On this day in 1776, General George Washington writes a letter emphasizing the importance of winning Canada, then under British rule. He wrote the letter to Benedict Arnold, of all people! But remember: Arnold was a Patriot before he turned traitor.
“I need not mention to you,” Washington wrote Arnold, “the great importance of this place, & the consequent possession of all Canada in the Scale of American affairs.”
Washington believed that Canada would be vital to the American cause during the Revolution. Given how things turned out, it’s pretty fortunate that he was wrong. But he was just echoing what many Americans then believed—or at least hoped.
Early in the Revolution, the American colonists hoped to win over their neighbors in Canada. In many ways, America and Canada were in a similar situation. Both were territories of Great Britain. Would Canadian rights be trampled as surely as American rights were? Could Americans create a partnership with Canada?
As early as 1774, the Continental Congress had written a letter to the inhabitants of Quebec. The letter emphasized that *both* Canadian and American rights were in danger: “These are the rights you are entitled to and ought at this moment in perfection, to exercise,” the congressional missive noted, “And what is offered to you by the late Act of Parliament in their place? Liberty of conscience in your religion? No.”
The letter asked Canadians to join with Americans.
Obviously, Canadians did not join in the Revolution, but Americans had another problem on their hands. Canada offered the perfect staging ground for British troops who wished to invade America. And, by 1775, Americans were receiving reports that the British in Canada were preparing to invade New York. Thus, two invasions of Canada were authorized: Colonel Benedict Arnold was to lead roughly 1,000 men through Maine, toward Quebec. In the meantime, another force went toward St. Johns and Montreal.
Arnold ran into trouble with treacherous terrain and difficult weather. When he reached Quebec in November 1775, he had about 600 to 650 men remaining. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery later brought about 300 more men to join Arnold.
Arnold ordered an ill-fated attack on Quebec at the end of December 1775. Many of his men’s enlistments were expiring at the end of the year, and he wanted to attack before then. The attack went terribly and roughly 400 of his small force were captured. Montgomery was killed, and Arnold himself was injured. Nevertheless, Arnold continued to lay in wait outside Quebec until the spring of 1776, when he was forced into a retreat.
Indeed, Americans would never gain any real foothold in Canada. Perhaps it is fortunate that victory in Canada was not quite as critical as Washington thought it was on this day so long ago.
Yet isn’t it interesting to think about the forks in the road of history and how things could have been different? What if Canada had joined our Revolution and become part of the United States? What if Patriots had seized land in Canada during the American Revolution? How would our world look like today?
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Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War (2008)
Hal T. Shelton, General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel (1994)
Jeff Dacus, The Siege that Saved Quebec (Journal of the American Revolution; Jan. 20, 2014)
Letter from the Continental Congress to the Inhabitants of Quebec (May 29, 1775) (reprinted HERE)
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (2019)
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)