On The Trail Of Benedict Arnold

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Arnold was given a thousand men (among them, a number who went on to become famous or infamous—Daniel Morgan, Henry Dearborn, and those future traitorous rascals James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr) and the challenge of sailing them up the Maine coast into the Kennebec River. There they were to board hastily constructed six-man bateaux to carry on the upriver trip to the Height of Land portage and the run down the tumultuous Chaudière River to the gates of Quebec. All that could be found for guidance was a map drawn by the British cartographer John Montresor in 1761, a map that Arnold didn’t realize had been purposely altered to deceive any potential enemies. Arnold, relying on this poisoned document, thought the distance his army would have to travel was 180 miles when it was actually more than 300, the first of the miscalculations and nasty tricks of fate that would dog the expedition right from the start.

My own fascination with Benedict Arnold began as a boy when I read the novels of Kenneth Roberts, particularly Arundel , which, in describing the march to Quebec, paints Arnold in a heroic monotone that, to a boy going through a rebellious stage himself, was immediately captivating. (It was only later that I read about his treachery; indeed, I may have been the last American ever to feel personally betrayed by Benedict Arnold.)

The street where Arnold was wounded still gives a good idea of what a formidable barrier his men had to storm.

My wife and I picked up Arnold’s trail at Skowhegan, a gritty mill town on Route 2 in central Maine. After a relatively easy upriver trip on the Kennebec, Arnold’s little army faced its first major obstacle: a 100-foot-high wall of cliffs, rapids, and falls. Their formidability is still plainly evident from the vantage point of Coburn Park just east of downtown, where you can see the island Arnold camped on and the steep terraces up and over which his men had to shoulder their bateaux up and over. Behind the Empire Grill downtown is the Skowhegan Watching Place, a narrow footbridge that takes you out over the river and gives an even more vivid sensation of what the army was up against.

These Skowhegan falls turned out to be just the beginning of Arnold’s month-long ordeal. The supply of food began to run out as the soldiers slogged through Great Carrying Place, a shortcut of ponds and bogs that led westward from the Kennebec to the Dead River; game was scarce, and by the time they reached Canada, the men were reduced to eating their leather moccasins. An unusually late New England hurricane struck while they were on the Dead, turning that placid stream into a raging torrent. The hurricane was followed by a blizzard, and a third of Arnold’s men under Col. Roger Enos turned back.

Arnold, who always believed in leading from the front, found the strength of soul to rise above all of this. There had been “a thousand difficulties I never apprehended,” he wrote in his report to Washington; one of his officers called him a “man of invincible courage; ever serene, he defies the greatest danger—you will find him ever the intrepid hero.” He was, more than one of the numerous diarists on the expedition wrote, “beloved by his soldiers.”

The enormous difficulty of this terrain—the wall-like mountains, the maze of rivers, the tenacious understory of briars and vines—remains obvious today. The route that mostly closely approximates his march leads from Skowhegan west to Norridgewock, then northwesterly along Route 16 to North Anson, North New Portland, and then Stratton and Eustis, near the notorious Height of Land, the mountain hump that tilts the watersheds toward Quebec. The Appalachian Trail crosses the highway near Mount Bigelow (named after one of Arnold’s officers), and it’s worth taking a half-hour’s hike just to get an appreciation of what marching through this forest must have been like. (Even as late as the 1930s local woodsmen could tell which way the army had gone by the line of hardwoods that sprang up after Arnold’s axmen had hewn down the original spruce.)

This is a lonely country still, especially on the Height of Land, where Route 16 climbs along Chain of Ponds, where starvation began looming as a very real possibility for the entire force. Driving it on a beautiful mid-July day, we only came across one other person, the proprietor of a small campground on the penultimate of the ponds.

“Yep, came through here all right,” the man said when I asked him about Arnold. He pointed to the flinty shore of the pond. “Why’d he go bad like that anyway?”

I shrugged and gave him the shortest explanation: “Married the wrong person.”

He nodded. “That happens. Well, the next pond you’ll see up the road is Arnold Pond, and after that they had to put their boats on their shoulders and carry them four miles. Heavy boats—wore the skin off down to the bone.”

It is important to try to understand what was in Arnold’s heart as he rode back and forth, forbidden to join the battle.

Surely this is the only corner of the world where Arnold is still remembered as a hero. The gas station in Stratton is called the Arnold Trail Service Station; there’s Arnold Pond near where Maine tips over into Canada, then, once you cross the border, the Rivière Arnold, which runs under Highway 161. My wife and I were delighted to find not one motel but two named after him in Quebec: the simple Motel Arnold in St. Augustin de Woburn, and the more upscale Auberge Benedict Arnold in Ville de St. Georges de Beauce on Highway 173 (the Route de President Kennedy, if one is speaking of heroes). Beauce was, in 1775, the first inhabited town on the Chaudière River and near the place where Arnold, racing ahead of his men, bought the cattle that saved them from starvation.