Part I of III
Along Route 50, west of Aldie, Virginia is a small obelisk in the middle of a cow pasture. Thousands of car drive by the marker, not knowing what it is or who it is for. Most people that come to this area of Virginia for history are interested in the American Civil War. In this region of Virginia the legendary John S. Mosby operated behind Union lines for two years. Also here were the hard fought cavalry battles that preluded the Battle of Gettysburg. But this monument doesn’t refer to anything in the Civil War. This monument commemorates a local American Revolutionary War hero. A man that has been mostly forgotten until recently.
John Champe was born in ca. 1755 from a family that was well established on Virginia’s Northern Neck. His family owned substantial land in King George, Stafford and Prince William Counties. At some point, his family moved to the Aldie region of Loudoun County, where John was born. The men of the Champe family were involved in the local militia and civil office as road builders. Though the family had substantial land holdings and slaves, John was one of many siblings and sought out his future with the military at the outbreak of the American Revolution.
John Champe enlisted as a private in the 1st Regiment, Virginia Light Dragoons in December 1776. Champe’s abilities were quickly noticed and saw himself promoted to corporal by 1778 and then a sergeant by 1779. Champe’s abilities were quickly noticed by his commander, Major “Lighthorse” Harry Lee. Lee described Champe as “rather above the common size – full of bone and muscle; with a saturnine countenance, grave, thoughtful and taciturn – of tried courage and inflexible perseverance.” [i] Though Champe might have quickly risen in the non-commissioned ranks, he desired more. His opportunity for promotion and a date with history came on September 27, 1780 at West Point, NY.
The treachery that took place on September 24th at West Point by once beloved American General Benedict Arnold is well documented. Arnold planned on turning over the fortress at West Point to the British (thus giving up the vital Hudson River). Arnold, receiving command of the post at West Point in August 1780, quickly reduced the viability of the fortifications by neglecting repairs and sending troops away from the post. Arnold’s treachery was not exposed until British officer, Major John Andre was captured, carrying on him copies of letters and Arnold’s plans. Luckily for Arnold, he learned on the morning of September 24th of Andre’s capture and he quickly fled to the HMS Vulture then on to safety in New York City.
Washington also learned of Arnold’s treason on September 24th during his planned visit to West Point. Washington reportedly took the news calmly and began to investigate the depth of treason in his officer corps. Maj. Lee assisted Washington in his investigation, and both found no evidence of other American officers involved in the plot. Washington then turned to the capture of Arnold, and that is where our “hero” comes into the story.
In October of 1780, Washington looked to Lee to find someone in his talented cavalry command that could “defect” to the British and carry out an elaborate plan to capture Arnold. Calling Lee to his headquarters, Washington and Lee discussed the proposition of capturing Arnold and how to carry out such a plan. Lee was tasked with finding someone in his command that could successfully carry out the plan. Lee soon wrote to Washington that he had two men in mind, but his top choice was a sergeant in his cavalry unit
“The chief of the two persons is a sergeant in my Cavalry; to him I have promised promotion…if your Excellency approves of what is done, the sergeant will desert from us tomorrow; the sergeant is a very promising youth of uncommon taciturnity and inflexible perseverance…I have incited his thirst for fame by impressing on his mind the virtue and glory of the act.” [ii]
Washington quickly responded and agreed to Champe’s terms of promotion and soon the mission was hatched. Champe would desert to the British and only Lee and Washington would know about it. He would be labeled a traitor and his family name tarnished. If he was captured by the Americans, he would be executed and if he was exposed as an American spy to the British, he would also be executed. Champe accepted the risk and on the night of October 21st, Champe mounted his horse and made way for the Hudson River where he hoped to find either a British picket line or ship. With him Champe carried his orderly book, saddle bags and five guineas (provided to him by Lee).
Quickly Champe was challenged by an American patrol and he quickly fled,. This is exactly what Champe and Lee wanted, for the British to believe him, his desertion had to seem real. Soon the patrol reported to Lee about Champe’s departure. Lee delayed the pursuit, by first inquiring with other patrol members. Surely a man of Champe’s stature was not defecting. Soon though Lee knew he had to order a pursuit, he just hoped Champe had put enough distance between him and the Americans to make his escape.
Though Lee’s delay allowed Champe some time, it was not enough to break away cleanly. As Champe was making his way to the Hudson River, the American patrol was on his heels and calling for his halt. In front of him were British warships in the Hudson River and a British patrol on the banks for the river. Now was the time of decision, he could be shot dead by the British or captured and executed by the Americans. The plan to capture Arnold and punish the traitor was already at its first “Rubicon.”
[i] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, pg. 396.
[ii] “Sergeant John Champe and Certain of His Contemporaries”; William and Mary College Quarterly, April 1937, pg. 153.