its hard to choose the best among the dialogue with which bill murray got to chew the scenery in stripes, but today the choice is "but we're american soldiers--we've been kicking ass for 200 years! we're 10 and 1!". len blum, dan goldberg and harold ramis were, of course, poking and picking the national vietnam scab at the same time as our eternal "exceptionalism", but it's worth mentioning that you don't even have to count to the successful conclusion of our revolution to have reached our first and best kept secret loss--our ridiculous and funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic invasion of canada.
the english and french, of course, had been fighting over north america for a full century, and most recently in the extended contretemps that began as the "french and indian war" here south of the border, when not-yet-then-general-but-rather-lieutenant-colonel george washington attacked and bayonetted 31 sleeping frenchmen at what would come to be known as jumonville glen, in what would eventually become president's george's great state of ohio. among the unfortunately surprised-and-thus-bayonetted frenchmen was their unfortunate commander, second ensign joseph coulon de villiers sieur de jumonville, who, unlike his french canadien descendants, was to have spoken so little english as to be almost completely unintelligible to the belligerent english commander. either that or he was having his fun, but we will, of course, never really know the truth. some say he was brought, wounded, to colonel washington for interrogation with full military honor and respect befitting his rank, and was then brutally tomahawked by the indian "half king", tanacharison, for slights real or imagined. (tanacharison claimed to have observed his father boiled alive and eaten by frenchmen among his many colorful stories of himself). of course, washington's account portrayed this fanciful version as "without any foundation in fact", lending creedence to other accounts which would have jumonville slain by a musket ball upon the initial volley. however, the truth never really mattering in matters of international belligerence, ("weapons of mass destruction" anyone?), the slain jumonville's half brother, louis coulon de villiers sieur de jumonville, pursued colonel george like a dog through the ohio woods to one of the worst-chosen and constructed fortifications in the history of modern warfare, fort necessity, and exacted both george's surrender, as well as his signature on a document attesting to louis' half-brother's death as an "assassination". and so became the better part of a decade of bloodshed between the english and the french over what british statesman horace walpole would describe as "a volley fired by a young virginian in the backwoods of american that set the world on fire". (not as poetic as longfellow's "shot heard round the world", but of a piece, certainly).
by 1775, the english and french had somewhat buried the sharper end of their hatchet, (pun intended), but enterprising soon-to-be and supremely ambitious americans like benedict arnold had the notion that french canadian farmers, having the bitter taste of the short end of the seven years war stick, would eagerly greet invading american soldiers as liberators (where have i heard that notion before?) and even more eagerly take up arms against the british and join the revolutionary cause, making it that much more compelling for the french to rejoin their barely settled fray with the english on our behalf as well. (oh, how geopolitics makes for the strangest of both real and imaginary bedfellows). or at least that was the rationale...
as we all (hopefully) already know, the continental army was formed upon the success of the massachusetts militia's stunning military defeat of the british army at concord on the 19th of april, for the express purpose of forming a new north american nation free of european meddling and control. however, its impotence being proved by its inability to dislodge the british from their bastion in boston despite a full and protracted summer siege, the continental army, and it's commander-in-chief, george washington, was in dire need of options and traction against the greatest standing army and sailing navy in the world. (it being only a matter of time before king george got around to sending a few frigates loaded with grenadiers to smash up all the colonial toys before they had been properly played with). so enter benedict arnold and major general philip schuyler, with what has to be one of the least-well-thought-out plans for a military campaign ever concocted, that, even so, came within a hairs' breadth of success to none of their credit. first of all, phil schuyler was too frail to even make the complete journey, let alone lead any potential fight, so brigadier general richard montgomery was put in his place to lead the first prong of the attack, up the hudson from ticonderoga, to take the forts at st johns and montreal on his way to quebec. (city, not province--this was all still "new france"). arnold was added as insurance at the head of a second expedition, this time so daft as to start its wandering through the wilds of maine in late october and early november in leaky boats and summer footwear.
montgomery, to his lasting credit, managed his expedition well. he floated up river from ticonderoga in late august, and after several embarrassing keystone kops forays towards the fortifications at st johns under the direction of schuyler, he instead relied upon the suggestion of one of his in-laws to start sharpening his sword on the lightly-defended fort chambly down the river apiece. with a couple cannon he knocked holes in the walls and down the chimney of the main building there, so the british commander was forced to promptly surrender his 83 men and 6 tons of gunpowder. guy carleton, who we shall be hearing from a bit later, tried to reenforce st johns with a canadian foray down from montreal, but was turned back at the st lawrence, and his message of hope to the british garrison intercepted. without hope of relief, and beset by a superior american siege force, st johns was surrendered with full military honors on november 3rd. (pay attention to the dates, because the calendar turns cold up north).
yep, it was snowing in earnest now, and the otherwise short trip up to montreal was hindered by some not inconsiderable weather, though not so much that the surrender of the city couldn't be negotiated and concluded without a shot by november 13th. guy carleton and the defenders of what would become canada got away by ship up towards quebec, but on the 19th, to montgomery's last military credit, the flotilla was intercepted, though carleton was intrepid enough as to escape on foot, and given the time to beat it post haste up to the walled city to the north. the continentals were only so happy to have the free ride (via the captured ships) up the river, but, as was apparently their nature, only so motivated to do so after a couple weeks of sitting around talking about it. about 18 miles from quebec, at pointe aux trembles, on november 28th, montgomery met up with arnold, and all the players were finally upon the stage.
arnold, dilettante that he was, had mistaken the challenge of navigating an expeditionary force up through the wilds of maine to the most extreme degrees possible, including erring on the estimated distance (he though it was less than 200 miles, though it was really more than 400) and bringing all the wrong sorts of (leaky) boats which were incapable of successfully navigating the challenging waters of the kennebec and chaudiere rivers. his authorized force of 1100, including daniel morgan and his virginia riflemen, through both death and desertion, was down to 600 starving wretches by the time it arrived upon the plains of abraham before the gates of quebec on november 14th. yes, november 14th, a full two weeks before meeting up with montgomery 18 miles south--arnold sent one of his guys under a white flag to demand (i said DEMAND) the surrender of the city, an effort which was, i'm sure, laughed at quite thoroughly from behind the walls. without cannon, and barely being able to maneuver in the snow, arnold panicked upon word of a planned canadian sortie from behind the cozy warm and well-fed walls, and retreated back down the river to wait to meet up with montgomery and his boats at pointe aux trembles.
montgomery, to his credit, though he had taken his sweet time doing it, had the foresight to bring along captured british winter clothing, which had been something arnold, in all his late october haste, had neglected to plan to bring with him. so in early december, the two commanders put their heads together, and tried to figure out how to get barely over 1000 combined troops over some very well-constructed and defended city walls to accomplish their goal. the first step seemed perfectly logical--to move the boys back down the river and up toward the city gates and take siege positions on the plains of abraham.
"the plains of abraham" is perhaps one of the most poetic battlefield names to be found anywhere in the world, and their sight is no less stirring. risen from the mile-wide st lawrence river adjacent to the walled city on the promontory, they're at the peak of a remarkable miles-long cliff face, and flat leading up to the city gates in a way to make any advance both obvious and mortally beautiful. the americans had enlisted the aid of a sympathetic frenchman near trois rivieres, cristophe pelissier, who coincidentally owned an iron works at which munitions could be fabricated for the siege. (he, unfortunately for himself, chose to back the wrong pair of horse asses, so had to flee canada upon the failure of the expedition). well armed and full of themselves, arnold and montgomery planned their next move. they were admonished by pelissier not to expect help from the locals without first sacking the provincial capital, (the french bureaucrats, let alone the english military administrators, had a well-proven habit of misusing the french canadians that suggested severe punishment for speaking or acting out of turn, so le quebecois were never ones to be of such ill-judgment to risk their necks on a couple of american political speculators, which should have been such american political speculators' next clue, but, well, they were exceptional americans weren't they, and bent on success, so there you have that much), so they ordered up a siege engineer and got to "work".
"work" in this case consisted of a couple of decidedly unfit-for-the-task mortars, and a shelling of the city that commenced on december 9th. these mortars hardly defaced the walls, let alone damaged them, and by all accounts the locals snug inside were hardly bothered by even the noise. (and again, i'm sure, they all had a good laugh). on the 15th, the brain trust figured they should roll a couple cannons a bit closer to the walls for a more proper bombardment to make the next "demand" for surrender a bit more toothsome, but a couple english batteries on the ramparts chased the american guns within minutes, and i'm sure there was even more laughing to be had at the quebec pubs that night. how anyone without siege guns expected to defeat a walled city in 1775 i have no idea, but montgomery and arnold were not discouraged, and they hatched their final and fateful plan for a frontal assault.
like wade boggs belief that he could will himself to be invisible, montgomery and arnold's master plan was based on their presumption of invisibility to the city defenders if they were to attack at night. of course, in order to be able to coordinate a two-pronged assault in the dark, the masterminds further determined that they should communicate with each other via rocket flares. yep, no joke. the surprise attack was to be coordinated via the firing of rockets. the weather not being bad enough for their satisfaction on the 27th of december, they waited for a better snowstorm, which they finally got on new year's eve, december 31st, 1775.
the original plan for arnold to attack the bastion at the top of the city was scrapped because a deserter was assumed to have spilled the beans, so the new and improved plan was for arnold to run his men completely around the walls on the north, to meet montgomery who was to run his men completely around the walls to the south, and for them all to meet at the lower city gates on the far eastern side to force their way in from the bottom. (running at the walls at the top was obvious suicide, even to them). having now been there myself to see the amount of space between the walls atop the promontory and the narrow strip of ground that runs around three sides of the city, which is to say, hardly 50 yards of width, and so much like the layout at thermopylae as to give anyone with even the slightest exposure to military history hives, i cannot even imagine how arrogant these commanders must have been. but so the assault was ordered, and so history has been written.
arnold had the furthest distance to travel, so his was the side to send the flares when he came into place, the firing of which awoke guy carleton and gave him time to rouse 49 other locals to run down to the barricades at the lowest gate to the city to see what might be up. to guy's amazement, what was up was montgomery's force of 500 having sawed through the first two of three sets of obstacles on the lowest street (still the oldest in the city, and i'll tell you about the restaurants there in another post, because they're amazing) and approaching the third, defended by only 15 men, to see what might be done about it. without waiting to find out, guy ordered the grapeshot loaded, and he stood incredulous, to see the american general and his captains (including john macpherson and jacob cheesman, who both bought it with their commanding officer, as well as the one and only aaron burr himself who didn't) marching straight up to his fortifications to check them out. when they were about 50 yards out, carleton ordered the cannons fired along with a musket volley for good measure, and he killed the three aforementioned of them on the spot, and sent the others running. and he couldn't have missed--we're talking a straight shot down a straight street walled by masonry on both sides so that anything stray would be deflected back down the middle anyway. like ducks in a gallery, or fish in a barrel.
colonel donald campbell, now senior in command of that contingent of continentals, like aaron burr and the other captains hightailing it down the street, immediately turned the tail of the entire force and ran, though still outnumbering the defenders a good 30 to 1, and being within mere yards of everything they had treked hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of lives to win. (he even left montgomery's body behind in the street where it had fallen, to be later buried by the british). the markers where guy carleton and his 50 men organized the defense of all of canada against overwhelming odds stand now on the very spot, though you have to really work to find them, existing as they do on a narrow strip of land now occupied by a four-lane thoroughfare. (i'll talk more about the difficulty of canadian vs the ease of american historical commemoration in another post, but it's a stark contrast for sure). but lets get back to benedict arnold and the other half of the assault, shall we?
after having fired his flares, it still took some time for benny to pick his way around the swampy land to the northerly gate across from which montgomery's force had been turned away at the southerly one just moments before. being no fools, the 50 canadians assembled in the lower town had figured this group of 500 americans wouldn't be so both stupid and cowardly as the first, so they dispersed back up the cobble-streeted hill to take defensive positions in the stone and fortified houses above, where they could better defend themselves in a guerrilla style street battle. arnold took the virtually un-returnable fire from the canadian positions above to indicate he should press on his attack rather than retreat, so he and the americans began an improbable advance up through the city streets, from block to block, and house to house, towards their goal of occupying the main offices of the government and thereby "conquering" canada. unfortunately for arnold, or fortunately if you regard the ultimate defeat, he was hit in the ankle at the first blockhouse and found it impossible to proceed with his men any further, and withdrew, as could be calculated from future stories of his "generalship", from the field.
so now we come to daniel morgan, who, aside from guy carleton who gets huge props for turning aside an assault of 1000 men with merely 50, is my personal hero of the piece.
daniel morgan was dispatched by washington along with arnold up through the wilds of maine, and he and his group of virginia riflemen remained steadfast in their soldiering at every step along the way. equipped with rifles vastly superior to the usual colonial muskets, they were a formidable force in the open country, but proved themselves to be some of the bravest and most capable even in the close engagements of a house-to-house city battle. without arnold, and without the other half of the force calculated necessary to take the city, morgan led the remaining handful of americans forward to accomplish the mission despite every odds. he took the blockhouse from which arnold had received his wound, and more up the hill toward the upper city. he forced the local defenders back at every turn, but was eventually stopped by the two most important features of the overnight battle--the absence of the idiot who had ordered it, and the snow in which he had done so. morgan's knowledge of the battle plan was to meet montgomery before proceeding up the hill to sack the governmental offices, and he was now stuck between that rock, and the hard place of having no more dry powder with which for his men to fire their weapons. all he could figure was to stand in dry corners and wait, both for his compatriots, as well as the drying of his powder. alone with a company of his men, he was mere blocks from the top of the hill, and everything the expedition had set out to accomplish.
guy carleton had stood with 50 canadians to kill or wound all the american generals, turn aside half of the assaulting force, and slow morgan down on his climb up through the city streets. it was heroism rarely seen in this world, and it proved to be just barely enough. with morgan almost within literal sight of the prize, and possessed of newly-dried powder with which to resume the fight, the british army finally decided to get out of bed, and see what was afoot. instead of meeting a superior force in possession of all the seats of power in the city and negotiating with the locals to join them in revolt against the crown, they met rumors of a few dozen determined american soldiers lost in the streets of the city, and a lower city gate easily locked to prevent any escape for the rest who had entered. the 500 british did just that, and after all the other colonials had given up, morgan and his band were finally forced to surrender.
carleton calculated 30 americans killed and 431 taken prisoner, while arnold had it at 60 killed and 300 captured, against which carleton's records indicated 5 canadians killed and 14 wounded. 10 and 1? i'd say 10 and at the very least 2.
of course, arnold being the jerkface he was, he refused to quit the plains of abraham with montgomery's force of which he was only too happy to take command having lost his entire own, claiming somehow that this proved he had not been defeated. outnumbered 3 to 1 by this time, and freezing to literal death on the plain while the canadians and british slept snug and well-fed inside the city walls, he maintained this "siege" for months in the face of carleton's indifference. (carleton, being canadian, had the luxury of learning from past french and english mistakes not to leave the walls to sortie against folks on the open plains, so simply resolved not to do what he didn't have to do). in early may, after arnold had thoughtfully been relieved by washington, and after english ships bearing hundreds of fresh troops had arrived to reinforce and restock the city, the colonials finally decided to beat their final tail-between-their-legs retreat. their general by that time, john thomas, himself also was felled like so many of his soldiers by smallpox, so there really wasn't much of a command structure in place when carleton and his fresh british forces came out from the gates in the better spring weather to clean up the mess at their doorstep. and carleton didn't stop until he had kicked american ass all the way back down to fort ticonderoga where the whole sorry mess had begun.
so much for "greeted as liberators" huh?