John Champe

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The story of the American Revolutionary spy who was assigned to capture Benedict Arnold.

John Champe was born in Loudoun County, Virginia about 1752. In his early twenties he was a large, strong man who was known to be serious, thoughtful, and couragous. By 1780 he had acheived the rank of Seargant Major in one of the most prestigious units of the Continental Army, Henry Lee's Light Dragoons.

Since Lee had a reputation for capturing enemy soldiers, George Washington gave him the assignment of capturing the biggest enemy fish of them all, Arnold. Washington feared that Arnold's bold defection would encourage other high ranking defections, he even had some evidence of it. He was anxious that Arnold be brought back alive and then hanged. Lee was one of Washington's most trusted officers so the job fell to him.

When Washington briefed Lee on his plan, Lee immeadiately thought of John Champe and suggested him on the spot. Lee told Washington about Champe and Washington agreed that this was the sort of man they needed. They agreed that Champe should fake his own desertion and try to get close to Arnold who was then in British controlled New York City. Washington gave Lee the names of two spies in the city who could assist Champe once he was there. Lee then went back to enlist Champe in the plan.

When John Champe heard of it, he turned it down cold. He had tremndous loyalty to the cause of American freedom and to the men in his unit. It was only when Lee said that Washington had bestowed a great honor on the unit by selecting it for this mission and that if they refused it would be an insult to Washington that Champe relented.

Champe gathered his company's log book, to show the sincerity of his defection, and some extra clothes into a valise. Then took his horse and fled his unit. A patrol had spotted Champe and reported back to Captian Patrick Carnes who reported to Lee that they believed Champe was deserting. Lee tried to buy time for Champe by asking lots of questions and ordering a search of the camp. Finally, he ordered some men to give chase, but chose Cornet Middleton to lead the chase rather than Carnes because he was a of a more gentle nature and thus reduced the chance that Champe might be killed by his pursuers.

His pursuers came so close to getting Champe that he was only able to escape by jumping off his horse and into the Hudson river. When some Redcoats on the New York shore saw him, they fired on his pursuers and drove them back. He presented himself to the British forces as a deserter. They took him to New York City where he was paid the standard bounty for a deserter. Then the British asked him to enlist with them. He coyly declined.

John Champe now had a price on his head as a Colonial deserter. Only Lee and Washington knew the truth. On the streets of New York he met Benedict Arnold and they struck up a conversation. It turns out that Arnold was putting together a unit composed entirely of Americans to fight in the British army. Arnold was so impressed with Champe that he offered him the top sargeant post in the company that Arnold was putting together. Champe accepted.

Incredibly, they gave Champe quarters right next door to Arnold. Now John began to formulate his plan. He noted that Arnold made a trip to the privy in the rear garden of his house each evening before retiring. Champe made a plan to kidnap Arnold out of his garden. John contacted the two spies in New York which General Washington had told him about and they set the plan in motion. The following evening the spies would bring a small row boat to the shores of the Hudson which backed up to Arnold's garden. Champe loosened a board in the garden fence at the rear by the river shore. However, the next day the unit was ordered to board a ship bound to fight in Virginia. The plan was ruined.

Worse than that, John Champe was now on his way to battle against his own beloved Virginians. The unit had been moved to a ship in New York harbor so quickly that Champe could not get word to anyone. He defected from the British soon after they disembarked in Virginia. Now, as a deserter from the British army, he had a another price on his head!

He was able to meet with Lee who was very happy to see him alive. Champe wanted to rejoin his old unit, but Lee told him that if the British captured him in a future battle they could still hang him as a spy. Washington agreed and discharged Champe from the army.

During the Civil War era, Champe's exploits were memorialized in the name of a Confederate infantry company -- Champe's Rifles was organized in Aldie in May 1861.


How am I related to John Champe?

I am William Joseph Champ,
son of Donsel Champ,
son of Fred Champ,
son of Joseph Columbus Champ (b. 10 Aug 1875 in Belington, Barbour, West Virginia, USA),
son of Jackson Daniel Champ (b. 24 Feb 1844 in Belington,Barbour Co.,WV),
son of Nimrod Champ (b. 20 Mar 1815 in Pendleton Co., WV),
son of John Champ (b. 1792),
son of Sgt. Maj. John Champe (b. 1752)


Other John Champe links

There is a chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution named for Champe, although their web site has gone dark.
The CIA web site mentions his mission. Scroll down to the section titled "Wartime Special Operations".
It looks like someone has written a new fictional book based on John Champe. And it's already been reviewed.
Washington Post article.