Native Son Became a Hero of the Revolutionary War

"The Escape of Sergeant Champe," a Currier & Ives lithograph from 1876, depicts John Champe's feigned desertion from the Continental Army. (Library Of Congress)
By Eugene Scheel
Sunday, October 16, 2005

The saga of John Champe, the Loudoun County man who became a double agent to capture the Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold, is a tale worthy of grand opera.

In late October 1780, near Bergen, N.J., the Loudoun Dragoons were encamped a few miles from the Hudson River. Champe, 28, was the cavalry unit's sergeant major; Maj. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee was its commander.

Across the river was New York City, which housed British headquarters and one very famous American renegade.

A month earlier, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold, one of the ablest of Continental officers and a hero of the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, deserted to the British for 20,000 pounds, equivalent to about $1 million today.

His desertion was prompted by several reasons, among them dissatisfaction with Gen. George Washington's leadership, being passed over for promotions and being accused (though exonerated) of appropriating money.

"Arnold had given up hope of ever being appreciated or repaid by an ungrateful nation," Willard Sterne Randall wrote in "Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor."

Washington hungered to capture Arnold, who was in New York recruiting loyalists to fight for the British. His defection had prompted several American soldiers to change sides.

Washington called for Lee, his ablest cavalry officer, and told him that he wanted Arnold brought back -- alive. He added in an Oct. 20 letter to Lee, "My aim is to make a public example of him."

The general's plan called for a soldier who could ride stealthily through the many American pickets and board a boat that would cross the Hudson.

In New York, the American would present himself as a deserter and gain Arnold's confidence. With the aid of an accomplice, the American would kidnap Arnold and hustle him aboard a waiting boat. Arnold's resistance should be minimal: He was nearing 40 and had a crippled left leg from a Hessian bullet at Saratoga.

Lee told Washington that the man for the job was John Champe, a native of "London County in Virginia" whom Lee had enlisted in 1776. In his "Memoirs of the War of the Southern Department," Lee described Champe as "rather above the common size -- full of bone and muscle . . . grave, thoughtful, taciturn -- of tried courage and inflexible perseverance."

Champe accepted the assignment. He was undeterred by the dangers and difficulties of the mission but was bothered, according to Lee, "by the ignominy of desertion, to be followed by the hypocrisy of enlisting with the enemy." Not one Loudoun Dragoon had ever deserted to the enemy.

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