Caleb Haskell Learns To Be A Continental Army Soldier — The Hard Way

When Caleb Haskell joined Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec, neither he nor Arnold had any idea how hard it would be to portage up the Kennebec River.

Maine’s wilderness was poorly charted, and Arnold’s men traveled twice as far as the 175 miles they planned. Their boats leaked, their gunpowder was ruined, their food grew scarce. By the time Arnold reached the French settlements above the St. Lawrence River, he had only 600 starving men left from the 750 who started out.

Detail of 1795 map overlaid with Arnold's expedition route. A Cambridge; B Newburyport; C Fort Western; D Fort Halifax; E Great Carrying Place; F Height of Land; G Lake Megantic. Courtesy Boston Public Library.

Detail of 1795 map overlaid with Arnold’s expedition route. A Cambridge; B Newburyport; C Fort Western; D Fort Halifax; E Great Carrying Place; F Height of Land; G Lake Megantic. Courtesy Boston Public Library.

Caleb Haskell had enlisted as a soldier in the American Army in Newburyport, Mass. in May 1775. After the Battle of Bunker Hill  he marched back to Newburyport with Arnold, boarded one of 11 transport ships and in September set sail for what is now Maine.

They landed in Hallowell in late September and marched to Fort Western, where they camped. The weather turned cold and rainy and several companies had no tents.

The plan was to take shallow-draft river boats called bateaux up the Kennebec River, cross the height of land to Lake Mégantic and go down the Chaudière River to Quebec. Arnold used inaccurate maps provided by a Loyalist. 

The Continental riflemen set out first in the bateaux on Sept. 26 — an inauspicious day. A soldier convicted of murdering another soldier was sent to the gallows. Wrote Caleb Haskell in his diary:

This morning a gallows was erected, the murderer brought out and sat upon it about half an hour, then was taken down to be sent back to Cambridge to have another trial. One man whipped and drummed out for stealing.

The next day Haskell and his company set out in a bateau and went two miles. Two days later, September 28, was the day he realized just how hard it would be:

This morning I set out in a bateau. We begin to see that we have a scene of trouble to go through in this river, the water is swift and the shoal full of rocks, ripples and falls, which oblige us to wade a great part of the way. Went twelve miles and encamped at Winslow.

It got worse. The next day, they portaged four miles to Fort Halifax (now Winslow), crossed over the river to Halifax Falls, landed the boats and carried them over the carrying place four-tenths of a mile. It was ‘a new sort of work to us,’ wrote Haskell. The next day they set out again. “We had a tedious time to-day on passing the five mile falls when we were obliged to wade almost the whole way,” he wrote. “Now we are learning to be soldiers.”

They made two miles the next day by water.  On October 2 he wrote, “We went about nine miles to-day, four of which were exceedingly bad. we had to wade and tow our boats”‘  On October 4 they had smooth water about four miles and for one mile the water ‘was exceedingly rapid.’

On October 6, Caleb Haskell wrote, ‘This morning employed in carrying our boats over the carrying place, which is a mile and a quarter. our baggage we carried by cattle. here are the last inhabitants on this river. In the afternoon we set out, went about one mile and encamped.’

October 9 was a cold morning. ‘set out this morning in the boat; went three miles; came to a carrying place; carried over half a mile; set out again; went four miles; encamped.’

On October 12, they carried their boats four miles on their backs through the wilderness. “Rough walking; no path,” wrote Haskell. “In the afternoon we built a block house to leave our sick.”

On Oct. 13, 1775, Friday, Caleb Haskell wrote,

A raw, cold morning; had some snow. A number at work cutting a road across the first part of the carrying place to a pond. In the afternoon removed our tent and baggage and encamped by the pond.

They would continue on like that for nearly a month.








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