A Hopeless Siege | Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec


    About the author

    John Codman headshot.
    John Codman the 2nd

    John Codman was a sailor and writer from Dorchester, Massachusetts. A religious man, and son of a pastor, he published a number of works about his travels at sea and American history during the 19th century.



      While these adventures were befalling the prisoners within the walls of Quebec, the siege obstinately maintained by a force too weak to assume the offensive dragged uneventfully on. Arnold’s wound slowly but steadily improved, and before February was so far advanced he was able to hobble about his room with the aid of a cane or a crutch. By the end of the month, he could go outdoors, and give the encouragement of his actual physical presence to the little army which his indomitable spirit, exerted from a bed of suffering and helplessness, had held sternly to its duty through the weeks of discouragement and grief which followed the fatal New Year’s eve assault. As he passed among the groups of ragged and shivering soldiers they greeted him with cheers and congratulations, hailing him by his new title of General; for news had recently reached the camp that Congress, in recognition of his services in the march through the wilderness and the siege of Quebec, had voted him the commission of a brigadier-general.

      The good will of the men, which Arnold seems to have possessed, must have been grateful to his ardent nature, always sensitive to the affection or enmity of those about him; but he did not find an equally responsive feeling among some of his subordinate officers. Captain Handchett and the other officers of his own detachment with whom he had quarreled were now prisoners in Quebec, but there were those among the besiegers who had sympathized with them, or who, as members of Montgomery’s expedition, did not relish the idea of taking orders from the young Connecticut militia officer whom they considered in no way their superior, either in experience or native ability. One of the most troublesome of these was Major Brown, whom the disaffected companies of Arnold’s detachment had pitched upon for their commander if they could have persuaded Montgomery to form them into an independent battalion. Major Brown was a western Massachusetts man, a friend and a comrade-in-arms of Colonel Easton who, as the reader will remember, had been kicked by Arnold from his room at Crown Point, and had, therefore, little reason to be especially well disposed toward his fiery commanding officer. The friction between the two men began early, and seems never to have abated so long as they remained in close and daily association. As early as the 1st of February we find Arnold thus expressing himself in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia:

      “Major John Brown, who came down with General Montgomery with one hundred and sixty men collected from different regiments, now assumes and insists on the title of Colonel, which he says the General promised him at Montreal. Some time before his death, when Major Brown wrote to remind him of his promise, the General handed me his letter, and told me at the same time, as Colonel Easton and Major Brown were publicly impeached with plundering the officers’ baggage taken at Sorel, contrary to articles of capitulation, and to the great scandal of the American army, he could not in conscience or honor promote him (Major Brown) until those matters were cleared up. He then sent for Major Brown and told him his sentiments in the matter very freely, after which I heard of no further application for promotion. This transaction, Colonel Campbell, Major Duboys, and several gentlemen were knowing to. As Colonel Easton and Major Brown have doubtless a sufficient store of modest merit to apply to the Continental Congress for promotion, I think it my duty to say the charge before mentioned is the public topic of conversation at Montreal, and among the officers of the army in general, and as such conduct is unbecoming the character of gentlemen, or soldiers, I believe it would give great disgust to the army in general if those gentlemen were promoted before those matters were cleared up. The contents of the enclosed letter I do not wish to be kept from the gentlemen mentioned therein; the public interest is my motive for writing. B. Arnold.”

      On the other hand, it is evident that Major Brown believed that Arnold was not using him fairly, and suspected that his general’s enmity might go so far as to compass the deliberate sacrifice of his life, through exposure to especial and unnecessary perils. Some weeks after this letter of Arnold’s had been dispatched to Philadelphia – on the 15th of March, to be precise -Brown wrote to his wife in Pittsfield:

      “Genl. Arnold and I do not agree very well – I expect another storm soon; suppose I must be a Uriah. We had an alarm yesterday. The enemy made a sally on our working party, it was said with five hundred men. Genl. Arnold immediately ordered me, being on the advanced post, to attack them with my detachment, which consists of about 200, more than half of which were sick in hospital. I accordingly marched against the Enemy, who had retired into the port too soon for me to attack them. I expect to be punished for Disobedience of orders next; on the whole we are in an indifferent situation at present. I suppose all letters are broken open before they reach the Colonies, but as this goes by a friend it will come safe. I am solicited to stay another year as Lt. Colonel, but have refused – shall I consent?”

      From this and other letters bearing on the same question, it is not difficult to guess the origin of the dissension among Arnold’s officers. It becomes apparent that one serious grievance that both Handchett and Brown had against Arnold was what they believed, or pretended to believe, was his intention to rid himself of them by exposing them to the enemy. In the letter of Brown just quoted he writes that he “must be a Uriah.” Handchett’s reluctance to do the duty assigned to him has already sufficiently appeared. It is certain, however, that other officers were ready and eager to do the duty to which Handchett took exception, while it is plain, from Montgomery’s letter to Schuyler, in which he alludes to this disagreement, that he sympathized with Arnold and disapproved heartily of the course pursued by Handchett. In view of these facts, which must have been well known to Congress, which was also aware of the unanswered charge of peculation which lay against Easton and Brown, it must strike the reader as strange that within six weeks of Arnold’s letter to John Hancock, Brown wrote to his wife, confidentially, that he was repelling offers of promotion. There were evidently influences at work in Congress which were, to say the least, openly friendly to those whom Arnold considered with justice his enemies. What they were cannot be clearly seen, though it would be strange if so many commissioned and field officers could not enlist some weighty support in behalf of their own side of the case. Aaron Burr, too, it may be added, had conceived a strong dislike for Arnold before the campaign was over. Tact, apparently, was not one of the new general’s virtues.

      May we not find in these controversies the reason why Arnold thought it necessary to lead in person the assaulting column at Sault au Matelot? Can we not see already the origin of that coalition of enemies which is said to have been responsible for the injustice and ingratitude with which Arnold in after years claimed to have been treated, and which helped to poison his spirit till it sickened, through treason, and died within him? Some day, let us hope, the evidence will be found whereby the scales of historical justice may weigh out and establish forever the truth as between Arnold and these early and inveterate enemies.

      Harassed by jealousies among his subordinates and uneasy at the weakness of his force, Arnold nevertheless seems never to have considered for a moment the abandonment of the enterprise. Indeed we find him writing hopefully to Washington in February: “The repeated successes of our raw, undisciplined troops over the flower of the British army, the many unexpected and remarkable occurrences in our favor, are plain proofs of the overruling hand of Providence, and justly demand our warmest gratitude to Heaven, which I make no doubt will crown our virtuous efforts with success.”

      But his letters to Congress constantly appealed for reinforcements sufficient to put his army on something like an equality with the force it was besieging, and begged no less persistently that some general of greater experience and abilities than he could pretend to should be sent to assume command before Quebec. The difficulties and embarrassment of his position had begun to daunt even his sanguine spirit.

      The physical condition of the patriot soldiers was increasingly bad. Smallpox still ravaged the camp, and the field hospital between Sillery and Wolfe’s Cove was always full of its victims. At one time no less than fifty – nearly 10 percent of the whole force – were sick with the malady. The discovery of vaccination had not been made at this time, and inoculation was forbidden in the army, but so great was the dread of the loathsome disease that many inoculated themselves, secretly, by pricking in the poisonous matter under their finger-nails. Some reckless and desperate men did this in order to escape in the hospital the severe duty which was exacted from them in camp.

      The suffering of the troops – or “Congreganists,” as the French-Canadians now called them – from hunger was hardly less than that of the prisoners within the city. At Three Rivers, they begged for food from door to door, and the sight of their misery won succor even from the loyalists. In spite of their temptations, pillage or riot was promptly checked by the officers, and it is doubtful if a hostile army ever restrained its passions on foreign soil more successfully.

      Though they could have had little to fear from an enemy so weak in numbers and in the physical strength of its units, the garrison did not a whit relax their vigilance; fireballs were lighted at one o’clock and kept burning on the angles of the bastions till three o’clock in the morning, and were often thrown out by mortars. Lanterns suspended from long poles were extended over the ditch, and lighted it so well that even a dog might have been seen at the bottom of it. By the 9th of March they had one hundred and fourteen guns mounted, not counting any cannon less than six- pounders, nor mortars, nor cohorns. Twice they sallied in force, as the Americans thought, to capture the cannon near the General Hospital; in reality to enable the people to gather firewood in their rear. They retired as the Americans boldly advanced to meet them. The British had one real cause of anxiety – should the winter continue so severe, the River St. Lawrence might freeze from shore to shore. To guard even against this, they replaced some of the guns on the shipping in the cul-de-sac, mounted guns on the wharves, cut a trench to clear water at Prés de Ville, and destroyed the houses on both sides of Sault-an-Matelot street, lest they might again furnish cover for the enemy. It might at least have flattered the vanity of Arnold and his half-starved and shivering battalions that Carleton showed such cautious respect for them, even in the time of their greatest feebleness and discouragement.

      Early in March, the reinforcements which Congress had despatched began to arrive in camp, a regiment of three hundred and forty men from Pennsylvania being the first. These men wore the uniforms which Congress had prescribed – brown with buff facings, with mittens, knapsacks, and haversacks of Russian duck; their stockings were protected by leggings, and they carried firelocks, wooden canteens, and tomahawks. On January 23 the leading company of this regiment under Captain Jonathan Jones had begun at Philadelphia its long march of six hundred miles in the dead of winter. Hastening forward on foot, or on sleds, where the patriotism of the country through which they passed would furnish them, they crossed the Delaware on the ice, took the eastern route, and reached Albany in eleven days. Thence up the Hudson, and across country, they made their way to Fort George, and on the ice of the lake, again, to Ticonderoga. There were no roads on either side of Lake Champlain. They left the last of their sleds at Ticonderoga, and made the rest of the journey with their provisions on their backs, over snow and ice, up Lake Champlain and the Sorel River to St. John’s. Though their provisions did not fail them, the country was almost as wild and desolate as that of the Upper Kennebec, and their sufferings from exposure were hardly less than those of Arnold’s men. Their arms, accoutrements, and dress when they arrived at La Prairie, eighteen miles from St. John’s, could not have been in much worse condition. They arrived at Montreal frost-bitten, footsore and exhausted, with spirits hardly less depressed than those of the veterans to whose assistance they had come. After a fortnight’s rest at Montreal, they pushed on to join Arnold.

      From this time reinforcements constantly made their appearance from New England, New York, New Jersey, and even further south. But they came in small bodies, and so complete was the wreck of Montgomery’s and Arnold’s army that for some time the fresh arrivals only closed up the gaps made by the smallpox and the hardships to which the veterans of the campaign had been exposed.

      On March 14 another flag of truce was sent to the city, but it was met as all the others had been. “No flag will be received,” said the guard, “unless it comes to implore the mercy of the King.” The next day the garrison planted on the walls near St. John’s gate a great wooden horse, with a bundle of hay before it, and the inscription, “When this horse has eaten this bunch of hay we will surrender.” Further to emphasize their vigilance and their defiance of the besiegers, the British erected on Cape Diamond a post thirty feet high with a kind of sentry, or lookout, box thereon, from which the officers, with their glasses, could see St. Foy church and the stretch of road leading to the city, and even the Holland House and bodies of troops moving in its vicinity. But the plains beyond Gallows Hill were still hidden from view. There, even in daylight, the Americans might conceal a great number of men. Therefore the British, though aware that reinforcements were strengthening the provincials, could form no accurate estimate of the number of fresh troops that had arrived.

      On the 17th of March the Irishmen in the American army, who were pretty numerous, saw to it that St. Patrick’s day did not pass unhonored. Not even cold and hunger could dampen their boisterous spirits, and they set out to march about the country, carrying muskets and sabers, each with a sprig of fir in his cap, the officers wearing cockades in addition. A drum and fife corps led the march, and for a flag a ragged silk handkerchief was tied to the top of a fir tree above two crossed bayonets. They marched to the nunnery at Three Rivers, which they serenaded and cheered; then they returned to camp, pausing before the houses of royalist adherents to swear and be sworn at, and before the houses of well-disposed Canadians to raise a lusty cheer. The procession ended at the residence of one M. Laframboise, who either from sympathy with the cause or from motives of policy, caused two demijohns of rum to be given to the rank and file, while he regaled the officers on more expensive liquors.

      On March 25, information was received that Canadian loyalists to the number of some three hundred and fifty were assembling under the leadership of Monsieur Beaujeu, a former captain in the Canadian militia, in the parishes to the south of Quebec, intending to throw themselves into the city for its relief by crossing the St. Lawrence from the southern shore near Point Levi. Measures were at once taken to offer checks to this move. A scouting party of fifty men advanced by Beaujeu to feel the way for his main body and led by Sieur Coullard and Mr. Bailly, a priest, having advanced as far as the parish of St. Pierre, were surrounded in a house by a large party of rebel Canadians, with one hundred and fifty Americans, under Major Dubois, who had been detached from the camp at Quebec. The royalists, in spite of the disparity of their numbers, showed fight, but after two of their party had been killed and ten wounded, surrendered. In this affair it is said that fathers fought against sons and sons against fathers, and so bitter was the feeling of the Canadians that, but for the interference of the Americans, the prisoners would have been massacred even after the surrender. The effect of the reverse was such that Captain Beaujeu was obliged to disband his levies and go into hiding to escape capture.

      During the closing days of the month, a number of cannon, some as large as twenty-four pounders, and a plentiful supply of ammunition arrived from General Wooster, whom Montgomery had left in command at Montreal. Close behind this welcome offering came the General himself. He had left Montreal in charge of one Moses Hazen, a renegade officer of his Majesty’s service, who had been given a commission in the Continental army, and as Arnold’s superior officer at once assumed direction of the army and its operations. It was the 1st day of April when he reached the camp, and on that very night the signals, which by arrangement, as the reader will remember, the prisoners in the Dauphin jail were to display if their plan succeeded, were seen to blaze up behind the ramparts of the Upper Town.

      Arnold, now able to ride his horse, wished to advance at once to their support, but Wooster refused his assent, either from the cautious temper which became his age, or because he suspected some trap. Fortune, for once, had favored the Americans by the opportune arrival and decision of Wooster, for Governor Carleton, informed by the deserter Hall of the prearranged signals, had been wily enough to organize a sham combat, to build bonfires to imitate the signal of burning buildings, and even to counterfeit the success of the prisoners by lusty cheers at St. John’s gate, while his troops were massed to receive the unsuspecting rebels, and his cannon, loaded with grape and canister, were trained on the ground over which they must approach. To Wooster’s caution alone was owing the failure of this grim April fool’s day joke.

      A few days later Arnold, his leg again crippled by a fall from his horse, and hurt because General Wooster did not show him what he thought proper consideration, asked to be relieved, and retired on the 12th of April to Montreal, to convalesce. He wrote home in explanation of this action, “Had I been able to take any active part, I should, by no means, have left camp, but as General Wooster did not think proper to consult me, I am convinced I shall be more useful here than in camp, and he very readily granted me leave of absence.”

      This was the ineffectual end of all Arnold’s gallant hopes and patriotic endeavors for the reduction of the fortress of Quebec and the conquest of Canada. He took no further part in the siege of the city, and was forced in inactivity to see the enterprise for which he and his brave comrades had sacrificed and suffered so much, crumble day by day into more hopeless disaster. He reached Montreal, however, in time to welcome the arrival of a committee appointed by Congress to engage in friendly intercession and conciliation with those Canadians who still held allegiance to the King and considered the colonial troops enemies and invaders. Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton composed the committee, which was accompanied by the Most Reverend John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore, who was expected to add weight to its appeal to the French Roman Catholics.

      The task of receiving these distinguished men in a manner calculated to flatter them and impress the Canadian public was one which Arnold doubtless found quite to his taste. The committee were at once conducted to his headquarters, the imposing mansion of the Canadian rebel, Thomas Walker, where they were received, as Carroll tells us, in a most polite and friendly manner by the General and “a genteel company of ladies and gentlemen who had assembled” there.

      But the envoys arrived too late to be of any real service to the cause they represented. The lines were already strictly drawn, and as spring approached the inevitable collapse of the siege of Quebec began to be foreseen by rebel sympathizers as well as by loyalists and those shrewd trimmers who were prepared to follow either flag to victory. Franklin, who was past seventy years of age, suffered so much from exposure on the journey that after ten days spent at Montreal he was obliged to return. The others made a longer stay, but had no substantial results to show for their labors.

      Meanwhile the troops before Quebec, now increased to about two thousand effectives, with several hundred men still on the sick list, began with the advent of spring to make some efforts to throw off the inertia which defeat, sickness and cold had bred within them. They even became once more aggressive. During the month of April, although obliged to work on snow-shoes part of the time, for even as late as the 3d of May snow covered the ground – they erected and opened a battery of three twelve-pounders and one eight-inch howitzer at Point Levi, and another on a slight elevation known as “Les Buttes à Neveu,” on the Heights of Abraham opposite St. Louis gate, within four hundred yards of the walls. This battery mounted one twenty-four-pounder, four twelve-pounders, two six-pounders and two howitzers. A third battery of two guns, called “Smith’s,” on a point of land near the mouth of the St. Charles, upon the opposite bank to the city, had been playing intermittently and abortively since the 22d of January. Still, even the heavier ordnance they now possessed made no impression on the massive walls of the city – their red-hot shots did no perceptible damage – and at length the continuous and accurate fire of the garrison compelled them to dismantle their batteries and drag off their guns. They had hit and injured some of the shipping, and wounded some of those on board, but doubtless did not then know that they had done so.

      St. Louis Gate, showing the Old Wall.
      St. Louis Gate, showing the Old Wall.

      The utter failure of the artillery to produce any results whatever, was a source of deep discouragement to the Americans. The project of another assault upon the fortifications of the town seems never to have been seriously entertained, but no little reliance had been placed upon the ability of the heavier ordnance supplied by General Wooster to batter a breach in the defenses, and subject the city to all the terrors of an active bombardment. Disappointed in this expectation, the enthusiasm of the men flagged once more, and only the promise of fresh reinforcements kept hope alive and justified the stubborn prolongation of the siege.

      These reinforcements were looked for from various quarters. Washington had brought the investment of Boston to a victorious issue on the 17th of March, and a part of his army was therefore available for service in Canada. The regiments of Colonels Patterson, Bond, Graham, and Poor were immediately ordered to Quebec, by way of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. All told, these regiments numbered only about eleven hundred men. A considerable force had also been collected at Fort George under General Schuyler, who had recovered from his illness of the previous year, and waited only for the lakes to be clear of ice in order to commence the march to Quebec. This detachment included six companies of Connecticut troops, two companies of the 1st Pennsylvania regiment, three companies of New Jersey troops, and two companies of Van Schaick’s from New York. There were two more companies of New Jersey troops about thirty-five miles below Crown Point, on their way to Canada. The rest of the New Jersey regiment had crossed the boundary. Five companies of the 2nd Pennsylvania regiment were at Fort Edward, waiting for the lake to open, and two companies of the 1st Pennsylvania were on their way from New York.

      It was evident that Quebec was a prize for which the large fleet of reinforcements already despatched from England, and the new army of the Americans were to race. Unfortunately for the latter, it was now the worst possible season of the year for its purposes. The lakes and rivers were not yet open for navigation, while the ice, which still covered them, had grown too thin and rotten to bear the weight of an army in safety. On land, the roads were rendered impassable by the slush and mud which are the inevitable accompaniments of a waning northern winter. Not only days, but weeks, were thus wasted in tedious and exasperating delays, until it became almost a certainty that the St. Lawrence would offer a clear road to the English ships, long before Schuyler could possibly appear before Quebec.

      On the 1st of May, General John Thomas, the “hero of Dorchester Heights,” who had been dispatched to relieve Wooster, arrived in camp. Congress had appointed General Charles Lee to this duty earlier in the season, but that erratic and untrustworthy officer – a traitor at heart, as recent discoveries have proved – had delayed his departure on the plea of ill health, so long that in the end he was transferred to the Southern Department, and the command assigned to a more honorable and patriotic soldier. When Thomas arrived before Quebec, he found the Continental army shrunken to about nineteen hundred men, of whom not much more than one thousand were fit for duty; furthermore nearly one-third of that number were preparing to depart, as their enlistment had expired on the 15th day of April. There were only one hundred and fifty pounds of powder and six days’ rations in the encampment, no entrenching tools, and no competent engineers. The Canadians would no longer accept the paper money of Congress; their priests refused to confess those who joined the rebel ranks, and although the Yankees tried to checkmate them by hiring one Lotbiniere, a priest, for fifteen hundred livres per annum, and the promise to make him a bishop as soon as Quebec was taken, to confess all who applied to him, the refusal of priestly sanction and comfort continued a powerful factor in the struggle. Owing to the more apparent prospect of British success, the Canadians had experienced plainly a change of heart, while the indifferent success of their plans and hopes bred in the Americans a bitterness which made them less careful to preserve their attitude of friendship and conciliation. Spring was rapidly ripening the seeds of discontent and impatience which the occupation of the country by the Americans had gradually sown during the winter. A general rising of the Canadians might be expected, should the anticipated reinforcements from England arrive.

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