American Revolution: Arnold Expedition

Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution
Major General Benedict Arnold. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

 Arnold Expedition - Conflict & Dates:

The Arnold Expedition took place from September to November 1775 during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Arnold Expedition - Army & Commander:

​Arnold Expedition - Background:

Following their capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775, Colonels Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen approached the Second Continental Congress with arguments in favor of invading Canada.  They felt this a prudent course as all of Quebec was held by around 600 regulars and intelligence indicated that the French-speaking population would be favorably inclined towards the Americans.  Additionally, they pointed out that Canada could serve as a platform for British operations down Lake Champlain and the Hudson Valley.  These arguments were initially rebuffed as Congress expressed concern over angering the residents of Quebec.  As the military situation shifted that summer, this decision was reversed and Congress directed Major General Philip Schuyler of New York to advance north via the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River corridor.

Unhappy that he had not been chosen to lead the invasion, Arnold traveled north to Boston and met with General George Washington whose army was conducting a siege of the city.  During their meeting, Arnold proposed taking a second invasion force north via Maine's Kennebec River, Lake Mégantic, and Chaudière River.  This would then unite with Schuyler for a combined assault on Quebec City.  Corresponding with Schuyler, Washington obtained the New Yorker's agreement with Arnold's proposal and gave the colonel permission to commence planning the operation.  To transport the expedition, Reuben Colburn was contracted to build a fleet of bateaux (shallow draft boats) in Maine.

Arnold Expedition - Preparations:

For the expedition, Arnold selected a force of 750 volunteers which was divided into two battalions led by Lieutenant Colonels Roger Enos and Christopher Greene.  This was augmented by companies of riflemen led by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Morgan.  Numbering around 1,100 men, Arnold expected his command to be able to cover the 180 miles from Fort Western (Augusta, ME) to Quebec in around twenty days.  This estimate was based on a rough map of the route developed by Captain John Montresor in 1760/61.  Though Montresor was a skilled military engineer, his map lacked detail and possessed inaccuracies.  Having gathered supplies, Arnold's command moved to Newburyport, MA where it embarked for the Kennebec River on September 19.  Ascending the river, it arrived at Colburn's home in Gardiner the next day.

Coming ashore, Arnold was disappointed in the bateaux constructed by Colburn's men.  Smaller than anticipated, they were also built from green wood as sufficient dried pine had not been available.  Briefly pausing to permit additional bateaux to be assembled, Arnold dispatched parties north to Forts Western and Halifax.  Moving upstream, the bulk of the expedition reached Fort Western by September 23.  Departing two days later, Morgan's men took the lead while Colburn followed the expedition with a group of boatwrights to make repairs as necessary.  Though the force reached the last settlement on the Kennebec, Norridgewock Falls, on October 2, problems were already widespread as the green wood led to the bateaux leaking badly which in turn destroyed food and supplies.  Similarly, worsening weather caused health issues throughout the expedition.       

Arnold Expedition - Trouble in the Wilderness:

Forced to portage the bateaux around Norridgewock Falls, the expedition was delayed for a week due to the effort required to move the boats overland.  Pushing on, Arnold and his men entered the Dead River before arriving at the Great Carrying Place on October 11.  This portage around an unnavigable stretch of the river stretched for twelve miles and included an elevation gain of around 1,000 feet.  Progress continued to be slow and supplies became an increasing concern.  Returning to the river on October 16, the expedition, with Morgan's men in the lead, battled heavy rains and a strong current as it pushed upstream.  A week later, disaster struck when several bateaux carrying provisions overturned.  Calling a council of war, Arnold decided to press on and dispatched a small force north to attempt to secure supplies in Canada.  Also, the sick and injured were sent south.

Trailing behind Morgan, Greene's and Enos' battalions increasingly suffered from a lack of provisions and were reduced to eating shoe leather and candle wax.  While Greene's men resolved to continue, Enos' captains voted to turn back.  As a result, around 450 men departed the expedition.  Nearing the height of land, the weaknesses of Montresor's maps became apparent and the lead elements of the column repeatedly became lost.  After several missteps, Arnold finally reached Lake Mégantic on October 27 and began descending the upper Chaudière a day later.  Having achieved this goal, a scout was sent back to Greene with directions through the region.  These proved inaccurate and a further two days were lost.  

Arnold Expedition - Final Miles:

Encountering the local population on October 30, Arnold distributed a letter from Washington asking them to assist the expedition.  Joined on the river by the bulk of his force the next day, he received food and care for his sick from those in the area.  Meeting Jacques Parent, a resident of Pointe-Levi, Arnold learned that the British were aware of his approach and had ordered all boats on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River to be destroyed.  Moving down the Chaudière, the Americans arrived at Pointe-Levi, across from Quebec City, on November 9.  Of Arnold's original force of 1,100 men, around 600 remained.  Though he had believed the route to be around 180 miles, in actuality it had totaled approximately 350.

Arnold Expedition - Aftermath:

Concentrating his force at the mill of John Halstead, a New Jersey-born businessman, Arnold began making plans for crossing the St. Lawrence.  Purchasing canoes from the locals, the Americans crossed on the night of November 13/14 and were successful in evading two British warships in the river.  Approaching the city on November 14, Arnold demanded its garrison surrender.  Leading a force consisting of around 1,050 men, many of which were raw militia, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Maclean refused.  Short on supplies, with his men in poor condition, and lacking artillery, Arnold withdrew to Pointe-aux-Trembles five days later to await reinforcements.

On December 3, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, who had replaced an ill Schuyler, arrived with around 300 men.  Though he had moved up Lake Champlain with a larger force and captured Fort St. Jean on the Richelieu River, Montgomery had been forced to leave many of his men as garrisons at Montreal and elsewhere along the route north.  Assessing the situation, the two American commanders decided to assault Quebec City on the night of December 30/31.  Moving forward, they were repelled with heavy losses in the Battle of Quebec and Montgomery was killed.  Rallying the remaining troops, Arnold attempted to lay siege to the city. This proved increasingly ineffective as men began to depart with the expiration of their enlistments. Though he was reinforced, Arnold was compelled to retreat following the arrival of 4,000 British troops under Major General John Burgoyne. After being beaten at Trois-Rivières on June 8, 1776, the Americans were forced to retreat back into New York, ending the invasion of Canada.         

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Arnold Expedition." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Arnold Expedition. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Arnold Expedition." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).