What If?

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

The concept of “what if” in the study of history has intrigued pretty much anyone with an interest in the past. Indeed, it has spawned an entire genre of writing dubbed “alternate history”. Alternative or not, the fact remains that certain things did not occur, and no how you slice it, “alternate history” is, and will always be, fiction.

Such a spoil-sport pronouncement doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm for wondering “what if” something in the past might have been done differently, or not done at all. America’s War for Independence is a rich vein of subjects to ask “what if?”

What if the British Parliament had decided to give the North American Colonies real self rule instead of insisting that its own authority was sacrosanct? What if the weather on the night of 29 August 1776 had been clear and allowed the British to move warships between General Washington’s army on Long Island and the relative safety of Manhattan? What if at Brandywine Creek in September 1777, Major Patrick Fergusson didn’t countermand his order to a sharpshooter to kill Washington?

It’s truly impossible to prove anything beyond the “what if” stage on any such speculations. If parliament had granted self-rule, would we have stayed within the British system to modern times? If Washington’s army had been cut off at Long Island, would the war have ended or would it have taken a different character? If Washington had been killed at Brandywine, would the war have been lost? To all of the above, the honest answer is “maybe; maybe not”. It’s all speculation, folks.

A recurring bit of speculation at Saratoga is voiced by visitors and some staff as well: What if Benedict Arnold had died here? In his case, it’s arguable that General Arnold might have made the cut to enter the American Pantheon of Revolutionary War Heroes.

Then again, he might have been as easily forgotten.

More than a few times a certain voluble, pony-tailed ranger has spoken with Arnold-boosting visitors about their favorite general. Says the Visitor: “Had he died here, Benedict Arnold would be probably the most highly regarded, heroic general from the Revolutionary War!” Replies the ranger in question: “General Montgomery”.

Too often, the response from the visitor is “WHO?”

At the next party, when conversation lags, ask some friends for the names of at least five Revolutionary War Generals, Washington excluded. If they can come up with five, chances are they won’t mention Major General Richard Montgomery. A pity, really, when one considers that he was a bona fide Great American Hero in the Revolutionary War and Early Republic. Unlike Arnold, he did get places named after him: Montgomery, Alabama; Montgomery County, New York leap to mind.

And sadly, he is rarely recalled by most Americans.

What’s Richard Montgomery’s claim to fame? Well, while B. Arnold and Company were trying to get to Quebec the hard way through the Maine wilderness, Montgomery was leading the drive northward through the Champlain/Richelieu Valley. When Arnold’s game but weakened force arrived at Quebec, they had to retreat up the St. Lawrence to await Montgomery’s army. Arnold’s troops were in no shape to assault the place alone. It was only when Montgomery’s troops arrived that the Americans could get serious about taking Quebec.

Montgomery’s and Arnold’s combined commands were deemed sufficient to at least lay some sort of siege. Unfortunately, it was evident that time was more on the side of the British, as the invading Americans faced supply problems, the harsh Canadian winter weather and the fact that most enlistments would run out 1 January 1776.

In a desperate move, the American forces attempted an assault against Quebec on 31 December 1775 using a severe snowstorm as cover. It was a forlorn hope: Quebec remained in British hands, General Benedict Arnold was wounded (in the leg), Colonel Daniel Morgan captured and General Richard Montgomery was killed by in blast of grapeshot.

The assault failed as later did the entire campaign to control Canada for the United States. Montgomery was buried long before his army was forced to retreat due to the ravages of smallpox and British reinforcements.

On Thursday 25 January 1776 the Continental Congress in Philadelphia noted:

“The committee appointed to consider of a proper method of paying a just tribute of gratitude to the memory of General Montgomery, brought in their report, which, being taken into consideration, was agreed to as follows:

It being not only a tribute of gratitude justly due to the memory of those who have peculiarly distinguished themselves in the glorious cause of liberty, to perpetuate their names by the most durable monuments erected to their honour, but also greatly conducive to inspire posterity with an emulation of their illustrious actions:

Resolved, That, to express the veneration of the United Colonies for their late general, Richard Montgomery, and the deep sense they entertain of the many signal and important services of that gallant Officer, who, after a series of successes, amidst the most discouraging difficulties, fell at length in a gallant attack upon Quebec, the capital of Canada; and for transmitting to future ages, as examples truly worthy of imitation, his patriotism, conduct, boldness of enterprize, insuperable perseverance, and contempt of danger and death; a monument be procured from Paris, or any other part of France, with an inscription, sacred to his memory, and expressive of his amiable character and heroic atchievements: And that the continental treasurers be directed to advance a sum, not exceeding £300 sterling, to Dr. Benjamin Franklin (who is desired to see this resolution properly executed) for defraying the expence thereof.

That Dr. Smith be desired to prepare and deliver a funeral oration in honor of General Montgomery, and of those officers and soldiers, who so magnanimously fought and fell with him in maintaining the principles of American Liberty.”

Franklin during his diplomatic stay in France commissioned the noted sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffieri to make a suitable memorial to Montgomery. After the war it would be installed on the exterior of St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, where it remains to this day.

But it wasn’t just creating a monument that indicates Montgomery’s importance to Americans at the time. People drank toasts America would produce “more Montgomerys”, blithely ignoring the detail that he’d been born in Ireland. In short, it’s arguable that he was the first American Hero embodying the spirit of the Revolutionaries’ patriotism and sacrifices, during the War and after.

His widow, Janet Livingston Montgomery, became a sort of icon to her late husband’s memory. She lived that role for rest of her life in that role, refusing offers of marriage from individuals like Horatio Gates. Her home along the Hudson was regularly saluted by passing steamboats. Luminaries such as Lafayette visited her. The General’s remains were eventually brought from Canada to New York, by her efforts. In her eighties, through her brother she received the compliments of President Andrew Jackson, who desired “the honor of shaking by the hand the revered relict of the patriotic Genl. Montgomery, who will ever live in the hearts of the country.”

It is sadly evident that the “hearts of the country” have mostly forgotten General Richard Montgomery who lost his life in that desperate assault at Quebec. There are many others, officers and enlisted men who died in the cause for Independence and were unjustly forgotten: Sergeant William Jasper or Major General Johann Kalb, among them.

General Arnold by contrast is well recalled. Perhaps the sad pronouncement done years ago by a visitor to Saratoga National Historical Park sums it up:

“If he hadn’t turned traitor, who would remember him?”


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