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Program 11: The Penobscot Expedition and The Revolution

The Eastern Frontier : Arnold’s March

Arnold’s March

In 1775, Benedict Arnold set off from Newburyport, Mass., with 1,100 men to capture Québec City. Authorized by Commander-in-Chief George Washington, Arnold's march was part of two-pronged American attack designed to take Canada and eliminate the possibility of a British invasion from the north. The major thrust was to be made against Montreal via Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers. Arnold would lead his men to Québec through the Province of Maine.

For Arnold, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The boats leaked. A bad map caused him to misjudge the length of the journey by nearly half. The weather was awful. A third of the army turned back. The remaining men struggled, went hungry, or got lost. Many died. Nonetheless, Arnold's determination and leadership saved his remaining troops and on December 31, they mounted an assault. Early in the action, however, the principal American commander (Richard Montgomery, who had come over after having taken Montreal) was killed and Arnold was carried from the city badly wounded. Many colonials were captured. The remaining troops retreated. The mission failed and Canada was lost to the British.

The victors in any war (the Americans of course eventually won their independence from Britain) seldom recall lost battles. So why, one might ask, has the Arnold expedition survived in the public's memory and imagination for so long? What was there about it that caused Maine writer, Kenneth Roberts, to tell the expedition's story in his famous novel "Arundel?" What attracted hundreds of men and women to re-create Arnold's trek on the occasion of its bi-centennial in 1975? What still brings visitors to the Kennebec region and to Quebec to walk in the expedition's footsteps?

Part of the answer must lie with Arnold himself, who after holding off and then helping to defeat a British invasion from the north (at Saratoga in 1777), later went over to the British side for reasons that still challenge historians today. Certainly Arnold is a controversial figure; one who reminds of us of just how far dedicated patriots will go to attain true freedom, but who also forces us to remember that not all Americans at the time agreed on the meaning of true patriotism.

Perhaps it is the perseverance of the men and women involved in the expedition that continues to attract us. Perhaps the failure of the expedition after such heroism adds to its allure. One thing seems certain: the Arnold expedition will continue to be an important part of the story of the Revolution, one that takes the basic notions of success and failure and makes each generation think about what they really mean.

Ó Jay Adams

April 12, 2004

Suggestion for further reading:

Kenneth Roberts, Arundel.

Kenneth Roberts, March to Quebec, a compilation of journals from expedition members.

Stephen Clark, Following their Footsteps: A Travel Guide and History of the 1775 Secret Expedition to Capture Quebec.

James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero.



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