In 1786, American artist Jonathan Trumbull painted "The Death of General Montgomery in Attack on Quebec, December 31 1775". The original is now in the Yale Art Gallery).
The artist, himself a war veteran, was at the height of his creative powers when he painted this work. It is dense with allegory and references to other famous paintings. The spirit of the new American republicanism - a central theme in Trumbull's art - is evident in the composition of the figures and the diversity they represent. There are back-country riflemen striking classical poses of allegiance and vengeance, gentlemen volunteers in captured British greatcoats, and even an Oneida chieftain rallying to the defense of the fallen General.
It is a fascinating and powerful image. But except for the fact that Montgomery and two of his aides were slain at Quebec in a single blast of cannister, and despite including the portraits of actual participants in the battle, Trumbull's painting has more to say about how the Revolutionary generation wished to remember history than the actual events themselves. The painting is notable both for what it omits as well as its inaccurate inclusions.
My interest "The Death of General Montgomery" began, as so many of my historical inquiries do, with a matter of family history. According to a description of the painting in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture database, the officer holding the dying General in his arms is my collateral ancestor, Matthias Ogden. Matthias Ogden served as Brigade Major in the forces at Quebec under Colonel Benedict Arnold, having survived Arnold's epic march that fall through the backwoods of Maine and over the Height of Land into Canada. In his hometown of Elizabeth New Jersey, there is an old cannon outside the Union County Courthouse and a plaque which proudly claims that this was the very weapon that laid Montgomery low and wounded Matthias Ogden and another fellow townsman - William Crane - at Quebec. I've seen the cannon, and many writers have accepted its history at face value, but like Trumbull's painting it offers a past for Matthias Ogden that cannot be.
Not that his service record requires embellishment. Matthias Ogden was a "gentleman volunteer" who left New Jersey to seek a commission with the Continental forces besieging Boston in the summer of 1775. He was joined by his boyhood friend Aaron Burr, an orphan who had been taken in by the family of Ogden's older sister Rhoda. A portion of his journal survives from this campaign, covering the period of greatest hardship when Arnold's famished men crossed the Height of Land on October 27 to December 15th, when he was sent by Arnold for the second time with a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the city of Quebec, with the same result as have occurred on the preceding day:
14th - "Toward evening the Colonel wrote a letter to the Commander-in-Chief in the town, demanding a surrender of the place and letting them know what they might expect should they put him to the expense of taking the town by storm. I was the person appointed for going in with the flag. According to custom I took a drummer with me, who, as soon as had risen the hill, beat a parley, and I at the same time raised my flag and marched on, waving it in the air, until I was within four rods of St. Johns' Gate, when I was saluted with an eighteen-pound shot from the wall. It struck very near and splattered us with the earth it threw up. I at first thought it had killed the drummer, but he had only fallen with fright. We did not wait for a second, but retreated in quick time till under cover of the hill."
Arnold himself described Ogden as "a young gentleman of good and opulent family from Jersey" and commended him most favorably in dispatches. There was at least one detractor: a young Pennsylvania rifleman named John Joseph Henry, who in a deathbed memoir dictated more than 35 years after the fact, accused Ogden "most stupidly" of placing another riflemen in an exposed position where he was subsequently captured. Henry called Ogden "a large and handsome young man, in favor with Arnold." This is damning with feint faint praise indeed given Arnold's subsequent ignominy, but Kenneth Roberts notes that Ogden's placement of the sentry in a thicket would tend to make him less conspicuous to the enemy, not more so, and the unfortunate rifleman more likely was captured asleep in his post.
Be that as it may, the weight of evidence confirms that Matthias Ogden was a brave and resourceful officer who occupied a position of great trust and responsibility on Arnold's staff and was wounded in the left shoulder during the assault on the City undertaken by the combined forces of General Montgomery and Colonel Arnold at the end of the year. It was a dark and confusing attack made in a raging snowstorm and ended in disaster for the Americans, but one thing is clear from the historical record; there is no way that the cannon that killed General Montgomery wounded Matthias Ogden. We will discuss the evidence against it, as well as questions about the veracity of Trumbull's depiction of the Death of Montgomery, in tomorrow's post