In September 1775, early in the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen hatched a plan to attack British held Quebec. Benedict Arnold met with George Washington in Boston and assembled an army of 1100 soldiers who marched from Cambridge to Newburyport, Massachusetts. From Newburyport they sailed to Maine and then up the Kennebec River to Fort Western in what is now Augusta, Maine. Some of this fort survives to this day and is labeled “America’s oldest surviving wooden fort”.
From Fort Western, the Arnold army moved upstream 20 miles in flatboats to Fort Halifax in what is now Winslow, Maine. Not to be outdone by Fort Western, Fort Halifax boasts the “oldest blockhouse in the United States”. The forts and blockhouses were built with an eye towards the French and particularly towards the Abenaki. The leaking boats compromised the gunpowder and spoiled food. This was before the army had to hike through the wilderness of Maine to Quebec. Today, using paved roads, the walk from Winslow, Maine to Quebec City is roughly 70 hours. It was a little more challenging then. The plan was for the army to paddle the flat boats up the Kennebec and Dead Rivers, but white water meant that they had to portage for many miles of the route. In 1775, hiking through thick wilderness, mosquito infested swamps and through mountainous terrain, it took the army over a month to get to Quebec, and they lost almost half their men to desertion along the way.
Benedict Arnold in 1775 was still a highly respected hero of Fort Ticonderoga. His betrayal would come five years later when he commanded West Point and plotted to surrender to the British. So Benedict Arnold is forever linked with treason, and as a result you don’t hear much about his exploits early in the war. To my knowledge there’s no “Benedict Arnold slept here” signs, and no commemorative plaque in Newburyport noting the assembly of the Benedict Arnold army that boarded ships to sail across the Gulf of Maine to the mouth of the Kennebec River. Perhaps if this mission had been successful Benedict Arnold would have been made Governor of Quebec, or perhaps the British would have diverted forces to take back Quebec that instead were used in battles in the colonies.
240 years after the Arnold army’s ill-fated march on Quebec, a couple of local adventures, Jack and Astrid Santos, traced the route using kayaks, portaging and hiking the rest. That’s one of those “wish I’d thought of it first” stories. For all the times I’ve been to Newburyport, Maine and Quebec, I’ve never heard this story. I stumbled on it while looking up some information on Augusta, Maine. History is a funny thing. It’s all around us, but until someone pays attention its just like that unread book on the shelf in the library. I’ll be sure to hoist a pint to Benedict Arnold’s army next time I’m in Newburyport. Regardless of what he did later in the war, in 1775 he was bold and trying to win the war for the Colonial Army.