The provinces of New York and New Jersey; with part of Pensilvania, and the Province of Quebec, by Thomas Pownall, ca. 1776. [G3800 1776 .P6]. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.The ill-fated American invasion of Quebec from August 1775 to July 1776 began for two primary reasons. First, after over a century of imperial warfare with Catholic France, many British Protestant colonists along the Atlantic seaboard viewed Quebec as a threat to both the physical and cultural security of their colonies, a threat that would obviously be negated by Quebec’s union with the lower thirteen colonies.1 Second, Quebec fit into a newly burgeoning sense of American national identity that was predicated upon a sense of commonality among the many and varied residents of North America.2 Because of that supposed commonality, many Congressional leaders believed Quebec deserved a place in the new American union.

These two seemingly antipathetic beliefs  – British colonists’ fears of Quebec as a physical and cultural threat and their hopes for a continental union – would ultimately coalesce in the decision by Congress to order a northern invasion shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. The invasion itself began in August of that year, and followed four primary phases. In the first, which began on August 25, General Richard Montgomery ordered approximately 1200 men mustered at the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga to march into Quebecois territory, ultimately encamping at Ile aux Noix in the Richelieu River. On September 17, he moved to lay siege to Fort St. John’s, which commanded the entrance to Quebec at the northern end of Lake Champlain. After General Sir Guy Carleton (British governor of the province of Quebec) failed in his effort to lift the siege on October 30, the garrison chose to surrender peacefully a few short days later on November 3. From there, Montgomery ordered his troops to surround Montreal, which was abandoned by Carleton as indefensible and surrendered without resistance on November 13,1775. 

Meanwhile, in the second phase of the invasion, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, ordered a force of 1100 men to proceed under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold in a flanking maneuver toward Quebec City through the largely unsettled western frontier of New England. The western expedition boarded ships at Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 15, sailing toward the mouth of the Kennebec River on the coast of southern Maine. After two months of marching through 400 miles of almost uninhabited frontier, Arnold’s forces (now numbering only 600 men after a number of deaths and a large scale desertion by the men under Colonel Roger Enos of Vermont) reached the gates of Quebec City on November 14. There, Arnold’s men awaited the coming of reinforcements under Montgomery, which arrived on December 2. Now united with a combined force of 1100 men, the two commanders began to plan for the siege of Quebec in earnest, a siege that officially commenced three days later and ushered in the third phase of the campaign.

The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775, by John Trumbull, ca. 1786. [1832.2]. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.Determined to bring about the city’s fall, Montgomery ordered a multi-pronged attack against the surrounding fortifications on December 31. Three divisions (one under Montgomery, the other two under Arnold and Colonel James Livingston) approached the city under the cover of a growing snowstorm. Unfortunately for the forces tasked with the capture of the city, the storm became more of a challenge than an advantage as snow blinded Continental soldiers and clogged their guns. The assault ended with Arnold wounded, Montgomery dead, and 400 American men captured. Although Arnold (who took command of the Continental soldiers surrounding Quebec after Montgomery’s death) continued the siege for the next several months, the defeat proved fatal to American hopes in Quebec. 

The arrival of British reinforcements under General John Burgoyne in May 1776 initiated the fourth and final phase of the campaign. Newly strengthened by Burgoyne’s troops, the British and Quebecois forces under Sir Guy Carleton drove Arnold to retreat toward upstate New York with the remainder of his forces. Within a few short weeks, those forces had been almost entirely expelled from the province of Quebec.

As the defeat of Continental forces in Quebec became a reality, the attention of Congressional leaders was drawn fully into the search for an explanation for that defeat. Some, like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, adopted a deus ex machina approach, specifically blaming the outbreak of smallpox that ravaged Continental troops outside the walls of Quebec City for the failure of American arms.3 Most others, however, laid the blame for the Continental defeat in Quebec elsewhere. Rather than look upwards for the source of Continental defeat, most Congressional leaders chose instead to look inwards. This choice was based primarily upon a series of reports issued by a Congressional committee (composed of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll Jr. of Maryland) appointed to investigate the problems facing Continental troops in Quebec.4 Eventually, it was established by the members of the Continental Congress as the official explanation for their forces’ ultimate defeat. These reports, written in May 1776, made it clear that the blame for Continental defeat should be laid squarely on the shoulders of Congressional leaders themselves. More specifically, Congressional leaders’ indecision and lack of organization had prevented Continental troops from receiving the financial and military support necessary to execute any sort of effective military strategy. 

Such conclusions obfuscated any role British or Quebecois skill might have had in the defeat of Continental troops in the north, an obfuscation that allowed Congressional leaders to believe that the northern colony might still find its way into a union with the lower thirteen. Indeed, American leaders expressed their desire to bring Quebec into the new national fold not only throughout the Revolutionary War, but well into the nineteenth century as well. In the lead up to the War of 1812, for example, former President Thomas Jefferson famously expressed his belief in a letter to Pennsylvania Assemblyman William Duane that an American conquest of Canada during the coming conflict would be a “mere matter of marching.”5 This belief was directly linked to Jefferson’s time as a delegate to the Continental Congress during the 1775 invasion of Quebec. For many American leaders, like Jefferson, that invasion had only proved that the conquest of Quebec was still possible given more effective government support and planning. Ultimately, when the 1812 invasion of Canada shared the same fate as its 1775 predecessor, American hopes for a union with Quebec would largely be put to rest.

 

Nathan Wuertenberg

George Washington University

 

Notes:

1. For an expression of British colonial fears of Quebec in the lead up to the Revolutionary War, see John Adams’ speech on the subject before the Continental Congress, as well as the Congressional debates regarding the Quebec Act, recorded by James Duane. “John Adams’ Notes for a Speech in Congress,” October 15-17?, 1774, vol. I. in Paul H. Smith et. al. ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, 19 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), accessed October 15, 2014; “James Duane’s Notes of Debates,” October 15-17?, 1774, vol. I. in Paul H. Smith et. al.

2. For an expression of this new sense of continental identity, see in particular Benjamin Franklin’s initial draft of the Articles of Confederation, which offered every British colony in North America equal and immediate membership in the Continental union upon application. Benjamin Franklin. "Franklin's Articles of Confederation." The Avalon Project. Yale Law School, 10 May 1775. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. For a scholarly examination of the construction of this new sense of identity, see T. H. Breen. "Ideology and Nationalism on the Eve of the American Revolution: Revisions Once More in Need of Revising." The Journal of American History 84, no. 1 (June 1997): 13- 39. Yokota, Kariann Akemi. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). 

3. See “John Adams to Samuel Cooper, June 9, 1776,” vol IV. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.; “John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 26, 1776,” vol. IV. in Paul H. Smith, et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.; “John Adams to Archibald Bulloch, July 1, 1776,” vol. IV. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.; “Richard Henry Lee to Robert Carter, November 10, 1776,” vol. V. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.

4. See “Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 1, 1776,” vol. III. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.; “Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 8, 1776,” vol. III. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.; “Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 17, 1776,” vol. III. in Paul H. Smith et. al., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1775-1789.

5. “Thomas Jefferson to William Duane. August 4, 1812.” in Paul Leicester Ford, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904, accessed April 26, 2015.

Bibliography:

Little, Ann M. Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Morrissey, Brendan. Quebec, 1775: The American Invasion of Canada. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

Smith, Justin Harvey. Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada and the American Revolution. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1974.

Stanley, George Francis Gilman. Canada Invaded: 1775-1776. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973.

Taylor, Alan. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

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