Benedict Arnold’s Grueling, Failed Attempt to Conquer Canada

Benedict Arnold’s Grueling, Failed Attempt to Conquer Canada

Benedict Arnold is now known mostly as a notorious Revolutionary War traitor who secretly tried to sell out the fort at West Point in exchange for a payoff and a commission in the British Army. But except for a few unfortunate twists of fate, Arnold instead might have gone down in history as one of the war’s great heroes. His audacious plan to lead a 1775 expedition through the wilderness to capture Quebec City was seen as a visionary strategy to prompt the province of Quebec to join the rebellion against the British.

But it didn't work out that way.

Arnold’s expedition turned into a disastrous defeat, one that nearly cost him his own life and helped stunt his career as an American officer. The botched mission started him on the road to disillusionment and treason. But Arnold’s plan itself actually wasn’t that bad of an idea.

Arnold convinced George Washington they needed Canada on their side.

“The strategy itself was brilliant,” explains Willard Sterne Randall, a professor emeritus of history at Champlain College and author of the 1990 biography Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, as well as numerous other works on early American history. “Benedict Arnold was a brilliant strategist, but in this case, a terrible tactician.”

Arnold, who before the war had traded with Canadians and still had contacts there, first approached George Washington in the Spring of 1775 to propose an invasion of Canada, according to Joyce Lee Malcolm’s book The Tragedy of Benedict Arnold. Arnold argued that seizing Quebec had huge potential benefits. In addition to depriving the British of a potential staging area for attacking the 13 colonies from the north, Americans envisioned that French Canadians might seize the opportunity to rise up against the British and join in the fight for independence.

In a June 1775 letter to the Continental Congress, Arnold also wrote that taking Quebec would deprive the British of the lucrative fur trade and secure “an inexhaustible granary” of Canadian wheat to feed Americans.

Washington probably didn’t need that much convincing, because from the American viewpoint, Canada seemed ripe for the picking. The British only had 775 troops in the entire country, according to Randall, and the then-capital of Quebec City was guarded by fewer than 300 soldiers.

Read more: Why Did Benedict Arnold Betray America?

In his letter to the Continental Congress, Arnold envisioned a straightforward march to Montreal. But as detailed in Thomas A. Desjardin’s book Through a Howling Wilderness, Washington opted instead to go with a complicated, two-pronged attack. One part of the force would head up through New York toward Montreal, while to the east, a second 1,050-man contingent led by Arnold would make their way through the Maine wilderness to Quebec City, with the aim of catching the British by surprise.

The expedition to Quebec was grueling.

It might have worked, except that as Randall notes, “everything went wrong.” Because of a holdup in getting pay for the men, the expedition got off to a late start in September. The map obtained by Arnold was inaccurate, and the route turned out to be far longer and more arduous than he had envisioned.

Worse yet, Randall says, the Maine shipbuilder hired by the expedition secretly was a British loyalist, and he deliberately used heavy green wood and left out the caulking, so that the barges laden with supplies soon sank in the Kennebec River. After a brutal hurricane wiped out more of their provisions and equipment, many of Arnold’s men deserted and headed back home. By the time Arnold finally got to his destination in November, he had only 675 starving, poorly armed soldiers left, according to Malcolm’s account.

Meanwhile, Sir Guy Carleton, the skillful, savvy British commander in Canada, had rushed to Quebec City. By the time Arnold got there, British reinforcements—battle-hardened Scottish veterans of the French and Indian War—had arrived to bolster the defenses.

“If Arnold had gotten to Quebec three days earlier, it might have worked,” Randall explains. “He almost pulled it off.”

A New Year's Eve attack in a blizzard fizzled.

Instead, after threatening to inflict “every severity” upon Quebec unless it surrendered, Arnold had to sit and wait for additional troops led by Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery to arrive. As this 1990 article by Randall details, the Americans finally launched their assault on Quebec City on New Year’s Eve in a blinding blizzard, and it quickly turned into a disaster.

A single volley of cannon fire killed Montgomery and most of his officers, and Arnold was severely wounded in the leg by a rifle shot and had to be dragged off the field. (Here is Carleton’s account of the battle.) Most of the American force was killed, wounded or captured, so that of the 300 men who’d survived the journey with Arnold to Quebec, only 100 were left.

The brutal defeat “struck an amazing panick” among the Americans, as Arnold conceded in a dispatch to Washington a few weeks later. But to Arnold’s credit, he didn’t give up. Along with the tattered remainder of his forces, he cleverly kept up the siege, moving a single cannon around and firing at the fort to create the illusion that he had more artillery, according to Randall. In that fashion, Arnold held out until spring, when reinforcements from New England arrived, and he was ordered to return home.

“Arnold was superseded and pushed aside,” Randall says. It was the start of a pattern, in which his field experience and bravery was disregarded and he was repeatedly passed over in favor of other officers. “This was the beginning of his dilemma about which side to be on.”

Eventually, the arrival of a British fleet carrying 10,000 British regulars and German mercenaries in May 1776 forced the Americans to retreat for good.

The Quebec Act sealed French Canadians' allegiance to the British.

The French Canadian uprising that Arnold and others had hoped for never materialized, thanks to the property and religious rights that the British had conferred in the Quebec Act of 1774. “The French Canadians were Catholics, and they’d just been given legal status by the British,” Randall explains. “They saw the American invasion as a Protestant invasion.”

Despite his failure to take Quebec, Arnold eventually did manage to prevent the British from attacking from the north. In October 1776, he hastily put together a small fleet of ships that met Carleton’s invading force in the Battle of Valcour Island, and put up such fierce resistance that the British had to turn back. Four years later, Arnold would switch sides—and cement his legacy as one of the most infamous traitors in history.

American Revolution: Major General Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold V was born January 14, 1741, to successful businessman Benedict Arnold III and his wife Hannah. Raised in Norwich, CT, Arnold was one of six children though only two, he and his sister Hannah, survived to adulthood. The loss of the other children led Arnold's father to alcoholism and prevented him from teaching his son the family business. First educated at a private school in Canterbury, Arnold was able to secure an apprenticeship with his cousins who operated mercantile and apothecary businesses in New Haven.

In 1755, with the French & Indian War raging he attempted to enlist in the militia but was stopped by his mother. Successful two years later, his company departed to relieve Fort William Henry but returned home before seeing any fighting. With the death of his mother in 1759, Arnold increasingly had to support his family due to his father's declining condition. Three years later, his cousins loaned him the money to open an apothecary and bookstore. A skilled merchant, Arnold was able to raise the money to buy three ships in partnership with Adam Babcock. These traded profitably until the imposition of the Sugar and Stamp Acts.

Benedict Arnold: America’s Most Famous Traitor

Benedict Arnold, despite the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices he made on behalf of American independence, is probably known best for being a traitor. In the middle of the Revolutionary War, he changed sides, abandoning the Americans’ fight for independence in return for the military rank and financial reward he received in the British army. Prior to his treason, however, Arnold compiled an impressive string of accomplishments on behalf of the colonial cause. His treason is so well known, in part, because of his bravery and meritorious service to the Continental army in the early years of the war.

The Arnold Family in Connecticut

Birthplace of Benedict Arnold, Norwich, ca. 1851 – Connecticut Historical Society

Arnold came from a proud background. His great-great grandfather was one of the founders of Rhode Island, and his great-grandfather Benedict won election as governor of Rhode Island five times. When his father Benedict Arnold III, a cooper, moved to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1730, he married Hannah Waterman King, the daughter of one of the town’s founders.

Benedict was born in Norwich on January 14, 1741—one of only two of his parents’ six children to survive childhood. He was a bold, fearless child who enjoyed physical activity. He received a good education in his early years, but left school at fourteen when his father began drinking heavily after the collapse of the family business. Arnold then apprenticed himself to a cousin who was an apothecary (an early word for a pharmacist or druggist) in Norwich, but soon ran away to fight in the French and Indian War. His mother died in 1758 followed by his father in 1761, at which point Arnold moved to New Haven and set up a store that sold books, drugs, and jewelry near Yale College.

Benedict Arnold’s shop sign from George Street, New Haven, ca. 1760 – New Haven Museum

Revolutionary War Hero

While in New Haven, Arnold met his first wife, Margaret Mansfield. They married on February 22, 1767, and had three children. Arnold became a shrewd and prosperous trader in New Haven while also joining the local militia in 1774 and being named its captain soon thereafter. In April of 1775, after learning about the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, Arnold organized his men in preparation for a march to Cambridge to aid in the fight against the British.

After witnessing just how little firepower the colonials possessed in Cambridge, Arnold launched an attack to capture British artillery at Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775. The attack was a success, despite Arnold’s conflicts with Vermont folk hero Ethan Allen over command of the assault.

The following fall, Arnold led a grueling march through the Maine wilderness in an attempt to capture the Canadian city of Quebec. The attack, on the final day of the year, ultimately failed and Arnold received a debilitating wound to his left leg. After recuperating, he spent the remainder of 1776 withdrawing from Canada while preventing the British from advancing down the Hudson River.

On April 27, 1777, Arnold confronted British forces under former New York governor William Tryon in Ridgefield. Tryon’s forces, after burning the town of Danbury, headed back toward their ships in Long Island Sound when Arnold mounted an attack in which a witness later claimed Arnold “exhibited the greatest marks of bravery, coolness, and fortitude.” Arnold had a horse shot out from under him and repeatedly exposed himself to fire, but despite his bravery, proved unable to cut off the British withdrawal.

The Battle of Saratoga

Perhaps Benedict Arnold’s greatest military achievement came later that fall in two conflicts (on September 19 and October 7, 1777) referred to as the Battle of Saratoga. Once again Arnold’s propensity for action led him into the thick of the battle where he received a wound in the same leg injured in Quebec, but not before he helped rally troops in defeat of General John Burgoyne’s British forces as they attempted to sever New England from the rest of the colonies. The victories at Saratoga influenced the French decision to join the war against the British.

With his mobility significantly impaired by his shattered left leg —physicians at Saratoga wanted to amputate it, but Arnold refused and later suffered horrific infections and terrible pain—he requested an appointment as military commander of the city of Philadelphia in June of 1778. While there, colonists accused him of engaging in profiteering and socializing with Americans loyal to Great Britain. One of these “Tories” was Margaret (“Peggy”) Shippen, the woman who became Arnold’s second wife in April 1779.

Arnold Commits Treason

Years of dedication to the patriot cause led to little recognition or reward for Arnold. He never received appropriate credit for his actions at Ticonderoga or Saratoga, the Continental Congress repeatedly overlooked him for promotion, and his temper and confrontational style made him many enemies in the army. In addition to being brave and hotheaded, Arnold often succumbed to vanity and greed. All of these factors may have played a part in his decision to commit treason. Charged with corruption during his military command of Philadelphia and facing a court-martial, Arnold, through his wife, contacted the British command with an offer to turn the strategically valuable Hudson River defenses at West Point over to the British in return for money and designation as an officer in the British army.

A sketch of New London & Groton with the attacks made on Forts Trumbull & Griswold by the British troops under the command of Brigr. Genl. Arnold, Sept. 6th, 1781 – Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Benedict Arnold requested and received command of West Point from Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. He arrived there on August 5, 1780, and proceeded to weaken the garrison while feeding vital logistical information to the British. Colonial authorities accidentally uncovered Arnold’s treasonous plan after capturing British Major John André, fresh from a meeting with Arnold and in possession of the plans for West Point. Before word of the treason reached George Washington (who was on his way to visit Arnold at West Point), Arnold managed to escape to the British warship Vulture and begin his new life as a brigadier general in the British army.

A British Commander and Citizen

After joining the British army, Arnold saw limited action, mostly leading raids along the Virginia and Connecticut coasts. Arnold led a raid on the town of New London on September 6, 1781, that destroyed a number of privateering ships and colonial stores, but the burning of the town and the killing of surrendering Continental soldiers further damaged Arnold’s reputation.

Arnold set sail for England with Peggy after British general Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781. He returned to North America in 1785, seeking to establish a business in New Brunswick. His wife and children joined him in 1787, but a fire the following year destroyed his business. The family returned to England in 1791. Arnold spent his remaining years living on a modest pension and repeatedly petitioning the British government for additional funds and military appointments. He died in relative obscurity in London on June 14, 1801.

Gregg Mangan is an author and historian who holds a PhD in public history from Arizona State University.

Planning [ edit | edit source ]

A 1760 map by British engineer John Montresor that Arnold used as a guide

Arnold, who had hoped to lead the invasion, decided to pursue a different approach to Quebec. He went to Cambridge, Massachusetts in early August 1775, and approached George Washington with the idea of a second eastern invasion force aimed at Quebec City. Ε] Washington approved of the idea in principle, but sent a message to General Schuyler on August㺔 to ensure his support of the endeavor, since the two forces would need to coordinate their efforts. Ζ]

Arnold's plan called for the expedition to sail from Newburyport, Massachusetts along the coast and then up the Kennebec River to Fort Western (now Augusta, Maine). From there, they would use shallow-draft river boats called bateaux to continue up the Kennebec River, cross the height of land to Lake Mégantic, and descend the Chaudière River to Quebec. Η] Arnold expected to cover the 180 miles (290 km) from Fort Western to Quebec in 20 days, ⎖] despite the fact that little was known about the route. Η] Arnold had acquired a map (copy pictured at left) and journal made by British military engineer John Montresor in 1760 and 1761, but Montresor's descriptions of the route were not very detailed, and Arnold did not know that the map contained some inaccuracies or that some details had been deliberately removed or obscured. ⎗] ⎘]

Washington introduced Arnold to Reuben Colburn, a boat builder from Gardinerston, Maine, who was in Cambridge at the time. Colburn offered his services, and Arnold requested detailed information about the route, including potential British naval threats, Indian sentiment, useful supply opportunities, and an estimate of how long it would take to construct bateaux sufficient for the contemplated force. Colburn left for Maine on August㺕 to fulfill these requests. ⎙] Colburn asked Samuel Goodwin, the local surveyor in Gardinerston, to provide maps for Arnold. Goodwin, who was known to have Loyalist sympathies, provided maps that were inaccurate in the routes, distances and other important features they described. ⎘]

On Septemberق, Washington received a letter from General Schuyler in reply to his August㺔 message. Schuyler agreed with the suggested plan, and Washington and Arnold immediately began to raise troops and place orders for supplies. ⎚]

A Deadly Scourge: Smallpox During the Revolutionary War

During the Revolutionary War, one of the greatest threats to the Army came not from enemy bullets, but from disease. Perhaps the most dreaded disease was smallpox, caused by a virus that kills one out of every three infected people. Because smallpox was common in England, most British soldiers had already been exposed and were immune, but the disease was less common in America and the average Continental Soldier was not.

This 1802 engraving by James Gillray reveals popular fears over inoculation. The woman expresses her fear and hesitation as her companions experience bizarre transformations resulting from inoculation. This type of hysterical fear was common in an age when diseases were poorly understood and doctors could be as dangerous as any illness. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As early as 1775, General George Washington knew smallpox was a serious problem for his Army. Throughout the fall and into the winter of 1775, an outbreak raged in the city of Boston. Rumors abounded that the British were deliberately spreading the disease. When the British finally evacuated Boston in March 1776, only Soldiers who had already had the disease were allowed into the city. Washington ordered his doctors to keep a sharp watch for smallpox and to send infected men to the isolation hospital immediately.

Washington faced a difficult choice: whether or not to inoculate his Army. Inoculated Soldiers would develop a mild case of the disease which most would survive. They would then be immune. His other option was to do nothing other than isolate and treat the sick and hope the Army avoided a major outbreak. There were three problems with inoculation. The first was that inoculated Soldiers could transmit smallpox until fully recovered, so an inoculation program could trigger an uncontrollable epidemic. Secondly, the inoculated Soldiers would be unfit for duty for weeks while recovering, and as many as 2% of his Soldiers could die. If the British attacked while the men were out of commission the Army could be destroyed. The third was that the inoculation process was simple enough that the men could do it themselves in secret.

Smallpox struck the Northern Army at Quebec, where many officers and men were secretly inoculating themselves, thus intensifying the epidemic. According to General Benedict Arnold, some 1,200 of the approximately 3,200 Continentals in the Montreal area were unfit for duty, most of them sick with smallpox. By the end of May 1776, the situation of Northern Department patients was “almost Sufficient to excite the pity of Brutes, Large barns [being] filled with men at the very heighth of smallpox and not the least things, to make them comfortable and medicines being needed at both Fort George and Ticonderoga.”

Smallpox threatened the destruction of the entire Army. Major General John Thomas, Commander of the Army in Quebec, died of smallpox. “The smallpox,” mourned John Adams, “is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together.” By mid-July 1776, an estimated three thousand men of the Northern Army were sick, most with smallpox. Eventually the epidemic eased and General Gates wrote to Washington that “the Smallpox is now perfectly removed from the Army.” What exactly occurred has been lost to history, but sources suggest that the Northern Army proceeded with an inoculation program without authorization.

Soldiers receive immunizations at the Army Medical School circa 1920. Today the Army vaccinates all Soldiers for a wide variety of diseases on a regular basis, a practice that dates back to the days of George Washington and the Revolutionary War. Image courtesy of the Center of Military History.

This was a risky move. Until mid-1776, the only authorized preventative measure was isolation of the sick. Inoculation was forbidden, though many Soldiers secretly inoculated themselves. When

Washington moved his Army to New York, he established a smallpox isolation hospital on an island in the East River and ordered a halt to all inoculations. The general warned that “any disobedience to this order will be most severely punished.” The Continental Congress supported Washington, and when a private physician in the State of New York was caught inoculating soldiers he was jailed.

Despite these precautions, smallpox fear grew among the men of the Continental Army. Recruiting suffered, and by late June, official attitudes toward inoculation began to change. Despite precautions, the illness continued to spread. By August 1776, some troops were being inoculated in segregated camps.

Washington still feared triggering an epidemic, so he took careful precautions to ensure the isolation of soldiers undergoing inoculation, moving them out of Philadelphia and into nearby segregated hospitals. He suggested sheltering newly infected soldiers in houses in the remote countryside and urged that inoculated Soldiers remain in isolation until fully recovered, and then issued either new or “well washed, air’d and smoaked” clothing. He recommended that the individual states immunize their recruits before sending them to join the Army.

In February 1777, while encamped at Morristown, Washington became convinced that only inoculation would prevent the destruction of his Army. Emphasizing the need for secrecy and speed, Washington ordered the inoculation of all troops. Because Virginia forbade inoculation, Washington asked Governor Patrick Henry to support the program, writing that smallpox “is more destructive to an Army in the Natural way, than the Enemy’s Sword.”

In the end, the gamble paid off. Fewer than 1% of the Soldiers died from being inoculated, and the program was so successful in controlling smallpox that he repeated it in the Valley Forge winter of 1778.

Adapted from: Gillet, Mary C. “Chapter 3: From Siege to Retreat, 1775 to May 1777,” The Army Medical Department, 1775-1818. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1981. Courtesy of the Office of Medical History:

Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

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950 Soldiers Drive,
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Canada Under Attack

Canadians have been celebrated participants in numerous conflicts on foreign soil, but most Canadians arent aware that theyve also had to defend themselves many times at home. From U.S. General Benedict Arnolds covetous attempts to declare Canada the 14th colony during the American Revolution to the German U-boat battles in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the Second World War, Canada has successfully defended itself against all invaders.

Jennifer Crump brings to life the battles fought by Canadians to ensure the countrys independence, from the almost ludicrous Pork n Beans War to the deadly War of 1812. She reveals the complex American and German plans to invade and conquer Canada, including the nearly 100-page blueprint for invading Canada commissioned by the U.S. government in 1935 a scheme that remains current today!

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LibraryThing Review

Have the Americans really attacked us that many times and failed? This is an interesting book for the history buff looking for a quick and dirty history of the battles fought on Canadian soil. It will . Читать весь отзыв

Destined for Glory

President Joseph Biden presents the Medal of Honor to retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr. during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 21, 2021. (Spc. XaViera Masline)

Puckett was born in 1926 in Tifton, Georgia, and commissioned in the Army as an infantry second lieutenant in 1949 after he graduated from West Point. His first duty station was in Okinawa, as part of the occupation force there.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Puckett volunteered for the Rangers, a light infantry, special operations unit. During World War Two, the Rangers had undertaken a series of the hardest and most sensitive missions, including scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and destroying fortified German positions in Normandy during D-Day and the Cabanatuan prisoner of war rescue mission in the Philippines.

Modern-day Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment reenact the scaling of the Pointe du Hoc in 2019 (US Army).

By now a 1 st Lieutenant, Puckett was selected to lead the only Ranger company at the time, the 8 th Ranger Company, 8213 th Army Unit, 8 th U.S. Army. He had only a little over a month to train his troops to work as a team before they deployed to the front.

Retracing Benedict Arnold's Foolhardy Upstream Voyage

&ldquoSay, do any of you have extra underwear?&rdquo asked Rob Stevens, looking like a miserable Santa in his sodden red woollens and fluffy white beard, as he inspected our replica 18th-century bateau. His lisp was a bit more pronounced than usual, so I knew he was upset. &ldquoThey need to be 100 percent cotton.&rdquo

The bateau was overturned on the bank of Quebec&rsquos raging Chaudière River&mdashwhich basically means &ldquoboiling cauldron&rdquo in French&mdashand Rob, the 62-year-old boatbuilder who&rsquod constructed it, was charged with the emergency repairs. The riverbed had shredded our boat&rsquos bottom like so much Gruyère. Even worse were the see-through gaps where rocks and water had ripped out the caulking.

I peeled off my long wool underwear, tottering a bit on the rocky shore, and slipped out of my green tartan boxers. They were my favorite pair&mdashand apparently the only cotton ones at hand.

&ldquoOh, those are nice,&rdquo Rob said admiringly. &ldquoNow tear them into long strips. About this wide.&rdquo He held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

I readily sacrificed my skivvies because the damage was my fault. The day before, I&rsquod safely guided us down 30 miles of fast-moving water, but late in the afternoon, just as I was beginning to realize that I was tired and couldn&rsquot see all that well, I had failed to slip our 417-pound craft past a pour-over that didn&rsquot end up having enough water pouring over it. I could point out that my bowman, a young filmmaker named Wilder Nicholson, did not have a paddle, because Ben Schott, our resident whitewater expert, who was sitting just inches in front of me in the stern, had grabbed it for himself. But that would be unseemly.

Just as I&rsquod screamed &ldquoShiiiittt!&rdquo and swung the stern almost far enough around, Ben helpfully added, &ldquoWe&rsquore not going to make it!&rdquo Indeed, the bottom stuck on that boulder as if it were covered with grippy tape. Our bow swung upstream, and the 22-foot boat filled with angry brown water.

Thankfully, it wasn&rsquot our first swamping&mdashmore like our 20th. The four of us somewhat calmly sat there until the weight of the water simultaneously freed us from our captor and submerged the boat. Ben swam off to retrieve a few items that had swirled away in the current, and Wilder and I kicked, stroked, and willed the sunken vessel to shore. It was like trying to eddy out a submerged pickup truck, especially with Rob hanging onto the bateau as if it were a giant PFD.

With another set of boat-destroying rapids just downstream, a narrow eddy was our only hope. Perhaps a bit callously, I yelled at Rob, &ldquoLet go, goddammit! You&rsquore dragging us back into the current. Let. Go. Of. The. Boat!&rdquo He didn&rsquot.

Later, after we&rsquod made it to shore and I was bent over huffing and puffing, Rob asked, &ldquoWhat the hell were you talking about, let go of the boat? Are you insane? The boat was the only thing keeping me alive! I don&rsquot know, Hodding. I&rsquove never seen this side of you before. I&rsquom not sure I trust you.&rdquo

I&rsquom a fanboy of Benedict Arnold&mdashyes, that Benedict Arnold, the traitor who makes the folks in today&rsquos Russia investigation look like they were playing tiddlywinks&mdashand it&rsquos all because of his part in the 1775 campaign to take Quebec from the British. Essentially, it was a daring two-pronged attack by the Continental Army to take the fight for American independence to King George&rsquos troops up in Canada. One prong, the supposed main one, led by General Richard Montgomery, would travel the comparatively reasonable route up Lake Champlain and then down the Saint Lawrence River to the fortified ramparts of Quebec City, which sits on a promontory overlooking the river. The other, led by Arnold, a colonel already known for boldness, would take 1,100 men over the seemingly impossible backwoods Native American trade route. If they succeeded, they would arrive in total secrecy.

In late September, Arnold and his men sailed roughly 40 miles up the tidal stretches of Maine&rsquos Kennebec River, where they disembarked at present-day Pittston and switched to 220 wooden bateaux. Hastily built, the 22-foot flat-bottomed boats leaked worse than an old man&rsquos bladder and were prone to capsizing in novice hands (and nearly all the men were novices). Each bateau carried 1,000 pounds of gear, including 45 days of rations. The soldiers would spend the next seven weeks pushing, poling, dragging, and carrying these loads up a 100-mile stretch of the Kennebec, over a 13-mile trail called the Great Carrying Place, then 40 miles up the Dead River, and through a dozen miles of bogs in an area called the Chain of Ponds before crossing the high-elevation mark, the Height of Land, between the Kennebec and Chaudière river basins.

This was all before they headed downstream on the Chaudière, 115 miles of whitewater that empties into the Saint Lawrence near Quebec City. By then the expedition had lost most of the boats and provisions to a hurricane&mdashand hundreds of soldiers to desertion. The rapids of the Chaudière quickly destroyed the remaining boats, and the barefoot, frostbitten, starving soldiers suffered mightily as they stumbled toward Quebec City, arriving on November 14.

Despite this Sisyphean trial, Arnold&rsquos men beat Montgomery&rsquos to Quebec and had to twiddle their thumbs for more than a month outside the city walls. When Montgomery finally arrived and they all attacked on the night of December 31, it was a near instant disaster. Montgomery was killed at the outset, and Arnold was gravely wounded in the leg. The vast majority of the American soldiers were wounded or captured.

While the campaign to sack Quebec was an unmitigated failure, the approach journey is still considered one of the greatest American military expeditions of all time. Arnold&rsquos contemporaries termed him America&rsquos Hannibal (as in elephants over the Alps, not human liver, fava beans, and a nice Chianti). &ldquoThe guy was a real badass,&rdquo says Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. &ldquoIn the moment of battle, there was no one else quite like him. He was like a comet.&rdquo

Last spring, I finally decided that it was Arnold ho! time. I had wanted to retrace the expedition for decades, ever since I&rsquod read Kenneth Roberts&rsquos Arundel, the classic novel about the campaign, published in 1930, in which Arnold comes off as a swashbuckling leader of men and the expedition an oddly appealing trial in pain and misery. I was 54 and had put it off far too long.

I did some quick figuring. Arnold had 1,100 men and 220 boats. Three soldiers manned each boat in the water, while two or three huffed it on shore. I should be fine with one bateau and two friends, with a few more to rotate in when needed. Arnold had taken 51 days I figured we could do it in 35. I gathered a couple of old lightin&rsquoout buddies: John Abbott, 52, the director of outdoor programs at the University of Vermont, and Rob Stevens, 62, who had constructed a replica Viking ship that the three of us sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland in the summers of 1997 and &rsquo98. To lower our median age&mdashArnold was 34, and most of his soldiers were in their early twenties&mdashwe snagged Ben Schott, 36, a Vermont-based whitewater guide who has run the Grand Canyon six times, and Wilder Nicholson, 24, an environmental filmmaker from Maine.

Then we turned to the bateau. Maine loggers were still using the craft well into the 20th century with its long-stemmed, high-sided bow and stern, it&rsquos the best thing for navigating New England&rsquos rivers with a good-size payload. Yet most Arnold expedition aficionados agree that it was the wrong boat to use: heavy, clumsy, and, in Arnold&rsquos case, too leaky.

Undeterred, we stuck with the bateau because, despite the criticism, it was the river workhorse of its day and the only practical boat Arnold could have used. Indeed, we would prove it was the right craft by being the first fools to get one all the way to Quebec!

1816 and 1817 — “Ohio Fever”

Privations caused by the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1814) and an unusually cold summer in 1816 brought on a case of “Ohio Fever” for many Mainers (no, they are not really called “Mainiacs,” that was just a cheap joke).

“Ohio Fever” was a desire to relocate to the west (not necessarily to Ohio). In fact, many of these Had-Enough-Of-These-Cold-Summers-And-I-Don’t-Like-Lobster-Much-Anywayers moved to the heavily-timbered states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

These states don’t have much lobster. People there eat Wolverines, Badgers, and Gophers instead. With cranberry sauce, in some cases.


A number of geographic features along the route of the expedition bear names related to the expedition. East Carry Pond, Middle Carry Pond, and West Carry Pond, are all on the route of the portage at the Great Carrying Place, which is in the Carrying Place Town Township [sic] of Maine. [79] Arnold Pond is the last pond on the Dead River before crossing the height of land. [80] Mount Bigelow in Maine was named for Major Timothy Bigelow, one of Arnold's officers. [43]

The wilderness portion of the route through Maine, roughly from Augusta to the Quebec border, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 as the "Arnold Trail to Quebec". [78] The Major Reuben Colburn House, which served as Arnold's headquarters, is now a state historic site administered by the non-profit Arnold Expedition Historical Society, and is also listed on the National Register. [81] Both Fort Western and Fort Halifax are National Historic Landmarks, primarily for their age and their role in earlier conflicts.

An historical marker in Danvers, Massachusetts commemorates Arnold's expedition, placed by the Massachusetts Society, Sons of the American Revolution. [82] There is also an historical marker in Moscow, Maine placed in 1916 by the Kennebec chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and two at Skowhegan Island in Maine placed in 1912 and 2000 by the Eunice Farnsworth Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. [83] In Eustis, Maine, on the western shore of Flagstaff Lake stands a marker commemorating the expedition. The lake was created in the 20th century by damming the Dead River, inundating part of the expedition route. Mount Bigelow, whose first recorded ascent was by Timothy Bigelow, stands just south of the lake.

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