GUEST COLUMN • So Who Was Gen. Montgomery?

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In Montgomery County, Lincoln’s Birthday is not the only reason to celebrate Feb. 12. That is also the birthdate of the county itself. Founded on Feb. 12, 1821, the bicentennial of Montgomery County is coming up this week.

The county is named for Richard Montgomery, a general in the American Revolution, who was killed in the frontal assault on Quebec City on New Year’s Eve 1775. At least 21 other Illinois counties are also named for Revolutionary figures.

Well-regarded in his time, Gen. Montgomery is largely forgotten today. Born to a family of wealth near Dublin, Ireland on Dec. 2, 1738, Montgomery received his education at St. Andrews and Trinity College before choosing a military career. At age 18, he became a noncommissioned officer in the British Army and fought admirably during the French and Indian War from 1756-63.

Montgomery later performed well during actions in the Caribbean and rose to the rank of captain. He subsequently returned to Great Britain, where he refined his liberal views, and reportedly became sympathetic to American independence. He also began to chafe in his military role, disappointed that he was not promoted to higher rank and concerned about British tensions with the American colonies.  One writer states “for some reason, never fully determined, he appears to have felt that he had no future in England and that his friends either could not or would not help him.” 

Montgomery tried to purchase a major’s commission, a common practice in some world armies at the time, but was rebuffed. Eventually, he sold his current commission in April 1772 and settled in America. The following year, he married Janet Livingston, the daughter of an influential anti-British judge. 

That July, he took up residence on a 67-acre farm in New York, where he quickly won the respect of his neighbors. Montgomery has been described as “tall, of fine military presence, of graceful address, with a bright, magnetic face, winning manners.”

As his ties to America strengthened, so did his support of his new homeland. A modern account claims he “began to identify as an ‘American’ rather than a ‘Briton,’” and became a delegate to the first provincial congress in New York in May 1775. 

The previous month, the Revolution had begun with the clashes at Lexington and Concord. Though he loved his new homeland, Montgomery disliked the idea of serving in the army, as he hated to leave his new wife. He had also begun work on a new home at her estate near Rhinebeck, NY. 

In June 1775, he accepted a commission as brigadier general in the Continental Army with, as reference scholar Mark Mayo Boatner wrote in 1973, “personal regret.” But, as Montgomery wrote, “the will of an oppressed people…must be respected.”

Montgomery quickly ran into controversy when the New York congress placed him second-in-command of state forces to Philip Schuyler, a member of the state’s powerhouse Dutch-bred family. Some accounts note that Montgomery protested his subordinate role, believing Schuyler did not have enough experience to lead. But Schuyler soon became ill in September 1775, and command passed to Montgomery at the start of an offensive on Canada, then a British dominion. Canada was a large and desired prize to the Americans, and some leaders hoped to make the dominion the 14th colony. 

While the will of many Americans in the Revolution is unquestioned, the armies were a ragtag lot, lacking discipline and vastly under-supplied.  Montgomery referred to his troops as the “sweepings” of society and his officers as “vulgar.” Still, he managed to mold the unit into an effective fighting force, and has been lauded for his success in advancing his 1,200 troops through upstate New York and into Canada. 

In conjunction with Benedict Arnold, who would sell out the Americans in a treasonous act four years later, Montgomery moved on the stronghold of Quebec City, which was a heavily fortified, walled city under the command of British Gen. Guy Carleton.  On his 37th birthday on Dec. 2, Montgomery joined with Arnold to set Quebec under siege, and explored ways to take the city.

But Montgomery did not have siege artillery, which was hardly his only problem. The enlistments of his men were scheduled to expire on Jan. 1, so the need for an attack was pressing.  Carleton had correctly noted that the attack would most likely occur in the lower part of Quebec, and organized his defenses accordingly. Montgomery, meanwhile, chose to move on Dec. 31, hoping to take advantage of a snowstorm and a full moon to his advantage, as well as the fact that many British soldiers were inebriated from celebrating the New Year. 

The attack came at 4 a.m., though, as one source asserts, “it was doomed to failure.” Not surprisingly, Montgomery led from the front, yelling “push on brave boys, Quebec is ours.” 

He was killed by a point-blank round of grapeshot in the initial assault, one of many Americans who fell that day. Of around 800 troops engaged, the Continentals lost 426 captured, with 60 killed or wounded.

The British opponents at Quebec recognized Montgomery’s body and insisted that he would be “decently buried.” It was just one of a cavalcade of tributes to Montgomery on both sides. 

George Washington, who was said to be devastated, wrote “in the death of this gentleman, America has sustained a heavy loss.” Congress later authorized a memorial to Montgomery.

Boatner writes that “much of his highest praise came from London, from his former friends as well as his political foes.” One British leader referred to Montgomery as a “hero.” His widow, Janet, called him “my general” or “my soldier” until her death 53 years later.

Today, Montgomery’s home in Rhinebeck is now a museum, while a statue of him stands in Philadelphia. Several U.S. Navy vessels have also been named for him. 

In addition to Illinois, at least 12 other states have counties honoring Montgomery, whose name also adorns at least five cities, including the capital of Alabama. 

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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