John Honeyman first met with George Washington in Philadelphia in 1775. They were both veterans of the French and Indian War. Honeyman, a weaver at the time, agreed to act as a secret agent, and they decided he was more likely to make himself useful to the British as a cattle merchant. That’s why he changed his profession and moved his family to Griggstown. (All this is from an article by Leonard Falkner in the Agust 1957 edition of American Heritage. Thank you Leonard Falkner. Thank you American Heritage.)
The following year, on December 14, 1776, Washington sent a letter to his officers:
“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; 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,” Washington continued. “Equal care therefore should be taken that one of these persons do not undertake the business in order to betray us.”
This letter was unusual for Washington, who usually dealt with his spies privately. As Falkner points out, it indicates how desperate he was.
On December 18, 1776, Washington wrote to his brother, “I think the game is pretty near up.” His army was subsisting on crackers and nearly half of them had no shoes. And their enlistments were up January first.
Then, on December 22, Honeyman had himself ‘captured’ by the Continentals. They did a convincing job of knocking him down and tying him up, just in case anyone was watching.
They took him to Washington’s headquarters where, behind closed doors, he told Washington that the Hessians in Trenton were utterly unprepared. Lord Cornwallis had ordered them to dig breastworks around the city, but they hadn’t got around to it.
This was the information Washington needed to decide on his bold stroke.
But Honeyman’s contribution to the American cause was even greater after his ‘escape’ from Washington’s headquarters because he was able to give vital ‘disinformation’ to the enemy. He managed to make his way over the ice on the Delaware and collapsed at the British sentry post.
He was taken to Colonel Johann Gottileb Rall, the commander of the Hessians. Honeyman told Rall that the Continental Army across the river was hopelessly disorganized and on the brink of mutiny.
“Rall was delighted,” Falkner writes, “It confirmed everything he had thought. There was nothing to worry about from that quarter, and so he went ahead with his plans for a big Christmas.”
Then came Washington’s bold stroke. I urge you to read about it. The ragtag army that crossed the Delaware, thanks to the guys from Marblehead, a great town with a funny name.
“What about the Tory farmers in the neighborhood?” I’m sure you’re asking. “Didn’t they warn Colonel Rall that the Continental Army was on the move?”
Good question! “Tory farmers in the neighborhood quickly passed along the word that the rebel army was getting ready to move,” Falkner writes. “As Rall sat playing cards and drinking in the home of a Trenton loyalist Christmas night, a Tory farmer from across the river pounded on his door.
“The servant wouldn’t let him interrupt the game, so he wrote a note warning Rall that the Continentals were coming. Rall stuffed it in his pocket, unread, and went back to 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,” Falkner concludes. “Rall was mortally wounded, shot as he tried to organize his men in the center of the village.” The Tory farmer’s note was still in his pocket.
“One hundred and six of the mercenaries had been killed or wounded. About 900 were taken prisoner and paraded through the streets of Philadelphia. The Continental casualties were four wounded.”
Washington’s army was supplied with cannon and arms and ammunition and, of course, finely crafted German boots, and no doubt they had one hell of a party that Christmas — all thanks to John Honeyman, who then spent seven years branded as a traitor.
After the war John Honeyman became a farmer, prospered, had five more kids and lived to the ripe old age of 93. Falkner tells us he “stubbornly avoided glamorizing his war experiences.”
Jane Honeyman never married, and when her father died, she went to live with her nephew, John Honeyman’s grandson John Van Dyke, then a young lawyer. She told him this wonderful story, and he had it confirmed by several Continental Army veterans, including the young officer who led the mob that surrounded the Honeymans’ house back in the winter of 1777.
So this is not just a pretty story. It’s been nailed down tight.
Much later, in 1873, John Van Dyke, then a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, published the story in a local magazine, where it was spotted by William Stryker, president of the New Jersey Historical Society.
The rest, as they say, is history. So the next time you’re called upon to give a toast, consider the inscription on the fountain erected to the memory of John Honeyman in 1930 at Washington’s Crossing State Park:
“DRINK OF THE FOUNT OF LIBERTY
LET POSTERITY INHERIT FREEDOM”