Invasion of Canada: the American Revolution

In the early spring of 1776 Congress had appointed Dr. Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll a board of commissioners invested with full authority to proceed to Canada and direct military affairs there; to promise a guaranty of the estates to the clergy; to establish a free press; to offer the Canadians free trade with all nations; to invite them to form a free and independent government for themselves, and to join the confederated colonies. The commissioners arrived at Montreal, where Arnold was in command, at the close of April. They were too late. A general impression prevailed there that the American army would soon be driven out of the province, for reinforcements for Carleton were on their way. Without an army, without hard money, and without credit, the commissioners could not ask the Canadians to join them. They perceived that the main objects of their mission could not be obtained, and it was determined to withdraw the troops to St. Johns, and there to fortify and reinforce them, so that they might be an impassable barrier to an army that might attempt to penetrate the country below.

General Thomas arrived at Quebec on the first of May. He found there nineteen hundred troops, one-half of whom were sick with the small-pox and other diseases. They had, in the magazine, only one hundred and fifty pounds of powder. Some of the troops were clamorous for a discharge, for their term of enlistment had expired. This inauspicious state of affairs caused Thomas to prepare for a retreat toward Montreal. While he was making ready for the movement, British ships arrived at Quebec with troops, when a thousand men of the garrison, with six cannon, sallied out and attacked the Americans, who fled in their weakness far up the St. Lawrence, to the mouth of the Sorel. A fortnight after this retreat, Captain Foster, with some British regulars and Canadians, and about five hundred Indians under Brant, the celebrated Mohawk chief, came down the river from Oswegatchie (now Ogdensburg) and captured a small garrison at the Cedars Rapids, not far above Montreal. They were a part of Colonel Bedel's New Hampshire regiment. The colonel was sick at Lachine, and his major (Butterfield), terrified by a threat made by Forster, surrendered without fighting. Arnold went out to attack the captors, but to prevent the prisoners being murdered by the Indians, he consented to a compromise for an exchange.

While the enemy was thus pressing upon Montreal from the river, word came from below that General Thomas was sick with the small-pox. He died on the 2nd of June, when the command devolved on General Sullivan, who felt sure that in the course of a few days he would "reduce the army to order," and "put a new face on affairs" there. To Washington he wrote: "I am determined to hold the most important posts as long as one stone is left upon another." But Sullivan did not know that British and German troops, under Generals Burgoyne and Riedesel, were then landing at Quebec, and so putting the republican army in Canada in a position of great, peril. By the arrival of these reinforcements, Governor Carleton found himself in command of about thirteen thousand soldiers, most of them thoroughly equipped for war. Some of the vessels, with troops, were sent directly up the river, and assisted in repelling an attack upon a British post at Three Rivers by a force under General Thompson, composed of Pennsylvania troops commanded respectively by Colonels St. Clair, Wayne, and Irvine. Thompson was badly beaten, and he and Irvine, with one hundred and fifty private soldiers, were made prisoners.

This disaster was discouraging to Sullivan. It was immediately followed by the startling news of an overwhelming military force coming up the river by land and water. Sullivan was compelled to retreat up the Sorel, carrying most of his boats and his cannon around the rapids at Chambly. He pressed on to St. Johns. Arnold, who seeing approaching danger had abandoned Montreal without waiting for orders, had joined him near Chambly, and on the 17th of June the remainder of the invading army were all at that post which Montgomery had captured when he entered Canada about seven months before. The fugitive troops were in a most pitiable condition. Nearly one-half of them were sick, and all of them were half-clad, and scantily fed with salt meat and hard bread. "At the sight of so much privation and distress," wrote Dr. Stringer, the medical director, "I wept till I had no more power to weep." The force was too weak to make a successful stand at St. Johns against the great army of Burgoyne that were slowly pursuing, and they continued their flight to Crown Point, in open boats without awnings (for they could get none), exposing the sick to the fiery sun and the drenching rain.

Terrible were the scenes at Crown Point after the fragments of the army were gathered there. More than thirty victims of disease were buried daily, for awhile. Every spot and every thing seemed to be infected with pestilence. For a short time the troops were poorly housed, half-naked, and inadequately fed; their daily rations being raw salt pork, hard bread, and unbaked flour. Five thousand men were there. During two months the Northern Army had lost by desertion and sickness full five thousand soldiers. So ended in disaster the remarkable invasion--one of the boldest ever undertaken, all things considered.

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