- Historic Sites
Why Benedict Arnold Did It
To the end of his life America’s most infamous traitor believed he was the hero of the Revolution
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
The troubles were just beginning. At Gardinerstown on the lower Kennebec, he found the two hundred lightweight bateaux he had ordered only three weeks earlier, but they were built from uncaulked green wood, and each weighed about four hundred pounds. Loaded with gear, they would be half a ton, terribly heavy for four men to carry over long portages. But with winter hard on the heels of fall, there wasn’t time to rebuild. Continuing north on September 22, Arnold’s men pulled and poled up the Kennebec to Fort Western. The boats proved to be ‘Very leaky” and took a beating from river-bottom rocks exposed by a long drought. Moving slowly, the inexperienced soldiers had to carry the waterlogged bateaux up the slippery and almost perpendicular hundred-foot-high slopes beside Ticonic Falls near Skowhegan. “You would have taken the men for amphibious animals,” Arnold wrote to Washington, “as they were a great part of the time under water.”
Arnold had estimated the distance through the wilderness at two hundred miles. Actually it was nearly double that. By the beginning of October men who had thrashed through foaming rapids all day slept on the ground in clothing “frozen a pane of glass thick.” On October 3 Arnold, inspecting the boats, found cracked barrels of beef swarming with maggots, rotted fish, and containers of flour and peas turned into putty. By now the army had reached the Dead River and was bogged down in nightmarish swamps.
Toward the end of the month, a hurricane struck the troops at four in the morning, driving a twelve-foot wall of water down the Dead River and scattering food, guns, and boats over two miles. One division after another became lost in the flooded swamps, wading all night through raging cold water. When rain turned to six inches of wet snow, the rear-guard division, under Col. Roger Enos of Connecticut, decided to go home, taking most of the remaining food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Arnold left his army behind and made a dash for the first settlement in Canada to find food. He “paddled on briskly,” sending back three Maine guides—maps provided for the march by an unsuspected Loyalist surveyor had proved treacherously inaccurate—and orders to jettison the heavy boats and to cram all food and gunpowder into knapsacks. The army was down to eating roots and bark and broth from boiling shoes, candles, cartridge boxes.
Six days after Arnold’s departure, the forward troops spotted “men and horses and cattle making toward us” as they staggered along beside the Chaudiµre into Canada. Arnold had reached the French settlement at St. Georges, Quebec, bought all the available livestock, and sent it back. Fifty-one days after swinging out of Cambridge, the American army, 40 percent of it lost to death or desertion, stumbled into the huts of St. Georges. When word of Arnold’s survival reached Washington, he hailed Arnold as an officer of “great merit and trust.” In the Continental Congress a North Carolina delegate praised “that little army” as equal to “Hannibal’s over the Alps.”
Arnold could not salvage enough equipment or men from the wreckage to make an immediate attack on Quebec. Not one of the two hundred bateaux remained, and all the gunpowder was ruined. With the help of Indians he was able to round up enough birchbark canoes to face the fast-moving mile-wide St. Lawrence, whipped into whitecaps by a winter storm. Through three days of snow squalls, Arnold waited for a moonless night, when his men could slip past British patrol boats. During that wait tough Loyalist veterans of the French and Indian War who made up the Royal Highland Emigrants marched into Quebec, fortifying the city’s defenses. Arnold was too late.
Outnumbered by more than two to one, and without artillery, Arnold had to wait until reinforcements arrived. The Americans did not attack until New Year’s Eve. On the last day of American enlistments, Arnold led the main push on the Lower Town while Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery stormed the barricades below Cape Diamond in a blinding blizzard, his column of three hundred New Yorkers slithering over great chunks of river ice for an hour just to get there. Arriving at the first palisades, they sawed off timbers, and Montgomery stepped through a gap, leading his officers toward a silent two-story blockhouse. When he was within forty feet, three cannons fired at once, killing Montgomery and several of his officers. His second-in-command led a precipitous retreat of the entire New York division, freeing the Quebec garrison to pour “a tremendous fire of musketry” into Arnold’s thin column as it snaked through deep snow toward the Lower Town.
Arnold led the charge up to a log barricade, where he ordered Capt. Daniel Morgan and his riflemen to jam their rifles into gun slits and fire pointblank at the defenders. As Arnold waved his men over the barricade, he felt his right leg go numb. He tried to run on but pitched forward into the snow. He got up and hopped through volley after volley from houses close in on both sides. The bullet had missed Arnold’s boot top, ricocheting from the shin onto the inner bone of his leg and then lodging in the Achilles’ tendon. Dragged to a hospital, where a surgeon probed his leg, he learned the grim news: Morgan had taken over Arnold’s 500-man force and kept fighting houseto-house for another three hours. About 80 men were killed or wounded, and 426 had been forced to surrender. Of the 300 men who had survived the trip up the Kennebec, 100 remained.