December 29, 2023 at 4:04 a.m.

Benedict Arnold and the Battle of Quebec

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

After the American Revolution, Canada remained a separate colony of Britain until it gained its independence through peaceful means in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Americans actually tired to make Canada part of our new country, but not many Canadians wanted to be part of it.  One reason was religion: Canadian Catholics wanted no part of a country dominated by New England Protestants.  There were other reasons, but on several occasions a union of the two countries seemed possible.  One such occasion was a Revolutionary War battle. 

Benedict Arnold and the Battle of Quebec

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

In September 1775, with the authorization of the Second Continental Congress, two expeditions of American troops began an advance toward the province of Quebec – a British stronghold. In the first, General Richard Montgomery and his forces proceeded up Lake Champlain and successfully captured Montreal on November 13th before heading to Quebec City.

Then, Colonel Benedict Arnold led his men through the wilderness of present-day Maine, approaching the city directly. In mid-November, Arnold arrived on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City. He requested the city’s surrender but was rebuffed. Deciding he lacked sufficient resources to fight, Arnold was forced to wait for Montgomery to join him with his troops and supplies.

On December 2nd, Arnold, Montgomery, and their troops met on the outskirts of Quebec and demanded the surrender of the city. Governor Sir Guy Carleton rejected their demand, and on December 8th the Patriots commenced a bombardment of Quebec, which was met by a counter-battery by the British defenders that disabled several of the Patriots’ guns. Facing the year-end expiration of their troops’ enlistment, the Patriot forces advanced on the city under the cover of a blizzard at approximately 4 AM on December 31st. The British defenders were ready, however, and when Montgomery’s forces came within 50 yards of the fortified city, the British opened fire with a barrage of artillery and musket fire. Montgomery was killed in the first assault, and after several more attempts at penetrating Quebec’s defenses, his men were forced to retreat.

Meanwhile, Arnold’s division suffered a similar fate during their attack on the northern wall of the city. A two-gun battery opened fire on the advancing Americans, killing a number of troops and wounding Benedict Arnold in the leg. Patriot Daniel Morgan assumed command and made progress against the defenders but halted at the second wall of fortifications to wait for reinforcements. By the time the rest of Arnold’s army finally arrived, the British had reorganized, forcing the Patriots to call off their attack. Of the 900 Americans who participated in the siege, 60 were killed or wounded and more than 400 were captured.

The remaining Patriot forces then retreated from Canada. Benedict Arnold remained in Canadian territory until the last of his soldiers had crossed the St. Lawrence River to safety. With the pursuing British forces almost in firing range, Arnold checked one last time to make sure all his men had escaped, then shot his horse, and fled down the St. Lawrence in a canoe. This may be the first callous act of Arnold in the records.

After the defeat at Quebec, the battered and ailing Americans remained outside the city with the help of additional supplies and reinforcements, carrying out an ineffectual siege. However, with the arrival of a British fleet at Quebec in May 1776, the Americans retreated from the area. The 1775 Battle of Quebec was the first major defeat for the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Less than five years later, Benedict Arnold, then commander of West Point, famously turned traitor when he agreed to surrender the important Hudson River fort to the British for a bribe of £20,000. The plot was uncovered after British spy John Andre was captured with incriminating papers, forcing Arnold to flee to British protection and join in their fight against the country that he had once so valiantly served.

What could have led Arnold to ruin his legacy by betraying his fellow Americans during the Revolutionary War? Analysis of Arnold’s actions have been simplified over the years to serve a narrative of right and wrong. While Arnold’s betrayal was clear—he offered the British seizure of the military fortress at West Point, NY, in exchange for £20,000 and a British military commission—what led up to that moment of betrayal is more complicated and less political than is often taught.

Arnold was the victim of a smear campaign. Some would say the catalyst was Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council President Joseph Reed. He took a personal dislike to Arnold and, in 1779, attempted to prosecute him on a series of treason charges ranging from buying illegal goods to preferring the company of British loyalists. In the build-up of his case, Reed was known to spread rumors about Arnold without offering proof of his allegations.

Arnold’s wife encouraged his treason. Arnold was also deeply in debt and newly married to an ambitious woman. His wife, Peggy, was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family with loyalist leanings that had fared better under the British. Peggy was accustomed to a certain level of living and some historians believe that Peggy steered Arnold to the British in order to maintain that lifestyle. Becoming a traitor to his country could fetch him a handsome payment from the British.

Letters suggest Arnold had character issues. But there were plenty of other reasons, too. Eric D. Lehman, author of Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London, notes that others at the time had similar circumstances and did not betray their country. Lehman spent time looking over Arnold’s letters and other first-hand accounts. “Some seemed to point to him ‘lacking feeling,’ i.e. sociopathic, but others showed him having too much feeling—he couldn’t control his temper. The number one thing I found across all of them was his selfish ambition, which came from a profound lack of self-esteem as a child and young man,” Lehman says.

Traditionally Arnold’s story has been taught with a good-versus-evil simplicity. More recently, Lehman points out, the tendency has been to portray Arnold as a misunderstood heroic figure. “Both simplifications are a mistake in my view,” says Lehman. “He was certainly misunderstood, and he was a hero in the early years of the war. That should always be part of the story. But he also betrayed his close friends, was willing to allow the death of and actually kill former comrades and earned the name ‘traitor’ from both friend and foe. If we leave that out, we simplify the story by omission. If we can’t hold those two ideas in our head at the same time, we are in good company. People like [Marquis de] Lafayette and [George] Washington couldn’t either.”

Lehman thinks it’s important to remember the whole story of Arnold—his betrayal wasn’t just treason. The British, who had much to gain from Arnold switching sides, found him dishonorable and untrustworthy. “One thing that has been left out of … Arnold’s story is that he didn’t stop after his West Point treason was discovered,” Lehman points out. “He went on to attack Virginia—almost capturing Thomas Jefferson—and then attacking Connecticut, his home state.

“Spying was one thing, but his willingness to switch sides in the middle of an armed conflict, and fight against the men who had a year earlier been fighting by his side, was something that people of that time and maybe ours could simply not understand.”

The loss of the Battle of Quebec was the first of many times that despite their similarities, the Canadians and the Americans remained separate.  

[The Treaty of Paris that finalized America's independence in 1783 plus the outcome of the War of 1812 permanently sealed the separation between Canada and the United States. The British North America Act created Canada on June 20, 1868.  Canada celebrates its independence on July 1st, while we celebrate ours on July 4th.  In 2026, the US will celebrate its 250th.  This article is one in a series from the SAR & DAR leading up to that celebration.]


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