General Richard Montgomery – “An American Icon”

A Book Review

Shelton, Hal T. General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Along with Dr. Joseph Warren, Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery has been best remembered for being heroically killed in an unwinnable battle in the American Revolution’s first year. The briefest serving Continental Army Major General (12 days as Major General and 6.5 months total as an officer), Montgomery died in the doomed December 31, 1775 assault of Quebec City.

Richard Montgomery BioBiographer Hugh Shelton writes an interesting and compelling account of Montgomery’s short life and tragic death.  Shelton describes Montgomery’s distinguished military service in 17th Regiment of the British army during the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s rebellion and 1762 Cuban invasion. After rising to the rank of Captain, he became disillusioned with the prospect of many years to his next promotion. In addition to his advancement concerns, Montgomery’s political views became aligned with the increasingly progressive British Whig party. Shelton points out that these changing political views led Montgomery to immigrate to American and to support the Patriot cause.   Montgomery’s Whig relationships were strong as the Whig leaders eulogized Montgomery in Parliament after his battlefield death.

In 1772, Montgomery sold his commission and used the proceeds to purchase land just north of New York City to become a gentleman farmer. However, like George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen, Montgomery married into substantial wealth. On Jul 24, 1773, Montgomery wed Janet Livingston, a member of the powerful and rebel supporting Livingston family. Shelton posits that Montgomery became an active supporter of the American rebellion through his association with the Livingston family.

During the short pre-war period, both husband and wife had forebodings of an early death. Montgomery suffered from periodic bouts of melancholy and Janet felt star crossed and “snake bitten” as several of her previous suitors died premature deaths. However, when New York State and the Continental Congress offered a general’s commission, Montgomery readily accepted the dangerous assignment out of honor and duty.

Central to Shelton’s account of Montgomery’s life is his leadership of the American army that invaded Canada in 1775 with the intention of defeating British forces in the St. Lawrence Valley. American forces traveled from New York State via Lake Champlain to the Canadian border. Initially the invasion was successful. Typically overlooked, Shelton points out that Montgomery produced the first two Continental Army victories. After a siege, Patriot forces under Montgomery captured the British fort at St. Johns and stormed the city of Montreal on the way to Quebec City.

Facing the stout walls of Quebec in December 1775, Montgomery had no good options. Outnumbered and sickly, his ragtag army was melting away due to desertions and expiring enlistments. He had to choose between two bad options: the option of a dishonorable retreat or a forlorn assault against a superior force.

Courageously, Montgomery chose the latter and planned a two-point attack supported by two feints to deceive the British defenders. Further, he planned the assault for a snowy night with limited visibility and maximum cover to the storming force. However, from the start, the assault did not go well. The feints did not deceive the British who concentrated forces on the attackers. In the opening moments, grape shot from a British cannon decimated the first Patriot assault team including Montgomery.

Leveraging Shelton’s military background, he surmises that the assault could still have been successful. With Montgomery’s demise, command devolved to Colonel Donald Campbell who Shelton accuses of cowardice[i]. Even before the main American assault force could be deployed, Campbell ordered a hasty retreat and the attack failed. Shelton conjectures that if Campbell would have rallied the troops and continued the attack, Quebec could have been taken and Montgomery’s battle plan and legacy would have been vindicated. While there is no way to prove Shelton’s assertion, he offers a unique and thought provoking “what if” thesis.

In a summary of Montgomery’s character and capabilities, Shelton offers positive comparisons to Washington. For example, both Montgomery and Washington were naturally aggressive in battle, both considered personal honor sacrosanct and both sought to instill a soldierly discipline among the ranks.

I highly recommend Shelton’s book to serious scholars as well as casual readers. While not unduly praising or criticizing Montgomery, he provides an engaging, easily comprehended account of Montgomery’s short, but impactful life. Shelton makes a strong and effective case that Montgomery should receive more credit for the significant impact of his efforts on the war’s outcome.

While Shelton does a great service in penning the only existing full length Montgomery biography, he does occasionally add filler materials not required to support his thesis, which is a common among biographers whose subjects did not leave extensive written diaries and letters. For example, he delves deeply into Montgomery’s family ancient genealogy, some of which is not required to properly understand his character, upbringing and values.

From a technical perspective, Shelton’s scholarship is well supported and edited. He provides extensive footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. Shelton consulted with over 20 manuscript collections and numerous other primary sources. Further, he rarely relies on secondary sources for his main points. Lastly, the book is written with scholarly care, as I encountered only one editing error (On page 33, 1777 should have been 1767).

Perhaps as Shelton’s work is over 20 years old, it is time to welcome another Richard Montgomery biography. However, in the interim, Shelton’s work continues to be a valuable resource for those interested in the failed 1775 Canadian invasion and in the fascinating life of a daring Continental Army general who gave his life to our Revolution.

Additional Essay accounts of the life of Richard Montgomery

Broadwater, Robert P. American Generals of the Revolutionary War: A Biographical Dictionary. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012.

Headley, J.T. Washington and His Generals. Home Library. New York: A. L. Burt Company, n.d.

[i] In the summer of 1776, Col. Donald Campbell was found guilty by a court martial which recommended his removal from the army. However, the Continental Congress, with the advice of General Horatio Gates, reversed the verdict and ordered Campbell reinstated. However, Campbell spent the rest of the war in an audit of his quartermaster accounts and never again served in the field with the army.

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