Sergeant Champe | American Revolution War Song

About the author

Frank Moore
Frank Moore

Frank Moore was a journalist and Revolutionary historian. He published a number of books on the American Revolution during his career in the mid-19th century, including Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution, Diary of the American Revolution and The Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution.

The adventure of this gallant officer, commemorated in the subjoined ballad, is connected with the conspiracy of Arnold. The authorship of the song is unknown, as is the case of very many of the finest productions of the Revolutionary period. It was adapted to the air of “Barbara Allen,” and sung very generally, at home and in the camp, during the last years of the Revolution.

Sergeant Champe*

COME sheathe your swords ! my gallant boys,
And listen to the story,**
How Sergeant Champe, one gloomy night,
Set off to catch the tory.

You see the general had got mad,
To think his plans were thwarted,
And swore by all, both good and bad,
That Arnold should be carted.

So unto Lee he sent a line,
And told him all his sorrow,
And said that he must start the hunt,
Before the coming morrow.

Lee found a sergeant in his camp,
Made up of bone and muscle,
Who ne’er knew fear, and many a year
With tories had a tussle.

Bold Champe, when mounted on old Rip,
All button’d up from weather,
Sang out, “good bye !” crack’d off his whip,
And soon was in the heather.

He gallop’d on towards Paulus Hook,
Improving every instant
Until a patrol, wide awake,
Descried him in the distance.

On coming up, the guard call’d out
And ask’d him, where he’s going
To which he answer’d with his spur,
And left him in the mowing.

The bushes pass’d him like the Wind,
And pebbles flew asunder.
The guard was left far, far behind,
All mix’d with mud and wonder.

Lee’s troops paraded, all alive,
Although ’twas one the morning,
And counting o”er a dozen or more,
One sergeant is found wanting.

A little hero,*** full of spunk,
But not so full of judgment,
Press’d Major Lee to let him go,
With the bravest of his reg’ment.

Lee summon’d cornet Middleton,
Expressed what was urgent,
And gave him orders how to go
To catch the rambling sergeant.

Then forty troopers, more or less,
Set off across the meader;
‘Bout thirty-nine went jogging on
A-following their leader.

At early morn, adown a hill
They saw the sergeant sliding;
So fast he went, it was not ken’t,
Whether he’s rode, or riding.

None lookèd back, but on they spurr’d,
A-gaining every minute.
To see them go, ‘twould done you good,
You’d thought old Satan in it.

The sergeant miss’d ’em, by good luck,
And took another tracing,
He turn’d his horse from Paulus Hook,
Elizabethtown facing.

It was the custom of Sir Hal
To send his galleys cruising,
And so it happenèd just then,
That two were at Van Deusen’s.

Strait unto these the sergeant went,
And left old Rip, all standing,
A waiting for the blown cornet,
At Squire Van Deusen’s landing.

The troopers didn’t gallop home,
But rested from their labors;
And some ’tis said took gingerbread
And cider from the neighbors.

‘Twas just at eve the troopers reach’d
The camp they left that morning,
Champe’s empty saddle, unto Lee,
Gave an unwelcome warning.

“If Champe has suffered, ’tis my fault;”
So thought the generous major:
” I would not have his garment touch’d,
For millions on a wager !”

“The cornet told him all he knew,
Excepting of the cider.
The troopers, all, spurr’d very well
But Champe was the best rider !”

And so it happen’d that brave Champe
Unto Sir Hal deserted,
Deceiving him, and you, and me,
And into York was flirted.

He saw base Arnold in his camp,
Surrounded by the legion,
And told him of the recent prank
That threw him in that region.

Then Arnold grinn’d, and rubb’d his hands,
And e’enmost chok’d with pleasure,
Not thinking Champe was all the while
A “taking of his measure.”

Come now,” says he, “my bold soldier,
As you’re within our borders,
Let’s drink our fill, old care to kill,
To-morrow you’ll have orders.”

Full soon the British fleet set sail !
Say ! wasn’t that a pity ?
For thus it was brave Sergeant Champe
Was taken from the city.

To southern climes the shipping flew,
And anchored in Virginia,
When Champe escaped and join’d his friends
Among the picininni.

Base Arnold’s head, by luck, was sav’d,
Poor Andre was gibbeted,
Arnold’s to blame for Andre’s fame,
And Andre’s to be pitied.

  • *Sergeant John Champe was “a native of London county, in Virginia, rather above the ordinary size, full of physical power, with a countenance grave and thoughtful.” He enlisted in the Continental army at the age of nineteen, where he served with honor to himself and the corps to which he belonged. He was honorably discharged from service, by Gen. Washington, on the conclusion of his hazardous adventure, lest he might be taken by the enemy and hung; and soon after retired to his home in Loudon county. In 1798 he removed to Kentucky, where he remained until the time of his death.
  • **And listen to the story. General Washington, on his return to the army, immediately sent for Major Lee. This officer, on repairing to head-quarters, found the general alone in his marquee busily engaged in writing. As soon as he entered, a bundle of papers was laid before him for perusal, in which he found much information tending to prove that Arnold was not alone in the conspiracy, but that among others, a major-general, whose name was not concealed, was as guilty as Arnold himself. It was for the purpose of forming a plan to ascertain the truth of these suggestions, as well as for the capture of Arnold, that Washington had summoned Lee, and the project was known to them alone. “It is my desire,” said Washington, “to probe to the bottom the intelligence contained in the papers you have just read; to seize Arnold, and by securing him, to render it possible for me to restore the amiable and unfortunate Andre to his friends. Have you, in your legion, a person capable and willing to undertake a delicate add dangerous project? Whoever comes forward, will lay me under great personal obligations, and in behalf of the nation I will reward him.” Lee suggested a sergeant of the cavalry as one in all respects qualified for the adventurous scheme, “being a man of tried courage and inflexible Perseverance, and as likely to reject an overture coupled with ignominy as any officer in the corps.” The general was delighted to find that a non-commissioned officer was capable of carrying out his views, and Lee returned to Camp with his instructions to confer with Champe, as it was the design he should set off that night. After a long consuItation, Champe was prevailed upon to undertake the enterprise. The instructions were read to him and from them he prepared notes so disguised as to be understood only by himself. Arnold was upon no account to be injured, but to be allowed to escape rather than to be killed in preventing such an event. It was the desire of Washington to make public example of him.No time was lost. Champe immediately prepared himself and his horse for the journey, and a little before midnight, mounted to pursue his way to Paulus Hook.

    Within half an hour, hour Captain Carnes, officer of the day, repaired to the quarters of Major Lee, and told him that the guard had fallen in with a dragoon, who, upon being questioned, put spurs to his horse and escaped; at the same time requesting orders for the pursuit. The major, who had assured Champe, that, in the event of his desertion being discovered before morning, he would delay the pursuit as long as possible, tried every device to accomplish it. He complained of the disturbance of his sleep, and suggested the probability of its being a countryman on his way home, or some soldier gone out on a tour of personal pleasure.

    Captain Carnes then returned to his quarters, paraded the troops and found one sergeant missing, of which he hastily informed Major Lee. Some delay was occasioned by these movements. Champe had been gone but an hour, when the troopers, under the command of a cornet, set off on the chase. A shower of rain had fallen soon after the sergeant’s departure which enabled the dragoons to take his trail. On they spurred, stopping occasionally during the darkness of the night, to examine the foot-prints of the fugitive’s horse (The shoes of the horses were I’ll made in the same form; which, with a private mark annexed to the fore shoe, and known to the troopers, pointed out the trail of the dragoons to each other, which was often very useful.)

    When morning broke, no longer forced to halt, they passed on rapidly. Ascending the summit of a hill, a few miles north of the village of Bergen, they descried Champe, not more than half a mile in front. He at the same time discovering them, put spurs to his horse, determined they should not overtake him. The cornet now put his horses to the top of their speed, and recollecting a short route through the woods, sent a party off that way, to intercept the road at a bridge below Bergen, while he with the remainder followed Champe. Being so closely pursued, Champe relinquished his intention of going to Paulus Hook, and sought refuge in some British galleys, that had for a long time occupied a station a few miles west of Bergen. On his entering the village be disguised his track by taking the beaten streets, and after passing through it, took the road leading to Elizabethtown. Meanwhile the cornet’s party had reached the bridge, and found, with sore disappointment, the sergeant had slipped through their fingers. Returning up the road, they inquired whether a dragoon had been seen in the village, but could get no intelligence as to the road he had taken. The troops soon spread over the village, and in a short time again struck the trail. The chase was renewed with greater vigor, and Champe was soon discovered. He, apprehending the event, had prepared himself for it, as he now had come abreast the galleys. Leaving his horse, and lashing his valise to his shoulders, he threw himself into the river and called out to the galleys for aid. This was quickly given. The British fired on the cornet’s party, and sent a boat to meet Champe, who was taken on board and conveyed to New York, with a letter from the captain relating the facts of the case. The cornet returned to camp in the afternoon, when the soldiers, seeing the sergeant’s horse in his possession, exclaimed, “The scoundrel is killed and the honor of our corps vindicated.”

    When Champe arrived at New York, he delivered the letter from the captain of the galley to the commandant, and was soon sent to Sir Henry Clinton. He detained him more than an hour, questioning him in reference to the state of the army since the desertion of Arnold, the probable fate of Andre, and the popularity of Washington, all of which he answered warily. Placing two guineas in his hand, he advised Champe to visit Arnold. On seeing him, the traitor expressed great satisfaction, and pressed him to join a new legion he was raising. After some delay, Champe enlisted, for the purpose of securing the freedom of Arnold’s house, which would further the plans of taking him when the time should arrive.

    He now turned his attention to the delivery of letters he had brought, to the agents of Washington. On the following night he delivered one, but it was not until five days after he saw the person to whom the other was addressed, and who was to aid him in the capture of Arnold. While these things were transpiring, Andre was hung. Nothing now remained but to seize and deliver Arnold safely to Major Lee, who at an appointed time, was to be ready on the Jersey shore to receive him. Champe, from his enlistment, had every opportunity to notice the habits of Arnold. He discovered it was his custom to visit the garden on his return home every night. During this visit he was to be seized, gagged and carried into an adjoining alley, where Champe’s friends Were to receive and bear him to a boat in the North river.

    On the night appointed, Major Lee left camp, with a body of cavalry and three led horses, one for Arnold, one for Champe, and a third for his friend; never doubting the success of the adventure. The party reached Hoboken about midnight, and concealed themselves in an adjoining wood. Lee, with three dragoons, went down to the bank of the river. The night passed away, and no boat approached, when Lee returned to camp, much chagrined and disappointed at the issue of the project.

    Soon after, Lee received a letter from the friend of Champe, informing him that on the very night appointed for the execution of the plot, Arnold had removed his quarters to another part of the town, to superintend the embarkation of troops, and the corps to which Champe belonged had already gone on board the transports.

    Thus it happened that Sergeant Champe, instead of crossing the Hudson with his prisoner, was quietly placed on board a British transport, which he never departed from until the troops under Arnold landed in Virginia.

    On the junction with Cornwallis, Champe deserted, passing into North Carolina and keeping within the friendly districts of that State, safely joined the American army, near the Congaree river. His old comrades were surprised to see a deserter so affectionately received by Major Lee, but after his story was told, cheer upon cheer went up for “the intrepid and gallant sergeant.” Lee’s Memoirs.

  • ***A little hero. This was Capt. Carnes, officer of the day, who communicated the fact of Champes desertion to Major Lee.

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