George Washington launched a two-pronged invasion of Canada in September 1775 with the goal of bringing the “14th colony” into the revolutionary fold. Initial hopes were high because British General Guy Carleton had been forced to send two of his four regiments south to deal with the rebels in Boston, leaving only a few hundred men to fend off an assault on Quebec, the capital city strategically located at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Plans called for General Philip Schuyler to advance with 1,700 troops from New York north along Lake Champlain to take Montreal. Then he would meet up outside Quebec with a force of 1,100 led by Colonel Benedict Arnold, who landed at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine on September 19 and set out through unsettled wilderness just as winter set in.
Arnold believed the late season would work in his favor, because the St. Lawrence River would soon freeze and prevent the British from sending reinforcements by boat. But redcoats quickly became the least of his worries. He’d badly miscalculated the distance he had to travel, and most of his supplies were ruined in leaking bateaux, the 400-pound, flat-bottomed cargo boats that his men were forced to carry around unnavigable rivers. Hunger, fatigue and bone-chilling cold took a toll on the men as they wandered through “a direful, howling wilderness,” reported Isaac Senter, a doctor from Rhode Island. “We proceeded with as little knowledge of where we were or where we should get to, as if we had been in the unknown interior of Africa, or the deserts of Arabia.”
By the time Arnold arrived on the outskirts of Quebec in early November, one-third of his men had turned back and the rest were a sorry sight. “I thought we much resembled the animals…called the Ourang-Outang,” recalled one survivor. The ragtag army holed up to wait for General Richard Montgomery, who had taken command of the other invading party when Schuyler fell ill. But Montgomery arrived a month later with only 300 men. More than half his soldiers had decamped when their enlistments expired, and 500 were left to garrison Montreal. Carleton, meanwhile, had beefed up Quebec’s defenses with troops from Montreal, as well as sailors and loyalist militia, and had stockpiled enough food and supplies to last until the spring.
Arnold and Montgomery faced a deadline, since the terms of enlistment for many of their men were due to expire at the end of the year. But they also wanted a snowstorm to provide cover for a nighttime assault, and the weather remained unusually clear until the pre-dawn hours of December 31. Then, in gale-force winds and blinding snow, they circled Quebec from different directions, breached the city’s protective palisades and entered the Lower Town, which they needed to capture before ascending the cliffs to the walled city in the Upper Town. In the ensuing chaos, Montgomery and most of his officers were killed. A musket ball shattered Arnold’s lower right leg, and he had to be carried out to a nearby hospital. For four hours, the fighting raged, house to house, in the narrow streets. When it was over, the British were still in control and more than 400 Americans had been taken prisoner. Arnold, refusing to quit, laid siege to Quebec with a force of 800, half of whom were French Canadians who opposed British rule. Carleton, safe and comfortable inside the city, decided not to attack, and for the next four months, Arnold played a dangerous game, withholding information from his own troops about their precarious position while bluffing Carleton that the Americans were in better shape than they appeared.
By May 1776, Arnold had to concede defeat. With the spring thaw on the St. Lawrence and 10,000 British reinforcements headed their way, Carleton himself led a small force to rout the Americans remaining outside the city. “In the most helter skelter manner,” said Dr. Senter, “we raised the siege, leaving everything. All the camp equipage, ammunition, even our clothing, except what little we happened to have on us.” The American army was in full retreat, finally sailing down Lake Champlain in mid-June. It had been a valiant effort, but the 14th colony was lost for good.