This Day in History: Benedict Arnold prepares to invade Canada
On this day in 1775, a force led by Benedict Arnold works to complete a long trek through the Maine wilderness. The journey had nearly done everyone in! Unfortunately, it wasn’t over yet.
Do you know about American attempts to seize portions of Canada during the American Revolution? This particular attempt was the brainchild of none other than the audacious Benedict Arnold. Remember: He was a Patriot for years before he married a Loyalist and turned traitor.
Arnold met with George Washington and proposed taking an old, little-used route through the area that would later become the State of Maine. It was uncharted territory, full of rocky rivers, swamps, and forests. The British would never believe that an entire army could traverse such land! If Arnold pulled it off, then he would be able to arrive in Canada and launch an attack on Quebec before the British even realized that he was there.
Washington endorsed the idea. He dispatched Arnold to Canada, along with about 1,000 men. Included in the group were Daniel Morgan, Henry Dearborn and a young Aaron Burr.
Arnold and his men successfully sailed to Maine, undetected by British ships. At the Kennebec River, they acquired flat-bottomed boats that had been specifically ordered for the mission. Arnold’s report to Washington surely conveys his disappointment: “I found the Batteaus compleated, but many of them smaller than the Directions given, & very badly built.”
Badly built or not, the men set off with their boats at the end of September.
If anything, the trip was even more difficult than anticipated. The river was swift-moving and full of obstacles. Sometimes the men had to pull their boats out of the water and haul them overland until they could find a place to get back in the water. The badly built boats began to warp and leak. One soldier later wrote:
“Could we have then come within reach of the villains who constructed these crazy things, they would fully have experienced the effects of our vengeance. Many of them were little better than common rafts, and in several of them our provisions and camp equipage were much injured.”
The journey must have seemed interminably long. Water got into food barrels, spoiling much of the group’s provisions. The weather turned freezing; wet clothing froze. Trees had to be cleared. Men drank stagnant water. They even got caught in the remnants of a hurricane! Through everything, Arnold kept his men going. One soldier wrote that he “was brave, even to temerity; [and] was beloved by the soldiery.” Arnold eventually took off ahead of the group, hoping to find food and bring it back to his struggling men.
By the end of October, the group was approaching the Chaudière River. But, by then, some of them literally could not go any further. Men simply fell down and died. Can you believe that one woman was on the trip with her husband? He died in her arms. One soldier later related: “Having no implements with which she could bury him she covered him with leaves, and then took his gun and other implements and left him with a heavy heart.” The soldiers were so hungry that some of them killed and ate Henry Dearborn’s dog. Dearborn was too tired to fight the decision.
On the evening of November 2, some of the men saw cows walking toward them. By then, the men were nearly delirious, and they thought they were hallucinating. How relieved they must have been when they grasped what had happened. Arnold had made it to the nearest Canadian village and sent back food! Arnold’s men straggled in, a little at a time. But they had made it through the wilderness, against all odds.
Naturally, the tale of Arnold’s trek to Quebec is not over yet. Stay tuned for more in a few weeks.
John Joseph Henry, Account of Arnold’s campaign against Quebec (1877)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (September 21, 1775)
Letter from Colonel Benedict Arnold to George Washington (September 25-27, 1775)
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)