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Around this time of year we here in Maine start getting those stories from the media, first, quoting all kinds of experts who say things like: The coming winter could be one of the coldest in recent memory. Then will come - as night follows day - the flurry of stories about how the price of home heating oil rises as temperatures drop, and with the rise in oil prices comes the rise in the cost of firewood. Somehow, Mainers manage to survive it all and will often chuckle about such foolishness come spring.
When I hear such stories - being a history buff - I often think of the harsh winter of 1775 - the year Col. Benedict Arnold led a band of soldiers through the Maine wilderness with the idea of conquering the city of Quebec. For some reason Americans at that time were convinced that the Canadians couldn't wait to join us Americans in our fight against the Brits.
Whenever the name Benedict Arnold comes up the first thing one thinks of is “traitor!” Betraying one's country has never been considered a good career move - just ask Col. Arnold. (OK, I know that you can't “literally” ask Benedict Arnold anything, much less about his ill-advised decision to betray his country during our War for Independence. And even if you found yourself somehow able to quiz him, I'm sure he'd get a tad testy if you decided to broach the subjects of betrayal or treachery.)
Before he decided to go over to the dark side and fight for the Brits, Col Arnold was one of George Washington's bravest and most decorated officers. It was Arnold's impressive record that led Washington to assign him the task of planning and staging a surprise attack on Quebec, the most heavily fortified city in North America. I know: What was Gen. Washington thinking?
The reason we in Maine know more than your average American about Benedict Arnold is because he began that most notorious campaign right here in the Pine Tree State. It turned out to be one of the most disastrous campaigns of the Revolution.
Hey, you can't pick your relatives, and neither can you pick the Revolutionary War events that occur in your home state. Not every state can have a Valley Forge or a Yorktown or a Bunker Hill within its borders.
They say one of very many problems with Arnold's march on Quebec was that he started in Maine in the fall when the leaves were beginning to drop and the temperatures were doing the same. The Quebec campaign began splendidly as Arnold and his men left Newburyport, Mass., in mid-September and headed for Fort Western (now Augusta) on the Kennebec. There they were provided with more than 200 green, freshly built bateaux, or riverboats, that, despite their name, proved no match for the swirling, dangerous waters of the upper-Kennebec. Because the bateaux were built with green lumber many of them sank at the river's edge as soon as they were loaded with heavy supplies.
With diminished provisions the men were soon driven to eat their dogs, shoes and even candles and shaving soap.
As we Mainers know the weather can often plague any out-door activity and Arnold's march on Quebec was not immune. A classic Nor'easter, a hurricane and even early autumn snows struck Arnold's men. Less than four weeks into the campaign Lt. Col. Roger Enos bailed out with half the party's men, taking much of their food with them.
When the battle for Quebec ended the walled city remained in British hands.
So, bring on those stories about the coldest winter ever and the rising cost of heating oil and firewood. As a student of history I know we're in pretty good shape compared to some who have experienced a Maine winter.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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