THROWBACK THURSDAY & DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE PRESENTS: Spotlight on an Original Dirtbag: Patriots Dirtbaggin thru Maine. by Taz Riggs

{EDITOR: Each month we bring you a story from our history of people who laid the groundwork for the lives we lead today. Here in Murica, all is possible because of the sacrifices made by the patriots of the Revolution 240 odd years ago. Celebrating Maine in May, we invite you along as Benedict Arnold and the boys send it on some classic Maine rivers, and in the process shed new light on this famous villain…. Before he turned “bad.” He was in reality one of the greatest patriot warriors, and a complex man. Enjoy!}
History is a cloth, a pretty piece of fabric. That is, as we know it, or as it is taught to us. It’s bright shiny and soft. But, as we look more closely we can see that there are actually colorful, slick, silken threads and fluffy, fuzzy chenille interwoven with the basic structure of hempen burlap truth. Truth is coarse, unattractive and uncomfortable when worn against the skin. Yet, it is strong, resilient and everlasting.  ~Taz
Benedict Arnold was a Dirt Bag…no, not that kind of Dirt Bag! He was one of our own, a man of boats and water. Almost everyone who hears his name has only a one word response…traitor. Such a shame, to stop at a one word assessment and never ask, “Who, what, when, where and why?” He was just as our founding fathers, whom we remember with amazing clarity. His business interests were just as theirs, crushed by taxes, tariffs, trade restrictions and ruthless, unchecked creditors.
History would have you stop at that one word if you are unwilling to ask the most basic questions. Facts describe a bold, brave, competent and committed leader. He risked his comfort and safety, his fortune, life, limb for the cause of freedom and liberty. The men under his command followed him again and again into battle and victory, convinced of his tactical skills and tenacity. Some of us who live close to the places of his exploits are aware of a portion of his successes: Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Saratoga and maybe even Valcour Island, where his nautical and meteorological skills withstood superior forces and firepower. There, as in so many actions of the Revolution, simply to survive was the key to ultimate success.
Arnold was a man of boats and water. As a merchant, waterways were the super highways of his time. He was adept and knowledgeable of every water-craft he stepped aboard. Schooners, sloops, ketches and yawls were his trucks at sea and along coastal waterways. Barges, Durham boats, batteaux and even canoes were at his command inland, on rivers and lakes. Whether by sail, oar, paddle or pole, water was his second home.
 Here in the month of May, I want to shine a spotlight on one of his most heroic endeavors. Through the wilderness of Maine, upstream along the Kennebec River, overland to the Dead river, to avoid the rapids and falls in the area of the confluence, upstream again to cross a mountain divide and down the Chaudiere River to take Quebec City on the high banks of the St. Lawrence River. The goal was to offer the French inhabitants the opportunity to reject British rule and join the Americans as the 14th of the United Colonies.
Over 1,000 men set out to endure the hardships visited on them. Those trials included: leaking, hastily built boats made of green wood; the upstream travel and portages wore strenuous to the extreme; hostile natives were always a possibility; day after day of driving rain; a tornado; floods; sleet; snow; disease; malnutrition and the abandonment By his line of supply, leaving him and his men nowhere to go but forward in hopes of survival. Turning back, at that point, was not an option.
Traitor, you say? Congress, would be my educated response. But, this is not intended to be a political rant. Never mind that history does repeat itself and that it’s a strong statement that his will requested he be buried in the Continental uniform he wore while serving the American cause.
History is history. Politics is politics…and Wallace is Wallace.
Benedict Arnold lived in a time when reputation counted as much or more than anything a man could acquire in his lifetime. His motivation in joining the movement was the same as the great majority of the founding fathers; freedom from arbitrary laws and taxes that hampered his abilities to advance his business interests and financial security. The risk in doing so was apparent, but the rewards would benefit not only himself but generations to follow. He put forth his reputation, his fortune, his life and limb repeatedly during his military career, for the cause of liberty.
He was a merchant by trade and water was the super highway of the day. Selling, shipping, buying, the bulk of the industry traveled by some type of water in some kind of boat at some point. He was familiar with all of them.
In September of 1775, after less than a month of preparation, Arnold gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts 1,050 patriots for one of the most epic expeditions of the American Revolution. By Sept. 20th, the men reached Gardinerston, Maine, having traveled in eleven assorted vessels; sloops, ketches and yawls. Seas were rough and when moving to channels within the sea islands some were temporarily lost and a couple were grounded in mud.
In Gardinerston they picked up enough supplies for the men to last a projected 45 days. They were also to receive delivery of 200 batteaux. These are generally long and flat boats, 18-24 ft. in length that can be maneuvered with sweep oars, oar, poles, even paddles or sails to assist. They were built flat-bottomed and relativity light for river travel and could carry a sufficient load of cargo and crew, as well as being able to be lifted and carried during portages around rapids and heights of land. The shipbuilder had worked furiously to get the boats out on time; unfortunately, a great number of the boats were made of green wood and were not expected to make the journey. If there was any consolation at least Arnold had the foresight to contract carpenters and boat builders, as they were kept busy throughout the venture.
With so many boats and cargo, Arnold split them up into four groups to avoid backups at the expected portages. The first group logically consisted of backwoodsmen from Virginia and Pennsylvania commanded by the intrepid Daniel Morgan. They were rough, rowdy, and usually ready to drink or fight, but they would be the fastest moving and best suited to living off the land in front of them. They would scout the way, determine portage routes and clear them for the boats to pass. The fourth group was to be the ultimate support after leaving the last signs of settlement by whites. The commander was in a large birch bark canoe, giving him the speed and mobility to oversee as much as possible. On board were Native Americans to guide and paddle. Unfortunately the canoe got a hole and began leaking so badly it couldn’t be repaired and they switched to a dugout, perhaps better suited for dealing with rocks.
By October 2, Arnold had traveled for three days to reach the leading column. There the Kennebec towered before him, falling more than 90 ft. over a series of cascades known as Norridgewook Falls. This was the edge of civilization and some serious reckoning was needed. Boats were beginning to wear out and break up due to poor construction and inept handling of the crews in rapids and on carries. Much needed food, tents, blankets and ammunition was being lost to and ruined by the river. It took three days to prepare for the portage and repair what boats they could,  while Morgan and his men went on to find the Great Carrying Place, an essentially 12 mile portage through swamps and small lakes in order to avoid a stretch of impassable rapids before the Dead meets the Kennebec. Even before the portage was complete, it began to rain. Arnold encouraged his men, telling them that they were more than a third of the way, a miscalculation based on scant and faulty information. He also at this time considered turning back, as spreading sickness was beginning to join his other problems. He constructed a makeshift hospital to care for the ill and injured at present and to act in support in case withdrawing was necessary.
After Ticonderoga, and in spite of the recognition for cooperating with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys to take the fort, he was passed over for promotion and was not reimbursed for the expenses he incurred. His honor had been smudged by Congress and Allen himself for wanting sole credit. Abandoning the desire for success was not an option. The columns continued to move forward.
And it rained… 
… and it rained.
 The twelve mile traverse over the Great Carrying Place was a series of ponds separated by low lying land, with bogs and swamps in between. Five days of rain had turned the land into a quagmire of deep sticky mud, laced with downed and sunken trees. Under ideal conditions the distance could easily been covered in a day by the 1,000 troops. To give the task some perspective, it took four weeks to get all four divisions to the Dead River. The effort took its toll on the boats and supplies, not to mention the soldiers themselves. Game was available and trout plentiful, but without basic foodstuffs such as flour and rice, ruined in the rain and muck, food was beginning to be a great concern and half rations were soon in effect. If that were not enough, it became hard for many to keep the food in, as they were vomiting and suffered from diarrhea due to the only water available, which was brackish, steeped in tannins from the decaying forest.
The Dead had risen three feet during the portage due to the rains. Yet, no sooner had they reassembled and prepared to move upstream it started sleeting and snowing steadily. Then came driving and incessant rain again, possibly brought by an off-shore hurricane. As the rain receded the river rose more. On October 21, the river was in full flood over-night, having come up another eight feet, trapping them on a high point of land, now surrounded by raging water on all sides. They had planned on reaching Quebec City by this time, but had not covered half the distance. Provisions were nearly gone, and game and fish were not to be found because of the extreme rains. They were almost sunk and quite nearly lost.
The next day they moved on, sometimes pulling on reeds and limbs in order to inch forward. For more than two hours a number of troops and boats followed a swollen tributary, mistaking it for the main channel. Arnold traveled that day with a group of batteaux. On arriving at another set of rapids to be portaged, eight of the boats were capsized in the strong currents, scattering them and their contents downstream. Fortunately, there were no lives lost in the mishap, but their situation each day was becoming more critical. In a council that night he informed his subordinates that they had reached the point of no return and that their only salvation lay in front of them. Fifty hand picked men were selected to forge ahead to the Chaudiere River, to Sartigan and the French inhabitants to procure food and to set up a supply line to the struggling army.
Then came an unexpected variable from the back of the line. The fourth division had stayed at the Great Carrying Place for several days before advancing. Their commanders came forward to appeal to Nathanael Greene and his subordinates to turn back with them. Greene and his officers refused to abandon the mission and the men to the front without orders. The next morning a detachment was sent downstream to pick up promised food, only to be severely short changed. The men of the fourth division feared for their own survival. It didn’t help watching broken boats and spoiled provisions float past, nor the almost constant stream of invalids, sick and injured, that came from upstream.
On their return to Cambridge, Washington had their commander arrested and brought before a board of inquiry. The defection of one quarter of the total could spell disaster for all even before they made their destination and ultimately was probably the biggest factor in the failure after making Quebec City. Yet amazingly, he was acquitted with honors, as there was no one to testify to the direct affect to those that were left behind; they were still slogging and dripping through the Maine wilderness. Testimony of subordinate officers painted a picture of heroism that preserved the men that had turned back.
By the time Arnold had received the information he was already looking at the height of land to be overcome. It was getting colder and it began to snow again, covering the rocky pass with ice and snow. Those men in the advance took a beating as did their batteaux, slipping and falling on the icy route. The mad dash paid off though and soon food and supplies were beginning to arrive for the beleaguered troops.
It took three days for all the men and what boats would survive the height of land dividing them from Canadian waters. The first move after clearing the rocky slopes was a small but swift water known as Seven Mile Stream. The stream does encounter the Lake Magantic which is the headwaters of the Chaudiere River. If the over-land trail at the Great Carrying Place was to become a bog with rain, this portage must have been worse as it became known as the Terrible Carrying Place. Before entering the lake the waters again had to pass through an insufferable bog where water was braided and lost among the trees and mud. Men were starving daily, and transportation by boats was quickly unavailable to a majority. An overland route was established and word was sent back to the troops that were following to avoid the swamps, yet one division was led directly into the muck, costing precious time and energy.
 Arnold pressed ahead with his soul mission: to save the men that had done more than just survive at this point. As they moved downstream along the Chaudiere, they did enjoy a quicker pace to the current. But on the other hand most of their battle with rivers had been moving against the current and not much with it. Not only was the river fast, it was also full of rocks in the current. Reaching the first set of rapids to be portaged, four of the boats were lost and smashed by the river, again, sending their cargo downstream. 
 Arnold then divided his force, going with the river party and sending the others by foot. Food and supplies were beginning to arrive, coming upstream from advance parties: numbers of cattle for slaughter, flour, rice, coffee and tobacco. Though the food was quickly devoured, it was a definite force behind the will to move forward. As food continued to move up the river, men continued onward, setting up depots for the men coming from behind. The commander still advanced in order to get clothing, blankets, shoes and other pressing needs for his men. He had no credit or funds provided from Congress. He took from his personal operating funds to help in any way that he could, then went back out to help his men where he could.
 Benedict had started out with faulty information about the terrain and the distance to be traveled. The planning phase for this wilderness expedition was less than four weeks. They forged ahead into late fall and got far more than they ever imagined in the way of weather; hurricane force rain for days; sleet and wind driven snow and floods of epic proportions. Both the boats and the men who ran them were of dubious capabilities. The number of men that survived and the number of boats that did not is amazing. Fewer than ten percent of the boats made it. Starting out with 1,100 men and 200 batteaux, subtracting the 300 men that retreated with the fourth division and their boats, Arnold arrived in Ste. Marie with 650 men. Disease and malnutrition were likely the most common causes of death. Add to that the traumatic deaths and drowning, and it is pretty impressive that they had arrived with that number. But, it wasn’t enough to challenge the walls of Quebec and they would have to wait for reinforcements from Montreal where military success was a reality. The element of surprise was long gone, surviving into the winter became the challenge… and the waiting. Attempts to take the city only netted loses; even Arnold suffered a severe wound.
 To have even arrived in sight of Quebec City by the route that they had taken was absolutely Hannibalian. Unknown to him, Arnold’s effort had won the attention of Congress, who awarded him a commission as a Brigadier General. His will to survive was not for military gain, political nor financial goals, but for the men who had endured. In his words these “brave men” risked all while they “were in want of everything but stout hearts.” He also expressed that the column was “inspired and fired with the love of liberty and their country,” and had survived “a march…not to be paralleled in history.”
Ultimately Quebec City was not taken, though Arnold was convinced that had they arrived ten days earlier, before the British were reinforced, the task would have been easy. The fact still remains that they had reckoned with the wilderness and it’s waters and come out the other side. If you’re on these rivers this summer or ever have or will be, try to think about what it would mean to go against the current…
…In so many ways.
 

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