This Day in History: Benedict Arnold’s first attempt at Quebec
On this day in 1775, Benedict Arnold launches his first attack on the city of Quebec. It didn’t go very well.
Readers of this page may recall that, in late September 1775, Arnold undertook a daring mission. He led a force of about 1,000 men on an unusual path through the Maine wilderness. His goal was to arrive in Canada, undetected, and to launch a surprise attack on Quebec. Unfortunately, the trek through Maine was far harder than anticipated. Many did not make it. The rest barely endured starvation and freezing weather. They stumbled out of the wilderness during the first few days of November. Let’s just say that they weren’t exactly at the top of their game by this point. (See October 29 history post.)
Arnold, of course, was still determined to attack Quebec. But he would need to get across the St. Lawrence River first.
Bad weather prevented a crossing for several days. Finally, on the night of November 13, Arnold got his opportunity. He had his men go across the river in canoes. One man later reported that several canoes unfortunately “upset, by which accident we lost some muskets, and baggage, but no lives, though some of us very narrowly escaped.” Once on the other shore, a few men started fires to keep warm.
Unfortunately, a British patrol saw the light. A few shots were taken. It seems to have been enough to give Arnold away.
The next morning, Arnold led his men toward the walls of Quebec. Huge crowds stood atop the walls. They were waiting for the Americans’ arrival.
Arnold’s men, of course, were still a bit of a wreck. They must have been quite a sight to those who watched from Quebec! They couldn’t really have had a chance to recover from their exhausting journey through Maine. After they emerged from that journey, one man wrote that “it was not with us as with the children of Israel, that our cloathes waxed not old, ours were torn in pieces by the bushes, and hung in strings.” All in all, he thought the group of them “resembled the animals which inhabit New-Spain, called the Ourang-Outang.”
Arnold dispatched a soldier under a white flag with a letter demanding the city’s surrender. The soldier was not even allowed entry. Instead, a cannonball was flung his way, causing him to beat a hasty retreat.
In the end, Arnold simply wasn’t equipped for this fight. Much of his gunpowder had been lost in Maine, and he was outmaneuvered by the soldiers in Quebec. He eventually retreated.
Arnold may have been a traitor at the end of the Revolution, but at the beginning of the war, he was an entirely different man. He was audacious, daring, and determined to win victories for the American side! Who else would have approached Quebec with a half-starved, bedraggled group of men, thinking he could force a surrender?
Naturally, he would try again soon. Stay tuned for the rest of the story in December!
James Thomas Flexner, The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John Andre (1991)
John Joseph Henry, Account of Arnold’s campaign against Quebec (1877)
Steve Sheinkin, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2013)
Thomas A. Desjardin, Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec, 1775 (2007)