Episode 014

Benedict Arnold in Quebec – Part I

Benedict Arnold may be remembered as a famous traitor, but before that he was an accomplished military commander for Colonial forces. George Washington himself gave Arnold his command and set him loose to take the Canadian city of Quebec.

In our last episode we finished up (for now) talking about events in South Carolina, now we’ll be going back to Canada to finish our discussion there. We first went to Canada in episode 11 when we mentioned it as the “Fourteenth Colony” and discussed events in and around Montreal. We also mentioned that the “strategy” in Canada was to assault both Montreal and Quebec. Today we’ll discuss the Quebec portion of that strategy.

As far as the timeline of the war is concerned, what we’ll talk about today starts before and runs concurrent with the events of episodes 12 and 13 (Burning of Norfolk, Cane Brake, Ninety-Six SC, etc…)

Now that we know “when” these events are happening, let’s talk about the “what”. To start there, we need to go to the late summer of 1775, with our newly appointed Colonial Army General: George Washington, who was starting to understand the the campaign to take Montreal was only just a “half strategy” and then even if his forces were able to take it, Quebec would still command the Saint Lawrence River, which was the gateway to Montreal and ultimately inner Canada. He also reasoned that simultaneous campaigns on both Montreal and Quebec would force General Guy Carleton to fight a war on two fronts. Recall from our previous episodes that Carleton was in charge of the British forces in Canada, and was able to escape capture after the events at Montreal.

The plan that Washington ultimately settled on was invasion by waterway, specifi cally up the Kennebec River to the Chaudiere River which emptied directly into the Saint Lawrence River not from from Quebec. The problem here however, was intelligence.

Remember that we are in 1775, there was no GPS and for the most part no “centralized” mapping service, only that of surveyors whose maps may differ slightly or greatly and or be incomplete. In fact at this time in 1775, huge areas of Maine and the Canadian wilderness were just blank spots on a map. Washington was using maps and descriptions from a journal by Captain John Montresor, a British army engineer who mapped the area in 1761. Montresor’s maps would turn out to be incomplete and this would be almost disastrous to Washington’s forces as we’ll learn shortly.

Washington himself had been a land surveyor so he understood this fact, he also understood that the expedition would have its hazards so he needed a strong commander that he had confidence in. He chose a man whom he offered a commision of colonel in the Continental Army and command of the expedition to take Quebec: Benedict Arnold.

We’ve mentioned Arnold several times already in the podcast, but we haven’t really stopped to talk about who he was. Most recognize the name as the traitorous general who defected to the British during the war. We’ll talk about his defection later, but who was he in the summer of 1775 and why did he catch Washington’s eye? For one, he was a natural leader, one of his soldiers from the battle of Saratoga voiced how everyone of them felt about him by saying:

“He was our fighting general…It was ‘Come on boys!’ twarn’t ‘Go boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived.”

Arnold had an innate skill at sizing up tactical situations, he was a thorough and talented planner and his execution of his strategies were just as bold as the strategy themselves. Arnold was also extremely strong willed and while these traits are all strong traits for a good military commander, it was his excessive ambition, hypersensitivity, and love of glory that would eventually bring about his betrayal of Washington.

Arnold was 34 in 1775, from a well-to-do Connecticut family he had severed in the French and Indian War and after the war, he sold some family land and started his own merchant shipping business, in which he sailed his own ships to the West Indies and Canada, later he also sold horses in Montreal and Quebec. At the outbreak of the revolution he was quite prosperous and according to historian Justin Smith in his work Our Struggle For the Fourteenth Colony Arnold was:

“the possessor of an elegant house, storehouses, wharves, and vessels…Rather a short man, he seemed, but stocky and athletic, and very quick in his movements. Raven-black hair, a high, hot complexion, a long, keen nose, a domineering chin, persuasive, smiling lips, haughty brows and the boldest eyes man ever saw, completed him.”

So to sum it up, Arnold was attractive, fairly wealthy, and smart. If Tinder had existed in 1775, you would most definitely “swipe right” when looking at Arnold’s profile.

In August, Arnold had commissioned 200 hundred bateaux be built by Reuben Colburn a Kennebec boatbuilder. A bateau was a very popular boat during the time. If you’ve ever seen the picture of Washington crossing the Delaware, a bateau is very similar to the boat he is depicted in. While the size varied by builder they were typically about 25-50 feet long and 5-8 feet. On September 3, Washington approved the order for boats and stores of provisions and on the 5th, the organization of the expedition was announced in army orders.

Arnold was to be dispatched with two battalions of five companies each, the men to be volunteers who should be “active woodsman well acquainted with batteaus (boats)” This specification was largely ignored, with the exception of the riflemen, the volunteers assigned were from New England regiments and came straight from their own farms. The three companies of riflemen were from Captain Daniel Morgan’s Virginians and two companies from Pennsylvania under Captains Matthew Smith and William Hendricks, 250 riflemen in all. Tallying all of his troops, Arnold’s force totaled around 1,100 men. Including a young nineteen year old volunteer named Aaron Burr. The same Aaron Burr who would face Alexander Hamilton in a duel on Jul 11, 1804.

Another well known name was Captain Daniel Morgan. Morgan had made a name for himself with his bravery and ability in the frontier wars. He was renowned for his physical strength (which he showed in his youth by engaging in bar fights) and woodcraft, which he had learned from the Native Americans. The story of him laying out a British officer with a single punch for striking him with his sword was a well known frontier tale. This resulted in a punishment of flogging, which fueled a deep hatred of the British by Morgan. Morgan, called the “Old Wagoner” was a natural leader and a solid tactician. He was admired by his men and they would follow him anywhere.

On September 22, Arnold inspected the boats he had made and found that they had been hastily constructed with green wood. Green wood is wood that has been recently cut and not allowed to cure/season which means it holds a lot of moisture internally. That means that the boats were heavier than they should have been and would be more difficult to maneuver, especially in rapids. Arnold however, had no choice and had to accept them, he also ordered 20 more to be constructed and on September 25 the expedition departed from Fort Western, which was located near what is today Augusta, Maine.

Arnold had divided his force in four divisions. The first division was composed of three countries of riflemen commanded by Captain Morgan. Morgan’s riflemen were preceded by two scouting parties, led by Lieutenant Steele and Church. The other 3 divisions followed Morgan between the 26 and 28 of September. Arnold went ahead of the main body but surprisingly he seemed to be able to show up wherever his command presence was needed.

A few things to consider about this march, first the troops didn’t advance in one coherent column, it was more like a touch and go march strategy. One division would march up and bump into the tail end of the division in front of it, then hold back, then catch back up and or pass the other division. The march was long, taking around 2 months to complete and the march was hard. Supplies ran low, there was difficult terrain, weather, etc…

I’m not going to go into all of the details of the travel to Quebec, since it was so long, but I will hit some of the more important or interesting happenings, and note that the dates here are approximate.

October 4 – 8: After passing through the Bombazee Rapids, the divisions faced the treacherous Norridgewock Falls with its three “pitches” each separated by a half mile. The boats began to give out and take on water. Seams busted open and water poured through the cracks. Colburn and his men traveled up and repaired the seams, but most importantly, the provisions casks had been split open and washed through with water. One soldier said of the incident: “The salt had been washed out of the dried fish…and all of it had spoiled. The casks of dried peas and biscuit had burst and been lost…while the salt beef proved unfit for use”

October 19-24: Thirty miles on the Dead River, Greene’s division (Greene was a Lt. Col Christopher Greene, a distant relative of Nathaniel Greene) passed Morgan’s rifleman. Morgan’s men responded by stealing Greene’s food. From Oct 21-22 a hurricane spawned rainstorm flooded the river and the surrounding county. Many boats were lost, a conference was held to determine if the expedition should continue. Arnold’s determined courage and eloquent speech made them decide to go on.

October 25: The fourth division elects to turn back and refuses to yield it’s flour to Greene’s starving men, who were subsisting on candles mixed in flour gruel. Expedition now totaled 700 men out of the original 1,100 [Commander of fourth division, a man named Enos, was later court-martialed for his desertion]

October 25-28: Arnold’s men were betrayed by an inaccurate map from Montresor, which didn’t show Rush Lake, Spider Lake, or False Mouths of Seven Mile Stream (the Arnold River). Trying to skirt around the two lakes in the swamp almost killed them.

November 1-3: Starving men are eating soap, hair grease, oiled moccasins, shot pouches, and even a company commander’s dog. Men staggered on supported by their muskets. On November 3, men that were dispatched by Arnold to find provisions; found and drove a herd of cattle towards the divisions. According to accounts, the cattle were manhandled to slaughter, roasted, torn to bits, and eaten “as a hungry dog would tear a haunch of meat”

November 4: The men are out of the wilderness, and reach provisions that Arnold had left there for them. They ate so fast and so much that men became ill, and three died.

November 5: Left the Chaudiere below Saint Mary, headed for Point Levis, across the Saint L awrence from Quebec.

On November 9, 1775 Canadians at the Saint Lawrence watched “ghosts with firelocks on their shoulders” hobbling toward the river. At first their appearance caused alarm, then admiration, when they learned what the now 600 men had gone through to get there. What did these men arrive to? None other than Arnold provisioning boats, canoes and scaling ladders so that they could cross over the Saint Lawrence, under the guns of the frigate Lizard, the sloop Hunter and four other armed craft – and storm the walls of Quebec.

Quebec did not necessarily have a formidable garrison, but the sick and underfed group that Arnold commanded could not be asked to take it. The city of Quebec sat on a high point of land cut out by the St. Lawrence and its tributary the St Charles River. This point looks to the northeast, On the southeastern side Cape Diamond rises more than 300 feet above the St Lawrence River. Along the St. Charles to the northwest, the land slopes downwards. Slightly to the northeast of Cape Diamond, Lower Town huddled along the lower band of land on the water’s edge. At its southern side fortifications had been built, two rough palisades. There was also a wall at the northern point of the Lower Town and outside it, small clusters of suburbs.

The main part of the city, Upper Town, stood astride the high ground, protected by its height, steep cliffs on three sides and to the west a wall thirty feet high that extended river to river. The wall looked down towards the Plain of Abraham. The wall contained six strong points and three gates. The defenders of Quebec had concentrated their artillery at the strong points. Inside of upper town were 1,800 troops, assembled from militia, Scottish soldiers, a handful of British marines, and a large number of sailors drawn from ships in the harbor.

Hector Cramahe, was British General Carleton’s lieutenant governor and governor of Quebec city. He had seen to it that shores of the St Lawrence had been swept of any boats that could be used by his enemy to cross the river.

Arnold, ever resourceful, with the help of local Native Americans was able to assemble a flotilla of about forty canoes and dugouts. By November the 10th he was ready to make a night crossing, which would be his only chance to get by the British warships in the river. The weather delayed his plan until 9:00PM on the 13th of November, it was then that Arnold ferried his men over in shifts, silently slipping by the anchored British ships to land in Wolfe’s Cove. Arnold managed to get all but 150 men across the river on the night of the 13th. The remainder stayed on the Point Levis side until the night of the 14th.

Arnold led his men up the Plains of Abraham and halted a mile and a half from the city walls. There they took shelter until daylight. To the 600 men, recovering from starvation, illness and exposure to the elements, the walled Upper Town of Quebec must have appeared to be a fortress. Arnold was, let’s say “more confident” than his troops that he could take the city. He sent messengers to summon the city to surrender. The messengers were greeted with eighteen pound round shot from cannon. The first messenger was shot at, with the shot “splattering the American envoy with dirt”, when the second was shot at, the round passed just over his head in “a very straight direction”

Arnold weighed his options. He had no artillery, his men had only five cartridges each and over 100 of the muskets in his force didn’t work. He settled for a blockade of the city on it’s west side.

On the 18th of November, Arnold’s intelligence told him that the British forces in the city were planning a sortie with 800 men to break the blockade. Arnold called a war council and decided that even a blockade wasn’t feasible at this point. The next day, Arnold began to withdraw his entire force to Pointe aux Trembles (Aspen Point) twenty miles upriver, where his men could find shelter. That very day, which happened to the 19th of November, General Guy Carleton, who had escaped capture in Montreal arrives in Quebec to salutes of cannon.

Two weeks later, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery arrived at Pointe aux Trembles. At nine o’clock on the night of December 2nd a boat left the schooner that had arrived from Montreal. Arnold waited to turn over his command to the respected Montgomery. In a formal, proper manner he stood in front of a double-ranked honor guard lined up in the foot deep snow on the shore of the river.

When the General’s boat touched shore, Arnold’s detachment snapped to attention and presented arms. Arnold saluted Montgomery, who stepped ashore and returned the salute.

Montgomery was now in command of the force to take Quebec, he brought with him reinforcements, supplies, and much needed artillery.

We’ll talk about Montgomery and Arnold’s assault on the city in our next episode…

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