Invasion of Canada (1775)

The Invasion of Canada in 1775 was the first major military initiative by colonial separatist forces during the American Revolutionary War. Two separate expeditions were launched, which joined forces but were defeated at the Battle of Quebec in December 1775. The British then launched a counter-offensive in 1776, driving the Americans rebels back to Fort Ticonderoga. The end of the campaign set the stage for the Saratoga campaign of 1777.


In the spring of 1775, the American Revolutionary War began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Soon after, the conflict was at a standstill, with the British Army held up in a siege of Boston. During this long standoff, the American Continental Congress sought a way to seize the initiative elsewhere.

The First Congress had previously invited French-Canadians to join the American Revolution as the fourteenth colony by addressing them a public letter on October 26, 1774, but this was rejected. Therefore, a plan was devised to drive the British Empire from the primarily francophone colony of Quebec (which included both present-day Quebec and Ontario). Two expeditions were undertaken.

Congress authorized General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, to mount an invasion to drive British forces from Canada. He sent General Richard Montgomery north with an invasion force. General George Washington also sent Benedict Arnold towards Quebec City with a supporting force.

Montgomery's expedition

Philip Schuyler was to have led the invasion. On September 12, 1775, he led an expeditionary force to Fort St. John (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), where he addressed the populace with a proclamation promising the respect of "their persons, property, religion, and liberties." But Schuyler fell ill and was replaced by Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. On September 16, 1775, Montgomery marched north from Fort Ticonderoga with about 1,700 militiamen. They arrived on September 19 and, after a forty-five day siege, they defeated the British at the Battle of Fort St. Jean on November 3. Montgomery's troops continued north and occupied Saint Paul's Island on November 11, crossing to Pointe-Saint-Charles on the following day.

Montreal fell without any significant fighting on November 13, as Major-General Guy Carleton, the governor of Quebec, deciding that the city was indefensible had withdrawn to the capital Québec City.

Montgomery then moved towards Quebec City with the bulk of his troops on November 28, leaving Montreal under the command of General David Wooster. The historic Château Ramezay served as Continental Army HQ in Montreal.

Montgomery would eventually die in the battle for Quebec on the night of December 30 or early morning of December 31, 1775.

James Livingston led the 1st Canadian Regiment at the Battle of Quebec (1775) and Moses Hazen led the 2nd Canadian Regiment to support the American cause at the Battle of Saint-Pierre.

Arnold's expedition

The second expedition was led by Benedict Arnold. In 1775, the Continental Congress generally adopted Arnold's plan for the invasion of Canada, but Arnold was not included in the command structure for the effort. Thus rebuffed, Arnold returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and approached George Washington with the idea of a supporting eastern invasion force aimed at Quebec City. Because there had been little direct action at Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill in June, many units were bored with garrison life and eager for action. Washington agreed with Arnold's proposal. He appointed Arnold a colonel, and together they visited each line unit to ask for volunteers.

Arnold eventually selected a force of 750 men. Washington added Daniel Morgan's company and some other riflemen. The frontiersmen, from the Virginia and Pennsylvania wilderness, were better suited to wilderness combat than to a siege.

The plan called for the men to cover the 180 miles (290 km) from the Kennebec River to Quebec in 20 days. They expected to find relatively light defenses since British Commander Carleton would be busy handling Schuyler's forces at Montreal. Arnold sent ahead to Fort Western (in the Province of Maine) to have supplies and bateaux readied for his force. The expedition moved by sea and spent five days at Fort Western organizing supplies and preparing the boats.

The men expected to go up the Kennebec River and then descend the Chaudière River to Quebec. After staying for three days at Colburn's Shipyard in Gardinerston, where Reuben Colburn built the bateaux at Washington's request in just 15 days, they set out from Fort Western on September 25. Their troubles began almost immediately.

The bateaux were built from green, split pine planks because of a lack of dried lumber at that time of year and were basically flat bottom rafts that could not be rowed but had to be poled against the stream. Colburn traveled with the army, repairing the bateaux as they went, but in hauling them upstream and lowering them down the Chaudière, many supplies and some men were lost. Rain and violent storms ruined more. Lieutenant Colonel Roger Enos turned back with his division, taking 300 men and some of the supplies with him.

The maps the expedition had started with were faulty, since the British frequently allowed publication of incorrect maps to deceive future enemies. The journey turned out to be 350 miles (560 km), not 180. After the expedition ran out of supplies, the men began to eat anything, including their dogs, their shoes, cartridge boxes, leather, moss, and tree bark. On November 6, the expedition reached the south shore of the St. Lawrence River; Arnold had 600 of his original 1,100 men.

However, Arnold thought they could still take the city. The defenders were only about 100 British regulars under Lieutenant Colonel Allen Maclean, supported by several hundred poorly organized local militia. If the Americans could scatter the militia with accurate fire, they could overwhelm the outnumbered regulars. When they finally reached the Plains of Abraham on November 14, Arnold sent a negotiator with a white flag to demand their surrender, but to no avail. The Americans, with no cannons, faced a fortified city. When the frigate Lizard moved into the river to cut off their rear, they were forced to withdraw to Pointe aux Trembles.

Finally, on December 2, Montgomery came down river from Montreal with 300 troops and bringing captured British supplies and winter clothing. The two forces united, and plans were made for an attack on the city.

Battle of Quebec

Montgomery joined Arnold and James Livingston in an assault on Quebec City on December 31, 1775, but they were soundly defeated by Carleton. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and many men were taken prisoner, including Daniel Morgan. When General John Thomas arrived to take command, he found the army severely weakened by the march north, smallpox, and the harsh Canadian winter. He immediately began a withdrawal.

Carleton's counteroffensive

On May 6, 1776, a small squadron of British ships under Captain Charles Douglas arrived to relieve Quebec with supplies and troops, forcing the Americans to immediately retreat. A few weeks later, British forces in Quebec were strengthened by even more troops under General John Burgoyne and Hessian mercenaries. Another attempt was made by the Revolutionaries to push back towards Quebec, but it failed at Trois-Rivières on June 8, 1776. The new American commander, General Thomas, died of smallpox.

Carleton then launched his own invasion and defeated Arnold in the Battle of Valcour Island in October. Arnold fell back to Fort Ticonderoga, where the invasion of Canada had begun. The invasion of Canada ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold's improvised navy on Lake Champlain had the effect of delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until the Saratoga campaign of 1777. Carleton was heavily criticized in London for not pursuing the American retreat from Quebec more aggressively, and so command of the 1777 offensive was given to General Burgoyne instead.


Conquering Canada remained a key objective of Congress throughout the war though George Washington, who had supported the first invasion, considered any further expeditions a low priority that would divert men and resources away from the main war in the Thirteen Colonies. During the Paris peace talks, the American negotiators unsuccessfully demanded Canadian territory.

In the War of 1812 the Americans launched another invasion of Canada, again expecting the local populace to support them. The failed invasion is now regarded as significant in Canadian history and it has even been claimed as the birth of modern Canada.


Returns of the Continental Army troops from Canada in May 1776, which show how hard the campaign was on the soldiers:

Further reading

  • Bird, Harrison. Attack on Quebec. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Codman, John. Arnold's Expedition to Quebec. New York, 1902.
  • Desjardin, Thomas A. Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006. ISBN 0-312-33904-6.
  • Hatch, Robert McConnell. Thrust for Canada: The American Attempt on Quebec in 1775–1776. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. ISBN 0-395-27612-8.
  • Roberts, Kenneth. March to Quebec. New York, 1938; revised 1940.
  • Rumilly, Robert, "Histoire de Montréal" (4 vols.) vol. 2 (Fides: Montreal, 1970)
  • Shelton, Hal T. General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel. New York: New York University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8147-7975-1.
  • Smith, Justin H. Arnold's March to Quebec. New York, 1903.
  • Smith, Justin H. Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony. 2 volumes. New York, 1907.


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