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Art. I. The General Biographical Dictionary; containing an historical and critical account of the lives and writings of the
most eminent persons in every nation :-new edition by A. CHALMERS, F. S. A. London. 1917. (Article “Washington,” Vol. 31 st.)
Our attention has been recently directed by a friend to the 31st Volume of Chalmers' General Biographical Dictionary; Article Washington, p. 204. We find there the following passage.
• Much has been said, by the American Biographers of Washington, concerning his magnanimity during the ravages of a civil war, in which he acted so conspicuous a part; but, on the other hand, two instances have been inentioned, in which he is thought " to have been deficient in this great quality of a hero. Granting (it has been said) that duty required him to execute, as a spy, the accomplished Major Andrè, true magnanimity would have prevented him from insultingly erecting, in the view of that unfortunate officer, the gallows on which he was to be hung, several days before his execution. And, when Earl Cornwallis was overpower'ed by numbers and obliged at Yorktown to surrender to the .united armies of America and France, a magnanimous conqueror
would not have claimed, contrary to the usage of civilized war, the sword from the hands of that gallant nobleman.
On these two occasions, and on some others, the conduct of Washington agreed so ill with his general character, that he has been supposed 'to be iufluenced by the leaders of the French Army.'
When a compiler of General Biography, assails the character of one of the first men of the age, it is surely incumbent upon him to Vol. II.
giye some sufficient naine, as an authority for the facts which he asserts; or in defect of this, to furnish proof of his having had the means of knowing them personally. On this occasion, however, Mr. Chalmers has thought proper to dispense with both these rules, and to substitute for them, a loose and illogical language, obviously calculated to leave it matter of doubt, whether the American Biographers of Washington, did or did not themselves furnish both the praise and the censure. His expression is substantially this “Much has been said by American Biographers in commendation " of the maguanimity of Washington ; but, on the other hand, two “ instances, which detract from this praise, have been mentioned." And by whom? This, is precisely what the compiler wished to conceal; because, had he told the public, that these two enormities in the conduct of Washington, had come down to bim through the Welds, the Parkinsons or the Bristeds of the day, the plan would have failed—the trap would have caught nobody, and like the accomplished Andrè, Mr. Chalmers would have had the satisfaction only, of having meditated a mischief, he was unable to effect. But let this pass : our business is less with the sources whence his fictions are derived, than with the fictions themselves : and
1st. “That General Washington, for the purpose of insulting the feelings of Major Andrè, caused the gallows on which the Major was afterwards hanged) to be erected, several days before the execution, and within the view of the prisoner.'
This assertion has not even the colour of truth to support it but before we touch the positive evidence, within our reach, we will briefly examine the charge, on the ground of probability.
It will be remembered, that Major André was apprehended on the 23d of September (1780); that on the 28th, he was removed to Tappan; that on the 29th he was brought to trial ; that the last sitting of the court-in which was decided the mode of his punishment—was held on the 1st day of October, and that his execution took place, precisely at 12 o'clock, on the 2d. Now between the time of his arrival and that of his execution, are but three days and a half; and between this last event and the final sentence of the court, we count even less than twenty-four hours ! This computation of time leaves no room for Mr. Chalmers' “ several days” except upon the very improbable supposition, that Washington, in his haste to insult the feelings of Andrè, had caused a gallows to be erected, before the court had decided, either the guilt of the prisoner, or the mode of his punishment.
The historical relation of the conduct of Washington, on this occasion, given in England, and at a time when every circumstance attending it, was matter both of curiosity and interest, holds a language totally different from that of Mr. Chalmers. In the An
nual Register for 1781, (Vol. 24) it is expressly stated, that “as “ Major Andre's request for a mitigation of the sentence, in rela" tion to the mode of his punishment, could not be granted, it was
thought humane to evade giving a direct answer.” But on the supposition, that Mr. Chalmers' fiction be true, why this affectation of delicacy? Why not answer both promptly and directly ?
To the sympathy, shown for Andrè on the part of the army of the U. S., all cotemporary writers bear testimony. Gordon, (himself an Englishman,) says, “ Pity and esteem wrought so • powerfully with the court, that all were disposed (excepting “ General Green) to commute his punishment, as he had desired.” And the respectable work first quoted, in describing the last melancholy circumstance of the drama, informs us," that the suffer“ er encountered his fate, with a composure, dignity and fortitude, “ which equally excited the admiration and melted the hearts of “ all the spectators." Is it probable, that a sentiment, so just and so general, should have awakened only at the moment of the execution, or that the Commander in Chief, should alone have been an exception to it!
In another relation of this affecting story, (by the late General Hamilton, who was himself a witness of the scene) we are told, that Major Andrè, “ when led to the place of execution, bowed “ familiarly to all those, with whom he had been acquainted in his “ confinement; and that a smile of complacency expressed the se
rene fortitude of his mind :"-but that, “ arrived at the fatal
spot, he asked with some emotion, must I then die in this man“ ner ” ”—an expression, as well of surprise as of horror, and totally inconsistent with the belief, that the sight of the gallows, which had caused this new and increased emotion, had been familiar to him for several days preceding.
These considerations, (unless others, of greater weight and conflicting character, are presented) cannot fail of themselves to decide the first question, between us and the British Biographer ;but fortunately, the charge is made, before time has swept from the stage, all the witnesses of that interesting event; and we are accordingly able to avail ourselves of the testimony of Major Cooper, which, with much similar proof, has been carefully collected by the learned Secretary of the New-York Historical Society, a
“ This is to certify that, in the Revolutionary war, I served as “ Lieutenant and Adjutant in Col. Crane's 3d Battalion of Artil
lery, and that I was at Tappan on Monday, the 2d of October, “(1780) the day on which Major Andrè was executed as a spy; " that I witnessed his execution, at 12 o'clock of that day, and that “ I am clearly satisfied, that the Gibbet, on which he was executed,
(a) Now Treasurer of that Institution---Mi. Cuhn Pintard.
" was erected on the morning of that day; that it was impossible for
Major Andrè to have seen the Gibbet from the quarters where "he was confined,- the place of execution being at least half a 5 mile distant from said quarters, and any view thereof, intercept“ed by intervening objects."
2d. That on the surrender of the British army at Yorktown, General Washington, contrary to the usages of civilized war, claimed the sword from the hands of the British Commander in Chief, Lord Cornwallis.'
This assertion, is made with as little regard to truth as the former, and with much less regard to prudence ;-because, in the affair of Andrè, the official documents do not reach the circumstance in controversy, and of course leave it undetermined—but here, the Biographer is confronted by articles of capitulation, signed by Lord Cornwallis himself:--the 4th of which expressly saves, to the officers surrendering, their “side arms and private property of
As the whole of this story appears to be new to Mr. Chalmers, we shall give a short sketch of it from the pen of old Marshal Rochambeau, and another from that of the late General Lee; by which it will be seen, that, so far from suffering the outrage stated by the British Biographer, Lord Cornwallis was not even present at the actual surrender, but left to the gallant O'Hara the duty of going through that necessary but unpleasant ceremony.
“On the 17th of October, the enemy began to negotiate, and " the capitulation was signed on the 19th,--by which, Lord Corn" Wallis and his army became prisoners of war. At 12 o'clock " the Americans and French took possession of the two bastions. 4 The garrison marched out, at 2 o'clock, between the two armies "—with drums beating and shouldered arms, which were after"wards stacked, together with twenty stands of colours. Lord “ Cornwallis, being unwell, General O'Hara marched at the head “ of the garrison. When he came up, he presented to me his “sword-I pointed to General Washington who was opposite to "me and at the head of the American troops, and told him, that
the French were auxiliaries only, he must receive his orders " from the American General." a
“At 2 o'clock," says General Lee, “the British army, led by “ General O'Hara, marched out of its lines with colours cased and “ drums beating a British march. When the head of the column “ approached the commander in chief, O'Hara, mistaking the cir
cle, turned to that on his left, for the purpose of paying his respects and requesting further orders; when quickly discovering (a) Memoires militaires historiques et politiques de Rochainbeau. Tom. 18.
“his error, with much embarrassment in his countenance, he flew “ across the road, and, advancing to Washington, asked pardon for “ his mistake, apologized for the absence of Lord Cornwallis, and “begged to know his future pleasure. The General seeing his “ embarrassment, relieved it by referring him, with much politeness, - to General Lincoln."
To these extracts, we shall but add, on this head, a single sentence from the official letter, written on the 20th of October, by Lord Cornwallis to Sir Henry Clinton; “ The treatment, in gene“ral,” says his Lordship, " that we have received from the enemy “ since our surrender, has been perfectly good and proper.”
3d. • That the conduct of Washington on these two occasions and some others, agreed so ill with his general character, that he has been supposed to be influenced by the leaders of the French army.'
Pressed by considerations, derived from the general character and conduct of Washington, and which led to conclusions directly the reverse of those he wished to establish, Mr. Chalmers felt the necessity of finding a sufficient cause for these alleged aberrations , of the American commander; but failing altogether to do so, he is compelled to resort to the cabalistic terms, French Influence. And what would this kind-hearted, impartial and well instructed Biographer have us to understand by this pretended influence ? Why only that. Washington—who would not, from his own spontaneous movement, have indulged in any mockery of grief, nor in the slightest insult to misfortune,-was yet mean enough, to lend himself and his high official authority, to the base and maliguant prejudices of the French Army.'
Though assuredly the most flagrant of all Mr. Chalmers' misrepresentations, still as it is only a conclusion, from premises already destroyed—to demolish it, would but be " to slay the slain.”
A word or two may however be necessary to enlighten the Biographer's darkness in relation to the nature and extent of those French practices against Major Andrè and Lord Cornwallis, which have been so unwarrantably taken for granted. The facts to which we allude, are two :they are of public notoriety, and, as we believe, of decisive character. a
1st. That when dangers thickened around Andrè, and when Sir Henry Clinton, under the direction of better heads than his own, was looking abroad for expedients to save his friend and protegé, he did not fail to recur to a proposition—that the whole case should be referred to two foreign generals, one of whom should be Rochambeau,-the chief of those very French officers, who, according
(a) The first is recorded in Ramsay's History of the United States, Vol. ii. page 365: the second may be found in the New Annual Register, p. 99, of Public Occurrences, and in the Appendix to Lee's Memoirs, Vol. 2d.