Battle Lines

Battle Lines

Early in the American Revolution, General George Washington had a 14th colony in mind: Canada. He also had a trusted subordinate eager to test that idea: Colonel Benedict Arnold of New Haven.

plan was found for penetrating into lower Canada through the Province of Maine directed against Quebec, its capitol. Through this unexplored wilderness, the British could form no conception of an attack from their antagonists…

So wrote the diarist Isaac Senter, a medical doctor from Rhode Island and one of 1,130 patriots to head for Quebec under Arnold’s command. Senter’s journal is one of 13 transcribed in a new book by local historian Stephen Darley, along with six pension applications in which veterans recounted the experience later in life. Added up, we get Voices Waiting to Be Heard: Nineteen Eyewitness Accounts of Arnold’s 1775 March to Quebec, which Darley will discuss during a virtual New Haven Museum talk this Thursday, October 14.

En route to Canada, Arnold led his forces from Newburyport, Massachusetts, up the coast to the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine. From there, they traveled upriver by bateaux, navigating treacherous waterfalls in cold autumn weather and carrying their 400- to 500-pound boats overland as much as eight miles between bodies of water. They crossed the St. Lawrence River on the night of November 14, 1775, and marched to the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec, where they eventually joined General Richard Montgomery’s forces. On December 31, the Americans mounted an unsuccessful attack on the fortified city; 40 men were killed and 383 taken prisoner. Arnold himself was shot in the leg and seriously wounded, and Montgomery was killed.

Among the diarists included in Voices Waiting to Be Heard are New Haveners Samuel Barney and Eleazer Oswald. Barney’s original manuscript and a transcription by his great grandson are held by the New Haven Museum and had been unrecognized by historians of the battle before Darley rediscovered them. He was especially pleased to find Barney had documented the names of many fellow soldiers, thus aiding historical and genealogical research. Born in New Haven in 1753, Barney first enlisted following the Lexington alarm. In his diary, apparently written in real time during the Quebec march, he often documents not only names but also what he ate, how well he slept and whether he was sick—which was often the case. His chronicle gives readers a sense of the physical demands of the march: “October, Tuesday the 3rd. 1775. This morning arose well. George, Barnes and I in the bateau set out and had some very good water and then had some very bad waterfalls, and had a leaky boat. Came up the River 8 miles, and then came to a carrying place, where we had to carry one mile and a half. The name of this place is Norridgewock”—present-day Madison, Maine.

Unlike Barney, who was an enlisted soldier, Captain Eleazer Oswald of New Haven was an officer and served as Arnold’s personal aide and secretary. His diary is written in his own hand but closely resembles a contemporaneous journal attributed to Arnold; Darley says it’s unclear who was borrowing from whom. A native of England, Oswald came to New York as a printer’s apprentice, then moved to New Haven in 1771. On October 12, 1775, Oswald writes, “Our men are much fatigued in carrying over the batteaus, provisions, etc., the road being extremely bad; However, their spirit & industry seems to overcome every obstacle, & they appear very cheerful. We have had remarkable fine weather since we left Cambridge, & only one death has happened, & very few accidents by water, which is the most remarkable, as there seldom passes a season without some people being drowned in the Kennebec, which is very difficult & dangerous to ascend.”

The positive spin Oswald puts on the men’s condition during their march north is countered by other journals, in which the soldiers leave sick compatriots in the woods to die, struggle through a hurricane and run out of food. “We went on and our provisions were at last all consumed but one barrel of meat that we soon had the misfortune to lose in one of the rapids,” native Connectican Fenner Foot wrote in his own account, given during a pension application.

Foot escaped direct participation in the battle for Quebec because he “was guarding the hospital located in a nunnery on the outskirts,” Darley writes. Oswald was less fortunate and taken prisoner. After his release in 1777, he served again in the military before retiring to the printing and publishing business. He never returned to New Haven. Barney escaped capture “because he helped to carry the wounded Benedict Arnold from the field to the hospital,” Darley writes, though he was captured at sea in a later battle. After returning home in 1779, Barney experienced “almost unparalleled sufferings,” his daughter wrote, for the rest of his life. He died in 1805 and is buried in Grove Street Cemetery.

Diaries of the Quebec march have been published before, but Darley’s self-published book includes some journals never before disseminated and others that have appeared only in old, obscure publications. Of all the Revolutionary War battles and campaigns, the march to Quebec is the most thoroughly chronicled by its participants, with 38 known journals, all of which Darley documents in an appendix.

A former attorney, real estate developer and contractor who focused his career on affordable housing, Darley has spent much of his retirement researching the American Revolution and Benedict Arnold. The march on Quebec was “the event that first thrust Arnold into the public eye and made him a hero,” he writes in Voices Waiting to Be Heard.

“Hero” isn’t usually associated with Arnold in the popular consciousness, which much better remembers his later pivot towards the British. And the attack on Quebec was, in mission terms, a failure. But Arnold led other much more successful campaigns, including the pivotal push during the Battle of Saratoga, which historians now credit with turning the tide of the war. He’s best known in New Haven for securing the keys to the powder house from reluctant city gatekeepers after word of the Battle of Lexington reached the city, then leading Connecticut’s Second Company of the Governor’s Foot Guard, the New Haven wing of the state militia, on a march to Boston to join the Revolution. The event, known as Powder House Day, is recreated each April on the New Haven Green.

Like George Washington did, Darley admires Arnold for his “exemplary leadership” of the march on Quebec. “His exploits in the first two years of the war are unmatched by any other American officer,” he writes, including the outrageously ambitious effort to conquer wilderness, weather and, hundreds of miles later, warriors in red.

Voices Waiting to Be Heard:
Nineteen Eyewitness Accounts of Arnold’s 1775 March to Quebec

Website | Buy on Amazon

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring a page from Samuel Barney’s diary at the New Haven Museum, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2, featuring John Trumbull’s dramatized painting The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775, sourced from the website of the Yale University Art Gallery, where the painting resides.

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