"John Champe: Revolutionary War Hero and Loudoun County, Virginia Native"
John Champe’s exploits during the Revolutionary War regarding Benedict Arnold have been celebrated for over 200 years. He displayed qualities that marked him well during and after that conflict. The best available information indicates that he was born in Aldie, Loudoun County about 1752. He died in 1798, according to available records. John Champe was a large man known to be serious, thoughtful and courageous. Registries indicate that he joined the Virginia Cavalry in 1776. He achieved the prestigious rank of Sergeant Major in 1780 while assigned to the Light (Loudoun) Dragoons, which was under the command of Major Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Major Lee was to become the father of Robert E. Lee.
In late 1780, Major General Benedict Arnold, considered by many of his contemporaries to be a very capable Continental Army officer, deserted to British forces for the monetary sum of 20,000 pounds (roughly equivalent to three million dollars today). His desertion was motivated primarily by his dissatisfaction with General George Washington’s leadership. Arnold was passed over for promotions, and he harbored hostile feelings about the struggle for independence. Accustomed to an affluent lifestyle, Arnold contacted the British in 1779 about a monetary payment in exchange for information covering the West Point military garrison. Already, he had provided the British with information pertaining to Continental Army troop strengths and dispositions. Arnold abandoned the West Point garrison to join the British.
General Washington hungered to capture Arnold, since the defection could encourage other high ranking officers to desert. General Washington called upon Major Lee, a highly trusted officer, to find and capture Arnold for subsequent indictment and hanging. Washington remarked to Lee that: “Arnold is a traitor, and fled to the British. Whom can be trusted?” Washington’s aim was “…to make a public example of him.” But, General Washington had to find a means to physically snatch Arnold from the British Army in New York. In private, Washington and Lee discussed plans to abduct Arnold. Major Lee proposed Sergeant Major John Champe be entrusted with the task. Lee described Champe as “…grave, thoughtful, taciturn…full of tried courage and inflexible perseverance.” Champe was undeterred by the dangers and difficulties of the covert mission, and he accepted the assignment.
During the night of October 20, 1780, Champe gathered a few clothes, saddlebags and the company’s log book and fled his unit by horse. A Continental Army outpost patrol spotted Champe and shortly thereafter reported to Major Lee’s aides that Champe could be deserting. Hoping to give Champe time to escape, Lee hesitated to order a patrol to chase him. Only minutes ahead of a pursuing patrol, Champe dismounted his horse and plunged into the Hudson River to board a waiting boat. With the help of an anchored British naval ship that fired grapeshot at the pursuing Continental Army patrol, while providing a boat to ferry him to the ship, Champe was able to escape. Aboard ship, Champe told British interrogators that other Americans wanted to follow Arnold’s example. His comments reinforced similar reports that many malcontents were serving in the Continental Army. Later, Champe was introduced to Benedict Arnold, who was impressed with his countenance and demeanor. Champe accepted an offer from Arnold to join a British army unit composed entirely of Americans.
While in British custody, Champe formulated a plan to abduct Arnold. He planned to kidnap Arnold while the general was strolling through his nearby gardens. Champe discovered that it was Arnold’s habit to stroll in the gardens each midnight before retiring. On the appointed night, Champe and his accomplice would pounce upon Arnold and hustle the bound and gagged general to a waiting boat for transport to Washington’s headquarters. The plan failed because Arnold was ordered the day before the intended capture to move his quarters and troops to a British naval ship bound for Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay. The long deferred British expedition was under way. Champe deserted the British forces soon after they disembarked in Virginia and returned unannounced to the Continental Army. However, the journey was quite hazardous because he was listed as a deserter of both military forces.
After the Revolution, General Washington bestowed a personal commendation on John Champe. In 1783, Champe was appointed to the position of sergeant-at-arms for the meetings of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey. In 1831, the U.S. Congress granted a life time pension to his widow. In 1847, the Congress posthumously promoted him to the rank of ensign. During the Civil War, Champe’s exploits were honored in the name of a Confederate infantry company—Champe’s Rifles. Several historic markers and monuments memorializing John Champe’s bravery were erected in Virginia over the decades.
Judy, Ida MaBelle, “John Champe: The Soldier and the Man” (1940), Shenandoah Publishing Company, Strasburg, Virginia, 1940).
Scheel, Eugene, The History of Loudoun County, Virginia, “John Champe, a Revolutionary War Double Agent Who Tries to Capture Benedict Arnold” (Leesburg, Virginia, undated)
John Champe (undated article)
Moran, Donald N., “Mission Impossible 1779” (reprinted from December 1983 issue of “Compatriots Newsletter”)
Scheer, George F., “The Sergeant Major’s Strange Mission” (The American Heritage Magazine, October 1957).
The Telegraph Newspaper, “Sgt. Major John Champe” (London, England, December 19, 2002)
Brandt, Clare, “The Man in the Mirror: A Life of Benedict Arnold” (Random House Press, New York City, 1994).This article originally appeared in Reflections, Issue Number 10 Summer 2011 and appears by permission.