- Historic Sites
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
Honeyman nudged the cow into the open. As she dodged away, he ran, shouting, after her and cracked his whip. Across the fields, he saw the two horsemen—in Continental uniforms—jump into their saddles and gallop toward him. He ran but they were soon on top of him. Slashing with his long whip, he held them off for a while. Then he was down and one of them was on top of him. Before the other could dismount, he had slugged himself free and was running again.
He lost his balance on a patch of ice and fell hard. Ibis time both horsemen were on him before he could get up. While one straddled him, the other aimed a pistol at his head.
Honeyman protested that he was only a poor cattle dealer hunting meat to sell to the Hessians, but when they got his name out of him they elatedly bound him with his own rope. Mounted behind the one rider, while the other followed closely with his pistol ready, he was carried off to Washington’s headquarters.
As Honeyman’s wife later got the tale from him and passed it along in the family, he was a disheveled, scared-looking figure as the two troopers pushed him into the room where the Commander in Chief stood waiting. Washington gravely thanked the troopers for their accomplishment, then gave an order. This man was to be left alone with him and guards posted outside with instructions to shoot to kill if the spy tried to escape.
The door closed and Honeyman saw a smile break across Washington’s face. With a grin he straightened up and brushed the dirt off his shoulders.
This was the fourth time, according to the family accounts, that these two, the tall commander of the Continental Army and the brawny Scotch-Irish cattle dealer and butcher—and “notorious British spy”—had met. The first two times had been in Philadelphia a year and a half earlier, shortly alter the Continental Congress appointed Washington to lead the colonial forces. Honeyman, a weaver who a lew years before had married an Irish-born Philadelphia girl and settled there, brought two documents with him. One was his honorable discharge from the British Army in 1763 alter the French and Indian War, of which Washington was a fellow veteran. The other was a letter from General fames Wolle, the British hero of that war, announcing Honeyman’s appointment as his bodyguard.
The Irish predominating in Honeyman burned for independence from the British. Hc had been conscripted into the French and Indian War against his will. On the boat coming over he had saved Wolfe from a bad fall when the young officer stumbled coming down a ladder. This letter was Honeyman’s reward.
With these two documents, the Scottish accent he could turn on full spigot, and a pretense of fervent loyalty to the Crown, Honeyman pointed out to Washington—earnestness for once overcoming his shyness with words—that he coidd get into the confidence of the British, act the part of a spy for them, but in reality spy for Washington.
A plan was worked out. As a weaver, there wasn t much Honeyman could oiler the British. One oi them, and the accounts are not clear which it was, determined that it would be better tor him to become a cattle dealer and butcher, at which lie had had some experience as a young man back in Ireland, so he could supply provisions to the British. Whenever Honeyman thought he had important information, he should let himself be captured by Washington’s outposts, but not without a convincing struggle, so his usefulness wouldn’t end. If Washington had sudden reason to want him, he would in some way spread the word. Afterward, Honeyman’s escape would be contrived. He would be accountable only to Washington, and lor his family’s safety the only other person who would know about it would be Honeyman’s wife, Mary.
Soon afterward, Honeyman moved his wife and children—three little ones and a crippled daughter, Jane, going on nine—into New Jersey, a hotbed of loyalists. They settled in the village of Griggstown, a few miles north of Princeton.
The third meeting with Washington, as the Honeyman family heard it, was a hurried one at Hackensack in northern New Jersey in middle November. Washington, harried and weary, was desperately trying to save his dwindling army. Driven out of New York and with the British on his heels, he was starting the long race to temporary safety across the Delaware. His orders to Honeyman were crisp: fall in with the British army and stay with them until Washington needed him or he felt he had something to tell.
And now they were met for the fourth time in the big room at headquarters, very likely at Keith’s farmhouse a few miles south of the Delaware. A curious side light to the meeting appears in a letter Washington sent to his general officers just eight days before. Dated “Head Quarters at Keith’s, December 14, 1776,” the last part of it reads: Let me entreat you to cast about to find out some person who can be engaged to cross the river as a spy, that we may, if possible, obtain some knowledge of the enemy’s situation, movements, and intentions: particular inquiry to be made by the person sent if any preparations are making to cross the river; whether any boats are building and where; whether any are coming across land from Brunswick; whether any great collection of horses are made, and for what purpose, etc. Expense must not be spared in procuring such intelligence, and will readily be paid by me. We are in a neighborhood of very disaffected people, equal care therefore should be taken that one of these persons do not undertake the business in order to betray us.