Revolutionary War Historical Article

Mission Impossible 1779:
The Plan to Kidnap Benedict Arnold

by Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the December 1983 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter

In any revolution, the population can be divided into four distinct groups: those loyal to the existing government, those opposed to it, those wishing to take no side and those trying to profit from all factions. Such was the case during the American Revolutionary War. Those who chose to remain allied with the British Crown were called "Loyalists" or "Tories", those who rebelled were "Patriots". Those who attempted to remain neutral were dubbed "Neutralists" and finally, the few who indulged themselves in profiteering, ultimately serving no one but themselves, earned too many labels to list here.

As a result of interaction among members of all of these groups, we now tend to think that more formalized espionage systems for gaining information on the opposition's activities were virtually unnecessary. Two hundred years tend to obscure certain facts and make others legends.

Both the Continental Army and the British Expeditionary Forces had extensive spy networks with elaborate systems designed to collect, transmit, evaluate, verify and use the gathered intelligence to best advantage. The heroic efforts to transmit gathered data through "enemy" lines has received most of the historians' attention. Few researchers, however, have addressed their efforts to stories of those individuals who were actually sent on specific espionage missions with definite objectives.

The defection of General Benedict Arnold to the British was alarming to the Patriot cause. On September 27th, 1779, General George Washington informed French General Rochambeau that Arnold had escaped to the British Fleet and commented "Traitors are the growth of every country and in a revolution of the present nature it is to be wondered at that a catalogue [of traitors] is so small." Washington's natural optimism did not prevent him from immediately investigating everyone involved with Arnold. By the end of November he satisfied himself that Arnold had acted alone.

It would appear that General Washington wanted to make an example of Benedict Arnold. Certainly he and Colonel Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee made elaborate and carefully detailed plans for the kidnapping of Arnold from British held New York City. This was truly a "Mission Impossible".

On October 20th, 1779, General George Washington wrote Lee stating, that under no circumstances would he consent to Arnold being put to death. He explained that the very idea which would accompany such an event would be that of ruffians had been hired to assassinate him. Washington's aim was clear, making a public example of Arnold. Having made his intentions perfectly clear to Colonel Lee, he permitted him to attend to the details.

Light Horse Harry Lee was only twenty-four years old, but apparently, in General Washington's opinion, the situation called for something more than traditional methods. Youthful thinking with a tendency toward recklessness was needed to contrive a workable plan for such a mission. Lee, also recognized the difficulties of
the mission and the need to chose a man, who like himself, was utterly fearless, determined and innovative and above all, a true patriot.

He choose a young Virginian, Sergeant-Major of Cavalry, John Champe (some records show him as John Campe) for the assignment. Unfortunately, we know little about the Sergeant-Major. He was born in Virginia about 1756, making him twenty-three years old in 1779. He was married and had children. Lee wrote in his memoirs many years later, that Champe was "Saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtfull,
and taciturn, of tried courage and inflexible perseverance."

We know that as Sergeant-Major Champe led many patrols, and was no doubt engaged by the British on several occasions. He was at the skirmish at Spread Eagle Tavern (which is five miles southeast of Valley Forge) in which the American Cavalry preformed so well that Congress promoted their Commanding Officer (Lee) to Major- Commandant. It was also during this engagement, that General Washington took particular notice of Lee and his men. Certainly, Sergeant-Major John Champe was known to Washington.

Champe was told that he would have to "desert" his regiment, make his way to New York City, enlist in Arnold's newly formed Legion, then with the aid of two trusted patriotic New Yorkers, kidnap Arnold, get back to New Jersey-by boat and finally, turn the traitor over to General Washington.

At 11:00 P.M. on the evening of October 22nd, 1779, Sergeant-Major John Champe mounted his horse, bolted from his regimental encampment at Passic Falls, New Jersey, and made his way through ten miles of Continental Army held territory to the Hudson River. The Continental Army sentries had not been informed of the plan for obvious reasons, fired upon the 'deserter' as he cleared the encampment area. The guard mounted a pursuit but soon lost Champe in the darkness of the October night.

The details of Champe's desertion are sketchy. We do, however, know that a patrol encountered a dragoon on the banks of the Hudson River and, when the dragoon failed to be recognized, gave chase. Again, Champe evaded his pursuers. Champe made his way to a British man-o-war laying at anchor in the Hudson, was taken aboard and escorted. t o New York City.

Phase one was complete!

On October 23rd, Champe was personally interviewed by Sir Henry Clinton and freely gave information about the distribution of General Washington's forces in New Jersey, convincing Clinton to accept him. Clinton made note of the interview then assigned Champe to Arnold's Legion!

Phase two was complete!

Henry Lee's recollection of the affair stated that Champe sought out Arnold and 'meeting him by chance' in New York City convinced Arnold to accept him into the Legion. The documentation left by Sir Henry Clinton supports the position that it was he who arranged for the assignment and that Lee's recount of the event, which was written many years later, was more historical fiction than fact.

Once he was established an a 'loyal' member of Arnold's Legion, Champe made contact with his New York compatriots. Through them, he sent a letter to Colonel Lee. He advised that he had Studied the habits of Benedict Arnold and found that he returned to his home every evening about midnight, then spent some time in
the garden of his quarters, a strange practice even for a traitor. Champe further advised that he intended to enact the kidnapping at that place and time and, with the aid of one of the two New Yorker Compatriots, bind and gag Arnold, then walk him through the back alleys of the City to the Hudson River wharfs. If challenged, Champe stated he intended to present Arnold as a drunken soldier, being escorted back to his company headquarters. (an obvious flaw in the plan was how was Champe going to explain the bindings and gag?) The third compatriot was to be waiting at the wharf with a boat to convey their prize to New Jersey and the safety of the American lines.

All was in readiness!

The date was set, December 20th. All the plans for the kidnapping were made, checked and double checked, nothing could go wrong! Then, the unforeseen happened! During the early afternoon of December 20th, Arnold's legion was marched to waiting ships (captured American coastal vessels) and embarked on an expedition to Virginia! The plan to kidnap Arnold failed at the last minute.

The attempt to bring Benedict Arnold to justice failed, and history tells us that he died a broken man, leaving his family a legacy of dishonor and debts. But what of the hero of our story, John Champe? After arriving at Norfolk, Virginia, Champe escaped and made his way to the Carolina's where he rejoined his old Cavalry Regiment and Light Horse Harry Lee. The details of his escape from the British Expeditionary Force, or how he found Lee are unknown.

We do know that upon his safe arrival at Lee's encampment, he was given a hero's welcome with Lee telling the story, and no doubt embellishing it a little. In any case, Washington and Lee decided that the Sergeant-Major's mission was now well known to both the Americans and the British, hence if Champe were to be captured,
surely the British would immediately hang him as a confessed spy.

Therefore, they rewarded him and released him from any further military service to protect him from British retaliation

When General Washington was inaugurated President of the United States, he proposed to promote Champe to the rank of Captain for his daring exploit, however, Washington learned that the Sergeant-Major had settled in what is now Kentucky, and had died shortly before the honor could be bestowed upon him. His story doesn't end here.

In 1847, the story of John Champe was brought to the attention of the Congress of the United States. They posthumously promoted him to ensign for his gallantry. Historical asides are always interesting. What if John Champe has been successful on his mission and had brought Benedict Arnold back? He would, no doubt, be one of the great heroes of the American Revolution and the name of Sergeant-Major John Champe would be familiar to every school child. But, such was not the case, and he
is now one of the unsung heroes of that conflict.

Back to Index of Revolutionary War Events

Back to Historical Archives

link to aboutus