Attacking a Country is Easier Than Taking it

After failing to capture Quebec City, Arnold led the remnants of his army south along the St. Lawrence River to a position just north of Montreal. This left General David Wooster in charge of the Montreal garrison.

Wooster was instructed to befriend the local Indian tribes to woo them away from supporting the British and gain the local residents’ support for the revolution. Most of the citizens of Montreal were of French descent who reluctantly became British citizens at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The delegates to the Continental Congress thought the French-Canadians would be fertile ground on which Wooster could recruit men to support the American cause.

Rather than attempting to persuade the locals to support the American Revolution, Wooster arrested known Loyalists and tossed them into prison. He also forced members of the local British militia units to resign their commissions and swear allegiance to the new United States or be imprisoned.

To help in this effort to win over the Canadians, the Continental Congress sent a delegation to Montreal led by Benjamin Franklin. Their goal was to meet with the local citizens to convince them to join the Thirteen Colonies in their fight against the British.

Franklin’s mission met with a tepid, unenthusiastic reception driven by three factors. One, Wooster’s heavy-handed tactics angered the local citizens. Two, many who had lived through the Seven Years War didn’t want to be involved in another one. And three, they didn’t believe the Americans could defeat the British.

Ultimately, General Thomas arrived in the late spring with an army of about 2,000 men, a far cry from the 4,500 he was supposed to have. Smallpox diminished the size of the force, including General Thomas who was replaced by General William Thompson. The Continental Army moved north to Trois Rivières, about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, before launching another assault on the Canadian capital.

Meanwhile, the British commander Guy Carleton was reinforced with 3,000 men and sent 900 men south to attack the Americans at Trois Rivières. The May 1776 battle was short-lived and a rout, with the Americans fleeing and leaving much of their precious ammunition behind. Carleton elected not to pursue the Americans who retreated to Sorel.

However, Thompson, who believed the intelligence that the British only had about 300 troops at Trois Rivières, decided to attack. He failed to reconnoiter the route and led his army of 2,000 men right into the teeth of the British defenses.

Thompson and most of his officers were captured, leaving General John Sullivan in command. Sullivan managed to regroup what was left of the army and retreated toward Montreal.

With Thompson up at Sorel, the American garrison in Montreal was led by Benedict Arnold. When he learned of Thompson’s failure, he set out with his troops to reinforce General Sullivan. When he found them in early June 1776, the two generals decided to retreat to the fort at Crown Point on Lake Champlain.

Before the Americans left Montreal, Arnold ordered the city to be burned. The effort failed, but now the Americans were chased by a 4,000-man army under General John Burgoyne. The British Army nearly caught the Americans at St. Johns but escaped. This set the stage for the last phase of the American invasion of Canada.

Next week, what happened after the retreat from Montreal and how it affected the outcome of the American Revolution.

Painting of General John Burgoyne in 1766, courtesy of the Frick Collection.

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