Benedict Arnold Writes a Cranky Letter to His Friend Silas Deane

Near midnight on March 30, 1776, Gen. Benedict Arnold wrote to his old friend Silas Deane from his camp outside Quebec City, mostly to complain about the hunger and disease his men were suffering.

Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold

For the previous three months, Arnold had besieged the city after British defenders defeated the Continental Army in the Battle of Quebec on Dec. 31, 1775.  Arnold had come up with the idea of attacking Quebec. It wasn’t a good one, and neither was the siege.

Arnold and Deane both came from Connecticut, Arnold from Norwich, Deane from nearby Groton. As young men before the war they were both successful merchant traders and had become friends. One would betray his country, and one would be falsely accused of betrayal.

Benedict Arnold Writes

At the time of Arnold’s letter, Deane was in Philadelphia, though Connecticut had recalled him as the colony’s representative to the Continental Congress. He stayed on in Philadelphia anyway. Soon he would leave for Paris to seek help for the army from the French government.

Arnold’s letter from the “Camp before Quebeck,” on March 30, 1776, began with a warning.

“DEAR SIR,” he wrote. “I have often sat down to write you, and as often been prevented by matters of consequence crowding upon me, which I could not postpone. I am now so much perplexed with a multiplicity of affairs that I can hardly form an assemblage of three ideas.”

Those ideas, he wrote, “I am afraid, will not be very pleasing to you.” They would convey no agreeable intelligence, but rather complaints, which, he knew, also troubled Deane.

Arnold then sketched the army’s strength, situation and prospects. One of his problems: the Continental Army version of anti-vaxxers.

The Battle of Quebec

Vexed by Anti-Vaxxers

From January 1 to March 1, the army never had more than 700 effective men on the ground, Arnold wrote. Frequently it had less than 500.

“Our numbers are far short of what I expected before this time,” wrote Arnold. He expected the New England troops to be of little service as most of them had smallpox. “That fatal disorder has got into our camp, though every method that prudence could suggest has been attempted to prevent it,” he wrote.

He had given a variety of orders to prevent smallpox, which the men “repeatedly disobeyed or neglected.”

Silas Deane

Silas Deane

The reinforcements, (as fast as they came in,) privately prepared and inoculated, (Colonel Warner’ s Regiment and Major Cady’ s detachment in particular;) not one-quarter of the former, and very few of the latter, are fit for duty; so that the publick will incur an expense of at least twenty pounds for each of those people, who will not, on an average, have done ten days’ service to the 15th April, to which time they are engaged. Our Surgeons are without medicine; our Hospitals crowded, and in want of almost every necessary.

Arnold continued with a description of the army’s lack of strength and difficult situation. Despite their bleak prospects, Arnold declared ‘we are determined to exert ourselves.’ And to his credit, he didn’t complain about his own wounded foot.  He concluded:

It is now twelve o’ clock at night, and I dare say you will be glad when I end my dull epistle.

Commander-in-Chief George Washington recalled Arnold before he got a chance to attack Quebec City again . The British then routed the army during the May retreat. updated in

This story updated in 2022. 

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