Battle of Quebec 1775

-by Kevin Patterson

December 31st, Quebec City 1775

Snow hisses and swirls through the streets, driven by gale force winds as Quebec City endures a late December blizzard. Major General Guy Carleton and the cities defenders are awaiting an attack by two American rebel armies just outside the city walls. A deserter has informed Carleton that the Americans intend to use a snow storm as cover to move their soldiers into position. The general is outnumbered and commands a mixed force that includes a force if French Canadian Militia and volunteers from the towns citizens to augment his British Regulars and a few Sailors. He puts little faith in the effectiveness of his untried troops and his militia. There is only one thing he can be certain; the Americans will soon be coming in force.

battle-of-quebec-1775Major General Guy Carleton, military governor of the province of Quebec is a man who has seen more than his share of bloody conflict. As part of Wolf’s army, he fought the French on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls Quebec City. Experience gained from a long military career has taught him not to panic in the face of superior forces. Still he fears the Americans might have collaborators within the city.

“Could the People of the Town, and Seamen be depended on,” he wrote Lord Dartmouth, “I should flatter myself we might hold out till Navigation next Spring…but tho’ the severe weather is far advanced, we have so many Enemies within, and foolish People, Dupes to those Traitors (American Rebels), with the natural Fears of Men unused to war, I think our Fate extremely doubtful, to say nothing more.”

The Americans rebels on the other hand felt they had good reasons to be confident of victory. Most American political and military leaders believed the French Canadians, who had only been under British rule since 1760, would readily flock to the cause of independence. Assured in this belief, the Continental Congress authorized the Invasion of Canada in late June. By September, two separate American armies were moving north – one traveling up Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River towards Montreal and the other through Northern Maine and then up the Chaudière River to Quebec City. American General George Washington is certain General Carleton does not have sufficient forces to defend both Montreal and Quebec City simultaneously. If attacks from both armies were synchronized, then Carleton would have to abandon Montreal or be defeated piecemeal.

While the strategy seemed a good one, a number of things had gone wrong from the start. The army traveling north through Maine, under the command of Colonel Benedict Arnold and using inaccurate and outdated maps, underestimated the distance to Quebec by more than 200 miles. For the next six weeks, Arnold’s army struggled through hostile wilderness and endured terrible hardships. Their poorly built boats were wrecked in a flash flood that swept vital food and supplies away. They were often hindered by uncharted swamps, long portages around waterfalls, an early snow and famine. Arnold had started out from Cambridge Massachusetts with a force that numbered over 1,050, but arrived at Point Levis on the St. Lawrence River, opposite Quebec City with only 700 men remaining. Disease, death and desertion had wreaked havoc on his army.

General Richard Montgomery led the second American army, consisting of more than a 1,000 men, up Lake Champlain and into the Richelieu Valley. By early September he had reached Fort Saint Jean, about 20 miles southeast of Montreal on the Richelieu River. The fort’s residents, which included Canadian Militia and British Regulars, repelled the Americans first attack. Montgomery then settled in for a siege which he calculated would only take 5 days. It dragged on for 55 days. After a long bombardment which destroyed most of its buildings, Fort Saint Jean finally surrendered to Montgomery’s forces. With Fort Saint Jean gone, Montreal was practically defenseless.

Carleton, who had rushed a large number of his troops from Quebec to defend Montreal and Fort Saint John, was now left with only a small force insufficient to defend the city. Carleton had hoped a large contingent of the French Canadian population would join his forces and defend the province. What he got instead where a small number of volunteers and a stubborn indifference amongst the majority of the people. Why should they get involved in an English family feud? Both Carleton and the Americans had miscalculated. Left with no choice but to abandon Montreal to the Americans, Carleton’s men took time to spike the guns and destroy the remaining military stores. The general and what was left of his forces left Montreal and made their way to Quebec City.

At Sorel, halfway between Montreal and Trois-Rivieres, Carleton narrowly avoided being captured by another group of Americans who had set up a blockade. Thanks to the daring assistance of Captain Jean Baptiste Bouchette, a seasoned river pilot known as the “Wild Pigeon”, Carleton was able to slip past the blockade during the night in a whaleboat, dressed as a farmer, and made his way successfully back to Quebec City.

Benedict Arnold, who had already arrived at Quebec, marched his men to within a few hundred yards of the Citadel and taunted the garrison to come out and fight. He wrote a letter to Hector Theophilus de Cramahé, Lieutenant Governor and Carleton’s right hand man which read: “I am ordered by his Excellency General Washington to take possession of the town of Quebec. I do therefore, in the name of the United Colonies, demand immediate surrender of the town, fortifications and city of Quebec to the forces of the United Colonies under my command.” It took six days for his message to be delivered. His couriers were repeatedly turned back by musket fire.

Hector Theophilus de Cramahé was in charge of a frightened city. He despaired of enlisting many of the French habitants (common citizens, farmers) into the militia. Captain Thomas Ainslie of the British militia spoke well of Cramahé, calling him “indefatigable in putting the town in the proper state of defense. British and French militiamen now patrolled the streets. Naval personnel from Her Majesty’s Ships and crewmen from merchant vessels had been formed into a battalion. Cramahé gained support from the timely arrival of Colonel Allan Maclean and his regiment from Montreal. Maclean tightened discipline in the ranks and helped stiffen the resolve of the civilian population.

General Carleton arrived at Quebec City on November 19th. With the aid of Hector Cramahé and his staff, he began preparing what little defense he could for the vulnerable town. Montgomery soon joined Arnold with a force of more than 300 men from Montreal, the rest he had left to defend the city. They had no time to waste, Quebec’s harsh winter was closing in and to camp outside the city would mean risking death from exposure, and almost half of their army’s enlistments would expire on December 31st. When an attempt at bombardment proved futile, it was decided they would attack the city on the first stormy night.

Now in the early morning hours of December 31, the American Commanders have ideal conditions to put their attack plan in motion. At 2:00 am the muster was called in the Continental camp. General Montgomery with his 300 men would attack the city along the river from the west and Colonel Arnold with his larger force of 700 men would attack from the east. In the middle of the business district in Lower Town, the two columns would meet and turn north, heading up a winding road to Upper Town. At 4:00 am, Montgomery set off rockets signaling to Arnold that he was in position. Montgomery and his 300 men continued to advance along following a narrow path between the cliff and the St. Lawrence River, passing beneath the Cape Diamond Bastion and forced their way through two wooden stockades. The snow was now falling so hard that Montgomery had to squint to see the outline first house in Lower Town. What he could not see was his outnumbered enemy now only a few yards distant.

A small group of Canadian militia under the command of Captain Joseph Chabot and Lieutenant Aleixandre Picard, and a few sailors under Captain Adam Barnsfare, were on the alert. As the Americans approached, Chabot and Picard warned their citizen soldiers not to open fire until the command was given. Matches for the Captain Barnsfare’s cannons were lit. When the Americans were less then 50 yards from the house, the command was given. A devastating volley of canister, grapeshot and musket balls ripped thru the unsuspecting Americans, killing Montgomery, his aide-de-camp and a battalion commander. The panicked army fled back to their camp leaving their wounded and dead in the snow.

Benedict Arnold having seen the three signal rockets from Montgomery advanced with his main body towards the northern barricades. They were fired upon by Carleton’s ad hoc force manning the walls of the city. “We could see nothing but the blaze from their mussels of their muskets.” wrote American Private John Henry. Upon reaching a street barricade at Sault au Matelot, a musket ball tore into Arnold’s leg. He attempted to continue but soon gave up, allowing himself to be carried from the field. His men, now under Daniel Morgan’s command, fought their way through the first barricade and raced through the Lower Town, pouring over another unmanned barricade. They reached the rendezvous point and waited for Montgomery’s forces, unaware that Montgomery was already dead.

Carleton used these precious moments to reorganize his troops. When Morgan’s impatience finally got the better of him, he ordered his men to move on. Carleton was ready for him. The Americans staggered through the twisting streets leading to Upper Town as musket fire poured down on them from houses and barricades. Carleton, meanwhile, maneuvered some men into the unmanned barricade, which had been abandoned by the Americans. There was no escape route. The Americans had been cut off.

American Private John Henry further wrote: “Confined in a narrow street, hardly more than 20 feet wide… scarcely a ball, well aimed or otherwise, but must take effect upon us. The enemy having the advantage of the ground in front, a vast superiority of numbers and dry and better arms, gave them an irresistible power in so narrow a space…About nine o’clock, it was apparent to us all that we must surrender; it was done.”

The Americans had suffered heavy casualties. Their Commanding Officer, Richard Montgomery, was dead and over four hundred men had surrendered. The siege of the city would drag on into spring, but the Quebec garrison had supplies to sustain it. Arnold was finally forced to retreat with the arrival of fresh British troops. The invasion was over.

The Battle of Quebec was not the end of the invasion but it was the climax. It proved that the British could work effectively with their French Canadian allies. Men like General Guy Carleton, Lieuntenant Governor Hector Cramahé, Captain Joseph Chabot, Lieutenant Aleixandre Picard, Captain Adam Barnsfare, Captain Jean Baptiste Bouchette, Colonel Allan Maclean and others had showed courage, daring and tenacity in fighting off the invading American army. Canada was saved. In less than 40 years, the Americans again would invade Canada and again British Soldiers and French Canadian Militia would combine to defeat them.


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