A FTER Bunker Hill there was a pause in the fighting round Boston which gave Washington time to get his raw recruits in hand a little. Then during the summer news came that Sir Guy Carleton, the Governor of Canada, was making plans to retake Ticonderoga, and the colonists determined to invade Canada. General Philip Schuyler was given command of the expedition, and with two thousand men he set out for St. John's, which Arnold had taken, but had been unable to hold, earlier in the year.
This time the colonists found St. John's better guarded, and only at the end of a two months' siege did it yield. By this time Schuyler had become ill, and the command was given to General Richard Montgomery who crossed the St. Lawrence, and entered Montreal in triumph.
Almost at the same time Benedict Arnold set out with twelve hundred men to attack Quebec. He marched through the forest of Maine, then an almost unknown country and uninhabited save by Indians. It was a tremendous march, and one that needed all the grit and endurance of brave, determined men. They climbed hills, struggled through swamps, paddled across lakes and down unknown streams. Sometimes they waded up to their knees in icy waters pushing their canoes before them against the rapid current, or again they carried them over long portages, shouldering their way through forest so dense that they could scarcely advance a mile an hour. At night soaked with rain and sleet they slept upon the snowy ground. Their food gave out, and the pangs of hunger were added to their other miseries. Many died by the way; others, losing heart, turned back. But sick and giddy, starving and exhausted the rest stumbled onward, and at length little more than five hundred ragged half armed, more than half famished men, reached the shores of the St. Lawrence.
They were a sorry little company with which to invade a vast province. But their courage was superb, their hope sublime, and without delay they set out to take the great fortress which had withstood so many sieges, and had only fallen at last before the genius and daring of Wolfe.
Across the St. Lawrence this little company of intrepid colonists paddled, up the path where Wolfe had led his men they climbed, and stood at length where they had stood upon the heights of Abraham. They had no cannon, and half their muskets were useless. Yet Arnold at the head of his spectral little company boldly summoned the town to surrender.
The town did not surrender, the Governor refused to come out and fight. So seeing the uselessness of his summons Arnold marched away about twenty miles, and encamped to wait for Montgomery's arrival from Montreal. He soon arrived. But even with his men the colonists only numbered about eight hundred, far too small a company with which to besiege a fortress such as Quebec. Still they made an attempt at a siege, but finding that useless they resolved to take the place by storm.
It was early on the morning of the 1st of January, 1776, that they made the attempt in the teeth of a blinding snow storm. Arnold led the assault on one side of the town, Montgomery on the other. With tremendous dash and bravery the colonists carried the first barricades, and forced their way into the town. But almost at the outset Montgomery was killed. A little later Arnold was sorely wounded, and had to be carried back to the camp. Both leaders gone, the heart went out of the men, and they retreated, leaving many prisoners at the hands of the British.
The great assault had failed, but sick and wounded though he was, Arnold did not lose heart. He still kept up a show of besieging Quebec. "I have no thought of leaving this proud town," he said, "until I first enter it in triumph. I am in the way of my duty and know no fear." But the only chance of taking Quebec was to take it in the winter, while the St. Lawrence was closed with ice, so that the British ships could not reach it with reinforcements and supplies. Arnold therefore sent to Washington begging for five thousand troops. Such a number it was impossible for Washington to spare from his little army, and only a few reinforcements were sent, most of whom reached Arnold utterly exhausted with their long tramp through the pathless wilderness. Smallpox, too, became rife in the camp, so although there at length two thousand men before Quebec not more that a thousand were fit for duty. Yet what mere men could do they did.
But winter passed and Quebec remained untaken. Then one April morning Captain Charles Douglas arrived off the mouth of the St. Lawrence with a fleet of British ships. He found the river still packed with ice. But Quebec he knew must be in sore straits. It was no time for caution, so by way of experiment he ran his flag ship full speed against a mass of ice. The ice was shivered to pieces, and the good ship sailed unharmed. For nine days the gallant vessel ploughed on through fields of ice, sewing her path with splinters from prow and keel, but suffering no serious damage, her stout-hearted captain having no thought but to reach and relieve the beleagured city.
His boldness was rewarded. Other vessels followed in his track, and at their coming the colonists gave up their attempt to conquer Canada, and marched away.
The attack on Canada had been an utter failure, but Arnold still clung to the hope of commanding the great waterway from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson. At Crown Point he began to build ships, and by the end of September had a little fleet of nine. The British also busied themselves building ships, and on the 11th of October a fight between the two fleets took place on Lake Champlain, between the island of Valcour and the mainland.
The British ships were far larger and more numerous than the American, indeed in comparison with the British the American boats were mere cockle shells, but the colonists put up a gallant fight which lasted five hours, and the sun went down leaving them sadly shattered but still unbeaten.
The British commander, however, felt sure of finishing them off in the morning. So he anchored his ships in a line across the southern end of the channel, between the island and the mainland, thus cutting off all retreat. But Arnold knew his danger, and determined to make a dash for freedom. The night was dark and foggy. The British were so sure of their prey that they kept no watch. So while they slept one by one the American ships crept silently through their lines and sped away.
When day dawned the British with wrath and disgust saw an empty lake where they had expected to see a stricken foe. They immediately gave chase and the following day they again came up with the little American fleet, for many of the ships were so crippled that they could move but slowly. Again a five hours' battle was fought. One ship, the Washington, struck her flag. But Arnold in his little Congress fought doggedly on. Then seeing he could resist no more he drove the Congress and four other small boats ashore in a creek too narrow for any but the smallest one of the British ships to follow. Here he set them on fire, and bade his men leap for the shore, he himself being the last to leave the burning decks. On land he waited until he was certain that the ships were safe from capture, and that they would go down with their flags flying. Then he marched off with his men, and brought them all safely to Ticonderoga.
The attack on Canada had been an utter failure, the little American fleet had been shattered, save for Ticonderoga the coveted waterway was in the hands of the British. Had the British commander known it too he might have attacked Ticonderoga then and there, and taken it with ease. But Arnold was there, and Arnold had made such a name for himself by his dash and courage that Carleton did not dare attack the fort. And contenting himself for the moment with having gained control of Lake Champlain he turned to attack Canada.
Arnold had failed to take Quebec, and he had lost his little fleet. But against his failure to take Quebec his countrymen put his wonderful march through pathless forest; against the loss of the fleet the fact that but for Arnold it would never have been built at all. So the people cheered him as a hero, and Washington looked upon him as one of his best officers.
But Arnold's temper was hot if his head was cool, he was ambitious and somewhat arrogant. And while he had been fighting so bravely he had quarrelled with his brother officers, and made enemies of many. They declared that he fought not for his country's honour but for the glory of Benedict Arnold. So it came about that he did not receive the reward of promotion which he felt himself entitled to. When Congress appointed several new Major Generals he was passed over, and once again, as after the taking of Ticonderoga, bitterness filled his heart.