Arnold's March to Quebec

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Arnold's March to Quebec

ARNOLD'S MARCH TO QUEBEC. 13 September-9 November 1775. The forces Congress had ordered to invade Canada were already advancing north along the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River corridor when General Washington took steps in late August 1775 to increase the invasion's chances for success by launching a second expedition against Canada from his army at Cambridge. The proposed route up the Kennebec River and down the Chaudière to Quebec was well known. British engineer John Montresor had mapped and described it in 1761, making it seem a feasible avenue of approach, and Colonel Jonathan Brewer of Massachusetts had proposed using it in May 1775 to threaten Quebec. Washington and Benedict Arnold were aware of its difficulties, especially in winter, but agreed that the risks were worth taking. With winter approaching, it was essential to organize the expedition quickly. On 21 August, Arnold spoke with Reuben Colburn, a Kennebec boatbuilder who happened to be in Cambridge, about furnishing two hundred light bateaux that could be carried across the many portages that turned the series of lakes and rivers into an invasion route. Having carefully weighed the risks, on 3 September, Washington gave Colburn orders to build the bateaux, and two days later he issued in his general orders a call for volunteers.


Arnold's force of about 1,100 men consisted of three components. Captain Daniel Morgan led three companies of riflemen, his own Virginians and the Pennsylvania companies of William Hendricks and Matthew Smith. Ten New England companies were divided into two battalions, the first led by Lieutenant Colonel Roger Enos and Major Return Jonathan Meigs, both from Connecticut, and including the companies of Thomas Williams, Henry Dearborn, Oliver Hanchet, William Goodrich, and a man known only as Scott. The second battalion was led by Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Greene from Rhode Island and Major Timothy Bigelow from Massachusetts, with the companies of Samuel Ward Jr., Simeon Thayer, John Topham, Jonas Hubbard, and Samuel McCobb. A detachment of fifty artificers, led by Captain Colburn, joined the expedition on the Kennebec. The staff included surgeon Isaac Senter, a surgeon's mate and two assistants, two adjutants, brigade major Christian Febiger, two quartermasters, and chaplain Samuel Spring. Five men accompanied the expedition as volunteers: Aaron Burr, Matthias Ogden, Eleazer Oswald, Charles Porterfield, and John McGuire.

Although Washington's general orders specified that the volunteers should be "active woodsmen and well acquainted with batteaus," only the riflemen had experience in extended outdoor living; the New Englanders were mostly farmers with little knowledge of the wilderness or of boats. While all the riflemen were eager volunteers, Washington had taken the precaution to order a draft if a sufficient number of New Englanders did not volunteer; in the event, compulsion did not have to be invoked. Just before the expedition was to leave Cambridge, however, some men refused to march until Washington gave them a month's advance pay. And in a not uncommon display of intercolonial rivalries, the captains of the riflemen refused to serve under Greene, a Rhode Islander, forcing Arnold to keep the riflemen together in a single division.


The riflemen led the march from Cambridge on 11 September, with the last companies of the force departing two days later. At Newburyport on 19 September the men boarded eleven coastal sloops and schooners and reached Gardinerstown, on the Kennebec below Fort Western, three days later, where Arnold found two hundred bateaux waiting. For Colburn, who had had eighteen days to build the bateaux after receiving Washington's order on the 3rd, it was a remarkable achievement, but the boats suffered from the speed of their construction. Made of green lumber (the only material available), many were poorly constructed and smaller than specified. Arnold accepted the boats, having no alternative, and ordered another twenty to be built. Colburn had also assembled flour and meat for the expedition and was able to furnish information about the route. His two scouts, Getchell and Berry, had gone as far as the Dead River and returned with ominous news that the British appeared to expect an invasion from this direction.

On 24 September, two reconnaissance parties left Fort Western (later Augusta, Maine) and started up the Kennebec, followed on succeeding days by the riflemen, Greene with three companies, and Meigs with four companies. Arnold set out with two companies on the 29th, followed by Enos with one company. The column took two days to cover the first eighteen miles to Fort Halifax. The first significant portage was at Ticonic Falls, where the four-hundred-pound bateaux and about sixty-five tons of matériel were carried half a mile. Then came Five Mile Ripples (or Falls), the dangerous half-mile approach to Skowhegan Falls, the falls themselves, the Bombazee Rips, and the three Norridgewock Falls. To this point, the expedition had passed through a region dotted with settlements where some supplies and assistance could be procured; thereafter, the route was through the wilderness until they were well down the Chaudière into Canada. Having spent three days passing Norridgewock Falls, repairing their badly battered boats, and finding many provisions already spoiled by water, on 9 October the column pushed on to Curritunk Falls, the next major portage. On 11 October, Arnold and an advance element reached the Great Carrying Place, where eight miles of portage and four miles of rowing across three ponds took the expedition to the Dead River (the west branch of the Kennebec). Thirty miles of rowing up the Dead River took the men to the four-mile carry across the Height of Land that separated the watersheds of the Kennebec and the Chaudière, and then to a treacherous stream that meandered through swamps to Lake Megantic.

For many days before reaching the Great Carrying Place, it was apparent that the expedition faced hazards that had not been foreseen. First, no experienced woodsman would have considered the route passable for bateaux, particularly in winter. Second, Arnold had miscalculated the length of his march and food was running out. Finally, the weather was against them: at the outset it had been cold enough to take a toll on men who spent days struggling in the water to manhandle the boats past obstacles in the rivers, but the temperature dropped further, and continuous, heavy rains started falling. On Dead River on 21 October they were struck by a hurricane of historic proportions that swelled the river from sixty to two hundred yards in width.


Morgan's riflemen were continuously in the van, except for 16-17 October, when they allowed Greene's three companies to take the lead, perhaps in order to pilfer flour from the New Englanders; Arnold ordered Morgan to stay at the head of the column thereafter. Greene's men had to camp and await resupply from the provisions supposed to be with Enos's three companies, which were bringing up the rear. The four companies of Meigs's third division followed Morgan, but when Enos caught up with Greene on 25 October, Arnold ordered these two commanders to send on only those men who could be given fifteen days' provisions and to send back the sick. After a council of war on the 26th, Greene's men staggered on toward Quebec with a meager two and a half barrels of flour from Enos's stocks, whereas Enos started to the rear with about three hundred men from his own division plus stragglers and the sick from the other divisions. They reached the settlement at Brunswick fifteen days later. On 1 December 1775 a court-martial acquitted Enos of the charge of "quitting his commanding officer without leave." In April 1776 Major General John Sullivan defended Enos on the grounds that Arnold and his seven hundred men could not have gone on without the provisions sent forward from the last division, and Brigadier General William Heath joined twenty-four other field officers in a testimonial that Enos deserved "applause rather than censure" (Freeman, vol. 3, p. 574n). But many of Enos's contemporaries judged his defection "cowardly." He left the Continental service in January 1776 and served thereafter in the Connecticut and Vermont militias.


Up the flooded Dead River, over four and a half miles of portage to Seven Mile Stream, the gaunt survivors then floundered through icy swamps to find Lake Megantic. When Arnold's main body assembled on the Chaudière on 31 October, they had only a few bateaux left, several having been wrecked in the dangerous rapids and falls of this last river. "Our greatest luxuries now consisted of a little water, stiffened with flour," wrote Senter on 1 November. They killed and ate Captain Dearborn's pet Newfoundland dog that had hitherto survived the hazards of the wilderness. "Nor did the shaving soap, pomatum, and even the lip salve, leather of their shoes, cartridge boxes, etc., share any better fate." Arnold forged ahead with an advance party to the Canadian settlements and sent back provisions that reached his men on 2 November.

At St. Mary's the expedition left the river and marched north to reach the St. Lawrence at Point Levis, opposite Quebec, on 9 November 1775. Within a day, the aggressive Arnold had found Indian canoes and dugouts, acquired supplies of flour, and had the men prepare scaling ladders. He was ready to cross the mile-wide St. Lawrence, which was full of British naval craft, but the attempt was delayed by a gale that lasted until the 13th. Owing to the shortage of boats, only three-quarters of the small force got across the first night. The rest crossed the second night, bringing the scaling ladders. Arnold led them onto the Plains of Abraham, but since the British were alert to the American presence, he wisely decided against attempting an assault on Quebec. In a truly remarkable operation, Arnold had started from Fort Western with 1,100 men and led them in 45 days across 350 miles of wilderness to arrive at the gates of Quebec in midwinter. There was enough fight left in the 675 survivors to push across the St. Lawrence and throw Quebec's 1,200 defenders into considerable consternation. But Arnold's force could do no more than blockade Quebec from the land side until 2 December, when Brigadier General Richard Montgomery arrived from upriver with 300 better-supplied American troops, the remnant of the force that had invaded Canada via the Champlain-Richelieu route.


Justin Smith says 1,050 men left Cambridge, about 50 men (Colburn's carpenters) joined on the Kennebec, and Arnold drew clothing for 675 survivors on 5 December. Ward found it "incredible that no more than 55 were lost." (The original 1,100 men minus the 675 survivors, minus the 300 men with Enos, minus the 70 men evacuated from Dead River, would leave 55 men dead, deserted, or turned back as escorts with the invalids.) "It seems probable that the arrivals were not much more than half of the original party," according to Christopher Ward (p. 450n). The surviving journals, twenty of which were edited by Kenneth Roberts, give ample testimony to the hardships endured by the expedition, but historians have noted with some skepticism the ability of men to keep a record of their suffering. Ward has written: "Probably no other expedition of similar length made by so few men has produced so many contemporary records" (p. 448).

SEE ALSO Bateau; Burr, Aaron; Canada Invasion; Council of War; Febiger, Christian ("Old Denmark"); Montresor, John; Quebec (Canada Invasion); Senter, Isaac.


Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography, Vol. 3: Planter and Patriot. 7 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951.

Hatch, Robert McConnell. Thrust for Canada: The American Invasion of 1775–1776. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Martin, James K. Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Roberts, Kenneth, ed. March to Quebec: Journals of the Members of Arnold's Expedition. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940.

Smith, Justin H. Arnold's March to Quebec: A Critical Study. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1903.

―――――――. Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada, and the American Revolution. 2 vols. New York and London: G. P. Putman's Sons, 1907.

Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John Richard Alden. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

                             revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Arnold's March to Quebec

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