Beside the Kennebec

DESCRIPTION: "They marched with Arnold at their head, Our soldiers brave and true." They travel the Kennebec as the autumn leaves turn. Hunger strikes the troops, and one unnamed soldier dies of it. The family still remembers him and preserves his relics
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1916 (Gray), from a scrapbook, probably c. 1861, in the Harris Collection at Brown University
KEYWORDS: soldier death food
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Gray, pp. 140-141, "Beside the Kennebec" (1 text)
NOTES: At the end of 1775, the American Revolution was in trouble. The colonial forces were still ill-armed and largely undisiplined, and few officers had the skills to change that. Their logistics were terrible. The British could march their forces wherever they wanted -- and, with more soldiers on the way, they would be able to directly occupy more and more territory.
There was no American war department at this time; strategy was set partly by the Continental Congress, partly by the states, and partly by George Washington. The Congress apparently wanted a campaign against Canada (Middlekauff, p. 304). Washington considered a diversion a useful idea. Particularly since the British Governor, Guy Carleton, had been called upon to send some of his forces to support the British garrison of Boston (Cook, p. 243). Quebec, the key access point to Canada, was the objective.
The 1759 siege of Quebec (for which see "Brave Wolfe" [Laws A1]) should have told the Americans they were biting off a rather big mouthful. Somehow, they failed to realize this. Two columns were put in motion. (There are useful maps in Lancaster, p. 117, and Middlekauff, p. 306).
One campaigns was from the west, via the Champlain. The area around Lake George and Ticonderoga had been captured early in the war (Ferguson, p. 182), and this was to provide the base for the western force. General Philip Schulyer had originally intended to command this expedition, but his health failed, and General Richard Montgomery, a veteran of the Seven Years' War (Weintraub, p. 339) led the force north (Lancaster, p. 108).
It was slow going -- due mostly to the Colonial lack of engineers and supply officers. The army set out on August 28, 1775, but made little progress. A tiny post at the north end of Lake Champlain, Fort St. John, held up Montgomery's advance for two months before surrendering (Lancaster, p. 108). It wasn't until November 5 that Montgomery headed for Montrea .some twenty miles away. The city fell on November 13, but Governor Carleton escaped (Lancaster, p. 109).
Meanwhile, a second expedition was setting out for Quebec via Maine. This force, under Benedict Arnold, sailed from Newburyport on the Massachussetts/New Hampshire border and landed at the mouth of the Kennebec river in what is now Maine (Lancaster, p. 109).
The plan was for Arnold to go up the Kennebec in bateaux, through a series of portages, then down the Chaudiere River to the St. Lawrence near Quebec (Lancaster, p. 109). Unfortunately, no one in authority knew how long this route was! Arnold apparently thought he had a distance of 180 miles to travel, which he expected to cover in twenty days. In fact he had twice that far to go, and it took 45 days (Middlekauff, p. 304).
Having set out in mid-September, it was not until October 11 that they reached the "Great Carrying Place," the key portage where they left the Kennebec (Middlekauff, p. 304). The bateaux were already leaking (they had been made of green wood, by craftsmen who did not know how to build them, and had often crashed or overturned because the soldiers did not know how to sail them; Lancaster, p, 111), and many of the provisions had been spoiled by water.
Men began to turn back -- they were called cowards, but had they not left, the whole expedition might have starved (Lancaster, p. 111). As it was, men were reduced to eating dogs, hides, candles. They finally reached the St. Lawrence on November 8 (Lancaster, p. 112) or 9 (Middlekauff, p. 305).
But Arnold had fewer than 700 men left (only about 650 according to Lancaster, p. 112; Middlekauff, p. 305, says 675; Morison, p. 220, says 600. Ferguson, p. 182, says that he had lost more than half his force, which would mean he had fewer than 500 men, but this is probably an exaggeration). He could not attack Quebec with such a force; indeed, it took him until November 13 just to get across the St. Lawrence (Middlekauff, p. 305). Montgomery finally arrived on December 2 (Lancaster, p. 112). The combined forces had only about a thousand men, many of them sick and ill-equipped. But they could not set a siege; apart from the weakness of the force, many of the men's enlistments expired at the end of December(Weintraub, p. 44). It was an assault or nothing.
Montgomery and Arnold knew they could not attack over the Plains of Abraham, the route used by Wolfe 17 years before. The walls of the town were too strong (thirty feet high, with a variety of bastions, according to Middlekauff, p. 307), and the defenders too many (probably close to 1800 of them -- indeed, Cook, p. 243, says 3000).. The Americans decided to assault the lower town, at the bottom of the rock of Quebec, from both north and south, meet in the middle, and try to fight their way up the narrow path to the upper city (Lancaster, p. 112). It was a plan of desperation.
And it failed. The British knew they would come soon, and had been sleeping in their clothes by the defences (Middlekauff, p. 307). The assault went in on the night of December 30/31, with Montgomery attacking along the river and Arnold taking his troops along the north edge of the Rock.
Generals in this period were expected to *lead* their troops, not sit in the rear -- and in any case Montgomery, although titled a general, led a command about fit for a major. He apparently was killed at first contact (by a bullet in the head, according to Middlekauff, p. 308; by the first round of canister fired by the British artillery, according to Lancaster, p. 113), and his men fled. Half the assault had failed without even really getting started.
Arnold was also wounded early in the fighting (Middlekauff, p. 307), and his force retreated, taking Arnold with them but leaving many prisoners behind (Lancaster, p. 113).
The attack on Canada was over. Arnold held a position about a mile from the town through the winter (Middlekauff, p. 308), and the British -- knowing he could do nothing -- did not bother to attack him. Come spring, he turned over his command and went back to Montreal (Middlekauff, p. 308). The troops stayed a little longer, but accomplished nothing.
Guy Carleton was able to mount a counterattack in 1776 that recaptured Montreal (Cook, p. 244) and took him most of the way up the Champlain. Arnold, who had built a small fleet of gunboats, fought him there, and suffered a tactical defeat -- but it was October, and Carleton wasn't going to make the same mistake as the Americans and try to fight in winter. He retreated from the Champlain (Lancaster, p. 114; Cook, p. 244).
The next year, John Burgoyne came the same way -- to end up at a place called Saratoga. For more on the 1777 campaign, see the notes to "The Fate of John Burgoyne." For more on Benedict Arnold, see "Major Andre's Capture" [Laws A2].
This song, obviously, is the story of a young man who started out with Arnold, but was one of the many who did not even reach the St. Lawrence. We often hear of the privations of Valley Forge, the result of miserable Colonial logistics. The hero of this song died even earlier, but of the same cause. - RBW
Bibliography Last updated in version 2.6
File: Gray140

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.