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This Day in History: Benedict Arnold’s audacious attack on Quebec

On this day in 1775, the Battle of Quebec is fought. American General Richard Montgomery is killed. Benedict Arnold is wounded. Daniel Morgan and more than 400 others are captured.


I guess you could say that it didn’t go too well.

"The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775," by John Trumbull

Readers of this page may recall that Benedict Arnold undertook a daring mission during the fall of 1775. Remember, Arnold was a hero and a Patriot for many years before he turned traitor! He was dying to undertake the mission, however dangerous it might be.


With George Washington’s blessing, Arnold led a force of about 1,000 men through the Maine wilderness. His goal was to arrive in Canada, undetected, and launch a surprise attack on Quebec. Unfortunately, the trek through Maine was much harder than anticipated. Many did not make it. The rest barely endured starvation and freezing weather. They stumbled out of the wilderness in early November. (See October 29 history post.) Naturally, the audacious Arnold was undeterred! He attempted to attack Quebec on November 14, despite the bedraggled state of his men. The attempt stalled before it even started. Arnold decided to retreat and wait for the reinforcements that were coming with Montgomery. (See November 14 post)


Montgomery arrived with 300 men in early December. He and Arnold were stuck in a difficult situation: Americans lacked sufficient supplies for a proper siege; however, the men’s enlistments were set to expire at the end of the year. Something had to be done! Montgomery sent the British commander calls for surrender, but they went unheeded. He bombarded the city, but the British responded in kind. One of these shots from the British side killed Jemima Warner. Remember her? She was the woman who had trekked through the Maine wilderness with her husband, but had to leave him dead by a tree. (See October 29 post)


Despite all these efforts, Montgomery seemed resigned to the necessity of an attack, writing as early as November that to “the storming plan there are fewer objections; and to this we must come at last.” His Council of War concurred.


The attack came on the last day of the year, in the midst of a snowstorm.


Montgomery had his men stick white pieces of paper in their hats, enabling them to identify friendly soldiers in the thick of the fight. (Reportedly, some men scribbled “liberty or death” on their pieces of paper!) The attack was to come from multiple directions: Arnold would attack from one side while Montgomery attacked from the other. Two smaller diversionary attacks would also be made, to confuse the British about the location of the main attack.


Almost immediately, things went awry. The signal to attack was seen by the British. Nor were they fooled by the small, diversionary attacks. Arnold was hit in the leg early on by a ricocheting bullet. He was carried away in the hopes that his life could be saved, while Daniel Morgan took command of Arnold’s troops. In the meantime, Montgomery was hit by multiple bullets during his first charge. He died instantly, and his men retreated.


The battle continued to rage for a bit, but the writing was on the wall. In the end, more than 400 Americans were captured. Others retreated.


Can you imagine what it was like to be one of those men? First, they suffered an excruciating trek through the Maine wilderness and barely survived. And what had they gotten for their efforts? Seemingly, nothing. Now they were prisoners of war.


Our founding generation must have struggled not to give up in the face of these repeated disappointments and defeat. Instead, our Founders persevered—and ultimately won our freedom. Let’s do the same to keep it.


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