John Joseph Henry

By Paige H.

John Joseph Henry was born November 4th, 1758, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the age of 14, he became an apprentice to his uncle and trained to be a gunsmith. When his uncle moved to Detroit, Henry had to follow due to being bound in servitude. After spending a short amount of time there, at the age of 17 he returned to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to join the army in 1775. Like most young men at the time, Henry had a thirst for military glory. He hoped to achieve that glory in Quebec, under the command of Benedict Arnold. However, when the Continental Army arrived, they laid siege to the walled city for months with no success. The British had the advantage of heavy artillery atop the walls of Quebec. Of the 1,200 Americans who attacked the city, 400 were either killed or taken prisoner. The rest of the American army was forced to retreat and abandon their advance into Canada.

Henry gained the rank of lieutenant during his time in the army, but couldn’t accept the role because of his failing health. While making his way back to Pennsylvania, Henry contracted scurvy which left him lame. Having resigned from a military career, he bound himself in another apprenticeship to John Hubley and worked as an office clerk. There he gained an education in law, which he practiced from 1785 to 1793. Henry suffered from diseases, such as gout, for years and in 1811, he died at the age of 53.

John Joseph Henry wrote his memoir in his years of declining health after retiring from practicing law. It’s written from the perspective of his 17 year old self and of his experiences serving in the Continental Army. The memoir’s goal isn’t to necessarily describe the battles he fought in but to instead show the everyday life of a soldier. Days spent marching, hunting, and canoeing only to have to spend a brutal winter in Canada. Overall, it was a pretty miserable existence.

In the autumn of 1775, our adorable Washington, thought it prudent to make a descent upon Canada. A detachment from the American grand army, then in the vicinity of Boston (Massachusetts,) was organized, to fulfill this intention, by the route of the Kennebec and Chaudien rivers. It was intended as a co-operation with the army of General Montgomery, who had entered the same province, by the way of Champlaine and Montreal. Colonel Benedict Arnold was appointed the commander in chief of the whole division. The detachment consisted of eleven hundred men… 

Each man of the three companies, bore a rifle-barreled gun, a tomahawk, or small axe, and a long knife, usually called a ‘scalping-knife,’ which served for all purposes, in the woods. His under-dress, by no means in a military style, was covered by a deep ash-colored hunting-shirt, leggins and mockasins, if the latter could be procured. It was the silly fashion of those times, for riflemen to ape the manners of savages… 

[The expedition left Cambridge, just outside of Boston in early September, and by the 23rd had made it to Fort Halifax in Maine.]

On the evening of the 23d of September, our party arrived at Fort-Halifax, situated on the point, formed by the junction of the Sabasticoog and Kennebec rivers. Here our commander Steele, was accosted by a captain Harrison, or Huddlestone, inviting him and the company to his house. The invitation was gladly accepted, as the accommodation at the Fort, which consisted of old Block-houses and a stockade in a ruinous state, did not admit of much comfort; besides it was inhabited, as our friend the captain said, by a rank tory. Here for the first time the application of the American term ‘tory,’ was defined to me by the captain. Its European definition was well known before…   

[Henry and most of the regiment are encamped at the base of the Dead River, a branch of the Kennebec River that will lead them to Quebec. They traverse the rivers and eventually arrive in Quebec in canoes.]

Oct. 19th & 20th. – Here we lay encamped for several days, waiting the arrival of the rear of the New England Troops: they came up hourly. During our stay here, it pleased me internally, to observe, that Morgan[1] adopted certain rules of discipline, absolutely necessary to the state we were in, but discordant with the wild and extravagant notions, of our private men. Powder and ball, particularly the first, to us riflemen was of the first consequence. At Cambridge the horns belonging to the men, were filled with an excellent rifle powder–which, when expended, could not be replaced in Canada by any powder of an equal quality. The men had got into a habit of throwing it away at every trifling object… 

[Here Henry is reminiscing on the Seven Years’ War, the last time Americans were at war in Canada.] 

November 14th. The troops easily ascended the hill, by a good road out in it slantingly. This was not the case in 1759, when the immortal Wolf mounted here, it was then a steep declivity, enfiladed by a host of savages, but was surmounted by the eager and gallant spirit of our nation.

November 15th. Arriving on the brow of the precipice, we found ourselves on the plains of Abraham, so deservedly famous in story. The morning was cold, and we were thinly clad. While an adventurous party despatched by Arnold, under the command of one of Morgan’s lieutenants, were examining the walls of the city, we were pacing the Plains to and fro, in silence, to keep ourselves warm… 

December 15th… Simpson would say, Jack, let us have a shot at those fellows. Even at noon-day, we would creep along close to the houses, which ranged under the hills but close in with it, till we came within forty yards of the Palace-gate. Here was a smith-shop, formed of logs, through the crevices, of which, we would fire, at the angle of 70, at the sentries above us. Many of them were killed, and it was said, several officers. This was a dishonorable war, though authorized by the practices of these times…  

It was not until the night of the thirty-first of December, one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, that such kind weather ensued as was considered favorable for the assault. The forepart of the night was admirably enlightened by a luminous moon. Many of us, officers as well as privates, had dispersed in various directions among the farm and tippling houses of the vicinity. We well knew the signal for rallying. This was no other than a ‘snowstorm.’ About 12 o’clock P.M the heaven was overcast. We repaired to quarters. By 2 o’clock we were accoutred and began our march. The storm was outrageous and the cold wind extremely biting… January 1st. When we came to Craig’s house, near Palace-gate, a horrible roar of cannon took place, and the ringing of all the bells of the city, which are very numerous, and of all sizes. 

[The Americans ended up losing this battle. Henry was discharged from the military and returned home, where he was stricken with disease.]

Discussion Questions

    1. What surprised you the most about this account of a battle in the Revolutionary War? Based on these excerpts, what were the lives of soldiers in the Continental Army like?
    2. One of the paragraphs talks of the soldiers carelessly wasting gunpowder while hunting. Did the undisciplined nature of the Continental Army contribute to their loss in Quebec? Based on the excerpts, were there other factors that might have contributed to this loss?


Henry, John Joseph. An Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships and Sufferings of That Band of Heroes Who Traversed the Wilderness in the Campaign against Quebec in 1775. Lancaster Pa.: Printed by William Greer, 1812.


[1] Daniel Morgan was an American pioneer, soldier, and later Virginian politician. He formed his own Virginia militia and joined Arnold in Quebec and Saratoga.