Aaron Burr was just 20 years old when he and his childhood friend and university classmate Matthias Ogden traveled from New Jersey to Cambridge seeking commissions in the American forces under General Washington. Though they initially were unsuccessful, they soon learned of Col. Benedict Arnold's planned march through the wilderness of Maine into Canada and joined the expedition as volunteers with the honorary ranks of Captain.
Matthias Ogden wrote in his journal of the suffering endured by the survivors of the expedition.
"(N)ever were men more fatigued, at any time, nor ever could men bear up under it better than they. Surely no person, unless he was present, could form any idea of the hardships surmounted."
The grueling march over mountains and through tract-less bogs eroded unit cohesion until it was practically every man for himself. Burr and Ogden were initially in Lt. Colonel Greene's division but were often separated from each other. The Journal of Captain Simeon Thayer, who lead a company under Greene, describes how he and Matthias Ogden took a boat back to the rear division under Colonel Enos which had voted to turn back to Cambridge. They had been promised four barrels of flour and two of pork, provisions sorely needed by the men further up the line Instead, they found that Enos' men would part with only two barrels of flour. Those who went on were soon reduced to eating cartridge box leather and even less nourishing things. Ogden described one of the most grueling days in his journal entry for October 30th, 1775:
"After traveling a short distance we came on Capt. Goodrich's track, which soon led us to where he encamped the evening before. We here found a part of two quarters of dog they had killed and hung up for the remainder of his company that was behind; the other they had eaten and taken with them. One of our Company, rejoiced to find the prize, immediately cut a part of it, roasted it on the coals and ate it very greedily. About an hour after we fell in with the rest of the Company which had passed another way. We found them much dejected and spent with fatigue and hunger. We informed them of the meat, at which they sent two men for it immediately.
We then traveled on in a very bad road, sometimes over shoes in mire, sometimes climbing on all fours, and at others scarcely able to see for the thickness of the bramble and small fir shrubs. At 3 o'clock we hailed Capt Derbon [Dearborn, whose Newfoundland Dog had been killed for food: Ed] and one more going down stream in a birch canoe. They informed us that Capt. Morgan had his boat split upon a rock, the most of his effects lost, and one man drowned; that he saw where Col. Arnold's boat was stove; what his loss was he knew not. After traveling about 20 miles with our packs on our backs, we encamped by sunset much fatigued and very hungry."
The fact that they survived the ordeal (Burr nearly drowned) is testament to young Ogden and Burr's stamina and spirit. They were well matched in this regard, though very different physically and perhaps also in temperament. Matthias Ogden has been described as "a swashbuckling youth of enormous strength who loved a good joke" by Theodore Thayer, writing in As We Were - The Story of Old Elizabethtown, though Thayer also notes he was "occasionally slowed down by attacked of asthma." Aaron Burr was very small but fearless, and both is courage and Ogden's were noted by their contemporaries.
Unlike Ogden, however, Burr was less adept at maintaining good relations with his superior officers, and later in his military career even managed to estrange himself from Washington, on whose staff he had been appointed. Soon after the expedition arrived at Quebec, Burr was dispatched by Arnold to General Richard Montgomery in Montreal, and subsequently accepted an appointment on the General's staff. In his memoirs, prepared my Matthew L. Davis and published in 1836, an aged and now notorious Burr claimed that he was sent to Montgomery with a verbal message "on the arrival of Arnold's detachment at Chaudiere Pond" and that he had to sneak through the British lines disguised as a catholic priest. This does not exactly square with Arnold's own correspondence, which included a letter of introduction to Montgomery dated Nov 30th, nearly a month after Arnold reached the pond.
Burr's memoir, like many written in later years by participants in the expedition against Quebec, is colored by distant memories and a desire to set the historical record straight, and after the traitor Arnold it was Burr's reputation that had become the most notorious. A good example of this tendency is found in the memoirs of General John Lamb, who accompanied Montgomery on his expedition to Quebec and fought with Arnold's column during the Dec 31 assault on the city, record his first meeting with Burr:
"On this occasion, the General [Montgomery] was accompanied by Aaron Burr, whom he had appointed his aid. This was the first time that lamb had ever seen him; and as his appearance was juvenile in the extreme, he wondered that the General should encumber his family, with the addition of one, who seemed a mere boy. But upon a more thorough scrutiny of his countenance, the fire in his eye, and his perfect coolness and immobility, under such dangerous fire, convinced him that the young volunteer was no ordinary man; and not out of place in the most important position."
Given than only one of the first hand accounts of Arnold's expedition makes mention of Burr - that of rifleman John Henry dictating his deathbed memoirs more than 35 years after the fact - it may be that General Lamb embellished an old memory with the gloss of later celebrity.
Burr and Ogden remained friends even as they found themselves on the staff of different commanders. In his memoirs, Burr writes; "The attachment between him and Colonel Matthias Ogden, of New-Jersey, was both ardent and mutual; and, it is believes, continued during the life of the latter." Even when he felt let down by his friend, whose correspondence he had not received for some time, he expressed his loyalty with deep feeling in a letter to this most intimate friend;
"Should fortune ever frown on you, Matt; should those who you now call friends forsake you; should the clouds gather force on every side, and threaten to burst upon you, think then upon the man who never betrayed you; rely on the sincerity you never found to fail; and if my heart, my life or my fortune can assist you, it is yours."
They would be in the thick of the fight at Quebec, though not together. One would be memorialized in a famous painting, the other left to make his case in his memoirs. We will examine the parts that each played in the battle, and discuss who was portrayed in Trumbull's famous painting The Death of Montgomery, in a future post.