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“Colonel [Benedict] Arnold’s March does him great Honor. Some future Historian will make It the Subject of Admiration to his Readers.”
— General Philip Schuyler to John Hancock, November 22, 1775.(1)
This is the true story of a bold plan organized by General George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, to capture the fortress city of Quebec, the capital of British-held Canada and the key to controlling much of the interior of North America. Washington selected Colonel Benedict Arnold to lead the mission, which was launched in the opening months of the American Revolution.
At the time, martial exhilaration gripped the colonists, who expected a short war and an easy reconciliation with their king and his government. Arnold’s secret expedition began in this mood of military exuberance. Washington’s plan called for Arnold to lead a fast-moving volunteer force to Quebec through the Maine district of Massachusetts into Canada, where they would burst from the woods to surprise the city’s unsuspecting garrison. This audacious mission was part of a larger American plan aimed at bringing Canada into the revolution on the side of the rebels as the fourteenth colony. The expedition, through the uncharted forests and wild rivers of Maine, by men and women who performed extraordinary, unselfish acts for the patriot cause, made them and their intrepid commander, Benedict Arnold, among the first heroes of the American Revolution.
In April 1775, at the start of the American Revolution, there were two substantial British forces in North America. The larger of the two—about 4,000 soldiers under the command of General Thomas Gage—was stationed in Boston. These men found themselves encircled by a large force of American militia, headquartered in nearby Cambridge and called the Provincial Army of Observation, whose officers reported to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Gage’s force was too weak to break out of Boston, and although the rebels had many more troops (estimated at 17,000), they did not possess sufficient artillery to force the British out.
Guy Carleton, the royal governor of Canada, commanded the second sizable British force in America—roughly 900 troops concentrated at Quebec and Montreal, the only cities in Canada at the time.(2) Carleton had too few troops to defend his vast colony and could not expect any reinforcements until the spring of 1776. He worried over the loyalty of Canada’s civilian population: Canada had been a British colony for only twelve years, and the allegiance of its predominately French-Canadian population of 100,000 was untested.(3)
The governor also grew anxious about the New England businessmen who had flocked to Canada after the French formally ceded the colony to Britain in 1763. Carleton knew that many of these estimated 2,000 recent immigrants sympathized with the rebellion. But he also had some formidable assets upon which he could draw. One resource was his colony’s large Indian population, which had been well treated by the British and could be counted upon to carry out devastating raids along the frontiers of the rebellious colonies.(4)
Ample evidence of this could be found during the 150-year French occupation of Canada, when the French successfully led ruthless Indian attacks against English frontier settlements in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Carleton was ready to repeat their grisly success. The weather and time were another asset for Canada’s British defenders; the extreme cold and deep snow of the long Canadian winters made military campaigning impractical for much of the year.
Carleton made his headquarters in a mansion in Quebec, the walled city recognized as the key to controlling Canada that competed with Montreal as the province’s commercial center. Quebec, whose name literally means “the place where the river narrows,” was perched on a commanding hilltop that towered above the St. Lawrence River. When the British captured Quebec in 1759, they appreciated the fortress city’s strategic importance and used it as their provincial capital.
Since there were few roads in colonial America, most travel, especially the movement of bulky materials and goods, occurred by water. The extensive natural network of connecting navigable rivers and lakes made travel by water in North America relatively fast, comfortable, and safe. Commerce, settlement, and military activity followed the course of the continent’s waterways. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution, there was an established water transportation network linking the Hudson, St. Lawrence, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers to one another that made travel possible between such widely separated places as Quebec, Montreal, Albany, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and New Orleans.(5) Fortifications previously built at a number of strategic positions along these inland water routes included formidable gun batteries at Quebec to control the movement of ships on the St. Lawrence River.
The rivers and lakes that comprised the main water highway between New York City and Montreal are important to our story. Using the example of travelers starting from New York City, the first part of the journey was 150 miles up the broad Hudson River in one of the many oceangoing ships or river packets that regularly sailed between lower Manhattan Island and the river port city of Albany, New York, where goods and passengers were offloaded for the 65-mile trip north to Lake George.(6) If the water level of the upper Hudson River were high enough, passengers and freight bound for Montreal could switch to boats at Albany and follow the river an additional 45 miles north as far as Fort Edward, New York, where they continued via a crude road to the southern shore of Lake George.
Everything, including the boats, traveled along this road on carts pulled by teams of oxen and horses to Lake George, the location of Fort William Henry, built by the British during the French and Indian War. The boats were put back into the water at Lake George and reloaded for the 32-mile trip down the lake. The lake empties into a two-mile-long series of rapids called the La Chute River that connects Lake George with Lake Champlain. The La Chute is impassable for boats, and everything had to be carried around it on a road that went by Fort Ticonderoga, which guarded the strategic portage. Once past the La Chute, the journey continued north by boat on Wood Creek, then on to 100-mile-long Lake Champlain, which for more than a century served as “the great thoroughfare of war-parties.”(7) Lake Champlain flows north and empties into the Richelieu River (also called the Sorel River), which in turn runs north to the St. Lawrence. There was one set of rapids on the Richelieu that had to be portaged. This portage was defended by Fort St. John on its south end and Fort Chambly on its north end. Once on the broad St. Lawrence, travelers could proceed west to Montreal and the Great Lakes or east to Quebec.
The Indians regularly traveled the Hudson River-Lake George-Lake Champlain-Richelieu River inland water route long before the arrival of Europeans, and the warring French and British armies used it for almost 100 years prior to the start of the American Revolution in their bids to gain control of North America. Immigrants flocked to the corridor, attracted by its fertile lands and access to markets via the region’s rivers and lakes. However, because of the various portages, the route was not practical for large cargos such as grain, timber, and livestock, which were transported by ocean-going ships from New England coastal ports via the St. Lawrence River to Quebec and Montreal. Among the New England seamen who sailed this route was a wealthy, sharp-witted New Haven merchant named Benedict Arnold.
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Although the following narrative is not about Benedict Arnold, the story of the 1775 American invasion of Canada cannot adequately be told without an understanding of its leader. Therefore, I have included a history of Arnold’s life prior to the assault against Quebec. Only by knowing Arnold—a controversial, contentious, and wholly inexperienced officer—can we fully comprehend the successes and failures of the campaign, and appreciate George Washington’s acumen in appointing the young man to lead such an important mission.
Washington’s faith in Arnold paid off, as Arnold proved to be one of American’s best combat officers until his betrayal of the patriot cause in 1780. When the twice-wounded Arnold begged Washington for the command of West Point in June of that year, the general could not refuse his friend’s request. Telling Washington that he needed the sedentary assignment to recover his health, Arnold’s real interest in overseeing the strategic post was to use it to barter with the British for money and a senior position in the British army. Fortunately, Arnold’s nefarious plot was discovered at the last moment. However, Arnold managed to escape capture and spent the rest of the war as a British general, avenging the insults he felt he had suffered at the hands of his former countrymen.
Early historians of the Revolution, many of whom lived through the emotionally charged conflict, called Arnold an unprincipled traitor “who would be received in hell riveted in chains.”(8) The trend today is to treat him more compassionately, as a “troubled officer who felt deeply betrayed by the cause he had so eagerly tried to serve.”(9) This assessment is correct; Arnold’s truculent personality made him few friends in the army or in government.(10)
While the early historians of the Revolution portrayed Arnold as a “treacherous soul . . . a tarnished blot that nature made,” they had to explain his contributions to the American patriot cause, including his command of the Arnold Expedition.(11) Historian Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) handled the problem neatly by characterizing Arnold as “a young soldier of fortune, who held in equal contempt both danger and principle.”(12) However, many other early American chroniclers found a more plausible explanation for Arnold’s behavior—his love of money. They correctly pointed out that when Arnold turned traitor in 1780 he was deep in debt, due partially to his lavish lifestyle, and they described how British agents tempted him with a large cash bounty in exchange for his complicity.
Thomas Paine was the first to voice the money theme to explain Arnold’s treachery. In his pamphlet The Crisis Extraordinary, published in October 1780—just one month after Arnold’s duplicity was uncovered—Paine called the former American general “a desperado, whose whole life has been a life of jobbs; and where either plunder or profit was the object, no danger deterred, no principle restrained him. . . . The early convulsion of the times [the first years of the American Revolution] afforded him an introduction into life, to the elegance of which he was before a stranger.”(13)
Historian David Ramsay also used money to rationalize Arnold’s transformation from American patriot to traitor. Writing in 1789, Ramsay said of Arnold, “His love of pleasure produced the love of money, and that extinguished all sensibility to the obligations of honor and duty. . . . In these circumstances, a change of sides afforded the only hope of replenishing his exhausted coffers.”(14)
The rationale of Arnold’s greed also appeared in Hannah Adams’ 1799 history, in which she conveniently explained that Arnold’s “taste for parade and extravagant living had deeply involved him in debt, and his necessities induced him to desert the American cause.”(15)
The story of Arnold’s childhood fit perfectly into the theme of someone desperate for financial gain. Thomas Paine accurately described Arnold’s youth when he said, “He was born into a respected family of wealth and honor which was lost during his childhood leaving him with dishonor and poverty.”
Modern-day historians recognize that the reasons for Benedict Arnold’s treason are more complicated than the neat, patriotic-inspired tales of greed put forth by the early chroniclers of the American Revolution. In telling the story of the American assault on Quebec, I attempt to trace the development of Arnold’s aggressive behavior, obsession with honor, lack of diplomacy, and inexperience in politics that eventually came together to consume and destroy him.