“The whole story soon became known to the corps” The Unknown Legend of John Champe

Part III of III

The past few months of John Champe’s life were probably the most memorable. In the fall he was asked to go on a mission to capture the recent traitor Benedict Arnold. The mission was ordered by George Washington himself and only known to Washington and “Lighthorse” Harry Lee. Champe, a trusted member of Lee’s Legion, was promised a promotion for undertaking the daring mission. He successfully fled from the American camp, gained the trust of British General Sir Henry Clinton and Arnold and was given a commission in Arnold’s Loyalist regiment. He worked with patriots in New York and recruited others to help him in his plan to kidnap Arnold. Now it was December and the next day was the day to kidnap Arnold and return him to Washington.

Then the day before the kidnapping was planned, Clinton set into motion a plan to finally use Arnold militarily. Arnold would take his Loyalist troops and some British regulars and invade the Virginia Capes.  Virginia had largely dodged the hardships of war and Clinton believed this would be a great opportunity for Arnold to prove himself. With only Virginia militia located in the colony, Arnold should have no problem wreaking havoc on the Commonwealth.

These new developments ruined Champe and Lee’s plans. When Arnold got orders from Clinton, he moved his headquarters – one day before Champe was to carry out his plan. Furthermore, Champe was also moved to another part of New York and was not able to get word to Lee that the plan was off. Lee and his dragoons waited and waited at Hoboken with no sight of Champe. Soon Lee returned to camp without any word on what happened to Champe. Lee and Washington worried that the worst had happened and Champe was “discovered.”[i]

Grave at John Champe, Prickett Cemetery, Fairmont, WV

Champe soon found himself on a transport in New York harbor with Arnold’s “American Legion.” The destination was unknown to most of the men. Soon though Champe learned that he was to be part of an invasion force against his native state! The thoughts that must have gone through his mind; he had risked everything to capture Arnold – labeled a deserter and now he would have to go into battle against his fellow Virginians. The two week trip to the Virginia Capes must have afforded Champe plenty of time to ponder how close he was coming to succeeding and now what he was called upon to do.

Champe was involved in most of Arnold’s campaign against Virginia. He was part of the force that captured Richmond and found himself in several battles and skirmishes against his fellow Virginians. Arnold was replaced by Gen. William Philips and soon Cornwallis’s army joined Philips in Virginia in May 1781. Sometime after this, Champe was able to “escape” the British army and headed west to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Champe then worked his way south and finally by July he was back with Lee who was then with Nathaniel Greene’s army in the Carolinas. Lee was delighted to see his devoted cavalryman. Surely Champe and Lee had a lot to discuss.

Though Champe was promised a promotion, it was believed by Lee and Washington that it would be too dangerous for Champe to take the field again. If he was captured, the British would surely execute him as a spy. Champe was offered an unknown sum for a reward and headed back home to Loudoun County. His legendary adventure was over.

Sergeant Major John Champe Memorial
Sergeant Major John Champe Memorial, Aldie, VA

After the war, Champe did not seek fortune or fame from his exploits. He led a simple life and was a middle class farmer.  He struggled to support his family and continuously looked for cheaper and more fertile land to the west.  It was due to his desire for new land that he was on a trip looking at land near Morgan Town (modern day Morgantown, WV) in 1798 where he became ill and died. Washington did not forget Champe. In 1798 Washington was appointed by President John Adams commander of the American army in preparation for war with France. Washington called on Champe to be an officer in his army, only finding out that he had recently died.[ii]

Though Champe disappeared mostly from the history books in 1781, his family fought for nearly 100 years to gain the compensation that was due to Champe. Champe was never paid a pension nor given bounty lands that were owed to him for his service. Plus, his promised promotion was never given and they argued that the owed pension should be based off of the rank that was promised him personally by Washington.  Unfortunately, the mission was so secret, that very few could confirm it. In petitions filed with Congress in 1818 and 1839, Champe’s widow was finally given a life time pension, though in an amount not reflecting his rank.  Finally in 1847, a Congressional act provided for compensation in the amount of $1,200 to the heirs of John Champe and granted him the promotion that was promised to him by Washington. [iii]

Champe has remained a local hero in Loudoun County. In 1861, a local Confederate unit15_magnet_9 went off to war as the “Champe Rifles” (8th VA Infantry).  In the early 20th century, the location of his home was marked with a small obelisk (reportedly made by stone from the foundation of the home).  Today the monument sits on the south side of Route 50 a few miles west of Aldie.

In 2001, his grave was finally properly marked with a head stone and a full ceremony. Most recently Champe has been bestowed the highest honor a local hero can be given, a high school in his honor. John Champe High School was opened in Aldie in 2012 and one hopes that his name and legacy will be no longer be forgotten.

Lyrics from Sergeant Champe, ca. 1781

Come sheathe your swords!                                                                                                                      My gallant boys,                                                                                                                                          And listen to the story,                                                                                                                             How Sergeant Champe, one gloomy                                                                                                   night,                                                                                                                                                                 Set off to catch the tory

[i] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, 409.

[ii] Ibid., 410.

[iii] Pension Application of John Champe W4153, National Archives and Records Administration

One thought on ““The whole story soon became known to the corps” The Unknown Legend of John Champe

  1. Excellent article! Your story on John Champe highlights that Revolutionary War soldiers regularly switched allegiances and sometimes fought against their former comrades. Washington was clearly struck Arnold’s treason and sought to kill Arnold as an example to others who might contemplate similar treason. In addition, Washington was personally betrayed by Arnold given their collegial relationship and would go to great lengths, even sending one of his best soldiers behind lines to kill Arnold.

    Liked by 1 person

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