Sept. 26, 1775: Col. Benedict Arnold, about to leave Fort Western on the Kennebec River for his ill-fated trek through the wilderness on the way to attack the British at Quebec, pauses to deal with a soldier convicted of murder.
The incident occurs on the night of Sept. 23 when several of the men in the expedition are drunk, including Pvt. James McCormick of North Yarmouth. The incident happens in what is now the city of Augusta but then was a remote wilderness outpost.
McCormick gets into a violent quarrel with Capt. William Goodrich. Befogged by drink, McCormick decides to kill Goodrich. He enters a room in a private home where several soldiers are sleeping and fires a musket in the darkness at a man he believes is Goodrich but is Sgt. Reuben Bishop, who had been lying by the fire. McCormick then flees.
Bishop dies of an abdominal wound after 12 hours of severe agony. The next morning, a sergeant stops McCormick across the river from the fort, in the area that is now downtown Augusta, and questions him, thinking he might be a deserter. It becomes apparent that McCormick had been out all night, and his actions suggest he had done something terrible.
A court-martial is convened on Sept. 25 and quickly finds McCormick guilty of the crime. He professes his innocence even as the gallows is being built.
The next morning, Arnold takes the condemned man to the gallows, where McCormick confesses that he committed the crime but shot Bishop in a case of mistaken identity.
Arnold grants him a reprieve and sends him with an armed escort back to George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The matter is taken out of Washington’s hands when McCormick dies in prison while awaiting execution.
Arnold, desiring to instill discipline in his unruly attack force, has another soldier given 33 lashes and discharged for stealing. Three others are whipped for stealing, and fourth is punished for doing nothing to stop one of thieves. The next day, another thief gets 33 lashes.
The violence and disorder are a prelude to the injuries, cold and starvation that await Arnold and his men on their expedition through Maine’s North Woods.
Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: [email protected]