Skip to main content

A Spy For Washington

July 2024
15min read

“Loyalist” John Honeyman bought cattle, kept his eyes open —and may have made the surprise victory at Trenton possible

The finest Christmas present, and the most unexpected, our country ever received was handed to us by George Washington in the dismal winter of 1776 when he crossed the Delaware and captured Trenton just as the faltering fires of the American Revolution seemed about to go out.

There were to be other hard winters before independence was won, Valley Forge among them, but none more critical than this one. Since adoption of the Declaration of Independence five months before, the bedraggled Continental Army’s road had been rutted with disasters. It had barely escaped destruction on Long Island and at White Plains and had lost 2,800 men captured at Fort Washington. Chased across New Jersey by the British regulars and their German mercenaries, it had been thinned by casualties and desertions to a few thousand hungry, half-naked diehards. Only Washington’s foresight in confiscating all the available boats before his army lied across the Delaware River at Trenton had staved off capture. At best, it seemed only a breathing spell.

The British army under Sir William Howe was safely based in New York, while Lord Cornwallis, commanding the triumphant British forces in New Jersey, had started packing to go back to England. FIe might return in the spring to mop up if Howe thought it necessary. But he felt confident that hunger and cold would put out the last sparks of rebellion before then in the starving camp across the river.

Even Washington appeared to agree. From his headquarters on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, he wrote one of his soul-unburdening letters to his brother John Augustine: “I think the game is pretty near up—. No man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.”

That was on December 18.

Seven days later, Christmas night, Washington suddenly forded his troops back across the Delaware, stormed into Trenton with the dawn, and defeated the Hessian army there. The attack was flawlessly executed, timed perfectly. Without an American fatality, the town was taken!

It was America’s first major victory of the war. The startled Cornwallis rushed to the rescue, but Washington slipped around his flank in the dark and an- darioiisly smashed his rear guard in the Battle of Princeton, then scampered into the New Jersey hills at Morristown for the rest of the winter.

In one brilliant, totally unexpected stroke, Washington had changed the complexion of the War for Independence from a dying pallor to a ruddy glow. America was jubilant, its confidence magically reborn. England was grave with sudden concern.

What happened in those seven days between December 18 and 25 to revitalize the war picture so dramatically? Something definitely happened between the day Washington wrote dejectedly to his brother, “I think the game is prettty near up” and Christmas night when he drove his army on Trenton with the rousing watchword, “Victory or Death!”

Official documents of the war leave us in the dark. But in the records of a colonial village family and the findings of a New Jersey Supreme Court justice and a well-known historian of the Revolution, the mystery comes out of hiding. It is a strange story of a silent man who performed an important and dangerous mission and never asked the least acclaim for it, never seemed to want anything more than his own soul-deep satisfaction in a job superbly done.

It is the story of John Honeyman, a plain, closemouthed weaver, “the spy of Washington” at Trenton. Only one person got the story in all its details directly from him: his wife, who alone of his family was in on the secret from the start. It remained for his grandson, Justice John Van Dyke of the New Jersey Supreme Court, to record and annotate it carefully, and William S. Stryker, the Nineteenth-Century historian and adjutant general of New Jersey, to investigate further and in essence confirm it.

We first meet John Honeyman, a Scotch-Irish giant of 46, on the River Road west of the Hessian-held village of Trenton. It was the afternoon of December 22, 1776. A crust of two-day-old snow covered the brown fields. Patches of ice glinted in the hollows. John Honeyman, known as an outspoken Tory serving the British as both a butcher and “spy,” strolled past the Hessian outposts, a coil of rope in one hand, a long cart whip in the other, hunting cattle.

A few miles up the Delaware River, on the other side, Washington’s rebel army, without tents or blankets, half of the men barefooted, huddled around open campfires in the lee of Bowman’s Hill, keeping barely alive on their scant ration of raw flour baked into a semblance of bread on stones around the fires. Behind Honeyman, in the snug Trenton he had just left, the Hessians had all the bread they needed, and rum, but not enough meat for the FrÖhliche Weihnachten so deai to their Teutonic hearts. ,Another cow or two!

John Honeyman was a big man, his grandson remembered, with a deep burr of Scotch in his voicewhen he used it. He knew the rebel commander, Washington, was looking for him. With many farmers in the area still loyal to the British, news like that traveled fast. Eyes alert, he moved cautiously across the fro/en fields. Under a clump of trees some distance away, he spotted two dismounted horsemen sitting on stumps. Nearby, a farmer’s cow browsed in a fence corner.

Honeyman nudged the cow into the open. As she dodged away, he ran, shouting, after her and cracked his whip. Across the fields, he saw the two horsemen—in Continental uniforms—jump into their saddles and gallop toward him. He ran but they were soon on top of him. Slashing with his long whip, he held them off for a while. Then he was down and one of them was on top of him. Before the other could dismount, he had slugged himself free and was running again.

He lost his balance on a patch of ice and fell hard. Ibis time both horsemen were on him before he could get up. While one straddled him, the other aimed a pistol at his head.

Honeyman protested that he was only a poor cattle dealer hunting meat to sell to the Hessians, but when they got his name out of him they elatedly bound him with his own rope. Mounted behind the one rider, while the other followed closely with his pistol ready, he was carried off to Washington’s headquarters.

As Honeyman’s wife later got the tale from him and passed it along in the family, he was a disheveled, scared-looking figure as the two troopers pushed him into the room where the Commander in Chief stood waiting. Washington gravely thanked the troopers for their accomplishment, then gave an order. This man was to be left alone with him and guards posted outside with instructions to shoot to kill if the spy tried to escape.

The door closed and Honeyman saw a smile break across Washington’s face. With a grin he straightened up and brushed the dirt off his shoulders.

This was the fourth time, according to the family accounts, that these two, the tall commander of the Continental Army and the brawny Scotch-Irish cattle dealer and butcher—and “notorious British spy”—had met. The first two times had been in Philadelphia a year and a half earlier, shortly alter the Continental Congress appointed Washington to lead the colonial forces. Honeyman, a weaver who a lew years before had married an Irish-born Philadelphia girl and settled there, brought two documents with him. One was his honorable discharge from the British Army in 1763 alter the French and Indian War, of which Washington was a fellow veteran. The other was a letter from General fames Wolle, the British hero of that war, announcing Honeyman’s appointment as his bodyguard.

The Irish predominating in Honeyman burned for independence from the British. Hc had been conscripted into the French and Indian War against his will. On the boat coming over he had saved Wolfe from a bad fall when the young officer stumbled coming down a ladder. This letter was Honeyman’s reward.

With these two documents, the Scottish accent he could turn on full spigot, and a pretense of fervent loyalty to the Crown, Honeyman pointed out to Washington—earnestness for once overcoming his shyness with words—that he coidd get into the confidence of the British, act the part of a spy for them, but in reality spy for Washington.

A plan was worked out. As a weaver, there wasn t much Honeyman could oiler the British. One oi them, and the accounts are not clear which it was, determined that it would be better tor him to become a cattle dealer and butcher, at which lie had had some experience as a young man back in Ireland, so he could supply provisions to the British. Whenever Honeyman thought he had important information, he should let himself be captured by Washington’s outposts, but not without a convincing struggle, so his usefulness wouldn’t end. If Washington had sudden reason to want him, he would in some way spread the word. Afterward, Honeyman’s escape would be contrived. He would be accountable only to Washington, and lor his family’s safety the only other person who would know about it would be Honeyman’s wife, Mary.

Soon afterward, Honeyman moved his wife and children—three little ones and a crippled daughter, Jane, going on nine—into New Jersey, a hotbed of loyalists. They settled in the village of Griggstown, a few miles north of Princeton.

The third meeting with Washington, as the Honeyman family heard it, was a hurried one at Hackensack in northern New Jersey in middle November. Washington, harried and weary, was desperately trying to save his dwindling army. Driven out of New York and with the British on his heels, he was starting the long race to temporary safety across the Delaware. His orders to Honeyman were crisp: fall in with the British army and stay with them until Washington needed him or he felt he had something to tell.

And now they were met for the fourth time in the big room at headquarters, very likely at Keith’s farmhouse a few miles south of the Delaware. A curious side light to the meeting appears in a letter Washington sent to his general officers just eight days before. Dated “Head Quarters at Keith’s, December 14, 1776,” the last part of it reads:
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; whether any great collection of horses are made, and for 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, equal care therefore should be taken that one of these persons do not undertake the business in order to betray us.

If possible, get some person in Trenton, and let him be satisfied if any boats are building at that place and on Croswick Creek.

In a footnote to the letter John C. Fitzpatrick, editor of the 39-volume Writings of George Washington , sees a possible link to “John Honeyman as the spy ol Trenton.” But the evidence, he adds, “is not sufficient to identify him as the person selected according to the above direction.”

It is a tantalizing feature of the Honeyman chronicle that evidence like this, and even stronger, keeps cropping up to support the story but never quite nails it down as public record. The archives of the Revolution show that Washington had an excellent secret service and that he dealt with most of these people entirely by word of mouth. That could be one reason; the other, Honeyman’s own self-satisfied silence.

As his wife got the story of the meeting from him, Honeyman gave Washington a detailed description of Trenton as he had just left it. As a friendly Tory procuring cattle for them, he was permitted to go pretty much where he pleased behind the British lines. He had seen no signs of boats being built, he told Washington, or of any coming overland from New P.runswick. Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rail, the professional soldier in command of the rented regiments holding Trenton for the British, had such a broad contempt for Washington’s “army of farmers” that he hadn’t bothered about fortifications. Cornwallis, from his headquarters in New Brunswick, had ordered him to erect breastworks at the head of the two parallel roads, King and Queen, that ran through the village, but Rail hadn’t gotten around to it. The homesick Germans were planning an all-out Christmas celebration.

If Washington had had a reservation about trusting Honeyman, the meeting apparently dispelled it. The scant information his scouts had been able to bring him supported the spy’s story. When Honeyman finished telling what he knew, Washington called the sentry and ordered him locked in the guardhouse for court-martial next morning.

Late that night a haystack near the farmhouse is said to have caught fire. As the guard before the log hut ran off to help put it out, the door was mysteriously unlocked, and Honeyman ran for it. A sentry fired at him as he vanished in the dark. He crossed the Delaware partly on the ice, waded the rest of the way, and ran until he fell, drenched and exhausted, before one of the Hessian outposts.

Taken to Colonel Rail’s quarters, he told the story of his capture in convincing detail, saying he had escaped by breaking out the window. As a loyal British subject, of course, he assured Rail, he had told Washington nothing that the rebels didn’t already know. But he had juicy information for the German commander: the army across the river was hopelessly disorganized, on the brink of mutiny. He had heard them muttering around their campfires as they tried to keep their bare feet from freezing. Rail was delighted. It confirmed everything he had thought. There was nothing to worry about from that quarter, he said, and so he went ahead with his plans l’or a big Christmas.

At the Keith house across the river next morning, Washington was said to have appeared furious when told of the prisoner’s escape.

When his medical officer, Dr. Benjamin Rush, came in, he found the Commander in Chiel curiously preoccupied, scribbling words on scraps of paper as he talked. One of them fell on the floor and Dr. Rush picked it up. “Victory or Death!” was written on it, the watchword for the still unannounced march on Trenton.

Later that same day Washington sent a message to his generals: “Christmas day at night, one hour before day, is the time fixed tor our attempt on Trenton.”

He sent a general order to the troops to prepare and keep on hand three days’ rations of cooked food.

In Trenton Colonel Rail was not without warning. Tory farmers in the neighborhood quickly passed along the word that the rebel army was getting ready to move. As Rail sat playing cards and drinking in the home of a Trenton loyalist Christmas night, a Tory farmer from across the river pounded on the door. The servant wouldn’t let him interrupt the game, so he wrote a note, warning Rail that the Continentals were coming. Rail stuffed it in his pocket, unread, and went on with 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. Rail was mortally wounded, shot as he tried to organize his men in the center of the village. One hundred and six of the mercenaries had been killed or wounded. Some 900 captives were ferried across the river into Pennsylvania, many of them to be paraded through the streets of Philadelphia to show that metropolis of colonial America that the Revolution was still very much alive. Of the patriots, only two officers and two enlisted men had been wounded.

Stryker, the historian of the American Revolution in New Jersey, said in his book, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton: “It is a well-established tradition that the most reliable account of Colonel Rail’s post at Trenton was given by Washington’s spy, John Honeyman, of Griggstown, Somerset County. There appears to be no doubt that the information given by him that winter night was the direct cause of the movement on Trenton three days afterwards.”

Honeyman was not among the prisoners taken at Trenton. He had discreetly slipped off to New Brunswick after his meeting with Rail. But word of his arrest and escape from Washington’s encampment had reached his home village. A crowd of patriots surrounded the house when a rumor spread that he was hiding there. Honeyman’s eldest daughter, fane, then ten, remembered that night in vivid detail for the rest of her life. She heard the crowd threaten to burn the house unless her father came out. Mrs. Honeyman, her children huddled behind her, denied he was there or that she knew where he was. The crowd closed in. Mrs. Honeymnn asked the name of the leader. A soldier came to the door. By the light of a candle Mrs. Honeyman let him read a letter she unfolded.

It was dated “American Camp, New Jersey, Nov. A.D. 1776” and ordered that “the wife and children of John Honeyman, the notorious Tory, now within the British lines, and probably acting the part of a spy” were to be protected from harm. But this protection did not extend to John Honeyman.

The soldier had seen Washington’s signature on other papers. He decided it was authentic and persuaded the crowd to go home.

John Honeyman apparently played out his lonely and dangerous role of “Tory and British spy” to the end of the war, for his family saw little if anything of him. But no details are known of his activities after the Battle of Trenton.

It was a precarious and thankless job, as Washington realized better than anyone. From Valley Forge on January 20, 1778, in a letter to Governor William Livingston of New Jersey, concerning secret agents working lor the Continental cause, he wrote:

“You must be well convinced that it is indispensably necessary to make use of these means to procure intelligence. The persons employed must bear the suspicion of being thought inimical; and it is not in their power to assert their innocence, because that would get abroad and destroy the confidence which the enemy puts in them.”

As this was written, John Honeyman was really in trouble. He had been indicted by the colonial government of New Jersey for high treason, punishable with death, and locked in Trenton fail.

Yet fifteen days after his arrest he was released on bail, a most unusual procedure considering the gravity of the charge. And the man who stood his bond was a leading patriot, Jacob Hyer, a colonel in the New Jersey Militia! When Honeyman mine up loi trial, he vas quietly released.

On June 9, 1778, his neighbors testified against him at an inquisition and he was indicted again lor aiding and comforting the enemy. He pleaded not guilty and again the unseen hand of high-tip protcction reached out. Hc went free.

The next year, 1779, the possessions of many Tory sympathixers were being confiscated and sold by the Revolutionary government of New Jersey. On March 10 an advertisement appeared in the New Jersey Gazette of Trenton, announcing that Honeyman’s (iriggstown cltects would be sold on April 8. The sale never took place.

Then came the peace in 1783, and Honeyman came back home to stay. He billed the government for “three horses and a mare” that the Continental Army had made off with in his absence. To the surprise of his neighbors, he collected, too. No other Tories were being treated so generously.

Jane Honeyman, who had been born with clubfeet, was almost grown now. A tall girl, quiet and sensitive, she was sitting on the porch one day after the war’s end and had the thrill of her lifetime.

She saw a mounted party of Continental officers in bright uniforms come up the road, trailed by a queue of curious neighbors. They turned into the Honeyman yard and George Washington, grave as always, walked up on the porch. Holding out his hand to John Honeyman, he thanked him for his service to the country.

Suddenly, the shadow of dark disapproval the family had been living under all these years was gone. Young fane could hold up her head proudly at last with the best of the villagers.

John Honeyman lived to be 93 and became a prosperous farmer in the neighboring village of Lamington, where he moved from Griggstown ten years after the war. There were reports that the government rewarded him for his services, but the incomplete records of the time fail to support them. He had five sons and two daughters. Except for Jane, they were either born afterward or were too young during the war years to be curious about their father’s absence. Even with his sons, later, he stubbornly avoided glamorizing his war experiences. Mary, his wife, was not so reticent, nor was Jane.

His grandson, John Van Dyke, was fifteen when Honeyman died. He had spent many memorable summer days on the farm with his grandfather, taking long walks together through the woods and fields, passing lazy evenings around the fire with the gentle old man who never talked much but had a strange quality of serenity and dignity that even the child couldn’t miss. It was afterward, from his Aunt Jane, who never married and came to live with the Van Dykes after her father died, that he got the full story as she had lived parts of it and gotten the rest from her mother.

As a young lawyer, Van Dyke went back to Griggstown and found the officer who in his youth had led the party of patriots that surrounded the Honeyman house. This man knew the complete story of Honeyman’s mission at Trenton. As he finished telling it to Van Dyke, he added a postscript: “He did more for the cause than many who are shining heroes today.”

A few years later Van Dyke was employed to straighten out a legal tangle for the heirs of a prosperous New Jersey Tory who had fled with many others to Nova Scotia. Among the patriarchs he interviewed was John Ten Broek, another Griggstown veteran of the Revolution.

During the visit Van Dyke said, “I understand John Honeyman was known in these parts as a Tory, too.”

The old veteran bristled.

“Johnny Honeyman did not have to go to Nova Scotia,” he said, and retold the story as Van Dyke had already heard it.

It wasn’t until 1873 that Justice Van Dyke, satisfied at last that he had checked all the sources available on his grandfather’s mission, got around to revealing the story. It appeared in a small New Jersey periodical of local history called Our Home .

William Stryker, the historian, who was also president of the New Jersey Historical Society, investigated and came up with a few more details. Other historians quoted the story: Sir George Otto Trevelyan, who compiled the British history of The American Revolution ; Alfred Hoyt Bill, author of The Campaign of Princeton . Rupert Hughes in his George Washington, Savior of the States , said: “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.”

Well, not entirely. There is a Revolutionary War veteran marker beside the eroded headstone on Honeyman’s grave in the old village cemetery at Lamington. And on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River at Washigton Crossing State Park, where Washington’s army landed for its march on Trenton, stands a stone memorial fountain with a bronze plaque on it. It was erected by the Patriotic Order Sons of America, and high officials of the state of New Jersey attended the dedication on December 26, 1930. It reads:


John Honeyman, who found inner satisfaction far more important than acclaim for his daring achievement, would have been embarrassed at even this simple tribute.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.