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Washington wished to be certain of the conduct of the enemy, before he gave a reply to these Indian overtures. He wrote by express, therefore, to General Schuyler, requesting him to ascertain the intentions of the British governor with respect to the native tribes.
By the same express he communicated a plan which had occupied his thoughts for several days. As the contemplated movement of Schuyler would probably cause all the British force in Canada to be concentrated in the neighbourhood of Montreal and St. Johns, he proposed to send off an expedition of ten or twelve hundred men, to penetrate to Quebec by the way of the Kennebec Kiver. "If you are resolved to proceed," writes he to Schuyler, "which I gather from your last letter is your intention, it would make a diversion that would distract Carleton. He must either break up, and follow this party to Quebec, by which he would leave you a free passage, or he must suffer that important place to fall into other hands; an event that would have a decisive effect and influence on the public interest. * * * * The few whom I have consulted on the project approve it much, but the final determination is deferred until I hear from you. Not a moment's time is to be lost in the preparations for this enterprise, if the advices from you favour it. With the utmost expedition the season will be considerably advanced, so that you will dismiss the express as soon as possible."
The express found Schuyler in Albany, where he had been attending the conference with the Six Nations. He had just received intelligence which convinced him of the propriety of an expedition into Canada; had sent word to General Montgomery to get everything ready for it, and was on the point of departing for Ticonderoga to carry it into effect. In reply to Washington, he declared his conviction, from various accounts which he had received, that Carleton and his agents were exciting the Indian tribes to hostility. "I should, therefore, not hesitate one moment," adds he, "to employ any savages that might be willing to join us."
He expressed himself delighted with Washington's project of sending off an expedition to Quebec, regretting only that it had not been thought of earlier. "Should the de
tachment from your body penetrate into Canada," added he, "and we meet with success, Canada must inevitably fall into our hands."
Having sent off these despatches, Schuyler hastened back to Ticonderoga. Before he reached there, Montgomery had received intelligence that Carleton had completed his aimed vessels at St. Johns, and was about to send them into Lake Champlain by the Sorel Eiver. No time, therefore, was to be lost in getting possession of the Isle aux Noix, which commanded the entrance to that river. Montgomery hastened, therefore, to embark with about a thousand men, which were as many as the boats now ready could hold, taking with him two pieces of artillery; with this force he set off down the lake. A letter to General Schuyler explained the cause of his sudden departure, and entreated him to follow on in a whale-boat, leaving the residue of the artillery to come on as soon as conveyances could be procured.
Schuyler arrived at Ticonderoga on the night of the 30th of August, but too ill of a bilious fever to push on in a whale-boat. He caused, however, a bed to be prepared for him in a covered bateau, and, ill as he was, continued forward on the following day. On the 4th of September, he overtook Montgomery at the Isle la Motte, where he had been detained by contrary weather, and, assuming command of the little army, kept on the same day to the Isle aux Noix, about twelve miles south of St. Johns—where for the present we shall leave him, and return to the headquarters of the commander-in-chief.
A Challenge declined—A Blow meditated—A cautious Council of War —Preparation for the Quebec Expedition—Benedict Arnold the Leader—Advice and Instructions—Departure—General Schuyler ou the Sorel—Reconnoitres St. Johns—Camp at Isle aux Noix—Illness of Schuyler—Returns to Ticonderoga—Expedition of Montgomery against St. Johns—Letter of Ethan Allen—His dash against Montreal —Its Catastrophe—A Hero in Irons—Correspondence of Washington with Schuyler and Arnold—His anxiety about them.
The siege of Boston had been kept up for several weeks without any remarkable occurrence. The British remained within their lines, diligently strengthening them; the besiegers having received further supplies of ammunition, were growing impatient of a state of inactivity. Towards the latter part of August there were rumours from Boston, that the enemy were preparing for a sortie. Washington was resolved to provoke it by a kind of challenge. He accordingly detached fourteen hundred men to seize at night upon a height within musket shot of the enemy's line on Charlestown Neck, presuming that the latter would sally forth on the following day to dispute possession of it, and thus be drawn into a general battle. The task was executed with silence and celerity, and by daybreak the hill presented to the astonished foe, the aspect of a fortified post.
The challenge was not accepted. The British opened a heavy cannonade from Bunker's Hill, but kept within their works. The Americans, scant of ammunition, could only reply with a single nine-pounder; this, however, sank one of the floating batteries which guarded the neck. They went on to complete and strengthen this advanced post, exposed to daily cannonade and bombardment, which, however, did but little injury. They continued to answer from time to time with a single gun, reserving their ammunition for a general action. "We are just in the situation of a man with little money in his pocket," writes Secretary Eeed; "he will do twenty mean things to prevent his breaking in upon his little stock. We are obliged to bear with the rascals on Bunker's Hill, when a few shot now and then in return would keep our men attentive to their business, and give the enemy alarms." 1
The evident unwillingness of the latter to come forth was perplexing. "Unless the ministerial troops in Boston are waiting for reinforcements," writes Washington, "I cannot devise what they are staying there for, nor why, as they affect to despise the Americans, they do not come forth and put an end to the contest at once."
Perhaps they persuaded themselves that his army, composed of crude, half-disciplined levies from different and distant quarters, would gradually fall asunder and disperse,
1 Life of Reed, vol. i. 119.
or that its means of subsistence would be exhausted. He had his own fears on the subject, and looked forward with doubt and anxiety to a winter's campaign; the heavy expense that would be incurred in providing barracks, fuel and warm clothing; the difficulty there would be of keeping together, through the rigorous season, troops unaccustomed to military hardships, and none of whose terms of enlistment extended beyond the 1st of January: the supplies of ammunition, too, that would be required for protracted operations; the stock of powder on hand, notwithstanding the most careful husbandry, being fearfully small. Eevolving these circumstances in his mind, he rode thoughtfully about the commanding points in the vicinity of Boston, considering how he might strike a decisive blow that would put an end to the murmuring inactivity of the army, and relieve the country from the consuming expense of maintaining it. The result was a letter to file major and brigadier generals, summoning them to a council of war to be held at the distance of three days, and giving them previous intimation of its purpose. It was to know whether, in their judgment, a successful attack might not be made upon the troops at Boston by means of boats, in co-operation with an attempt upon their lines at Eoxbury. "The success of such an enterprise," adds he, " depends, I well know, upon the Allwise Disposer of events, and it is not within the reach of human wisdom to foretell the issue; but if the prospect is fair, the undertaking is justifiable."
He proceeded to state the considerations already cited, which appeared to justify it. The council having thus had time for previous deliberation, met on the 11th of September. It was composed of Major-generals Ward, Lee, and Putnam, and Brigadier-generals Thomas, Heath, Sullivan, Spencer, and Greene. They unanimously pronounced the suggested attempt inexpedient, at least for the present.
It certainly was bold and hazardous, yet it seems to have taken strong hold on the mind of the commander-in-chief, usually so cautious. "I cannot say," writes he to the President of Congress, "that I have wholly laid it aside; but new events may occasion new measures. Of this J hope the honourable Congress can need no assurance, that there is not a man in America who more earnestly wishes such a termination of the campaign, as to make the army no longer necessary."
In the mean time, as it was evident the enemy did not intend to come out, but were only strengthening their defences and preparing for winter, Washington was enabled to turn his attention to the expedition to be sent into Canada by the way of the Kennebec Eiver.
A detachment of about eleven hundred men, chosen for the purpose, was soon encamped on Cambridge Common. There were ten companies of New England infantry, some of them from General Greene's Ehode Island regiments; three rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Virginia, one of them Captain Daniel Morgan's famous company; and a number of volunteers, among whom was Aaron Burr, then but twenty years of age, and just commencing his varied. brilliant, but ultimately unfortunate career.
The proposed expedition was wild and perilous, and required a hardy, skilful, and intrepid leader. Such a one was at hand. Benedict Arnold was at Cambridge, occupied in settling his accounts with the Massachusetts committee of safety. These were nearly adjusted. Whatever faults may have been found with his conduct in some particulars, his exploits on Lake Champlain had atoned for them; for valour in time of war covers a multitude of sins. It was thought too by some, that he had been treated harshly, and there was a disposition to soothe his irritated pride. Washington had given him an honourable reception at headquarters, and now considered him the very man for the present enterprise. He had shown aptness for military service, whether on land or water. He was acquainted, too, with Canada, and especially with Quebec, having, in the course of his chequered life, traded in horses between that place and the West Indies. With these considerations he intrusted him with the command of the expedition, giving him the commission of lieutenant colonel in the continental army.
As he would be intrusted with dangerous powers, Washington, beside a general letter of instructions, addressed a special one to him individually, full of cautious