The Campaign Fails | 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.



      Such were the gloomy prospects which General Thomas found awaiting him. Indeed, it seemed a foregone conclusion that his talents and energies could only find employment in directing a retreat from a position fast becoming untenable. Before yielding to the inevitable, however, the besiegers determined to strike one more blow at the city which had so calmly defied their hostility. The river was by this time practically clear of ice, and it was decided to prepare and launch a fire-ship, which should be carried by wind or tide into the cul-de-sac at the Lower Town, to the destruction of all the shipping which lay there. It was also thought possible that the fire might spread to the houses of the Lower Town, thus inflicting additional damage on the enemy. Of this plan, as indeed of most of the other counsels of the Americans, Carleton received early and circumstantial information from a deserter.

      On May 3 the sentries on the walls of Quebec descried a ship approaching the city from below, and the news was quickly spread through the town. The vessel was at once hailed as the first of the fleet despatched from England, for although the wind and tide were both in the stranger’s favor, it did not occur to the citizens or the soldiers that a fire-ship would come except from above the town, borne on the current of the river. The ramparts of the Upper Town and the wharves of the Lower Town were soon thick with happy townspeople shouting to one another, “Navire! Navire!” “A ship! A ship!” But to this shout of joy quickly succeeded cries of terror and consternation. There was an explosion, and from the strange vessel a cloud of smoke and sparks arose and drifted rapidly toward the town. A strong wind filled every sail and the fire-ship (a schooner, the property of Simon Fraser, captured by the rebels at the Isle of Orleans) threatened within a few moments to drive its flaming hulk, full of inflammable materials, into the midst of the crowded shipping.

      The cannoneers rushed to their guns, and from the grand battery poured a storm of shot upon the blazing vessel, hoping to sink her. Then a boat containing those who had thus far navigated the fire-ship left her side and sped away toward Point Levi. In the universal confidence that the newcomer was a ship from England, she had been allowed to approach the cul-de-sac without the least opposition. The air was full of the smell of powder, of sulphur and of pitch, of smoke and flying cinders. The shipping, including thirty merchantmen, the frigate Lizard and the sloop Hunter, probably the Lower Town itself, seemed doomed. Another hundred yards passed and the purpose of the Americans would be effected.

      Certainly, some jealous Homeric goddess must have protected Quebec, for even this triumph was denied at the last moment to the besiegers. The sails of the fire-ship caught fire, she steered wildly; the tide turned, and so strong an eddy caught her that although the wind was northeast she grounded on Beauport Flats, where, helplessly, to the great joy of her enemies and the mortification of her friends, she vomited forth the last of her bellyful of bombs, grenades and squibs, and expired a charred and blackened failure. The garrison thought that during the expected confusion, the Americans were prepared to make a general assault, but this does not seem to have been the case.

      Three days later, between four and five in the morning, the Isis, a fifty-gun ship, commanded by Captain Charles Douglas, which had left Portland March 11, came into view from the beleaguered city. It was followed closely by the Martin, a sloop of war of fourteen guns, and by a third vessel, the ship Surprise, Captain Lindsey, which had sailed in company with the Martin from Plymouth, March 20, forerunners of the expected British fleet. They had forced their way through the floating ice up the St. Lawrence, with great danger and difficulty.

      The citizens, half-dressed, ran down to the grand battery to feast their eyes on the joyous sight, while Captain Douglas’s salute of twenty guns pealed out the death knell of the rebel hopes, and the responsive volleys from the citadel and the clanging of all the bells in the city sang the Te Deum of the garrison and citizens.

      Sad, indeed, was the fate of Arnold’s men in prison, more hopeless than ever their situation, their enemies overwhelmingly reinforced, the American batteries already proven impotent, and their army about to be driven in disorder from the environs of the city. Those were not the days when rebels were dealt with leniently; their outlook was a voyage to England, subject to all those indignities which Ethan Allen had suffered; a speedy trial, and if not death, a severe and perhaps a cruel sentence. As Colonel Greene, in his prison, listened to the triumphant strains of martial music rising from the Lower Town, where the redcoats were disembarking from the Isis and the Surprise, he was heard to exclaim in so emphatic a tone that the words became a proverb among his men: “I will never again be taken prisoner alive.”

      Thomas had held a council of officers on the 5th day of May, and decided upon a retreat, with the intention of making a stand at Deschambault or Jacques Cartier, which commanded a pass between two mountains, eleven leagues above Quebec. Upon the approach of the British ships, therefore, camp was broken with all speed and not without panic, for news came up the river that seven transports, carrying General Burgoyne, with thousands of British regulars and Hessians, were already near at hand. A force of about one thousand men, composed of the Royal Emigrants, two companies of the 29th regiment, two hundred marines, the Halifax artificers, and some of the English and French militia, in two divisions, six columns deep, with four brass six-pounders, one division under Carleton, the other commanded by McLean, sallied that very day, at noon, by the gates St. John and St. Louis. However, they moved out with a caution most flattering to the Americans, and advanced carefully, though greeted by only a few scattered shots, to the scene of the battle of April 28, 1760, where Murray almost lost to the Chevalier de Levis what Wolfe had died to gain. Here they expected battle would be offered them. On their way, they burnt the houses which had afforded shelter to the Americans, and an advance party, under Captain Nairn, of McLean’s regiment, advanced upon the two batteries near the city.

      Meantime, General Thomas and the New England officers were trying to the full extent of their power to form their men, who were hurriedly assembling at their respective quarters; but when the British opened with their field pieces upon a scant rear-guard of some two hundred and fifty men hastily formed to cover the retreat, the greater number of the troops broke and fled with their baggage, in many cases throwing away their muskets and bayonets. The batteries were abandoned, and seized by Nairn.

      Colonel Maxwell of the Pennsylvanians succeeded in forming nine hundred men in ambush to meet the enemy, but receiving orders from Thomas to retire, joined in the general retreat. Some of the Pennsylvania troops lost all their baggage, and did not have time to save even their provisions. The artillery, the camp equipments, most of the ammunition, and some valuable papers were abandoned, and many of the sick were left to the mercy of the enemy.

      Fortunately, the British did not quickly follow up their advantage, their intention having been merely to demolish the batteries and not to bring on a general engagement. But upon sight of a small force of Americans preparing to meet them, and many others in full retreat, they formed a line of battle; the Fusileers and Emigrants on the right, the British militia and sailors on the left, with the newcomers of the 29th in the center. The French were formed as a corps-de-reserve, in the rear. Then, upon the disappearance of the Americans, McLean’s regiment, the Royal Emigrants, sat down to eat the dinner of the American general, which they found ready upon his table. The Surprise and Martin were sent up the river, where they recaptured the Gaspé, half prepared as a fire-ship, and the schooner Mary, and took a few prisoners, but no further advance was made that day by the British land force, and their war vessels were constrained by contrary conditions of navigation to drop their anchors a little below the Falls of Richelieu. Meanwhile the Americans retreated about twelve miles on the 6th and thirty miles more on the 7th.

      Concerned, as we are, only with the fortunes of Arnold’s men – the Cambridge detachment – we are spared the disappointing chronicle of succeeding events. We should have to describe how General Thomas first prepared to make a stand at Deschambault, then evacuated it, gave ground again, and continued his retreat across the St. Lawrence to Sorel; how, contending with every difficulty in tireless efforts to provision his army and resist that terrible scourge smallpox, he at last contracted the disease himself, and died at Chambly; how Arnold with his little garrison of three hundred men abandoned Montreal to join Thomas, as Burgoyne and the troops of the King advanced towards Three Rivers; how, after a union with the new army of thirty-five hundred men under General John Sullivan, and some of those reinforcements which, owing to the severity of the weather and the ice on the lakes, had been too late in coming to the rescue, Canada was fmally evacuated in June, 1776, after some skirmishing which resulted in humiliating American defeats at the Cedars and at Three Rivers.

      Thus was British America lost to the Sisterhood of States, or, as Lieutenant Ainslie, of the Quebec garrison would have it, “Thus was the country round Quebec freed from a swarm of misguided people, led by designing men, enemies to the liberty of their country, under the specious title of the Asserters of American Rights.” Captain Matthew Smith and Lieutenant Simpson of Arnold’s detachment, who were stationed on the Isle of Orleans, having no timely information of the decision to retreat, lost some of their men by capture, though Smith himself escaped. They were brought to the Dauphin jail, and from them the prisoners learned details and incidents of the winter blockade, of the progress of which the gossip of the guard and the intermittent cannonade had most uncertainly advised them. The Americans at Point Levi and Charlesbourg escaped as best they could through the woods – for their first knowledge of the retreat was the sight of the hurried breaking of the camp on the Plains of’Abraham. It was to meet their case and that of others like them that Carleton later issued a proclamation, essentially humane, in spite of its somewhat arrogant wording:

      “Whereas I am informed that many of His Majesty’s deluded subjects of the neighboring Provinces, laboring under wounds and divers disorders, are dispersed in the adjoining woods and Parishes, and in great danger of perishing from want of proper assistance, all Captains and other officers of militia are hereby commanded to make diligent search for all such distressed persons, and afford them all necessary relief, and convey them to the General Hospital, where proper care shall be taken of them. All reasonable expenses which shall be incurred in complying with these orders shall be paid by the Receiver General. And lest a consciousness of past offenses should deter these miserable wretches from receiving that assistance which their distressed situation may require, I hereby make known to them that as soon as their health is returned, they shall have free liberty to return to their respective Provinces.”

      How much response this proclamation met with there are no records to show; probably it saved some lives and no little suffering. At all events the spirit of humanity which dictated it, a spirit which Carleton showed on more than one other occasion, deserves a word of appreciation.

      We have now only to recount the further experiences of our poor prisoners of war in the Seminary of Laval and the Dauphin jail. After their friends, the besiegers, had decamped, the prisoners gave up all hope of being retaken and even of ever seeing their families again, but they now received fresh food, and the comparative freedom they were allowed rendered their condition more tolerable, although the scurvy and other distempers, contracted during the long and rigid confinement, still tormented them. About the 15th of May, Colonel McLean, with some of the officers who had just arrived with the fleet from England, entered the Dauphin jail about midday. Captain Prentice, by direction of Colonel McLean, pointed out to these officers those who had been named to him as the leaders in the proposed outbreak. The blacksmith was then ordered to remove the prisoners’ irons. After the officers had departed he said to the captives, “Come, come, gentlemen, you can now put off your irons.” In a moment they were free, and the shackles were never again put upon their limbs.

      Major Meigs, on the 16th of May, was paroled and allowed to go home, a favor which seems to have been accorded him because he saved the life of a British officer, probably Laws, on the night of the assault. Captain Dearborn also secured parole and was sent home about the same time on account of continued illness. On the 5th of June, Carleton, with a number of his officers, visited the prisoners again, and after inquiring kindly for their welfare, suggested that if he could rely upon their honor, he might accept their parole and send them home. They lost no time in sending him the following reply:

      “We, the prisoners in his Majesty’s gaols, return Your Excellency our most happy and unfeigned thanks for your clemency and goodness to us whilst in prison. Being sensible of your humanity, we give Your Excellency thanks for your offer made us yesterday, and having a desire to return to our friends and families again, we promise not to take up arms against his Majesty, but remain peaceable and quiet. in our respective places of abode, and we further assure your Excellency that you may depend upon our fidelity.

      So we remain your Excellency’s humble servants.”

      On the following day the officers also petitioned the Governor on behalf of the private soldiers in the Dauphin jail, begging that some measures should be taken for their relief, and that if possible they should be allowed to return to their families, “many of whom must be reduced to the deepest distress.” But the Governor changed his mind and answered both these petitions in the negative, and though the officers later addressed a second petition to him, a parole which they could accept, that is to say, one which omitted the words, We will never take up arms against his Majesty, was not offered them, nor were arrangements made for their departure from Quebec until the 11th of August. Then men and officers were allowed to give their parole, and in five transports convoyed by the frigate Pearl, under Captain McKenzie, they sailed for New York and home. Lamb, Morgan, Oswald, Steele, McAlister, McClean, Heth, Bruen, Wister, Duncan, McGuire, Porterfield, Moody, and Nichols were on the ship Lord Sandwich; Greene and others on the John and Christopher; Colonel Irvine, with a number of comrades, on the Prince of Wales; and the remainder of the prisoners on the Mermaid and a fifth vessel.

      Carleton generously presented the officers on board each transport with a cask of wine and five sheep for sea stores, and the Bishop of Quebec also contributed two casks of wine, eight loaves of sugar, and several pounds of green tea. The tea was respectfully and with dignity declined, and the Bishop, with true Christian spirit, sent coffee instead. To each of the rank and file Carleton sent a shirt, a garment sadly needed by most of them, and also advanced money to supply the immediate necessities of many of the men and officers.

      After a voyage of a full month the fleet of transports hove to off Sandy Hook on the 11th and 12th of September, 1776, in plain view of the British encampment on Staten Island and the fleet of about four hundred vessels and transports in the harbor. One man, Thomas Garver by name, died on the voyage. Sergeant Thomas Gibson and another young fellow of Hendricks’s company, John Blair, determined to escape from their ship, which was anchored three miles south of Governor’s Island. Dressed only in shirts and trousers, they went forward into the forecastle, where there happened to be two large Newfoundland dogs; these they set to fighting and, having thus engaged the sailors, they returned to the stern of the vessel, stripped off their clothes and jumped into the water. They swam to the boat under the stern of the ship, secured her, and rowed a thousand yards before the boat was missed. Upon their discovery, the other boats of the vessel were sent out after the fugitives, but they had too long a start. After rowing about five miles, naked, they landed at Bergen’s Neck, where they bartered their boat for some clothing. They then went to Washington’s headquarters, but their exploit met with his disapproval, as they had given their parole.

      After a year of manful struggle with adversity for the cause of their country, the shattered remnant of Arnold’s brave battalions at last gazed upon their native shores. Defeat and mortification greeted them even here, for they saw New York in flames, and their compatriots evacuating it. After a week of exasperating delay they were allowed to land about three miles from Elizabethtown, and made their way as best they could to their widely separated homes.

      Out of Thayer’s company, which left Cambridge with eighty-seven men, including officers, the captain, one lieutenant, and nine of the rank and file remained. Of Morgan’s company of ninety-six Virginians, not more than twenty-five ever reached their homes. The two Pennsylvania companies of riflemen made hardly a better showing, while the remaining New England companies, who continued to advance after the council of war on the Dead River, had likewise been decimated again and again by exposure, disease and the hand of the enemy. Many of those who survived for a time after their return would have exclaimed with Henry, as he closes his narrative of his experiences: “Would to God my extreme sufferings had then ended a life which since has been a tissue of labor, pain, and misery;” but many also doubtless shared with Private Abner Stocking, another survivor of the expedition, the devout feelings with which his return to the home he had hardly dared hope again to see, inspired him:

      “Never did my thanks to my Creator and Preserver arise with more sincerity than at the present moment. How kind has been that Providence which has preserved me through so many dangers and sufferings, and returned me in health and safety to the bosom of my friends. When wandering through the Wilderness, faint, hungry and weary, God was my support, and did not suffer me, like others, to fall by the wayside; when sick and in prison he visited me, when a captive he set me free. May I ever be grateful to my Divine Protector, and may my future life be devoted to his service!”

      Such was the simple piety of many of that devoted little army. On the stern but confident religion of their youth, taught them under the white steeples of their village meeting houses, they leaned, full of faith, as upon a strong staff, in the days of hunger, cold, and wretchedness in the wilderness, and in the weary hours of disease and defeat before the fortress city of Quebec. To this, and to the noble sentiment of patriotism which glowed in every heart, we must attribute the fortitude and the dauntless courage which supported them throughout all their labors, sufferings and disappointments.

      Surely they have deserved an earlier historian and a worthier pen than mine, and from their country a more fitting memorial than the simple shaft tardily erected with private funds on the ground where the riflemen camped at Old Newbury!

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