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Intelligence Throughout History: John Honeyman and The Battle of Trenton

The Intelligence Community today draws wisdom and inspiration from the past. The following article is the fourth in a series showcasing exceptional intelligence stories from history. This article focuses on the battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776.

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Intelligence played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. General George Washington's victory over Hessian forces — or German regiments hired by the British — at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, ranks as an occasion where intelligence properly gathered and utilized secured a major Patriot victory. The Battle of Trenton and the war might have turned out completely different without the help of a willing double agent: John Honeyman.


Fighting a Losing Battle

The Battle of Trenton, New Jersey, marked the first major American victory in the Revolutionary War. Prior to this time, Patriot forces had endured nearly constant defeat as the British pushed them from New York and into Pennsylvania. The Continental Congress pleaded for a victory to save the cause.

In response, Washington decided to attack the exposed Hessian garrison at Trenton, comprised roughly 1,400 men in three regiments under the command of Col. Johann Rall. Washington's plan depended on surprise and on intelligence provided by John Honeyman.


Honeyman: Double Agent

Born in Ireland, Honeyman was the son of a poor farmer. Although he had little formal education, he learned several trades and taught himself to read and write. At age 29, he enlisted in the British Army and served with distinction in the French and Indian War.

Honeyman moved to Philadelphia in 1775 and met George Washington while he was there to attend meetings of the Continental Congress. Although he had served the British, Honeyman was sympathetic to the Americans, and offered his services to Washington.

Posing as a Loyalist, Honeyman moved to Griggstown, New Jersey, where he practiced his trades as a butcher and weaver. A recognized wartime hero, he moved freely within the town and gathered intelligence about British and Hessian forces. Honeyman then arranged his capture by Continental forces and met with Washington, providing details on the strength, location, morale, and security arrangements of the Hessian troops. With Washington's help, Honeyman escaped and returned to Trenton where he told Colonel Rall of his capture and feigned escape, reporting that the Continental Army was in such a low state of morale that they could not attack.


Victory for the Patriots

On Christmas night Washington crossed the swollen Delaware River with 2,400 soldiers and made the long, cold march over muddy roads to Trenton. When Continental forces attacked after dawn, 300 surprised Hessians surrendered immediately, as the remainder struggled to mount a defense. When the brief battle had ended, the Americans counted a handful of casualties, while the Hessians lost more than 1,000 men, including 918 prisoners. All four Hessian colonels, including Rall, were killed. By noon, Continental forces had moved safely back across the Delaware, giving the Continental Congress and the Patriot cause a wonderful Christmas gift: new confidence and hope.

The Honeyman story has been disputed in recent years because it relies on family oral tradition rather than documentary evidence.


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Posted: Nov 24, 2010 01:32 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:42 PM