Battles are often lost in the conception of them, and Continental Army Colonel Benedict Arnold’s attempt to drive the British out of Canada in 1775 was one such occasion. The idea was not a bad one: He and Ethan Allen had already seized Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and Canada was vulnerable, Montreal and Quebec both lightly defended. Why not invade up Lake Champlain, take Montreal, then march on Quebec? The British would have no chance to invade from the north through the Champlain and Hudson valleys and split the colonies in two. Canada would be theirs.
George Washington liked the idea; he had had it himself. But he chose Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, not Arnold, to lead it. Arnold was brilliant, ambitious and impatient, and he desperately wanted to shine. If he could not lead this expedition, how about a separate expedition through the Maine wilderness up the Kennebec River into Canada, which would bring him straight to Quebec? He would take 1,100 men from among the idle troops around Boston and leave as soon as possible. Schuyler could take Montreal; he would take Quebec. Washington said yes.
The result was a disaster. It was August by then, and Arnold needed 200 shallow-draft bateaux in two weeks to carry his troops up the Kennebec. The task was impossible, and the results predictable: 200 bateaux, hastily and poorly built with green wood. Winter clothing was in short supply, reliable maps nonexistent. Ammunition and powder were scant. Getting food and supplies together took longer than expected. The expedition left weeks too late to avoid the onset of winter in an unfamiliar wilderness.
The bateaux overturned in the wild rivers, ruining food supplies. The weather was awful, marked by cold, wind, incessant rain and early snows. Food dwindled rapidly, and footwear wore out. Arnold split his forces, and whole units lost their way in the wilderness. Swamps and unmapped rivers crisscrossed the route, and travel was exhausting, rest nonexistent. Arnold held councils of war with his officers to discuss what to do. Men were starving, weak. One beleaguered battalion under Lt. Col. Roger Enos, bringing up the rear and carrying much of the food and supplies, flouted Arnold’s orders and turned back.
By early November just 600 men had reached the St. Lawrence, leaving behind their sick and starving. Sympathetic Quebecois living on the south side of the river fed the survivors, and they recovered. The city was still weakly defended and an attack possible. But timing is everything. The moment to strike came, a night in which everything might have been gained—or lost—but Arnold chose to wait for reinforcements. In the end, on the last day of 1775, joined by Schuyler’s forces—now led by Maj. Gen. Richard Montgomery— which had taken Montreal with ease, Arnold attacked the built-up British defenses at night in heavy snow. The snow dampened the Americans’ powder; their rifles would not fire. Arnold was shot through an ankle, Montgomery killed. Canada remained in British hands.
■ A little ambition in an officer is a good thing; too much might lead to treason.
■ Build sound boats. If you want to move your army by water, things turn out better if the boats actually float.
■ Bring good maps. Who can lead an army through a wilderness when he is unsure where he is going?
■ Never divide your forces to satisfy a leader’s ambitions. If Schuyler’s and Arnold’s armies had gone to Montreal and then Quebec together, Canada would have been theirs.
■ Logistics is the key to victory. Poorly equipped soldiers rarely win battles, especially if they’re cold and hungry, too.
■ Divvy up supplies. If one unit gets separated from the rest, at least you won’t run out of food or ammunition.
■ Victory favors the bold. Arnold ferried his forces over the river one night in canoes, only to cancel the attack on lightly defended Quebec. That was his moment. It came and went.
■Never attack Canada in the winter.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.