Ten Causes of the Miscarriages in Canada: Why the 1775–1776 Invasion Failed

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 2, 2024
by Mark R. Anderson Also by this Author


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The once-promising Continental invasion of Canada was clearly headed for disaster by May 1776. With British forces chasing the American Army out of the Province of Quebec, Continental leaders started grappling with the fact that their ten-month strategic offensive in the north had failed. Canada would not be joining the Continental Congress as a fourteenth colony, and the northern frontiers would once again be at risk of attack.

Attack on Quebec. (New York Public Library)

Given the magnitude of the Canadian disaster, and its strategic repercussions, Congress set out to find the reasons for this catastrophe. On June 21, it directed Gen. George Washington “to order an enquiry . . . into the causes of the miscarriages in Canada,” and report his findings back to Philadelphia. Then three days later, perhaps recognizing that contributing problems might lie outside the army, Congress appointed its own “Committee to enquire into the cause of the miscarriages in Canada.”[1]

Committee member William Whipple reflected the general hope that “a full investigation of the Causes will enable us in some measure to avoid the like in future.” Yet six weeks later, when the committee presented its report on July 30, Congress only identified three “great causes” for the Canadian disaster: short enlistments, the want of hard money, and smallpox. While these were undoubtedly contributing factors, they did not get to the root of the campaign’s misfortunes. Congress’s “great causes” were, however, politically palatable and non-controversial at a time when the new nation was facing increasingly dire circumstances, less than a month into independence. Historical and strategic analysis suggests at least ten key “causes of the miscarriages in Canada,” many of them interconnected.[2]

1. Short enlistments

“The short inlistments of the continental troops, in Canada, have been one great cause of the miscarriages there, by rendering unstable the number of men engaged in military enterprizes, by making them disorderly and disobedient to their officers, and by precipitating the commanding officers into measures, which their prudence might have postponed, could they have relied on a longer continuance of their troops in service.”—Continental Congress, July 30, 1776

This was all true. Brig. Gen. Richard Montgomery’s 1775 army effectively disbanded after the mid-November capture of Montreal—enlistments expired by year’s end. He persuaded a few hundred to reenlist through April. Then, when the general joined Benedict Arnold outside Quebec City, he found many of the men there were also itching to return home when enlistments expired at year’s end. This was a key motivation behind Montgomery’s fatal decision to storm Quebec City on the last day of 1775. Montgomery’s successor, Brig. Gen. David Wooster, faced the enlistment problem again in April, when the winter soldiers’ enlistments expired. The army was never stable.[3]

2. Want of Hard Money

“The want of hard money has been one other great source of the miscarriages in Canada, rendering the supplies of necessaries difficult and precarious, the establishment of proper magazines absolutely impracticable, and the pay of the troops of little use to them.”—Continental Congress, July 30, 1776

The army quickly ran out of gold and silver coin. New war chests were inadequate, and late to arrive. Canadian-Patriot lending was the only thing that gave any semblance of financial support for much of the campaign. Canadians also had a traditional distrust of paper money. They were extremely reluctant to take Continental dollars, forcing desperate commanders to impose requisitions. This had predictably negative impacts on Canadian sentiment. In the spring of 1776, Congressional commissioners in Canada observed “the lowness of the Continental credit” and warned, “the few friends we have here, will scarce venture to exert themselves in promoting” the American Cause, “till they see our credit recovered.”[4]

3. Smallpox

“A still greater, and more fatal, source of misfortune has been, the prevalence of the small pox in that army; a great proportion whereof has thereby been usually kept unfit for duty.”—Continental Congress, July 30, 1776

Smallpox started afflicting the Quebec City siege camp in December 1775. By February, Arnold reported about one quarter of his army sick with the disease. From there, it spread to infect spring reinforcements with devastating effect. In June, Brig. Gen. William Thompson wrote, “the New-England troops are so much infected with or afraid of the small-pox as almost to prevent their doing duty,” and Brig. Gen. John Sullivan warned that “there are some regiments all down with the small-pox—not a single man fit for duty.” The disease dogged the already understrength army, significantly reducing the number of men “fit for duty,” and killed many, including Maj. Gen. John Thomas.[5]

4. Canadian Church & Noble Loyalty

“The Priests hitherto having done us all the mischief in their power”—Richard Montgomery to Philip Schuyler, November 19, 1775
“What they call or term in Canada the noblesse are for despotick measures”—Extract of a Letter from a Continental Officer, August 25, 1775[6]

Congress does not seem to have considered Canadians, or Canada itself, as relevant factors in the success or failure of the northern campaign. The next three “causes” explore those otherwise-ignored aspects.

Elite Canadians’ loyalty was more of a contributing factor, but a consideration nonetheless. British Governor Guy Carleton had successfully shored up support from the Catholic Church and colonial nobility through a decade of progressive Canadian policies, culminating in the Quebec Act of 1774. The Act recognized the Catholic Church and formally restored French Canadian land- and office-holding rights. As a result, Catholic leaders actively advocated for the king’s rule and punished political dissent. The landed “nobles” rallied behind the government in their traditional role as colonial military officers and resisted the American occupation. These Loyalists directly assisted the British colonial government to avoid catastrophic political upheaval in the tumultuous summer and fall of 1775, and they led militia to help defend the province and maintain a foothold in Quebec City, buying time until regular forces could come to the rescue in the spring.

5. Canadian Economics

Canadian Patriots’ commitment and contributions were restrained by economic realities. The invasion’s primary objective was to liberate the Canadians so they could join the Continental confederation in Congress—but long before the invasion, well-informed reports from Montreal made it clear that economics were an obstacle to attaining this goal. In March 1775, agent John Brown reported, “There is no prospect of Canada sending Delegates to the Continental Congress,” because even the most zealous Montreal Patriots were unwilling to accept economic “ruin” to join the Cause. The Continental Association’s non-importation/non-exportation measures would end Canada’s fur trade—the province’s economic lifeblood. In Canada, economics trumped politics.[7]

6. Canadian Geography

“The Regulars, if they get full Possession of that Province, and the Navigation of St. Lawrence River . . . will have nothing to interrupt their Communication, with Niagara, Detroit, Michilimachinac, they will have the Navigation of the five great Lakes quite as far as the Mississipi River, they will have a free Communication with all the numerous Tribes of Indians.”—John Adams to James Warren, June 16, 1776[8]

The St. Lawrence gave the British tremendous economic, political, and military advantages. Canadian colonial settlement remained within a few miles of the great river and a couple major tributaries. The St. Lawrence—a five-hundred-mile waterway connection between the Great Lakes and the North Atlantic—was essential for Canadian trade, and enabled the Royal Navy to project imperial military might all the way to Montreal. The Continental colonies’ access via the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River corridor simply could not compete with British transport and trade via the St. Lawrence.

7. Military Leadership

“It is to me amazing that a strict inquiry has not been made into the behaviour of those under whose direction we have met with nothing but repeated losses in that country.”—John Jay to Edward Rutledge, July 6, 1776

When John Hancock initially directed Washington to investigate the causes of miscarriages, he specifically called for “a general Enquiry . . . into the Behaviour of the Officers employed on that Expedition.” Many Patriots believed that military leaders had to have been to blame for the setbacks and ultimate defeat in Canada—through incompetence, insufficient zeal, or even traitorous intent. A long tradition of intercolonial distrust—especially between New Yorkers and New Englanders—fueled criticism in both the army and in Congress. Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler and Brig. Gen. David Wooster faced particularly vocal criticism. Congress ultimately did not find fault in any of the generals, and specifically exonerated Wooster after investigation.[9]

Contemporaries did not delve into two other important leadership factors: lack of command continuity and a shortage of senior leaders in Canada. Over the campaign’s ten months, at least six different generals commanded the army: Schuyler (eleven days—illness), Montgomery (four months—death), Wooster (four months—superseded), Thomas (weeks—smallpox death), Arnold and/or Thompson (days—interim commands until superseded), and finally Sullivan. Leaders in Philadelphia and Cambridge also seemed completely oblivious to the expansive scale of Northern army command responsibilities. Until the last couple months of the campaign, Congress and Washington expected one or two generals in Canada to command forces, manage an occupation, and attempt to foster local Patriot political support—over a two-hundred-mile area of responsibility. In contrast, Washington had as many as nine generals to command and control his army concentrated around Boston.

8. Military Resources

“I expected before this to have had a reinforcement of three or four thousand men, but have not received one thousand. . . . We labour under almost as many difficulties as the Israelites did of old, obliged to make brick without straw.”—Extract of a Letter from Benedict Arnold, March 26, 1776

The Congressional report neglected to address the resources given to the Northern Army for its Canadian campaign. But outside the committee, Congressional delegate William Williams astutely observed that “Congress seem to me infatuated, in seeking after a thousand Reasons of the miscarriages in Canada . . . while the Fault is in themselves, in neglecting & abandoning that Army to inevitable Destruction, & then severely censure officers & Soldiers for their ill Conduct in not making Bricks without Straw or even Stubble.” For most of the campaign, the army lacked sufficient men and supplies to execute its mission. Schuyler, Montgomery, and Wooster repeatedly warned of manpower shortages, yet Congress and the colonies were slow to authorize reinforcements. Inbound units consistently arrived late to the need.

Logistically, Schuyler struggled to gather sufficient provisions and military stores, even for a significantly understrength army. Transportation was a perpetual challenge over the long, rural line of communications from American markets to the troops in Canada, and travel of any sort was extremely difficult during the spring thaw. Washington exacerbated the logistics challenges by launching Arnold’s Kennebec expedition without a sustainment plan—the detachment had to rely on supply from Montreal, extending the already-strained supply lines another 120 miles. As the aphorism goes, “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics,” and Schuyler remained the only important American leader at the time to demonstrate any understanding of the latter. Congress and the colonies simply did not provide their generals with the basic resources that were realistically needed for sustained operational success.[10]

9. Strategy and Guidance

“I hope I shall be excused in Saying the Congress are not a fit Body to act as a Council of War.”—Samuel Chase to Richard Henry Lee, May 17, 1776

The Continental Congress authorized its Canadian invasion without any semblance of strategic planning. Implicitly, Americans understood three strategic “ends” for the Canadian invasion. They wanted “to induce the Canadians to accede to a union with these colonies,” demonstrate colonial unity against British policy, and prevent attacks from British-ruled Canada.[11]

The Continental Congress, however, was a fledgling political body. It was improvising a full range of government responsibilities in the middle of a war. No one in Congress or the army had experience with the complexities of planning a major expeditionary campaign. It should be unsurprising that Congress never planned the various “ways” in which American objectives might be reached. After initial persuasive overtures failed to bring Canadians into Congress, military force became the tool of choice by default. As discussed in earlier points, no one tried to calculate the military or financial resources that might be needed for a successful invasion either. Congress launched their grand northern campaign on the strategic planning equivalent of a hope and a prayer.[12]

John Adams explored another aspect of Congress’s role in the misfortunes. He contended that “The primary Cause has been the Diversity of Sentiments in Congress, concerning that Expedition, and the Indecision, or rather Fluctuation of our Councils in the Support and Prosecution of it.” Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry echoed the sentiment, writing “It may be uncertain but that the Causes existed in the Supineness of C[ongress].” In another letter, Adams suggested that key leaders had been “slow and languid, in promoting Measures for the Reduction” of Canada, while holding out hopes for reconciliation with Great Britain all the way up to the Declaration of Independence.[13]

Once the campaign was underway, Congress also failed to provide the direct political assistance that the generals requested, specifically in the form of a “respectable committee” in Canada. For a critical six months, Congress left Montgomery and Wooster to act on their own best judgment—without relevant, timely policy guidance from civil authorities—but still subject to criticism from the politicians 450 miles away in Philadelphia. When a Congressional committee finally reached Montreal in April 1776, the political and military situation was already too far-gone.[14]

10. British Strength & Will

“War . . . is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass . . . but always the collision of two living forces.”—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

American success in Canada ultimately depended on the king conceding the province’s loss. In early 1776, George III made it clear that he had the will to recover the province; and the British military machine certainly had the means and know-how—demonstrated just sixteen years earlier in the Seven Years’ War conquest of Canada. Given Britain’s vastly superior power-projection capabilities, the Americans would never be able to hold Canada unless there was a decisive political turn in London.[15]

Looking at all these factors together, with hindsight, it is hard to believe the American colonies ever decided to launch their invasion of Canada. Perhaps the best explanation for the ill-considered and poorly planned strategic commitment to Canada can be found in the zealous Patriotic spirit over the summer of 1775. The string of early military successes at Lexington, Concord, Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill sparked an American “rage militaire”—with high expectations for the new armed stage of conflict—and supported a widespread belief that those victories had come from “the merciful Interposition of Divine Providence.” If the invasion of Canada had succeeded against all odds, it would have been one more miraculous victory for the “just” Continental Cause.[16]



[1] June 21, 1776 and June 24, 1776, Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904-37), 5: 472, 474 (JCC).

[2] William Whipple to Joseph Whipple, July 29, 1776, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Paul H. Smith (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976–2000), 4: 565; July 30, 1776, JCC 5: 617-18 (LDC).

For detailed campaign analysis, see 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), and Justin H. Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada and the American Revolution, 2 volumes (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1907).

[3] July 30, 1776, JCC 5:617.

[4] July 30, 1776, JCC 5:617-18; Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 1, 1776, LDC 4:611.

[5] July 30, 1776, JCC 5:618; Return of Troops Before Quebeck, March 30, 1776, William Thompson to George Washington, June 2, 1776, and John Sullivan to Washington, June 8, 1776, Peter Force, ed. American Archives, Series 4, (Washington, DC: 1837-1846), 5:550, 6:684, 1037 (AA4).

[6] AA4 3:1683, 433.

[7] John Brown to Boston Committee of Correspondence, March 29, 1775, and Montreal Committee to Massachusetts Committee of Safety, April 8, 1775, AA4 2:244, 306.

[8] John Adams to James Warren, June 16, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0123.

[9] John Jay to Edward Rutledge, July 6, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0161; Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 17, 1776, LDC 4:24; Hancock to Washington, June 21, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0040; August 17, 1776, JCC 5:665.

[10] AA4 5:512; William Williams to Joseph Trumbull, August 7, 1776, LDC 4:637.

[11] LDC 4:22; Instructions to Committee appointed to repair to the northward, November 8, 1775, JCC 3:339-41.

[12] June 27 and November, 8, 1775, JCC 2:109-10, 3: 339-41. In modern United States military doctrine, “A comprehensive and effective strategy answers four basic questions: (1) What are the desired ends?; (2) What are the ways to get there? [diplomatic, information, military, economic]; (3) What means or resources are available?; (4) What are the risks associated with the strategy?. Strategy: Joint Doctrine Note 2-19, December10, 2019, I-1.

[13] John Adams to Samuel Cooper, June 9, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0108; Elbridge Gerry to James Warren, June 15, 1776, LDC 4:220; John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0016.

[14] Schuyler to Hancock, November 11, 1775, and Montgomery to Schuyler, November 24, 1775, AA4 3:1521-22, 1694.

[15] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 77; George Germain to the Lords Commissioners, Admiralty, January 4, 1776, William B. Clark, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), 476.

[16] Roger Sherman to Joseph Trumbull, July 6, 1775, LDC 1:599.

One thought on “Ten Causes of the Miscarriages in Canada: Why the 1775–1776 Invasion Failed

  • Nicely done, Mark. I hope your work will prompt some readers unfamiliar with the campaign to look into it in more detail.

    I would like to observe that not all Canadians or Canadiens (those with French ancestry) remained loyal to the Crown. Some did support the “Rebel” cause. For example, scouts and spies going into Canada throughout the war are reported to have stayed in the homes of local militia. And, much of the Maritimes region supported the cause until privateers and raids on settlements along the coast pushed them away.

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