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Skowhegan Community History

Benedict Arnold's March

by Ben Axleman

Benedict Arnold was a great man. He was extremely courageous, a brilliant leader, and extraordinarily smart. He saved the revolution at its early stages, but became infamous as a traitor when he joined the British because he didn't get promoted for the revolution.

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

During the early stages of the revolution, George Washington gave orders for Benedict Arnold, a 35 year old colonel, to co-lead an expedition to conquer Quebec with 1,100 men. These men were to get to Quebec by following the Kennebec river upstream. Someone informed George Washington that the only way to travel on the Kennebec was in bateaux, or long, thin boats that you move by pushing long poles against the bottom of the river. So many boats had to be built quickly, that the boat builders had to use fresh, or green, wood to build them. The wood was still wet so the planks on the bottom of the bateaux didn't stay together and leaked.

1775  letter from G.Washington to B. Arnold
1775 letter from G.Washington to B. Arnold

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

On September 13, 1775 Benedict Arnold and the army left to go on the expedition. Everyone was in a cheerful mood, but this did not last for very long. The army split up, four men to a bateau. Two men would pole the boat, while the other two would walk on shore to relieve them later. The bateaux held the men's guns, ammunition, food and supplies. Their first major obstacle was the Ticonic Falls. Bateaux are very heavy boats and hard to maneuver, so they are mainly used for paddling in slow water, not the fast rapids of the untamed Kennebec. So the army people had to take the bateaux apart, carry the pieces over the falls, and then they tried to put them back together. Due to the green wood of the boats, the pieces no longer fit together right. "A puking baby could build better boats out of blocks!" one man on the expedition is quoted as saying.

Benedict Arnold tried the best he could to fix the problem, but when he realized that he couldn't, he made them press on to the Skowhegan Falls, which, according to the men, was "made by the devil for the torturing of racked bateaux." The bateaux had to make it past a triple whirlpool before they got to the falls, smashing against rocks and scraping the bottom to pieces. After this came half a mile of intense rapids, followed by a vertical waterfall six times as tall as a man. Somehow, the men got past that obstacle, losing a lot of food due to exposure, and a lot of musket powder, too. Benedict Arnold remained optimistic, however, and had them press on. Actually, Colonel Arnold stayed optimistic under most situations, except when he could not go forward.

The army had to carry their bateaux around the Norridgewock Falls. By now, food was running out and many people were developing illnesses. However, the next big stretch of water, from Norridgewock Falls to Caratunk Falls, was very peaceful and full of food, the best stretch of water on the whole trip. Then they got to Caratunk Falls, which was easier than the Norridgewock or Skowhegan falls, and then went on the trail known as the Great Carrying Place, which took them to the "Dead River," or the branch of the Kennebec which led up to Quebec, instead of dying out in Moosehead Lake. The men thought that their worries were now over, but they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Lead canteen left on Skowhegan Island by one of Arnold's soldiers
Lead canteen left on Skowhegan Island by one of Arnold's soldiers

The Dead River was mostly all swamp, hard to pass through normally, but now all the bateaux were leaky, there was a sick man in every boat, no food, and their clothes in tatters. The men were forced to walk through the swamp, pulling their boats. The floor of the swamp was covered by tree branches, which ripped up their shoes and their feet. The men were catching various diseases, like rheumatism, poisoning from the water, and the flux. Benedict Arnold thought that they would be almost there, but realized that the river wound around mountains and they still had a ways to go.Then the river narrowed and the wind picked up. Most of the men were ready to give up, and many of them were deserting. They were completely out of food, exhausted, with more sick than healthy. But Arnold never gave up.

"…Even when everything's gone, we can't help but find food in these forests and the waters we'll cross. I believe we should have a shot at it. If we're successful, it will be a feat remembered for a thousand years to come," Colonel Arnold is quoted as saying.

Arnold made them press on to the Great Falls, where they found food enough to survive. They made it to the Village of St. Mary, where they rested up and attacked Quebec December 31, 1775. Hardly any muskets fired, due to exposure to tons of water. In the attack, Arnold was wounded but escaped, and almost the entire army was either killed or taken hostage. Arnold survived, however, and was known for his bravery and cunning in bringing the Revolutionary army to Quebec.

Research for this essay provided by Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, March to Quebec by Kenneth Roberts, and journals of the members of Benedict Arnold's expedition.