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Morton: Montgomery among first American martyrs

On this day (Dec. 31) in 1775, American Gen. Richard Montgomery, in an ill-advised assault on the British stronghold of Quebec City, was killed (age 37), thus becoming one of the first (along with Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed in the June 17, 1775, Battle of Bunker Hill) American heroes or martyrs of the Revolutionary War.

Convinced that the largely French-speaking population of Canada was just waiting to be “liberated” from British rule, the Continental Congress ordered Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler of New York (1733-1804) to lead an invasion of Canada. However, when forced to retire from active service because of serious ill health, Schuyler relinquished command of the invasion force to Brigadier General Montgomery, who, interestingly, was unaware that he had been promoted to major general just 22 days before his untimely death.

Born Dec. 2, 1738, in Convoy House, Donegal, Ireland, to former British army officer and member of the Irish Parliament Thomas Montgomery, young Richard was well educated, attending St. Andrews (1752-1754) and Trinity College, Dublin (1754-1756).

Upon the completion of his formal education, Richard, following in his father’s footsteps, decided on a military career. Military service in Canada (he participated with distinction in the siege and capture of the French fortress of Louisburg in 1758, and later in successful campaigns against Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Montreal) was followed by a tour in the West Indies, where he took part in the capture of Martinique and Havana in 1762.

Returning to England, Richard befriended many of the more liberal politicians of the day; men such as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, both of whom in the 1770s often seemingly took the side of the “American rebels” during heated Parliamentary debates concerning taxation and colonial governance.

By 1772, Montgomery had become convinced that the Lord North ministry was pursuing calamitous policies toward her American colonies. Also, he had become convinced, partly from repeatedly being passed over for military promotions and partly from his anti-ministry political views, that his future happiness and success would not be in England.

Montgomery sold his military commission and moved to America, where in July 1773 he settled on a 67-acre farm at Kings Bridge, N.Y. His marriage to Janet Livingston (daughter of New York aristocratic “rebel” leader Robert R. Livingston), his military experience in the British army, and his well-known anti-British ministry views led, almost inevitably, to his appointment, on June 22, 1775, as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Leaving his young, new bride and their new home near Rhinebeck, N.Y., Richard traveled north to become second in command to Schuyler in the invasion of Canada. After Schuyler’s temporary retirement from active service, Montgomery became the leader of one prong of a two-prong pincer movement against Montreal and Quebec.

In September, Montgomery’s force captured Montreal and then marched downriver to Quebec City. Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold, the leader of the second attacking force, led his 1,000-man army through the harsh wilderness of Maine and joined Montgomery’s force to lay siege to Quebec.

On Dec. 31, when many of the American militia enlistments would expire, the two ill-fated American commanders undertook a combined assault against the heavily fortified town. The twin assaults ended in disaster. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was seriously wounded, more than 100 Americans were killed or wounded, and more than 300 were captured.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at

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