Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775

Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775

by Thomas A. Desjardin

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In September 1775, eleven hundred soldiers boarded ships in Newburyport, bound for the Maine wilderness. They were American colonists who had volunteered for a secret mission to paddle and march nearly two hundred miles through some of the wildest country in the colonies and seize the fortress city of Quebec, the last British stronghold in Canada.

The march,


In September 1775, eleven hundred soldiers boarded ships in Newburyport, bound for the Maine wilderness. They were American colonists who had volunteered for a secret mission to paddle and march nearly two hundred miles through some of the wildest country in the colonies and seize the fortress city of Quebec, the last British stronghold in Canada.

The march, under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold, proved to be a tragic journey. Before they reached the outskirts of Quebec, hundreds died from hypothermia, drowning, small pox, lightning strikes, exposure, and starvation. The survivors ate dogs, shoes, clothing, leather, cartridge boxes, shaving soap, and lip salve. Their trek toward Quebec was nearly twice the length shown on their maps. In the midst of the journey, the most unlikely of events befell them: a hurricane. The rains fell in such torrents that their boats floated off or sunk, taking their meager provisions along, and then it began to snow. The men woke up frozen in their tattered clothing. One third of the force deserted, returning to Massachusetts. Of those remaining, more than four hundred were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

Finally, in the midst of a raging blizzard, those remaining attacked Quebec. In the assault, their wet muskets failed to fire. Undaunted, they overtook the first of two barricades and pressed on toward the other, nearly taking Canada from the British. Demonstrating Benedict Arnold's prowess as a military strategist, the attack on Quebec accomplished another goal for the colonial army: It forced the British to commit thousands of troops to Canada, subsequently weakening the British hand against George Washington.

A great military history about the early days of the American Revolution, Through a Howling Wilderness is also a timeless adventure narrative that tells of heroic acts, men pitted against nature's fury, and a fledgling nation's fight against a tyrannical oppressor.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In June 1775, Benedict Arnold-having not yet turned traitor, and, indeed, lionized as one of the 13 colonies' great military hopes-proposed an invasion of Quebec. He thought a successful attack might dispose King George to redress the colonists' grievances. With General Washington's approval, Arnold gathered together a group of soldiers and headed north. Desjardin (These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory) describes the grueling expedition. The soldiers quickly ran low on food, and, among other disasters, a canoe was ripped apart by a tree branch, almost costing half the men their lives. Eventually, some of the troops made it to Canada, and after backup arrived, they attacked Quebec Though the attempt was unsuccessful and Arnold was wounded, he was praised for simply having made it from Maine to Canada. Desjardin's account is able, though at times melodramatic ("Thousands of issues must have weighed heavily upon Arnold's mind") and cute (two centuries before Dr. Atkins, Arnold's men "discovered the weight-loss capacities" of low-carb eating). Perhaps the most important section is the epilogue, in which Desjardin suggests that a successful attack on Quebec might actually have hampered the fight for American independence. (Jan. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1775, Benedict Arnold led a small American army through the wilderness of a sparsely settled region in what is now Maine as part of a planned assault and capture of Canada's Quebec City, a British possession since 1759. The expedition took more than twice as long as expected, and Arnold's men suffered every kind of hardship. Based on primary sources, this account by Desjardin, a historic site specialist for the state of Maine, paints a picture of gallantry and perseverance in the face of great misery. Even after reaching Quebec and finding gentle treatment at the hands of the French Canadians, Arnold's men still had to assault the city-an event that proved unsuccessful and resulted in the capture and imprisonment of many Colonial soldiers and subsequently more suffering in British prisons. Though the meat of the book is in narrative and not analysis, Desjardin provides a good summary of the campaign's impact on the American Revolution in general. Very few sources cover the assault on Quebec in detail, and many years have passed since any text has examined this event so thoroughly. As a result, Desjardin's work should find a home in public and large academic libraries.-Matthew J. Wayman, Pennsylvania State Univ., Abington Coll. Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Maine's Historic Site Specialist describes the epic 1775 march through that state's wilderness by American troops commanded by Colonel Benedict Arnold. Five years before he turned traitor to the Revolutionary cause, Arnold led his men on what would prove to be one of the most critical treks in the war for independence. Slogging through Maine in an attempt to assault the British at Fort Quebec, the soldiers faced freak blizzards and raging rapids. Starvation forced them to eat whatever they could find, including such delicacies as dog meat and boiled leather straps. Displaying uncommon stamina and a steely will to survive, an army weakened by illness, hunger and death arrived at Fort Quebec only to realize that it lacked the necessary numbers and equipment to effectively besiege the stronghold. Though the fort's defenders were ill-prepared, Arnold was forced to wait for General Richard Montgomery to arrive with more men. The reinforced troops stormed the gates with little success; Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded in the initial raid. Unable to take the fort, Arnold settled for harrying the British by sea. He could not defeat their superior navy, but he stalled it long enough to prevent the ships from sailing south to reinforce the British armies in the colonies until the following season, a delay that contributed greatly to the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. Desjardin (Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine, 1996, not reviewed) recounts the march in descriptive, detailed prose studded with visceral imagery, but Arnold comes across as a frequently incompetent commander throughout the Maine march, making it difficult to credit the decisive impact his actions had. An epilogue assertinghis overall importance to the war effort comes too late to counteract the book's main thrust. A vivid narrative of a vital American event, but history buffs may not be convinced that Arnold was "America's Hannibal."
From the Publisher

“Desjardin is able to portray fascinating, vivid characters, more human and more credible than the leaders who organized the expedition.” —Associated Press

“[A] stirring account...Desjardin has salted his account with great bits of regional history.” —The Boston Globe

“In an age of bloated, overstuffed history books...Desjardin has pulled off this feat in just 240 pages of terse, well-hewn prose.” —The Bangor Daily News

“Thoroughly researched and well written, this is likely to be the standard history of the campaign for some time to come.” —Booklist

“Desjardin recounts the march in descriptive, detailed prose studded with visceral imagery . . . A vivid narrative of a vital American event.'” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] highly readable book.” —The Journal Star

“One of the great adventure sagas in American history . . . This is a story that helped shape the American Revolution, dramatically told in this highly readable new book.” —James Kirby Martin, author of the award-winning Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered

“A model of accessible, vigorous narrative history, Through a Howling Wilderness re-creates an important but largely forgotten episode in early American history and tells a fascinating story in the bargain.” —Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University

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Chapter One

The Fourteenth Colony

He came within view of his father's house a little past noon on a pleasant late-September day. Eighteen months had passed since he had left this home in Bridgewater of the Colony of Massachusetts to join the army of George Washington, and in that time he had taken part in adventures and hardships that people in his hometown only read about in novels---those that could read and had time for novels. During his service he had fought at Bunker Hill, then sailed to the Province of Maine with an army under Colonel Benedict Arnold, walked, waded, and swam hundreds of miles through the Maine wilderness to the city of Quebec.

Along the way this simple farmer watched men around him die of hypothermia, drowning, and drunken violence. Smallpox, and falling trees killed his fellow soldiers. He saw friends die from exposure and exhaustion, from starvation and from eating too quickly after starvation. To survive, men ate dogs, shoes, clothing, leather, cartridge boxes, shaving soap, tree sap, and lip salve. If they survived, they suffered from gout, rheumatism, dysentery, angina, distemper, diarrhea, constipation, pneumonia, swollen limbs, and infestation.

With the comrades who survived, he attacked a naturally fortified city that contained a military force larger than their own, made up of soldiers from the most powerful empire the world had ever known. When the attack failed, he was captured and thrown into a dungeonlike British prison where he nearly perished from smallpox. He was then pressed into service on a British ship for months, until he, along with two other comrades, escaped and walked back through the Maine wilderness, hundreds of miles, to civilization. On the return trip, they encountered the bones of the men who had died on the way to Quebec the year before. Back among colonial villages, they sailed as laborers on a vessel bound for Boston, a few days walk from Bridgewater.

Now, as he approached the comforts and safety of home, he little resembled the fresh-faced teenager who had left to fight for the Rebel cause just after Lexington-Concord. His trials had left him haggard, his skin pitted by smallpox, and his appearance greatly altered. Unconscious of the effect his sudden and gaunt appearance might have on his loved ones, he simply entered through the open door, nodded his head, and sat down in a chair just inside without uttering a word. His mother was across the room sewing and looked up when he entered, but, thinking he was a passing stranger stopping for rest or refreshment, she went back to her needlework without even a greeting.

His young sister, not yet a teenager, took note of him next and, with the curiosity of a youngster, eyed him closely for a time. Suddenly she exclaimed "La, if there ain't Simon!"

At this his mother, who had given him up for dead months earlier, nearly fainted, and as the news of his return spread through the countryside, his father and brother came to confirm the rumor. That evening, friends from miles around came to the modest home to hear his stories of great adventure and suffering. Simon Fobes was home from the war and had a tale to tell of one of the greatest military expeditions in American history.

Quebec City had been the hub of civilization in its region since Samuel de Champlain first sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1603. Here he encountered a native settlement on a prominent hill of solid rock that lay between the fork made by the St. Lawrence and one of its major tributaries. The Algonquins who used the site called it "Kebec," meaning "where the river narrows," and it must have struck Champlain as a natural and ideal base of operation for future exploration and colonization. The high rock slope rising from the rivers made it a site one could easily defend against attack, while the half-dozen rivers that converged into the St. Lawrence within ten miles made it ideal for transportation of trade goods and supplies to and from the surrounding wilderness. Even this far inland, the deep waters of the St. Lawrence provided easy access to the sea and Europe. In subsequent voyages, Champlain inquired about Quebec of the natives he encountered elsewhere, and he learned that its trading potential stretched nearly as far as he explored, all the way to the southern coast of Maine.

Two years later, he sailed to Maine's Penobscot Bay and up the navigable length of its river to what is now Bangor. There he learned from the natives that one could reach Quebec by way of a series of lakes, "and, when they reach the end, they go some distance by land, and afterward enter a little river which flows into the St. Lawrence."

The following year he learned of yet another route, farther west, by way of the Kennebec River. "One can go from this river across the land so far as Quebec," he recalled, "some 50 leagues, without passing more than one portage of two leagues. Then one enters another little river which empties into the great River St. Lawrence."

This was the first time any white man ever heard of what would later be known as the Kennebec-Chaudière trail, though the natives apparently failed to mention the difficulties that lay along this path.

Convinced of the potential of the Quebec site, in 1608 Champlain led a group of thirty-two colonists to settle there and establish it as a trading center, primarily for furs. Only nine colonists survived their first Canadian winter, but the colony endured, and more settlers arrived the following summer. For the next century and a half, the citadel at Quebec was a focal point of fighting between the British and French empires until 1759, when the city fell into English hands after the pivotal Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

The generals commanding each side in this fight, Montcalm for the French and Wolfe for the British, died in the fighting, and the British seized the city. By 1761, fighting in the so-called French and Indian Wars had dwindled to a close, and the two European powers signed a formal peace treaty in Paris on February 10, 1763. By this agreement, France relinquished all of its claims to North America, leaving tens of thousands of French settlers in Quebec Province subject to British rule.

Eleven years after the Treaty of Paris solidified England's authority over the province, the British Parliament passed what became known as the Quebec Act of 1774, instituting a permanent administration in Canada by replacing the temporary English-style government created in 1763 with a French form of civil law, while maintaining the British system of criminal law. In addition, it gave French Canadians complete religious freedom---a direct threat, as the other colonies saw it, "to dispose the inhabitants to act with hostility against the free Protestant Colonies, whenever a wicked Ministry shall chuse so to direct them."

Representatives of the lower thirteen colonies soon listed it among the so-called Intolerable Acts, about which they pled with King George for relief. When he ignored their plea, they turned to open rebellion.

By the mid-1770s, Champlain's Quebec had grown into a huge province stretching to the Mississippi River and including modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It was home to eighty thousand inhabitants, though only 2 percent of them spoke English. Despite its official status as a North American colony under British rule, Quebec never became a part of the coalition of colonies that eventually declared their independence in 1776. Language and religious differences set the Québecois well apart from their neighbors to the south, and when representatives of the lower thirteen colonies met at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, no delegate from Quebec answered the roll. As the Protestant colonies then saw it, Catholic Quebec existed "to the great danger, from so great a dissimilarity of Religion, law, and government, of the neighboring British colonies by the assistance of whose blood and treasure the said country was conquered from France."

Once fighting had broken out between colonists and soldiers of the Crown, however, some in the lower thirteen began to see the advantages of enlisting the fourteenth colony to the north. Aside from alleviating the danger they felt from their northern neighbors, gaining the support of eighty thousand French, who were predisposed to British-hating anyway, could create a decided advantage in their designs against the mother country. At the very least, removing the British strongholds at Quebec and Montreal would eliminate any threat against the colonies from that region, effectively quashing British attempts to open a northern front in the newly begun conflict from which it could march an army south and cut the colonies in half.

If there was to be a fourteenth colony in the struggle against England, those in favor of it would find an obstacle in their way that would prove to be even more formidable than the high stone walls of Quebec. Governor Guy Carleton had returned to Quebec City from London in 1774 having married, become a father twice over, and seen to the passage of the act the colonists were then listing among the intolerable. Carleton's Quebec Act allowed the Québecois to worship as Catholics even though this was illegal in England itself. It also retained the French system of land tenure, and even let them speak French while serving in public offices. This was a remarkable feat for the governor, since it showed not only his understanding of his subjects and how best to placate them, but also his ability to persuade the British Parliament to go to such unusual lengths to do so. With the same stroke, Carleton had also seen his dominion of Quebec expand westward all the way to the Mississippi River.

However it was that Carleton swayed Parliament to grant him such requests, it certainly had nothing to do with his personal charm, which he seemed to lack altogether. Cold and aloof, he was, as an officer who served under him once wrote, "one of the most distant, reserved men in the world; he has a rigid strictness in his manner very unpleasing and which he observes even to his most particular friends and acquantances [sic]." Even General James Wolfe, hardly a model of good humor himself but one of the governor's closest friends, described him as "grave Carleton."

Still, he was considered the very model of an eighteenth-century British officer. At fifty years of age, he was six feet tall, with a high forehead that his hairline seemed to have largely abandoned. Born in Ireland to English gentry, he joined the British Army as an ensign in 1742, during the War of Austrian Succession. He later served as Wolfe's quartermaster general and chief engineer during the campaign that ended, along with Wolfe's life, on the Plains of Abraham, when the British seized Quebec from the French in 1759. He was wounded two years afterward, leading an assault against the French island of Belle-ële off the Brittany coast, and again the following year, assaulting Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba.

Carleton was active and energetic in his work, and King George III once wrote that his "uncorruptness is universally acknowledged."

Years later, a soldier under his command at Quebec would say, "There is not perhaps in the world a more experienced or more determined officer than General Carleton."

In 1766, with the help of his benefactor the Duke of Richmond, Carleton gained the King's appointment as lieutenant governor of Quebec and brigadier general in America. Two years later, King George elevated him to governor.

Returning from London in 1774, Carleton was well aware of the rebellion brewing in the other American colonies, and he hoped that his work with Parliament back home would pay dividends in Quebec. As a rule, the French inhabitants warmly received the news of the Quebec Act and its concessions to their religion and law.

In September 1774, Carleton sent two regiments to Massachusetts to help with the unrest there. This severely depleted his defensive forces at Quebec, where he found the Québecois ambivalent about the city's defense, and the French idea of employing Native Americans out of the question. Carleton winced at the brutality shown by natives toward colonists, including innocent civilians, and he "would not even suffer a Savage to pass the Frontier [into the lower colonies], though often urged to let them loose on the Rebel Provinces, lest cruelties might have been committed, and for fear the innocent might have suffered with the Guilty."

In addition, the boiling cauldron of insurrection in the lower colonies meant that he would get no help from London. In the summer of 1775, he wrote to a friend, "The situation of the King's affairs in [Massachusetts] leaves no room in the present moment for any consideration [other] than that . . . of augmenting the army under general Gage [in Boston]."

On May 19, 1775, a month-old letter arrived from General Thomas Gage stating that hostilities had broken out in Massachusetts. The following day, a courier arrived with word "that one Benedict Arnold said to be a native of Connecticut and a Horse Jockey" had led five hundred colonists in taking British outposts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point and had even penetrated to Saint Jean, within the boundaries of Quebec Province. It was not the last Carleton would hear of this horse jockey.

Down in the troubled and troublesome Colony of Massachusetts, the shooting at Lexington and Concord had shifted the disagreements with the King from political to military in April. A growing colonial force had fought at Bunker Hill against the British in June, and though the King's soldiers could claim a narrow victory in the fight, the colonists had shown that they were something more effective than an organized mob. As a result, they held the British garrison in Boston under siege while volunteers and militia groups from as many as hundreds of miles away rushed to join the now swelling colonial ranks. Daniel Morgan marched his Virginia rifle company six hundred miles in twenty-one days, and Michael Cressap's Maryland company covered 550 miles in twenty-two days to join the rebellion. On July 3, General George Washington, carrying his appointment as commander-in-chief of the colonial forces from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, arrived in Cambridge to take command.

Among those anxious to rally around the patriot cause was a prominent trader and merchant from New Haven, Connecticut, who had made his fortune sailing goods from the West Indies to ports such as New York, Boston, Montreal, and Quebec. Energetic to an extreme and often impetuous, he had graying hair by 1775, giving him an air of maturity, but at thirty-four he remained a man of unusual strength and agility. He was of average height for his time, but his steel eyes, prominent nose, and a tendency to speak in a crisp and succinct manner gave those who encountered him cause to grant an instant respect. Though he had made himself one of the wealthiest men in the Colony of Connecticut, he was not of like mind with many of the "old guard" patriarchs of New Haven, who resisted the growing disagreements with the mother country. Instead, he seemed anxious not only to witness the outbreak of military action between King and colonies, but to participate in them personally, even though it meant risking his fortune.

As political tensions grew, Arnold helped form, and was elected captain of, the Governor's Second Company of Guards. When he received news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord, he started for Cambridge to join the forces gathering there. Realizing that the colonials had little powder and almost no cannons, Arnold turned his attention to the British strongholds on Lake Champlain known as Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point. He sought and received the permission and authority of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to capture these garrisons and their military stores. Commissioned a colonel by the committee, Arnold left his own troops at Cambridge and set off for western Massachusetts with a handful of captains to recruit the necessary companies of militiamen.

Shortly thereafter, Arnold learned that some prominent Connecticut citizens had sent an emissary to the New Hampshire Grants (later Vermont) in an effort to convince Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys to seize the British strongholds. Allen and his band had been in conflict with British authorities across Lake Champlain in New York for years, even to the point of prodding the Crown's representatives to place a bounty on him. Thus, the choice of using Allen's men to capture the military stores in their own region of the colonies was a logical one.

Hearing of this potential competition for the prize, Arnold raced to the eastern side of Lake Champlain in search of Allen. When he overtook the Green Mountain Boys, Arnold claimed the authority to lead the expedition under his grant from Massachusetts; however, realizing that the men with Allen would not suddenly abandon their leader in favor of an interloper, he agreed to cooperate with Allen in leading the assault. In the dark, early hours of the next morning---May 10---the force of less than one hundred men crossed Lake Champlain, surprised the sleeping garrison, who were still unaware that fighting had broken out in Massachusetts a month prior, and seized Fort Ticonderoga. Crown Point surrendered shortly thereafter.

Though struggling to establish his legitimacy as the rightful commander of these conquered strongholds, Arnold worried that the British might launch a counterattack from Canada. Based in Montreal, British forces could move up the Richelieu River and sail down the lake to re-establish their hold over the region. Boldly seizing the initiative, Arnold made use of a schooner that the Green Mountain Boys had captured at Skenesborough, and set off to invade Canada so as to raid the British outpost at Saint Jean, just twenty miles southwest of Montreal. Reports held that a seventy-ton sloop-of-war was anchored there, and by taking this vessel, Arnold could delay any British countereffort, since it was the only ship in the region large enough to carry troops across the lake. Meeting with little resistance, Arnold and his party successfully carried out the raid.

Within the span of a few weeks, Benedict Arnold had raised a company of militia, delivered it to the colonial force at Cambridge, conceived of and helped carry out the seizure of two key British forts on Lake Champlain, invaded British Canada, seized a sloop of war, and secured the Champlain region against British invasion for a season at least. With all of these credentials at hand, he paid a visit to General Washington in Cambridge in hopes of discussing his idea of invading Canada in command of a larger continental force with the goal of seizing it entirely, bringing a fourteenth colony into the war.

On May 1, 1775, Jonathan Brewer of Waltham petitioned the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for support in his idea to "march with a body of five hundred Volunteers to Quebeck, by way of the Rivers Kennebec and Chadier [sic]."

The plan never materialized, and perhaps it was just as well. Three weeks later, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety was accusing Brewer of leasing land he did not own and stealing horses from fellow officers. Then Brewer was badly wounded at Bunker Hill. The idea of seizing Canada from British forces and bringing its eighty thousand inhabitants into the American cause, however, had been on the minds of many patriots that summer.

Among them was the unsung hero of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, who had already mounted his own successful mini-invasion. On June 13, 1775, Arnold drafted a letter to the Continental Congress offering both a plan and its justification. In his work at Crown Point, Arnold had communicated both with native tribes and French merchants in Canada with whom he had traded regularly. Among the natives, the intelligence was positive, indicating that they were "determined not to assist the King's Troops against us. . . ." One tribe even established a law prohibiting any of its members from assisting the British, under pain of death.

Among the white population, Arnold's intelligence reported that Governor Carleton had been able to raise only twenty volunteers among the British living in Quebec and was so frustrated with the ambivalence of British merchants in Montreal that he threatened to burn the city down if they did not defend it against an American attack. For their part, the Québecois---French inhabitants of Quebec---fully anticipated a colonial invasion. In fact, he explained, "Great numbers of Canadians have expected a visit from us for some time."

Arnold's plan involved an assault up Lake Champlain to Saint Jean, Chambly, and then Montreal that if successful would crown its Jean, achievement by marching on Quebec City itself. Doing so would not only remove the threat of a British invasion that would drive through the heart of the colonies, but would certainly get the King's attention and perhaps lead to a more serious consideration of colonial grievances.

Arnold's plan had many enticements. British ships had carried five hundred thousand bushels of wheat per year from Quebec, and an occupying American army would be able to control the lucrative fur-and-pelt trade as well. Having so easily captured Fort Ticonderoga and then commanded its ruined ramparts for a time, Arnold raised another benefit of his plan. "At least it will," he wrote, "in my humble opinion, be more advantageous, and attended with less expense, to reduce Quebeck and keep possession, where provisions of every kind are plenty, and a strong fortress built to our hand, than rebuilding Ticonderoga. . . ."

A successful expedition, Arnold reckoned, would require two thousand men at most and, if no one else saw fit to volunteer to command it, he had someone in mind. "If no person appears who will undertake to carry this plan into execution, (if thought advisable) I will undertake it and, with the smiles of Heaven, answer for the success of it."

By early July, however, General Washington had chosen Philip Schuyler, a former British officer and wealthy New Yorker, to mount an expedition from Fort Ticonderoga up Lake Champlain to seize Montreal and Quebec. On hearing of this, Arnold relinquished his command of the Champlain forts and traveled to Watertown, Massachusetts, to settle his accounts with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. On his way, he stopped in Albany to meet Schuyler, who had already been advocating for Arnold's advancement in the nascent American military.

Back in Cambridge, George Washington was accumulating all of the intelligence that he could regarding the attitudes of people living in Quebec Province. In addition to Arnold's reports from Lake Champlain, the general happily reported, "Several Indians of the Tribe of St. Francis came in here yesterday, and confirm the former accounts of the good Dispositions of the Indian Nations, and Canadians to the Interests of America."

Other reports, about the natives around Montreal, were less favorable but still promising.

In the first part of August, Benedict Arnold reached the Patriot camp at Cambridge and reported to General Washington on the situation at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Washington was eager to hear Arnold, particularly concerning supplies of lead and powder at the Champlain forts, since his own army around Cambridge suffered shortages of both. As they spoke, the invasion of Canada that Arnold had proposed to Congress, and which Washington had been intently organizing, became a subject of conversation; before they parted, Arnold had not only made a favorable impression on the commander, but also proposed a second arm of the expedition, through the Province of Maine which he would lead personally.

On August 20, Washington wrote to inform General Schuyler about "a Plan of an Expedition, which has engaged my Thoughts for several Days. It is to penetrate into Canada by Way of Kennebeck River, and so to Quebeck by a Rout ninety miles below Montreal." Offering to provide as many as twelve hundred men for the expedition, Washington proposed that such a diversion would make Schuyler's job easier by distracting Governor Carleton. "He must either break up and follow this Party to Quebeck, by which he will leave you a free Passage, or he must suffer that important Place to fall into our Hands, an Event, which would have a decisive Effect. . . ."

Schuyler responded by saying that he "only wished that the thought had struck you sooner."

The presence of a water route through Maine to Quebec had been the subject of interest since Samuel de Champlain had encountered native people along the Maine coast who told him of the passageway. At the time, Champlain's ideas were of commerce, linking vast areas of potential trade together by water. In the time since, the route by way of the Kennebec and Chaudière Rivers had been an avenue for natives from Quebec Province to slip down upon the colonist communities of Maine to attack British settlers, either of their own accord or on behalf of their French trading partners and allies. It had also provided a route through which French Jesuit missionaries working among the native tribes could communicate with Catholic establishments in Quebec Province. In 1761, just after fighting ceased in the Seven Years' War between colonial Britain and France, a British officer and engineer named John Montressor had made use of the Kennebec-Chaudière trail, mapping it and creating a journal of his travel.

One of the patriots who lived along this route, a shipbuilder named Reuben Colburn, who was a member of the Committee of Safety up in the Province of Maine, happened to be in Cambridge in mid-August and met with General Washington. Having lived for more than a decade along the Kennebec, Colburn was in a position to provide highly useful intelligence about the region and its native inhabitants, some of whom he had introduced to Washington. Washington, who had decided that sending an additional force through Maine to act in concert with Schuyler was at least something to consider seriously, gave Colburn money to saw planks "for the purposes of building bateaus for the use of the Continental Army" and sent him to meet with Benedict Arnold.

Colburn then traveled to Watertown, where he received more detailed instructions from Arnold, who now held a commission as colonel in the Continental Army. There Arnold instructed Colburn to find out how long it would take to build two hundred bateaux "capable of carrying six or seven men each, with their provisions and baggage (say 100wt. To each man) the boats to be furnished with four oars, two paddles, and two setting poles each." Thorough as he was, Arnold wanted Colburn to be sure he could obtain enough nails for the building, and discover the amount of fresh beef he could purchase on the Kennebec. He asked that Colburn scout any British vessels in Newburyport on his way back to Maine, and then any that might be on or near the Kennebec. He wanted to know the length and number of portages on the route to Quebec, how deep the water was at this season, and any other intelligence that Colburn could gather.

Returning to Maine at the end of August, Colburn sought the knowledge of Samuel Goodwin of the Kennebec region, who had been "traveling, surveying, and settling this part, ever since the year 1750."

With three weeks to prepare them, Goodwin supplied Arnold with a chart of the Maine coastline, including the passages into the Kennebec River, as well as a map and journal describing the route up the Kennebec and Dead Rivers to "Ammeguntick Pond" (Lake Megantic), including the falls and carrying places. He also dispatched a scouting party of local patriots and a native guide to travel this route up the Kennebec River to its western branch, called by the natives the "Dead River" because of its slow current, and then on to the lake that made up the headwaters of the Chaudière River. Once he had made preparations back home, Colburn returned to Cambridge one last time. After reporting the latest news to the general, Washington had made the decision to go ahead with the expedition. He sent Colburn back to Maine with orders to engage a company of twenty men to build bateaux for the trek and "to assist in such service as you and they may be called upon to execute." In addition, he needed Colburn to acquire "five hundred Bushells of Indian Corn all the pork and flour you can from the inhabitants . . . sixty barrells of salted beef of 220lbs each Barrell. You are to receive Forty Shillings lawful money for each Batteaux, with the Oars, Paddles, and Setting Poles included. . . ."

As plans for the invasion neared completion, General Washington was reassured of the disposition of at least some of the native tribes on the route. On August 30, he wrote to General Schuyler that a native chief named Swashan had come to Cambridge promising to aid in the invasion. "Swashan says he will bring one half of his tribe and has engaged 4 or 5 other tribes if they should be wanted. He says the Indians of Canada in general, and also the French, are greatly in our favor, and determined not to act against us." Though he had little use for the offer of large native war parties---the Continental Congress had decided against involving natives in the conflict---Washington must have welcomed the reassurance as he plotted this first military expedition in United States history.

Copyright © 2005 by Thomas A. Desjardin

Meet the Author

Thomas A. Desjardin is the Historic Site Specialist for the State of Maine. He is the author of Stand Firm, Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign and These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory.

THOMAS DESJARDIN is the Historic Site Specialist for the State of Maine. He is the author of Stand Firm, Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign and These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory.

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