Sunday, December 23, 2018

Episode 076: Arnold’s March toward Quebec

In earlier episode I have introduced Benedict Arnold as a motivated officer and brave fighter.  At the same time, he had the almost no political or diplomatic skills.  As a result, people either loved him or hated him.  When Arnold came to Cambridge in late summer of 1775, he met with Gen. Washington, who seemed to take a liking to him.

Arnold had proven his energy and ability when he and Ethan Allen captured Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain, denying the British in Canada an invasion route to the south.  At the same time, Arnold’s abrasive style and made quite a few enemies among his fellow officers and among the politicians who appointed new officers.

Arnold’s New Mission

Washington needed can-do officers who could act on their own initiative and who had shown bravery in battle.  Arnold was just such a man.  By fall, Arnold and everyone else were following the movements of Generals Schuyler and Montgomery as they recaptured most of the territory that Arnold had already captured.  He had been forced to surrender it when timid politicians afraid of offending the British and cheap commanders afraid to commit men and money had denied him the resources to capitalize on his capture of St. Jean in August.  Now Montgomery was obliged to commit a far larger army to retake it.
Benedict Arnold
(from Mt. Vernon)

Everyone also knew that the ultimate goal was Quebec and the American occupation of French Canada.  Arnold could not go back and serve alongside officers like Seth Warner, Ethan Allen, and John Brown who despised him.  But he could still be of service in the campaign.  Arnold suggested he be permitted to open up a second line of attack against Quebec.  While Schuyler and Montgomery battled their way up Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, Arnold would take a battalion up to modern day Maine and hack his way through the wilderness to advance on Quebec from the east.

Strategically, it made sense.  Even though the trip would be a very difficult one over mountainous terrain, it would not be a direction that the British would be expecting.  When the British did find out about the expedition, they would be forced to redeploy from the limited numbers of soldiers holding off Schuyler’s invasion in order to block Arnold’s invasion.

Washington decided to let Arnold prove himself.  He helped Arnold to get a commission as a Colonel in the Continental Army and assigned him around 1100 officers and men for his assault on Quebec. Washington approved the mission in August, but it would be late September before it could get underway.

Part of the delay was that Washington wanted to get Gen. Schuyler’s approval before letting Arnold proceed.  Since Schuyler had met Arnold back in June and had taken a liking to the young officer, he had no objection.

Massachusetts Provincial Hearings

Another delay was that Arnold had to appear before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and settle his accounts.  This was before Benjamin Church was outed as a spy, and Church headed the committee overseeing Arnold’s behavior during the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.  From the very beginning, the hearings went poorly.

The Church Committee had received reports from all the other officers involved, Allen, Warner, Easton, Brown, Hinman who all belittled Arnold’s efforts and painted him as an egocentric nut job who mostly got in their way while they were liberating Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain.

Arnold appeared before the Committee expecting to be reimbursed for over £1000 he had fronted personally to pay the costs of his campaign.  The Committee was focused on the £100 they had fronted him and wanted him to account for that.

The charges ranged from accusing Arnold of stealing £160 that he captured on one of the British ships to the inane, like paying too much for a horse, not accepting that one might pay more for items in a military emergency that when one is bargaining in a normal market.  They also disallowed paying a carpenter for building gun carriages, since he could have had his soldiers (who had no particular carpenter skills or tools) build them on their own.  In many cases, they simply did not pay because there were no receipts.  Arnold had accounted for his expenses in a ledger, but apparently had not gotten a slip of paper from the person he paid.

In the end, the Church Committee paid about two-thirds of his expenses, leaving Arnold on the hook for over £300, much more than most men earned in a year.  Rather than thank him for his heroic work, the committee humiliated Arnold and treated him like some sort of scam artist.  Especially given the fact that his wife had just died, he had three young boys at home, and that his shipping business was also destroyed as a result of the war, many men probably would have quit the war at that point.  Arnold could have gone home to make a fortune as a privateer.  Instead though, he offered his services to Washington for a new dangerous mission.

Forming an Army

While getting through the hearings, Arnold worked to assemble his army from volunteers in the area around Boston.  Many soldiers were eager for an active mission after sitting in camp for months doing little.

Two New England officers Lt. Cols, Christopher Green and Roger Enos would lead the two battalions of New England volunteers.  They hand picked men from many different units, looking for large men with wilderness and boating experience.  Included in the detachment were a company of Pennsylvania rifleman commanded by Capt. Matthew Smith and two companies of Virginia rifleman commanded by Capt. Daniel Morgan.

The riflemen were all frontiersmen used to wilderness conditions.  Smith had been one of the Paxton Boys, accused of murdering innocent Indians in central Pennsylvania near the end of the French and Indian War (see Episode 19).  Morgan, who would later rise to General, had left his home in New Jersey as a young boy to start his life on the Virginia frontier.  He served as a young Wagoneer, along with his cousin Daniel Boone, during General Braddock’s Battle of the Monongahela at the beginning of the French and Indian War (see Episode 6).  Morgan had assisted other young officers like Washington, Lee, and Gage who helped the army retreat after Braddock was killed.  Morgan went on to serve with the British during the war, but his rough frontier ways never really meshed.  He once got 500 lashes for striking an officer, though he always complained that they only gave him 499 and that the King still owed him a lash.  He was also a longtime Indian fighter, and had several disfiguring scars to prove it.

A young volunteer named Aaron Burr also joined the battalion.  Burr came from a good New Jersey family, which meant he did not simply want to serve as an enlisted man, but neither could he get an officer’s commission.  So instead, he joined as a gentleman volunteer to assist the army.


Arnold was always in a hurry to move forward on a mission.  There were good reasons for speed in this case.  Arnold wanted to get his men through most of the march before winter set in.  He hoped to make use of rivers and ponds to move most of the heavy equipment and supplies.  There were no wagon roads through this wilderness.  Once winter came and the water froze, it would become much more difficult.  Also by early August, Gen. Montgomery was already besieging St. Jean, once that fell, he would quickly move on Montreal and then Quebec.  If things went well for Montgomery, the fighting could be over before Arnold arrived.

Arnold did not receive his Continental commission until September 8.  Until then, he could not sign any contracts for the mission.  He needed shipbuilders to make the batteaux for his men to port their equipment over the water.  He also needed food, clothing, and munitions.  Another delay came when his soldiers refused to leave before receiving back pay.  If they were going to be gone all winter, they needed to send money to their families.  The force finally began to move in late September.

Fort Western as it looks today (from Tripadvisor)
The first step in the journey would be to ship the men up the coast to Fort Western, present day Augusta, Maine.  From there, the men would move up the Kennebec River.  Arnold optimistically thought his men could make the estimated 180 mile wilderness march from Fort Western to Quebec in 20 days.  Part of this was based on maps he had from the French and Indian War.  The map he had though, were inaccurate.  British mapmakers often altered unclassified copies of military maps so that they would not be useful to an enemy.  That was the case with these maps.

Arnold hired a local mapmaker and surveyor to make sure the route was good.  Unfortunately, the man he hired was a loyalist who deliberately altered routes and distances to cause trouble for Arnold and his men.  Arnold also attempted to hire local Abenaki Indians to serve as guides for the army.  Washington, however, forbade the use of any Indians for the mission.  So from the beginning, Arnold’s mission was being misled, misinformed, and misguided.

To get to the launching point, Arnold had to march his men to Newburyport.  From there, he planned to ferry them the 90 miles to Fort Western via a small fleet of ships.  Fortunately, even though Gen. Gage had received intelligence that the Continental Army was sending 1500 men up the coast to Canada, Admiral Graves refused to send out his fleet to stop them.  If he had, he might easily have captured the colonials at sea and ended the expedition before it even got started.

A few miles downriver from Fort Western, Arnold met up with Reuben Colburn, the contractor he had hired to build 200 batteaux for his army to move upriver.  Colburn had slapped together 200 boats, but most were smaller than promised.  More of an issue was the fact he had used green pine, which would continue to shrink over the next few weeks, leaving huge holes in the boats.  There was properly aged wood available to make the boats, but that would have been more expensive and cut into his profits.  He had only promised to deliver 200 boats.  He didn’t promise they wouldn’t sink a few days after launch.

Beyond the shoddy construction of the boats, which almost destroyed the expedition, Colburn had recommended the loyalist mapmaker who had deliberately sabotaged the maps for the expedition.  Colburn also sent out scouts who reported false information to Arnold about the British in Quebec having sent out a detachment to intercept Arnold, and that Abenaki Indians had agreed to assist the British and set up an ambush.  Arnold decided to ignore this intelligence, which turned out to be false.

Reproduction of a Revolutionary War era Batteaux
(from The Rucker Family Society)
Arnold and his men were not happy about the poor quality of the boats, but also did not have time to fight about it.  He began sending his scouts upriver in the best boats while his men work to patch those that were not yet seaworthy.  Arnold made Colburn come along with the army to continue fixing the boats while en route.

It was probably no consolation to Arnold, but the government never paid for the boats, not because of the workmanship, but because the government lost the receipts.  After finding them decades later, the government refused to pay because too much time had passed.  Colburn and his family kept up the fight for 80 years but never got paid.

While Arnold was working to get his army into the boats and moving upriver, many of the men got into trouble around town, looting Tory homes, getting drunk, and fighting.  Washington had ordered Arnold to stay on good terms with all the locals, as they were hoping the French, and possibly some Indian tribes might support them.

So, Arnold had to put aside other work to hold courts martial, flogging and demoting several soldiers, and even discharging one.  One man who accidentally shot another was sentenced to death.  At the last minute, Arnold granted the man a reprieve and sent him back to Cambridge.  I’m not sure he did the man any favors.  While imprisoned at Cambridge, the man became sick and died after suffering a terrible illness.

By the end of September, Arnold was ready to move his full army upriver.  He had assigned each company of riflemen to a brigade so they could act as scouts.  Capt. Morgan objected, saying the riflemen were an independent command who were not required to take orders from regimental officers.  Rather than fight the matter, Arnold uncharacteristically compromised, making each rifle company an independent command that would provide scouting assistance and intelligence to each brigade, but not actually be part of the brigade. A few years later, Morgan would command the independent riflemen, known as Morgan’s Rangers, the forerunners of the US Army Rangers that are part of modern day special forces.

Moving up the Kennebec River

Despite Washington’s concerns, Arnold also got several Abenaki Indians to serve as guides for the Army.  Arnold himself got a fast moving canoe so that he could quickly move back and forth between the front and back of his Army, which extended for miles along the river.  Some men marched along the riverbank while other polled the batteaux up the river with all of their supplies.  Colonial settlements along the coast only extended about 50 miles inland.  Beyond that, his army would be travelling through wilderness occupied only by Indian tribes.

American forces advance on Quebec
(from Wikimedia)
Summer droughts had left the water levels on the river much lower than normal, often making it difficult for the boats to avoid running aground.  Often, the men would have to get out of the boats and wade through the water, pulling the boats behind them, in order to get through shallow areas. There were also numerous areas where rapids or waterfalls forced the men to pull their boats on land and carry them for miles, sometimes over mountains.  Each boat, unloaded weighed several hundred pounds, meaning it would take a group of men at hard labor to carry each boat, and even more to carry the cargo.

It also did not help that by October, the summer droughts gave way to cold driving rain.  The men continued moving upriver through drenching rain.  They would often sleep in their wet clothes only to wake up in the morning and find they clothes they were wearing had frozen solid, making it difficult to move.

After eight days, the army had only moved about 50 miles.  Despite the maps and surveys indicating a 180 mile trip, the journey would be over 300 miles.  There was no way they would arrive in 20 days as Arnold had hoped.  Arnold had taken with him 45 days of supplies in order to be safe.  However, it turned out that the rain and leaky boats had caused much of the food to get wet and spoil.  They had to throw away most of it.  They also wasted another week patching and repairing more problems with the boats.

Down the Dead River

After reaching the Great Carrying Place at the headwaters of the Kennebec River, the Army had to carry their boats and provisions about 14 miles over the mountains to the Dead River.  This process took another week.  As you might guess, the backbreaking work, terrible weather, and poor rations soon lead to many men getting sick or injured and unable to continue.  Arnold decided to build a small cabin at the Great Carrying Place to hold the sick and wounded, as well as some provisions.

Arnold continued to report that morale was high.  He may have been exaggerating, but Arnold seemed to be making every effort to lift the men’s spirits.  He remained popular with the men, always moving among them and encouraging them on.

They hoped the trip might get easier now that they would be travelling downriver, but no.  The rains got even worse, as they got hit by the remnants of a hurricane moving up the coast.   While moving down the river rains caused the river to rise 12 feet in one day.  The flooding scattered men and cargo all down the river, which took even more time to recover.  Already short on food, they lost even more of it in the floods.  The land became swampy and mud soaked.  On top of all that, several hundred men drank some of the swamp water and became terribly sick with diarrhea. 

Despite Arnold’s efforts, many were beginning to wonder if they could ever make it to Quebec.  On October 23, Arnold held a council of war with his officers to discuss proceeding.  Arnold left no question that he wanted to move forward.  The officers agreed that they would send back a few of the men to sick or invalid to go on, but that they would continue forward in hopes of completing the mission.  Arnold would take the lead with 50 of his best men, looking for the best route forward and correcting the many errors they were finding with their maps.


After Arnold moved forward with his advance force, Col. Enos the head of one brigade called another Council of War without Arnold being present.  He argued that there was no way they could continue.  They were nearly out of food and had not found much of any game for hunting.  Even in the unlikely event they did not suffer any more setbacks, they simply did not have enough food or supplies to reach Quebec before they starved.  Col. Greene disagreed and said he would not abandon Arnold in the wilderness.  In the end, Enos turned back with about one third of the entire army and more than one half of the supplies.

Arnold did not find out about the defection for several days.  Although he was clearly furious, he attempted not to show his temper in front of the men.  Now, even if the remaining force made it to Quebec, they would not have enough soldiers to take the town unless Schuyler’s army, still stuck besieging St. Jean, joined them.

Starving Time

By the end of October, Arnold’s advance force had found a passage across to the Canadian border.  His forces were so spread out though, that guides could not get word back to all the units.  Several got mired trying to move through a swamp.

As food even for reduced rations ran out, the men became desperate.  They ate a dog belonging to one of the officers.  Many tried boiling the animal skins they had in their boats, trying to make a sort of broth to drink.  Men began to collapse and fall out of the column.  Arnold gave orders that any man who collapsed would be left behind.  They no longer had the strength to carry the sick or provide them with any food.

One man who fell behind was Private John Warner, a Pennsylvania rifleman.  The only thing unusual about his story was that his wife, Jemima, was with him and had accompanied the army through all of its difficulties.  Jemima fell out of the column to find her husband.  After he died a few hours later, the 17 year old girl took his rifle and caught up with the army.  Although half the men had turned back, Jemima would continue to press forward.

Entering Canada

Finally, by November 1, most of the army had found Arnold’s path into Canada.  Within a day or two, they came across several cattle, which they killed and devoured.  Arnold paid the local French owner for the value of his livestock.

By November 3, the remaining 675 soldiers stumbled into the French Canadian town of Sartigan.  Locals were shocked by the condition of the men, starving, wearing rags for clothes, long beards, and unwashed.  They fed the army, which spent several days recuperating.  Everyone rested except Arnold.  He spent the next few days preparing for the final leg of the journey to Quebec.

- - -

Next Episode 77: Dunmore Proclamation and the Southern War

Previous Episode 75: Continental Congress Autumn 1775

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Further Reading


Arnold Marches on Quebec:

Randall, Willard "March On Quebec" American Heritage Fall 2008, Vol. 58,  Issue 5

Randall, Willard "Why Benedict Arnold Did It" American Heritage Sept/Oct 1990, Vol. 41,  Issue 6:

Aaron Burr:

Daniel Morgan:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Codman, John Arnold’s Expedition To Quebec,  New York, MacMillan Co., 1901.

Dearborn, Henry Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn in the Quebec expedition, 1775, Cambridge: University Press, 1886.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 2, Washington: Peter Force, 1837.

Henry, John J. An accurate and interesting account of the hardships and sufferings of that band of heroes, who traversed the wilderness in the campaign against Quebec in 1775,  Lancaster: William Greer, 1812.

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 5,  Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887

Meigs, Return Journal of the expedition against Quebec: under command of Col. Benedict Arnold, in the year 1775, (Charles Bushnell, ed) New York: (Private Publisher) 1864.

Melvin, Andrew (ed) The journal of James Melvin, private soldier in Arnold's expedition against Quebec in the year 1775,  Portland, ME: Hubbard W. Bryant, 1902.

Smith, Justin Arnold's march from Cambridge to Quebec, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1903.

Stocking, Abner An interesting journal of Abner Stocking of Chatham, Connecticut, detailing the distressing events of the expedition against Quebec, under the command of Col. Arnold in the year 1775, Catskill, NY: Eagle Office, 1810 (reprint 1921).

Thayer, Simeon & Edwin Stone The invasion of Canada in 1775: including the Journal of Captain Simeon Thayer, describing the perils and sufferings of the army under Colonel Benedict Arnold, in its march through the wilderness to Quebec, Providence: Knowles Anthony & Co. 1867.

Winsor, Justin (ed) Arnold's expedition against Quebec. 1775-1776: The Diary of Ebenezer Wild, Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, 1886.

Withington, Lothrop (ed) Caleb Haskell's diary. May 5, 1775-May 30, 1776. A revolutionary soldier's record before Boston and with Arnold's Quebec expedition, Newburyport: W.H. Huse, 1881.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2016.

Darley, Stephen Voices from a Wilderness Expedition: The Journals and Men of Benedict Arnold's Expedition to Quebec in 1775, Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse,  2011

Desjardin, Thomas A. Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.

Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. Benedict Arnold's Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War, El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2008.

Martin, James Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero, New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, New York: Viking Penguin, 2012.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

York, Mark Patriot on the Kennebec: Major Reuben Colburn, Benedict Arnold and the March to Quebec, 1775, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012 (book recommendation of the week).

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