When Benedict Arnold Tried to Conquer Canada

When Benedict Arnold Tried to Conquer Canada

Illustration showing the city of Quebec and the Saint Laurence River at the time of the attack by United States Forces, Point 20 marks the position of Benedict Arnold and his troops, circa 1775.

SourceFotosearch/Getty

Why you should care

Because if revolutionaries had succeeded in capturing Quebec, the U.S. might have owned all of North America.

Benedict Arnold raised his saber and screamed, “Liberty or death!” as he charged down Rue St.-Paul in knee-deep snow. As fat flakes fell, his troops shot point-blank into the British barricades. When Arnold stormed through enemy lines, there was a sharp crack, and the colonel went down. Disabled, Arnold waved his ragtag rebels through the breach, yelling, “Hurry on!” while the snow below his waist began to turn crimson. As he lost consciousness, Arnold heard more shots — and this time they were met with dying curses sputtered in American-accented English and in French.

Arnold awoke in a field hospital with a shattered right leg and learned the battle was largely over. After a four-month campaign, Arnold and Gen. Richard Montgomery, who had been killed on the other side of town, had failed to take Quebec City and turn its territory into the 14th colony of what would become the United States of America.

By the time the starving remnants of Arnold’s expeditionary force reached Quebec’s doorstep, winter had come.

The plan that culminated in the Battle of Quebec on Dec. 31, 1775, was drummed up mostly by infamous turncoat Arnold. At the time of his Canadian misadventure, he was still a revolutionary in good standing — a smuggler, merchant, apothecary and sailor. Arnold had been at the forefront of the first anti-British activities in New England, and in May 1775 he co-led (with fiery Vermonter Ethan Allen) the war party that had captured Fort Ticonderoga on New York’s Lake Champlain.

After taking lightly defended Ticonderoga, Arnold saw an opportunity to strike a critical blow against the Crown. Captured documents revealed that Quebec, an enormous territory stretching from Labrador to Illinois, was defended by only 700 soldiers. Arnold believed he could take the province with 2,000 troops, thereby robbing the redcoats of a staging area for attacks on New York and New England. And surely French Canadians would find common cause with the Americans, and help overthrow the hated British who had conquered them in 1760.

Arnold’s attempts to mount a warm-weather offensive were quashed by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which dragged on through the summer. Finally, Arnold learned in early September that Gen. George Washington had signed off on his plan — but gave Montgomery command of the brand-new Continental Army’s first military campaign. Arnold was dismayed, but he soon befriended Washington and talked his way into the action. He was entrusted with a secondary force that would attack Quebec via Maine while Montgomery advanced northward from Ticonderoga to Montreal and thence down the St. Lawrence River to meet up with Arnold’s forces at Quebec City.

The rebels had to move quickly to avoid assaulting the heavily fortified capital in winter. Sailing from Massachusetts with 1,100 troops from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia, Arnold landed at a Colonial outpost in Maine and then made his way north, up the Kennebec River.

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Portrait of American Revolutionary general and traitor Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) with signature.

Source Time Life Pictures/Getty

An intentionally misleading British-made map fooled Arnold into grossly underestimating the distance. Along the way, his men floundered through brutal portages, lakes, ponds, swamps and dense forests; dysentery and desertion claimed half his troops. By the time the starving remnants of Arnold’s expeditionary force reached Quebec’s doorstep, winter had come, and snow ruined scores of rifles and most of the gunpowder.

And the expected influx of French Canadian volunteers came up short (the region’s indigenous First Nations decided to sit it out too). In 1775 les habitants had vivid memories of the war Britain and France had fought over Quebec, according to Damien-Claude Bélanger, an associate professor of Canadian history at the University of Ottawa. “The population [of Quebec] was not going to throw their lot in with people who were, until recently, their mortal enemies,” says Bélanger, who notes that New Englanders “behaved very badly” when fighting in Quebec for Britain.

Quebec’s defenders received plenty of reinforcements, though, in the form of regular British army troops and grizzled Highlanders from Newfoundland. When the battle began with a demoralizing barrage of British artillery, the Americans were outnumbered two to one.

After leaving his hospital bed, Arnold tried to maintain a siege, but the defenders had plenty of supplies and more reinforcements on the way. Five months later, having fallen back to Montreal, Arnold wrote to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates: “… our credit and reputation lost, and great part of the country; and a powerful foreign enemy advancing upon us, are so many difficulties we cannot surmount them.”

What happened next is up for debate. Willard Sterne Randall, author of Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, says that Arnold marshaled an ingenious rear-guard action that protected the retreating rebels and prevented their pursuers from taking back lost territory and possessions like Fort Ticonderoga. Bélanger is not sold on this interpretation of events. “I would say the British chose not to outstretch themselves by not pursuing the Americans further south,” he says.

According to Randall, Arnold returned home a war hero and “was likened to Hannibal.” The heroics were forgotten in 1780 as Arnold, irate at being passed over for promotion, switched sides. He led raids on Virginia and his home state of Connecticut before retiring to London, where he died in 1791.

Today his name is synonymous with treason and betrayal, even though Arnold risked life and (literally) limb for his homeland. And though he didn’t capture Canada, he might have done enough — before his defection — to ensure the United States became a reality.

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