Richard Montgomery (December 2, 1738 – December 31, 1775) was an Irish-born soldier who first served in the British Army. He later became a major general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and he is most famous for leading the failed 1775 invasion of Canada.
Montgomery was born and raised in Ireland. In 1754, he enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, and two years later joined the British Army to fight in the French and Indian War. He steadily rose through the ranks, serving in North America and then the Caribbean.
After the war he was stationed at Fort Detroit during Pontiac’s War, following which he returned to Britain for health reasons. In 1773, Montgomery returned to the Thirteen Colonies, married Janet Livingston, and began farming.
When the American Revolutionary War broke out, Montgomery took up the Patriot cause, and was elected to the New York Provincial Congress in May 1775. In June 1775, he was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.
After Phillip Schuyler became too ill to lead the invasion of Canada, Montgomery took over. He captured Fort St. Johns and then Montreal in November 1775, and then advanced to Quebec City, where he joined another force under the command of Benedict Arnold. On December 31, he led an attack on the city, but was killed during the battle. The British found his body and gave it an honorable burial. It was moved to New York City in 1818.
Montgomery was born near Swords in the north of County Dublin in Ireland. He was born into an Ulster Scots gentry family from County Donegal. His father, Thomas Montgomery, was a former British Army officer and a Member of Parliament for the ‘rotten borough’ of Lifford in East Donegal, which nonetheless returned two members to the Irish Parliament at College Green.
He was a brother of Colonel Alexander Montgomery (1720–1800) and a cousin of Colonel Alexander Montgomery (1686–1729), both Members of Parliament for County Donegal. Another first cousin was an M.P. for County Monaghan, also named Alexander Montgomery (died 1785). The Montgomerys were the East Donegal branch of the Clan Montgomery.
Richard Montgomery spent most of his childhood at Abbeville House in Kinsealy, near Swords, in County Dublin, where he learned to hunt, ride, shoot, and fence. Thomas Montgomery made sure that his sons received a good education; Richard attended the school of the Rev. Saumarez Dubourdieu in Leixlip, and learned French, Latin, and rhetoric. Richard Montgomery entered Trinity College in 1754.
Despite his great love of knowledge, Montgomery did not receive a degree. He was urged by his father and his oldest brother Alexander to join the military, which he did on September 21, 1756. His father purchased an ensign’s commission for Montgomery, who joined the 17th Regiment of Foot.
renewed his acquaintance with Janet Livingston, who later recounted that “politeness led him to make me a visit.” After receiving permission from her father, he and Janet were married on July 24, 1773.
After their marriage, Montgomery leased his farm to a tenant. His wife’s grandfather, Judge Beekman, gave them a cottage on the Post Road north of the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck in which to reside.
Montgomery bought some surrounding land and set to work fencing, ploughing fields, building a grain mill, and laying the foundation for a larger home called “Grasmere”, though it was yet to be completed at the time of his death and the tiny cottage was his only residence in Rhinebeck.
He said that he was “Never so happy in all my life”, but followed that up by saying “This cannot last; it cannot last.”
Three months after their marriage, Janet told him of a dream she had in which Montgomery was killed in a duel by his brother. Montgomery replied by saying “I have always told you that my happiness is not lasting … Let us enjoy it as long as we may and leave the rest to God.”
Because Montgomery was now tied to the Livingston family, who supported the Patriot cause, he began to turn against the British government, seeing himself as an American instead of an Englishman. He came to believe that the British government was being oppressive and was acting like a tyrannical parent-state.
On June 25, George Washington passed through New York City on his way to Boston. Washington assigned Montgomery as deputy commander under Schuyler. A few days later, Schuyler received orders from the Continental Congress to invade Canada.
The idea was that the army was to invade Quebec, where the Hudson River and the northern lakes could supply the army. A force was quickly assembled at Fort Ticonderoga, and Schuyler left to take command of the army on July 4. Montgomery stayed in Albany for several more weeks making the final arrangements for the invasion. His wife followed him as far north as Saratoga, where he told her “You shall never have cause to blush for your Montgomery.”
Through July and early August, Montgomery and Schuyler continued to organize their force, raising the men and materials needed for an invasion.
While they organized, Washington decided to expand the invasion, ordering Benedict Arnold to lead another invasion force that would invade Quebec from Maine. It was to join with Schuyler’s army outside Quebec City, where they would launch a joint attack on to the city.
Unknown to Montgomery, he was promoted to major general on December 9 for his victories at St. Johns and Montreal. After Montgomery was unable to convince Carleton to surrender, he placed several mortars a few hundred yards outside the walls of the city.
The shelling of the city began on December 9, but after several days it had failed to make a serious impact on the walls, the garrison, or the civilian population. With the shelling having little effect, Montgomery ordered the emplacement of another battery closer towards the city walls, on the Plains of Abraham, despite the fact it offered little natural cover from returning fire.
On December 15, the new batteries were ready and Montgomery sent a party of men under the flag of truce to ask for the city’s surrender. However, they were turned away. Montgomery then resumed firing on the city, but the effect was little better. When the new batteries were hit by more effective fire from the British, Montgomery ordered their evacuation.
As the bombardment of the city proved to be unsuccessful, Montgomery then began to plan for an assault. Montgomery was to assault the Lower Town district, the part of the city near the river shore, while Arnold was to attack and take the Cape Diamond Bastion, a strong part of the city walls on the highest point of the rocky promontory.
Montgomery believed that they should attack during a stormy night, therefore the British would not be able to see them. On December 27, the weather became stormy, and Montgomery ordered that the men prepare to attack. However, the storm soon subsided and Montgomery called off the attack.
As Montgomery waited for a storm, he was forced to revise his plans, because a deserter communicated the original plan to the defenders. In the new plan, Montgomery would attack the Lower Town from the south and Arnold would attack the Lower Town from the north. After breaking through the walls, Montgomery and Arnold would meet up in the city and then attack and take the Upper Town, causing resistance to collapse. To increase their chance of surprise, Montgomery planned two feints.
One detachment of troops (the 1st Canadian Regiment under James Livingston) would set fire to one of the gates while another (under the command of Jacob Brown) would engage the guard at Cape Diamond Bastion and fire rockets to signal the start of the attack. While the feints were conducted, artillery would fire into the city. Although Montgomery was reluctant to attack, enlistments for Arnold’s men were expiring on January 1, and he was concerned about losing their services.
On the night of December 30, a snowstorm struck. Montgomery issued the order to attack and the Americans began to move towards their designated positions. At 4:00 a.m., Montgomery saw the rocket flares and began to move his men around the city towards the lower town.
Although the rockets were to signal the attack, they also alerted the British of the impending attack, and the city’s defenders rushed to their posts. Montgomery personally led the march to the Lower Town, as they descended the steep slippery cliffs outside the city walls. At 6:00 a.m., Montgomery’s force reached a palisade at the edge of the Lower Town, which they had to saw through.
After they sawed through a second palisade, Montgomery led the advance party through the opening. Seeing a two-story blockhouse down the street, Montgomery led the troops toward it, encouraging the men by drawing his sword and shouting, “Come on, my good soldiers, your General calls upon you to come on.”
When the Americans were about 50 yards (46 m) away, the British forces in the blockhouse (30 Canadian militia and some seamen), opened fire with cannon, musket, and grapeshot. Montgomery was killed with grapeshot through the head and both thighs. Also killed in the burst of gunfire were Captains John Macpherson and Jacob Cheesman.
With the death of Montgomery, his attack fell apart. Colonel Donald Campbell, the surviving officer, ordered a somewhat panicked retreat.
Without Montgomery’s assistance, Arnold’s attack, after initial success, fell apart. Arnold was wounded in the leg, and a large number of his troops were captured, including Daniel Morgan.