First U.S. Invasion of Canada

For many of the delegates in the First and Second Continental Congresses, invading Canada was a logical way to pressure England to grant the Thirteen Colonies independence. Their logic was that until 1763, Canada was a French colony until the end of the Seven Years’ War when a defeated France was forced to cede all of Canada to the British. Therefore, they reasoned, there would be many French Canadians who would prefer independence to English rule.

The campaign to conquer Canada started with a propaganda campaign (See blog dated 4/30/23 titled Three Letters to Canada ).

At best, reception to Canadian’s joining the American cause was tepid so in 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the Continental Army to march north and seize Montreal and Quebec City, the capital of Canada.

The western “prong” of the campaign under General Richard Montgomery set out in June 1775 with 3,000 men from recently captured Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain. After a 55-day siege, they captured Fort St. John on the outskirts of Montreal and nearly captured British General Guy Carleton. The fall of Fort St. John led to the capture of Montreal, the Americans’ first major objective.

Benedict Arnold, who was passed over for the command of Montgomery’s army, convinced General Washington that he could lead a small force north through Maine directly to Quebec City where he would join Montgomery.

In October 1775, Arnold and 1,100 men left Newburyport in Massachusetts by ship and disembarked at the mouth of the Kennebec River near modern-day Augusta. He planned to follow the Kennebec to its mouth, portage to the Chautière River in Quebec, and float down to the St. Lawrence River.

Leaky boats, difficult portages, and bitterly cold, snowy weather spoiled food and ruined gunpowder. When Arnold arrived outside Quebec City, 500 of his men had perished from starvation, disease – primarily smallpox – and accidents from their trek through 400 miles of wilderness. The fact that 600 men of his army arrived on the Plains of Abraham on November 14th is a testament to Arnold’s leadership.

With no cannon and a weakened force, Arnold’s troops were in no condition to engage the British much less lay siege to Quebec City. Realizing his predicament, Arnold withdrew south to Pointe aux Trembles, about 50 miles north of Montreal. Now knowing where Arnold was, Montgomery came downriver from Montreal with 500 men, food, clothing, and ammunition.

Resupplied and rested, the combined force set out on the St. Lawrence River toward Quebec City and began to lay siege on December 19th, 1775. However, the Continentals had no artillery, limited ammunition, and had to build quarters to survive the bitterly cold winter.

Meanwhile, having recovered from his defeat at Montreal, General Carleton was ready and waiting for the Continental Army. When Arnold and Montgomery tried to attack the capital on December 31st in a snowstorm, Carleton defeated them. Montgomery was killed, Arnold wounded, and Daniel Morgan captured.

Despite the defeat and his wounds, Arnold kept his army outside Quebec City until March 1776 when he was ordered to retreat to Montreal, and when he arrived, Arnold was relieved by General David Wooster.

Both sides were not giving up. Carleton was reinforced in the spring and the Continental Congress authorized, after much debate, to send General John Thomas with 4,500 men to reinforce the garrison in Montreal and take Quebec City.

Stay tuned because the American military adventure in Canada is not over. What happened during the occupation of Montreal under General Wooster’s leadership and Carleton’s drive to retake Quebec had far-reaching implications and will be covered in the next post.

Image is a 1774 British Map of Canada produced in 1923 by courtesy of Frères Maristes, Quebec City, Quebec


  1. Tim Albright on May 10, 2023 at 6:53 am

    Thus was the final campaign of Col William Hendricks and the majority of his Cumberland County Riflemen. Mustered in at Camp Hill, PA, formed up and marched North. Comprised of volunteers from what is now York, Perry and Dauphin Counties, the gateway frontier of Penns Woods. “Where the rivers meet”, that of the Juniata and Susquehanna, fertile lands and thriving homesteads. Accounts indicate Hendricks company; along with the other invading Patriots, was decimated in the blinding snow from “perched” British Regulars and Canadian Militia. 10 survivors from the ranks of the Rifleman joined the retreat and lived to witness the storied adventure. Gen Washington wrote favorably on the character and stature of the Pennsylvania Rifleman. H.G. Haines, Historian writes affectionately about those from what is now Perry County, PA, more precisely those Farmers from Buck’s Valley, Buffalo Township, who joined the action to antagonize the Canuks into turning away King George from the New lands of freeman.

    • Marc Liebman on May 14, 2023 at 12:04 pm

      Yup. The Continental Army’s performance during the 1775 invasion of Canada was based on naivete and good intentions. Militarily, one can question the wisdom since it drained resources from Washington’s Army and cost money the Continental Congress didn’t have. The generals who were leading the Continental Army were inexperienced and made tactical, operational and strategic mistake after mistake. Sullivan and Arnold get kudos for what they did, but by the time they were in command, it was too lake. Carleton’s campaign against them was, while not brilliant, well executed. The good that came out of it was that it delayed the British invasion from Canada by a year, made Burgoyne a bit overconfident and when he began to march south, he met a much different Continental Army which still had its problems, but was brilliantly led by Arnold and Gates managed not to screw things up.

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