This Day in History: An American spy makes the victory at Trenton possible?
On or around this day in 1776, an American spy completes a task for George Washington. He conveys false information about the American army to the Hessian commander at Trenton. The Hessians would thus be unprepared when George Washington’s army attacked in the early morning hours of December 26.
Alternatively, John Honeyman was never a spy, and the story is simply a folk tale. You can decide what you think. Apocryphal tale? Or was Honeyman *such* a good spy that later generations have trouble following his tracks?
One CIA analyst argues for this latter explanation: “[E]ven in the case of Revolutionary War spies, Honeyman included, seldom will the public, including academic researchers, find documentation regarding successful intelligence activities.”
The details are murky. Honeyman either decided to be a spy or he was recruited by George Washington. He may have met Washington in Philadelphia, but he soon moved to Griggstown, New Jersey. Once there, he created a persona for himself as a supporter of Great Britain. Indeed, it seems that he was hated by much of the town because the townspeople thought he was anti-American.
In reality, he was working for George Washington, behind the scenes.
Honeyman was a beef purveyor and purchaser, a job that gave him a ready-made excuse to move around among soldiers’ camps. He was generally trusted by the British because of his prior military experience fighting with the British during the French and Indian War.
Fortunately, the commander of the camp at Trenton, Johann Rahl, especially liked Honeyman.
Honeyman and Washington went to great lengths to meet in secret at the end of December 1776. Honeyman pretended to be looking for cattle along the Delaware River. When he spotted a group of American soldiers, he pretended to flee. The soldiers caught him and hauled him back to camp. Washington questioned Honeyman in front of others, then demanded that the two be left alone. Washington’s soldiers were instructed to keep watch outside, allegedly in case Honeyman tried to flee.
Once they were alone, of course, Honeyman told Washington everything he knew about the Hessian camp.
Following their secretive talk, Washington resumed the pretense that he distrusted Honeyman. He had Honeyman imprisoned. But a fire occurred near the prison the next morning, allowing Honeyman to “escape.” Honeyman immediately found his way to Trenton and gave Rall misinformation about the American army. He convinced Rall that the Hessians were in no danger from an immediate attack.
Thus, the Hessians felt free to celebrate and make merry on Christmas. As we all know, that turned out badly for them.
Naturally, the rest of the story will continue tomorrow.
Harry Thayer Mahoney & Marjorie Locke Mahoney, Gallantry in Action: A Biographic Dictionary of Espionage in the American Revolutionary War (1999)
Karen Demasters, On the Map: Butcher, Farmer, Soldier, Spy: A Revolutionary Double Agent (NY Times; Apr. 1, 2001)
Kenneth A. Daigler, In Defense of John Honeyman (and George Washington) (Studies in Intelligence; Vol. 53) (reprinted HERE)
Paul R. Misencik, The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War (2013)
Alexander Rose, The Spy Who Never Was The Strange Case of John Honeyman and Revolutionary War Espionage (Studies in Intelligence; Vol. 52) (reprinted HERE)