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March On Quebec

May 2024
6min read

Dorchester Heights, Boston, September 3, 1775

On that dusty gray Sunday morning, Benedict Arnold, a newly commissioned Colonel in the Continental Army, accompanied his Commander in Chief, George Washington, and reviewed the 16,000 troops laying siege to British-held Boston. Riding a big chestnut horse and resplendent in the scarlet uniform he had designed, the forceful Arnold called for volunteers willing to undertake a bold and dangerous mission: he had persuaded Washington that, if they could move quickly, Quebec City could be taken before the British could bring reinforcement from England. He would only need independent authority and 1,000 men for a surprise attack on the enemy stronghold through the Maine woods. Men volunteered in droves.

For the march on Quebec, Arnold was inventing a new kind of unit: a light infantry regiment specially adapted to amphibious raids. During the French and Indian War, Robert Rogers’ famous Rangers had conducted long-range scouts and raids across lakes, rivers, and mountains, but, living off the land, had not had to deal with the logistics of transporting substantial supplies. For all except the Rangers and small Indian raiding parties, the dense backwoods of northern New England had acted as an effective barrier to overland travel between the colonies and Canada. During that war, the total absence of roads and scarcity of trails, ineffective maps, and a topography tortured by glaciers had forced the British to launch most attacks on French Canada by sea. Even if everything went right—and things would go horribly wrong—Arnold’s plan of marching and paddling 400 miles seemed next to impossible.

But Arnold was a man who embraced long odds. In joint command with Ethan Allen, he had captured Fort Ticonderoga in a daring early morning assault, then sailed up Lake Champlain and seized several British ships and a fort at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. From captured dispatches, he knew there were only 750 redcoats in all Canada.

Slimming the mass of volunteers to 1,080 men, Arnold dispatched a courier ahead to Gardiner, Maine, to commission shipwright Reuben Colburn to build 200 lightweight bateaux. From surveyor Samuel Goodrich he ordered maps for his battalion commanders, all unknowing that both men were loyalists opposed to the Revolution.

To make the maps, Arnold relied on the travel diary of British Engineer Capt. John André, who had accompanied the British march down the Kennebec from Quebec Province during the French and Indian War. As was the custom of the time, André had created two diaries: one accurate, the other bogus, to throw off any enemy using it. Arnold had somehow acquired the wrong one.

The drive on Quebec hit snags from the outset, and bureaucratic entanglements delayed departure for more than two weeks. Finally, under a heavy fog, Arnold threaded his makeshift fleet by night through the British blockade toward Maine. He soon learned to his dismay that a summerlong drought had all but dried up the Kennebec, exposing rocks and shoals. Instead of sailing upriver to Gardiner, his force would have to march along the riverbank, laboriously lining their overloaded canoes around the river’s multiple hazards.

At Colburn’s shipyards he received yet another shock—a meadow full of badly built bateaux, created from heavy, wet, green planks that would shrink over their even heavier oak frames, leaving open wide fissures to the water. These hastily-constructed, undersized, and overweight boats would have to be worked through 350 miles of rough water and portages on a route that would turn out to be 200 miles longer than Arnold’s maps indicated. Three more days went to caulking the boats and building 20 replacements.

Leaves were already turning and temperatures plunging before Arnold could finally shove off on September 27. On every portage it took four men to carry each empty bateau, which dug hard into their shoulders as they scrambled uphill over thickly wooded dirt paths and around high waterfalls.

At Skowhegan the soldiers bullied the boats up a three-mile slope while teams of men marched alongside, bent under the weight of barrels and bearskin-wrapped bundles of provisions, covering only half the distance Arnold had anticipated. Most of the men had never poled a boat before, and so they waded and hauled the laden bateaux more than halfway up the river. One man wrote they could have been mistaken “for amphibious animals, as they were a great part of the time under water.” They slept on the ground in wet uniforms, their clothing “frozen a pane of glass thick.”

The next day Arnold ordered the boats ashore, emptied out the cargo, and sorted through the waterlogged supplies. The planks had leaked, the barrels filling with water. Salted meat and cod had begun to rot. Flour and peas had turned into a moldy paste. He stopped the expedition for eight days to make repairs—precious days that pushed the men further into the heart of winter.

At 4 a.m. on October 18, Arnold awakened as a wall of water roared through the river basin, stirred up by a West India hurricane. The river rose 12 feet, sweeping away most of the remaining food and gear. Seven boatloads of food, guns, gunpowder, and clothing were lost. Leaving “Camp Disaster,” he saw some of his men eating candles.

On October 23 Arnold called an emergency council of war. That evening he knelt in front of the headquarters fire, raising his voice to be heard above the sputtering and hissing of the wet firewood and the coughing of the score of miserable officers from his first two battalions. Those present would later remember Arnold’s eyes flashing as he acknowledged that the hardships were worse than anyone had imagined, the maps bad, and food dwindling to starvation point. Yet only one man had died, and although exhausted, the soldiers otherwise remained healthy. He continued his speech, powerfully outlining his case for pushing on to Canada, which he felt was feasible if remaining supplies were evenly divided and strictly rationed. In the face of such indomitable spirit and careful planning, the officers voted to continue the campaign.

Arnold issued a stream of orders—sending back the sick and weak, redistributing rations, and moving the strongest men forward. Runners headed downstream with orders for the second in command, Lt. Col. Roger Enos. Little did Arnold know, but Enos had called his own council of war, which had decided that the 350 men of the rear battalion would turn back to Massachusetts, taking with them most of the remaining provisions and all the medical supplies. When Arnold learned of Enos’s decision three days later, he flew into a rage.

Enos’s loss of nerve effectively dashed Arnold’s chances of taking Quebec by surprise. Bitterly disappointed, Arnold ordered his officers to abandon the remaining bateaux to conserve the men’s strength; they were now down to half a cup of flour a day, an ounce of pork, and broth made from bark. Arnold had to make a difficult decision. It was obvious that the maps had failed him and his force was likely to become hopelessly lost if not well guided. Yet his men would starve if their rations were not replenished. He decided he must go on and find food, judging it better to risk the main body becoming temporarily lost than for them to starve.

With several Indian guides and 15 soldiers, he paddled on toward Canada to seek food from the French settlements on the Chaudière River, covering 13 miles by 10 in the morning. Behind him, his men faced the dangerous mountainous borderlands called the Height of Land. The officers gave their morsels of pork to the men. Some took raw hides intended to make shoes, chopped them up, singed off the hair, boiled them, and wrung the juice into their canteens.

Day after day, what was left of Arnold’s proud little army struggled, the men often stripping naked and crossing unnamed frigid lakes and rivers with their clothes wrapped around rifles held over their heads. Heavy snowfalls were now common, and the exhausted men barely had the strength to kick aside the sodden ground cover and collapse in their soaked uniforms. When they finally crossed into Canada following the Chaudière toward Quebec, they found the bateaux of their advance party shattered and scattered along riverbanks after they had plunged over 20-foot waterfalls. Men had drowned or died when they could no longer be carried.

After eight miles of trudging on November 3, the regimental doctor stopped and rubbed his eyes at “a vision of horned cattle . . . three horned cattle and two horses.” Six days after racing ahead of his men and nearly losing his life in the falls, Arnold had sent back lifesaving livestock and supplies—along with the orders that anyone who had provisions left was to let the livestock pass to the rear, where the weakest lagged behind. Soon two birch-bark canoes appeared, laden with cornmeal, mutton for the sick, and even tobacco bought from the habitants. After the first real meal after many days, the restored army marched 20 miles, in all covering 30 before camping. That day and next, Arnold was in constant motion up and down the line, making sure all his men were fed.

At 10:30 p.m. on November 3, 1775, Arnold’s column, down to 675 of the 1,080 men who had left Cambridge 51 days earlier—nearly 40 percent of the army lost by death and desertion—reeled like drunkards into the first French settlement, their bare feet leaving bloodstains on the snowy riverbank. “Our clothes were torn in pieces by the bushes and hung in strings,” wrote one man. “Few of us had any shoes, but moccasins made of new skins—many of us without hats—and beards long and visages thin and meager. I thought we much resembled the animals which inhabit New Spain called the Ourang-outang.”

Benedict Arnold was too late to take the prime prize of Quebec, now heavily reinforced by Scottish Highlanders under veteran officers, but his arrival across the St. Lawrence from the walled city boosted American morale as news of the march of “that brave little army” reached Congress and was spread by newspapers.

Arnold’s report to Washington contained only praise for the men, no self-applause. The fact that only Enos’s force had turned back and that every other soldier had kept on to the objective or died trying to attested to Arnold’s triumphant leadership. He did not mention that he had personally covered the distance nearly three times, almost died when he narrowly missed shooting over the falls, or that he too was no less weak, bearded, and half-starved than those who had so steadily followed him.

The tribute that pleased Arnold the most came from just those men who had the most right to complain: “Our bold though inexperienced general discovered such firmness and zeal as inspired us with resolution,” wrote one private. “The hardships and fatigues he encountered, he accounted as nothing in comparison with the salvation of his country.”

George Washington’s verdict on the expedition must have rung bitterly five years later when Arnold had found another cause: “The merit of that officer is certainly great and I heartily wish that fortune may distinguish him.”

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