A Spy For Washington
“Loyalist” John Honeyman bought cattle, kept his eyes open —and may have made the surprise victory at Trenton possible
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
The finest Christmas present, and the most unexpected, our country ever received was handed to us by George Washington in the dismal winter of 1776 when he crossed the Delaware and captured Trenton just as the faltering fires of the American Revolution seemed about to go out.
There were to be other hard winters before independence was won, Valley Forge among them, but none more critical than this one. Since adoption of the Declaration of Independence five months before, the bedraggled Continental Army’s road had been rutted with disasters. It had barely escaped destruction on Long Island and at White Plains and had lost 2,800 men captured at Fort Washington. Chased across New Jersey by the British regulars and their German mercenaries, it had been thinned by casualties and desertions to a few thousand hungry, half-naked diehards. Only Washington’s foresight in confiscating all the available boats before his army lied across the Delaware River at Trenton had staved off capture. At best, it seemed only a breathing spell.
The British army under Sir William Howe was safely based in New York, while Lord Cornwallis, commanding the triumphant British forces in New Jersey, had started packing to go back to England. FIe might return in the spring to mop up if Howe thought it necessary. But he felt confident that hunger and cold would put out the last sparks of rebellion before then in the starving camp across the river.
Even Washington appeared to agree. From his headquarters on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, he wrote one of his soul-unburdening letters to his brother John Augustine: “I think the game is pretty near up—. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.”
That was on December 18.
Seven days later, Christmas night, Washington suddenly forded his troops back across the Delaware, stormed into Trenton with the dawn, and defeated the Hessian army there. The attack was flawlessly executed, timed perfectly. Without an American fatality, the town was taken!
It was America’s first major victory of the war. The startled Cornwallis rushed to the rescue, but Washington slipped around his flank in the dark and an- darioiisly smashed his rear guard in the Battle of Princeton, then scampered into the New Jersey hills at Morristown for the rest of the winter.
In one brilliant, totally unexpected stroke, Washington had changed the complexion of the War for Independence from a dying pallor to a ruddy glow. America was jubilant, its confidence magically reborn. England was grave with sudden concern.
What happened in those seven days between December 18 and 25 to revitalize the war picture so dramatically? Something definitely happened between the day Washington wrote dejectedly to his brother, “I think the game is prettty near up” and Christmas night when he drove his army on Trenton with the rousing watchword, “Victory or Death!”
Official documents of the war leave us in the dark. But in the records of a colonial village family and the findings of a New Jersey Supreme Court justice and a well-known historian of the Revolution, the mystery comes out of hiding. It is a strange story of a silent man who performed an important and dangerous mission and never asked the least acclaim for it, never seemed to want anything more than his own soul-deep satisfaction in a job superbly done.
It is the story of John Honeyman, a plain, closemouthed weaver, “the spy of Washington” at Trenton. Only one person got the story in all its details directly from him: his wife, who alone of his family was in on the secret from the start. It remained for his grandson, Justice John Van Dyke of the New Jersey Supreme Court, to record and annotate it carefully, and William S. Stryker, the Nineteenth-Century historian and adjutant general of New Jersey, to investigate further and in essence confirm it.
We first meet John Honeyman, a Scotch-Irish giant of 46, on the River Road west of the Hessian-held village of Trenton. It was the afternoon of December 22, 1776. A crust of two-day-old snow covered the brown fields. Patches of ice glinted in the hollows. John Honeyman, known as an outspoken Tory serving the British as both a butcher and “spy,” strolled past the Hessian outposts, a coil of rope in one hand, a long cart whip in the other, hunting cattle.
A few miles up the Delaware River, on the other side, Washington’s rebel army, without tents or blankets, half of the men barefooted, huddled around open campfires in the lee of Bowman’s Hill, keeping barely alive on their scant ration of raw flour baked into a semblance of bread on stones around the fires. Behind Honeyman, in the snug Trenton he had just left, the Hessians had all the bread they needed, and rum, but not enough meat for the FrÖhliche Weihnachten so deai to their Teutonic hearts. ,Another cow or two!
John Honeyman was a big man, his grandson remembered, with a deep burr of Scotch in his voicewhen he used it. He knew the rebel commander, Washington, was looking for him. With many farmers in the area still loyal to the British, news like that traveled fast. Eyes alert, he moved cautiously across the fro/en fields. Under a clump of trees some distance away, he spotted two dismounted horsemen sitting on stumps. Nearby, a farmer’s cow browsed in a fence corner.