"Upon your Conduct & Courage ... the Safety and Welfare of the whole Continent may depend." George Washington gives Benedict Arnold his orders for the march to Quebec, one of the most significant American operations of the proto-Revolution,
During the early foment of revolution, American patriots often looked at Canada as the key to independence. Dreams of a "fourteenth colony" fired the imaginations of politicians and military men alike. The Continental Congress had authorized an invasion of Canada even before George Washington was appointed as Commander of the Continental Army on 3 July 1775. He gave the northern venture the highest priority, and appointed to lead it the daring and dashing Benedict Arnold.
Commanding a force of about 1,200 volunteers—"active woodsmen, and well acquainted with bateaux"—Arnold travelled more than 350 miles in forty-five days. Arnold's trek through the Maine wilderness, up the Kennebec and Dead rivers, through treacherous portages, and down the Chaudière River to the St. Lawrence, is still counted as one of the great achievements of eighteenth-century warfare. When he received the present letter from Washington, Arnold was already on the march, having left Cambridge for Newburyport, where his forces would board the vessels that would transport them to Fort Western, Maine.
"You are intrusted with a Command of the utmost Consequence to the Interest & Liberties of America: Upon your Conduct & Courage & that of the Officers and Soldiers detached on this Expedition, not only the Success of the present Enterprize & your own Honour, but the Safety and Welfare of the whole Continent may depend. I charge you therefore and the Officers & Soldiers under your Command as you value your own Safety and Honour, & the Favour and Esteem of your Country that you consider yourselves as marching not through an Enemies Country, but that of our Friends and Brethren, for such Inhabitants of Canada & the Indian Nations have approved themselves in this unhappy Contest between Great Britain & America."
While Arnold would be leading an invasion, Washington and the Congress hoped that the Canadian citizens, as opposed to their royal government, might welcome the Americans. Washington insisted, therefore, that Arnold hold his men to the highest standard of respect for Canadian civilians, including those who practiced Catholicism. "That you check every Motive of Duty, and Fear of Punishment every Attempt to Plunder or insult any of the Inhabitants of Canada. Should any American Soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian in his Person or Property, I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary Punishment as the Enormity of the Crime may require. Should it extend to Death itself, it will not be disproportionate to its Guilt at such a Time and in such a Cause. But I hope and trust that the brave Men who have voluntarily engaged in this Expedition will be govern'd by different Views that Order, Discipline, & Regularity of Behaviour will be as conspicuous as their Courage & Valour. I also give it in Charge to you to avoid all Disrespect or Contempt of the Religion of the Country and its Ceremonies—Prudence, Policy and true Christian Spirit will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them." Washington's next sentence anticipates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but in rather more elegant, less ambiguous language: "While we are Contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men and to him only in this Case they are answerable."
Fully recognizing the supreme significance of the task facing Arnold, Washington continues his letter with the same balance of solemn encouragement and caution: "Upon the whole, Sir, I beg you to inculcate upon the Officers, the Necessity of preserving the Strictest Order during their March thro' Canada to represent to them the Shame, Disgrace and Ruin to themselves & Country if they should by their Conduct turn the Hearts of our Brethren in Canada against us. And on the other Hand the Honour and Rewards which await them, if by their Prudence, and good Behaviour they conciliate the Affections of the Canadians & Indians to the great Interests of America, & convert those favourable Dispositions they have shewn into a lasting Union and Affection."
Washington concludes by wishing Arnold and his men "all Honour, Safety and Success." Success eluded the bold expedition, due in large part to poor weather and inaccurate maps (Arnold had to travel almost twice the distance he had expected). Safety was not a hallmark of the campaign, either. Arnold arrived at Quebec with a force of about 650; the others had deserted, died, or been invalided by the brutal conditions of the march. Only Washington's first wish—honor—was granted to Arnold in this instance, but that manifested itself fully: he was praised in Congress as the American Hannibal and promoted to Brigadier General in early 1777. But honor was to prove insufficient for Benedict Arnold's ambition.
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