THE QUEBEC CAMPAIGN 1759 – THE RIVER WAR Part I

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General View of Quebec from Point Levis, 1761

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By Stuart Reid

On 27 June 1759 the first British troops landed on the Isle de Orleans, in the very throat of the St Lawrence estuary. Quebec lay just four miles away across the water. Wolfe soon discovered that the French had anticipated his arrival and were busily digging in above the Beauport Shore in precisely the area where he had hoped to effect his landing. Nevertheless, he began landing his army in earnest unhindered by a poorly executed French attempt to destroy the fleet with fire-ships on the night of 28 June. The lie d’Orleans, served as an admirable and reasonably secure base-camp, but he needed to bring his men much closer to their objective if they were to fight. Dalling’s Light Infantry and the advance elements of Monckton’s Brigade were therefore put ashore at Beaumont, on the undefended south shore of the St Lawrence, on the evening of 29 June. The rest of the brigade, comprising the 15th, 43rd, 48th and 78th Foot, also landed there next morning and despite some harassment from Canadian militia in the woods marched westwards to seize a useful position at Point Levis, almost opposite Quebec itself.

Initially this landing was no more than a pre-emptive move aimed at denying the French the opportunity to place a battery on the promontory and so prevent Saunders’ ships from moving past the city and into the upper river. However, on 2 July, despite complaining of a painful bladder, Wolfe carried out a reconnaissance along the south shore and made the happy discovery that it would be possible to establish a battery of his own at Pointe aux Peres. This was just to the west of Point Levis and would allow the guns to fire directly into Quebec. This tactic had been used to good effect at Louisburg the year before.

While Wolfe was getting a feel for the lie of the land, Saunders was also carrying out a reconnaissance of his own and had some of his officers out charting the St Lawrence. As a result he had to advise the General of the previously unsuspected Beauport Bank. This was a wide expanse of rocky shallows that would prevent his ships coming in close enough to the Beauport shore to provide the necessary naval gunnery support for a landing there. Without that fire-support a landing would probably have little chance of success. Wolfe now turned his attention, as he had anticipated might be necessary, to the area above the city.

Major Scott’s Rangers and some 270 men detached from Murray’s Brigade (presumably his regimental light companies) were ordered to reconnoitre the north shore for a suitable landing place between Anse de Meres and St Michel, about three miles further upstream. At the same time, Townshend’s Brigade was placed on standby to launch a diversionary attack on the eastern flank of the Beauport Lines at Montmorency.

Murray duly reported back that a landing at St Michel appeared practicable and so in the early hours of the morning of 9 July all of the army’s grenadier companies were landed a short distance below the high falls at the mouth of the Montmorency River. As soon as the beachhead was secure Townshend’s Brigade followed. With the diversionary force now in place the second phase of the operation had to be delayed. Saunders had yet to wrest control of the basin from the French gunboats and floating batteries, and so get his ships above the city. Unsurprisingly Wolfe was decidedly unimpressed and expressed himself accordingly: ‘Amazing backwardness in these matters on the side of the fleet,’ he wrote. In the meantime therefore two of Murray’s battalions and the rest of the guns were also brought ashore at Montmorency.

On 15 July, two days after the bombardment of Quebec began, the grenadiers were again concentrated on the Isle de Orleans for an unspecified ‘particular Purpose’. On the 16th Wolfe had a conference with Saunders ‘concerning the projected Descent’ and afterwards wrote an extremely interesting letter to Brigadier Monckton at Point Levis, which at a first glance appears to be discussing an attack that was to be launched straight across the basin: ‘If the Rafts are found to answer, they will carry your attack directly across the River, opposite the right of the Enemy s encampment [as viewed from Monckton’s position at Beaumont]. But if the Rafts are defective, we must make the best shift we can, wh. the long Boats of the Fleet. I only wait the naval preparations – everything is ready on our side; and I flatter myself that the prodigious fire from hence [the batteries at Montmorency] will make the enterprise easy. There is a woody Gully upon the Right of the French Camp; The Highland Regt. might penetrate there & to the left of it & gain their Rank: the Redoubt must be vigorously attacked & kept, it is out of Musquet shot from their lines, & cou’d not either be supported by them or retaken when in our possession. The Corps of Troops encamped above Beauport, will probably move towards the upper attack, or if they do not, the road is open to us, & we shall fall upon them behind …

It is usually assumed by historians that both the ‘projected Descent’ discussed with Saunders and Monckton’s amphibious attack across the basin were to have been one and the same. Upon closer consideration, however, this interpretation is extremely doubtful to say the least. Firstly there is the casual reference in Monckton’s instructions to ‘the upper attack’. Moreover, on the night of 16 July the Admiral finally intended to run some of his ships past Quebec and into the upper river. It must, therefore, be this operation rather than Monckton’s attack that Wolfe was referring to when he spoke in the letter of awaiting the completion of the ‘naval preparations’. With the prospect of being able to effect a landing above the city at St Michel within a day or two at the most, it is quite inconceivable that he could have been planning to commit himself in the meantime to a costly frontal assault on the Beauport defences. Wolfe clearly intended that Monckton should instead launch nothing more than a brigade-sized diversionary attack against the Beauport position in order to distract attention away from that ‘upper attack’ at St Michel.

In the absence of this diversion, Wolfe quite reasonably assumed that the French reserves would be drawn away from above Beauport to deal with the landing at St Michel. However, should Monckton’s diversion be successful in fixing their attention, Wolfe would be able to march across and attack the rear of the French army. Alternatively, if the French did rush to meet him Monckton then had the option of converting his diversion into an actual assault on the denuded Beauport lines.

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