[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]
Finally, A Dreary Blockhouse
Chapter 9: A Questionable Story
Like many legends where memory and fact intermingle and become vague and obscure with passing time, Montanye's story is one of half-truths based on two separate events, neither of which had anything to do with the other - one, the occurrence of his own capture in March 1781, and the other, the march to Virginia which was undertaken in August. His story is more than questionable; it is illusory. Its implausibility as related by Lossing and Smith can best be appreciated by the fact that the interception of his mail and his imprisonment took place five months before the march to Virginia was even conceived and put into execution. The time element alone suffices to suggest the incredulous aspect of his tale.
Aside from this, there are other aspects to indicate the episode never happened in the manner he later related. There is no question but that he carried Washington's dispatches and was taken captive and was imprisoned and that Rivington published one of Washington's letters, but that any of this had any connection with deceptive measures taken by Washington to deceive the British by bringing about Montanye's capture is fantasy. Washington admitted in a letter to the lexicographer Noah Webster in 1788 that ruses were pursued and precautions were taken in 1781 to guard against any disclosure of the planned movement to Virginia, and much trouble” was taken to deceive the enemy, including the use of “fictitious communications,” but nothing of this had any connection with Montanye.
Even apart from the element of time, are inconsistencies in what Montanye himself said. Most important is his assertion that the publication in Rivington's newspaper of dispatches taken from him, indicating an attack on New York, hood-winked the British long enough to allow the allied army time to be well on its way south. It should be noted in refutation that one intercepted Washington letter that Rivington published in the Royal Gazette on April 4, 1781, made no mention whatsoever of a proposed move against New York as Montanye averred. The published letter, on the contrary, written by the commander-in-chief to his cousin Lund Washington at Mount Vernon on March 28 – the day before it was intercepted – contained only a mild and confidential criticism of slow French naval activity - a comment which could raise French eyebrows and prove an embarrassment, but little else.
Even geographically, Montanye's tale has limitations. His assertion that he was directed by the commander-in-chief to proceed to Morristown by way of King's Ferry and Haverstraw and through the Ramapo Pass is completely at variance with the terrain; for in no way was a passage to be had from the ferry to Morristown by traveling through the Clove. The well-used highway that led from the Hudson to Morristown along the base of the Highland and Ramapo escarpment was always considered the safe route preferred by post riders in place of the dangerous Clove road through the mountains.
Montanye's presence in the Clove on the day of his capture - on March 29 – was not the result of a peremptory order from Washington to travel the corridor, but because the Clove provided the only natural course through the Highlands from New Windsor, where the headquarters mail was picked up, to the Morristown road below the mountains. Montanye’s dislike of the Clove was obvious in Loudon’s remark that Montanye traveled it “with great reluctance.” Everybody knew the corridor was dangerous. Cohorts of the Clove gang still prowled the country, and there were many thereabouts who were more than willing to help the enemy.