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Professor Donald Elder: Richard Montgomery – General in the American Revolution

Sep 20, 2017 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Richard Montgomery- General in the American Revolution

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one of the most outstanding generals to serve with George Washington was Richard Montgomery. I know he was born in Ireland, but what else do we know about his early childhood and how did he make it to America?

Richard Montgomery was indeed born in Ireland on December 2, 1738. Unlike most residents of Ireland at that time, the Montgomery’s family did not practice Catholicism. This stems from the fact that the Montgomery family had its roots in Scotland. After England’s King Henry VIII created a Church of England independent of papal control in 1536, many residents of Scotland also decided to leave the Catholic Church. To a large extent, the Irish chose to remain loyal to the Catholic faith.

These two belief systems came into conflict in the early 1600s, when England’s King James I began to resettle Scots in Ireland, primarily the northern part of that country. On a side note, many of these settlers would later move the America, and became known as the Scotch-Irish. Some of the Scottish immigrants, including the Montgomery family, became the landed gentry in Ireland. As a consequence, Richard Montgomery’s father had the resources to send him to a private school in Leixlip.

In 1754, he became a student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Before he earned a degree, his family decided that he should join the British Army (as a number of his ancestors had). At the time, wealthy individuals could purchase military commissions from the British government. Montgomery’s father followed that custom, and bought his son a commission as an ensign in an infantry regiment in 1756.

2. Apparently, he served in the French and Indian War. Could you briefly provide an overview of that specific war: causes, time frame, and Montgomery’s role in it?

By the time Richard Montgomery joined the British Army, a war had broken out between Great Britain and France. In many respects, this war represented merely a continuation of a conflict that had begun in 1689. In that year, King William had declared war on France, primarily to prevent French domination of the continent of Europe. Known in Europe as The War of the League of Augsburg, the conflict had lasted until 1697. Five years later, war again broke out. This conflict, known as The War of the Spanish Succession, lasted until 1713. 30 years later, the two sides would fight each other again during the War of the Austrian Succession.

When that war ended in 1748, few thought that the two nations would remain at peace for long. These suspicions would prove correct, as less than a decade later another war took place. This conflict differed from its predecessors in one important respect, however, as it began with an incident that happened in North America. As we saw in a previous article about Horatio Gates, a British attempt to gain control of the Ohio Territory had resulted in a crushing defeat at the hands of the French and their Indian allies.

This had prompted the British to go to war with France. While known as the Seven Years War in Europe, this conflict is referred to as the French and Indian War in US History. This conflict brought Montgomery and his regiment to North America in 1757. Montgomery fought bravely in an assault on Fort Carillon, and earned a promotion. His regiment then participated in a campaign to capture Montreal, one conducted so efficiently that the French offered no resistance.

Interestingly, Montgomery would later conduct a similar campaign against the British during the American Revolution.

After participating in a campaign in the Caribbean (where he again served with distinction), Montgomery and his regiment did garrison duty in New York. While there, Montgomery met Janet Livingston, the daughter of a prominent landowner. Initially, this meeting did not result in a romance, as Montgomery and his regiment returned to Great Britain after the French and Indian War. But Montgomery increasingly saw the British treatment of the colonies as inherently unjust, and eventually chose to resign his commission and move to New York.

Once he arrived there, he resumed his acquaintance with Janet Livingston, and eventually wed her in 1773. He settled into the life of a country gentleman, but when New York called for a provincial assembly in May of 1775 after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Montgomery found himself chosen by his neighbors to serve as a representative. This legislative body soon learned that the Second Continental Congress, which had recently come into session, had taken control of the resistance to Great Britain.

It called on New York to name two generals to serve in the American Army, and the assembly nominated Phillip Schuyler and Montgomery. Congress confirmed him as a brigadier general on June 22, 1775.

3. Apparently in one endeavor, Montgomery captured the city of Montreal, as legend has it, without firing a shot! How was this accomplished?

For strategic and diplomatic reasons, the Second Continental Congress had decided at the beginning of the American Revolution to order the Continental Army to capture Canada. Initially appointed as that operation’s second in command, Montgomery became the commander as the army moved northward. Crossing into Canada, Montgomery’s force captured Fort St. Johns and then moved on Montreal. Because high ground bordered Montreal, Montgomery proved able to position his artillery in a manner that threatened every part of that city. He then demanded the city’s surrender.

Recognizing the futility of trying to resist Montgomery, the British commander acquiesced. Montgomery thus did force the surrender of Montreal without firing a single shot.

4. Apparently Montgomery actually fought with Benedict Arnold. What are some of the details surrounding that event?

At the same time that Montgomery had advanced with his force into Canada, General Benedict Arnold had begun an operation with the same goal as his objective. Believing that the capture of Quebec would secure control of Canada for the Americans, Arnold and his men had marched directly there. Montgomery, thinking along the same lines as Arnold, moved his troops down the St. Lawrence River towards Quebec after he captured Montreal. Once the two forces effected a rendezvous in early December of 1775, Arnold placed his troops under the command of Montgomery. Montgomery then began a campaign to capture Quebec and secure Canada for the American cause.

5. The painting by John Turnbull portraying the death of Richard Montgomery is surely a classic. What do historians actually know about the death of Richard Montgomery and his valor?

Initially, Montgomery hoped that he could simply convince the British to surrender Quebec because he had a numerically superior force. The British command refused his demand, however, informing Montgomery that he would have to take the city by force. Accordingly, Montgomery then used the artillery he had brought with him to try to bombard the city into surrendering.

Unfortunately for Montgomery, he did not possess the fire power necessary to force the British to capitulate. Having no other option, Montgomery decided that he had no option left except an actual assault of the city. He waited until a snowstorm on the night of December 30, and then ordered his troops to attack the city.

Initially, the Americans met with success, advancing towards the center of the city with Montgomery leading the assault. But just as success seemed within the grasp of the Americans, grapeshot fired by a British cannon fatally wounded Montgomery. With his death, the Montgomery’s assault came to an end, and soon the Americans began a retreat. The Americans fled so precipitously that they abandoned Montgomery’s body. The next morning, a captured American soldier identified his corpse.

6. Like Ulysses S. Grant, who is buried in Grant’s Tomb in New York City, Montgomery’s remains apparently are also in New York City. Where exactly was he buried?

After his death, the British commander had Montgomery buried with military honors in Quebec. There his remains lay until 1818. At that time, the governor of New York asked the British for permission to exhume Montgomery’s body and move it to American soil. Earlier that year, the British and American governments had negotiated a treaty that had solved a number of problems that had driven the two countries to war in 1812, and as a result of the easing of tensions the British agreed to the governor’s request. As a consequence, his body was moved in the summer of 1818 to St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City. A monument to his honor had been built there in 1776, and the church members laid his remains to rest near that memorial. There it resides to this day.

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