March On Quebec

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Dorchester Heights, Boston, September 3, 1775

On that dusty gray Sunday morning, Benedict Arnold, a newly commissioned Colonel in the Continental Army, accompanied his Commander in Chief, George Washington, and reviewed the 16,000 troops laying siege to British-held Boston. Riding a big chestnut horse and resplendent in the scarlet uniform he had designed, the forceful Arnold called for volunteers willing to undertake a bold and dangerous mission: he had persuaded Washington that, if they could move quickly, Quebec City could be taken before the British could bring reinforcement from England. He would only need independent authority and 1,000 men for a surprise attack on the enemy stronghold through the Maine woods. Men volunteered in droves.

For the march on Quebec, Arnold was inventing a new kind of unit: a light infantry regiment specially adapted to amphibious raids. During the French and Indian War, Robert Rogers’ famous Rangers had conducted long-range scouts and raids across lakes, rivers, and mountains, but, living off the land, had not had to deal with the logistics of transporting substantial supplies. For all except the Rangers and small Indian raiding parties, the dense backwoods of northern New England had acted as an effective barrier to overland travel between the colonies and Canada. During that war, the total absence of roads and scarcity of trails, ineffective maps, and a topography tortured by glaciers had forced the British to launch most attacks on French Canada by sea. Even if everything went right—and things would go horribly wrong—Arnold’s plan of marching and paddling 400 miles seemed next to impossible.

But Arnold was a man who embraced long odds. In joint command with Ethan Allen, he had captured Fort Ticonderoga in a daring early morning assault, then sailed up Lake Champlain and seized several British ships and a fort at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec. From captured dispatches, he knew there were only 750 redcoats in all Canada.

Slimming the mass of volunteers to 1,080 men, Arnold dispatched a courier ahead to Gardiner, Maine, to commission shipwright Reuben Colburn to build 200 lightweight bateaux. From surveyor Samuel Goodrich he ordered maps for his battalion commanders, all unknowing that both men were loyalists opposed to the Revolution.

To make the maps, Arnold relied on the travel diary of British Engineer Capt. John André, who had accompanied the British march down the Kennebec from Quebec Province during the French and Indian War. As was the custom of the time, André had created two diaries: one accurate, the other bogus, to throw off any enemy using it. Arnold had somehow acquired the wrong one.

The drive on Quebec hit snags from the outset, and bureaucratic entanglements delayed departure for more than two weeks. Finally, under a heavy fog, Arnold threaded his makeshift fleet by night through the British blockade toward Maine. He soon learned to his dismay that a summerlong drought had all but dried up the Kennebec, exposing rocks and shoals. Instead of sailing upriver to Gardiner, his force would have to march along the riverbank, laboriously lining their overloaded canoes around the river’s multiple hazards.

At Colburn’s shipyards he received yet another shock—a meadow full of badly built bateaux, created from heavy, wet, green planks that would shrink over their even heavier oak frames, leaving open wide fissures to the water. These hastily-constructed, undersized, and overweight boats would have to be worked through 350 miles of rough water and portages on a route that would turn out to be 200 miles longer than Arnold’s maps indicated. Three more days went to caulking the boats and building 20 replacements.

Leaves were already turning and temperatures plunging before Arnold could finally shove off on September 27. On every portage it took four men to carry each empty bateau, which dug hard into their shoulders as they scrambled uphill over thickly wooded dirt paths and around high waterfalls.

At Skowhegan the soldiers bullied the boats up a three-mile slope while teams of men marched alongside, bent under the weight of barrels and bearskin-wrapped bundles of provisions, covering only half the distance Arnold had anticipated. Most of the men had never poled a boat before, and so they waded and hauled the laden bateaux more than halfway up the river. One man wrote they could have been mistaken “for amphibious animals, as they were a great part of the time under water.” They slept on the ground in wet uniforms, their clothing “frozen a pane of glass thick.”

The next day Arnold ordered the boats ashore, emptied out the cargo, and sorted through the waterlogged supplies. The planks had leaked, the barrels filling with water. Salted meat and cod had begun to rot. Flour and peas had turned into a moldy paste. He stopped the expedition for eight days to make repairs—precious days that pushed the men further into the heart of winter.

At 4 a.m. on October 18, Arnold awakened as a wall of water roared through the river basin, stirred up by a West India hurricane. The river rose 12 feet, sweeping away most of the remaining food and gear. Seven boatloads of food, guns, gunpowder, and clothing were lost. Leaving “Camp Disaster,” he saw some of his men eating candles.