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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter II

Schuyler was obliged through illness to give up his command, and it was an odd fortune of war that put General Richard Montgomery at the head of the expedition going by way of Lake Champlain. Montgomery had served with Wolfe at the taking of Louisbourg and had been an officer in the proud British army which had received the surrender of Canada in 1760. Not without searching of heart had Montgomery turned against his former sovereign. He was living in America when war broke out; he had married into an American family of position; and he had come to the view that vital liberty was challenged by the King. Now he did his work well, in spite of very bad material in his army. His New Englanders were, he said, “every man a general and not one of them a soldier.” They feigned sickness, though, as far as he had learned, there was “not a man dead of any distemper.” No better were the men from New York, “the sweepings of the streets” with morals “infamous.” Of the officers, too, Montgomery had a poor opinion. Like Washington he declared that it was necessary to get gentlemen, men of education and integrity, as officers, or disaster would follow. Nevertheless St. Johns, a British post on the Richelieu, about thirty miles across country from Montreal, fell to Montgomery on the 3d of November, after a siege of six weeks; and British regulars under Major Preston, a brave and competent officer, yielded to a crude volunteer army with whole regiments lacking uniforms. Montreal could make no defense. On the 12th of November Montgomery entered Montreal and was in control of the St. Lawrence almost to the cliffs of Quebec. Canada seemed indeed an easy conquest.

The adventurous Benedict Arnold went on an expedition more hazardous. He had persuaded Washington of the impossible, that he could advance through the wilderness from the seacoast of Maine and take Quebec by surprise. News travels even by forest pathways. Arnold made a wonderful effort. Chill autumn was upon him when, on the 25th of September, with about a thousand picked men, he began to advance up the Kennebec River and over the height of land to the upper waters of the Chaudiere, which discharges into the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec. There were heavy rains. Sometimes the men had to wade breast high in dragging heavy and leaking boats over the difficult places. A good many men died of starvation. Others deserted and turned back. The indomitable Arnold pressed on, however, and on the 9th of November, a few days before Montgomery occupied Montreal, he stood with some six hundred worn and shivering men on the strand of the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec. He had not surprised the city and it looked grim and inaccessible as he surveyed it across the great river. In the autumn gales it was not easy to carry over his little army in small boats. But this he accomplished and then waited for Montgomery to join him.

By the 3d of December Montgomery was with Arnold before Quebec. They had hardly more than a thousand effective troops, together with a few hundred Canadians, upon whom no reliance could be placed. Carleton, commanding at Quebec, sat tight and would hold no communication with despised “rebels.” “They all pretend to be gentlemen,” said an astonished British officer in Quebec, when he heard that among the American officers now captured by the British there were a former blacksmith, a butcher, a shoemaker, and an innkeeper. Montgomery was stung to violent threats by Carleton’s contempt, but never could he draw from Carleton a reply. At last Montgomery tried, in the dark of early morning of New Year’s Day, 1776, to carry Quebec by storm. He was to lead an attack on the Lower Town from the west side, while Arnold was to enter from the opposite side. When they met in the center they were to storm the citadel on the heights above. They counted on the help of the French inhabitants, from whom Carleton said bitterly enough that he had nothing to fear in prosperity and nothing to hope for in adversity. Arnold pressed his part of the attack with vigor and penetrated to the streets of the Lower Town where he fell wounded. Captain Daniel Morgan, who took over the command, was made prisoner.

Montgomery’s fate was more tragic. In spite of protests from his officers, he led in person the attack from the west side of the fortress. The advance was along a narrow road under the towering cliffs of a great precipice. The attack was expected by the British and the guard at the barrier was ordered to hold its fire until the enemy was near. Suddenly there was a roar of cannon and the assailants not swept down fled in panic. With the morning light the dead head of Montgomery was found protruding from the snow. He was mourned by Washington and with reason. He had talents and character which might have made him one of the chief leaders of the revolutionary army. Elsewhere, too, was he mourned. His father, an Irish landowner, had been a member of the British Parliament, and he himself was a Whig, known to Fox and Burke. When news of his death reached England eulogies upon him came from the Whig benches in Parliament which could not have been stronger had he died fighting for the King.


While the outlook in Canada grew steadily darker, the American cause prospered before Boston. There Howe was not at ease. If it was really to be war, which he still doubted, it would be well to seek some other base. Washington helped Howe to take action. Dorchester Heights commanded Boston as critically from the south as did Bunker Hill from the north. By the end of February Washington had British cannon, brought with heavy labor from Ticonderoga, and then he lost no time. On the morning of March 5, 1776, Howe awoke to find that, under cover of a heavy bombardment, American troops had occupied Dorchester Heights and that if he would dislodge them he must make another attack similar to that at Bunker Hill. The alternative of stiff fighting was the evacuation of Boston. Howe, though dilatory, was a good fighting soldier. His defects as a general in America sprang in part from his belief that the war was unjust and that delay might bring counsels making for peace and save bloodshed. His first decision was to attack, but a furious gale thwarted his purpose, and he then prepared for the inevitable step.

Washington divined Howe’s purpose and there was a tacit agreement that the retiring army should not be molested. Howe destroyed munitions of war which he could not take away but he left intact the powerful defenses of Boston, defenses reared at the cost of Britain. Many of the better class of the inhabitants, British in their sympathies, were now face to face with bitter sorrow and sacrifice. Passions were so aroused that a hard fate awaited them should they remain in Boston and they decided to leave with the British army. Travel by land was blocked; they could go only by sea. When the time came to depart, laden carriages, trucks, and wheelbarrows crowded to the quays through the narrow streets and a sad procession of exiles went out from their homes. A profane critic said that they moved “as if the very devil was after them.” No doubt many of them would have been arrogant and merciless to “rebels” had theirs been the triumph. But the day was above all a day of sorrow. Edward Winslow, a strong leader among them, tells of his tears “at leaving our once happy town of Boston.” The ships, a forest of masts, set sail and, crowded with soldiers and refugees, headed straight out to sea for Halifax. Abigail, wife of John Adams, a clever woman, watched the departure of the fleet with gladness in her heart. She thought that never before had been seen in America so many ships bearing so many people. Washington’s army marched joyously into Boston. Joyous it might well be since, for the moment, powerful Britain was not secure in a single foot of territory in the former colonies. If Quebec should fall the continent would be almost conquered.

Quebec did not fall. All through the winter the Americans held on before the place. They shivered from cold. They suffered from the dread disease smallpox. They had difficulty in getting food. The Canadians were insistent on having good money for what they offered and since good money was not always in the treasury the invading army sometimes used violence. Then the Canadians became more reserved and chilling than ever. In hope of mending matters Congress sent a commission to Montreal in the spring of 1776. Its chairman was Benjamin Franklin and, with him, were two leading Roman Catholics, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a great landowner of Maryland, and his brother John, a priest, afterwards Archbishop of Baltimore. It was not easy to represent as the liberator of the Catholic Canadians the Congress which had denounced in scathing terms the concessions in the Quebec Act to the Catholic Church. Franklin was a master of conciliation, but before he achieved anything a dramatic event happened. On the 6th of May, British ships arrived at Quebec. The inhabitants rushed to the ramparts. Cries of joy passed from street to street and they reached the little American army, now under General Thomas, encamped on the Plains of Abraham. Panic seized the small force which had held on so long. On the ships were ten thousand fresh British troops. The one thing for the Americans to do was to get away; and they fled, leaving behind guns, supplies, even clothing and private papers. Five days later Franklin, at Montreal, was dismayed by the distressing news of disaster.

Congress sent six regiments to reinforce the army which had fled from Quebec. It was a desperate venture. Washington’s orders were that the Americans should fight the new British army as near Quebec as possible. The decisive struggle took place on the 8th of June. An American force under the command of General Thompson attacked Three Rivers, a town on the St. Lawrence, half way between Quebec and Montreal. They were repulsed and the general was taken prisoner. The wonder is indeed that the army was not annihilated. Then followed a disastrous retreat. Short of supplies, ravaged by smallpox, and in bad weather, the invaders tried to make their way back to Lake Champlain. They evacuated Montreal. It is hard enough in the day of success to hold together an untrained army. In the day of defeat such a force is apt to become a mere rabble. Some of the American regiments preserved discipline. Others fell into complete disorder as, weak and discouraged, they retired to Lake Champlain. Many soldiers perished of disease. “I did not look into a hut or a tent,” says an observer, “in which I did not find a dead or dying man.” Those who had huts were fortunate. The fate of some was to die without medical care and without cover. By the end of June what was left. of the force had reached Crown Point on Lake Champlain.

Benedict Arnold, who had been wounded at Quebec, was now at Crown Point. Competent critics of the war have held that what Arnold now did saved the Revolution. In another scene, before the summer ended, the British had taken New York and made themselves masters of the lower Hudson. Had they reached in the same season the upper Hudson by way of Lake Champlain they would have struck blows doubly staggering. This Arnold saw, and his object was to delay, if he could not defeat, the British advance. There was no road through the dense forest by the shores of Lake Champlain and Lake George to the upper Hudson. The British must go down the lake in boats. This General Carleton had foreseen and he had urged that with the fleet sent to Quebec should be sent from England, in sections, boats which could be quickly carried past the rapids of the Richelieu River and launched on Lake Champlain. They had not come and the only thing for Carleton to do was to build a flotilla which could carry an army up the lake and attack Crown Point. The thing was done but skilled workmen were few and not until the 6th of October were the little ships afloat on Lake Champlain. Arnold, too, spent the summer in building boats to meet the attack and it was a strange turn in warfare which now made him commander in a naval fight. There was a brisk struggle on Lake Champlain. Carleton had a score or so of vessels; Arnold not so many. But he delayed Carleton. When he was beaten on the water he burned the ships not captured and took to the land. When he could no longer hold Crown Point he burned that place and retreated to Ticonderoga.

By this time it was late autumn. The British were far from their base and the Americans were retreating into a friendly country. There is little doubt that Carleton could have taken Fort Ticonderoga. It fell quite easily less than a year later. Some of his officers urged him to press on and do it. But the leaves had already fallen, the bleak winter was near, and Carleton pictured to himself an army buried deeply in an enemy country and separated from its base by many scores of miles of lake and forest. He withdrew to Canada and left Lake Champlain to the Americans.