March On Quebec


On October 23 Arnold called an emergency council of war. That evening he knelt in front of the headquarters fire, raising his voice to be heard above the sputtering and hissing of the wet firewood and the coughing of the score of miserable officers from his first two battalions. Those present would later remember Arnold’s eyes flashing as he acknowledged that the hardships were worse than anyone had imagined, the maps bad, and food dwindling to starvation point. Yet only one man had died, and although exhausted, the soldiers otherwise remained healthy. He continued his speech, powerfully outlining his case for pushing on to Canada, which he felt was feasible if remaining supplies were evenly divided and strictly rationed. In the face of such indomitable spirit and careful planning, the officers voted to continue the campaign.

Arnold issued a stream of orders—sending back the sick and weak, redistributing rations, and moving the strongest men forward. Runners headed downstream with orders for the second in command, Lt. Col. Roger Enos. Little did Arnold know, but Enos had called his own council of war, which had decided that the 350 men of the rear battalion would turn back to Massachusetts, taking with them most of the remaining provisions and all the medical supplies. When Arnold learned of Enos’s decision three days later, he flew into a rage.

Enos’s loss of nerve effectively dashed Arnold’s chances of taking Quebec by surprise. Bitterly disappointed, Arnold ordered his officers to abandon the remaining bateaux to conserve the men’s strength; they were now down to half a cup of flour a day, an ounce of pork, and broth made from bark. Arnold had to make a difficult decision. It was obvious that the maps had failed him and his force was likely to become hopelessly lost if not well guided. Yet his men would starve if their rations were not replenished. He decided he must go on and find food, judging it better to risk the main body becoming temporarily lost than for them to starve.

With several Indian guides and 15 soldiers, he paddled on toward Canada to seek food from the French settlements on the Chaudière River, covering 13 miles by 10 in the morning. Behind him, his men faced the dangerous mountainous borderlands called the Height of Land. The officers gave their morsels of pork to the men. Some took raw hides intended to make shoes, chopped them up, singed off the hair, boiled them, and wrung the juice into their canteens.

Day after day, what was left of Arnold’s proud little army struggled, the men often stripping naked and crossing unnamed frigid lakes and rivers with their clothes wrapped around rifles held over their heads. Heavy snowfalls were now common, and the exhausted men barely had the strength to kick aside the sodden ground cover and collapse in their soaked uniforms. When they finally crossed into Canada following the Chaudière toward Quebec, they found the bateaux of their advance party shattered and scattered along riverbanks after they had plunged over 20-foot waterfalls. Men had drowned or died when they could no longer be carried.

After eight miles of trudging on November 3, the regimental doctor stopped and rubbed his eyes at “a vision of horned cattle . . . three horned cattle and two horses.” Six days after racing ahead of his men and nearly losing his life in the falls, Arnold had sent back lifesaving livestock and supplies—along with the orders that anyone who had provisions left was to let the livestock pass to the rear, where the weakest lagged behind. Soon two birch-bark canoes appeared, laden with cornmeal, mutton for the sick, and even tobacco bought from the habitants. After the first real meal after many days, the restored army marched 20 miles, in all covering 30 before camping. That day and next, Arnold was in constant motion up and down the line, making sure all his men were fed.

At 10:30 p.m. on November 3, 1775, Arnold’s column, down to 675 of the 1,080 men who had left Cambridge 51 days earlier—nearly 40 percent of the army lost by death and desertion—reeled like drunkards into the first French settlement, their bare feet leaving bloodstains on the snowy riverbank. “Our clothes were torn in pieces by the bushes and hung in strings,” wrote one man. “Few of us had any shoes, but moccasins made of new skins—many of us without hats—and beards long and visages thin and meager. I thought we much resembled the animals which inhabit New Spain called the Ourang-outang.”

Benedict Arnold was too late to take the prime prize of Quebec, now heavily reinforced by Scottish Highlanders under veteran officers, but his arrival across the St. Lawrence from the walled city boosted American morale as news of the march of “that brave little army” reached Congress and was spread by newspapers.

Arnold’s report to Washington contained only praise for the men, no self-applause. The fact that only Enos’s force had turned back and that every other soldier had kept on to the objective or died trying to attested to Arnold’s triumphant leadership. He did not mention that he had personally covered the distance nearly three times, almost died when he narrowly missed shooting over the falls, or that he too was no less weak, bearded, and half-starved than those who had so steadily followed him.

The tribute that pleased Arnold the most came from just those men who had the most right to complain: “Our bold though inexperienced general discovered such firmness and zeal as inspired us with resolution,” wrote one private. “The hardships and fatigues he encountered, he accounted as nothing in comparison with the salvation of his country.”