The March into the Wilderness | 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 Twelve Mile carrying place embraced in reality four distinct portages: The first lay W. N. W., three and one-quarter miles, along the side of a high hill, through the forest. It was then marked by a well-worn Indian trail and led to a pond, now called Big Carry pond, which is one mile wide as the army crossed it, though the trail must have borne further to the north than the existing one, which now reaches the pond at Washburn’s Sporting Camp. At this pond Arnold relates in his journal “the people caught a prodigious number of very fine salmon trout, nothing being more common than a man taking eight or ten dozen in an hour’s time, which generally weighed half a pound apiece.” There was next a carry of half a mile and twenty rods, almost due west, to Little Carry pond, a low-lying and marshy lake, from the extremity of which a long, narrow and swampy creek, overhung with gray moss festooned from dead and dying spruce and cedar trees, reached out towards the next carry.

      Having passed this pond, the soldiers again unloaded their bateaux and crossed a third portage, nearly a mile and a half in length, bearing W. by N., to a much larger pond, now called West pond. Their landing place on the farther side, if local tradition is to be credited, was the little bay, still called “Arnold’s Cove.” This pond was nine miles in circumference and surrounded with cedar timber. The Indian trail now ascended sharply from the water, and the bateaux had again to be lifted on the shoulders of the men and borne over the northeastern spur of a snow-crowned mountain, which flung its gloomy shadow half across the lake. The distance across this carry was two and three-quarter miles and sixty rods, the course W. N. W. At the end of this last and most difficult portage, the last mile of which lay across a miry and treacherous bog, the Dead River was at length reached.

      It proved impossible for the three companies of riflemen to finish the work assigned to them before the other divisions arrived. If, on leaving Fort Westerla, they could have been transported by magic to the point where their labors began, the time given them to clear a passage for the army would hardly have sufficed for them to cut their way through to the first of the three ponds. It was necessary, therefore, for the whole detachment to assist in the task of swamping a passable road through unbroken forests, where scarcely so much as an imperfectly blazed trail could be found.

      What strange and lively scenes were now to be witnessed along this Twelve Mile carry, a stretch of sixteen miles of lake and forest! The stalwart pioneers of Morgan’s, Hendricks’s and Smith’s companies in long advancing files, struck to right and left at the giants of the forest, hacking with tomahawk and hunting-knife, and hewing with axes till the great trees swayed, tottered and fell groaning to the ground, or, supported for a moment by the lesser trees that stood, like men at arms, in serried ranks about them, crashed down at last, carrying many of their feeble retainers to a common ruin, while the forest covered hillsides re-echoed with the din. The lusty young provincials who followed, well schooled in such woodcraft, shouted and sang with hearty good will, as they dragged out the dismembered trunks and toppled them into the underbrush by the side of the path. The windfalls and bushes were quickly cleared away by the next squad of stout New England soldiery, and the sky looked down through the dense forest, for the first time perhaps in centuries, upon a broad arrow struck through its very heart, only stumps and boulders remaining to be conquered. Beside the lakes and morasses, Nature, in the insidious ambush of disease, had won; on the field in open fight, step by step, mile by mile, she must yield.

      Here and there we may imagine a solitary sentinel with long rifle and belted tomahawk leaning against a tree, keen-eyed as a hawk for the lurking Indian, the distant calls and shouts of his toiling comrades wafted toward him on the soft, sweet-scented air of the dense forest. Now and then a line of men bending under heavy boats winds up a steep incline of the new-made road, their shoulders still wet from their dripping burdens, lifted so recently from the waters of one of the lakes. These men are followed by others bent double under every variety of camp equipment, stores and supplies of war. There is no patience whatever with shirking. Officers work side by side with their men, sharing their food, their luck and their toil. All are equals, till the line of march is re-formed at the other end of the carry.

      It was thought worth while to try a yoke of oxen to haul the bateaux across the portage, but it very soon became apparent that the oxen themselves were as cumbersome to get over pine and cedar stumps, two or three feet in diameter, as the boats were, and the attempt was abandoned. Two were driven singly around the pond, to be slaughtered on the Dead River, and their struggles through the bush, over wind-falls and between thickly grown tree trunks were pitiful to witness. Moose tracks were noticed at every turn, and four moose had already been killed by the riflemen. With this supply of fresh meat and plenty of trout, the hearts of the first division were kept up to accord somewhat with the fullness of their stomachs.

      For five days Major Meigs, with a detail of ten men from each of his companies, superintended the passage of troops across the Twelve Mile carry and the building of a blockhouse between the first and second ponds for the reception of the sick, who had now increased to a formidable number. Another blockhouse had been already erected on the Kennebec side of the first portage. The first blockhouse became known as Fort. Meigs and the second was christened “Arnold’s Hospital,” and was no sooner finished than filled.

      Rheumatism, dysentery, malaria and other ailments, the inevitable consequences of the hardships and exposure which the men endured, threatened already to destroy the effectiveness of the force.

      While the men were breaking the road across these portages, three emaciated and exhausted men of the Chaudière scouting party, Lieutenant Steele, Getchell and Wheeler, coming from the westward, staggered into camp. At the peril of their lives and with the utmost difficulty, they had fulfilled their orders, as they thought, and investigated and spotted the trails leading to the Chaudière, but having wrecked both canoes and lost or exhausted their provisions, they had left two of their party several miles up the Dead River, too weak from lack of food to retreat further towards succor. They brought the discouraging news that the course of the Dead River was nearer eighty than thirty miles-not counting an unmapped chain of lakes at its head. They had expected to meet the Abenaki on their fall hunt, with whom they had been instructed to make an alliance, though they had other orders to capture or kill that chief called Natanis or “Nattarius,” who had represented himself to Getchell and Berry earlier in the fall as a spy in Governor Carleton’s employ. They had seen nothing of the Indians, but had found the wigwam of Natanis on the banks of the Dead River. His nest was warm, but the wily bird had flown.

      A relief party was despatched at once in search of Boyd and Henry, the missing members of Lieutenant Steele’s detachment. It never reached them, but a few days later the two men came stumbling into the camp at the further end of the carry, emaciated almost beyond recognition, their lives due to nothing but the desperate and almost superhuman energy with which they had struggled against hunger, fatigue and a hostile and savage wilderness.

      As soon as Lieutenant Steele was able to undertake the duty, he and Lieutenant Church were again ordered forward with twenty men and a surveyor to clear the portages as far as Chaudière pond (now known as Lake Megantic), and to explore the Chaudière River itself as far as the nearest Canadian settlements.

      By October 16 the little army was at last across the carry and encamped on the banks of the Dead River. The men were thoroughly exhausted by the five days of unremitting toil they had undergone, and especially by the crossing of the almost impenetrable spruce and cedar swamp which covered the last mile of the last portage. Through this the soldiers had plunged and staggered as best they might, weighed down with their ponderous loads, their legs entangled by the thick moss and bushes with which the bog was overgrown, often struggling knee deep in filthy and tenacious mire. Some had been forced to spend a night there, camped in mud and stagnant water, amid a tangle of bushes, rushes and rotting tree trunks.

      But in spite of these hardships, more severe, doubtless, than the men had been led to expect, complaints were few and there was much cheery and buoyant fortitude. All well knew the magnitude of the undertaking for which they had volunteered, and that it was not only for the service of their country, but offered signal opportunities for honor, glory and advancement. Their officers left nothing unsaid or undone that could hearten them during their incessant fatigues. The blows of a whip could not have extorted such work from abject slaves as these brave fellows submitted to without a murmur.

      Colonel Arnold spent these days on the carry in despatching scouts to the front, and expresses to General Washington, to General Schuyler, and to friends in Quebec, and in attempting to advance his base of supplies from Fort Halifax and Norridgewock to the carry.

      To Washington he wrote hopefully that he “made no doubt of reaching the Chaudière in eight or ten days, the greatest difficulty being already passed.” Provisions, such as they were, sufficient for twenty-five days, rernained, enough, as he estimated, to permit them to return to the Twelve Mile carry, if for any reason the advance became unwise or impossible. There the commissary of the expedition had been instructed to establish a depot of supplies brought up from the Kennebec country below. The “tardiness” of the march (for the expedition was several days behind its schedule), he explained as necessary owing to the unforeseen difficulties of the road; the spirit and industry of both officers and men he reported as excellent.

      To two friendly Indians, named Eneas and Sabattis, he entrusted a letter addressed to “John Manier, Esq., or Captain William Gregory, or Mr. John Maynard, Quebec.” In substance this letter informed his correspondents that Arnold was on the Dead River about one hundred and sixty miles from Quebec “with about two thousand men,” the number he thought he might muster, counting Indians and Canadians, before he arrived at Quebec, and that the design was to cooperate with General Schuyler and to assist the Canadians in resisting Great Britain’s unjust and arbitrary measures. It also asked whether any notice of Arnold’s departure from Cambridge had been received at Quebec, and if any advices had reached them from General Schuyler. The letter concluded with a request for information as to the number of troops and vessels at Quebec, and begged that some gentleman of Arnold’s acquaintance might be induced to come from Quebec to meet him. Enclosed in this letter was another for General Schuyler, which these gentlemen were desired to forward, briefly stating his progress towards Quebec, and asking for intelligence and advices from him.

      Arnold has been severely criticised for intrusting such important communications to Indians, for these letters never reached the persons to whom they were addressed, and, being intercepted, fell into the hands I Cramahè, the lieutenant-governor of Canada, in command at Quebec during Governor Carleton’s absence at Montreal. Through him they gave the people of Quebec their first intimation of the approach of the provincial detachment. Eneas was subsequently recognized among the Indians under his brother the chief Natanis, who met the army at Sartigan, and later, at Quebec. Although he is said to have protested that he was captured, there seems to be little room for doubt that, if this was true, he was not altogether an unwilling captive.

      But if all this be granted, we must consider what means of communication were at hand; and what was the necessity of opening such communication, both with, General Schuyler and with Quebec. An Indian might enter Quebec without suspicion, while a strange white man could not, and these Indians were accompanied and carefully watched as far as possible by a white companion, named Jackquith, and by French Canadian sympathizers selected by him. Moreover, Washington, in his written advice, suggests the employment of a St. Francis Indian for this very purpose. Perhaps if Arnold had known that both Eneas and Sabattis were relatives of that suspicious character, old Natanis, he would not have trusted them with his letters, but as it was he seems to have done his best with the means at his command.

      From the third portage he wrote two letters, dated October 15, to Lieutenant-Colonel Enos, to which we shall have occasion to refer again, as they bear on that officer’s future conduct. In these, he ordered him to leave men behind him, with an officer, to see that there was a bateaux at each pond; to collect all the bateaux adrift down the Kennebec, and those abandoned on the carry; to send back the sick; to hurry forward. He also tells him that he designs holding a council of war on the Dead River, where he expects particular advice from Canada. He states that “the three flrst divisions have twenty-five days’ provisions, which will carry them to Chaudière pond and back, where we shall doubtless have intelligence and shall be able to proceed or return, as shall be thought best.”

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