Before Benedict Arnold became a traitor to the American Revolution, he was an ardent Patriot. Among his heroic acts in the early Revolutionary era, was his leadership of an assault on British Canada. This assault is detailed in Thomas Desjardin’s book Through a Howling Wilderness.
In the early days of the Revolution, before the Declaration of Independance was even a glimmer on Thomas Jefferson’s eyes, the many of the Colonists were actively engaged in revolutionary activities. These included the early assaults on Fort Ticonderoga and Saint Jean in Canada which were carried out by the Green Mountain Boys and led by both Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen. It was the success of these early assaults that convinced George Washington to field an army to march north into Canada and take Montreal. Arnold, for his part, wanted to lead that force. But, when he was denied, he formulated a plan of his own to lead a second army through the wilderness of what is now Maine and target the Canadian city of Quebec. Desjardin’s book focuses on the successes and failures of Arnold’s expedition as it left Massachusetts and traveled north and west across Maine and into what is now Canada.
Suffice it to say that the journey wasn’t easy. Like many expeditions that have been chronicled in recent years, Arnold’s group was under-informed, under-equipped, and underfed. The journey was much, much longer than Arnold expected it would be. The equipment that the group had was either inadequate, prone to easily break, or quickly lost. The army generally was underfed as their food supplies quickly turned rotten or were lost along the way.
In addition to these problems, Arnold made one of the classic mistakes of leading any sort of expedition into new or generally unexplored lands: he left to late in the season. As a result, when the remnants of his army finally arrived in Quebec, they found themselves assaulting the city in the midst of a late December blizzard; with just one small, mobile cannon; guns that generally would not fire due to wet gunpower; and a force just over half the size of the defenders behind the walls. In addition, Arnold’s men were so desperate for clothing that they were wearing captured British Army uniforms, and moccasins stuffed with straw for boots.
Desjardin does a good job depicting the battle for Quebec. He describes the important forces at hand and the officers that commanded them. In addition, he attempts to describe what the principals might have been thinking based upon what they knew at the time and what they learned later. It is reasonable to say that America might today hold Canada as a series of states if an officer in the Colonial Army’s quartermaster’s corps had ordered an advance instead of a retreat during the assault on the city. He does not make that point, but he leaves enough hanging threads for the reader to tie them together and weave their own conclusions.
Desjardin covers the trek through the wilderness in some detail, but it is clear that his strong suit is the description of the battle around Quebec. At times, it is as though he is slogging through his notes and sources that describe the slog through the wilderness and that he can’t wait to get to the battle itself. In all fairness, however, it is possible that men engaged in paddling and portaging boats; hiking through swamps; avoiding starvation; and generally trying to stay alive may not have been overly conscientious about writing in their journals. Perhaps he doesn’t have nearly as many journals on which to draw.
This isn’t a very long book, just 207 pages. If you decide to read the book to find out why Benedict Arnold turned traitor, you may be disappointed as Desjardin just skims that topic as he maintains his focus on the expedition and its men. However, if you want to learn about the march through an unforgiving wilderness that just about netted the Colonists the entirety of British holdings in Canada, this is a worthy book.