The Canadian Expedition

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter VI.

The Canadian Expedition—Death of Montgomery—Burial refused to his Remains by the British—Retreat of the Invading Corps—Thompson, Sullivan and Gates in Command—Advance of Burgoyne—Stark's Victory at Bennington—Surrender of Burgoyne

IT was not without deep reflection, that General Washington, at Cambridge, ordered the advance of two invading divisions into Canada. The one was placed under Arnold, a brave soldier assuredly, but one who cast away the jewel of fidelity, and left a figure in the annals of that glorious war, over which his country would long since have drawn a veil, were it not useful to perpetuate the infamy of treason, for the terror of the venal, and the warning of the weak.

The head of the other corps was not a braver, but a much better, man—a soldier without reproach, as well as without fear. Richard Montgomery was then in his 39th year, having been born in Ireland in 1736. He had distinguished himself, at the age of twenty-three, in the second siege of Louisburg, and served as colonel under Wolfe at the capture of Quebec. After spending nine years in Europe, he emigrated to New York, and made his home at Rhinebeck, Duchess county. He had married a lady every way worthy of him, the daughter of Chancellor Livingston, and looked forward to a life of peace spent in the pursuits of agriculture. In accepting the appointment in June, 1775, he wrote, "The Congress having done me the honor of electing me brigadier general in their service, is an event which must put an end for a while, perhaps forever, to the quiet scheme of life I had prescribed for myself; for though entirely unexpected and undesired by me, the will of an oppressed people, compelled to choose between liberty and slavery, must "be obeyed." Major General Schuyler, having fallen ill at Ticonderoga, the sole command devolved on Montgomery, who certainly conducted it with rare judgment. Fort Chambly and St. John were successively taken. Montreal was captured, and, in the midst of a Canadian winter, he pressed on his men towards Quebec, where Arnold's party were already arrived. On the 1st of December, Montgomery took the chief command. An eye-witness has graphically sketched his first review of his troops. "It was lowering and cold, but the appearance of the general here gave us warmth and animation. He was well-limbed, tall, and handsome, though his face was much pock-marked. His air and manner designated the real soldier. He made us a short, but energetic and elegant speech, the burden of which was in applause of our spirit in crossing the wilderness; a hope our perseverance in that spirit would continue; and a promise of warm clothing; the latter was a most comfortable assurance. A few huzzas from our freezing bodies were returned to this address of the gallant hero. New life was infused into the whole corps."[1]

It was the last day of that memorable year 1775, before the arrangements for assaulting Quebec were complete. In two bodies, Arnold's towards the suburb of St. Roque, and Montgomery's by the river bank, they advanced to the attack. It was the night of the 31st of December. The Saint Lawrence was floored with ice; the shore, the pine woods, the distant fortress, all wore the white livery of winter in the north. The divisions were to communicate by rockets, and Arnold was already at the Palace Grate, when a severe wound obliged him to yield his command to Morgan. Montgomery had reached Point Diamond, by a road guarded by an outwork of two guns. At daybreak, perceiving the Americans so near, the Canadian militia, in whose charge the work was, deserted their post, but a New England sea-captain, who had slept in the work, before leaving, applied a match to one of the loaded guns, and by this chance shot Montgomery was killed.[2] The artillery from the main fortress now played in the same direction, and when the winter's day had fairly come, a party of British soldiers, found, lying dead on the frozen ground, with three wounds in his breast, and his sword arm stretched towards Quebec, the remains of the gallant general, surrounded by several of his staff, all lifeless.

Both corps, deprived of their chief officers, fell back from the fatal walls, and retreated along the bank of the river. As to the dead, Sir Guy Carleton at first refused the chief the poor courtesy of a coffin,[3] and the prayer of a woman at length obtained Christian burial for the remains of those brave gentlemen, who left their homes and friends, and wives, to perish in that pitiless climate, for the cause of their unstipendiary devotion. As yet America had no flag, no Declaration of Independence, and no Articles of Confederation. Montgomery knew that he risked the fate of a rebel; but even that could not deter him from his duty.

Three generals have fallen at Quebec under three different flags. All were brave, all merciful, all young. Montcalm, with blood ardent as the wine of his own France; Wolfe, with a courage as indomitable as the enterprise of his island, which can wring a prize from every rock; Montgomery, the last and best of all, with soul as noble as his cause, and honor bright as his own sword. Three deaths, Quebec, do consecrate thy rock; three glories crown it, like a tiara! Of the three, his death was the saddest, and even so has his glory become brightest of them all.

Tributes of respectful condolence poured in from all distinguished Americans to Montgomery's widow; the nation mourned him as its eldest child, its proto-martyr; and, forty years after his fall, New York gathered together his ashes, and entombed them in the most conspicuous church of its great city. The widow of the hero, desolate to death, assisted at these last sad honors to the memory of "her soldier," for whom she still retained all the affection of her girlhood.

The retreat from Quebec was at first committed to Generals Wooster and Arnold, and afterwards to Brigadier General William Thompson. Under the latter, the remnant of the American army fought, in the spring of 1776, the unsuccessful battle of Three Rivers. General Sullivan was then despatched to take the command, and hoped to regain much of what had been lost, when the forces were placed under General Gates, who slowly retreated before Burgoyne, into New York.

Burgoyne advanced steadily towards the Hudson, sending out a large party, under Colonel Baum, to forage in Vermont, or, as it was then called, "the New Hampshire Grants." John Stark was, at the time, in New Hampshire, having retired from the service, in consequence of the injustice done him by Congress in raising junior officers over him. But his native state now called him to lead a new militia of its own, irrespective of the continental army, and with these he fell on Baum, at Bennington, on the 14th of August, cut up his division, captured his guns, stores and colors. The Clintons, somewhat earlier in the month, had prevented relief reaching Burgoyne through the valley of the Hudson; and so, in September, that clever play-wright, but ill-starred soldier, was compelled to lay down his arms, and surrender to the Americans under General Gates. Thus, the remnant of the Canadian army, reinforced and rested, became in turn the conquerors; and John Stark, recently censured for insubordination, was forthwith raised to the rank of major general.[4] Among the American loss at Bennington was Captain McClary, whose relative fell at Bunker's Hill.

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[1] Mass. Hist. Coll. vol. i.

[2] Hawkins' Hist. of Quebec.

[3] Mass. Hist. Collection, vol. i., p. 3—year 1792.

[4] The British guns taken by Stark were captured with Hull at Detroit, in the war of 1812. The old hero was dreadfully annoyed at the intelligence. "My guns! my guns!" he would exclaim, and even thought of returning to active service, in order to wipe out that disgraceful event.