The American invasion of Canada in 1775
The American invasion of Canada in 1775

The American invasion of Canada in 1775

Larry Holzwarth - January 3, 2020

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
The citadel at Quebec, viewed in winter across the frozen Saint Lawrence River. Wikimedia

16. The Americans remained to blockade Quebec through the winter

The battle had been an unmitigated disaster for the American forces. Montgomery was dead, Morgan and Henry Dearborn were prisoners inside the citadel. Arnold was severely wounded but determined to remain at Quebec with what few troops remained. Many of the Americans, their enlistments over, simply left for home. Arnold sent requests for reinforcements to several of his superiors, including Schuyler and Washington, but there were none to be had. In Philadelphia, Congress ordered the states to raise new units and that they are sent to Arnold in Canada, and slowly a trickle of men began to arrive to join his tattered band.

Arnold was forced to buy supplies with which to feed and clothe his army from local citizens, and by late winter he was out of hard money. The locals mistrusted his paper. Smallpox appeared in his army, in the closeness of camp in winter quarters it was difficult to control its spread. In April, Arnold was relieved by David Wooster. Arnold assumed command in Montreal, from whence he lobbied for reinforcements and a resumption of the attack on Quebec when the weather allowed. There he also found that Wooster had established an anti-Catholic military control of the city, which alienated the local population and erased the former support for the Americans.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
The Reverend John Carroll joined the American delegation to Canada, hoping to sway the priests there. Wikimedia

17. Congress sent a commission to Montreal after Arnold arrived

In April, 1776, three members of the Continental Congress arrived in Montreal, hoping to undo the damage from Wooster’s administration of the city. One of the members was Benjamin Franklin. Another was the Catholic Charles Carroll of Maryland. They learned that Wooster had run roughshod over the citizens of Montreal, imposing taxes on churches and closing several. The commission was supported by John Carroll, a Catholic priest (and founder of Georgetown University), who attempted to persuade his fellow priests to support the American cause, but the damage done by Wooster had been too severe, and there was little love remaining for the Americans.

The commission had Wooster, then commanding at Quebec, replaced with General John Thomas and returned to Philadelphia, having failed in their mission. Thomas arrived at the American lines before Quebec in late April. He adjudged the American position untenable when British reinforcements arrived during the first week of May. Carleton used his larger force to march out of the city and confront the Americans in May, while the latter was already in the early stages of a planned withdrawal to Montreal. From there, Benedict Arnold organized the rear-guard activities as the remnants of the American army withdrew, back the same way the troops under Montgomery had used the preceding year.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
General Montgomery’s death left a leadership void in Canada for a time. Wikimedia

18. Carleton punished the French-Canadians who had aided the Americans

The American retreat was kept from being a rout only by the exertions of Arnold in covering the withdrawal. After departing Montreal, the army fell back through St. Johns to Ile aux Noix on the Richelieu River. The American Army was by then ravaged by smallpox; hundreds died of the disease during the retreat, including General John Thomas. By June 1, more than 9,000 British troops and Hessian mercenaries had landed at Quebec, under the command of General John Burgoyne. Many of them were housed in the homes of the Canadians who had given aid to the Americans.

Carleton punished the French-Canadians in a variety of ways for the crime of aiding the Americans. He seized property, imprisoned some, and used others as forced labor. He also punished men of military age for failing to answer his calls for the militia during the American offensive the preceding year. As the British counteroffensive began in the summer of 1776, French-Canadians were used to build infrastructure for the army. The retreating Americans destroyed bridges, docks, and fortifications as they withdrew to the south; the British rebuilt them as they pursued. The Americans also destroyed young crops in the fields, to deny them to their enemy that autumn.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Fort Ticonderoga commanded the the entry into upstate New York. Library of Congress

19. The Americans retreated to Fort Ticonderoga

After resting for several days at Ile aux Noix, the remnants of the two expeditions which had invaded Canada the preceding summer withdrew all the way to Fort Ticonderoga, abandoning Canada. Carleton decided to retake the fort, as well as the fortifications of Crown Point. By June, the Americans were within the two fortifications, and Carleton’s vastly superior force was approaching from the north. Once again, Benedict Arnold rose to the occasion. Arnold ordered the creation of a fleet of gunboats on Lake Champlain, to counter the British thrust down the lake. Carleton’s army of 9,000 troops paused at St. Johns until control of the lake could be established.

Arnold built his fleet largely from the boats he had commandeered on the lake and rivers as the Americans withdrew during the summer. The absence of boats made the British halt their advance while they built a fleet of their own. The rest of the summer was spent as the two sides readied for a naval action on the lake. Officers of the Royal Navy were dispatched from the fleet at Quebec to direct the British effort. Four of the officers were later elevated to the rank of Admiral in the British Navy, including Edward Pellew (Lord Exmouth) and James Dacres. Opposing them was a fleet led by General Arnold, with little naval experience.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
John Burgoyne brought 9,000 British and Hessian troops to launch an offensive against the Americans. Wikimedia

20. The British fleet was larger and more powerful than their American opponent

Carleton had ordered the acquisition of ships which were built in Europe, disassembled and carried to the Americas in transports, and reassembled by experience shipwrights in Canada. Through this foresight, he assembled a fleet of 25 ships and gunboats, armed with a total of more than 80 guns, and manned by experienced officers and sailors of the Royal Navy. To stop the British Arnold assembled 15 ships and gunboats, with a total of 74 guns. The British also disassembled HMS Inflexible at Quebec, transported it to St. Johns, and reassembled it for service on Lake Champlain. The vessel alone mounted 18 guns, vastly more than any of Arnold’s fleet.

While the fleet was being constructed at Skenesborough, Arnold patrolled the lake aboard a schooner, Royal Savage. Arnold, though serving in the army, had been a merchant and sailor before the war. Using his experience and his knowledge of the lake, Arnold carefully scouted for a site to give battle where the more powerful British fleet would find its movements restricted, lessening its advantage over the Americans.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Arnold considered the fleet he built to be expendable. Wikimedia

21. The Battle of Valcour Island ended the Invasion of Canada

The site selected by Arnold was a narrow inlet between Lake Champlain’s western shore and Valcour Island. The site was controversial among the commanders of his various vessels, many of whom wanted to meet the British in the lake’s open waters. Arnold’s site, they argued, left no room for retreat. Arnold countered that retreat was not an option, and that the purpose of the fleet was to delay the British assault on the forts at the south end of the lake, not survival to fight again another day. Arnold anchored the fleet in the inlet on the night of October 9. On October 11 the British fleet sailed past his position, and Arnold sent out two ships to draw their attention.

The Battle of Valcour Island was fought throughout the afternoon of October 11, and the American fleet was all but destroyed. Arnold escaped to the south that night, taking the remains of the American fleet with him, eluding the British. Arnold eventually reached sheltered waters on the western shore of the lake, where the remains of the fleet were burned, and the 200 or so survivors escaped overland to Crown Point. Several other American vessels escaped directly to Crown Point; Arnold found them there when he arrived at the fort. He then decided that he had not enough troops to defend both forts, and ordered Crown Point destroyed, to deny its use by the British.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Fort Ticonderoga and defenses as they appeared in 1758, when in French hands. Wikimedia

22. The Americans concentrated in Fort Ticonderoga

The Americans destroyed most of the fortifications at Crown Point, removed the munitions and guns, and withdrew to Ticonderoga. Carleton occupied the site of Crown Point in early October, and began probing the American defenses. He also released most of the prisoners he had taken during the campaign that summer. Carleton was forced to consider the difficulties of his position. His supply lines were long, and in many places exposed to raids by American parties, including on Lake Champlain. Ticonderoga was a strong defensive position. In the third week of October, the snow began. He decided to withdraw to winter quarters at St. Johns and Montreal.

Throughout the summer and fall, Arnold’s long fighting retreat in command of the rear guard of the defeated American army bought time to strengthen the defenses at Ticonderoga. Without his exertions, the British under Carleton and Burgoyne would likely have occupied Albany by the fall of 1776. The following year they attempted to do just that, taking Ticonderoga and driving down the Hudson Valley. They were stopped at Bemis Heights by troops ostensibly commanded by Horatio Gates, but largely led in battle by Benedict Arnold. During the battle Arnold severely injured his leg when one of several horses shot out from under him that day fell on it. It was the same leg wounded in Quebec.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
When offered command of a second invasion of Canada, Lafayette advised against one. Wikimedia

23. The British held Canada for the rest of the war

When John Burgoyne invaded New York and western New England the following year, Carleton remained in command in Canada. The British war effort in the American colonies was largely supported by the port at Halifax, and Quebec. Following Burgoyne’s defeat and surrender at Saratoga, Congress again considered an invasion of Canada, and went so far as to commission the Marquis de Lafayette to command it. Lafayette, after consultation with Washington, addressed Congress on the plan, recommending against its implementation. At the peace talks in Paris, the American commissioners, including Franklin, attempted to gain Quebec through negotiation. That too failed.

After Burgoyne’s surrender, the war on the border between the United States and Canada became one of skirmishes between militias and troops of both sides and the Indian tribes allied with them. Canadians who had lost their property to the British served in the Continental Army, in many cases through the end of the war. After the war, with Canada remaining in British hands, many of them were given grants of land in the new United States. New York established tracts for the reception of Canadian exiles from Quebec and Nova Scotia. Many others went to the newly opened lands along the Ohio River.

Read More: Relationship Between the United States and Canada.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Major General John Sullivan led punitive expeditions against Eastern tribes, joined by Henry Dearborn. Wikimedia

24. The aftermath of the invasion of Canada

On New Year’s Day, 1776, British troops in Quebec found the frozen body of Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, nearly buried in the snow. It was given a funeral by the priests of Quebec, and buried there. In 1818, it was disinterred and sent to New York, for burial with military honors. Henry Dearborn was paroled by the British and exchanged, returning to the American service in time to see action during the Saratoga campaign, and later served with General John Sullivan during the punitive campaigns against the Iroquois and the Six Nations. During the Jefferson Presidency, he served as Secretary of War.

Daniel Morgan was one of the last men to surrender during the ill-fated attack on Quebec, and he was treated harshly by his captors. The British considered the tactics used by the riflemen he commanded (especially the targeting of officers) to be conducted outside the rules of civilized warfare. He and his men received punitive treatment by the British, and Morgan developed a resentment toward his enemy which he never fully overcame. Morgan was exchanged in 1777, and rejoined Washington’s army, forming a new Virginia riflemen regiment to replace the one lost at Quebec. He too fought in the Saratoga Campaign, including alongside Henry Dearborn at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Sir Guy Carleton commanded all British troops in North America at the end of the war. Wikimedia

25. Sir Guy Carleton commanded in Canada through the end of the war

Carleton remained in command in Canada, and in 1782 assumed command of all British troops in North America. He directed the withdrawal of the British from New York City in 1783, which included Loyalists and escaping slaves. They were transported from New York to Halifax as the Continental Army entered New York. Carleton enforced the British position that all slaves and former slaves in British territory were free, which led to Canada becoming a goal for the Underground Railroad in the United States. Many of the former slaves were later transported to Sierra Leone on British ships.

In 1796 Carleton left Canada for the final time, returning to Great Britain and semi-retirement. Carleton, who also bore the title Lord Dorchester, is honored by that name as well as his surname in multiple places in Canada, including Ottawa’s Carleton University, and Dorchester Square in Montreal. In the United States, Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with treachery and treason.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution”. Joseph T. Glatthaar, James K. Martin. 2006

“March on Quebec”. Willard Sterne Randall, American Heritage Magazine. Fall, 2008

“Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec”. Thomas A. Desjardin. 2006

“Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero”. James Kirby Martin. 1997

“Major General Richard Montgomery”. Article, National Museum of the United States Army. July 16, 2014. Online

“Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn of the Quebec Expedition”. Henry Dearborn. 1775

“Major General Richard Montgomery: The Making of an American Hero”. Michael P. Gabriel. 2002

“Daniel Morgan: Ranger of the Revolution”. North Callahan. 1961

“General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution”. Hal Shelton. 1994

“Arnold’s March from Cambridge to Quebec”. Justin H. Smith. 1903

“Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774 – 1776”. Mark. R. Anderson. 2013

“Quebec 1775: The American Invasion of Canada”. Brendan Morrissey. 2003

“Canada and the American Revolution”. Article, Holly A. Mayer. Museum of the American Revolution. Online

“Benedict Arnold’s Navy”. James Nelson. 2006

“Battle at Valcour Island: Benedict Arnold As Hero”. Timothy William Hubbard, American Heritage Magazine. October, 1966

“The Real Benedict Arnold”. Jim Murphy. 2007

“George Washington’s Opponents”. George A. Billias, ed. 1969