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A Cold Day in Hell

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: November 24, 2009 
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John Joseph Henry was a 16-year-old Pennsylvania rifleman who volunteered to serve under Colonel Benedict Arnold on an ill-fated march to Quebec in the autumn of 1775. Slogging through cold, snowy Maine, Arnold's men endured the unimaginable as their supplies dwindled and food became scarce. In his postwar memoir – An Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships and Sufferings of That Band of Heroes, Who Traversed the Wilderness in the Campaign Against Quebec in 1775 – Henry recalled what happened on November 2 – two days before his 17th birthday – when he and his friend Michael Simpson joined an unfamiliar group of soldiers around a campfire.

Slipshod and tired, I sat down on the end of a long log, against which the fire was built, absolutely fainting with hunger and fatigue, my gun standing between my knees….That very act gave a cast to the kettle which was placed partly against the log, in such a way, as to spill two-thirds of its contents. At the moment a large man sprung to his gun, and pointing it towards me, he threatened to shoot. It created no fear….Death would have been a welcome visitor. Simpson soon made us friends. Coming to their fire, they gave me a cup of their broth. A table spoonful, was all that was tasted. It had a greenish hue, and was said to be that of a bear. This was instantly known to be untrue, from the taste and smell. It was that of a dog…a large black Newfoundland….

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We left these merry fellows, for they were actually such…and marching quickly, towards evening encamped….Without food, without clothing, to keep me warm, without money, and in a deep and devious wilderness, the idea occurred, and the means were in my hands, of ending existence. The God of all goodness inspired other thoughts. One principal cause of change…in my sentiments, was the jovial hilarity of my friend Simpson. At night, warming our bodies at an immense fire…he would sing….The music, though not so correct as that of Handel, added strength and vigor to our nerves. This evening it was, that some of our companions, whose stomachs had not received food, for the last forty-eight hours, adopted the notion, that leather…might be made palatable food, and would gratify the appetite….They washed their mockasins of moose-skin…scraping away the dirt and sand, with great care. These were brought to the kettle and boiled a considerable time….The poor fellows chewed the leather, but it was leather still: not to be macerated. My teeth though young and good, succeeded no better. Disconsolate and weary, we passed the night.

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