The fight for freedom is not limited by geographical boundaries. Those who are friends of liberty may come from the most unexpected of places. Perhaps no event better demonstrates this than the American Revolution. Unlikely though it might seem, some of America’s strongest supporters were British, such as the statesman Edmund Burke. One of the most ardent defenders of the American cause was a Continental Army officer who had served in the British army for sixteen years. He then took up residence in America. When war erupted, he chose to stand with the Americans and led an American military expedition against his former comrades. His death in battle transformed him into an American hero. His name was Richard Montgomery. This is the story of his faithful service to his adopted country.
Richard Montgomery was an unlikely choice for an American hero. He was born into an Irish aristocratic family with a proud military heritage. His father was a former British officer who served in Ireland’s Parliament. Richard received a classical education before he attended the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin. After two years however, he decided to pursue a military career. With his father’s financial backing, he was commissioned a British ensign at the age of eighteen and eventually rose to the rank of captain. He saw action in the French and Indian War at Louisbourg on the Canadian coast, in the Lake Champlain valley of upstate New York, at Montreal, and in the Caribbean. When the war ended he returned to Britain. While back home, he grew sympathetic to those who challenged unfair British policies. In 1771, he failed to gain a long-desired promotion to major and resigned in protest. Looking for a fresh start, he immigrated to New York and settled down as a farmer. In 1773, he married Janet Livingston, the daughter of a prominent New York Supreme Court judge.
Despite his desire to live a quiet life, he seemed to realize that it would not last. There is a story that one night in late 1773 his wife Janet woke up from a nightmare. She told him she had dreamed he was killed in a sword fight with his brother. In response, Richard told her he had always known his happiness would not last forever, but he was determined to enjoy his life while he was still able to. He was soon a respected member of New York society, having established himself as a wealthy gentleman. The repressive British response to the Boston Tea Party, however, convinced Montgomery that American liberty was in danger. By the end of 1774, it was clear that he intended to support America in the coming struggle.
When word of the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord reached New York, Montgomery concluded he had no choice but to defend America against Britain. Even though he had only lived in New York for three years, he was chosen to serve as part of the New York Provincial Congress in May 1775. As he participated in military discussions, Richard continued to hope for reconciliation between the colonies and Britain. Despite such hopes, he watched as military action was taken against British outposts, like New York’s Fort Ticonderoga. At the same time, the Continental Congress began appointing military officers for the new American army. In June 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Montgomery as a brigadier general. George Washington, on his way to command the Continental Army at Boston, personally delivered the commission to Montgomery. Despite his initial reluctance to serve, Montgomery decided to set aside his reservations and accept the commission.
As an American officer, Brigadier General Montgomery served as second-in-command of the American Northern Department under Major General Philip Schuyler. He soon received orders from the Continental Congress to make preparations for an invasion of Canada. As he studied the military situation, Montgomery understood an invasion would demonstrate American strength and resolve. He realized though that America had to maintain control of Lake Champlain, which could serve as an invasion route for either the Americans (northbound) or the British (southbound). Furthermore, he also knew that in order for the invasion to succeed, the American army required proper discipline. Montgomery immediately began to train the soldiers and quickly gained their trust. His work was paying off, but military necessity dictated that he immediately launch the invasion or risk its failure.
In the last days of August, Richard Montgomery launched his expedition to seize control of Canada. With him were seventeen hundred soldiers, five cannons and two mortars. After several days of marching, he and the army reached the Canadian town of St. Johns, the first major objective of the invasion. The first attacks against the town failed, and Montgomery had to resort to a siege. After forty-eight days, the British finally surrendered. Montgomery and his soldiers continued their advance and soon captured the city of Montreal, the same city the former British officer had helped capture as a young man. He had successfully captured two cities and many British soldiers, but the prize city of Quebec still loomed ahead of him. He knew such a formidable fortress would require his army’s numerical strength, but enlistments were starting to expire. He was able to persuade nearly eight hundred of his soldiers to stay and help complete the capture of Canada.
At the end of November 1775, General Montgomery left a portion of his army to occupy the captured cities and set out for Quebec with three hundred soldiers. As he advanced, word of his triumphs reached the colonies, and he was quickly hailed a hero and the country’s most successful general. He arrived outside the city on December 2, 1775 and linked up with another American force led by Colonel Benedict Arnold. As the senior officer, Montgomery assumed command of the combined forces and made preparations to capture the city. Hoping to force the British to surrender without an infantry assault, Montgomery launched an artillery bombardment, but the British remained in place and returned the Americans’ fire. There was now no choice but to attack. As the days passed, however, Montgomery became convinced that the city could be taken and victory assured. He outlined the attack for his officers and urged them on with a Latin saying, “Fortune favors the brave.”
At 4:00 a.m. on December 31, 1775, the American attack began. The soldiers charged through a blinding snowstorm and over large chunks of ice and snow-covered rocks. With Montgomery in the lead, they finally reached the British barricades just before dawn and began to enter the city. Advancing, the general saw a two-story blockhouse in front of him. Believing it to be empty, Montgomery ordered his soldiers to charge the building. The attack was instantly met by British artillery and musket fire. Among those who fell in the first volley was Brigadier General Montgomery. He was hit multiple times in the thighs, groin, and face and died instantly. His body was found by the British and buried with honors. He would never learn that General Schuyler wrote to him that very day to tell Montgomery of his promotion to major general.
Word of Montgomery’s death quickly spread throughout the colonies. The shock and mourning that followed cemented his position as an American hero and martyr. To his countrymen, though born in the British Isles, he was the epitome of an American patriot who gave his life for his country. Over the next few months and years, books, plays, and paintings helped preserve his heroic memory among Americans. Nearly forty-three years after he died, his widow Janet had her husband’s body removed from Quebec and returned to New York. According to some, the funeral procession was the grandest seen since George Washington’s death. General Richard Montgomery’s memory had not been forgotten, nor should it be today. Due to his death early in the Revolutionary War, however, few Americans know his name. But let there be no doubt, a truer friend of the cause of liberty never lived than Richard Montgomery — British by birth, American by faithful service.