving pity and regret they bore.

In view of all he lost, — his youth, his love,
And possibilities that wait the brave,
Inward and outward bound, dim visions move
Like passing sails upon the Hudson's wave.

The country's Father! how do we revere
His justice, — Brutus-like in its decree, —
With André-sparing mercy, still more dear
Had been his name, — if that, indeed, could be!

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