- 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
If possible, get some person in Trenton, and let him be satisfied if any boats are building at that place and on Croswick Creek.
In a footnote to the letter John C. Fitzpatrick, editor of the 39-volume Writings of George Washington , sees a possible link to “John Honeyman as the spy ol Trenton.” But the evidence, he adds, “is not sufficient to identify him as the person selected according to the above direction.”
It is a tantalizing feature of the Honeyman chronicle that evidence like this, and even stronger, keeps cropping up to support the story but never quite nails it down as public record. The archives of the Revolution show that Washington had an excellent secret service and that he dealt with most of these people entirely by word of mouth. That could be one reason; the other, Honeyman’s own self-satisfied silence.
As his wife got the story of the meeting from him, Honeyman gave Washington a detailed description of Trenton as he had just left it. As a friendly Tory procuring cattle for them, he was permitted to go pretty much where he pleased behind the British lines. He had seen no signs of boats being built, he told Washington, or of any coming overland from New P.runswick. Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rail, the professional soldier in command of the rented regiments holding Trenton for the British, had such a broad contempt for Washington’s “army of farmers” that he hadn’t bothered about fortifications. Cornwallis, from his headquarters in New Brunswick, had ordered him to erect breastworks at the head of the two parallel roads, King and Queen, that ran through the village, but Rail hadn’t gotten around to it. The homesick Germans were planning an all-out Christmas celebration.
If Washington had had a reservation about trusting Honeyman, the meeting apparently dispelled it. The scant information his scouts had been able to bring him supported the spy’s story. When Honeyman finished telling what he knew, Washington called the sentry and ordered him locked in the guardhouse for court-martial next morning.
Late that night a haystack near the farmhouse is said to have caught fire. As the guard before the log hut ran off to help put it out, the door was mysteriously unlocked, and Honeyman ran for it. A sentry fired at him as he vanished in the dark. He crossed the Delaware partly on the ice, waded the rest of the way, and ran until he fell, drenched and exhausted, before one of the Hessian outposts.
Taken to Colonel Rail’s quarters, he told the story of his capture in convincing detail, saying he had escaped by breaking out the window. As a loyal British subject, of course, he assured Rail, he had told Washington nothing that the rebels didn’t already know. But he had juicy information for the German commander: the army across the river was hopelessly disorganized, on the brink of mutiny. He had heard them muttering around their campfires as they tried to keep their bare feet from freezing. Rail was delighted. It confirmed everything he had thought. There was nothing to worry about from that quarter, he said, and so he went ahead with his plans l’or a big Christmas.
At the Keith house across the river next morning, Washington was said to have appeared furious when told of the prisoner’s escape.
When his medical officer, Dr. Benjamin Rush, came in, he found the Commander in Chiel curiously preoccupied, scribbling words on scraps of paper as he talked. One of them fell on the floor and Dr. Rush picked it up. “Victory or Death!” was written on it, the watchword for the still unannounced march on Trenton.
Later that same day Washington sent a message to his generals: “Christmas day at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed tor our attempt on Trenton.”
He sent a general order to the troops to prepare and keep on hand three days’ rations of cooked food.
In Trenton Colonel Rail was not without warning. Tory farmers in the neighborhood quickly passed along the word that the rebel army was getting ready to move. As Rail sat playing cards and drinking in the home of a Trenton loyalist Christmas night, a Tory farmer from across the river pounded on the door. The servant wouldn’t let him interrupt the game, so he wrote a note, warning Rail that the Continentals were coming. Rail stuffed it in his pocket, unread, and went on with his cards and wine.
He was sleeping off a monumental hangover next morning, as were most of the rest of the garrison, when Washington’s troops, many of them barefooted, others with rags around their bleeding feet, marched through a sleet storm in two columns that converged with perfect precision and stormed down unprotected King and Queen streets into the village.
It was all over in less than an hour. Rail was mortally wounded, shot as he tried to organize his men in the center of the village. One hundred and six of the mercenaries had been killed or wounded. Some 900 captives were ferried across the river into Pennsylvania, many of them to be paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to show that metropolis of colonial America that the Revolution was still very much alive. Of the patriots, only two officers and two enlisted men had been wounded.
Stryker, the historian of the American Revolution in New Jersey, said in his book, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton: “It is a well-established tradition that the most reliable account of Colonel Rail’s post at Trenton was given by Washington’s spy, John Honeyman, of Griggstown, Somerset County. There appears to be no doubt that the information given by him that winter night was the direct cause of the movement on Trenton three days afterwards.”