“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

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

Part II of III

John Champe’s “desertion”

The rectitude of the decision John Champe made on that October night to “desert” his men and “join” the British must have weighed heavily on his mind as he approached the Hudson River. The mission, offered by “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, to capture the traitor Benedict Arnold was a serious one. The only hesitation Champe felt was how his reputation and honor would be injured by his desertion.  No one but Lee and Washington could know the truth, the success of the mission counted on secrecy.[i]


As Champe reached the Paulus Hook area of the Hudson River, the details are murky. Some accounts have Champe jumping into a boat along the shore and pushing off into the river and rowing to a British war ship. Other claims have Champe clearing a British patrol along the river and escorted by the patrol to a nearby ship. [ii]  Either way, Champe eluded his American pursuers and accomplished the first goal of his mission, to reach the British lines.

Lee, already having established a spy network, lined up a system of couriers to communicate with Champe. By October 25th, Lee had heard from Champe and wrote to Washington that “my friend got safe to New York; he was before Sir Henry Clinton and has passed all the forms of the garrison; he accidentally met General Arnold in the street which has paved a natural way for further acquaintance; the party entertains high hope of success…”[iii]

Clinton and Arnold expected many other American officers to be inspired by Arnold and

Sir Henry Clinton

join the British army. Champe, a modest officer in a fabled unit was just the kind of man that Clinton wanted to attract. The fact that Champe was fleeing his own men who were in hot pursuit of him made the deception complete. Clinton questioned Champe about the condition of the American army and morale.  Champe informed Clinton that other officers were sure to desert and Washington’s ranks were thinning with men heading home. Clinton soon trusted him to be a deserter and attached him to a unit of Loyalists that Arnold was raising.[iv]


Champe became close to Arnold and spent a lot of time with him. Champe spent a lot of time at Arnold’s headquarters at the King’s Arms Tavern on Broadway in New York City. He would take the next several weeks to study Arnold and his habits. Champe also watched for other deserters joining the British army in New York. The fear by Washington was that Arnold was acting with other American officers in defecting. Soon Champe realized that Arnold had acted alone in his treason.

Finally in early December Champe informed Lee that his plan was to kidnap Arnold one night as Arnold took his nightly walk in a garden next to his headquarters. Champe was even able to recruit fellow patriots to assist him in the kidnapping of Arnold. On the selected night, Champe would have a boat waiting for him at a nearby landing. He also had loosened some of the fence boards around the garden area so he could sneak Arnold out of the garden. After getting Arnold onto the boat, Champe would take him to Hoboken (western side of the Hudson River). There Lee and three of his dragoons would wait for Champe and his cargo.  Washington insisted to Lee and then to Champe that Arnold was not to be harmed. Champe was sure of his success and spent days and weeks in planning the capture of Arnold. [v]

As the evening approached, everything was in place. He had earned the confidence of Clinton and Arnold. He was now a sergeant in the British army and spent countless hours preparing and making the necessary connections to fellow patriots in New York.  The boat was prepared and waiting, Lee would be at Hoboken with his dragoons.  Everything was in place to bring home the traitor Arnold.


[i] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, pg. 399.

[ii] “Sergeant John Champe and Certain of His Contemporaries”, William and Mary College Quarterly, April 1937, pg. 153.

[iii] Ibid., 154.

[iv] The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee; DeCapo Press, 1998, pg. 405.

[v] Ibid., 409.

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

Part I of III

Sergeant Major John Champe Monument
Sergeant Major John Champe Monument

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.

Benedict_Arnold_1colorWashington 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.

“Light Horse” Harry Lee



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.