Construing Congress’s Hasty, Ill-fated 1775 Decision to Invade Canada

Critical Thinking

May 21, 2024
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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Just sixty days after the start of armed hostilities at Lexington Green, the Continental Congress’s decision to invade Canada resulted in one of the worst defeats in the War for Independence.[1] While exact casualty figures are difficult to discern, likely half of the American forces sent north were killed in battle, wounded, captured, or died of disease.[2] The attacking Rebel Army retreated disease-ridden and in disarray, resulting in the Northern Army’s combat ineffectiveness. Before the invasion, the Canadians did not firmly commit to open hostilities against British rule or even send delegates to the First or Second Continental Congresses. Why did a newly formed Congress authorize an invasion of the rebellion-reticent Canada?

Historians posit several explanations for the Rebel offensive, such as the initial expression of manifest destiny,[3] the first in a long line of American wars of liberation,[4] or a rage militaire overcoming sagacious Congressional judgment.[5] While these reasons place the Canadian incursion decision in an insightful historical context, they look backward using information from subsequent eras and perspectives. A forward look at the period’s events, from the outbreak of combat to Congress’s invasion order, reveals a series of misjudgments based upon faulty intelligence, overestimating threats, a lack of strategic military foresight, and insufficient Congressional control over the military.

The decision to invade Canada occurred in June 1775 during the initial formation of the Continental Army and the selection of George Washington as its commander-in-chief. Initially, a cautious Congress appeared to act defensively. Alarmed by the news that a motley amalgamation of unsanctioned rebels took offensive actions to capture Fort Ticonderoga and other British military installations on Lake Champlain, the Second Continental Congress ordered on June 1, 1775: “that no expedition or incursion ought to be undertaken or made by any Colony or body of Colonists against or into Canada.”[6] However, just twenty-six days later, the momentous decision-making Congress reversed its position and ordered the just-formed Continental Army to invade peaceful, non-rebelling Canada. Congress authorized Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, the newly appointed Continental Army’s Northern commander, to invade Quebec if “it would not be disagreeable to the Canadians.”[7] Congress was so hurried to have its wishes executed that John Hancock, its President, bypassed commander-in-chief George Washington, issuing the discretionary invasion orders directly to Schuyler. Most historians characterize the subsequent Canadian invasion as a debacle and one of the worst decisions made by the Continental Congress.[8] What caused Congress to reverse itself and quickly make such a decisive and disastrous decision?

The same day the Second Continental Congress convened, May 10, 1775, a force of less than one hundred militia led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold assaulted and seized Fort Ticonderoga, a post that guarded a strategic position on Lake Champlain; another post at Crown Point was seized in the following days. Congress received Massachusetts Militia Col. John Brown’s letter describing the daring early morning capture eight days later. In addition, Brown’s report raised the specter that the British “planned an attack led by St. Luc le Corne, the notorious villain who let loose the Indians on the prisoners at Fort William Henry, and one of his associates.”[9]

There was a divergence of opinions as to the best course of action. Some Congressional members, afraid of taking offensive action, wanted to give the posts back to the British; others sought to move the captured arms and ammunition southward to guard against a British counterattack, while several members wished to reinforce the Lake Champlain forts as a bulwark against British attack. A timid Congress ordered cannon and ammunition moved south to Albany for safekeeping.[10]

While deliberating the next steps, Congress sent a letter to the Canadians stating, “We are your friends, not your enemies.”[11] The New York Provincial Congress agreed, ordering a committee to draft a letter to the Canadians “to convince them that nothing hostile is intended against their persons, liberty, or property.”[12] On May 31, Congress received a letter from Col. Benedict Arnold describing his version of the military situation in the Champlain Valley. Arnold informed Congress that “he had certain intelligence, that on the 19th last there were then four hundred regulars at St. Johns, making all possible preparations to cross the lake, and expected to be joined by a number of Indians, with a design of retaking Crown Point and Ticonderoga and earnestly calling for a reinforcement and supplies.”[13] Arnold reported success in seizing the seventy-ton British sloop at St. Johns, thereby ending the immediate threat to Fort Ticonderoga. As a result, Congress rescinded its order to move all cannon and ammunition south, only transferring to Albany those deemed surplus. As the New York Provincial Congress was slow to dispatch troops to reinforce the Champlain Valley, Congress ordered Connecticut to send one thousand men to reinforce Ft. Ticonderoga’s garrison. Also, Congress ordered New York to prepare vessels to defend the lake against British attack from Canada.[14]

As Congress moved to defend Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, the delegates voted to make it clear to the Canadians that they had no intention of invading their province. “Resolved, That no expedition or incursion ought to be undertaken or made by any Colony or body of Colonists against or into Canada; and that his Resolve be immediately transmitted to the Commander of the Forces at Ticonderoga.”[15] While the resolution was unequivocal, the debate continued on the question of invading Canada to thwart British or Native American threats to Northern New York and New England. In a June 7 letter to James Warren, John Adams reported, “But whether we should march into Canada with an Army Sufficient to break the Power of Governor Carlton, to overawe the Indians, and to protect the French has been a great Question.”[16] Demonstrating concern, the Massachusetts assembly wrote to Congress expressing anti-invasion views: “there never has been any intention to give the least disturbance to our brethren of Canada, to whom we most sincerely wish the full and free enjoyment of their civil and religious rights.” Massachusetts asked other New England colonies and New York to express sentiments like those voiced by Congress.[17]

Based upon the provincial congresses’ input, the Continental Congress drafted and sent a letter “to the oppressed inhabitants of Canada,” referring to its residents as “friends and countrymen.” The correspondence stressed that “we are your friends, not your enemies” and to bridge the religious gap, professed “the fate of the Protestant and Catholic Colonies to be strongly linked together.” But the communication contained a threat that if Canadians did injury to the rebelling colonies, it would “reduce us to the disagreeable necessity of treating you as enemies.” It concluded, “We entertain hopes of your uniting with us.”[18] In addition to the threat, Canadians would recognize that the Americans did not back up their amity statements with actions, as Congress prohibited commercial exports to Quebec, which was not an act of friendship.[19]

During June, Congress received military and political intelligence from leaders in the Champlain Valley, indicating receptive Canadians and weak British garrisons. Informal Green Mountain Boy leader Ethan Allen wrote from Crown Point to the Continental Congress that the conquest of Canada would be an easy military operation. “Should the Colonies forthwith send an army of two or three thousand men and attack Montreal, we should have but little fear from the Canadians or Indians and would easily make a conquest of the place.” Further, Allen stated that “advancing an army into Canada will be agreeable to our friends.”[20] Col. Benedict Arnold sent a letter to Congress with similar recommendations. As support, Arnold offered that “a great number of the Canadians have expected a visit from us for some time, and are very impatient of our delay, as they are determined to join us whenever we appear in the country with any force to support them.” Arnold supported Allen’s assertion that a small American force would overpower Gov. Guy Carleton’s small garrisons. He concluded with a two-prong invasion plan, which his courier would describe in detail.[21]

On June 25, the newly named commander-in-chief George Washington sent a letter to Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler with orders that he had been named Commander of all New York Department forces, including the Hudson Highlands, Albany, Fort Ticonderoga, and the Champlain Valley. His instructions were strictly defensive: strengthen fortifications, assemble supplies, and gather intelligence. Congress assigned the Connecticut militia garrisoning Fort Ticonderoga and the unofficial New Hampshire Grants militia recently sanctioned as the Green Mountain Boys to Schuyler’s command. The next day, Congress received a June 21st letter from the Albany Committee containing fresh intelligence gathered by Dirck Swart, one of its members. Swart reported disturbing information from a Scottish Canadian timber merchant, Udney Hay.[22] Swart reported that Hay averred that the influential Caughnawagas Indians “have taken up the hatchet” to support the British. Further, Governor Carlton was intimidating English merchants in Montreal to fight for the Crown.[23]

After considering the intelligence and recommendations from Allen, Arnold, and Hay, Congress reversed itself and, on June 27, directed Major General Schuyler to possess St. Johns and Montreal if he found it practical and not disagreeable to the Canadians.[24] In a letter to George Washington the next day, Hancock cited the new intelligence from the Albany Committee of Correspondence as the reason for Congress’s dramatic change in military strategy. Hancock indicated that the orders were delivered directly to Schuyler and not through Washington as delay “might prove Detrimental to the Service.”[25] A day after the Canadian invasion was authorized, Congress received a “number of letters and speeches from the Chiefs of the Stockbridge Indians.” Writing to George Washington, delegate Richard Henry Lee indicated that Congress learned that “the Six Nations and the Canadian Indians are firmly disposed to observe a strict neutrality.” So, if there was no imminent threat of a general Native American uprising against the Rebels, why did Congress authorize the discretionary Canadian invasion?

As opposed to concern over the Indians supporting the British, there is another explanation for Congress’s apparent flip-flop. Upon learning of Fort Ticonderoga’s capture, Congress recognized its lack of authority over the extra-legal Green Mountain Boys and the Massachusetts and Connecticut militias’ unapproved actions in the Champlain Valley (from a Congressional point of view). Congress likely issued its June 1 Canadian invasion prohibition to buttress its authority by banning further unsanctioned actions and not as a definitive statement on military and political strategy. In this manner, Congress established its prerogative to order or not order an invasion, a classic tactic used to assert a nascent political body’s authority. Other evidence includes Congress sending the invasion prohibition directly to the “commander of the Forces at Ticonderoga.”[26]

Further, Congressional delegate John Adams did not believe the June 1 prohibition against offensive actions in Canada was a settled issue. He averred on June 7, “It seems to be the general Conclusion that it is best to go if we can be assured that the Canadians will be pleased with it and join.”[27] However, a “go or no go” invasion decision was impossible on June 1. Beforehand, the Continental Army would have to be created, with the selection of a commander-in-chief, senior generals, and articles of war drafted. It would take Congress most of the month to accomplish these critical requirements before it could return to the Canadian invasion decision.

“An accurate map of Canada, with the adjacent countries: exhibiting the late seat of war between the English & French in those parts,” Richard Seale, 1761. (New York Public Library)

After instituting the requisite military organization and leadership, Congress plowed ahead based on an incoherent understanding of the situation compounded by delegating political control to military leaders. It’s hard to understand why Congress would believe French Canadians (other than a few residents on the border with Vermont) would join the rebellion after their northern neighbors consistently rebuffed overtures to send delegates to the First or Second Continental Congress. Further, congressional members received promising intelligence solely from a few English-speaking merchants who sought to wrest business and political control from the vast French-Canadian majority. Congress expended little effort to inquire about the receptivity of the French speakers, including key community leaders in Quebec. Additionally, the invasion decision did not consider essential military campaign requirements such as funding, supplies, and a replacement Canadian government.[28] Even overcoming these obstacles, little thought went into holding Quebec City and the St. Lawrence Valley, given its openness to seaborne counterattack. Further, Congress ceded civilian control by providing discretion to military leaders as to when and if they invaded Canada. As a result, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold could continue to agitate for an invasion subject only to General Schuyler’s command. All three leaders had vested commercial interests in Canada.

It is understandable why the Continental Congress “looked North” at the rebellion’s outset. Over the prior eighty-seven years, the area between New England and Canada was heavily and continually contested by Native Americans, European empires, and North American colonists in five significant wars: King William’s War (1688-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), King George’s War (1744-1748), Father Le Loutre’s War (1749-1755), and French and Indian War (1754-1763). In an early account of the Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren noted the strong Rebel interest in controlling Canada to secure the colonies’ valuable Western frontiers. “This was important business, as whoever possesses Canada will in a great measure command the numerous tribes beyond the lakes.”[29] While a northern conquest might have seemed natural to existing imperial powers, it is remarkable that an embryonic union of thirteen colonies espousing freedom from metropole control would choose to embark on its expansionist conquest hastily. While costly, the abortive Canadian invasion served a proper purpose. The Continental Congress never again delegated consequential political decisions to the military and retained civilian control over crucial military strategic choices, such as the controversial decision to defend New York City in 1776.


[1] Canada refers more properly to the British-controlled Quebec Province. Canada did not become a country until after the American Revolution. However, as the Continental Congress and many other primary sources refer to the Province of Quebec as Canada, this article will use them interchangeably.

[2] An argument can be made that the Canadian invasion was the deadliest campaign. Mark Mayo Boater estimated that the Rebels left 5,000 casualties in Canada, of which 3,000 were hospital cases. He estimates losses at the 1780 surrender of Charleston to be killed 90, wounded 140, and captured 3,300. Mark Mayo Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Bicentennial ed. (New York: D. McKay Co, 1974), 178. Howard H. Peckham offers similar casualty estimates for the fall of Charleston but also identifies additional losses in preparatory and naval battles fought in the lead-up to the Patriot surrender. Howard H. Peckham, The Toll of Independence: Engagements & Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 68-70. Peckham does not offer an estimate of the number of soldiers who died of disease in Canada, so his estimates of the Canadian invasion are lower than Boatner’s.

[3] Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence Military Attitudes, Policies and Practice, 1763-1789 (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1971), 108.

[4] Mark R. Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774-1776 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2013), 1–2.

[5] Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (New York: Viking, 2012), 244.

[6] Charles Thomson, “Resolve,” Northern Illinois University, American Archives, June 1, 1775,

[7] John Hancock to Philip Schuyler, June 28, 1775, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume I August 1774 to August 1775,

[8] Mark R. Anderson represents the views of many historians by asserting, “The Continental Congress launched a juggernaut that it was unprepared to control, adequately guide, or properly support.” Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony, 348. A minority opinion that the Canadian invasion served useful purposes, worthy of the great expenditure of soldiers and resources, is averred by Kevin Phillips: “The invasion accomplished goals of thwarting and delaying Canada as a base for the invasion of New England, stalling Native American support of the British, minimizing British raids from Canada, keeping New England militia in Boston, and seizing British arms and gunpowder. The Canadian invasion caused Britain to overcommit military resources in Canada.” Phillips, 1775, 462.

[9] John Brown, “Philadelphia, May 22,” Pennsylvania Packet, May 22, 1775.

[10] Continental Congress, “Thursday, May 18, 1775,”

[11] John Dickinson and Thomas Mifflin, trans., “To the Oppressed Inhabitants of Canada,” Journals of the Continental Congress,

[12] New York Congress, “Committee of Correspondence Appointed, and Instructed to Inform the People of Canada That Nothing Hostile Is Intended against Them” (New York, May 26, 1775),

[13] “A Letter from Col. Benedict Arnold, May 23, 1775” (Philadelphia, PA, May 31, 1775), Journals of the Continental Congress,

[14] “Connecticut Delegates to William Williams” (Philadelphia, PA, May 31, 1775),

[15] “Resolve, In Congress, June 1, 1775” (Philadelphia, PA, June 1, 1775),

[16] John Adams to James Warren, June 7, 1775,”

[17] “The Massachusetts Congress to the Continental Congress, June 12, 1775” (Watertown, MA, June 12, 1775),

[18] “A True Copy, Charles Thomson, Secretary, to the Oppressed Inhabitants of Canada,” Pennsylvania Packet, June 19, 1775.

[19] Continental Congress, “Wednesday, May 17, 1775” (Philadelphia, PA, May 17, 1775),

[20] Ethan Allen and John J. Duffy, Ethan Allen and His Kin: Correspondence, 1772-1819 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), 1:32.

[21] “Benedict Arnold to the Continental Congress” (Crown Point, NY, June 13, 1775),

[22] While this report is “hear say,” Udney Hay ably served the Continental Army for the war’s duration. Walter H. Crockett, “Soldiers of the Revolution Buried in Vermont, and Anecdotes and Incidents Relating to Some of Them,” Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society 1901–2 (1903): 102–6.

[23] Dirck Swart, “Letter from the Albany Committee of Correspondence to the Continental Congress, June 21, 175,” in Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence 1775-1778, ed. James Sullivan, vol. I (Albany, NY: New York State Division of Archives and History, 1923), 93.

[24] Continental Congress, “Tuesday, June 27, 1775” (Philadelphia, PA, June 27, 1775),

[25] “Letter from John Hancock to George Washington, June 28, 1775” (Philadelphia, PA, June 28, 1775),

[26] Thomson, “Resolve,” June 1, 1775.

[27] Adams to Warren, June 7, 1775,”

[28] For a deeper perspective on Congress’s failings, see Anderson, The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony, 345–53.

[29] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Interpreted with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations (Boston: E. Larkin, 1805), 1:141.


  • Gene,

    Fascinating look at Congressional decision-making and some of the constraints it operated under when trying to set strategy. Thanks for the article.

    1. Eric, I appreciate the positive feedback, especially given your extensive Congressional and national security expertise.

  • Thank you for this article, Gene. It brought up some interesting and important points that I normally do not touch on in my more localized view of the 1775 Canadian invasion. I suspect I will be utilizing some of them in the future — with proper credit, of course. Well done.

  • Eugene, an excellent and enlightening article, thanks. What you also show here is a Congress that was being forced to transition from being a policy collaboration and coordination grouop to something more akin to an actual government — with ambiguous authority.

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