Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Liberation of Quebec

Nov 4, 1975

American troops are preparing to invade Canada again. Down in Maine, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, groups of militia are organizing for the march north. And here in Canada, appropriately enough at the National War Museum in Ottawa, plans have been laid to turn back the invaders.

            The occasion for this third invasion from the south is the bicentennial of the attack on Quebec in the fall and winter of 1775 by the forces of the Revolutionary Continental Congress, the immediate forerunner of the United States government. About 600 “soldiers,” dressed in authentic costumes of the period and toting flintlock, shot and powder, intend to follow the route taken by Colonel Benedict Arnold up through northern Maine to Quebec City. There they’ll be joined by another 200 volunteers who will have just re-enacted General Richard Montgomery’s successful march on Montreal. It is planned that this morning, October 4, on the Plains of Abraham, these Americans will be met by a force of about 200 Canadians, also in costume, and a mock battle lasting one hour will settle the fate of Canada, symbolically speaking of course. In the history of tin soldiery, it promises to be the largest military re-enactment of its kind ever staged in Canada.

            Perhaps typically, the bicentenary of the battle which secured our separateness from the United States almost passed unrecognized by Canadians. It was originally left up to the losers to do the celebrating. The Arnold Expedition Historical Society, with headquarters in Maine, has been planning its contribution to the American bicentennial for three years and hadn’t intended any direct Canadian contribution at all. But that was before Victor Suthren learned of the expedition and took over the task of raising a Canadian army to meet the invaders.

            Suthren, curator of war art at the National War Museum, reasoned that we – that is the then-British colony of Quebec – did win the battle after all. Furthermore, he knew that 1775 was a decisive turning point in our history; in a sense it was Canada’s war of independence from the United States. While it is treacherous to suggest what might have been, Quebec, had the Americans won, might well have become the 14th colony and today we would all be Gerry Ford’s subjects instead of the Queen’s.

            “A classic 18th-century linear battle in the open,” is how Suthren describes what has been planned for the Plains of Abraham today: columns of Americans to advance on columns of Canadians; exchange fire and fall back. It actually represents the largest collection of flintlock rifles since the rebellion of 1837. Before the battle, a replica of an 18th-century tent city is to be erected and inhabited by the costumed soldiers and members of their families who’ve tagged along. Because the home team did win originally, the whole episode is to end with a symbolic advance, bayonets fixed, by the Canadian side. It is planned that the commanding officers will meet at centre field to negotiate surrender terms, following which all the troops are to disperse amicably back to the city for a parade and banquet. That is what is scheduled. But history, as well all know, does not repeat itself. What actually occurred 200 years ago was something much more prolonged and much less polite.

            Quebec in 1775 had been a British colony for just 16 years. Because it had been conquered by force and because its native inhabitants differed in language and religion from their British masters, the rebellious Americans naturally believed Quebec would join them in casting off the tyrant kind. When friendly persuasion failed, the rebel congress decided to force the issue. Militarily, it was just too dangerous to leave the British a secure base in the north from which to launch an attack (which they would in fact do, two years later).

            The invasionary force dispatched to Quebec by General George Washington was divided into two wings. In the west, 1,500 men led by Montgomery sailed up Lake Champlain with Montreal their objective. Delayed for 55 days by the inconvenience of having to besiege Fort St. Jean and Fort Chambly on the Richelieu River, they marched into the island city on November 13, just two days after the governor of the colony, Guy Carleton, sneaked off down the St Lawrence River to the relative safety of the fortress at Quebec City. Montreal was occupied by a foreign army for seven months.

            In the east, Benedict Arnold led a slightly smaller expedition up the Kennebec River and through the dense forests of northern Maine. His objective was the occupation of Quebec City. This year the mock expedition of about 600 Americans will complete the trip in seven days. Obeying the limits of time and enthusiasm, the men and 15 authentic bateaux built specifically for the excursion will be transported a good portion of the way by a fleet of army trucks. Parades and ceremonies will mark their progression from town to town.

            The original expedition took 45 days. Almost half the force did not make it. More than 200 ill-made bateaux, weighing 200 or 300 pounds apiece, had to be hauled over rapids and around falls and poled against currents swollen by insistent rain and heavy flooding. The boats broke apart and upset, losing lives and provisions, until the last one was finally abandoned. Sheer exhaustion took its toll; so did the yellowish waters of stagnant swamps which brought on painful attacks of diarrhea and spread fever through the army.

            Arnold was one of those commanders who was called audacious by his admirers, foolhardy by his critics. A month into the expedition one of the four divisions mutinied and turned back, no longer willing to put up with the apparent insanity of continuing with almost no food through forests buried in snow and up rivers filmed with ice. Those who persevered were reduced to eating their dogs and boiling their moosehide moccasins to chew on. And when the fighting started, things only go worse.

            During this agonizing advance Arnold wrote that his intention in coming to Quebec was “to frustrate the unjust and arbitrary measures of the ministry and restore liberty to our brethren in Canada.” The words have an arrogant ring but the American commander saw himself as the leader of an army of liberation. Yet when he finally arrived on the shores of the St. Lawrence River at the beginning of November, Arnold discovered that most Canadians were not in the mood for liberation, or at least were canny enough to wait for the Americans to prove strong enough to secure it. The inhabitants were friendly to the rebel army but at the same time they did not rush to take up arms on its behalf.

            The climate of opinion in the colony turned out to be much less committed than the Americans had been led to believe by their fifth column. True enough, there was a small number of Anglo-American residents of Montreal and Quebec City, mainly merchants, who sought political control over the French-speaking “papist” populace and through that becoming the 14th American colony was the way to achieve it. Some of these potential quislings bore prominent names in the history of Canadian business, like Walker, McGill and Price.

            This clique was opposed by another, the seigniorial and clerical elite, which enjoyed the patronage of the British. In the middle was the bulk of the inhabitants, some of whom took up rebel arms, some of whom fought for the British kind, but most of whom simply waited to see what would happen.

            The remnant of Arnold’s force was joined before the walls of Quebec by Montgomery’s men from Montreal. The Americans, about 1,000 strong by this time, blocked all entrances to the city and began a siege which would last five months. On the other side of the stone walls, Quebec’s 5,000 resident, well supplied with food and apparently unperturbed, settled down to wait for the spring breakup and British reinforcements.

            Arnold had declared at the beginning of the siege that he would “dine in Quebec on Christmas Day or in Hell” but he attended neither banquet. After a month of useless shelling, during which time one resident of the city was killed and a turkey had a leg broken, the American commanders decided they could wait no longer. The weather had turned fiercely cold and their men were agitating to return home. The situation demanded an assault.

            Early on the morning of December 31, 1775, under cover of a blinding snowstorm, the Americans attacked. If they penetrated the city, Canada was theirs. If not, defeat was as inevitable as the arrival of the British fleet.

            Once again the Americans split into two groups. Montgomery led 300 men along a narrow road running between the river and the cliff around Cape Diamond and into what is now the rue Petit Champlain. Unhappily for Montgomery, Carleton had been leaked the details of the attack and a force of 30 Quebecois militia were posted in an abandoned house at the river’s edge. Struggling through a barricade, Montgomery had just called back into the blizzard that “Quebec is ours!” when a volley from the house killed him and confused his men into retreat.

            At about this time at the other end of the Lower Town, Arnold’s troops, approaching from the suburb of St Roch, were trudging through snowdrifts beneath the walls and into the Sault-au-Matelot. The two American commanders had planned to link up and storm the Upper Town from below; but of course Montgomery was dead and it wasn’t long before Arnold was shot in the leg and had to be carried to the rear. (There is a statue of that leg, by the way, now standing, bodyless, on a battlefield in New York State where Arnold was to re-wound it two years later.) Under heavy fire from above, confused by the city’s winding streets and sometimes lost in the storm, the Americans checked their advance, giving the British and Canadians time to encircle them. The result was that out of 700 men in Arnold’s force, 461 were captured, wounded or killed. Quebec had weathered the storm.

            Under Arnold’s command the Americans continued to lay siege to the city for another four months. But early in May the first of the British reinforcement sailed up the St Lawrence and the invading army retreated back toward Montreal. By the middle of June the last American, typically Arnold himself, had fled Canadian soil.

            It was a total and inglorious defeat. One has to wonder what there was about it that the Americans are so keen to commemorate. After all, as Victor Suthren points out, there are just two national groups which American troops have attempted to conquer and could not, British-Canadians in 1775 and again in 1813, and the North Vietnamese. Will the United States be re-enacting the fall of Saigon in 200 years?

            Admittedly most of the participants in this month’s mock expedition are memorializing Arnold’s march more than the actual battle. Even so, it seem a queer kind of patriotism to pay homage to an excursion which may have been heroic but was definitely a failure, led by a commander who, before the war ended, defected to the other side to become one of America’s most celebrated traitors. Why are they doing it?

            Listen to Robert Cunningham, the expedition’s deputy director of re-enactment: “We’re doing it for three reasons. One, to call attention to the courage and bravery of those Continental Congress soldiers who kept going to try and capture Quebec. Just getting up to Quebec with an army was a fantastic thing in itself. Although Americans lost the battle, they won a victory over the wilderness.

            “Two, to call attention to our efforts as a conservation group. We want to preserve the Arnold trail in its original state. And three, to celebrate 200 years of neighborly relations with our friends, the Canadians.”

            Or George Dyer, American participant and former teacher of a university course on how to be a CIA agent: “The expedition was a monument to more than warlike behavior. It was a monument to human – to American – fortitude.”

            But let’s give Victor Suthren the last word: “I think they feel that by commemorating the sacrifice and courage of these guys who stumbled up through Maine and Quebec bush they might rediscover that cocky spirit they used to have, rediscover the values that they fought the revolution for.”

            As far as the Americans are concerned it doesn’t matter whether they won or lost but how they fought the war. They are, in effect, rescuing moral victory from military defeat and, unwittingly and by default, turning a crucial event in our history into almost a victory for their side.

            “You don’t get so much interest in Canada in playing soldier for fun,” muses Vic Suthren. “It’s not a Canadian characteristic. We’re an unmilitary people. Playing at soldier seems like a childish pastime to Canadians, which I think is a good thing.”

            Agreed. There is something comical about men dressed in another century’s clothes shooting blanks at one another from antique guns and looking like extras in a Hollywood film.

            Nevertheless, it is not childish to recall that people, British, Quebecois and American, did die in the struggle for that small colony on the St Lawrence River and the fur trade empire which lay beyond it. Neither is it childish to expect our own history to be told from our own perspective. Starting today, as many as 1,400 people may gather on the Plains of Abraham, spending the weekend in the 18th century.

            The question is, whose 18th century will it be?