Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Revolutionary War Hero

A Revolutionary War Hero Marker B-33 Loudoun Co. VAMarker No. B-33
Loudoun County, VA

Marker Text: Near here stood the home of Sergeant Major John Champe (1752-1798), Continental soldier. Champe faked desertion and enlisted in Benedict Arnold's British command for the purpose of capturing the traitor. Failing in his attempt, Champe rejoined the American army. His meritorious service was attested to by such patriots as General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee.

Location: On U.S Route 50 (John Mosby Highway), 2.59 miles west of Route 15 (James Monroe Highway), just east of Champe Ford Lane. Group with three other markers, B-30 (Stuart and Bayard); B-22 (Cavalry Battles); B-32 (Gettysburg Campaign). Erected by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in 1983. Marker probably replace an early marker erected in 1934.

A Revolutionary War Hero grouped with three other markers

Today’s marker is the one on the right.  Click any photo to enlarge.

  As you can see from the photo, today's marker is grouped with three other markers along U.S. Route 50. Traveling Route 50 from Winchester to Washington, D.C. you can find numerous markers and historical sites related to many different periods of U.S. history. The story of John Champe whose home use to stand every near here in Loudoun County, VA is about a man who became a double agent in an attempt to capture the Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold.

  In late October 1780, near Bergen, N.J., the Loudoun Dragoons were encamped a few miles from the Hudson River. John Champe was 28 years old at the time and the cavalry unit's sergeant major. Maj. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee was its commander. Across the river was New York City, which housed the British headquarters.

A Group of Four Historical Markers along U.S. Route 50 Loudoun Co. VA

Photo is taken from the opposite direction as the photo above, looking west on Route 50.  The marker is the one in the back and the stone monument to Champe is in a direct line behind the marker and fence into the field.

  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.

  George Washington desperately wanted 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. In a letter Washington wrote on Oct. 20, 1780 to Maj. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, his most accomplished cavalry officer, stated he wanted Arnold brought back alive and "My aim is to make a public example of him."

  General Washington devised a plan for an American soldier to present himself as a deserter and gain Arnold's confidence and then with an accomplice kidnap Arnold and bring him back to Washington. They figured Arnold would put up minimal resistance since he was nearing 40 and had a crippled left leg from a Hessian bullet at Saratoga.

John Champe Stone Monument behind the Historical Road Marker

Photo is the stone monument marking Champe home taken from behind the state marker on the road looking west.  Need to enlarge photo to see monument next to electric pole.

  Maj. 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. 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. Such a bold plan was not without it's risks. No one outside Washington, Lee or Champe could know of the scheme, or the whole plan would be jeopardized, and Champe's life put in extreme danger.

  About 11 p.m. on Oct. 20, Champe rode off about five miles to a boat waiting for him on the Hudson River. Shortly after Champe left camp, an American patrol spotted him, and, when he did not halt, gave chase. An aide informed Lee of the escape, but the commander, in order to buy time for Champe, appeared little interested. The aide left but returned shortly to inform Lee that the escapee was his sergeant major, Champe. Hoping he had given Champe time to escape, Lee finally ordered a patrol to go after him. Only minutes ahead of the pursuing patrol, Champe dismounted, ran through the marsh and plunged into the Hudson to board the boat to New York City.

  Once, Champe was captured by British pickets and he was questioned by a host of British officers, eventually coming before their commander, Sir Henry Clinton. Champe was able to convince his interrogators that other Americans, like himself, were planning to desert following Arnold's example.

John Champe Monument as viewed from Champe Ford Road

Photo of the stone monument taken from Champe Ford Road, the state marker is located on the hill to the right of the photo behind the tree line. Need to enlarge photo to see well and close up on monument below.

  Clinton then introduced Champe to Arnold, who was impressed with Champe's countenance and demeanor. Arnold made Champe one of his recruiting sergeants in the American Legion. With that position, Champe had uninterrupted access to Arnold's home near the southern tip of Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River.

  Champe, via a conspirator, communicated with Lee. Ten days after his defection, Champe sent Lee his plan to abduct Arnold. The plan failed, because the day before the planned capture, Arnold moved his quarters to another part of Manhattan, taking Champe with him. Arnold's American Legion, made up largely of deserters, then sailed to join other British armies in Petersburg, Va.

  Back in Virginia, Champe fought with Arnold's troops, sometimes against Lee. After some weeks, Champe deserted, making his way to the Appalachian Mountains before rejoining Lee's command. In his "Memoirs," Maj. Lee wrote that Champe's "whole story soon became known to the corps . . . heightened by universal admiration of his daring and arduous attempt." Washington then excused Champe from further war service, and he returned to his family life and seven children in Loudoun County.

  The site of Loudoun County’s first hero John Champe's home is now only remembered by a state historical marker, a stone monument (made from stone from the original house) located on private land about 500 feet behind this marker and to the west and a narrow lane to the east called Champe Ford Road.

John Champe Stone Monument site of Champe's Home in Loudoun Co. VAStone Monument Text: Here was the home of Sergeant Major John Champe, Continental Army, who risked the inglorious death of a spy for the independence of his country. Erected 1939.

  In 1920, all that remained of Champe's home was a dilapidated stone wall and a cottage in ruins. Unaware of John Champe's fame the cottage was dismantled.

  In 1927, the Virginia State Commission of Conservation and Development began its erection of historical markers. Wilbur C. Hall, Loudoun County's delegate to the General Assembly and a history lover, prompted the state to honor Champe with Marker 33-B.

  In early summer 1934, the marker was placed at this location close to the few stones that remained from Champe's home. After the placement of the marker Col. Floyd Harris who had dismantled the cottage was intrigued by the marker and subsequent newspaper accounts about Champe. Harris decided to have an obelisk built from remaining stones at the site of the Champe homestead. The memorial was unveiled on Oct. 22, 1939.

  Stone marker is located behind these state markers in the field about 100 feet to the west. The property is private and posted but you can see the marker by standing at the fence and looking west. This marker indicates the site of Champe's home.

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