Revolutionary War Historical Article

George Washington's Generals

Major General Richard Montgomery

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the June 2006 Edition of the Liberty Tree Magazine

Richard Montgomery, certainly America's first National hero, was born in Convoy House, near Raphoe, County Donegal, Ireland on December 2nd, 1736, the son of Thomas Montgomery, a member of the British Parliament from Lifford. Richard was well educated, having graduated from Trinity College in Dublin. He entered the 17th Regiment of Foot as an Ensign on August 21st, 1756. His Regiment was ordered to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where in 1758 he took part in the siege of the fort at Louisburg, under the command of General James Wolfe. He was promoted to Lieutenant because of his exhibited bravery during the action.

In 1759 he was deployed with General Sir Jeffery Amherst who relieved General Abercrombie. Montgomery served under Colonel Haviland in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in July of that year, then Crown Point in August, followed by a successful assault on Montreal on September 7th, 1759.

On May 15th, 1760 he was promoted to adjutant and was ordered to the West Indies two years later. He was then promoted to Captain on May 5th, 1763. He took part in the campaigns against Martinique and Havana.

At the end of the Seven Years Wars, which we call the French and Indian War, he was stationed in New York. He received permission to return to England where he remained until 1773. In the British army of the day, promotion was more in line with social and political connections than with service. Montgomery having been passed over for promotion by numerous officers who had seen little or no combat service, became embittered, hence sold his Captain's commission and immigrated to New York in 1773. He bought a farm of sixty acres at King's Bridge in Westchester County and settled down to be a gentlemen farmer.

On July 24th, 1773 he married Janet, the daughter of Judge Robert R. and Margaret (Beckman) Livingston, members of that very influential New York family.

Immediately after marrying Janet, he moved to what appears to have been her property overlooking the Hudson River at Rhinebeck. He was a delegate to the Provincial Congress in New York City in May, 1775. He was one of eight men appointed Brigadier General in June of that year. He was assigned to General Philip Schuyler, as his second in command. Along with his wife, and her young brother, Edward Livingston, they traveled to Saratoga and joined General Schuyler.

General Schuyler suffered from recurring rheumatic gout. He was afflicted by the disease just prior to departing for the invasion of Canada. As a result, the command fell on Montgomery.

The expedition was undertaken with more optimism than proper preparation. Montgomery led his force to Whitehall, New York, and then on to Fort Ticonderoga which had been captured by Colonels Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.

At Fort "Ti" General Schuyler returned to active duty. General Montgomery had learned that Major General Sir Guy Carleton was organizing a naval force on the northern shores of Lake Champaign to deny access to the St. Lawrence River to the Americans. Carleton was determined to prevent an invasion of Canada that he knew would be coming. General Montgomery's command consisted of 1,200 men who marched up the lake to the Isle aux Noix. From there he laid siege to St. Johns. St. Johns occupied a critical position along the invasion route. An attack was launched, but driven back. General Schuyler again was too ill to continue in command and was evacuated to Albany. General Montgomery was again in command and had been reinforced with 170 Green Mountain boys under Col. Seth Warner, 100 New Hampshire Rangers under Colonel Timothy Bedel and an independent Company of Volunteers. His force now numbered close to 1,500. In the meantime General Carleton developed a plan of delaying actions, rather than retreat to Montreal and Quebec. This tactic permitted the Americans to capture outpost after outpost, but it took time and winter was approaching, which Carleton was counting on.

The first fort to fall to Montgomery was at Chambly. Eighty-eight officers and men were captured, but more importantly, a great store of supplies. Six tons of gun powder, 6,500 musket cartridges, 125 Brown Bess Muskets, 3 mortars, and more importantly, 80 barrels of flour and 134 barrels of salt pork and a large quantity of rice and peas. The Regimental Colors of the 7th Regiment of Foot were also captured and were the first such trophy of war sent to Congress.

On November 2nd, 1775, the strategic Fort at St. Johns fell after a lengthy siege. Montgomery captured 500 regulars from the 7th (Royal Fusiliers) and the 26th (The Cameronians). Among those captured was Captain John Andre. These losses amounted to most of the "regulars" in General Carleton's Command, but his tactic forced the Americans to undertake a very difficult winter campaign and bought him time which eventually saved Canada for the British.

With additional reinforcements, captured supplies and morale up from the victories, Montgomery and his force marched on Montreal. On November 12th, Montreal fell, but not before General Carleton was able to evacuate most of his troops and retreat to the fortress city of Quebec. Montgomery had captured eleven ships in Montreal harbor and all the military stores in the town. As a reward for his leadership and the victories he had achieved the Continental Congress promoted Montgomery to Major General.

Montgomery wrote to his father-in-law. Robert Livingston, then a delegate to Congress: ". . until Quebec is taken, Canada is unconquered".

On December 3rd, Montgomery was joined by Colonel Benedict Arnold's force of 700 men just outside the city of Quebec.


Quebec became the capitol of Canada in 1763, and by 1775 had some 1,500 homes in the upper and lower towns. The present citadel on top of the 333 foot Cape Diamond wasn't built until 1823, however, it was very well fortified in 1775. The British had captured the city in 1759 during the French and Indian Wars, but the commander of the attacking British force, General James Wolfe was killed in the assault on the Plain of Abraham.

The American force lacked artillery, hence a traditional siege was out of the question. The only course of action available to Montgomery, was a direct assault on a well fortified city. To have any chance of success, the assault would have to be carried out at night, allowing the attacking force the element of surprise.

Montgomery and Arnold agreed that attacking the western wall on the Plains of Abraham was out of the question, far too strong to be carried. They devised a plan that would have a feint toward the western wall, with a two pronged attack on the lower town from opposite sides.

Unfortunately, defending General Sir Guy Carleton also recognized the lower town as his weakest point and organized his defenses accordingly.

On the afternoon of December 30th, the weather turned and a snow storm came up. Montgomery realizing that the storm would insure surprise, ordered his force to attack. Leading the 1st New York, Montgomery moved to approximately 50 yards from the first defensive barrier, he with four officers and thirteen men charged forward. It is said that Montgomery shouted "Men of New York, you will not fear to follow where your general leads!" He raised his sword and led the attack. The defending British withheld their fire until the Americans were within point blank range and then opened fire. The hail of musket fire and cannon ball devastated the attacking force. General Montgomery and two of his officers, Captains MacPherson his Aide-de-Camp, and Jacob Cheeseman, and eleven of the men fell, all killed instantly. Only Captain Aaron Burr, Edward Antil, and one soldier survived.

Colonel David Campbell, next in command, ordered a retreat without a second attempt, thus dooming the attack to failure.

We are fortunate that an eyewitness account has survived. Judge John J. Henry wrote a very lengthy account, which we present herein as an abridgement.

"General Montgomery had marched at the precise time stipulated, and had arrived at his destined place of attack, nearly about the time we attacked the first barrier, he was not one that would loiter. Colonel Campbell, of the New York Troops, a large, good­looking man, who was second in command of that party, and was deemed a veteran, accompanied the army to the assault, his station was rearward, General Montgomery with his aids, were at the point of the column. . . . . within Cape Diamond, and probably at a distance of fifty yards, there stood a block-house, which seemed to take up the space between the foot of the hill and the precipitous bank of the river, leaving a cartway or passage on each side of it. . . . .

A block-house, if well constructed, is an admirable method of defense, which in the process of the war, to our cost, was fully experienced. In the instance now before us, it was a formidable object. It was square of perhaps forty or fifty feet. The large logs, neatly squared, were tightly bound together by dove-tail work. If not much mistaken, the lower story contained loop-holes for musketry, so narrow that those within could not be harmed from without. The upper story had four or more portholes, for cannon of a large calibre. These guns were charged with grape or canister shot, and were pointed with exactness towards the avenue at Cape Diamond.

The hero Montgomery came. The drowsy or drunken guard did not hear the sawing of the posts of the first palisade. Here, if not very erroneous, four posts were sawed and thrown aside so as to admit four men abreast. The column entered with a manly fortitude. Montgomery accompanied by his aids, M'Pherson and Cheeseman, advanced in front. Arriving at the second palisade, the General, with his own hands, sawed down two of the pickets, in such a manner as to admit two men abreast. These sawed pickets were close under the hill, and bit a few yards from the very point of the rock, out of view and fire of the enemy from the Blockhouse. Until our troops advanced to that point, no harm could ensue but by stones thrown from above. Even now there had been but an imperfect discovery of the advancing of an enemy, and that only by the intoxicated guard. The guard fled; the General advanced a few paces. A drunken sailor returned to his gun swearing he would not forsake it while undischarged. This fact is related from testimony of the guard on the morning of our capture, some of those sailors being our guard. Applying the match, this single discharge deprived us of our excellent commander.

Colonel Campbell, appalled by the death of our General, retreated a little way from Cape Diamond, out of the reach of the cannon of the block-house, and called a council of officers, who it was said, justified his receding from the attack."

From this point the Judge wrote about his capture and detention. Then. he continued: "It was on this day (January 2nd) that my heart was ready to burst with grief at viewing the funeral of our beloved General. Carleton had, in our former wars with the French, been a friend and fellow-soldier of Montgomery. Though political opinion, perhaps ambition or interest, had thrown these worthies on different sides of a great question, yet the former could not but honour the remains of his quondam friend. About noon the procession passed our quarters, it was most solemn. The coffin, covered with a pall, surmounted by transverse swords, was borne by men. The regular troops, particularly that fine body of men, the 7th Regiment, with reversed arms, and scarfs on the left elbow, accompanied the corpse to the grave. The funerals of the other officers, both friends and enemies, were performed this day. From many of us it drew tears of affection for the deceased and speaking for myself tears of greeting and thankfulness towards General Carleton. . . if such men as Washington, Carleton and Montgomery, had had the entire direction of the adverse war, the contention, in the event, might have happily terminated to the advantage of both sections of the nation. M'Pherson, Cheeseman, Hendricks and Humphreys were all dignified by the man of burial. . . . . ."

Word of the failure of the attack on Quebec was dispatched to Major General Schuyler, who notified Congress and General Washington. His letter to Washington read:

" Albany, January 13th, 1776

I wish I had no occasion to send my Dear General this melancholy account. My admirable friend, the gallant Montgomery is no more. Brave Arnold is wounded. We have met with a severe check in an unsuccessful attempt on Quebec. . . .

 

I am Sir, Etc. Philip Schuyler"

General Washington's response to Major General Schuyler was as follows:

"The Major General Schuyler
Cambridge
January 17th, 1776

Dear Sir;

I received your favor of the 13th, inst' with its enclosures & am heartily sorry & most sincerely console with you upon the fall of the brave & worthy Montgomery & those gallant officers & men who have experienced a like fate.

In the death of this gentleman America has sustained a heavy loss having approved himself a steady friend to her rights & of ability to render her the most essential service

George Washington"

 

The loss of General Montgomery was heartfelt by the Second Continental Congress. On January 25th, 1776 the Congress passed a resolution which read: "That it is the opinion of this committee that in consideration of the many signal and important services which with the greatest valour and conduct have been rendered to these Colonies by their late General Richard Montgomery who after a series of successes obtained under amazing difficulties at length fell in a gallant attack upon Quebec the Capital of Canada as a tribute of ] justice to the memory of that valiant officer, that his Patriotism, Conduct, Boldness of enterprize & scorn of danger and fearlessness Contempt of danger & of death may stand recorded to posterity exhibiting an example truly worthy of imitation. Resolved that a Monument be procured from Paris or any other part of France, and erected in that Room of the State House in Philadelphia in which the Continental Congress now sit & that it bear an inscription sacred to the memory of General Richard Montgomery & best calculated to perpetuate his fame & that the Continental Treasurer be directed to advance a sum not exceeding 300 pounds sterling to the order of Doctor Franklin who shall be appointed & shall undertake to see this Resolution duly executed in order to pay the expense thereof. "


The monument was made in France, and shipped to the United States. When it arrived the United States had been established and was headquartered in New York City. The monument was erected in 1789 on the Broadway side of St. Paul's Chapel, where it stands today, directly across the street from the former location of the World Trade center.

This monument was the first Revolutionary War monument created by this country.

General Montgomery's wife, Janet stayed at their Rhinebeck property, and in 1804 built a beautiful home and named it Montgomery Place in memory of her late husband. She never remarried and lived until 1827. The local DAR Chapter bears her name.

In 1818 Janet spearheaded a movement to recover the body of General Montgomery then still buried in Quebec and have it reinterred in New York City. This was accomplished. His second burial was accompanied with great pomp and ceremony and he was buried at St. Paul's Chapel.

Major General Richard Montgomery was one of those individuals who certainly would have made a great difference had he lived. He had seventeen years of active military service in the British Army, with combat experience, which would have served the cause of American independence well.

He can safely be called the first true American hero.

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