When Benedict Arnold, turned traitor in the last years of the War of Independence, was leading the forces of the King against his former compatriots in Virginia, it is reported that among his prisoners was a certain plucky and witty officer, who, in answer to Arnold's question, "What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?" replied, "They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fightIng so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet!"
The answer gave fit expression to the detestation with which all steadfast patriots regarded the man who had done his best to betray their cause, but it also hints at the earlier fame which Arnold once deserved and enjoyed. The Arnold of Ticonderoga and Quebec, whose name was a synonym for bravery, determination and patriotic fervor, is not often remembered now. His good deeds are forever obscured by the shadow of his great crime. But it will help us to do full justice to that strange and unfortunate man, if we follow again the story of the gallant but ill-fated expedition which he led through the wilderness of Maine and Canada, and against the icy ramparts of impregnable Quebec. And while we do so let us not forget that had he fallen as did Montgomery before the citadel, his whole body, and not his shattered leg only, would have been entitled to burial with the most glorious honors of war. He would have been counted one of the noblest martyrs of the cause of liberty, not its despised and execrated Judas.
The invasion of Canada was one of the very earliest strategic moves in the war of the Revolution. From the inception of the struggle with the mother country, the colonists appreciated to the full the military and political advantages to be gained by enlisting theCanadians in its support. These advantages, indeed, were so numerous and so obvious that it required neither breadth of statesmanship nor experience in military affairs to recognize them at once. The acquisition of Canada would unite the whole of British America in opposition to the Crown, and strengthen the United Colonies by the possession of a wide stretch of territory, in which were situated two of the principal cities of the continent, one of them a natural fortress of great strategic importance, supplied with all those munitions of war of which the rebels stood in the sorest need. An unbroken front would thus be presented to invasion from England, and New England and New York would not be exposed to the menace of an army allied with the savage Indian tribes, operating in their rear - with Canada as a base, and outflanking them on Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River.
The first resort of the rebellious colonies was, of course, to negotiation, and their earliest efforts in this direction met with sufficient encouragement to afford them good hopes for the ultimate attachment of Canada to the confederation by peaceful means alone. Before the capture of Ticonderoga, before the battle of Bunker Hill, even before the battle of Lexington, Canada had been invited to send delegates to the Provincial Congress. The reply of some of the principal merchants of Montreal, to whom the invitation was directed, shows that there was at this time considerable popular sympathy in that province with the cause of liberty, albeit it was a sympathy which prudently hesitated to declare itself in public. Under date of April 28, 1775, they wrote:
We deeply feel the Sorrows and Afflictions of our suffering Brothers; & sincerely wish it was in our Power to afford you effectual Relief; but alas we are more the Objects of pity and Compassion, than yourselves, who are now suffering under the heavy hand of Power; deprived, as we are, of the common right of the miserable, to complain.
You have Numbers, Strength, & a common Cause to Support you in your Opposition: we are still more divided here, by our Interests, than by our Religion, Language and Manners. The Apprehension of Evils to come upon us, in a short time, from the unlimited power of the Governour, strikes all Opposition dead: indeed, few in this Colony dare vent their Griefs: but groan in Silence, & dream of Lettres de Cachet, Confiscations, and Imprisonments, offering up their fervent Prayers to the Throne of Grace, to prosper your righteous cause, which alone will free us from these jealous Fears and Apprehensions that rob us of our Peace. . . .
You will please to bear in Mind, that not only those who hold the Helm of Government, but also, all those who make Wealth or Ambition the chief Objects of their Pursuit are professedly your Enemies; & would be glad to reduce you to the same Abject State, with themselves: nevertheless, the bulk of the People, both English and Canadians, are of quite contrary Sentiments; and wish well to your Cause; but dare not stir a finger to help you; being of no more estimation in the political Machine, than the Sailors are, in shaping the Course, or working the ships in which they sail. They may mutter and swear, but must obey; however, should Government handle them too roughly, & arbitrarily attempt to force them upon dangerous & disagreeable Service, to which they have already shown an irreconcileable Aversion, they may, perhaps, dearly repent it.
Somewhat later, the Whigs of Montreal did, in fact, gather enough courage to send James Price, one of the signers of this letter, to represent them in the Continental Congress, though in a secret and unauthoritative capacity. Price, with Thomas Walker and James Livingston, all wealthy and influential citizens of Montreal, were as zealous for the cause of the colonies, and as open and arrant rebels as Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry. The Quebec Act had been hardly better received in Canada than the Stamp Act in the southern colonies, and there were Committees of Correspondence and Safety in Montreal, and trustworthy private correspondents at Quebec. That very spring, on the first of May, people had insulted his Majesty by daubing his bust in the public square of Montreal with black paint and hanging a string of rotten potatoes round the neck above this inscription: "Voila le Pape du Canada et le sot Anglais." Indeed, it is not improbable that but for the impolitic document addressed by Congress to the people of Great Britain, in September, 1774, inveighing in unmeasured terms against the French Jurisprudence and Roman Catholicism, Canada might also have cast her vote for independence.
The ancient French noblesse were, for the most part, office-holders under government and devoted to Its interests, but they had dwindled in numbers, means and influence, and were neither to be courted nor feared.
The habitants, or French farmers, who made up the bulk of the population, were certainly not enthusiastic in their loyalty to the English sovereignty under which they had not yet lived a score of years, and though they could hardly be relied upon for active aid, might, at least, have given passive countenance to the plans of the revolutionary leaders if their religion had been treated with respect and their priesthood with tact and wisdom. This phase of the situation was, unfortunately, not correctly understood at Philadelphia until too late. The step already referred to, which alienated many of the Roman Catholic clergy and their flocks from the revolutionary cause, was taken before its probable effect upon this preponderating element of the Canadian population was appreciated.
But though the Continental Congress found
much encouragement in the temper of the northern provinces,
as it was reported by its correspondents in Montreal and Quebec, it soon became evident that the active spirits were too few, and the mass of the people too inert, to give any hope for a spontaneous uprising in behalf of the cause of independence. The bolder patriots at once turned to the other alternative, an invasion of Canada by the colonial troops, who, through the aid of the rebel sympathizers and the indifference of the rest of the population, were expected to expel the British troops from Montreal and Quebec, and attach the province to the confideration.
The leading revolutionists correctly understood the urgency of the crisis, for they were perfectly acquainted with the zeal and military talents of General Guy Carleton, the governor of the province. He was exerting himself actively to organize the Canadians, and to supply them with arms and ammunition recently shipped from England, and though the habitants resolutely refused to enroll themselves, it was easily imagined that as soon as the Governor's authority was reinforced by the arrival of a large body of troops from England, the Canadians would be obliged to yield, and feeling more certain of the issue of the contest, would try to secure immunity for themselves by becoming active in fastening burdens on the backs of their southern neighbors. The blow must be struck at once, then, if it was to be struck at all. The capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point by the New England troops under Ethan Allen opened the way for an expedition to be despatched by way of Lake George and Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence, and Congress in the summer of 1775 authorized such an undertaking. The invading force was to be composed of militia raised in New England and New York, and Major-General Philip Schuyler of the latter colony was appointed to its command. This gentleman was a veteran of the French War and combined with wealth and position, military talents, trustworthiness and unquestioned zeal for the cause. But he was well advanced in years and was perhaps over-cautious for a campaign which so urgently demanded activity and energy.
General Schuyler, having mobilized at Albany, was hurried forward early in July with an army fluctuating from five hundred to fifteen hundred men up Lakes George and Champlain to Ticonderoga. From that fortress as a base he was expected to begin the expulsion of the British from Canada. by taking Chambly on the St. John's River, and then St. John's and Montreal. But before he had an opportunity to meet the enemy in force, he was compelled by illness, about September 14, to resign the command to Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery.
Meanwhile General Washington, who had recently taken command of the colonial troops besieging Boston, had communicated to Congress, with his approval, a project for the support of Schuyler's movement by another expedition, to be sent against Canada, as it were, from the rear. While General Carleton was engaged with an active enemy in his front, this second army was to attempt by rapid marches to surprise and capture Quebec, which would no doubt be but slenderly garrisoned, and if it failed in this, it would at least be able to join forces with the Lake Champlain expedition and give valuable assistance in the reduction of the all-important fortress. Whether General Washington himself first conceived this plan, or whether it was suggested to him by the officer whom he selected to carry it out, does not clearly appear. Perhaps the truth lies between. At all events, Washington warmly pressed the scheme upon the attention of Congress and secured its assent with no apparent difficulty. The expedition thus resolved upon, Washington chose Benedict Arnold as its commander, and Congress promptly voted him a colonel's commission in the Continental service.