By the time Benedict Arnold and his Continental Army troops reached Quebec City in the winter of 1775, Pvt. Caleb Haskell knew there was little chance they’d succeed in capturing it. Haskell was an enlistee from Newburyport, Mass., who volunteered to join Arnold’s invasion of Canada. Arnold’s aim was to prevent the British from using Quebec City to stage attacks down Lake Champlain. He was lucky to have any men left by the time it was over.
Arnold’s men traveled twice as far as the 175 miles they planned on the expedition to Quebec through the Maine wilderness. Their boats leaked, their gunpowder was ruined, their food grew scarce, the weather turned miserable. By the time Arnold reached the French settlements above the St. Lawrence River, he had only 600 starving men left from the 1,150 who started out.
Pvt. Haskell kept a diary from the time he enlisted in the American Army in May 1775. After the Battle of Bunker Hill and the early days of the Siege of Boston, he volunteered for the invasion of Canada and marched back to Newburyport with Arnold. In September he boarded one of 11 transport ships and set sail for what is now Maine.
By late September, they set out in shallow-draft river boats called bateaux up the Kennebec River. The river was swift and the men unfamiliar with handling boats. They had to portage for miles, sometimes up to their knees in mire. By the end of October, many of the men either turned back or died.
They reached the Saint Lawrence River at Pointe-Levi, across the river from Quebec, on Nov. 9. “We have but little prospect of obtaining the city at present,” wrote Pvt. Haskell that day. He stood guard as a British Royal Navy frigate in the river fired at them, doing little damage.
On Nov. 11, Caleb Haskell was ordered to walk 14 miles to a forge to make spears for the siege of the city. He worked all night after he arrived. Other soldiers made ladders for scaling the city’s walls.
Three days later they reached the Plains of Abraham and took shelter in ‘Tory houses.’ Arnold sent a negotiator to the fortified city with a white flag and a demand to surrender. The British refused. Arnold’s 600 ill-equipped men with no artillery or cannon were no match for the city’s defenders: 150 men of the Royal Highland Emigrants, 500 local militia and 400 marines from two warships in the river.
By Nov. 18 Arnold realized he had no chance of taking the city until the arrival of reinforcements under Gen. Richard Montgomery, who had just captured Montreal. That night the men were turned out at 3 a.m. and ordered to retreat into the countryside, where they awaited Montgomery. Caleb Haskell drew guard duty.
Montgomery arrived on Dec. 1. “Came down by water on an armed schooner, accompanied by three men laden with provisions and stores taken up the river,” wrote Haskell. “In the afternoon were all ordered down to the chapel where the General is to land, to welcome him on shore. We paid our respects to the General.”
The next day, wrote Haskell, Montgomery ordered ‘that each man in Colonel Arnold’s party have a suit of clothes and one dollar in money as a present given to him. Getting in readiness to march for Quebec.’ Haskell was drawn out to go down the river in a bateaux to take cannon to the city.
By Dec. 6, most of the army arrived outside the city. “We are getting in readiness to lay siege to Quebec,” he wrote. “The small pox is all around us, and there is great danger of its spreading in the army. There are Spies sent out of Quebec every day, and some taken almost every day, both men and women.”
On Dec. 9, 1775, Caleb Haskell entered in his diary:
December 9th, Saturday.–Employed in getting cannon and mortars ready to carry to St. Roche’s, in order to cannonade the city. In the evening the guard was doubled. Thirty-two men out of our company on fatigue. At one o’clock at night opened our battery threw about thirty shells into the city. We had a number of shells and some shot thrown at us. We had one man wounded. We are throwing up breastworks in different places. I am on guard at the Nunnery.