Through a Howling Wilderness Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775

Thomas A. Desjardin

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

256 Pages



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In September 1775, eleven hundred soldiers boarded ships in Newburyport, bound for the Maine wilderness. They were American colonists who had volunteered for a secret mission to paddle and march nearly two hundred miles through some of the wildest country in the colonies and seize the fortress city of Quebec, the last British stronghold in Canada.

The march, under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold, proved to be a tragic journey. Before they reached the outskirts of Quebec, hundreds died from hypothermia, drowning, small pox, lightning strikes, exposure, and starvation. The survivors ate dogs, shoes, clothing, leather, cartridge boxes, shaving soap, and lip salve. Their trek toward Quebec was nearly twice the length shown on their maps. In the midst of the journey, the most unlikely of events befell them: a hurricane. The rains fell in such torrents that their boats floated off or sunk, taking their meager provisions along, and then it began to snow. The men woke up frozen in their tattered clothing. One third of the force deserted, returning to Massachusetts. Of those remaining, more than four hundred were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

Finally, in the midst of a raging blizzard, those remaining attacked Quebec. In the assault, their wet muskets failed to fire. Undaunted, they overtook the first of two barricades and pressed on toward the other, nearly taking Canada from the British. Demonstrating Benedict Arnold's prowess as a military strategist, the attack on Quebec accomplished another goal for the colonial army: It forced the British to commit thousands of troops to Canada, subsequently weakening the British hand against George Washington.

A great military history about the early days of the American Revolution, Through a Howling Wilderness is also a timeless adventure narrative that tells of heroic acts, men pitted against nature's fury, and a fledgling nation's fight against a tyrannical oppressor.


Praise for Through a Howling Wilderness

"One of the great adventure sagas in American history . . . This is a story that helped shape the American Revolution, dramatically told in this highly readable new book."—James Kirby Martin, author of the award-winning Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered

"Thomas Desjardin vividly narrates a powerful tale of endurance, folly, and courage along the wild rivers and through the dense forests of Maine and Quebec. He combines thorough research with a visceral sense of place and season to render powerful images of suffering and triumph in a land of haunting beauty and cruel indifference to human effort. This evocative story plunges readers into the experience of revolutionary war."—Alan Taylor, Professor of History at University of California-Davis and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic

"A model of accessible, vigorous narrative history, Through a Howling Wilderness re-creates an important but largely forgotten episode in early American history and tells a fascinating story in the bargain."—Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University

"In 1775, Benedict Arnold led a small American army through the wilderness of a sparsely settled region in what is now Maine as part of a planned assault and capture of Canada's Quebec City, a British possession since 1759. The expedition took more than twice as long as expected, and Arnold's men suffered every kind of hardship. Based on primary sources, this account by Desjardin, a historic site specialist for the state of Maine, paints a picture of gallantry and perseverance in the face of great misery. Even after reaching Quebec and finding gentle treatment at the hands of the French Canadians, Arnold's men still had to assault the city—an event that proved unsuccessful and resulted in the capture and imprisonment of many Colonial soldiers and subsequently more suffering in British prisons . . . Desjardin provides a good summary of the campaign's impact on the American Revolution in general. Very few sources cover the assault on Quebec in detail, and many years have passed since any text has examined this event so thoroughly. As a result, Desjardin's work should find a home in public and large academic libraries."—Library Journal

"Maine's Historic Site Specialist describes the epic 1775 march through that state's wilderness by American troops commanded by Colonel Benedict Arnold. Five years before he turned traitor to the Revolutionary cause, Arnold led his men on what would prove to be one of the most critical treks in the war for independence. Slogging through Maine in an attempt to assault the British at Fort Quebec, the soldiers faced freak blizzards and raging rapids. Starvation forced them to eat whatever they could find, including such delicacies as dog meat and boiled leather straps. Displaying uncommon stamina and a steely will to survive, an army weakened by illness, hunger and death arrived at Fort Quebec only to realize that it lacked the necessary numbers and equipment to effectively besiege the stronghold. Though the fort's defenders were ill-prepared, Arnold was forced to wait for General Richard Montgomery to arrive with more men. The reinforced troops stormed the gates with little success; Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded in the initial raid. Unable to take the fort, Arnold settled for harrying the British by sea. He could not defeat their superior navy, but he stalled it long enough to prevent the ships from sailing south to reinforce the British armies in the colonies until the following season, a delay that contributed greatly to the American victory at Saratoga in 1777. Desjardin recounts the march in descriptive, detailed prose studded with visceral imagery, but Arnold comes across as a frequently incompetent commander throughout the Maine march, making it difficult to credit the decisive impact his actions had . . . A vivid narrative of a vital American event."—Kirkus Reviews

"In June 1775, Benedict Arnold—having not yet turned traitor, and, indeed, lionized as one of the 13 colonies' great military hopes—proposed an invasion of Quebec. He thought a successful attack might dispose King George to redress the colonists' grievances. With General Washington's approval, Arnold gathered together a group of soldiers and headed north. Desjardin (These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory) describes the grueling expedition. The soldiers quickly ran low on food, and, among other disasters, a canoe was ripped apart by a tree branch, almost costing half the men their lives. Eventually, some of the troops made it to Canada, and after backup arrived, they attacked Quebec. Though the attempt was unsuccessful and Arnold was wounded, he was praised for simply having made it from Maine to Canada. Perhaps the most important section is the epilogue, in which Desjardin suggests that a successful attack on Quebec might actually have hampered the fight for American independence."—Publishers Weekly

"Rather too late in 1775, American generals Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery set off to assault Quebec, the main fortress of British Canada, at the head of an exceedingly modest force of Continental soldiers. They faced grueling portages, swamps, insects, trackless forests, hostile Indians, Quebeçois not eager to be liberated by the staunchly Protestant New Englanders, and supply shortages of every conceivable kind. They finally reached Quebec in the dead of winter, to find it desperately defended by the British. After attempting a siege, they assaulted the walled city. The assault failed, with Montgomery killed and Arnold wounded, which Desjardin, state historian of Maine, suggests may have been a fatal blow to the campaign. The survivors retreated even more precariously than they had advanced. Thoroughly researched and well written, this is likely to be the standard history of the campaign for some time to come."—Booklist

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Fourteenth Colony

He came within view of his father's house a little past noon on a pleasant late-September day. Eighteen months had passed since he had left this home in Bridgewater of the...

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  • Thomas A. Desjardin

  • Thomas A. Desjardin is the Historic Site Specialist for the State of Maine. He is the author of Stand Firm, Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign and These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory.