Account Menu

IP Address:

The Respected Spy



It is rare for a spy to be respected. He’s often held in contempt by his own side of ultimate allegiance, not just by his enemy, or the side of his former allegiance, who can be expected to have their noses out of joint over the espionage.

If you run through the protagonists in certain famous spy scandals — names like Pelton, the Walkers, Kampiles, Hanssen, Ames, and our favorite whipping boy, Pollard, you can’t help but think that the professional intelligence officers of lands they spied for are not especially warm to them as human beings. They’re a rum lot; weasels and backstabbers and more weasels, and worse, small-time weasels.

For example, Israeli officers and diplomats work towards the freedom and ultimate aliyah of Pollard not because they love him, but because it’s what they must do for the good of their service — there are other spies out there who need to know they’re not going to be abandoned. Even if they manage to drag him to the banks of the Jordan, they’re not going to be taking long showers with the guy.

While the US and Allies held numerous trials of war criminals after World War II, we made little attempt to bring to book those whose sole crime was the murder of SOE, SIS or OSS officers or agents taken behind the lines. Sure, we’d tack the charge on when it was just one more count against some guy who had dozens of other misdeeds on his head. But spies? They entered the jungle, they entered the food chain. That seems to have been a widespread opinion among the sleek lawyers and judges who selected the trial defendants.

That’s why it’s always unusual to find a spy who was respected by both sides. One that sticks out rather remarkably was British officer Maj. John André, the ill-fated go-between between his own general and the legendary American turncoat, Benedict Arnold during the American War of Independence. André was a British subject of unshakeable loyalty and, by all accounts, remarkable character. We’ve just been reading Alexander Hamilton’s appreciation of André, and it’s a startling document — in part, because no one today writes English with the fluency and impact of the men of Hamilton’s class, place and generation. But also because of the real respect and affection which André’s captors clearly held for this charismatic young man.

André, of course, was hanged as a spy for his role in Arnold’s clandestine conspiracy to betray West Point to the Crown. André was what today might be called Arnold’s agent handler (old Army term) or case officer (more general IC term). But he was that in addition to being a rather important and involved officer on the staff of the British commander; even the British, who were old hands at intelligence by 1780, hadn’t professionalized the trade, yet. André was typical of the talented amateurs upon whom Britain depended for centuries.

A secondary motive for André’s execution may have been a tit-for-tat reprisal for the hanging of American spy Nathan Hale. (Hale seems to have conjured similar respect and affection from his British captors). After this incident, the hanging of spies seems to have been eclipsed as a matter of policy, although all bets were off if a marauding band of soldiers caught an enemy spy skulking around, red-handed; military justice had a frontier aspect, in those days.

André was caught with incriminating documents from Benedict Arnold in his boot. He confessed, although within narrow limits: he gave up nothing to implicate any other; gave cover to his friend and commander, Sir Henry Clinton; and even was able to send a letter to Clinton, in which he probably was able to make Clinton understand the limits of his confession and the effectiveness of his damage control in protecting British networks. He went to his death without a qualm, except that he hated the idea of being hanged like a spy, and had appealed to the Continentals for a firing squad instead, as more befitting the death of a soldier. General Washington turned him down.

It is not simply the changing times that account for the respect in which the men who incarcerated, tried, and ultimately executed them, held André (and Hale). Hundreds of Americans, including uniformed officers taken in battle, had been hanged by British forces on flimsy pretexts (although this was more positively a policy of Cornwallis in the South than Clinton in New York), and they are but little remembered today, and if they have a monument at all it is a grave-stone (Hale and André both have several; André is memorialized in Westminster Abbey and as the image below shows, in Tappan, NY, on the scene of his capture).

Likewise, you have probably heard of André, but never of Thomas Shanks. He was an American, an officer up from the NCO ranks in the 10th Pennsylvania cashiered for stealing shoes (!) who then went over to the British. Shanks was caught skulking around the periphery of the Continental Army, and made a confession of sorts. Shanks was tried by a commission of 14 General Officers (including Benedict Arnold!) that was set up by command of General Washington (in a document that is in Alexander Hamilton’s handwriting, and held in the National Archives). Shanks was convicted and sentenced on a majority (non-unanimous vote), had the sentence affirmed by Washington, and hung as a spy in Valley Forge, 3 June 1778. You probably never heard of Thomas Lovelace, a member of “the tory forces in the British Army.” Lovelace was the leader of one group of several elements of American-born Loyalists who were infiltrated from Canada in 1781. Their mission had been to gather intelligence for a possible British invasion southward, and also to conduct what acts of sabotage and, wrote General John Stark (of “Live Free or Die” fame), “brigandage.” Lovelace, who had his incriminating British commission in a pocket, was tried 2 Oct 1781, sentenced on 7 October, and the hanging carried out at dawn on the 8th. But there seems to be no one who attests to the good character or decency of men like Shanks and Lovelace; they were the Peltons and Pollards of their time, and seem to have merited the contempt of both sides.

What the changing times do account for is the speed of the whole process. Andre was captured, confessed, tried, had his one appeal (for death by firing-squad; he never asked for his life) rejected, and hanged all in the space of ten days — and documents had to be written by hand and carried on horseback! Today, we have email and web dockets and every death penalty case becomes Jarndyce v. Jarndyce; the lawyers are liable to pass on before the convict does.

King George III bestowed posthumous honors on André and his family (his brother was knighted). Washington and the Continental Congress honored the three militiamen who caught him with a silver medal and $200 annual pension each. (The pension was relatively small, the equivalent of $3,400 today according to Dave Manuel’s inflation calculator — the official calculator, based on the Consumer Price Index, only goes to 1913).

After Hale and André, it seems that fewer spies were hanged. In a world of irony, stopping the executions of spies during the War of Indepndence probably didn’t save very many. The British tended to put their captives in prison hulks that were breeding grounds for pathogens of all kinds, and the colonials didn’t always treat their prisoners appreciably better; General Stark’s memoirs recount, in a footnote, that spies and traitors who were not imprisoned were sentenced to duty aboard “public American ships” for the remainder of the war — modern galley slaves! Hanging might have been a mercy.

The past is truly another country.

, , , ,