Benedict Arnold | Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec


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    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.



      THE young officer entrusted with this responsible command was born at Norwich, Connecticut, January 14, 1741. He came of good stock, being a great-grandson of Benedict Arnold, the second governor of the colony of Rhode Island. His father, Benedict Arnold, had come to Norwich from Newport, Rhode Island, about 1730, as a seaman aboard the vessel of Captain Absalom King, whose young widow he married in 1733. During Benedict junior’s early youth, his father did a good business with the West Indies, owning parts or the whole of vessels, which he sometimes sailed himself, so that he came to be called “Captain Arnold.” Though his old age seems to have been one of poverty, intemperance and little respect, yet, judging from the positions of trust which he is known to have held, he must for many years have had the confidence of the community in which he lived. His wife died when the young Benedict was seventeen years old, and the Captain himself died three years later. Their son, then, was left an orphan before he reached his majority. Beyond doubt this was a misfortune, for we know that his mother, at least, was his pious counselor and guide.

      Arnold had opportunities to receive, it would appear, such education as the best schools of Norwich or its neighborhood afforded – that is to say, a very good one; but judging by the caricatures with which he covered his spelling-book, and what little has come down to us of his youthful habits and inclinations, he was no student, and did not get much farther towards a liberal education in the arts than to write his name in a copy of Cornelius Nepos.

      Of his character as a boy, we have only meager and secondary accounts. Rather than repeat, therefore, the stories of his youth and childhood, which are too often colored by prejudice and hatred, it is better to let the reader form his estimate of Arnold’s character and motives chiefly from his authentic writings and undisputed acts. It seems just, however, to record that in letters written to Jared Sparks by citizens of Norwich and New Haven in 1834, when few who knew Arnold as a boy were living, and those at a great age, we find him referred to as “an uncommonly active, prompt, saucy, roguish and impetuous lad,” “showy and ostentatious,” “possessing a mind naturally strong, and certainly singular,” “rash, headstrong and regardless alike of friends and foes.”

      As a youngster, Arnold ran away to serve in the French War of 1756, but was promptly returned at the request of his parents. It is said, though the truth of the statement is open to question, that he made a second attempt, and succeeded in passing some dreary months of inactivity in barracks at Ticonderoga. This was so little to his taste that he deserted and returned home, where he was kindly secreted from the King’s officers by his fellow-townsmen. He was then only about sixteen years of age.

      Arnold’s mother’s name was Hannah Waterman, and her family was worthy and influential. It was her interest, no doubt, which secured her son’s apprenticeship to the trade of apothecary with her relatives, Drs. Daniel and Joshua Lothrop, both graduates of Yale College, and the leading importers of drugs in New England. Having served his apprenticeship, he made several voyages to the West Indies as super-cargo of a vessel in which he was interested, and then upon returning from a journey to London, he hung out his sign at New Haven, B. Arnold, druggist, bookseller, etc. From London.

      Under the patronage of the Lothrops, Arnold seems to have carried on business successfully. From 1768 to 1773, we find him still living at New Haven, a trader with the West Indies, Martinique, Jamaica, St. Croix and St. Eustache; sometimes sailing his own ships, transporting horses and cattle, as well as merchandise; and we may note, having business connections and correspondents in Montreal and Quebec, which cities he visited personally on more than one occasion. He had experienced business reverses and gone into bankruptcy, from which we are told he did not emerge very creditably, though it does not appear that he made money by the operation, or seriously damaged his reputation. By the time the Revolution broke out he had rallied and was doing a good business. He had repurchased for three hundred pounds the family homestead of Dr. Lothrop, who had bought it from his father for ten pounds, and there is a sworn appraisal of his property at the opening of the Revolution at about twelve thousand dollars.

      In 1775 his military ambitions had not left him, and he had become the popular young captain of one of the two companies of “Governor’s Guards,” the crack militia organization of Connecticut. He appears as a man of sensitive pride and temper, full of self-confidence, of force – therefore with enemies – and enjoying respect and local favor in a considerable degree. That he was generous and thoughtful of others is witnessed even by his detractors.

      He had married, in New Haven, Miss Margaret Mansfield, the accomplished daughter of Samuel Mansfield, high-sheriff of the county, by whom he had three children; but at this time he was a widower. An only sister, Hannah Arnold, who was devoted to him, was in charge of his household.

      He was rather short in stature, thickset and very muscular, and of good figure. He was a decided favorite with women and enjoyed their society. He had dark hair, light eyes, a florid complexion and features which might fairly be called handsome. He was an excellent horseman, no mean sailor, and a splendid shot with either rifle or pistol. His skill with the latter had stood him in good stead on the dueling-ground, and was destined to save his life once, at least, in close quarters on the battlefield.

      News of the battle fought at Lexington on the 19th of April reached New Haven by midday of the 20th. Arnold and his company assembled and, joined by some enthusiastic students from Yale College, made a demand on the selectmen for powder, so that they might set off at once for Cambridge. This request being refused for lack of orders from the colonial authorities, Arnold did not hesitate; he forced the selectmen to deliver the keys, opened the powderhouse and marched for Cambridge with a full complement, arriving there with one of the best-drilled, best-equipped and best-uniformed companies which the little army could boast.

      Such a leader, so announced, would have been likely to attract attention, even if less self-confident, and Arnold was never a laggard in the path of ambition. On April 30, a few days after his arrival at Cambridge, he wrote to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, urging an expedition to capture Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Montreal. On May 3, so well did he bespeak his cause, we find him receiving a colonel’s commission, and departing for western Massachusetts, there to raise the levies for the undertaking.

      The same idea had meanwhile been conceived by Ethan Allen, who was in command of the militia companies of Vermont, and by some of the leading men of Hartford, who had raised a company and hurried it forward to cooperate with Colonel Allen, already on the march. On arriving at Stockbridge, therefore, Arnold found himself forestalled, and without waiting to recruit the levies he was authorized to raise, he hurried forward in order that he might not himself miss the stirring events which were at hand.

      Perhaps he relied on his regular commission from Massachusetts to supersede the zealous Vermonter in his command. But Allen proved to be a man too much after his own temper; it was a case of “Greek meeting Greek.” Arnold could not take the fortress with the magic of his commission; Allen could take it with his men. As a courtesy, however, Allen accepted Arnold as a volunteer, the latter retaining his rank, and together, May 10, at the head of only eighty-three men, they surprised and captured the fortress at Ticonderoga, its small garrison of forty-eight men and its rich stores of munitions of war, so much needed for the siege of Boston. Crown Point fell in short order, an equally easy prey.

      Canada was regarded as the “back door” which would always be open for the King’s troops. Thus was its key placed in the hands of Congress, and the entrance to the western waterways, scenes of former warfare with the French, safely closed. Naturally the names of those who were foremost in carrying out the enterprise became at once famous throughout the colonies.

      But though they had buried their differences so amicably in the face of the dangerous exploit in which they were mutually engaged, Allen and Arnold soon found numerous occasions for friction and dissension. Conspicuous among these was the affair of St. John’s.

      Arnold had been joined a few days after the capture of Ticonderoga by about fifty men raised by his lieutenants, Oswald and Brown, in the Berkshires. They brought with them the schooner Liberty, taken from Philip Skene, a government officer at Skenesborough, at the head of Lake Champlain. Availing himself of this vessel, and having fixed upon her four carriage and six swivel guns, Arnold stole a march upon Allen, with whom he still contested the chief command, and moved rapidly up the lake to Crown Point and St. John’s, where he captured twenty men and made prize of a King’s sloop and some military stores. Returning, he had the satisfaction of meeting Allen setting out with one hundred men in bateaux to accomplish the same object.

      Upon another occasion, a number of the Connecticut officers called upon Arnold at Crown Point, to protest against his pretensions to command them. The interview was stormy, and before it was ended Colonel Easton, as Arnold thought, insulted him. In Arnold’s regimental memorandum book there is this brief entry, acquainting us with the subsequent proceedings:

      “I took the liberty of breaking his (Easton’s) head and on his refusing to draw like a gentleman, he having a hanger by his side, and a case of loaded pistols in his pocket, I kicked him very heartily and ordered him from the point immediately.”

      Such dissensions of course gave rise to scandal, and a committee from the Massachusetts Legislature having been sent to enquire into Arnold’s conduct while under its commission, that high-spirited officer Promptly resigned from the service of Massachusetts and returned to Cambridge in July.

      General Washington had just arrived from Virginia to take the command, on July 2, of the heterogeneous bands of militia collected around Boston, and Arnold, on his return from theLakes, met him for the first time. Washington reognized the Young Officer’s merit from the outset. Always fair-minded and hampered by no local prejudices, he became at once his admirer and friend.

      While at crown Point, Arnold, who seems beyond ail others – unless it may be Ethan Allen – to have understood the value of rapid action at the beginning of such a war, had sent spies into Canada to ascertain the enemy’s strength and the sentiments of the French and Canadians. He also sent Mr. Hoit, an Indian interpreter, and three Stockbridge Indians with a belt of wampum to conciliate the Caughnawaga Indians above Montreal.

      The information thus gathered, together, no doubt, with reports from Arnold’s own friends and business correspondents in Montreal and Quebec, he had forwarded to Congress in June. The substantial interest thus displayed in the projected invasion of Canada, his own familiarity with the region, gained through frequent visits as a trader, and his creditable military services at Ticonderoga and, Crown Point, all united to designate him as the most fit man to lead the second expedition which was now to be equipped.

      If he had not actually suggested the plan to General Washington he certainly gave it his enthusiastic approval, and to his other qualifications for its command was added the confidence and appreciation with which the great Virginian openly regarded him.

      The duty to which Arnold was assigned was one of great responsibility, for many patriots, including even Washington himself, were inclined to believe that the issue of the struggle with England would turn upon the attempt at the conquest of Canada. Success there seemed certain to bring either peace with a redress of grievances or independence. Much also was risked in the campaign, for the season was already well advanced, and the line of march lay for much of the way through an untrodden wilderness, far removed from any proper base of supplies. But difficulties of this description were not likely to daunt an officer of Arnold’s energy and daring, while the supreme importance of the stake seemed to older and cooler heads than his sufficient excuse for the venture. Moreover, the failure of this expedition would not mean the failure of the campaign; Schuyler’s army would not as a necessary consequence meet defeat.

      There were three principal ways by which an entrance into Canada might be sought, besides the Champlain route, over which Schuyler was advancing. One was by the Connecticut River, the Salmon River and the St. Francis, which would carry the invader to Lake St. Peter, about one hundred miles above Quebec; the second followed the St. John and Madawaska Rivers and passed over the carrying place to Kamouraska on the River St. Lawrence, about one hundred miles below Quebec. This second passage seems to have been regarded as the easier of ascent by the British, and the most likely to be used should an attempt on Quebec be made. The third way was that by the Kennebec and the Chaudière. There does not seem to have been any question in Washington’s mind that this last route was the best for his purposes – indeed, the others seem not to have been seriously considered.

      The plan of campaign had nothing novel in it, beyond the route over the inland waters of Maine and Canada and the element of surprise. The campaign of 1756-59 had been directed against the same objective points, and with the identical purpose of dividing the forces of the enemy and reducing the two principal cities of the hostile country. Montgomery was following in the very footsteps of Amherst, while Arnold was called upon to play the part of the immortal Wolfe. In place of Bougainville and Bigot, Vaudreuil and Montcalm to oppose them, there was only Governor Guy Carleton and a few other English and French veterans of inferior rank. Earlier still, the fleet of Phipps and the army of Colonel Schuyler had shown the way for Wolfe and Amherst, and as far back as 1711 Admiral Walker’s ill-fated armada and General Nicholson’s provincials had undertaken to strike the same blows in similar fashion.

      But no previous expedition had been obliged to follow a path so dimly traced through almost unexplored wilderness, or to meet the hardships and perils which were in store for Arnold’s devoted band. Theirs was a road much of which only marauding parties of painted savages or occasional wandering trappers and hunters had ever traveled, and so inaccurate was the information at Washington’s command that both the distance and the difficulties of the way were much underestimated.

      “From the mouth of the Kennebec River to Quebec, on a straight line,” he wrote to Congress, “is two hundred and ten miles. The river is navigable for sloops about thirty-eight miles, and for flat-bottomed boats about twenty-two miles; then you meet Ticonic Falls, and from Ticonic Falls to Norridgewock, as the river runs, is thirty-one miles, from thence to the first carrying place, about thirty miles; carrying place four miles, then a pond to cross and another carrying place about two miles to another pond; then a carrying place about three or four miles to another pond, then a carrying place to the western branch of the Kennebec River, called the Dead River, then up that river as it runs thirty miles, some small falls and short carrying places intervening; then you come to the Height of Land and about six miles carrying places, into a branch which leads into Ammeguntick pond, the head of Chaudière River, which falls into the St. Lawrence about four miles above Quebec. ”

      On comparing this description with the maps of to-day, we can correct its most striking inaccuracies; the length of the Dead River was understated, it seems, by fifty miles; and there was no mention whatever of the second or larger chain of lakes, much the more numerous and formidable, to the east of the Height of Land.

      Indians on the war-path against the Maine coast settlers used to steal along these watercourses to make their lightning attacks, and there were known to be well-worn trails on many of the portages. As long before as 1689 M. de Portneuf, at the head of fifty French Canadians and sixty Abenakis, had crossed the country from Quebec and descended the Kennebec, destroying the English forts on Casco Bay. On the Kennebec itself, straggling settlements had reached beyond Fort Western (where Augusta now stands), as far as Fort Halifax, at the junction of the Kennebec and Sebasticook. There were even a few settlers as far as Norridgewock. But beyond this place it was not easy to obtain guides. There were few hunters or trappers who knew the river as far as the Twelve-Mile carrying place, now reached from Brigg’s ferry on the eastern side of the river, and beyond that carrying place there was a wilderness of forests, bogs, and mountains.

      Though from the St. Lawrence, French settlements had crept feebly up the wild Chaudière nearly as far as the River Du Famine, yet of the topography of the country intervening to the Height of Land, little or no information was obtainable. Nevertheless, of this unknown and undescribed country there were only some eighty or ninety miles, as the crow flies, at the broadest calculation, and according to Washington’s information even less.

      The greatest difficulty before the expedition from a military point of view lay in the inadequacy of the Kennebec settlements as a base of supplies in case of unforeseen emergencies. The hamlets, towns only in name, were hardly more than clearings in the forests which still covered the banks of this noble river. The settlement of the region had indeed begun as early as 1639, when John Parker established his trading post and fishing station at the mouth of the river, but pioneers had been slow to follow him, and whenever any considerable number had made homes for themselves in the wilderness, they and their families had met a tragic end in one of the Indian forays which for a century and a half wasted the borders of New England.

      By 1775 some progress in the settlement and civilization of the Kennebec valley had indeed been made, since the danger from the savages was now greatly diminished by the final expulsion of the French power from Canada. A fairly good road had been opened as far as Fort Western, and there was a wood road at least to Fort Halifax. Georgetown at the mouth of the river, Woolwich, Pownalborough, Pittston, Vassalborough, and Winslow on the eastern bank, Broad Bay and Gardinerstown on the opposite shore, had made places for themselves in the wilderness and achieved names. But between Georgetown and the Falls of Norridgewock, a hundred miles above, there were probably not over five hundred white people, if so many. Pownalborough, the most pretentious village (the present town of Dresden), numbered fully half of these, and was the shire town of the county of Lincoln. It needs no technical military knowledge to understand that a country so thinly peopled was poorly adapted to furnish a base of supplies even for an armament no larger than Arnold’s.

      But, on the other hand, there were features of the situation distinctly favorable to the success of the undertaking. The very difficulty of communication between the Chaudière settlements and the Kennebec towns made it unlikely that news of the expedition would reach Quebec much in advance of the troops themselves, and made a virtual surprise of the citadel possible. The Indians of the Maine forests were by this time pacified, and even well disposed to the colonists’ cause, and they had, moreover, been carefully conciliated by agents sent in advance of the expedition itself. The Indians of the Norridgewock tribe, who had a white chief, Paul Higgins by name, had even gone so far as to march all the way to Cambridge in August, under the command of Reuben Colburn, of Pownalborough, to tender their services to General Washington. No doubt their visit and the information they gave were among the reasons which convinced Washington that the descent upon Canada by way of the Kennebec was feasible. Similar assurances of amity and offers of support had come from the Penobscot tribe, and though little actual use was made of these new-found allies, no pains were spared to maintain friendly relations with them, and, thus to make it possible for the expedition to traverse their country with security and confidence.

      Finally the spies and the rebel sympathizers who had placed their information at the service of Washington and Arnold made it clear that the defenses of Quebec had been suffered to fall into comparative decay, while the fortress itself was most inadequately garrisoned. The walls had in places begun to crumble; there were few platforms for the cannon; the ditch was half filled with debris, and there was not a single article in store with which to begin the repair of the fortifications. Though there was plenty of ammunition, and a quantity of provisions could easily be obtained with fair notice, the Governor’s purse was short, and there were many mouths to feed. Carleton himself, with all the troops he dared to withdraw, had gone forward to protect Montreal, and trustworthy spies reported that only fifty regular soldiers were left in Quebec. Moreover, as we learn irom the journals of British officers, then in the city, the garrison could rely on only about one hundred and thirty loyal citizens to support them, most of the population being either stubbornly neutral or frankly in sympathy with the invaders.

      It appears, therefore, that in spite of the hazardous nature of the enterprise, it was by no means desperate or hopeless. The question of its success or failure depended upon the energy and determination with which it was prosecuted – and upon the always doubtful fortune of war. Perhaps its sponsors were unduly sanguine of its happy result, but the prize which they coveted was a rich one, and well worth any risk within the bounds of reason. The project failed, and has met much consequent condemnation. Had it succeeded, it would have been beyond question the most brilliant military exploit of the war.

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