Benjamin Montanye and General George Washington’s Mail
TOPICS: Discovery, Espionage, George Washington, Revolutionary War
by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski
January 31, 2022
Benjamin Montanye (1745–1825) is one of the more colorful characters introduced in vol. 31 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. A blacksmith who became a Patriot postrider in 1776, Montanye carried letters between Gen. George Washington at New Windsor, N.Y., and Philadelphia during the spring of 1781. On March 29, Montanye was waylaid in the mountains near Haverstraw, N.Y., by British lieutenant James Moody, a Loyalist raider who brought Montanye along with several Washington letters to British-controlled New York City.1 Montanye endured a stint in prison there, and in the years following, it appears he grossly exaggerated or perhaps even purposely misrepresented the importance of his capture. After the war, Montanye served as a Baptist minister and lived in Orange County, New York.
Benjamin J. Lossing erroneously wrote in his celebrated mid-nineteenth-century Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution that before Washington moved with his army from New Windsor to meet French forces marching from Rhode Island, “Washington had caused deceptive letters to be written and put in the way of being intercepted, all of which deceived Sir Henry Clinton into the belief that an attack upon New York city was the grand object of the Americans.” Lossing seems to have arrived at this conclusion thanks to Montanye’s words as posthumously communicated to him by Jeremiah H. Pierson, a prominent resident of Ramapo, N.Y.:
One of the bearers of these letters was a young Baptist clergyman named Montaigne, an ardent Whig, who was directed by Washington to carry a dispatch to Morristown. He directed the messenger to cross the river at King’s Ferry, proceed by Haverstraw to the Ramapo Clove, and through the Pass to Morristown. Montaigne, knowing the Ramapo Pass to be in possession of the Cow-boys and other friends of the enemy, ventured to suggest to the commander-in-chief that the upper road would be the safest. “I shall be taken,” he said, “if I go through the Clove.” “Your duty, young man, is not to talk, but to obey!” replied Washington, sternly, enforcing his words by a vigorous stamp of his foot. Montaigne proceeded as directed, and, near the Ramapo Pass, was caught. A few days afterward he was sent to New York, where he was confined in the Sugar House, one of the famous provost prisons in the city. The day after his arrival, the contents of the dispatches taken from him were published in Rivingston’s Gazette with great parade, for they indicated a plan of an attack upon the city. The enemy was alarmed thereby, and active preparations were put in motion for receiving the besiegers. Montaigne now perceived why he was so positively instructed to go through the Ramapo Pass, where himself and dispatches were quite sure to be seized. When they appeared in Rivington’s Gazette, the allied armies were far on their way to the Delaware. Montagnie admired the wisdom of Washington, but disliked himself to be the victim. Mr. Pierson, from whom I obtained the narrative, received it from the lips of Montagnie himself.2
Lieutenant General Rochambeau’s French forces were still in New England and Washington’s army at New Windsor when James Rivington’s Royal Gazette (New York City) for April 4 printed part of Washington’s intercepted letter of March 28 to Lund Washington, the whole of which does not mention any plans to attack the British at New York City.3
The other Washington letters Moody captured with Montanye were not printed. They include one written to Francisco Rendon, Spain’s de facto ambassador to the United States, dated March 23, in which Washington did not mention any plans to liberate New York City.4 They also include Washington’s letter to Virginia politician Benjamin Harrison dated March 27, in which Washington claimed: “should the Battalions from New Hampshire to New Jersey inclusive be compleated (a thing not to be expected) we shall, after the necessary detachments for the Frontiers and other purposes are made, have an Army barely sufficient to keep the Enemy in check in New York.”5 Indeed, Washington’s letter to Harrison was not printed for fear among British commanders at New York City that knowledge of its contents would generate pressure upon them to launch an invasion of New Jersey!6
The final Washington letter that appears to have been captured with Montanye certainly had nothing to do with attacking the British at New York City. Washington wrote his former dentist John Baker on 29 March: “A day or two ago I requested Colo. [Robert Hanson] Harrison to apply to you for a pair of Pincers to fasten the wire of my teeth. I hope you furnished him with them—I now wish you would send me one of your scrapers, as my teeth stand in need of cleaning, and I have little prospect of being in Philadelpa soon. It will come very safe by the Post—& in return, the money shall be sent so soon as I know the cost of it.”7
Lossing was not the only scholar whom Montanye’s words misled. One reference work, for instance, printed a claim in 1899 from Montanye Rightmeyer of Washingtonville, N.Y., a newspaperman and direct descendant of Montanye, that Montanye was “purposely sent in 1781 by Washington with bogus despatches over a road where he was captured and taken to New York, where the British, deceived by the despatches, prepared for an assault on the City, while the American Army stole around and was well on its way to Yorktown before the ruse was discovered.”8 At least one historian, to be sure, has since realized that Montanye’s claim to fame “is more than questionable; it is illusory.”9 Other historians, though, continue to take Montanye’s claim at something like face value: “The story is no doubt apocryphal and told in hindsight, but the bare bones may indeed be true.”10
Scholars perhaps remain inclined to entertain Montanye’s claim because Washington himself wrote Noah Webster from Mount Vernon on July 31, 1788:
I duly received your letter of the 14th instant, and can only answer you briefly, and generally from memory: that a combined operation of the land and naval forces of France in America for the year 1781, was preconcerted the year before: that the point of attack was not absolutely agreed upon, because it would be easy for the Count de Grasse, in good time before his departure from the West Indies, to give notice by Express, at what place he could most conveniently first touch to receive advice, because it could not be foreknown where the enemy would be most susceptible of impression; and because we (having the command of the water with sufficient means of conveyance) could transport ourselves to any spot with the greatest celerity: that it was determined by me (nearly twelve months before hand) at all hazards to give out & cause it to be believed by the highest military as well as civil Officers that New York was the destined place of attack, for the important purpose of inducing the Eastern & Middle States to make greater exertions in furnishing specific supplies than they otherwise would have done, as well as for the interesting purpose of rendering the enemy less prepared elsewhere: that, by these means and these alone, artillery, Boats, Stores & Provisions were in seasonable preparation to move with the utmost rapidity to any part of the Continent—for the difficulty consisted more in providing, than knowing how to apply the military apparatus: that before the arrival of the Count de Grasse it was the fixed determination to strike the enemy in the most vulnerable quarter so as to ensure success with moral certainty, as our affairs were then in the most ruinous train imaginable: that New York was thought to be beyond our effort & consequently that the only hesitation that remained was between an attack upon the British Army in Virginia or that in Charleston—and finally that (by the intervention of several communications & some incidents which cannot be Detailed in a letter; and wch were altogether unknown to the late Quarter Master General of the Army, who was informed of nothing but what related to the immediate duties of his own department) the hostile Post in Virginia, from being a provisional & strongly expected became the definitive and certain object of the Campaign.
I only add, that it never was in contemplation to attack New York, unless the Garrison should first have been so far degarnished to carry on the Southern operations, as to render our success in the siege of that place as infallible as any future military event can ever be made. For I repeat it, and dwell upon it again & again—some splended advantage (whether upon a larger or smaller scale was almost immaterial) was so essentially necessary to revive the expiring hopes & languid exertions of the Country, at the crisis in question, that I never would have consented to embark in any enterprize, wherein, from the most rational plan & accurate calculations, the favourable issue should not have appeared as clear to my view, as a ray of light. The failure of an attempt agst the Posts of the enemy, could, in no other possible situation during the war, have been so fatal to our cause.
That much trouble was taken and finesse used to misguide & bewilder Sir Henry Clinton in regard to the real object, by fictitious communications, as well as by making a deceptive provision of Ovens, Forage & Boats in his Neighbourhood, is certain. Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own Army; for I had always conceived, when the imposition did not completely take place at home, it could never sufficienty succeed abroad.
Your desire of obtaining truth is very laudable, I wish I had more leizure to gratify it as I am equally solicitous the undisguised verity should be known. Many circumstances will unavoidably be misconceived & misrepresented. Notwithstanding most of the Papers which may properly be deemed official are preserved yet the knowledge of innumerable things, of a more delicate & secret nature, is confined to the perishable remembrance of some few of the present generation.11
If Washington did indeed attempt to trick the British at New York City in 1781 with “fictitious” letters that he wanted to be intercepted, the letters he sent were certainly not those taken by Moody from Montanye. However, as annotation work on vol. 32 proceeds, The Papers of George Washington editors will strive to determine whether additional Washington letters that Moody intercepted later in the spring of 1781 were actually “fictitious communications”; and whether the American-French forays against British defenses outside New York City prior to Washington’s famed march of combined American and French forces to Virginia were merely feints. Washington’s own diaries, though, indicate that New York City remained his primary target well into the summer of 1781.12
1. Moody erroneously recalled the date of Montanye’s capture as March 15 (see James Moody, Lieut. James Moody’s Narrative of His Exertions and Sufferings in the Cause of Government, Since the Year 1776, 2d ed. [London, 1783; Reprint, New York, 1968], 36).
2. Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution; or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the War for Independence (New York, 1851–52), 2:212-13. See ibid., 2:210–11; see also Samuel Loudon to George Washington, April 12, 1781, DLC:GW.
3. See George Washington to Lund Washington, March 28, 1781, MiU-C: Henry Clinton Papers. Washington’s relative Lund Washington managed Mount Vernon in Washington’s absence.
4. See George Washington to Francisco Rendon, March 23, 1781, MiU-C: Henry Clinton Papers.
5. See George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, March 27, 1781, MiU-C: Henry Clinton Papers. For a duplicate, see Washington to Harrison, same date, Vi.
6. See William Smith, Historical Memoirs from 26 August 1778 to 12 November 1783 of William Smith, ed. William H. W. Sabine (New York, 1971), 399; see also Henry Clinton to George Germain, 5–20 April, 1781, in Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series), ed. K. G. Davies, (Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81), 19:82, 20:102–6.
7. See George Washington to John Baker, March 29, 1781, MiU-C: Henry Clinton Papers). “Mar.” (March) on the letter’s cover has been erroneously altered to look like “May.”
8. Register of the Empire State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, ed. Edward H. Hall (1899), 492; see also The History of Orange County New York, ed. Russel Headley (Middletown, N.Y., 1908), 710-711.
9. Richard J. Koke, Corridor Through the Mountains (n.p., 2019).
10. Susan Burgess Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal: James Moody, 1744–1809 (Montreal, 2001), 113; see also Jean R. Walton, “James Moody, an American Loyalist & His Interceptions of Washington’s Communications with Philadelphia,” New Jersey Postal History Society Journal 40, no. 3 (August 2012): 161–62.
11. George Washington to Noah Webster, July 31, 1788, in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, ed. William W. Abbot et al., (Charlottesville, Va., 1992–97), 6:413–16; see also Webster to Washington, July 14, 1788, in ibid., 6:378–79.
12. See George Washington’s entry for August 1, 1781, in The Diaries of George Washington, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79), 3:404–5.