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When Colonel Arnold was Major Colburn's Guest


THE WOODED slopes of the Kennebec Valley were bright with all the autumn colors.

It was the afternoon of a late September day in 1775. Major Reuben Colburn stood before the door of his home in Gardinerston, watching the distant bend of the river. A little way above, and just hidden from view by a knoll, lay Agry's Point. Here was located the Major's ship-yard and the only sounds which broke the stillness of the quiet afternoon were the noises of much hammering and sawing which came from it. Nearly all the men in the community, besides about thirty Minute Men in the command of Oliver Colburn, the Major's brother, were working there under the supervision of Thomas Agry, a ship-wright, who had settled some years before near the Colburns.

Major Colburn's lands stretched for a considerable distance along the river, so that much of the woodland over which he gazed, and the cleared fields, brown with stubble after the harvest, were his own. From his father, who had a settler's grant, he had received two hundred and fifty acres, but that seemed so little in a country where there was more land to be had than anything else, that about two years before he had bought for himself two and a half square miles more. On a bluff on the east bank of the river he had built a large and substantial house after the colonial style.

Reuben Colburn was an ardent patriot. Since the news of Lexington and of Bunker Hill had reached him, he had kept in as close touch with affairs in Boston as the very limited mail service of his time would permit. Moreover he was one in whom General Washington placed great confidence, and three times during the summer he had gone on horseback to Cambridge, then the headquarters of the Continental Army, once being specially summoned there that Washington might consult him; and he was a member of the committee of safety of Massachusetts.

When he returned from the last trip early in September, he immediately conferred with Thomas Agry, and the result was that shortly afterward, a great hurrying and bustling began down at Agry's Point, and it had continued ever since. They were building bateaux, a kind of rivermen's boat, pointed at the ends, flat-bottomed, and drawing very little water. About two hundred of them lay on the shore now, all ready to be placed in the river, and near by was a profusion of oars, paddles, and setting poles. The Major had been promised forty shillings for every one of those boats, but neither he nor any of his descendants ever received a single penny.

Major Colburn was not in the least insensible to the beauty of the scene before him, but it was not the landscape which attracted his attention on that particular afternoon. For several days Past, he had alternately watched the building of the boats and the bend in the river, but so far nothing had appeared to reward his vigilance, except occasionally the canoe of some Indian. But before the sun set on this particular day he saw what he was looking for. Around the curve of the shore, a schooner, with all sails set, came slowly into view. Slowly very slowly, she drew nearer, for there was little wind, and her crew were using oars to aid her progress. Up the river she crept, past Reuben Colburn's house, past Agry's Point. Work in the ship-yard stopped as the men watched her and cheered.

"The Colonel certainly isn't on that one," the Major said to himself, as the schooner came to anchor and furled her sails. "The rest of them will be up to-morrow," and he turned and entered the house.

"The transports are somewhere in the river, the Britannia has just anchored out here," he said to Mistress Colburn, who was busy with the preparations for supper.

The next morning the Colburn kitchen was almost as busy a place as the ship-yard, though of course in a far different way. The hospitality of the family was boundless at all times; still it required no great penetration to see that something unusual was going on. Bright and early the brick oven had been heated and filled with loaves of bread. On the spit before the great fire-place hung a roast and some plump chickens, and the kettle boiling on the crane contained a whole ham.

The Major was right about the transports. The next day another sail appeared in the river, and then another. Everybody who lived anywhere in sight of the river gazed in amazement. It was a spectacle which led some of them to doubt the evidence of their own eyesight. Never before it is safe to say, had a craft of that size disturbed the waters of the Kennebec.

But there they were, the Swallow, the Broad Bay, the Admiral, and all the rest, slowly working their way up, and anchoring one by one, until before sunset of the twenty-second of September, eleven transports with eleven hundred men on board lay in the river.

From one of the ships a boat was lowered and rowed rapidly to the landing-place below Major Colburn's house. Two men stepped out. One of them showed by his uniform that he was an officer. Five years later he discarded that uniform for one of another country, but even then no person ever for an instant doubted his courage; and a man about to embark on such an enterprise as his had need of it. The other was a mere youth, but he was eager and enthusiastic. He had actually risen from a sick-bed, against all advice and entreaty, to join the expedition.

The Major had seen the boat and hastened to meet his guests the two men who probably had the strangest and most varied careers of any who lived in their time Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr. Mistress Colburn, too, greeted them at the threshold, added her assurances that her home was at their disposal, and led them shortly to the dining-room, where the long table was ready for the evening meal. Two of the chickens and slices of the ham lay on platters, surrounded by other evidences of the morning's activity in the kitchen.

After the meal was eaten, the Major and his guests sat before the fire which the cool September evenings made necessary, and discussed until late into the night the plans they had made for the march to Quebec; for that was the reason for all this unwonted commotion, for the hasty building of so many boats, for the accumulation of such quantities of provisions, and the appearance of eleven hundred soldiers.

Colonel Arnold took little Betty Colburn, whose exceeding fairness won his admiration, on his knee, and her brother Reuben sat close by on a little stool, vainly trying to understand the conversation until he finally fell asleep. But what he did understand, kindled his imagination so much that the next morning he mustered his playmates who had gathered from far and near to see the ships and the soldiers and the great Colonel himself, and suggested, "Let's play go and take Quebec."

Nothing loath, they armed themselves with sticks for muskets, and with Master Reuben at their head as commander, they marched off down an Indian trail into the woods. But before they had gone very far they met the enemy. A large black bear stood directly in the path. The mere sight of Bruin routed the army, and the soldiers ran for the clearing as fast as their little legs could carry them.

Arnold showed the map of the route to Quebec which he had first tried to obtain from Major Goodwin at Pownalborough, but who as a zealous royalist feigned entire ignorance on the subject. His son, however, was a patriot, and he found the map, and conveyed it secretly to the Americans.

Benedict Arnold had been one of the first to suggest to the Continental Congress the expedition to Quebec, but it was in all probability on the strength of the information brought by Major Colburn that Washington finally decided to carry out the plan. The Major had been intrusted with the preparations for the rest of the journey from Gardinerston, which was the farthest point navigable for craft of any size. He had not only ordered the bateaux built, and engaged the supplies of beef and pork, but he had received orders to employ guides and gain all possible information concerning the rapids and carrying places along the Kennebec.

Late that evening as they sat talking, the door opened, and three Indians stole noiselessly in, and ranged themselves on the long settle in the chimney corner. The door of Reuben Colburn's house was never closed to an Indian. They came when they wished; they ate in his kitchen when they were hungry; if they were weary they slept before his fire wrapped in their blankets; and they departed whenever it suited them to do so.

Loyal to Major Colburn, thirty of the Kennebecs would have served in the American cause. Their squaws took them down the river in canoes, and the Major conducted them to Cambridge, but General Washington, not liking the Indian methods of warfare in general, refused to avail himself of this addition to his forces, and the only Indians employed by the Americans in the war, were the guides who later conducted Arnold's army through the wilderness.

The next day was a busy one. It was Reuben Colburn's habit to start every Saturday with his family for Georgetown, paddling thirty-five miles each way in a canoe, in order to attend Sunday services, for there was no church nearer, but with his guests to entertain, and so much business on hand, he was for once obliged to forego his usual custom.

One of the first things Colonel Arnold did that morning was to inspect the bateaux at the ship-yard. He did not seem any too well pleased with the result, for in the haste of building, green pine had been used, and the boats did not present a very substantial appearance. But he said little, merely ordering twenty additional ones to be ready in a week's time.

This interval was employed in making the final preparations for the march. A certain store-keeper in the neighborhood proposed to make the expedition a means of profit to himself. On learning that extra boats must be hastily supplied, he immediately charged twice as much as usual for the nails, and also put an exorbitant price on his flour, whereupon the soldiers promptly broke into his store and helped themselves to both.

One man in the community did not look with favor on the undertaking. This was James Winslow, whose Quaker principles would not permit him to serve his country as a soldier, though he and his son did make fifty paddles for the boats. Many of Arnold's men wore on their caps the motto, "Liberty or death," Winslow regarded them with scorn. "You'll get the latter," said he.

The officers in command were much impressed with the beauty of the region they were passing through, especially Captain Henry Dearborn, who declared that when his country was free from England, he should come and make his home near the Kennebec. He kept his word, though he continued to serve his country after that, for at different times he was Secretary of War, Major-General, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Collector of Customs at Boston, and Minister to Portugal.

Arnold spent the latter part of the week with Captain James Howard at Cushnoe, now Augusta. Captain Howard had been the commander of Fort Western in the time of the French and Indian Wars, when block-houses were a necessity for the protection of the settlers.

Where Arnold's Transports Anchored

The Colburn Home and the Memorial of the Expedition

By the twenty-ninth of September, the preparations were completed, and part of the army had already been sent off. Arnold now set out in a canoe to overtake the head of it. He wrote General Washington a full account of the journey since he had left Newbury-port, and added that in twenty days more he expected to reach Quebec.

For safety, forty-five days' provisions had been taken on the march. So far all had gone well, and all had continued to go fairly well until the army came to Norridgewock Falls, though immense labor was required to reach that point. Several times rapids made it necessary to carry the bateaux and supplies for some distance. Arnold's fears about the boats had been fully realized. They had begun to leak badly already; many of them had been wrecked, and it was necessary to patch the rest.

That was difficulty enough, but it was after they left Norridgewock Falls that their worst sufferings began, such suffering as an army has rarely endured. As the boats began to leak, the provisions became water-soaked. The dried fish had spoiled and had to be thrown away. Other dried food had absorbed water and burst the casks in which it was packed. The salt beef, too, put up in hot weather was worthless. There was little food left fit to be eaten, except flour and pork.

They were soon reduced to half a pint of flour for a day's rations. Worst of all they were now entering the unbroken wilderness, where there were no means of procuring more food, and cold weather was fast coming on. Before they reached the headwaters of the Dead River, the last of the supplies were gone. Weakened by hunger and threatened with actual starvation, they hauled the bateaux upstream for miles, wading in the icy cold water. Many of them walked barefooted in the snow. For forty miles of the distance, they carried the boats on their shoulders, over hills and through swamps.

Some days they had nothing to eat but the water in which they had boiled their moccasins and cartridge belts. Even the few dogs were eaten, though the men cried like children when the order was given to sacrifice the pet dog belonging to Colonel Dearborn. The only one that escaped was an English blood-hound belonging to the Indian girl, Jacataqua, who had accompanied them from Cushnoc, and he was spared because he had been trained to hunt and occasionally caught a bird, or some small animal that the men could eat.

Before they reached Dead River, Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Enos' battalion abandoned the expedition. Enos was tried afterwards by a court martial but was acquitted.

As the bateaux began to go to pieces and it became difficult to transport even what supplies they had, they buried part of their ammunition. Years afterward, two iron-bound chests were discovered, one at the mouth of the Dead River, containing three thousand bullets, and another in the north branch of the same river containing two thousand more.

The twenty days on which Arnold had planned stretched to forty, and during most of that time, the soldiers saw no human being aside from their own comrades. By the middle of November, fifty-four days from the time they left Cambridge, Arnold's march to Quebec, one of the most fruitless undertakings in history, was over.

As they neared the localities where the people were loyal to the British, Aaron Burr, who through all the terrible journey had shown the utmost bravery and endurance, disguised himself as a priest, and so well did he play his part, that he acquired the needful information to get the army through without arousing any suspicions.

More than a hundred and twenty years afterward, up in the forests of northern Maine, in the region through which Arnold's army was known to have passed, there was found a piece of corroded metal, which on further examination appeared to be an old sword hilt. And then an old tradition was recalled, that somewhere in that very forest Benedict Arnold, in fording a stream, had stumbled and broken his sword. The next day he threw the hilt away, saying: "An army led by a commander with a broken sword is cursed."

Down in Pittston, which was Gardinerston in those days, Reuben Colburn's home still stands by the Kennebec, and shows not the least sign of its hundred and fifty years.

On a summer afternoon, one hundred and thirty-eight years from the time Arnold's transports anchored in the Kennebec, the old homestead presented a most festive appearance. It was the anniversary of the landing of Arnold's troops there on their way to Quebec, which the people gathered on the lawn had come to celebrate.

The guests passed in and out over the same threshold which the Major had crossed with his distinguished guests so many years before. There was the same great fireplace before which the Major's friends, the Indians, often slept, and the quaint corner cupboard, which was his wine-closet; and his old flint-lock musket stood in a corner.

Before the house stood a monument in the form of a boulder, with a bronze tablet set in one side. On the tablet were these words:

This tablet marks the headquarters of COLONEL BENEDICT ARNOLD Sept. 21-23, 1775 When he was the guest of Major Reuben Colburn During the transfer of the army of 1100 men and supplies from the transports to the 220 bateaux built by Major Colburn for the expedition to Quebec To commemorate this event this tablet is placed by Samuel Grant Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution.

And there beneath the windows of the room where Benedict Arnold rested on his journey, hung the flag, which in a fit of jealousy he disgraced; the act which brought him the contempt of a nation in spite of his bravery, and of which he so bitterly repented. 

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