The Strange Case of John
Honeyman and Revolutionary War Espionage
is famed as the secret agent who saved George Washington and the Continental
Army during the dismal winter of 1776/77. At a time when Washington had
suffered an agonizing succession of defeats at the hands of the British, it was
Honeyman who brought the beleaguered commander precise details of the Hessian
enemy’s dispositions at Trenton, New Jersey.
problem is, John Honeyman was no spy.…Key parts of his story were invented…and
through repetition have become accepted truth.
afterwards, acting his part as double agent, Honeyman informed the gullible
Col. Johann Rall, the Hessian commander, that the colonials were in no shape to
attack. Washington’s men, he said, were suffering dreadfully from the cold and
many were unshod. That bitingly cold Christmas, nevertheless, Washington
enterprisingly crossed the Delaware and smashed the unprepared (and allegedly
drunk) Hessians. Three days into the new year, he struck again, at Princeton,
inflicting a stunning defeat upon the redcoats. Though Washington would in the
future face terrible challenges, never again would the Continental Army come so
close to dissolution and neither would dissension so gravely threaten the
is, John Honeyman was no spy—or at least, not one of Washington’s. In this
essay I will establish that the key parts of the story were invented or
plagiarized long after the Revolution and, through repetition, have become
accepted truth. I examine our knowledge of the tale, assess the veracity of its
components, and trace its DNA to the single story—a piece of family history
published nearly 100 years after the battle. 1 These historical explorations
additionally will remind modern intelligence officers and analysts that the
undeclared motives of human sources may be as important as their declared
ones—particularly when, as readers will see here, a single source is the only
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Origins and Evolution
story has a substantial pedigree in published histories. First publicly
appearing in 1873 in a New Jersey journal, the tale has since 1898 been a
mainstay in Revolutionary War histories. In that year, William Stryker,
president of the New Jersey Historical Society, published the authoritative Battles
of Trenton and Princeton, in which he announced that it was already
“a well-established tradition that the most reliable account of Colonel Rall’s
post at Trenton was given by Washington’s spy, John Honeyman.”Soon afterwards, Sir George Otto
Trevelyan’s The American Revolution chimed in that the “conversation on
a winter night between Washington and John Honeyman settled the fate of Colonel
Rall and the brigade which he commanded.”A generation later, in the 1920s,
Rupert Hughes’s inspirational biography George Washington declared that
“a splendid monument glorifies Nathan Hale and his name is a household word in
America, though he failed in his short mission; but for John Honeyman, who made
the first great victory possible, there is oblivion.”
Alfred Bill’s The Campaign of Princeton helped rescue Honeyman from that
awful fate by declaring him “one of the ablest of Washington’s spies.”Even so, Hale retained his crown,
while Honeyman’s fame remained confined to Revolutionary War buffs.
in 1957, when Leonard Falkner, a features editor at the New York
World-Telegram & Sun, published “A Spy for Washington” in the popular
history magazine American Heritage.6 The piece brought widespread
attention to Honeyman’s exploits and cemented his reputation as Washington’s
ace of spies in Americans’ minds. Two years later, John Bakeless, a former
intelligence officer and author of Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes: Espionage
in the American Revolution, portrayed Honeyman in the most glowing terms.7
In March 1961,
as part of NBC’s Sunday Showcase drama series, Honeyman’s adventure was
celebrated before a national audience. Titled “The Secret Rebel,” the special
tantalized viewers with the advertising line, “It was tar and feathers for the
‘traitor’ who claimed to know George Washington!”8
later, Richard Ketchum’s bestselling history of the Trenton and Princeton
campaign, The Winter Soldiers (1972), again paid lavish tribute to
As recently as
2000, Thomas Fleming, a Fellow of the Society of American Historians and an
extraordinarily prolific narrative historian, reasserted Honeyman’s essential
contribution to Washington’s Trenton victory. Until that battle, “New Jersey
had been on the brink of surrender; now local patriots began shooting up
British patrols, and the rest of the country, in the words of a Briton in
Virginia, ‘went liberty mad again.’”The Wikipedia entry on Honeyman
reflects this view.
however, the Honeyman story has diminished in importance, at least among
general historians. Perhaps owing to its broad canvas, David McCullough’s 1776
omits him, while Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer’s
exhaustive examination of those remarkable nine days between 25 December
1776 and 3 January 1777, hedged on the question of authenticity. “[The
story] might possibly be true, but in the judgement of this historian, the legend
of Honeyman is unsupported by evidence. No use of it is made here.”
Intelligence historians, perhaps paradoxically, tend to give more
credence to Honeyman’s achievements. George O’Toole’s Honorable Treachery: A
History of U.S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American
Revolution to the CIA repeats the traditional story.12 The CIA’s own useful history,
The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence, notes that Honeyman’s
intelligence work “came at a critical time for the American side” and permitted
“a strategic victory in political and morale terms."13
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story may be partitioned into the five fundamental components that repeatedly
appear in accounts of his heroics. Linked together in a narrative, they may be
defined as the “Ur-version” of Honeyman’s espionage career.
Claim: John Honeyman, of Scottish
ancestry, was born in Armagh, Ireland, in 1729 and was a soldier in General
James Wolfe’s bodyguard at the battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, where
the British victory eventually led to the creation of Canada. He helped bear
the fatally wounded Wolfe from the field. Honeyman, however, was never a
willing recruit and disliked being dragooned as a redcoat. Soon after Wolfe’s
death, Private Honeyman was honorably discharged and made his way south. He
reappears in Philadelphia in 1775. In the interim, he became a weaver, butcher,
cattle-dealer, and the husband of Mary Henry. In early 1776, they and their
young children move to Griggstown, New Jersey.
Evaluation: At the time of Honeyman’s birth,
there was no record of a family of that name living in the Armagh area, making
the circumstances of his birth difficult to certify. Alternatively, he may have
been born in Fife, Scotland, though one genealogist has speculated that he was
the son of a Captain John Honeyman, who had arrived in New York sometime before
1746 and embarked on a small expedition against Quebec that year. Honeyman the
future spy was indubitably a Protestant, and almost definitely a Presbyterian.
Despite the uncertainty of his birthplace, he appears to have taken the king’s
shilling in Armagh and to have sailed with Wolfe to Canada in 1758.
There is no
evidence, however, that he was reluctant to join the army and, if nothing else,
the faith Wolfe reposed in him indicates that he performed his duties with
alacrity and enthusiasm. If his father were Captain Honeyman, the colors would
have been a natural avenue for the young man. The unsubstantiated belief that
Honeyman was suborned into donning a uniform is almost certainly a later
embellishment intended to demonstrate that this Scotch-Irish “outsider” was
secretly disaffected from his English overlords decades before the
Revolution—and thus explaining his future actions on Washington's behalf. In
truth, if Honeyman were alienated from the Crown during 1775–76, it would most
likely be owed to his being a Presbyterian (so antagonistic were his
co-religionists toward established authority that King George III once joked
that the Revolution was nothing but a “Presbyterian War.”)15
As for his
wife and young family, the traditional story tends to stand up to scrutiny.
Mary Henry was from Coleraine, another Protestant part of Ireland, and records
indicate that she was eight years his junior. Honeyman also had seven children,
of whom at least three were born before the family moved to Griggstown
(Jane—the oldest—Margaret, and John.)
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Claim: In early November 1776, as
Washington’s battered forces were retreating from New York and New Jersey into
Pennsylvania, Honeyman arranged a private meeting with the general at Fort Lee,
New Jersey. He had gained access by brandishing a laudatory letter of introduction
from Wolfe and declaiming his attachment to the cause of independence. The
meeting was a necessarily hurried one, but (in the words of the chief 19th
century source) the two men decided that Honeyman “was to act the part of a spy
for the American cause” while playing “the part of a Tory and quietly talk[ing]
in favor of the British side of the question.”
words, Honeyman was to present himself as a Loyalist while the Americans were
nearby, but once Washington had departed and the British occupied the rump of
New Jersey, his mission was to collaborate with the enemy, selling the army
cattle and horses and supplying its soldiers with beef and mutton. He was to
operate behind enemy lines, travel alongside the army, and leave his wife and
children at home. As a camp follower, Honeyman would be in an excellent
position to observe British movements, dispositions, fortifications, and
logistics, plus gain advance knowledge of the enemy’s designs.
- The Honeyman story was retold in October 1941 in True comics Number 5. The full issue can be found in the digital collection of the Michigan State University library.
Evaluation: Washington’s movements affirm
that such a meeting could have taken place. The general was based at his
headquarters in White Plains, New York, between 1 and 10 November and thence
Peekskill between 11 and 13 November, ruling out Honeyman’s recruitment in that
period; upriver from Manhattan, White Plains and Peekskill were quite a trek
from Griggstown. However, Washington was at Fort Lee, only 50 miles
away) from 14 November to the 17th or 18th.18 The chronology therefore fits the
story. However, it might fit only because Honeyman’s later popularizers checked
the dates and applied them to the tale for authenticity’s sake.
plausible, perhaps surprisingly, is that such a meeting—between a walk-in
volunteer and the commander of an army—would take place. The 18th century world
was a smaller and more intimate one than our own. Washington might well have
set aside a few minutes for one of Wolfe’s veterans and suggested that he glean
what information he could and transmit it to him.
There is no
record, however, of this meeting and not once is John Honeyman mentioned in
Washington’s voluminous correspondence and papers. Even so, it could be argued
that so informal was the gathering that no record was kept, though, considering
Honeyman’s alleged centrality to Washington’s surprise victory, his total
omission, especially after the triumph, is suspicious.
troublesome is the question of historicity: Does Honeyman’s plan to remain
permanently behind enemy lines in plain clothes as an agent-in-place accord
with what we know of Washington’s rudimentary intelligence apparatus at this
time? Is this detail an anachronism that unwittingly demonstrates its own
years, Washington lacked any kind of “secret service,” let alone the
experienced “case officers” needed to run networks of operatives in hostile
territory. Hitherto, uniformed soldiers (often junior officers) had probed the
enemy lines and fortifications and reported back to their units’ commanders,
who sometimes relayed pertinent information to Washington. Occasionally, these
agents would don civilian garb and attempt to get behind the British lines—but
with the intention of returning home within a day or two. A few months
previously, Nathan Hale had been one of the latter, and his doom serves as a
reminder of just how risky such missions were. In sum, there were no long-term
agents, masquerading as sympathizers, with realistic cover stories, operating
in British-held territory. It was a concept whose time had not yet come.
It would come
soon—but only after Washington’s appointment of Nathaniel Sackett as de facto
chief of intelligence in February 1777. Sackett, a wholly forgotten figure,
should justly be counted as the real founding father of American intelligence-gathering.
He would last only a few months in the job, but it was he who conceived the
idea of embedding agents among the British. Major John Clark was among the
first of these remarkable individuals. He spent some nine months living
undercover and unsuspected on Long Island, all the time making precise
observations of British troop strength. It is important to realize, however,
that Clark’s success was almost certainly unique. Sackett’s few other agents
tended to last about a week, having either switched sides or suffered exposure.
achievement was actually a strike against adopting the agents-in-place
policy. As success was so unlikely, Washington would not be convinced that
replacing reconnaissance, the traditional form of spying, was worthwhile until
as late as September 1778. In that month, he cautiously
authorized one of Sackett’s successors to “endeavour to get some intelligent
person into the City [of New York] and others of his own choice to be
messengers between you and him, for the purpose of conveying such information
as he shall be able to obtain and give.”
In this light,
the claim that Washington was discussing precisely such matters with an untried
civilian like Honeyman two years before, in November 1776, looks distinctly
weak. This impression is confirmed by Washington’s correspondence of that
month. At the time, Washington was more concerned about the Continental Army’s
lack of soldiers, food, and even shoes, stemming desertion, and keeping his
militia under arms than he was with aggressively acquiring intelligence of
British movements in New Jersey for a battle he was in no state to wage. Upon
meeting Honeyman, a veteran of the British army, Washington would have been
more likely to recruit him as a sergeant than as a spy.
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Claim: Apparently, once Honeyman had
acquired sufficient intelligence from the British, he was to “venture, as if by
accident, and while avowedly looking for cattle, go beyond the enemy lines as
to be captured by the Americans, but not without a desperate effort to avoid
it,” in the words of the 19th century account of his espionage work.20 By this stratagem, Honeyman would
be able to maintain his cover as a Tory sympathizer when word of his arrest
reached the British. To add verity, Washington was supposed to offer a reward
for his arrest, on condition that Honeyman was captured alive and brought
directly to his headquarters.
So it was that
late in December 1776, having ascertained the British deployments around
Trenton and “aware that the discipline [there] was very lax, and knowing too
that the holidays were approaching, when a still greater indulgence would
probably be permitted,” Honeyman resolved to recross the line and pass his
intelligence to Washington.21 Keeping to the plan that he and
Washington had cooked up, Honeyman walked to the Delaware and pretended to be
in search of his lost cattle. After some time, he espied two American scouts
and a prolonged pursuit ensued. Honeyman was captured only when he slipped on
the ice as he tried to jump a fence. Even then, he violently resisted capture,
but with two pistols pointed at his head he surrendered.
directly to Washington’s tent, Honeyman continued his masquerade by
theatrically trembling and casting his eyes downward in shame. Washington
instructed his aides and guards to leave and held a private debriefing with
Honeyman before ordering the spy to be locked in the prison until morning, when
he would be hanged following a court-martial. By a remarkable coincidence, a
fire erupted in the camp that night and Honeyman’s guards left to help put it
out. When they returned, nothing seemed amiss, but Honeyman had made good his
escape. The fire, according to this account, had been set on Washington’s
orders to permit the spy to flee, and Washington himself feigned extreme anger
that the “traitor” had escaped custody.
Evaluation: The story of Honeyman’s escape
from prison is plainly ridiculous, and the entire set-up for his capture
inordinately complex. There is no record of any of it happening. Still, a lack
of documentation in these situations is not uncommon and, in fact, in late 1776
and throughout 1777—menacingly dubbed the “Year of the Hangman” for the
resemblance of its three sevens to gallows—hundreds of suspected Tories were
rounded up (and usually hanged following a courts-martial).23
therefore more than possible that Honeyman fell into the hands of American
scouts. But why? It could be that he looked willing to alert a British patrol
that enemy troops were in the area, or that he might even have been probing the
American pickets for information to sell to the British. His determined
struggle to avoid capture might have been prompted not by a desire to keep
intact his cover as a well-known Tory but by the fact that he actually was
a well-known Tory. He knew the penalty for collaboration.
was in Washington’s camp, the general would have been most interested in
quizzing him about the British positions and possible preparations for an
assault. After all, at the time Washington had been warning his senior
commanders to remain vigilant against a surprise attack. More proactively, he
asked them on 14 December 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 intention; particular
enquiry 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.”
advocates have suggested that the spy Washington intended to “cross the River”
was Honeyman, but this is to misinterpret the letter. 25 It was not sent to one
commander asking him to find a spy (and, in any case, if Washington and
Honeyman were so chummy, why didn’t the general ask for Honeyman by name?), but
to at least four field officers requesting that they “cast about” among their
units for someone suitable with military experience. This is exactly what he
had done earlier that summer when Nathan Hale volunteered for service.
Washington, in short, did not have any agent readily to hand, let alone
the civilian Honeyman. Moreover, Washington assumes that the spy is to cross
the river from the American side, in Pennsylvania, and sneak
through the British lines to elicit intelligence and come back. Honeyman,
however—as the established story specifically states—was already based on the British
side, in New Jersey.
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Claim: News of Honeyman’s escape
enraged his family’s Patriot neighbors in Griggstown. “It was well known there
that he had gone over to the English army, and he had already received the
title of ‘Tory John Honeyman,’ but now, ‘British spy, traitor and cutthroat,’
and various other disagreeable epithets, were heard on every side,” declares
the primary source account.26 An indignant, howling mob
surrounded his house at midnight, terrifying his wife and children. Mary
eventually invited a former family friend (now the crowd’s ringleader) to read
out a piece of parchment she had hitherto kept safely hidden. Upon it was
To the good
people of New Jersey, and all others whom it may concern,
It is hereby
ordered that the wife and children of John Honeyman, of Griggstown, the
notorious Tory, now within the British lines, and probably acting the part of a
spy, shall be and hereby are protected from all harm and annoyance from every
quarter, until further orders. But this furnishes no protection to Honeyman
this revelation, the crowd grew silent and dispersed. His family was henceforth
Evaluation: This famous “letter” of Washington
is the most bizarre and sensational twist in the Honeyman tale, but there is
not a whit of substantiation for it. No such letter has turned up in the
Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, even though the general enjoyed a
most efficient secretarial staff that retained copies of all correspondence
leaving his headquarters and dutifully filed that arriving. Though apparently a
treasured Honeyman heirloom, it has since disappeared.
did write such a letter, it could only serve as proof of Honeyman’s service if
one understands the words “acting the part of a spy” to mean in the service of
Washington, an interpretation only possible if one ignores the letter’s pointed
exclusion of the “notorious Tory” Honeyman from the general’s “protection.”
Indeed, since the letter was evidently written some time before, it only lends
weight to the suspicion that Honeyman had long been known as a pro-British
It has been
traditionally assumed that the letter’s magnanimity toward Mrs. Honeyman and
her children verifies the Honeyman-as-spy story. But the seeming contradiction
between its generosity toward the family and the exclusion of Honeyman from
protection was not uncommon either in the day or for George Washington.
Benedict Arnold’s treachery was, for instance, of the darkest dye, and yet
Washington allowed his wife and children to join the disgraced general in New
York, even as he set in motion secret plans to kidnap Arnold and bring him back
Washington took a surprisingly benign view of James Rivington, America’s first
yellow newspaperman and, as proprietor of the New York–based Royal Gazette,
a sworn enemy of his during the war. Rivington’s publishing house had been the
“very citadel and pest-house of American Toryism,” and his rag packed with the
grossest and most incredibly libelous accusations against Washington.27 And yet, once the British
evacuated the city in 1783, Washington directed that Rivington and his property
be protected from mob violence. Though there are some who say that Washington’s
decision was prompted by Rivington’s alleged spying on his behalf later in the
war, a more or equally likely explanation was the general’s dislike of social
disorder and his firm attachment to the principle of press freedom.
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Claim: After his escape, Honeyman
surrendered to the British and entered the enemy camp. Astounding guards with
tales of his derring-do, he demanded to be taken to Colonel Rall immediately.
The Hessian commander was dutifully amazed and asked him question after
question about the whereabouts and strength of the Americans. Honeyman
accordingly spun a tale about Washington’s army being too demoralized and
broken to mount an attack, upon which Rall exclaimed that “no danger was to be
apprehended from that quarter for some time to come.” It was a fatal error.
knowing his ruse could not last long once Washington crossed the Delaware and
understanding that “there was little if any opportunity for the spy to perform
his part of the great drama any further,” then vanished until the end of the
war. In 1783 he “returned to his home the greatest hero of the hour. The same
neighbors who had once surrounded his humble dwelling and sought his life,
again not only surrounded it, but pressed vigorously for admittance, not to
harm, but to thank and bless and honor him, and to congratulate and applaud his
long suffering but heroic wife.”
Evaluation: There is not a shred of proof to
this tale. It is hardly likely that an officer as shrewd and as experienced as
Rall would have fallen for such an obvious ruse, and the entire structure of
the tale is based on the assumption that Washington sent Honeyman in to lull
the opposition several weeks before by posing as a Tory, Washington’s ultimate
intention always being to mount an attack. Hence the elaborate scheme to allow
him to “escape” back across the enemy line. But had he?
fact seized an unexpected and risky opportunity to surprise Rall. The raid
luckily paid off in spades. He despatched three columns across the Delaware to
arrive simultaneously at dawn. In the event, just one made it successfully and
it was by the greatest of good fortune that Hessian patrols did not discover
the invasion sooner. Washington’s was a makeshift scheme, not a strategy
plotted with grandmasterly skill and executed thanks to Honeyman’s
predetermined mission to mislead Rall.
Honeyman’s sudden disappearance after deceiving Rall, a rather more probable
explanation is that he, a known collaborator, feared falling again into the
hands of the revolutionaries. Honeyman, in fact, did not completely vanish but
flitted in and out of sight in for the rest of the war. According to court
records, for instance, on 10 July 1777—more than six months after his
“disappearance”—he was the subject of an official proceeding to seize his
property “as a disaffected man to the state” of New Jersey.30 In early December of that year,
another record shows that he was actually caught, jailed, and charged with high
treason by the state’s Council of Safety.31 Honeyman was again lucky: the “Year
of the Hangman” fervor for prosecuting suspected Loyalists had already subsided
and two weeks later he was temporarily released after pledging a bond of £300.
Then, on 9
June 1778, he was indicted for giving aid and succor to the enemy between
5 October 1776 (about two months before he allegedly performed his
patriotic service) and June 1777.33 He pleaded not guilty, and no
further action was taken, but in March 1779 he was threatened with having his
house and property sold as a result of the indictment.34The sale, like the trial, never
took place, leading his supporters to assert that “highly placed authorities
were able to prevent actual trial, a trial which would have endangered his
usefulness” as an American double.
Perhaps, but a
less conspiratorial interpretation might be that, given the administrative
chaos of those years, the constantly shifting allegiances of the population,
the carelessness with which law clerks kept records, the Council’s habitual
concessions to expediency, the lack of hard evidence against such a relatively
minor collaborator as Honeyman, and the diminishing enthusiasm of the
revolutionary authorities to pursue low-level instances of “disaffection,”
Honeyman was slapped on the wrist and warned to keep out of trouble.
This type of
response was by no means unique. By 1778–79, New Jersey’s punishment system had
become little more than pro forma as the British threat receded. Furthermore,
property confiscations for loyalty to the Crown were rarely executed after
1777, as Patriots discovered that such cases were difficult to prove and, just
as pertinently, they realized that personal quarrels, official graft, and greed
were leading all too often to false accusations. (The head of the New Jersey
confiscations department, for instance, ended up in the enviable position of
“owning” several lovely properties formerly belonging to accused Tories.)
Honeyman’s “triumphal” return, sometime after Lord Cornwallis’s 1781 surrender
at Yorktown, passions had cooled, and he would have gone home and reconciled
himself to the reality of Washington’s victory, as did many thousands of
displaced Loyalists and former Tory militiamen.
the tale of John Honeyman. How and when did this story originate? Therein lies
the solution to the mystery.
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The Story’s Genesis
story was first made public in the aftermath of the Civil War. (Honeyman
himself had died on 18 August 1822, aged 93.) In 1873, a new, and
unfortunately short-lived, monthly magazine named Our Home (edited,
revealingly, by one A. Van Doren Honeyman, later the author of the Honeyman
family history) published a long article by Judge John Van Dyke (1807–78), the
heroic Honeyman’s grandson, a three-time mayor of New Brunswick, two-time
congressman, and one-time justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, lately retired
to Wabasha, Minnesota, where he became a state senator.37 “An Unwritten Account of a Spy of
Washington” first fleshed out the Honeyman legend in all its colorful and
memorable detail. At the time, Van Dyke’s revelations made a significant stir
and were given additional publicity by their prominence in Stryker’s popular Battles
of Trenton and Princeton.
The timing of
Van Dyke’s Our Home memoir is key. The newly reunited nation was
preparing for the centenary celebrations of the Declaration of Independence.
Having but recently emerged from the bloodiest of civil wars, Americans were
casting their minds back to those worthy days when citizens from north and
south rallied together to fight a common enemy.
For Van Dyke
and his editor, Honeyman could be upheld as a gleamingly patriotic exemplar to
former Unionists and Confederates alike. The author was also an old man, and
would die just five years later. He may well have taken what could have been
the last opportunity to seal his family’s honorable place in the nation’s
history. Not long after Van Dyke’s death, in fact, organizations such as the
Sons of the American Revolution (1889) and the Daughters of the American
Revolution (1890) would spring up to celebrate the unity and purpose of the
Founding Fathers, and Honeyman was exalted as representing their ideals.
swabbed a thick layer of typically Victorian sentimentality and romanticism
over the Honeyman story. In terms of intelligence writing, the post-1865 era is
remarkable for its fanciful descriptions of espionage practice, its emphasis on
beautiful belles using their feminine wiles to smuggle messages to their beaus
in camps opposite, and its depiction (accompanied by imaginative dialogue and
entertainingly cod accents) of hardy, lantern-jawed heroes valiantly crossing
the Mason-Dixon line and masquerading as the enemy. Needless to say, there is
little attempt in the spy memoirs of the time to relate intelligence input to
actual operational output, yet somehow every agent succeeded in saving the
Union (or Confederacy) in the nick of time.As Van Dyke’s article appeared
soon after the initial flood of Civil War spy memoirs, it would perhaps not be
outlandish to suspect him of being influenced by the genre.39
In the hands
of John Van Dyke, then, John Honeyman—hitherto a man of modest accomplishments
and abilities—became the quintessential American hero. Far from being the questionable
character and man of uncertain loyalties who emerges from history’s dusty
documents, Honeyman was in fact a glorious lion heart and Washington’s secret
warrior—with the achievements and adventures to match.
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The Secret Revealed
Judge Van Dyke
most likely colorized the Honeyman story, as we’ve seen, but he did not invent
it. In a letter dated 6 January 1874, the judge revealed that he had
originally heard the story from the “one person who was an eye and ear witness
to all the occurrences described at Griggstown”: his Aunt Jane, Honeyman’s
eldest daughter, who had been about 10 or 11 in the winter of 1776/77.
Jane had been
present when the Patriot mob surrounded the house after Honeyman’s escape and
“she had often heard the term ‘Tory’ applied to her father. She knew he was
accused of trading, in some way, with the British; that he was away from home
most of the time; and she knew that their neighbors were greatly excited and
angry about it; but she knew also that her mother had the protection of Washington,”
wrote Van Dyke. “She had often seen, and read, and heard read, Washington’s
order of protection, and knew it by heart, and repeated it over to me, in
substance, I think, in nearly the exact words in which it is found in the
therefore, is the sole source for Honeyman’s exploits. As Jane died in 1836,
aged 70, Van Dyke must have elicited the details from her at least some 40
years before he published them in Our Home—plenty of time, then, for him
to have mixed in lashings of make-believe, spoonfuls of truth, and dollops of
myth to Aunt Jane’s original tale, itself stitched together from her adolescent
memories of events that had occurred six decades previously.
Jane was the only child of Honeyman’s never to have married. According to a
contemporary description, “she was a tall, stately woman, large in frame and
badly club-footed in both feet. She was a dressmaker, but had grace of manners
and intelligence beyond her other sisters.” Would it be any wonder if clever,
imaginative Jane—doomed to long spinsterhood by her appearance, and fated to
look after her aged and ailing father for decade after decade—had embroidered a
heroic tale to explain what had really happened?
still remains. How had Jane Honeyman come to invent a tale of a man involved in
valiant deeds of spying for Washington while stoically suffering the abuse of
his neighbors, family, and ex-friends?
The answer may
lie in the dates. John Honeyman died in the summer of 1822. One year before,
the up-and-coming novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), future author of The
Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, had published what is today
counted as the first US espionage novel, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral
historical romance, which included George Washington in a cameo role, rescued
the secret agent from his squalid 18th century reputation as a paid trafficker
of information and painted him as a noble figure akin to a soldier, albeit one
forced to work in shadows, without the benefit of public glory and medals.
The hero of The
Spy is Harvey Birch, an honest peddler who refuses to accept money for his
undercover work for the American side during the Revolution. Owing to a series
of melodramatically crossed wires, Birch finds himself accused of treachery and
is pursued by British and Americans both. Only Washington knows the truth of
the matter but is obliged to remain silent to maintain Birch’s cover.
At the end of
the war, Washington confides to the faithful Birch during a secret meeting that
“there are many motives which might govern me, that to you are unknown. Our
situations are different; I am known as the leader of armies—but you must
descend into the grave with the reputation of a foe to your native land.
Remember that the veil which conceals your true character cannot be raised in
Washington, impressed by this son of toil, “stood for a few moments in the attitude
of intense thought” before writing “a few lines on a piece of paper” and
handing it to Birch. “It must be dreadful to a mind like yours to descend into
the grave, branded as a foe to liberty; but you already know the lives that
would be sacrificed, should your real character be revealed,” the great man
cautions as Birch takes the letter. “It is impossible to do you justice now,
but I fearlessly entrust you with this certificate; should we never meet again,
it may be serviceable to your children.”
Cooper shifts the action to the War of 1812 in the final chapter, and we
find Birch, who has lain low in the ensuing decades owing to his seemingly
opprobrious conduct, again struggling for the cause of liberty, again against
the British. Two young American officers catch sight of him, wondering who this
odd, old, solitary, ragged figure is. They engage him in conversation, and he
claims that he knows one of their mothers, but the sound of an approaching fire
fight delays further talk and they separate until the next day. Following the
battle, they discover that Birch mounted a brave solo assault to capture
prisoners but never returned. Fearing the worst, they search for his corpse.
“He was lying
on his back…his eyes were closed, as if in slumber; his lips, sunken with
years, were slightly moved from their natural position, but it seemed more like
a smile than a convulsion which had caused the change.” Birch’s “hands were
pressed upon his breast, and one of them contained a substance that glittered
like silver.” It was a tin box, “through which the fatal lead had gone; and the
dying moments of the old man must have passed in drawing it from his bosom.”
Opening it, the officers found a message from many years before:
of political importance, which involve the lives and fortunes of many, have
hitherto kept secret what this paper now reveals. Harvey Birch has for years
been a faithful and unrequited servant of his country. Though man may not, may
God reward for his conduct!
After this bombshell, Cooper resoundingly concludes
that the spy “died as he had lived, devoted to his country, and a martyr to her
The Spy was an enormous hit, and it
wouldn't be outlandish to suppose that Aunt Jane read it sometime after her
father died. Could she, in order to consecrate her father’s silent martyrdom
and hush those neighbors still gossiping about his wartime past, have merely
plagiarized Cooper’s basic plot and final twist?
Honeyman story’s myriad anachronisms and suspiciously detailed narrative signal
Judge Van Dyke’s handiwork. For patriotic and social reasons, it was he who not
only colorized the tale, but broadened its focus, thrust, and intent far beyond
what Aunt Jane had ever envisaged. Between them, Jane and the judge endowed a
most ordinary man with an extraordinary—and almost wholly fake—biography. It
was John Honeyman himself, strangely enough, who is innocent of telling tall tales.
For more than half a century, he remained resolutely silent about his wartime
behavior (as well he might, given his not altogether sterling record.) Van
Dyke, who “was with him very often during the last fifteen years of his life,
and saw his eyes closed in death,” heard nothing of his grandfather’s past in
all that time. His life was a blank slate upon which anything could be written.
And so when Aunt Jane handed her nephew the ball, he ran with it.
That was more
than a century and a quarter ago, and it is high time to bury the John Honeyman
myth: a spy he never was.
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1. J. Van Dyke, “An unwritten account of a spy for Washington,” reprinted in New Jersey History, LXXXV (1967), Nos. 3 and 4.
2. W.S. Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898), 87.
3. G.O. Trevelyan, The American Revolution(New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 4 vols., 1912–1920 new edn.), III, 94.
4. See R. Hughes, George Washington (New York: William Morrow & Co., 3 vols., 1926–1930), 568–70.
5.A.H. Bill, The Campaign of Princeton
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 26.
6. The article, which appeared in that year’s August issue, is available online at
7. J. Bakeless, Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998 edn., orig. pub.1959), 167–70.
8. The sparse details available for this program can be found at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417034/.
9. .M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers (GardenCity, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1973), 288–89.
10. T. Fleming, “George Washington, Spymaster,” American Heritage, February/March 2000.
11. D.H. Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), Appendix X, “Doubtful Documents,” 423.
12. G.J.A. O’Toole, Honorable Treachery: A History of U.S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991), 25.
13. P.K. Rose (a pseudonym), The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence, available at
14.A. Van Doren Honeyman,The Honeyman Family (Honeyman, Honyman, Hunneman, etc.) in Scotland and America, 1548–1908 (Plainfield, NJ: Honeyman’s Publishing House, 1909), 94. The story that Honeyman aided the stricken Wolfe to the rear might be true. Francis Parkman, the 19th century American historian and author of Montcalm and Wolfe, noted that after the general was hit for the third time “he staggered and sat on the ground. Lieutenant Brown, of the grenadiers, one Henderson, a volunteer in the same company, and a private soldier, aided by an officer of artillery” carried him out of danger. The anonymous “private soldier” might have been Honeyman, though there are several other claimants for the honor. See F. Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (London, UK: Macmillan & Co., 2 vols., 1885), II, 296. Regarding Honeyman’s religion, in addition to the other evidence we possess, we know he is buried in Lamington Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Somerset County, New Jersey.
15.On the role of Presbyterianism in the Revolution, see A. Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006), 79–81.
16. Some family records are missing, but Van Doren Honeyman, 117–18, pieces together what there is.
17.Van Dyke, 221.
18. This chronology is based on the dated series of letters Washington wrote at the time, all of which are printed in P. Chase et al (eds.), The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 16 vols. so far, 1985–continuing), VII.
19. Washington letter to Charles Scott, 25 September
1778 in the George Washington
Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
20. Van Dyke, 221.
22. Bakeless, Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes, 169 and Van Dyke, 223.
23. See Rose, Washington’s Spies, Chap. 2. Later, Washington expressed alarm at the prevalence of these courts-martial, saying that he was “not fully satisfied of the legality of trying an inhabitant of any State by military law, when the Civil Authority of that State has made provision for the punishment of persons taking Arms with the Enemy.” See Washington letter to William Livingston, 15 April 1778, Washington Papers.
24. Washington letter to Lord Stirling, Mercer, Stephen, and de Roche Fermoy, 14 December 1776, Washington papers.
25. Stryker, 88, implies thus.
26. Van Dyke, 223.
27. M.C. Tyler, The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763–1783 (New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2 vols., 1897), II,
28. An interesting analysis of the Rivington affair is J.L. Lawson, “The ‘Remarkable Mystery’ of James Rivington, ‘spy,’” Journalism Quarterly XXXV (1958), No. 3: 317–23, 394.
29. Van Dyke, 223–24.
30. Van Doren Honeyman, 113.
31. Council of Safety Meeting, 5 December 1777, printed in Minutes of the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Jersey City, NJ: John H. Lyon, 1872), 169.
32. Council of Safety Meeting, 20 December 1777, printed in Minutes of the Council of Safety, 176.
33. A. O’Shea and S.A. Pleasants, “The Case of John Honeyman: Mute Evidence,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society LXXXIV (1966), No. 3: 176; see also Van Doren Honeyman, 112, for the full text of the document.
34. The New-Jersey Gazett, 10 March 1779: 4.
35. O’Shea and Pleasants, 177. See also Van Doren Honeyman, 114–15.
36.This subject is authoritatively dealt with in R.C. Haskett, “Prosecuting the Revolution,” American Historical Review LIX (1954), No. 3: 578–87.
37. The author is indebted for these biographical details to Michael Christian, librarian of the Sons of the American Revolution.
38. E. Fishel’s article, “Myths That Never Die,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence II (1988), No. 1: 27–58, is the best source for this aspect of espionage.
39. For example, R.B. Marcy, “Detective Pinkerton,” Harper’s New Monthly MagazineXLVII (1873), 281: 720–27; L.C. Baker, History of the United States Secret Service (Philadelphia: L.C. Baker, 1867); R. O’Neal Greenhow, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at
WashingtonBelle Boyd in Camp and Prison, Written by Herself (London, UK: R. Bentley, 1863); B. Boyd, (New York: Blelock, 1865).
40.J.F. Cooper,The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1911 edn.), 405.
41. Cooper, 406.
42.Cooper, 409–15. The Strange Case of John
Honeyman and Revolutionary War Espionage"
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