Monday, December 20, 2010
Not so for the real-life family of John Honeyman, a spy for Washington and little known hero of the Battle of Trenton during Christmas, 1776. I’m not surprised if you have never heard of John Honeyman because most contemporary historians have relegated his story to the back burner and allowed the pot to simmer a bit because cold hard evidence is lacking.
I really can’t say I blame them because I like hard cold evidence, but the Honeyman tale, if it could be substantiated, makes for great history!
John Honeyman first came to the British colonies as a soldier for Great Britain in 1758 to fight in the French and Indian War. Having shared this war many times with my young students it’s very easy to allow them to be lulled into thinking the French and Indian War was fought only by colonists. They need to remember the war in the colonies were merely an offshoot of the Seven Years War in Europe. Honeyman is a great example to use with students to exhibit the French and Indian War was not only fought by colonist but British soldiers were sent to the colonies to assist them as well. Like many soldiers though at the time, Honeyman wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to fight. It’s also a great time to emphasize that men like George Washington also fought for the British during the conflict. Many British soldiers like Honeyman decided to stay in the colonies.
While serving in the British army Honeyman was noticed by Colonel James Wolfe and eventually served as his bodyguard. When Honeyman left the army he had his discharge papers as well as a letter from Wolfe confirming his position as bodyguard.
Fastforward a bit to 1776 and at some point so the story goes Honeyman meets up with General George Washington and the British paperwork Honeyman possesses is mentioned. Washington realizes the paperwork will be helpful to allow Honeyman access to British camps and Honeyman is asked to pose as a Tory to gather intelligence for the Patriots.
The first instance regarding John Honeyman’s involvement in the Battle of Trenton was published in 1873 in an article titled 'An Unwritten Account of a Spy of Washington' in Our Home magazine. The story was written by Judge John van Dyke, a grandson of John Honeyman, using oral accounts told to him by his Aunt Jane, the daughter of John Honeyman.
The article states Honeyman did pose as a Tory in Griggstown and Trenton and apparently he was so believable in the role, he made many Patriot neighbors mad at him to the point they would attack his house. The only thing that saved the family was the fact John Honeyman had a letter of protection from General George Washington. The letter identified Honeyman as a Tory, but also requested safety for the family. The British trusted Honeyman so much that he was given the freedom to walk about the British garrison at Trenton.
The story continues that just prior to the Battle of Trenton Honeyman was captured by the Patriots…..part of his plan….and he gave up his information he had gathered to Washington and his men. When a fire broke out close to where he was being held Honeyman escaped and made his way back to Trenton where he advised Colonel Johann Rall the Patriots wouldn’t attack even if they wanted to. They were demoralized and did not have the necessary equipment for an attack.
Honeyman knew better……his information was part of a great ruse since Washington was planning to attack during the Christmas holiday.
It was easy for George Washington to make the decision to attack on Christmas. While some Americans did celebrate the holiday by December, 1776, it was overlooked by many Patriots as they considered it a celebration for the British. While Christmas held more significance in 1776 than it did during the mid to late 1600s it wasn’t held in such high regard as it is today. Washington knew the British would celebrate, but knew the Hessians camped at Trenton would celebrate heartily with food, drink, and games as was the German custom. It would be the perfect time for a Patriot attack.
Washington planned Christmas surprise included taking 2400 men across the Delaware River in order to attack the Hessians camped at Trenton. One thousand enemy soldiers were taken prisoner within an hour, and the much needed victory spurred the Patriots on.
So, did John Honeyman really serve as Washington’s spy? There is no hard evidence even though many historians in the past have referred to him. Everything boils down to family lore and the Honeyman family have never produced the letter from George Washington giving the family protection. However, many in support of the story argue that Honeyman never left the colonies for Nova Scotia as most Tories did, and he was able to purchase three tracts of land following the American Revolution when most could not afford anything. Was this payment for his service?
This American Heritage article seems to support the Honeyman service while this article from the Central Intelligence Agency site does a fantastic job of negating the whole thing.
You can be the judge, but it is still a fascinating story either way.
I’ve written about Trenton and the crossing Washington and his men undertook before. You can find my articles here and here.