Canada Invasion

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Canada Invasion

CANADA INVASION. August 1775–October 1776. Although Ticonderoga's capture on 10 May 1775 opened the way for an American advance into Canada and Benedict Arnold warned the Continental Congress that the British were massing their forces at St. Johns, Congress did not respond with a decision to take offensive action until 27 June. Congress believed that the inhabitants of the "fourteenth colony" would join the resistance to the London authorities if only the occupying British garrison could be neutralized. Execution of the operation fell to Major General Philip Schuyler, who commanded the Continental army's forces in the province of New York. Unfortunately, they consisted only of four infantry regiments and one company of artillery that New York was in the process of raising, two regiments on their way from Connecticut in response, and a handful of miscellaneous units. One of the latter was the regiment to be raised from the Green Mountain Boys in modern Vermont, and Congress had only authorized it four days earlier. When all of the units assembled, Congress thought that Schuyler would have about five thousand men. But he also had to protect New York City and create from scratch the support structure to sustain an army.

Fortunately, Schuyler's considerable experience in the French and Indian War had been in the logistics of wilderness operations. So he set about creating the New York territorial department while dispatching his second in command, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, to take charge at Lake Champlain. This decision, which would be repeated several times during 1775, played to the two men's strength. Montgomery had retired from the British army a few years earlier and was an experienced combat veteran. After several false starts, he occupied Ile-aux-Noix on 4 September with twelve hundred raw troops and a small, heterogeneous fleet. Schuyler joined him there, but he had to go to the rear on the 16th when his health failed. Operations against strategic St. Johns from 5 September to 2 November 1775 dragged on much longer than the Americans expected. The fall of nearby Chambly on 18 October boosted morale. During this period Ethan Allen made his abortive attack on Montreal on 25 September. Although plagued with disciplinary problems, Montgomery pushed on to take Montreal on 13 November with only token resistance. Meanwhile, the start of Arnold's march to Quebec on 13 September opened a second front in the campaign.


Lieutenant General Guy Carleton's command in Canada reported directly to London and remained separate from that of Gage. He was also the civil governor of Canada, which had been transferred to Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. His policies leading up to the Quebec Act of 1774 had won support from wealthy French Canadians and from the Roman Catholic bishop; the eighty thousand or so other inhabitants remained skeptical. Since his "army" had only eight hundred or so regulars, and one-third of them were in the isolated fort on the Great Lakes, Carleton looked to the militia for assistance.

On 9 June 1775 Carleton had declared martial law, and on 6 September he issued an order to mobilize one-tenth of the militia in each parish. The farmers in most districts simply refused to obey the orders or follow the officers he had appointed. While the Americans struggled to organize an invasion, Carleton decided that his only hope of success would come if he concentrated as much strength as possible in the forward forts to give his deputy time to get the walled city of Quebec ready. He gambled that this strategy would string things out until the harsh Canadian winter stopped the Americans. Come spring, he knew, fresh troops would arrive from Britain. The stand at St. Johns cost him half of his regulars but won precious weeks. Carleton might have been more active in calling for support from the Indians, but like many other experienced officials, he knew that unleashing them would also harden American resolve.


The fall of Montreal (13 November) shifted the battlefield to Quebec. Arnold's expedition reached the St. Lawrence opposite the city on 9 November; storms prevented him from crossing for several more days. During the interval, one last convoy made it upriver with about eighty Highland veterans to assist Lieutenant Governor Hector Cramahé. Carleton would arrive from the west on the 19th aboard an armed schooner with news that Montgomery's American army was on the way.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen McLean, the commander of the newly arrived Royal Highland Emigrants, took over the day-to-day organization of the city's defense. On paper, about 1,200 men were available, but that included 200 English-speaking and 300 French Canadian militia of dubious reliability, 37 marines, and 345 sailors brought ashore from the ships in the harbor. The advent of winter froze the St. Lawrence and enabled the British to leave skeleton crews on the frigate Lizard (twenty-eight guns), the sloop-of-war Hunter (sixteen guns), four smaller armed vessels, and two transports.

Arnold's seven hundred men outside the walls could only set up a blockade on the land side; they lacked artillery and ammunition to do anything more. Arnold tried to bluff MacLean into surrender, but MacLean did not bite; instead, he burned houses near the walls that might provide the Americans cover and lobbed eighteen-pound shot out. Early on 19 November, Arnold fell back to avoid an expected sortie. He stopped and camped at Pointe aux Trembles (modern Neuville), twenty miles up the river. Two weeks later, on 2 December, Montgomery arrived and assumed command. He brought only three hundred more infantry, raising the American strength to about one thousand. But he had artillery and a good supply of ammunition, food, and—of much more immediate interest to Arnold's threadbare survivors of the wilderness—a year's supply of British clothing captured from the Seventh and Twenty-sixth Foot.

On 5 December the Americans reoccupied positions outside the gates of Quebec. Although the defenders out-numbered him and had the further advantage of fortifications, Montgomery had to risk taking Quebec by assault before he lost many of his men upon expiration of their enlistments. This operation, on 31 December 1775 and 1 January 1776, resulted in a brave but costly defeat in which Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded.


With about six hundred men—including Canadians and friendly Caughnawaga Indians—Arnold kept up the blockade and called for a veteran general and fresh troops to renew the attack. Brigadier General David Wooster was holding Montreal, Chambly, and St. Johns with fewer than six hundred men and had no troops to spare. (A British regiment was still in the Great Lakes region, and the Indian threat was ever present.) General Schuyler could offer no assistance from Albany, being occupied with Loyalist uprisings in the Mohawk Valley. Arnold's emissary, Edward Antil, continued on to Philadelphia, where Congress voted on 19 January 1776 to send reinforcements to Canada. Washington had only learned of the disaster two days earlier. Despite his own problems of holding together enough troops for the Boston siege, he proposed that seven hundred of the militia ordered to augment him be diverted to Canada. But he refused requests from Congress and Schuyler to detach Continentals until April, when the British had evacuated Boston and he shifted his own operations to New York City. Then he sent four of his regiments north.

Wooster joined Arnold at Quebec on 2 April and took command of a force that now numbered two thousand. Arnold, who had been promoted to brigadier general on 10 January but was still hobbled by his wound, went to take command at Montreal. When Major General John Thomas reached Quebec on 1 May, he assumed command of an army that had been built up to twenty-five hundred, only to be reduced by death, discharges, and desertions to nineteen hundred; more ominously, smallpox had appeared and not enough time remained to try inoculation, a preventive measure still feared by most Americans. During May, more units started flowing in from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York and Brigadier General William Thompson had reached Fort George with the regiments from Washington (two thousand strong, including a company of riflemen and another of artificers). By the time they all assembled, almost seven thousand American troops would be in Canada. In addition, Congress sent a special committee, composed of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carroll, and Samuel Chase, that reached Montreal 29 April to try and persuade the Canadians to form a government and send delegates to Philadelphia.

Despite the apparent absurdity of their posture—500 effectives, on the end of a long line of communications, besieging a walled city of 5,000 inhabitants garrisoned by 1,600 armed men supported by 148 cannon and several ships—the Americans lasted through the winter. But when the spring thaw opened up the St. Lawrence, the inevitable British relief convoy arrived. Thomas got word that it was coming on 2 May but could do nothing about it and started moving forces upriver. Carleton had only a few of them land and on the 6th led nine hundred troops and four guns out of the city. Thomas's rear guard fell back but had to leave behind two hundred sick, cannon, supplies, and even headquarters records. Carleton did not pursue, but waited for the rest of the ships to work their way to Quebec. The reinforcements under Major General John Burgoyne brought Carleton's total to about thirteen thousand men, including forty-three hundred Germans from Brunswick and Hesse-Hanau.

The American retreat halted at Deschambault, forty miles up the St. Lawrence, to regroup. Thomas then fell back to Sorel (arriving on 17 May), having been harassed on the way by British marines and naval gunfire. To further complicate matters, smallpox reached epidemic proportions. Thomas died of the disease on 2 June, and Congress recalled Wooster four days later. Command passed to Major General John Sullivan on 1 June, when he reached St. Johns and found Thompson's column.

Although the Americans had suffered a humiliating setback at The Cedars, the arrival of fresh troops and adequate supplies raised expectations. But the dream of Canada joining the United Colonies ended in the defeat of this last field force at Trois Rivières on 8 June.


Sullivan had no alternative but to order a retreat to Lake Champlain. He and the bulk of his troops (about twenty-five hundred) evacuated Sorel on 14 June; lead elements of the British convoy arrived an hour after his last bateau left. Arnold and the small Montreal garrison escaped across the river to Longueuil on 9 June and withdrew to St. Johns. He then took charge of the rear guard while crowded bateaux evacuated the rest of the troops and as much matériel as possible. The last of Sullivan's men reached Ile aux Noix on 19 June and were further crippled by an outbreak of what was probably dysentery. The last of the Americans straggled into Crown Point on 2 July, ten months after Montgomery had set out to liberate Canada. They left five thousand casualties in Canada; another three thousand were hospital cases, and the remaining five thousand were in bad shape. On 17 June, Congress had ordered Major General Horatio Gates to take command of the troops in Canada. Since Schuyler was still at his headquarters in Albany and Sullivan was with the troops at Crown Point, there was a question as to which of these officers Gates was succeeding. On 8 July, Congress clarified its instructions, and Gates—who was junior in seniority—became Schuyler's second in command. Despite the objection of many subordinate officers, Schuyler, Gates, and Sullivan decided in a council of war at Crown Point on 5 July to abandon the extensive works at Crown Point and concentrate their defense at Ticonderoga, where logistical problems were easier to solve. More Continentals and a force of mobilized militia came up to bolster the defenses.

Carleton paused at St. Johns until 4 October in order to build a fleet. Despite his numerical advantage over Schuyler, he could not advance until he had built a fleet capable of winning control of Lake Champlain. The Americans understood that same vital point and raced to augment their own squadron. Arnold took command of the American vessels, which were manned by army troops, not by Continental navy seamen, and took up patrolling the north end of the lake. The squadrons clashed in the Battle of Valcour Island on 11 October 1776. Arnold and his men put up a game fight against a superior force and then slipped away under the cover of darkness. A running fight consumed the next two days as the British caught up with the American vessels one by one. Most beached before they could be captured, and the crews got away. The Americans lost control of the lake, but the decimated fleet had bought the same precious time that the defenders of St. Johns had won the previous fall. Carleton took a look at Fort Ticonderoga but withdrew when he realized that winter would come before he could break through.


Time turned out to be the critical commodity in the Canadian campaign. In 1775 it ran out for the Americans; in 1776 it ran out for the British. In each case the defenders benefited from the fact that winter snow and ice trumped the transportation of the era.

It is interesting that many historians, including Lynn Montross in Reluctant Rebels (1950), tend to consider the Canada invasion as a useless frittering away of men, money, and supplies that could have been better used for defense. Others, including John Fortescue, see the seeds of Burgoyne's disaster at Saratoga in London's overconfidence brought about by Carleton's easy victories in 1776. Both are probably too harsh. Carleton received a knighthood for the defense of Quebec. And while Canada did not become the fourteenth state, the First and Second Canadian Regiments did become the equivalent of a fourteenth state line, and after consolidation on 1 January 1781 they served until the end of the war, including participation at Yorktown.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Arnold's March to Quebec; Boston Siege; Burgoyne, John; Canada in the Revolution; Canada, Congressional Committee to; Carleton, Guy; Cedars, The; Chambly, Canada; Gates, Horatio; Montgomery, Richard; Montreal (25 September 1775); Paris, Treaty of (10 February 1763); Quebec (Canada Invasion); Quebec Act; Saratoga Surrender; Saratoga, First Battle of; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Schuyler, Philip John; St. Johns, Canada (5 September-2 November 1775); Sullivan, John; Trois Rivières; Valcour Island.


Everest, Allan S. Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1976.

Lanctot, Gustave. Canada and the American Revolution, 1774–1783. Translated by Margaret M. Cameron. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Stanley, George F. G. Canada Invaded, 1775–1776. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973.

                           revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.