Betting on the Continental Army’s Canadian Campaign

Jacqueline Reynoso

Christopher French Journal, 1776, American Revolution Collection Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

Christopher French Journal, 1776, American Revolution Collection
Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

In mid-January 1776, the paths of two military officers crossed in Hartford, Connecticut. While passing through the city, General Charles Lee encountered the imprisoned British Major, Christopher French. There, during an evening meal, they exchanged competing assessments about the ongoing military struggles of the period. At some point during the evening, they put their money where their mouths were, settling on a bet of “ten guineas” over the Continental Army’s prospects in Canada. Specifically referring to the ongoing Canadian Campaign (1775-1776), French foresaw a British victory whereas Lee believed the Continental forces would claim control over the colony before that very winter was over.[1]

As we now know, French’s prediction would bear out, and he would win the bet.

The campaign around which the bet revolved was among the first of the American Revolutionary War. Taking place soon after the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, it was the first of the Continental Army’s major military offensives. Curiously enough, however, it remains one of the least studied.[2] And when it is analyzed in studies of the Revolutionary War, it is not uncommon for the offensive to be portrayed in ways that anticipate its failed outcome. Scholars regularly emphasize the many obstacles the Continental troops faced during the course of the campaign, and often describe the entire endeavor as ill-fated. Yet, as Lee and French’s wager helps demonstrate, individuals who lived through the campaign did not necessarily experience it as such. While some predicted a British victory, others envisioned alternative outcomes. Narratives that present the military offensive as plagued with a predetermined fate wholly obscure that reality. Moving away from these sorts of designations, and recognizing that the Continental Army’s odds were never fixed is, therefore, necessary in order to attain a better understanding of the campaign and the larger stakes involved.

Efforts to highlight historical contingency are anything but unique. It is no secret that historians strive to introduce as much contingency as possible within their narratives of the past. It’s common knowledge that doing so generates histories that are more faithful to the individuals or processes they chronicle. Therefore, recognizing the need for greater contingency in studies of the Canadian Campaign is not, in itself, particularly groundbreaking. But acknowledging the lived possibilities that shaped countless individuals’ experiences of the campaign serves a greater purpose than solely allowing for more historically-accurate accounts. It also enables a richer understanding of Canada’s much more complicated role in the greater Revolutionary struggles of the period.

Georges Louis Le Rouge, 1777 Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Georges Louis Le Rouge, 1777
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Designed to oust the British administration and troops from the colony, the Canadian Campaign was more than merely a military offensive with various possible outcomes. It was the embodiment of a broader historical possibility itself. Indeed, the campaign was perhaps the most overt of the Continental Congress’s attempts to incorporate Quebec within the nascent union of the United States. These attempts continued in the years following the campaign, but in more understated ways. Moreover, it was during the 1775-76 campaign that this broader historical possibility came closest to fruition. During the early months of the campaign, the Continental troops enjoyed a number of notable victories, established their Canadian headquarters in Montreal, and expressed as well as inspired countless optimistic assessments about the army’s affairs in the colony. Viewing the entire offensive as ill-fated, therefore, obscures more than just the contingency with which a single military campaign played out, it conceals some the subtle ways through which Canada itself shaped the manner in which many individuals experienced the revolutionary struggles of the time as well as their understandings of the geographic dimensions of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, viewing the Continental Army’s campaign as a concerted effort with an unknown outcome provides a foundation from which to ground countless other assessments from individuals who, like Lee, not only hoped for a Continental victory, but expected one as well. Adopting this approach also equips us to better detect and take seriously the fears that permeated the colony’s British administration at the time. During the summer and fall of 1775, individuals like Governor Guy Carleton and Lieutenant Governor Hector Cramahé fretted over the possibility that they would face defeat. Like French and Lee, Carleton and Cramahé understood the campaign’s outcome to be undetermined. Although there is no evidence that they participated in wagers like that between French and Lee, these administrators also acted on their beliefs. Fearing a possible defeat, Carleton, Cramahé—as well as others throughout the colony—took steps to thwart the endeavors of the Continental troops. Among other things, they relocated or burned provisions, potential shelters and ammunition, deployed scouting parties, and even issued a proclamation to physically remove “rebel” sympathizers from the fortified city of Quebec. All of their actions contributed to the eventual defeat of the Continental troops to some extent, but none of them can be understood without acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounded the Canadian Campaign—an uncertainty on which individuals literally placed bets.

Although far from straightforward, the histories of Quebec and the American Revolution are intertwined, and the Canadian Campaign is central to that story. Yet, as long as that campaign continues to be described as ill-fated, that particular history of the revolution will remain unknown.

 

Jacqueline Reynoso is a PhD Candidate at Cornell University, where she specializes in Early American History. Her dissertation, “(Dis)Placing the American Revolution: The British Province of Quebec in the Greater Colonial Struggle,” traces the ways events in or relative to Quebec helped shape the logic, conduct, and geographic dimensions of the American Revolution. You can find Jacqueline on Twitter at @jacreynoso.


 

[1] Christopher French Journal, 1776, American Revolution Collection, Ms Amrev1776 (Box 6A, Q). Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut. See January 14 1776 and May 10 entries.

[2] This has been the case more so with historians of Revolutionary America than scholars of Early Canada. Regardless, studies of the campaign include, but are not limited to: Gustave Lanctôt, Canada and the American Revolution, Trans. Margaret Cameron (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1967); Pierre Monette, Rendez-vous Manqué avec la Révolution Américaine: Les Adresses aux Habitants de la Province de Québec Diffusées à l’occasion de l’invasion Américaine de 1775-1776 (Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2007); Hilda Neatby, Quebec: The Revolutionary Age, 1760-1791. Canadian Centenary Series (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966); J. H. Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada and the American Revolution (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907); G.F.G. Stanley, Canada Invaded, 1775-1776 (Toronto: Samuel Stevens Hakkert, 1977). For a more recent study, see: Mark R. Anderson, Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2013).

Featured image: F. H. Wellington, Invasion of Quebec, 1860, New York Public Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Latest Comments

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    Good points. I recall being struck at how the number of Continental soldiers assigned to the Northern Theater went UP markedly in the first months of 1776. The American commanders didn’t see the Canadian expedition as doomed by the battle for Québec—they were doubling down, as the near-ubiquitous modern phrase says. But in further retrospect, that fight at the end of 1775 gave authors an excellent climax for their narratives. Even if they acknowledged the following months as the American campaign dribbled out, the emotional height of their retellings is the battle, obscuring how people of the time actually viewed possibilities.

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