Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775
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This account, assembled from a variety of individual memoirs and period reports, is a bit dry in places - but it recounts a truly impressive endeavor against considerable odds, one that isn't nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. (I gather it is better-known in Maine, where parts of the trail have been posted as historical landmarks - but still, there should be a movie or something!)
The details of the mission, from its instigation to its conclusion, showed the ups and downs of warfare, with many major historical turning points hanging on tiny changes. But the story of the trek showed the darker side - a war of attrition, man against nature, with too many of the soldiers dying from starvation or exposure or drowning or illness, some of them alone as their comrades had to move on and leave them behind. There were women on the expedition, too, something that surprised me - I knew there were often camp followers, wives or lovers who'd follow the army, but I didn't think there'd be any such on a trek like this one.
Marching through water, through ice, lugging loads over portages that meant they had to travel the same ground four or more times to move everything, getting lost in the twisting lakes and forests - it's a wonder any of them got through...
Once they reached Quebec, the attack turned into a waiting game, one that reminded me more than once of a scene from a Monty Python film - attackers challenging a fortified city, with the defenders very sensibly refusing to come out and fight. The attackers tried to set up a proper siege, but winter was coming on, and - well, it turned out to be a closer fight than I'd have guessed under the circumstances, but in the end Arnold and co. had to march away.
The author refers to historians' opinions as to the value of the trek and of the battle, and whether or not a victory at Quebec might have undercut the entire revolution by persuading King George to pay more attention to the demands of the colonists. Who can say? But it's another fascinating "what might have been" incident in the history of the country.
[On a recent visit to Quebec City, I was delighted to stumble upon a historical marker about General Montgomery, who led troops from Montreal to meet Arnold's forces. He was killed in the same battle in which Arnold was wounded, and the plaque describes the place where his body was taken before burial. If I hadn't read this book before the trip I'd have never noticed the plaque...]
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