Prisoners of War | 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.



      Meanwhile, what was the fate of the four hundred unfortunate men who had survived the perils of the wilderness with Arnold, and the slaughter of the night assault with Morgan, only to be ignominiously made prisoners and confined in the very town they had come to capture? We have already seen that the officers were imprisoned in the Seminary of Laval and the enlisted men in the Monastery and College of the Recollects in the Upper Town. This latter building, had Carleton felt he could spare a larger number of men for guard duty, would have made an excellent prison:. It was an immense quadrangular edifice, capable of accommodating three or four thousand persons, enclosing a half-acre or so of open garden or shrubbery, one side of the building being built on the slope of the hill. The lower part of the building was at this time used for a storehouse, and the prisoners were confined in an upper story, where they were given rooms about ten by twelve or fourteen feet in floor dimensions, opening off long galleries about twelve feet wide. They were numerous enough, though ten or twelve were confined in each room, to occupy the greater part of each of two sides of the quadrangle. They were crowded into these shamefully narrow quarters in order to economize guards, and their discomfort for the short time they remained here was very great. Nor were they in any respect cheered by the sight of the wagons which repeatedly passed the windows of their prison, bearing the dead bodies of their comrades who had fallen in the assault. Heaped upon one another just as they had been rescued from the snow-drifts, frozen into stiffly distorted shapes, the spectacle was one which moved the pity even of the enemy and plunged the prisoners into the depths of dejection and grief.

      Except for the unwholesome crowding to which they were subjected, the Americans were treated with humanity, and even with consideration. The merchants of the town, with Carleton’s permission, sent them a tun of rum for a New Year’s gift and the Governor himself showed them several notable kindnesses. One of their jailers indeed was accused of selling the provisions allowed to the captives for his own profit, but his career was brief, for smallpox, which was raging in the city, made a speedy end of him. Their daily ration was a pound of bread, half a pound of pork and a gill of rice, with six ounces of butter a week.

      The prisoners were early visited by Colonel McLean and other officers to ascertain how many of them were born in Europe. Those who confessed to British or Irish birth were told that they might enlist in the Royal Emigrants, or be sent to England in the spring and tried for treason. Ninety-five enlisted, many under the impression that an oath so forced was not obligatory and with the intention of deserting immediately, while others – among them native Americans – found the temptation of a speedy return to their wives. and sweethearts too strong for their honor.

      The first to make free use of their newly acquired liberty were Conners and Cavanaugh – two Irishmen of Smith’s company. They procured a bottle of rum, and, while they were treating a sentry, knocked him down with the butt of a gun, and then sprang over a wall, a distance of thirty or forty feet, into a snowdrift which was nearly twenty-five feet deep. Their danger lay chiefly in sinking too far before they could extricate themselves. They were fired upon by a distant sentry, who missed. Both of them finally scampered off unharmed, although they had to run another gauntlet of grape and canister before they reached their friends. They were followed at frequent intervals by many of their fellow-countrymen, who took the same view of their forced allegiance to the King that they did, until Carleton in disgust ordered back into confinement all of the ninety-five who still remained within the walls.

      The American officers at the Seminary of Laval were more comfortably lodged than their comrades of the rank and file. Then, too, their baggage was allowed to be sent in to them from the camp outside, and they were regularly visited by Carleton’s physician, who carried his care for them so far as to inoculate a number of them for the smallpox. In spite of this precaution, three took the disease and one died, while Captain Hubbard, who had been severely wounded in the assault, died a few days later of his wounds. The British officers, who occasionally visited their prisoners, were greatly surprised at the humble position in society which the American officers had occupied. Major Caldwell wrote afterward to a friend as follows: “You can have no conception what kind of men composed the officers. Of those we took, one major was a blacksmith, another a hatter; of their captains, there was a butcher, a tanner, a shoemaker, a tavern-keeper, etc., yet they all pretended to be gentlemen.”

      The officers who had been inoculated had been assigned to another room; and they were allowed the privilege of walking into the adjoining room, and in the entry, two at a time, for fresh air and exercise. But the others found their quarters in one room, 31 by 27 feet, very cramped, and were not of the spirit to be patient with such narrow bounds of confinement. Some of them were not long in casting about for means of escape; but this was foreseen by their captors, who, from time to time, moved them to different quarters in the building. Squares of glass were set into the doors of the rooms where they slept, so that the guards could look in at any time, and a lamp was kept burning all night in each room. If any of the windows were raised during the night, the sentries outside had orders to fire. On the 5th of January pens and ink were taken from them, on suspicion that they were trying to communicate with friends outside, and this prevented the officers from keeping the journals they had commenced.

      News of the war leaked in from the outside world, or was repeated to the prisoners by the sentries. Most of the stories, however, were highly colored by British imaginations. They were told that General Washington had lost four thousand men, some killed and some wounded, in attempting to storm Boston; that Montreal had been taken by the Canadians; that General Lee had marched upon New York, and that out of two thousand men he had lost three hundred by desertion; that General Amherst had arrived in New York with twelve thousand troops, and that the paper currency of Congress had lost all its value. These reports of course served to increase a despondency already profound, though the prisoners found cause for temporary encouragement in a cabalistic message from Lieutenant Church, smuggled in with Captain Topham’s baggage, by which they were informed that “their long-nosed cousin, with his thick-neck black dog, was a-coming to their assistance.” This was interpreted to mean that plans were already afoot for their rescue.

      Within the city the winter was now at its height. The snow was drifted in places ten, and even twenty, feet deep, often burying the cannon on the ramparts entirely. It was so cold that sentries had to be relieved every half hour. Provisions had become very dear. Beef had risen to 1s. 6d. a pound, pork was at 1s. 3d., and a dozen eggs sold for 2s. 6d. Firewood was exhausted, and the people were compelled to pull down houses and appropriate the timber for fuel. The mercury fell to 28 1/2 below zero, and the inhabitants pronounced the winter the most severe they could remember with but one exception. Every one began to live on salted provisions, salt pork, salt beef, and salt fish.

      Poor food, and the want of fresh meat and exercise told heavily on all; the prisoners, of course, fared the worst. They were always very scantily supplied with fuel; sometimes they had none at all; and, since they had no other clothing than that in which they had surrendered, they suffered severely. Often it was too cold to sleep, and not infrequently they spent the long and weary winter nights tramping to and fro, exercising in whatever ways their imagination could invent and the narrow bounds of their prison allowed. Governor Carleton treated the prisoners with a humanity which gained him an honorable reputation, but it was such humanity as a beleaguered garrison, now obliged to husband its resources for its own sustenance, could afford.

      Shortly after the middle of January the common soldiers had been taken from the College of the Recollects and carried to the Dauphin jail. This was a building constructed in the old French bastile style, with stone walls three feet thick and sunken windows heavily barred with iron. It stood about three hundred yards from St. John’s gate. It was encompassed by a wall some twenty feet high, and was placed on a slight elevation, so that the jail court yard in the rear was higher by several feet than St. John’s street on the front. A flight of steps ran from the heavy front door to the street,
      and a staircase led from the hall within this door to the second story. There were four rooms below and as many above this stairway, well supplied with berths and bunks. Smith’s company occupied one of the second-story rooms; Morgan’s that immediately below, and Hendricks’s men the one adjoining Morgan’s. Some of the men were in the hospital. Out of the sixty-five men of Smith’s company who mounted the Plains of Abraham, scarcely more than thirty now remained.

      Upon examining the jail and its immediate surroundings, the prisoners soon perceived that while it presented, superficially, an appearance of great strength, in reality it had been strangely neglected and offered every inducement to enterprise. The iron bars on many of the windows were so corroded that they could be readily moved up and down in their sockets and could be displaced without much difficulty. In the front basement on St. John’s street was a newly-made door of planks, which opened inward; it was hung upon H hinges and hasped, and secured on the inside by a large padlock. Here was an oversight which seemed almost an invitation. The prisoners soon manipulated the hinges and the padlock, so that they could remove them quickly and at will. A sally-port better adapted to their purposes could hardly have been arranged for them.

      The non-commissioned officers of the various companies took the lead, and met in daily consultation. At the top of the staircase they noticed a small room lighted by two windows. Peeping through the keyhole, they discovered a quantity of iron junk. They managed to pick the lock and after ransacking the room, carefully closed the door. Amongst the junk were some iron hoops, about three inches broad, out of which they crudely made some iron swords and spear-heads. They then took out the bottom of their berths, which were made of fir-plank, and split them into shafts for their weapons. The lower berths happened to be raised from the floor and the weapons were secreted there. In addition to these, some of the prisoners, when they surrendered, had secreted their long hunting-knives and a few tomahawks.

      There were sentries posted at each of the four corners of the jail, and on top of the wall of the jail court, which was broad enough to be patrolled. There was also another sentry posted about twenty feet in front of the cellar door, but these sentries were all outside and knew nothing of how the prisoners passed their time. The captain of the provost guard, who was most likely to discover their preparations, was not suspicious, and the prisoners posted sentries of their own to give notice of the approach of the guard, fourteen decrepit old men and boys, whose appointment over them the captives considered rather an insult to their manhood than good economy on the part of Carleton. The British officers chose to consider, still, that the rank and file of the Americans were poor devils deluded by designing rascals and dazzled by the phantom of liberty.

      It seemed that the only obstacle in the way of an escape was to be found at St. John’s gate, which was guarded by thirty men, either regular troops or sailors. The guard-house of the prison-guard was distant from the jail some forty feet, and was in full view. From the windows and a skylight of the prison, the prisoners could descry every sentry, and it was observed at night that the guard, on being relieved, stacked their arms in a corner of a room in the story above the basement of the guard-house, lay down on the floor about the fire, and were generally asleep in a few moments. Assiduous observation acquainted the Americans with every duty of these guards; they knew the number of steps of the flight which led to the guard-room opposite; they had calculated the number of strides necessary to surmount them, and felt confident that the sentries could be easily surprised and overpowered. Every detail was worked out with the greatest care, and the forces of the prisoners were organized by appointing those of the greatest spirit as majors and captains.

      Sergeant Aston of Lamb’s company was to lead the remnants of his old company, increased by about one hundred and fifty others, in an attack upon the guards at St. John’s gate, while Sergeant Boyd of Smith’s company, with a smaller body of picked men, was to attack the guard-house, put the guard to the sword, and then join Aston. One small reserve was to set the jail and guard-house on fire, and another party was to cut down the sentinels (who on account of the cold would probably be in their sentry-boxes), and afterwards to act as a reserve to Aston. It was calculated that they could be in possession of St. John’s gate and turn the cannon there on the city within fifteen minutes. They would then hold St. John’s gate until the arrival of their comrades from the American camp. Should they fail to make themselves masters of the gate, they were to scatter in every direction and to leap the wall wherever they dared to take the risk. In the confusion, it was thought a good many would be able to effect their escape.

      A certain John Martin, a daring and active fellow of company, proposed to carry intelligence for the prisoners to the Americans without the walls in order to secure their cooperation. His plan was approved. The signal for Arnold’s troops to attack St. John’s gate was to be the burning of the jail and the guard-house. A white cap, shirt and overalls were prepared for Martin, but he appeared among the prisoners in the yard the day set for his attempt, in his daily dress. Those cognizant of the plot encouraged their fellow prisoners to prolong their exercise in the courtyard to the last moment, under pretense of keeping warm, for the interior of the jail was often too cold to permit the prisoners any comfort, even to sleep. At locking-up time these knowing ones lagged behind; then pushed those in the front so effectually as to block up the gangway, Martin remaining in the rear. This took place at the clanging of the lock of the great front door; and was concerted to afford Martin time to get to his hiding place, which was a nook in the doorway, where he had time to put on his white cap, coat and shoes.

      He then concealed himself under the snow on top of the bank which supported the wall of the court. Happily, the officer who brought up the rear made but hasty inspection.

      Martin remained in his hiding place until seven or eight o’clock, watching for his opportunity. As darkness came on, he mounted the wall and plunged into the snow beneath, from whence he darted to the left to St. John’s gate, leaped the wall of the Upper Town and fell again into a snow-drift. He attracted a shot from a distant sentry, who missed him. As soon as his body came into contact with the snow it could not be distinguished, and the plucky fellow easily escaped. His absence was for some reason unnoticed for several days by the officers in charge of the prison.

      The conspirators had little reason to fear the old men and youths who formed the prison guard, twenty-four in number. They joked with them freely, pretending to learn French; and, as one way of procuring powder, they made some toy cannon out of wood and paper and engaged the interest of the guards by amusing sham battles. Then they begged a little powder from the guard to try their cannon with. This ruse was successful, and the Americans finally secured a number of cartridges; they also procured, through some of their friends in town, six pistols, some more powder and ball, and a good supply of port-fire.

      Thomas Gibson, a young medical student, a sergeant in Hendricks’s company, had cheeks which bloomed like roses and a mind whose guile was belied by the innocence of his face. The prisoners were often visited by charitable persons and some of the nuns of religious houses, who seldom came empty-handed. One day, seeing one of the sisters approaching, Gibson was put to bed and covered up to the chin with bedclothes, exposing only his beautiful hair and his red cheeks, which seemed burning with fever. The nun, overcome with sympathy and pity for one so young and fair, brought to such a strait, crossed herself and, murmuring a paternoster, poured out the contents of her little purse. By this deception the prisoners acquired two shillings, which were appropriated to purchasing powder from the guard. With the few ounces thus obtained they manufactured fuses with which to fire the enemy’s cannon at St. John’s gate when it should be won. They knew the cannon were kept loaded and that boxes of ammunition were close at hand. Lamb’s artillerymen would know how to use them, but fuses might be lacking. They were determined not to overlook anything, and to be prepared for all mischances.

      On the last day of March everything was in readiness. But there was one difficulty in the way, heretofore overlooked, which they had as yet been unable to overcome. At the foot of the cellar stairs in the jail, and not far from the plank door which they proposed to use as a sally-port, was a spring which gushed out in a small fountain-head of water. The conduits which carried the water from the spring were blocked with ice from the severity of the weather: this had caused an overflow. Persons rinsing buckets had carelessly thrown slops over the floor, and a body of ice very deep and solid had formed against the threshold of the plank door. All sorts of plans were suggested to free the door, for, of course, it was necessary that it should fall instantly when attacked from within. One suggested melting the impeding ice with boiling water, but the sentry in front of the door might be alarmed by the water trickling over the threshold, or, what was more probable, the water might freeze as soon as thrown on. Another would have picked away the ice with a tomahawk, but this was objected to, as the noise might be heard by the sentry. Finally it was decided that sixteen of their most trusted and prudent men should take turns, two by two, in paring away the ice with their long knives. They estimated that this might be done by about three o’clock in the morning, the men working stealthily and patiently all night. It now became necessary to inform the majority of the prisoners of the general feature of the design, but the details it was deemed wise to suppress.

      The longed-for night – the night of April 1st – arrived, but the goddess of fortune or that Providence which was to decree the continuance of Canada in the British Empire, had not yet filled to the brim the cup of bitterness which these men must drink. Among those most recently, and of necessity, let into the secret, were two young fellows from Connecticut, burning for an opportunity to display their zeal and wisdom. Having noticed the impediment raised by the ice at the threshold of the cellar door, without consulting any of their leaders, they crept down into the cellar and began to pick away at the ice with a tomahawk. The sentry heard them, threatened to fire, and the guard was doubled.

      The next morning a severe inquisition took place. Major Prentice and twelve musketeers entered the jail, descended into the cellar and discovered the work of the two lads. When they reascended the stairs the prisoners assured the officers that this work of the Connecticut youngsters was entirely without the knowledge of the majority of the prisoners. Major Prentice was about to withdraw, when one of the prisoners, one John Hall, who was a deserter from the British at Boston (although it was not then known), pushed forward to his side and, touching him on the shoulder, said, “Sir, I have something to disclose.” Examined in private, Hall confessed the plot to its minutest detail and named each person primarily connected with it. The ringleaders were sent for and examined, and boldly justified the attempt.

      At 2 o’clock a load of foot-irons and handcuffs was brought to the prison. Some of the bars were twelve feet long and two inches in diameter; to each of these ten or twelve men were secured. When it proved that there were not enough for all, the rest of the men were ordered to take to their berths. The doors were scarcely closed before the unhappy captives were trying to get out of their irons. Those who had small hands, by compressing their palms, slipped off the handcuffs and then helped the others.
      They then tried to slip their feet through the footirons, but some of the prisoners’ heels were so long that they could not do so, and, as the bars were beyond their combined strength to carry, they suffered exceedingly. The frigid weather added to their misery, and it was no comfort to them to see those who had shorter heels withdraw their feet and walk about the jail. The usual inspection of the prisoners increased from two to three times a day, and on the first and last visits the blacksmith examined the manacles and shackles of the prisoners. The latter, in their turn, again stationed sentries to warn one another of the coming of the inspectors; but in spite of these precautions sometimes the clanging of the door was their only warning, and at such times the scampering of the men to find and resume their irons was diverting enough to make them forget for the moment their manifold misfortunes. The blacksmith was an Irishman of a feeling heart, and probably knew something of the real situation, and indeed there is some reason to think that the Governor did also, but humanely winked at it.

      Towards the middle of April, cut short in their exercise, their only resource for amusement gambling for their wretched rations, scurvy in its most virulent form made its appearance among the prisoners. More than two hundred of them were still hardly well of the smallpox, of which a number had died, and they fell easy victims to this new scourge. They were attended by Dr. Maybin of the garrison, who by his kindness won their gratitude and affection. Upon his recommendation, the prisoners were permitted to practice such athletic sports as their manacles would permit. Those who were indolent became a prey to every disgusting symptom of the disease, their teeth loosened and dropped out, and the flesh seemed to rot upon their bones. The fun and good humor, which had hitherto supported all, gave way to groans and despair. One prisoner named Sias went mad. The scant clothing of the prisoners, worn without change for four months of imprisonment, and filthy with dirt and vermin, was in rags. Some of the men were almost as naked again as when they emerged from the Chaudiére forests. Daily from the prison the sick and helpless were borne to the hospital, and daily from thence their wasted corpses were carried to the “dead house” and tossed among the frozen bodies of their fellow-countrymen, or buried in shallow and nameless graves.

      All this time the American officers had not been far behind the men in their efforts to regain their liberty. Captains Thayer and Lockwood early seduced a sentinel, and through him received some heavy clubs and the countersign. They were to pass out of the chamber window on the fourth story of the seminary, and to reach the ground by a rope made out of their blankets, but they were too closely watched and their plan had to be abandoned. It was the 26th day of April before another opportunity offered, and this scheme was even more dangerous to put into execution than the first.

      Thayer, after two months’ patient labor, cut away with a knife the planks which were spiked on a door through which they could pass by a dormer window into the garret. Thence by a ladder and a jump of about fourteen feet they could reach the yard, where the same sentinel they had won over, armed with a gun and clubs for the prisoners, was to meet them. If they could not then pass four sentinels with the countersign, they were to deal with them as best they could, and push for the sally port. From the grand battery they expected to leap thirty feet into the snow, and make a dash for the American camp through St. Roque. But, with the ill fortune with which every effort of Arnold’s men seemed fated, their preparations were discovered at the eleventh hour by a priest of the seminary, who reported them to the officer of the guard. Thayer was accused, and unwilling to implicate any of his fellow officers, was carried aboard the armed vessel of Captain Laforce, and closely kept in the hold, both handcuffed and ironed, lying at night on a plank on the truckling of a cable covered with three feet of ice. The deck was so low that he was obliged constantly to stoop, and had no room to walk more than two or three steps. His limbs swelled, so that the irons had to be cut from him and replaced with larger ones.

      A few days afterwards, Lockwood and Handchett were noticed conversing with the sentinel, and upon the soldier being examined and making confession, they received a call from Major Caldwell, Colonel McLean, and other officers, by whom they were taken aboard the vessel where Thayer was confined, and stowed away in the hold with him. All three remained in this cruel condition until the siege was raised on May 6, when they were brought back to their fellow officers. The sentinel was later sent to England in irons.

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