Continental Army Private Caleb Haskell missed the failed attack on Quebec on New Year’s Day, 1775, but endured months of anxiety and hardship during the siege that followed.
He had been recovering from smallpox when American soldiers attacked the fortified walls of the city during a fierce snowstorm.
The Battle of Quebec was the first major American defeat of the Revolution. Fifty men, including Gen. Richard Montgomery, were killed, 34 wounded and 431 captured. The British lost only five killed and 14 wounded. Also wounded was Col. Benedict Arnold, the 35-year-old former Connecticut militia officer who led the expedition to Quebec.
Arnold stubbornly continued the siege with the remnants of the ragged and shivering army, already too weak from the arduous overland journey from Boston. They were no match for the superior forces within the walls of Quebec.
Technically, the men were volunteering their services as their enlistments had expired at midnight on Dec. 31, 1775. But practically their only choice was to stay with the army.
Smallpox still ravaged the camp. Provisions were scarce, and some soldiers went door to door in the villages outside Quebec to beg for food. Reinforcements trickled in, but they just made up for the soldiers lost to smallpox. Caleb Haskell noted the arrival of fresh troops in his diary. “The Canadians are daily joining us,” he wrote on Jan. 4, 1776. Two days later he wrote that the men built a breastwork of snow against British musket balls.
The Lot of a Continental Army Private
Throughout January and February, he recorded the details of the siege: the terrible weather, rumors of attacks, prisoner escapes and captures of spies.
By mid-January he was well enough to do guard duty at night. The British periodically fired on the guardhouse, but did little damage. A typical diary entry reads, “A cold, sharp air. We have shot flying around our guardhouse every day from the enemy, but have received no damage yet.”
On Jan. 25, 1776, Haskell wrote:
This day, about noon, 500 of the enemy came out at Palace Gate. About 200 advanced almost to our guard house. As soon as we were mustered they retreated in again.
The horrible weather continued unabated. “A bad snow storm today,” Haskell wrote on January 9th. “Severely cold and uncomfortable,” he wrote the next day. On January 11 they buried a soldier who died of his wounds. That night, “a bad snow storm.”
On January 15 he wrote there was another bad snow storm, and “so cold that a man can scarce get out without freezing.” On February 10, the second day of a storm, he wrote, “The storm continues. Such a storm, I believe, never was known in New England. Two of our men nearly perished going after provisions.”
At the end of January, Haskell’s company was ordered to join Capt. Matthew Smith. They were not happy about it. Haskell wrote on January 30:
This day we had to go down the Bon pour ferry and join Capt. Smith, which was not agreeable to our company, we looking upon ourselves as freemen, and, have been so since the first of January, refused to go. Our company consisting of fourteen men fit for duty enlisted for two months under Capt. Newhall in Col. Livingston’s regiment. In the afternoon were put under guard at head quarters for disobedience of orders.
January 31st, Wednesday.–To day we were tried by a Court Martial, and fined one months pay, and ordered to join Capt. Smith immediately, or be again confined and received thirty-nine stripes to minutes allowed to answer in. We finding that arbitrary rule prevailed, concluded to go with Capt. Smith. Then we were released and went to our quarters.
On Feb. 23, 1776, Continental Army Private Caleb Haskell wrote in his diary:
Cold, uncomfortable weather.