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- For the 17th-century actor, see John Honyman.
Early life and career
Although he was born in Ireland, purportedly in Armagh, Honeyman was of Scottish descent. The son of a poor farmer, he received little formal education but was nevertheless literate and learned several trades, including weaving. He worked as a farmer until the age of 29 and then entered the British Army to fight in the French and Indian War in 1758.
He sailed to Canada aboard the frigate Boyne on which Colonel James Wolfe was also embarked. One day during the Atlantic Ocean crossing, Honeyman was on watch on the deck when Wolfe, who was about to descend a stairway, tripped and would have surely fallen if he were not caught by Honeyman. Wolfe showed his gratitude by taking down Honeyman's name and promising to look out for the young private.
Upon landing off the Saint Lawrence River, Honeyman's unit was almost immediately put into action against the French during the Siege of Louisbourg which ended after 48 days on July 26, 1758. Wolfe, who served under General Jeffrey Amherst, was shortly promoted to General. He remembered the young private who saved him aboard the Boyne and made him his bodyguard, with orders to remain with him at all times.
The success of the siege cleared the way for the British expedition led by General Wolfe to take New France at Quebec City the following summer and which culminated in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759. While it ended with a British victory, Wolfe was fatally shot and Honeyman was among those who carried the General down the heights to his shelter, where he died. Some people believe that one of the three men surrounding Wolfe in the painting La Morte de Wolfe by Benjamim West at the McCord Museum in Montreal is John Honeyman.
After the war, Honeyman was given an honorable discharge from the army and he settled in Pennsylvania, carrying with him his discharge papers as well as a letter from General Wolfe requesting his services as his bodyguard. He took up his trade as a butcher and weaver and he married the former Mary Henry, an Irish girl from Coleraine at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia on September 22, 1764.
In service as Washington's spy
Sometime before 1775, Honeyman moved to Philadelphia and met George Washington who was attending meetings of the Continental Congress. Although Honeyman had served the British well during the French and Indian War, he was sympathetic to the American cause and promptly presented his services to Washington. Washington, astute at finding good talent, accepted Honeyman’s services. In the early part of 1776, Honeyman moved with his family to Griggstown, in Somerset County, New Jersey. It is unknown, however, whether this move was a result of his meetings with Washington.
When Washington's Continental Army was retreating across New Jersey in 1776, Washington wanted to "get some person in to Trenton" as an agent. He called upon Honeyman for a meeting at Fort Lee, New Jersey in November and there Honeyman agreed that he would act the part of a spy for the American cause in that part of New Jersey where he was most familiar. Washington told Honeyman to use the cover of a Tory. The fact that he served under Wolfe, as proven by his discharge papers as well as Wolfe's letter requesting his services as his bodyguard, guaranteed his acceptance by the enemy garrison in Trenton.
Posing as a Tory, Honeyman, continuing his trade as a butcher and weaver, commenced his trade with the British. He was instructed to continue trading as much as possible behind the American lines in Griggstown and, if necessary, flee to Trenton on the pretext of the danger posed to his family due to his double-dealing. This deceptive plan was so believable that a mob of angry American patriots raided Honeyman's house in Griggstown. Fortunately his family were saved from certain harm by a signed letter from Washington guaranteeing their safety, while nevertheless calling Honeyman "a notorious Tory".
His credibility as a Tory now well-established, he moved to Trenton where his trade enabled him to move freely within the town and gather intelligence about the garrison. Having amassed enough information, he arranged to be captured by the Continental forces, who had been ordered to watch for him and bring him straight to Washington unharmed.
After receiving the information Honeyman had gathered, Washington ordered the guards to feed the "Tory" and lock him up in a small hut used as a prison. Shortly afterward, a fire broke out in the vicinity providing an opportunity for Honeyman to "escape". Making his way back to Trenton, he told the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall, of his capture and reported that the Continental Army was in such a low state of morale that they would not attack Trenton.
Even though the Hessians had been on heightened alert for the past two weeks, they believed Honeyman’s story and so felt confident enough to relax security on December 26. In the meantime, Honeyman made his way to New Brunswick, New Jersey.
On the night of December 25–26, 1776, with 2,400 troops, Washington made the famous crossing of the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey north of Trenton. The next morning, the Continental forces surprised the Hessians in a rout, giving the Americans a much-needed victory in the Battle of Trenton.
With Washington, Honeyman had arranged that his mission be confined in New Jersey and since the British were driven from the colony in 1777 his services were little needed, if at all. It had further been agreed upon, however, that Honeyman would continue to maintain his cover as a Tory to prevent any reprisals by the British against him and his family until the end of the war. As a consequence, he did not return to Griggstown until after hostilities ended four years later.
It was Washington who revealed Honeyman's true role in the war and he was given a hero's welcome when he returned to Griggstown. By 1793, he removed to Bedminster Township, New Jersey, in upper Somerset County, bought several parcels of land between 1793 and 1797 and spent the last thirty years of his life there. He subsequently was named Captain General of the Army for the role he played as a spy in the Revolution. (Note: No source is given for what appears to be a bizarre assertion. If the rank of "captain-general" was ever used in the U.S., which itself is doubtful, Honeyman would have outranked Gen. Washington, and Honeyman would have been a major historical figure.)
His wife Mary died on June 24, 1801, and three years later, John Honeyman married a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Estel-Burrows. Honeyman died on August 18, 1822 at the age of 93 and is buried in the Lamington Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Lamington, New Jersey.
Fact or Legend?
The role Honeyman played in the Revolutionary War has been debated for some time. The first written record of Honeyman’s involvement with Washington appears to be his grandson Judge John Van Dyke’s “An Unwritten Account of a Spy of Washington” that appeared in Our Home magazine in 1873, nearly one hundred years later . Van Dyke is said to have relied on details he got from one of Honeyman’s daughters, Van Dyke’s Aunt Jane Honeyman.
Doubters point to the lack of direct evidence to support the spy story including the fact that the letter from Washington that protected the Honeyman family has never been seen outside the family. Some find it odd that a document of such apparent historic value has never surfaced publicly.
Supporters argue that the lack of direct evidence merely points to the excellent job Honeyman did concealing his actions as a spy. Some have offered circumstantial evidence to support the spy story. Historians have pointed out that several legal actions brought against Honeyman for being a Tory appear to have been dismissed. Honeyman even sought compensation for losses he suffered during the war, something a Tory would not have considered. While other Tories were forced to flee to Nova Scotia after the war, Honeyman remained in New Jersey. In fact, we know that Honeyman purchased several tracts of land after the war which raises the question of how a simple weaver with a rather large family could afford to make these purchases without some special income, evidence, to some, that he received compensation for his role in the war.
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
- George Washington's Spy
- John Honeyman, "The Spy of Washington"
- AmericanHeritage.com / A Spy For Washington
- True Comics Issue 05 Unsung Hero - John Honeyman
- Appendix notes from Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer questioning the Honeyman spy story
- Article in the CIA's Intelligence Quarterly by Alexander Rose questioning the Honeyman spy story: "The Spy Who Never Was: The Strange Case of John Honeyman and Revolutionary War Espionage"