Although we may have all learned about the famous first shots that were fired at Lexington and Concord that officially started the Revolutionary War, few know about the first major military initiative from the Continental Congress.
During this tumultuous period, a plan was set forth to take control of the city of Quebec, which the British ruled in 1775. Patriot troops under Colonel Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery would attempt to win support for the Americans’ fight for liberty against England, but misjudged Canadian loyalties. Meanwhile, their generals underestimated the difficulties they would face, including British loyalist spies, inaccurate maps and unexpected weather conditions. Below, you’ll learn more about what led to the first major defeat for Americans during the Revolutionary War.
Why Did America Want To Take Control of Quebec?
The 13 American colonies were frustrated by the passing of the Quebec Act in 1774 by the British Parliament. This act would protect religious freedom for Roman Catholics while restoring French civil law, which would strip immigrants from the 13 colonies living in Quebec of their self-elected assemblies and invalidate some of the colonies’ land claims, giving most of the Ohio Country to Quebec. Anti-Catholic American Protestants were not pleased, and neither were Americans like George Washington, who wished for westward expansion.
Consequently, American dissenters began a propaganda campaign with the goal of garnering sympathy and support from the citizens of Quebec. However, the French Canadian clergy, landowners and other powerful citizens largely supported the British, while the common people remained mostly neutral and unwilling to become involved in the rebellion.
It was Benedict Arnold who eventually proposed a plan in the spring of 1775 to invade Quebec. George Washington was willing to listen as Arnold contended that their efforts would prevent the British from attacking the 13 colonies from the north, might allow an opportunity for French Canadians to join forces with American soldiers, and would rob the British of the fur trade while ensuring the possession of Canadian wheat to feed Americans. With all of the potential benefits, and since the British were believed to only have 775 troops in the country and the capital of Quebec was guarded by fewer than 300 soldiers, Washington agreed to the plan.
Even though Arnold had suggested a straightforward plan to take Montreal, Washington decided to go with a more complicated strategy. Some troops would head to Montreal through New York, while the other troops would head through Maine to capture Quebec. Therefore, General Richard Montgomery and his troops, after setting out from Fort Ticonderoga in late August, were able to seize Fort St. Johns in September 1775. They were then able to occupy Saint Paul's Island in the Saint Lawrence River on November 8th and cross to Pointe-Saint-Charles the next day. On November 13th, Montreal fell.
Shortly after, on November 19th, the British governor of Quebec, Sir Guy Carleton, surrendered and fled to Quebec disguised as a commoner. Confident due to his recent victory, on November 28th, Montgomery headed to Quebec with his remaining troops to join forces with Arnold’s soldiers. Meanwhile, Arnold’s troops had been through quite an arduous journey.
A Challenging Expedition
From the very start, General Arnold and his troops began facing unforeseen hardship. Firstly, due to the men’s pay being delayed, the expedition started later than it was supposed to; secondly, the map that was given to Arnold was incorrect, leading the route to Quebec to be much longer than initially expected.
To make matters worse, a shipbuilder hired for the journey, who secretly had allegiance to the British, purposely used heavier wood without caulking so that boats carrying supplies would constantly leak and ruin their provisions. The unforgiving weather made their already complicated journey worse, and the troops were nearing starvation; coupled together, these conditions led many of Arnold’s men to desert. Once Arnold had finally reached his destination, he had 675 poorly equipped, downtrodden soldiers left to try to infiltrate the fortified city.
A New Year's Eve Battle
Thankfully, by December 2nd, Montgomery had arrived in Quebec with around 500 troops, bringing with them much-needed supplies and food. During a snowstorm on December 31st, with the help of Frenchman Christophe Pélissier, who provided munitions for the battle, they attacked the British soldiers from two directions. Unfortunately, soon after, cannon fire ended up killing Montgomery and many of his soldiers, while Arnold was shot in the leg and had to be dragged to safety by his remaining men. Of the 300 men who’d survived the tremendously difficult journey with Arnold to Quebec, only 100 were left.
Despite things looking dire for Arnold, he and his troops didn’t give up. He even attempted to move a single cannon in different positions to make it appear as though they had more artillery than they had in reality. Ultimately, when 4,000 British troop reinforcements led by British General John Burgoyne were sent, the American soldiers were forced to abandon their posts by May 1776 and retreat to New York.
A Traitor in Their Midst
Although this marked the official end of America’s attempt to invade Quebec, Arnold was able to successfully prevent the British from attacking from the north in October 1776 in the Battle of Valcour Island. The fervor with which Arnold fought the British made it all the more shocking when, four years later, he became a traitor to America by agreeing to surrender the vital Hudson River fort to the British in exchange for money and a commission in the British army.
When the attempt to control Quebec failed, Washington decided that providing additional men and resources toward this endeavor should be of low priority throughout the rest of the war. However, the 13 colonies never completely gave up hope on one day conquering Quebec. During the Paris peace talks, American representatives demanded power over Quebec as part of their war spoils, but only the Ohio Country was eventually granted. Despite this early battle that was lost, the 13 colonies were able to win the Revolutionary War in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, finally recognizing the colonies as an independent entity that would grow to become The United States of America.