Matthias Ogden was a Captain on the staff of Benedict Arnold when the Americans assaulted Quebec City on December 31, 1775. He served as Arnold's Brigade Major, the equivalent of chief of staff, with responsibilities that included being the main administrative link between the units of Arnold's command. In a larger brigade he would has assisted an Adjutant General, but in Arnold's battalion-sized force he reported directly to the Colonel commanding. His place would have been alongside Arnold during an engagement, and Arnold invariably lead from the front.
Aaron Burr had been a volunteer in Arnold's column on its march through the wilderness to Quebec, but was offered a place as an aide to Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, who had lead another force down the Champlain Valley to capture Montreal and subsequently assumed overall command of the besiegers of Quebec.
In his memoirs, Burr describes the initial plan of attack which was agreed to at a council of war called by Montgomery at which both he and Matthias Ogden were present. It called for simultaneous attacks on the upper and lower town of Quebec City, and Burr records that he requested and was granted the honor of leading the 'forlorn hope' that would assault the highest walls of the bastion at Cape Diamond. When the plan was changed to make a feint against the upper city and assault the lower in two divided columns, Burr says he had strong misgivings and was unable to dissuade the commanding general from leading the advance on the narrow beach under Cape Diamond. Although there is some confusion as to his actions during the attack, most of the evidence suggests that in a blinding snowstorm, Burr accompanied Montgomery at the head of the column during the night attack of December 31, 1775.
Arnold's column and Montgomery's were meant to assault the lower town from the East and West and meet up to force the gate to the upper town. They both met with failure. General Montgomery lead his 200 men along a path so narrow that his men had to clamber in single file between the ice choked river and the sheer cliff walls. They cut through the first wooden barrier they encountered, and beyond that was a wooden blockhouse and barricade manned by a few royal navy seamen to work a four gun battery and a number of Canadian militia. Some reports claim the defenders fled except for a drunken tar who determined to touch off one of the cannon's before retiring. Others assert the British stood their ground and opened fire with muskets and grapeshot. Here is Burr's own account from his memoirs, written a half century after the fact:
"The first barrier to be surmounted was at the Pot-Ash. In front of it was a block-house and picket, in charge of some Canadians, who, after making a single fire, fled in confusion. On advancing to force the barrier, an accidental discharge of a piece of artillery from the British battery, when the American front was in forty paces of it, killed General Montgomery, Captain McPherson, one of his aids, Captain Cheeseman, and every other person in front, except Captain Burr and a French guide. General Montgomery was within a few feet of Captain Burr; and Colonel Trumbull, in a superb painting recently executed by him, descriptive of the assault upon Quebec, has drawn the general falling in the arms of his surviving aid-de-camp. Lieutenant Col. Campbell, being the senior officer on the ground, assumed the command, and ordered a retreat."
Burr's version of the events has the advantage of coming from an eye-witness, in fact from the only eye-witness aside from a French guide who was with the general when he fell. There are problems with his account, however. Trumbull's painting was executed just a decade after the attack on Quebec, and the artist himself identified the portraits of the individuals he included. Trumbull painted not Burr but Matthias Ogden in the role of faithful retainer, holding his dying general in his arms. This is not fair to Burr, who was there while Ogden was not, and he seems to be trying to set the record straight in his memoirs with a bit of artistic if not historical revisionism.
Ogden was with Arnold at the other end of the lower town in an advanced guard of men who lead the assaulting column. He was wounded in the shoulder during the battle, but it has taken some sleuthing to determine approximately how and when. During the first rush against the barricades by Arnold's 'forlorn hope', Col. Arnold was struck in the leg by a ricocheting bullet and was helped to the rear by two men. Rifleman John Henry wrote 35 years later that he "saw Colonel Arnold returning, wounded in the leg, and supported by two gentlemen; a parson Spring was one, and in my belief, a Mr. Ogden was the other." Dr. Senter, the expedition's surgeon, recorded in his journal that he extracted the broken musket ball from Arnold's leg and "Before the Colonel was done with, Major Ogden came in wounded through the shoulder, which proved only a flesh wound." From this it seems clear that Ogden was hit during the first assault on the barricade and either helped Arnold to the rear or followed him there soon after. It was his fortune to be able to do so, as those who continued on into the lower town were surrounded and either killed or captured by morning.
Arnold wrote his first account of the battle to General Wooster in Montreal even before the fight was over. He says; "The loss of my detachment, before I left it, was about two hundred killed and wounded. Among the latter is Major Ogden, who, with Captain Oswald, Captain Burr, and the other volunteers, behaved extremely well. Roberts, K (1938): March to Quebec; Journals of the Members of Arnold's Expedition: pg. 103" Nevertheless it was Ogden who ended up in Trumbull's painting instead of Burr who was there. It was Ogden who the citizens of his hometown Elizabethtown, New Jersey claimed was wounded by the cannon that now stands in front of the Union courthouse and supposedly is the very one that killed Montgomery at Quebec and wounded another Elizabethan, William Crane. We will examine the reasons for these false memories in a concluding post.