The last American troops had reached Crown Point in northern New York in their retreat from Quebec on July 1, 1776, as the Continental Congress was preparing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence. It would be left to the Congress “to figure out what had gone wrong with its great northern expedition,” writes historian Mark R. Anderson in his stunning reassessment of the colonies’ politically mangled “Battle for the Fourteenth Colony.”
Readers familiar with the ”great northern expedition” will likely recall it from the classic accounts of Colonel Benedict Arnold’s epic slog through the pine-bog wilderness of northern New England to the fortress city of Quebec.
Anderson’s dramatic chronicle of this fascinating, if often-ignored, campaign takes a close look at the Colonial plan to “liberate’’ Quebec from the British and pull it into a confederation with the still-forming nation. Despite his background as a former Air Force officer, the strength, indeed the focus, of Anderson’s account is not on tactics but on the political struggle for the hearts-and-minds of the riven residents of Canada.
In the politically heady days of 1774, months before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, representatives of the 13 colonies saw the French-speaking Canadians as allies in the emerging struggle against England.
But while there was strong anti-English sentiment among the habitant population, just a dozen years after the British victory in the French and Indian War, Catholic Church leaders and prominent merchants saw the new royal government as one they could support. General Guy Carleton, appointed as Canada’s royal governor, was “a calming influence,” writes Anderson, “tempering British Party opposition while continuing advocacy of elite Canadien interests.”
Carleton’s role, both military and political, would be decisive as two invasion forces threatened Canada — Arnold’s toward the fortress city of Quebec and a second led by General Richard Montgomery aimed at the lightly defended Montreal. Across Canada, Armstrong writes, “the Continental invasion instantly reframed the provincial political conflict,” no longer between French and British parties, but pitting “rebel, antigovernment ‘patriots’ against government-supporting ‘loyalists.’ ”
Citing contemporary accounts, Anderson notes that many as one-in-four inhabitants in the Richelieu Valley south of the St. Lawrence River joined units fighting with the Americans. And not only did “Continentals generally [regard] habitants as peers,” unlike the arrogant British, he writes, but there was generally religious tolerance as well, as the “[f]ervent Protestant Continentals marveled at the ubiquitous roadside crosses” of the majority French-Catholic population.
Montreal was easily won, with Carleton leaving the city, heading down the St. Lawrence for Quebec with a small flotilla, carrying the air of “the saddest funeral” as he bade farewell to his loyalist allies. But with the lack of an American political presence in Montreal, disputes with the city’s merchant establishment were not resolved until a delegation headed by Benjamin Franklin made a tardy arrival at the end of April 1775.
At Quebec, Continental forces had been bogged down as winter approached. A surprise attack on Christmas Eve cost the life of Montgomery. There was fierce house-to-house fighting until a sortie from the fortress city pinned the Continentals against the lower city walls. The Americans, suffering now from disease and shortage of supplies, remained outside the walls through the rest of the winter.
Ice broke in the St. Lawrence in early May, allowing passage of a British fleet up the river, its arrival setting off a chaotic retreat of American forces still at Montreal and at Quebec where Carleton “expedited the rebels’ flight, [but] made no effort to cut off their retreat.”
Playing a game of “what-if,’’ Anderson argues that the United Colonies could have succeeded within three months of the invasion, having gained Montreal and with Carleton huddled in Quebec. But by then, the Americans had more pressing matters closer to home. “Having launched a ‘revolutionary’ war,” Anderson writes, “Congress did not execute it as one, neglecting to provide the political means needed to reach its ends, until half a year too late.”Michael Kenney is a freehand writer living in Cambridge. He can be reached at mkenney777@