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
Henry Dearborn led a New Hampshire regiment in Arnold’s command. Wikimedia

8. Arnold’s men resorted to eating shoe leather and whatever else they could find

As Arnold’s remaining men struggled through the swamps towards Lake Megantic, what remaining food supplies they had were exhausted. Henry Dearborn had brought with him a dog, his prized Newfoundland, which became food for some of his men. Dearborn described the event in his diary, as well as noting that he had agreed to it only because the dog was starving to death too. According to the diary entry, the dog’s bones were retained, to boil into a broth for later consumption. By the time Arnold reached Lake Megantic, he could attest to the inaccuracies of the maps which the men had followed, and he sent word back to the units still struggling in the swamps of the correct passage.

By the end of October, Arnold established contact with French Canadian settlements, which sent what aid they could, and sheltered the sickest of the expedition as they arrived. On November 9, Arnold’s advance parties reached the banks of the Saint Lawrence River across from Quebec. By Arnold’s reckoning, the journey had been just over 350 miles. When he and Washington had planned the route, they had been led to believe it was just over half of that distance. It was one of the greatest achievements of military history that any of the men completed the march. About 500 did not. Arnold encamped at Pointe-Levi with 600 tired, hungry, and severely weakened men.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Arnold’s position just west of Quebec in 1775. Wikimedia

9. Quebec was lightly defended when Arnold’s troops arrived

Two ships of the Royal Navy were in the Saint Lawrence River at Quebec, HMS Lizard and HMS Hunter. HMS Lizard was a frigate which mounted 28 guns, which was exactly 28 more than Arnold had. Hunter was a smaller vessel, though under the circumstances equally formidable to Arnold. Both ships blocked the Americans from crossing the river to the Quebec side, a passage of about a mile. The American general made contact with a New Jersey born mill owner on his side of the river, to explore the ways and means of getting his men to the Quebec side. On the night of November 13-14, the mill owner, John Halstead, and Arnold moved his troops to the other side, escaping the detection of the British ships.

Once Arnold was across, he digested the information provided by Halstead regarding the British defenses. About 600 troops defended the citadel of Quebec, two-thirds of them militia, which Carleton considered unreliable. Another 400 marines, highly disciplined and professional troops, augmented them. There were also several guns, and the city was well supplied with food. Arnold assembled his force on the Plains of Abraham, the site of the British victory over the French during the French and Indian War. He then demanded the surrender of the British forces. It was refused. Rather than risk a sortie by the British, supported with artillery, Arnold opted to withdraw his force to a safer position and await the arrival of Montgomery.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Montgomery left General David Wooster in command at Montreal. Wikimedia

10. The Americans besieged Quebec in December

Montgomery left David Wooster in command at Montreal and arrived with his force two weeks later, to find Arnold in position at Pointe-aux-Trembles, to the west of Quebec City. Montgomery was approached by a Frenchman, Christophe Pelissier, an iron monger, who agreed to use his forges to support the Americans. The ironworks supported the Americans for the duration of the siege. Pelissier was one of the many French Canadians who individually supported the American invasion, but the large numbers of militia Montgomery had hoped to recruit in Canada failed to materialize. Livingston’s 1st Canadian Regiment was an exception, though it did not exceed 200 men. The Americans also received little support for Canadian representation in the Continental Congress.

The citadel at Quebec could not be reduced without heavy artillery, which the Americans did not have. They did have a company of artillery, which arrived with Montgomery’s force. Montgomery also faced more expiring enlistments at the end of the year (as did Arnold). In early December both pleaded with their men to extend their time of service, but it quickly became clear most of the force would simply dissolve with the coming of the New Year. On December 6 Montgomery moved his artillery into position to begin a siege of the city, while the British fortified the Lower Town, beneath the citadel. By that time, the ground was frozen, and American forces were unable to dig fortifications for their guns.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Fort St. Johns on the Richelieu River was destroyed and rebuilt during the invasion. Wikimedia

11. Snow barriers were constructed to protect the guns

When the American artillery was placed to bring the city under fire, American troops constructed barricades of snow to protect them. Montgomery had six mortars and four field guns with which to reduce the fortifications of Quebec, inadequate to the task they were assigned. The inability to entrench put the Americans at a severe disadvantage and the snow blocks used to erect barricades failed to offer much protection. By mid-December, British guns had destroyed two of the mortars, which themselves had failed to create much damage in the city. Montgomery was forced to withdraw the remainder. The weather continued to worsen, and the likelihood of supplies arriving from America was slim.

Morgan’s riflemen, which had endured the privations of the gruesome journey through the Maine wilderness better than most, did more damage than Montgomery’s guns. From elevated positions outside of the Lower Town, they sniped at exposed British defenders, safely outside the range of their enemy’s muskets. Moving about the streets of the Lower Town became a daunting proposition for the defenders. Both Arnold and Montgomery realized the city would not be captured by snipers. Montgomery tried to bluff the British into surrender by implying additional American forces would arrive from Montreal, but Carleton didn’t bite. As Christmas approached, the American commanders knew that they would have to assault the fortifications.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Another presentation of the route Arnold took to join with Montgomery before Quebec. Wikimedia

12. Montgomery decided to use the weather as cover for an assault

On Christmas Day, 1775, Montgomery addressed the troops under his command, informing them of his plans to carry the city by an assault. In consultation with Arnold and Livingston, Montgomery declared his intention to assault the British positions under the cover of a snowstorm, believing it would mask the movement and allow the Americans to use stealth to get over the walls of the town. On the night of December 27, during a brief snowstorm, Montgomery prepared to attack the town, but the storm subsided before the troops could get into position. During the storm, an American deserted the British, and Carleton received the information that the Americans intended to attack during a snowstorm.

After the desertion, Montgomery changed the plan of attack, but continued to rely on the weather to provide cover for the Americans. Diversionary attacks, one led by Livingston, the other by Jacob Brown, were directed against the west side of the British fortifications. Once they were underway two more attacks, led by Montgomery and Arnold, were to strike the Lower Town, with Montgomery attacking the south sector along the Saint Lawrence. Arnold was to advance into the Lower Town from the north. The forces were to join in the Lower Town and jointly attack the Upper Town. Montgomery had been led to believe that once the Americans occupied the Lower Town the residents of the upper would plea with Carleton to surrender. It was a false hope.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Aaron Burr was with Montgomery’s command when the attack began. Wikimedia

13. The attack on Quebec began on the night of December 30, 1775

Late in the day on December 30 a snowstorm began, which increased in intensity as the daylight faded. Under the cover of darkness and the driving snow, Montgomery ordered his forces into position for the attack. Brown, who had the furthest to move, was ordered to fire signal flares when he was ready to attack, at which time Montgomery and Arnold would move into the Lower Town. Brown reached his position shortly before 5 AM, fired the flares, and began firing upon his assigned targets. Livingston too opened fire, and under the cover of the diversion, Montgomery and Arnold launched their assaults. As they did the alarm bells within the city rang out.

Montgomery advanced at the head of his column toward the barricades outside of the city, helped saw through the second of two they encountered, and advanced down a street with a blockhouse at its end. It was well defended. By then the snowstorm was a full-fledged blizzard. As he approached the blockhouse its defenders let loose with a volley of fire, killing the American general and the two next most senior officers of his command. One of the survivors was a young American officer by the name of Aaron Burr. The Americans not killed in the initial volley hastily withdrew, leaving behind the body of their commander, who was unaware that he had been promoted to Major General for his capture of Montreal.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
The death of Richard Montgomery demoralized his troops, which abandoned the attack. Wikimedia

14. Montgomery’s attack was not followed by a second assault

After the advance party led by Montgomery was decimated, most of the officers remaining alive were both inexperienced and demoralized. After a hasty council of war, what was left of the command structure decided that a second attempt to storm the Lower Town would be futile. Montgomery’s command was led by the remaining officers back to the Plains of Abraham. They could hear the firing from Arnold’s assault, but did nothing to support the attack. The withdrawal by the remains of Montgomery’s command doomed the rest of the attack to fail.

It has been postulated many times that had Montgomery not been killed at the outset of the attack the Americans would have captured the city of Quebec. It’s likely that they would have captured the Lower Town, but the idea that Carleton would have surrendered the Upper Town remains open to question. Montgomery’s death certainly contributed to the American defeat, but speculation that his survival would have led to victory is specious. The attack failed due to a spirited and well-managed defense of the city by militia, marines, sailors, and the small contingent of regulars, coordinated by Carleton.

The American invasion of Canada in 1775
Arnold’s attack was repulsed in heavy street fighting. Wikimedia

15. Arnold was wounded early in his attack as well

Benedict Arnold’s attack included the Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen, Continentals from New England, and French-Canadian and Indian allies. They succeeded in breaching the walls and entering the Lower Town, where they encountered a maze of streets, many barricaded. Arnold was wounded in the leg early in the attack, and carried to the rear. Leadership fell to Daniel Morgan. The Americans penetrated deeply into the town, taking prisoners and overwhelming the defenders despite coming under heavy fire. The blizzard continued, the cold wind numbing fingers as they struggled to load weapons.

The snow also dampened gunpowder, and loaded weapons failed to discharge. Morgan and his men became trapped in the city, unable to advance or retreat, and Dearborn’s troops were blocked from relieving them. Gradually the Americans were overwhelmed. Morgan was forced to surrender to save his remaining men, Dearborn did the same. The rest of the attack slowly wound down. By 10 AM the battle was over, after the British attacked the American battery outside the walls of the city, capturing it and returning unscathed.

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

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