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|Battle of Quebec|
|Part of the American Revolutionary War|
British and Provincial forces attacking
Arnold's column in the Sault-au-Matelot
painting by C. W. Jefferys
| United Colonies|
1st Canadian Regiment
| Great Britain|
Province of Quebec - British Army and Canadian militia units
|Commanders and leaders|
| Richard Montgomery †|
Benedict Arnold (WIA)
Daniel Morgan (POW)
|1,800 regulars and militia|
|Casualties and losses|
|about 50 killed|
The Battle of Quebec (French: Bataille de Québec) was fought on December 31, 1775, between American Continental Army forces and the British defenders of Quebec City early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle was the first major defeat of the war for the Americans, and it came with heavy losses. General Richard Montgomery was killed, Benedict Arnold was wounded, and Daniel Morgan and more than 400 men were taken prisoner. The city's garrison, a motley assortment of regular troops and militia led by Quebec's provincial governor, General Guy Carleton, suffered a small number of casualties.
Montgomery's army had captured Montreal on November 13, and early in December they joined a force led by Arnold, whose men had made an arduous trek through the wilderness of northern New England. Governor Carleton had escaped from Montreal to Quebec, the Americans' next objective, and last-minute reinforcements arrived to bolster the city's limited defenses before the attacking force's arrival. Concerned that expiring enlistments would reduce his force, Montgomery made the end-of-year attack in a blinding snowstorm to conceal his army's movements. The plan was for separate forces led by Montgomery and Arnold to converge in the lower city before scaling the walls protecting the upper city. Montgomery's force turned back after he was killed by cannon fire early in the battle, but Arnold's force penetrated further into the lower city. Arnold was injured early in the attack, and Morgan led the assault in his place before he became trapped in the lower city and was forced to surrender. Arnold and the Americans maintained an ineffectual blockade of the city until spring, when British reinforcements arrived.
In the battle and the following siege, French-speaking Canadians were active on both sides of the conflict. The American forces received supplies and logistical support from local residents, and the city's defenders included locally raised militia. When the Americans retreated, they were accompanied by a number of their supporters; those who remained behind were subjected to a variety of punishments after the British re-established control over the province.
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, a small enterprising force led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured the key fortress at Ticonderoga on May 10. Arnold followed up the capture with a raid on Fort Saint-Jean not far from Montreal, alarming the British leadership there. These actions stimulated both British and rebel leaders to consider the possibility of an invasion of the Province of Quebec by the rebellious forces of the Second Continental Congress, and Quebec's governor, General Guy Carleton, began mobilizing the provincial defenses. After first rejecting the idea of an attack on Quebec, the Congress authorized the Continental Army's commander of its Northern Department, Major General Philip Schuyler, to invade the province if he felt it necessary. As part of an American propaganda offensive, letters from Congress and the New York Provincial Assembly were circulated throughout the province, promising liberation from their oppressive government. Benedict Arnold, passed over for command of the expedition, convinced General George Washington to authorize a second expedition through the wilderness of what is now the state of Maine directly to Quebec City, capital of the province.
The Continental Army began moving into Quebec in September 1775. Its goal, as stated in a proclamation by General Schuyler, was to "drive away, if possible, the troops of Great Britain" that "under the orders of a despotic ministry ... aim to subject their fellow-citizens and brethren to the yoke of a hard slavery." Brigadier General Richard Montgomery led the force from Ticonderoga and Crown Point up Lake Champlain, successfully besieging Fort St. Jean, and capturing Montreal on November 13. Arnold led a force of 1,100 men from Cambridge, Massachusetts on the expedition through Maine towards Quebec shortly after Montgomery's departure from Ticonderoga.
One significant expectation of the American advance into Quebec was that the large French Catholic Canadian population of the province and city would rise against British rule. Since the British took control of the province, during the French and Indian War in 1760, there had been difficulties and disagreements between the local French Catholics and the Protestant English-speaking British military and civilian administrations. However these tensions had been eased by the passage of the Quebec Act of 1774, which restored land and many civil rights to the Canadians (an act which had been condemned by the thirteen rebelling colonies). The majority of Quebec's French inhabitants chose not to play an active role in the American campaign, in large part because, encouraged by their clergy, they had come to accept British rule with its backing of the Catholic Church and preservation of French culture.
General Carleton had begun preparing the province's defenses immediately on learning of Arnold's raid on St. Jean. Although Carleton concentrated most of his modest force at Fort St. Jean, he left small garrisons of British regular army troops at Montreal and Quebec. Carleton followed the American invasion's progress, occasionally receiving intercepted communications between Montgomery and Arnold. Lieutenant Governor Hector Cramahé, in charge of Quebec's defenses while Carleton was in Montreal, organized a militia force of several hundred to defend the town in September. He pessimistically thought they were "not much to be depended on", estimating that only half were reliable. Cramahé also made numerous requests for military reinforcements to the military leadership in Boston, but each of these came to nought. Several troop ships were blown off course and ended up in New York, and Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, the commander of the fleet in Boston, refused to release ships to transport troops from there to Quebec because the approaching winter would close the Saint Lawrence River.
When definitive word reached Quebec on November 3 that Arnold's march had succeeded and that he was approaching the city, Cramahé began tightening the guard and had all boats removed from the south shore of the Saint Lawrence. Word of Arnold's approach resulted in further militia enlistments, increasing the ranks to 1,200 or more. Two ships arrived on November 3, followed by a third the next day, carrying militia volunteers from St. John's Island and Newfoundland that added about 120 men to the defense. A small convoy headed by HMS Lizard also arrived that day, from which a number of marines were added to the town's defenses.
On November 10, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Maclean, who had been involved in an attempt to lift the siege at St. Jean arrived with 200 men of his Royal Highland Emigrants. They had intercepted communications from Arnold to Montgomery near Trois-Rivières, and hurried to Quebec to help with its defense. The arrival of this experienced force boosted the morale of the town militia, and Maclean immediately took charge of the defenses.
In the wake of the fall of Fort St. Jean, Carleton abandoned Montreal and returned to Quebec City by ship, narrowly escaping capture. Upon his arrival on November 19, he immediately took command. Three days later, he issued a proclamation that any able-bodied man in the town who did not take up arms would be assumed to be a rebel or a spy, and would be treated as such. Men not taking up arms were given four days to leave. As a result, about 500 inhabitants (including 200 British and 300 Canadians) joined the defense.
Carleton addressed the weak points of the town's defensive fortifications: he had two log barricades and palisades erected along the Saint Lawrence shoreline, within the area covered by his cannons; he assigned his forces to defensive positions along the walls and the inner defenses; and he made sure his inexperienced militia were under strong leadership.
The men Arnold chose for his expedition were volunteers drawn from New England companies serving in the Siege of Boston. They were formed into two battalions for the expedition; a third battalion was composed of riflemen from Pennsylvania and Virginia under Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Morgan's command. The trek through the wilderness of Maine was long and difficult. The conditions were wet and cold, and the journey took much longer than either Arnold or Washington had expected. Bad weather and wrecked boats spoiled much of the expedition's food stores, and about 500 men of the original 1,100 died en route or turned back. Those who turned back, including one of the New England battalions, took many of the remaining provisions with them. The men who continued on were starving by the time they reached the first French settlements in early November. On November 9, the 600 survivors of Arnold's march from Boston to Quebec arrived at Point Levis, on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence opposite Quebec City. Despite the condition of his troops, Arnold immediately began to gather boats to make a crossing. He was prepared to do so on the night of November 10, but a storm delayed him for three days. Once on the other side of the Saint Lawrence, Arnold moved his troops onto the Plains of Abraham, about 1.5 miles (2 km) from the city walls.
The troops approaching Quebec's walls were significantly under-equipped. Arnold had no artillery, each of his men carried only five cartridges, more than 100 muskets were unserviceable, and the men's clothing had been reduced to rags. Despite being outnumbered two to one, Arnold demanded the city's surrender. Both envoys sent were shot at by British cannons, signifying that the demand had been rebuked. Arnold concluded that he could not take the city by force, so he blockaded the city on its west side. On November 18, the Americans heard a (false) rumour that the British were planning to attack them with 800 men. At a council of war, they decided that the blockade could not be maintained, and Arnold began to move his men 20 miles (32 km) upriver to Pointe-aux-Trembles ("Aspen Point") to wait for Montgomery, who had just taken Montreal.
On December 1, Montgomery arrived at Pointe-aux-Trembles. His force consisted of 300 men from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd New York regiments, a company of artillery raised by John Lamb, about 200 men recruited by James Livingston for the 1st Canadian Regiment, and another 160 men led by Jacob Brown who were remnants of regiments disbanded due to expiring enlistments. These were supplemented several days later by a few companies detached by Major General David Wooster, whom Montgomery had left in command at Montreal. The artillery Montgomery brought included four cannons and six mortars, and he also brought winter clothing and other supplies for Arnold's men; the clothing and supplies were a prize taken when most of the British ships fleeing Montreal were captured. The commanders quickly turned towards Quebec, and put the city under siege on December 6. Montgomery sent a personal letter to Carleton demanding the city's surrender, employing a woman as the messenger. Carleton declined the request and burned the letter unread. Montgomery tried again ten days later, with the same result. The besiegers continued to send messages, primarily intended for the populace in the city, describing the situation there as hopeless, and suggesting that conditions would improve if they rose to assist the Americans.
On December 10, the Americans set up their largest battery of artillery 700 yards (640 m) from the walls. The frozen ground prevented the Americans from entrenching the artillery, so they fashioned a wall out of snow blocks. This battery was used to fire on the city, but the damage it did was of little consequence. Montgomery realized he was in a very difficult position, because the frozen ground prevented the digging of trenches, and his lack of heavy weapons made it impossible to breach the city's defenses. The enlistments of Arnold's men were expiring at the end of the year, and no ammunition was on the way from the colonies. Furthermore, it was very likely that British reinforcements would arrive in the spring, meaning he would either have to act or withdraw. Montgomery believed his only chance to take the city was during a snowstorm at night, when his men could scale the walls undetected.
While Montgomery planned the attack on the city, Christophe Pélissier, a Frenchman living near Trois-Rivières, came to see him. Pélissier was a political supporter of the American cause who operated the St. Maurice Ironworks. He and Montgomery discussed the idea of holding a provincial convention to elect representatives to Congress. Pélissier recommended against this until after Quebec City had been taken, as the habitants would not feel free to act in that way until their security was better assured. The two agreed that Pélissier's ironworks would provide munitions (ammunition, cannonballs, and the like) for the siege. This Pélissier did until the Americans retreated in May 1776, at which time he also fled, eventually returning to France.
A snowstorm arrived on the night of December 27, prompting Montgomery to prepare the troops for the attack. However, the storm subsided, and Montgomery called off the assault. That night, a sergeant from Rhode Island deserted, carrying the plan of attack to the British. Montgomery consequently drafted a new plan; this one called for two feints against Quebec's western walls, to be led by Jacob Brown and James Livingston, while two attacks would be mounted against the lower town. Arnold would lead one attack to smash through the defenses at the north end of the lower town, and Montgomery would follow along the Saint Lawrence south of the town. The two forces would meet in the lower town and then launch a combined assault on the upper town by scaling its walls. The new plan was revealed only to the senior officers.
A storm broke out on December 30, and Montgomery once again gave orders for the attack. Brown and Livingston led their militia companies to their assigned positions that night: Brown by the Cape Diamond bastion, and Livingston outside St. John's Gate. When Brown reached his position between 4 am and 5 am, he fired flares to signal the other forces, and his men and Livingston's began to fire on their respective targets. Montgomery and Arnold, seeing the flares, set off for the lower town.
Montgomery led his men down the steep, snow-heaped path towards the outer defenses. The storm had turned into a blizzard, making the advance a struggle. Montgomery's men eventually arrived at the palisade of the outer defenses, where an advance party of carpenters sawed their way though the wall. Montgomery himself helped saw through the second palisade, and led 50 men down a street towards a two-story building. The building formed part of the city's defenses, and was in fact a blockhouse occupied by 15 Quebec militia armed with muskets and cannons. The defenders opened fire at close range, and Montgomery was killed instantly, shot through the head by a burst of grapeshot. The few men of the advance party who survived fled back towards the palisade; only Aaron Burr and a few others escaped unhurt. Many of Montgomery's officers were injured in the attack; one of the few remaining uninjured officers led the survivors back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving Montgomery's body behind.
While Montgomery was making his advance, Arnold advanced with his main body towards the barricades of the Sault-au-Matelot at the northern end of the lower town. They passed the outer gates and some British gun batteries undetected. However, as the advance party moved around the Palace Gate, heavy fire broke out from the city walls above them. The height of the walls made it impossible to return the defenders' fire, therefore Arnold ordered his men to run forward. They advanced down a narrow street, where they once again came under fire as they approached a barricade. Arnold received a shot in the ankle as he was organizing his men in an attempt to take the barricade and was carried to the rear, after transferring command of his detachment to Daniel Morgan. Under Morgan's command, they captured the barricade, but had difficulty advancing further because of the narrow twisting streets and damp gunpowder, which prevented their muskets from firing. Morgan and his men holed up in some buildings to dry out their powder and rearm, but they eventually came under increasing fire; Carleton had realized the attacks on the northern gates were feints and began concentrating his forces in the lower town. A British force of 500 sallied from the Palace Gate and reoccupied the first barricade, trapping Morgan and his men in the city. With no avenue of retreat and under heavy fire, Morgan and his men surrendered. The battle was over by 10 am.
This was the first defeat suffered by the Continental Army. Carleton reported 30 Americans killed and 431 taken prisoner, including about two-thirds of Arnold's force. He also wrote that "many perished on the River" attempting to get away. Allan Maclean reported that 20 bodies were recovered in the spring thaw the following May. Arnold reported about 400 missing or captured, and his official report to Congress claimed 60 killed and 300 captured. British casualties were comparatively light. Carleton's initial report to General William Howe mentioned only five killed or wounded, but other witness reports ranged as high as 50. Carleton's official report listed five killed and 14 wounded.
General Montgomery's body was recovered by the British on New Year's Day 1776 and was given a simple military funeral on January 4, paid for by Lieutenant Governor Cramahé. The body was returned to New York in 1818.
Arnold refused to retreat; despite being outnumbered three to one, the sub-freezing temperature of the winter and the mass departure of his men after their enlistments expired, he laid siege to Quebec. The siege had relatively little effect on the city, which Carleton claimed had enough supplies stockpiled to last until May. Immediately after the battle, Arnold sent Moses Hazen and Edward Antill to Montreal, where they informed General Wooster of the defeat. They then travelled on to Philadelphia to report the defeat to Congress and request support. (Both Hazen and Antill, English-speakers originally from the Thirteen Colonies who had settled in Quebec, went on to serve in the Continental Army for the rest of the war.) In response to their report, Congress ordered reinforcements to be raised and sent north. During the winter months, small companies of men from hastily recruited regiments in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut made their way north to supplement the Continental garrisons at Quebec and Montreal. The presence of disease in the camp outside Quebec, especially smallpox, took a significant toll on the besiegers, as did a general lack of provisions. Smallpox ravaged Montgomery and Arnold's forces largely due to exposure to infected civilians released from Quebec. Governor Carleton condoned this practice, realizing it would severely weaken the American siege effort. In early April, Arnold was replaced by General Wooster, who was himself replaced in late April by General John Thomas.
Governor Carleton, despite appearing to have a significant advantage in manpower, chose not to attack the American camp, and remained within Quebec's walls. Montgomery, in analysing the situation before the battle, had observed that Carleton served under James Wolfe during the 1759 Siege of Quebec, and knew that the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm had paid a heavy price for leaving the city's defenses, ultimately losing the city and his life in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. British General James Murray had also lost a battle outside the city in 1760; Montgomery judged that Carleton was unlikely to repeat their mistakes. On March 14, Jean-Baptiste Chasseur, a miller from the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence, reached Quebec City and informed Carleton there were 200 men on the south side of the river ready to act against the Americans. These men and more were mobilized to make an attack on an American gun battery at Point Levis, but an advance guard of this Loyalist militia was defeated in the March 1776 Battle of Saint-Pierre by a detachment of pro-American local militia.
When General Thomas arrived, the conditions in the camp led him to conclude that the siege was impossible to maintain, and he began preparing to retreat. The arrival on May 6 of a small British fleet carrying 200 regulars (the vanguard of a much larger invasion force), accelerated the American preparations to depart. The retreat was turned into a near rout when Carleton marched these fresh forces, along with most of his existing garrison, out of the city to face the disorganized Americans. The American forces, ravaged by smallpox (which claimed General Thomas during the retreat), eventually retreated all the way back to Fort Ticonderoga. Carleton then launched a counteroffensive to regain the forts on Lake Champlain. Although he defeated the American fleet in the Battle of Valcour Island and regained control of the lake, the rear guard defense managed by Benedict Arnold prevented further action to capture Ticonderoga or Crown Point in 1776.
On May 22, even before the Americans had been completely driven from the province, Carleton ordered a survey to identify the Canadians who had helped the American expedition in and around Quebec City. François Baby, Gabriel-Elzéar Taschereau, and Jenkin Williams travelled the province and counted the Canadians who actively provided such help; they determined that 757 had done so. Carleton was somewhat lenient with minor offenders, and even freed a number of more serious offenders on the promise of good behaviour; however, once the Americans had been driven from the province, measures against supporters of the American cause became harsher, with forced labour to repair American destruction of infrastructure during the army's retreat being a frequent punishment. These measures had the effect of minimizing the public expression of support for the Americans for the rest of the war.
Between May 6 and June 1, 1776, nearly 40 British ships arrived at Quebec City. They carried more than 9,000 soldiers under the command of General John Burgoyne, including about 4,000 German soldiers; so-called Hessians from Brunswick and Hanau under the command of Baron Friedrich Adolf Riedesel. These forces, some of which having participated in Carleton's counteroffensive, spent the winter of 1776–77 in the province, putting a significant strain on the population, which numbered only about 80,000. Many of these troops were deployed in 1777 for Burgoyne's campaign for the Hudson Valley.
Three current United States Army National Guard units (Company A of the 69th Infantry Regiment, the 181st Infantry Regiment, and the 182nd Infantry) trace their lineage to American units that participated in the Battle of Quebec.
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