Defending Quebec from an American attack.
A 1777 French map depicting the points of action in and around Quebec.
To Arnold and his ragged men the fortress city must have seemed a Gibraltar indeed, but with only about 600 men to do the job, Arnold did not hesitate to summon the city to surrender. Allan MacLean, however, was unimpressed, and both Arnold’s first and second messengers were greeted with an eighteen-pound round shot, the first “splattering the American envoy with dirt,” the second passing just over his head in “a very straight direction.”
Other grim facts faced Arnold. He had no artillery, only five cartridges per man remained, and over 100 muskets were unserviceable. In the light of the situation, he settled for a blockade of the city on its west side. On 18 November the Americans got word that MacLean was planning a sortie with 800 men. A council of war then concluded that even the blockade was no longer practicable. The next day Arnold began withdrawing his whole force to Pointe aux Trembles (Aspen Point) twenty miles upriver, where the men could find shelter. On the same day that the Americans disappeared from the Plains of Abraham (19 November), Guy Carleton entered Quebec to salvoes of saluting cannon.
Two weeks passed before Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, the overall force commander, arrived at Pointe aux Trembles. At nine o’clock on the night of 2 December a boat put out in the dark from the schooner that had just arrived from Montreal. Arnold waited to turn over command to the respected Montgomery. In formal manner he stood in front of a double-ranked honor guard lined up in the foot-deep snow. The flickering light from torches reflected from the snow and lit up the rocky beach. When the bow of the boat rasped across the rocks, commands rang out and Arnold’s detachment snapped to attention and presented arms. Arnold saluted and Montgomery, stepping ashore, returned the salute.
What Arnold’s men saw of their new commander—most of them on the following day—they liked. “Noticeably pock-marked, but well-limbed, tall and handsome, with an air and manner that designated the real soldier,” recorded John Joseph Henry in his journal. Montgomery has been further described as having “a bright, magnetic face, and winning manner.” There is no doubt, too, that his air of command, while not inviting familiarity, was pleasant yet forceful. What is more, Montgomery returned the men’s approbation. In a letter to Schuyler (still in overall command of American forces in Canada) he wrote, “I find Colonel Arnold’s corps an exceeding fine one, inured to fatigue . . . there is a style among them much superior to what I have used to see in this campaign.”
Montgomery had brought with him more than a pleasant manner. In several other craft following his schooner were over 300 men and a supply of ammunition, clothing, and provisions, as well as much-needed artillery. No doubt the greatest morale builder for Arnold’s ragged, half-shod men was the clothing. Montgomery had captured all the winter uniforms of the 7th and 26th British regiments—long white overcoats, heavy leggings, moccasins, and cloth caps with fur tails. With the initial distribution of the clothing Montgomery made a short but effective speech, which was answered with huzzahs.
Montgomery and Arnold wasted no time in returning to Quebec with their reorganized forces. They took up the siege, with Arnold’s positions on the north in the Saint Roche suburbs that had been burned by Mac-Lean as part of his defensive preparations, while Montgomery held the plains between Saint Roche and Cape Diamond. Montgomery then sent a personal letter to Carleton with the standard demand for surrender, this time using a woman as a messenger, with instructions to hand it to no other than the governor himself. But even she failed. He called for a drummer and commanded, “Take that pair of tongs and throw it into the fire.” This done, he sent the woman back to Montgomery.
Ten days later Montgomery tried again, with the same result. Montgomery, however, was not relying on surrender demands; he was busy getting his artillery batteries into position. On the night of 10 December his biggest battery was set up 700 yards from the walls. The frozen ground prohibited entrenching, so gabions were filled with snow, then soaked with water, which froze them into solid walls. But Montgomery’s six- and twelve-pounder guns and howitzers were too light to have an effect on the walls; no more, a Quebecois commented, “than peas would have against a plank.”
Montgomery sat down to evaluate his situation. His conclusions were anything but pleasing. Since he lacked siege artillery, there was no way to breach Quebec’s walls for an assault. He couldn’t dig siege trenches and parallels in the frozen ground. Arnold’s men’s enlistments were up at the end of December, and with the departure of the New England troops would go the bulk of his force. No resupply of ammunition was forthcoming from the colonies, and his Continental paper money was worthless in Canada. Moreover, he couldn’t wait for spring, because it would bring the thaws that would break up the ice in the Saint Lawrence, a sure herald of the coming of British reinforcements.
The realistic Montgomery had long been aware that he could never take Quebec by siege. As early as 4 November he had written Schuyler of his intention to attack the Lower Town. So Montgomery the professional had no trouble in deciding to take Quebec by storm. The other Montgomery, the leader of a motley militia army, was having trouble securing popular approval (that old New England convention) to attack. Many New Englanders held back because of differences between their leaders, mainly between Arnold and Major John Brown. Montgomery took the situation in hand by addressing the men at parade to such obvious effect that their patriotism overcame their reluctance to join in the proposed attack.
Montgomery and Arnold now had to wait for a dark night and snow if his small force, now less than a thousand men, were to succeed in storming the city. The night of 27 December was overcast and snow began to fall. But while the Americans were moving to assembly areas the sky cleared and the moon came out. Montgomery had to call off the attack, and after the weather reports he got more bad news. A Rhode Island sergeant, Stephen Singleton, had deserted and doubtless had carried the plan of attack to the British.
Montgomery revised the methods of attack but retained as the main objective the Lower Town. He added two feints against Quebec’s western walls. His new plan called for two converging attacks on the Lower Town. Arnold would mount a northern attack from the suburbs of Saint Roche, smash through the barriers at the north end of the Lower Town, and link up with Montgomery in or near the street called Sault au Matelot. Montgomery’s attack would move along the shoreline of the Saint Lawrence from Wolfe’s Cove, pass Cape Diamond, break into the Lower Town, and head toward the Sault au Matelot. When the converging forces had linked up, they would make a combined attack to take the Upper Town. The two feints were to be made against Saint John’s gate (Porte Saint Jean) and the Cape Diamond bastion. After the new plan had been confided to senior officers, Montgomery had to continue waiting for his black night with a snowstorm. That night was not long in coming.
Inside the fortress city, Carleton was well aware that the Lower Town was Quebec’s most vulnerable section. He blocked the Sault au Matelot with two formidable log barricades covered by cannon. To protect the Lower Town in the south he erected palisades along the Saint Lawrence shoreline. The inner one was covered by a battery of four three-pounder cannons positioned in a blockhouse made from an old brewery. That little battery was fated to have an effect on the coming battle out of all proportion to its size. Carleton had assigned his forces defensive positions along the walls and inner defenses, using to best advantage his 1,800 men.
Saturday morning, 30 December, was clear and cold, but in the afternoon the sky darkened and a rising wind brought the first snowflakes. By nightfall it was blowing a thick snow that increased with the darkness, drifting to two and three feet. The snowfall was the common signal the American units had been waiting for. At 2:00 A.M. on the last day of the year they began moving to their assembly areas.
In the suburbs of Saint Roche, Benedict Arnold stood in a shed under lantern light, peering over Captain Oswald’s shoulder while he checked off the units as their captains reported in. In the south Richard Montgomery had finished a letter to his wife Janet: “I wish it were well over with all my heart, and I sigh for home like a New Englander.” For a moment this man who loved farm life was back on his land at Kings Bridge. Then the soldier took over; General Montgomery shrugged on his greatcoat and went out in the storm to take command of his 300 men assembling on the Plains of Abraham.
Montgomery caught sight of the brief flare of the rockets fired by Captain Jacob Brown to signal the launching of his feint attack against the Cape Diamond bastion. He led the way down the steep, snow-heaped path that descended from the plains down to Wolfe’s Cove, followed by his three aides: Macpherson, Cheeseman, and Burr. Behind them came Colonel Donald Campbell, the second in command. The storm had become a blizzard whose wind carried the clanging of alarm bells in the city; the rockets had signaled the alarm to the defenders.
The descent of the mile-long path had been harrowing enough in the howling darkness, but the next two miles along the shoreline were even worse. The frozen river had piled up massive heaps of ice slabs that forced the single file of men to detour up against the rocky cliff sides at every turn. The men carrying the clumsy scaling ladders had the hardest time of all because they had to push or pull their ladders over the sharp slabs of ice or around the snow-covered rocks on the steep slopes. And all the way the wind drove the snow into eyes that were straining to find a way in the black night. Under great difficulties, Montgomery passed Cape Diamond; farther on, near a limit called the Prés de Ville, he could see through the driving snow the palisade of the outer barrier.
The carpenters with the advance party quickly hacked and sawed down four posts of the undefended palisade. The general was the first through the opening, followed by his aides. Keeping left against the cliff slope, Montgomery came around a curve to the second palisade. He took a saw from a carpenter and cut through the first two posts himself. Followed by only fifty men, he slipped through the opening and slowly made his way up the narrow street. He reached a point where, peering through the falling snow, he could make out the dim outline of a two-story building about a hundred paces ahead. No guards or sentries were visible. Had they fled along with the defenders of the palisades? He waved his storming party forward, drew his sword, and strode ahead for about fifty paces. Then he broke into a run, the others at his heels. A blinding yellow flash burst from the front of the blockhouse, and a burst of grapeshot killed Montgomery instantly, shot through the head. He lay on his back in the snow, one arm still extended, a dozen men dead behind his body. The storming party had been wiped out; only Aaron Burr and a couple of others had escaped unhurt.
That ended the attack. Colonel Campbell called a council of officers who, it was said, “justified his receding from the attack.” The column turned around, leaving the bodies of Montgomery and the others. It retraced its grim path through the storm back to the Plains of Abraham. No word of Montgomery’s death and the retreat reached Arnold or any of his men until after the battle.
At Saint Roche, Arnold checked off his units, finding only Captain Dearborn’s company unaccounted for. Unwilling to wait any longer, Arnold left orders for Dearborn to catch up, and, clutching a musket, he led his column off in single file at 4:00 A.M. His advance guard consisted of twenty-five men; following them came Captain John Lamb with forty artillerymen dragging a six-pounder gun on a sled. Next came the three rifle companies led, respectively, by Captain Morgan, Lieutenant Steele, and Captain Hendricks. The main body consisted of the New England musketmen, followed by a mixed bag of some forty Canadians and Indians. Arnold’s plan was to attack the first barricade with Lamb’s cannon, then to send the riflemen to flank the barricade on both sides.
Unknown to Arnold, the feint against Saint John’s gate conducted by Colonel Livingston’s poorly motivated Canadians was a fiasco: the men had fled as soon as their fire had been returned by the gate’s defenders. Farther south, Captain Brown’s men did better. They stood their ground, maintaining a rolling fire against the Cape Diamond bastion. As it turned out, however, the feints fooled no one, least of all Carleton.
Arnold’s 600 men trotted along, keeping parallel to the north wall, and were able to pass the Palace gate and a two-gun battery undetected. However, where the advance party came abreast of a row of buildings beyond the battery, a fierce fire of musketry broke out from the walls above them, causing some casualties. There was no way to return the fire, so Arnold pushed on, taking no time to attend to casualties. “Let the dead bury the dead” had been the watchword from the start. So the column simply ran the gauntlet for 600 yards under the galling fire.
When the column reached the quay along the river, it had to thread its way through a network of hawser cables stretching from houses and bollards out to moored ships. After passing those obstacles, Arnold and the advance party entered a narrow street where they were met with “a smart discharge of musketry.” The riflemen took cover against the housefronts and returned the fire. This was the first barricade, which, unknown to them, was only lightly defended.
Arnold, with his usual dash, was everywhere, stopping the useless fusillade against the barrier and organizing the assault to take the barricade. Since Captain Lamb’s cannon had been abandoned back in a snowdrift Arnold decided to lead a frontal assault himself. As he was shouting his commands for men to follow him, he felt a rasp of pain that stopped him in his tracks. A ricocheting bullet had struck his left leg below the knee, torn along the leg bone, and lodged in his Achilles tendon. Though he tried to prop himself up on his musket and shout the men forward, his men, seeing him wounded, held back. As Arnold was being carried to the rear, Morgan came up. Though he was a captain, the field officers turned over the command to him. Later he was to acknowledge modestly that their acclaim “reflected credit on their judgement.”
Morgan shouted for a ladder to assault the barrier just as a two-gun battery opened up on him. The first two volleys were ineffective. Morgan led his men up the first ladder. He was almost over the barricade when a blast from the defenders’ muskets hit the ladder and blew him backward. A bullet went through his cap, another grazed his cheek, and his beard was singed by powder grains. Morgan was back on his feet in a flash; he clambered up the ladder again and flung himself over the top of the barricade. He tumbled to the ground, rolled under the muzzle of a British cannon to dodge the bayonets, and was saved only by Lieutenant Heth and Cadet Porterfield, who had swarmed over the wall behind him. The defenders ran into a house and Morgan followed, dashing around to the rear door. He declared them surrounded and took the surrender of their Captain McCloud.
Morgan and his riflemen pressed on and entered the Sault au Matelot. About two hundred yards down the narrow street they could see the second barricade and the cannon platform behind it. Incredibly, the sally port was open. While the Americans were still staring, they heard shouts of “Vive la liberté!” from windows and doorways; the Québécois in the street were demonstrably friendly. With the citizens sympathetic and the barricade undefended, the way to the Lower Town was open.
Morgan then made his first mistake. In front of the undefended barricade, in the first faint light of day, with the wind whipping snow in their faces, he called a council of war. He was for going on, but his officers counseled against a further advance. Later he would recall, “Here I was overruled by sound judgment and good reasoning.” For one thing, his orders specified that he was to wait for Montgomery. Further, he couldn’t take his 150 prisoners along. They outnumbered his riflemen, and if he released them they could fall back to the first barricade and cut off his retreat. Both Montgomery and the main body must be close behind, and when they all joined forces they could take the Upper Town. So Morgan hesitated and gave in. “I gave up my own opinion, and lost the town”—how simply put, and what a simple truth! He had afforded Carleton, now aware of Montgomery’s disaster, time to dispatch Colonel Caldwell to stop the Americans at the second barricade.
Morgan went back to find the main body. He found Lieutenant Colonel Greene and Major Meigs with 200 men; all of them had been lost in side streets and byways when their guides had failed them. Morgan led them forward to the second barricade, and now, belatedly, decided to advance through the obstacle to the Lower Town. Meanwhile, one of Colonel Caldwell’s officers was massing a detachment behind the second barricade and preparing to sally out and pin down the Americans. That officer, Lieutenant Anderson, debouched from the gate and called on the Americans to surrender. Morgan snatched up a rifle and shot him through the head. After a pause, the fiercest firefight of the battle broke out. As Morgan’s men exchanged fusillades with the Canadians, others packed down mounds of snow on which they could set their ladders. Morgan and his best leaders—Hendricks, Steele, Humphreys, Heth, Greene, and Lamb among them—tried to scale the barrier but were blasted back by a hail of grapeshot and bullets.
Riflemen broke into the lower story of a stone house from which their fire could reach the defenders. The Canadian Colonel Caldwell saw the tactical importance of the house and ordered a detachment to use a captured ladder to get into the upper story before the Americans. The Canadians got inside the second floor and drove the Americans from the house with their bayonets. Other riflemen, firing from windows down the street, drove the gunners from their firing platform. The Canadian musket fire now increased in such intensity that the American toll of casualties rose. The American officers, even Morgan, could no longer exhort their men to come out of the houses and renew the attack.
Morgan ordered the men around him to take cover in the houses while he conferred again with his senior officers. Morgan argued for continuing the fight, but there was an unhesitating consensus for an immediate retreat. Yet even then their fate was being sealed. Carleton, informed that Colonel Caldwell’s Canadians were holding back the Americans, had ordered Captain Laws with 200 men and two fieldpieces to move down from the Palace gate and cut off the American rear from the direction of Sault au Matelot. Although the overzealous Laws charged ahead of his men and became an American prisoner, the rest of his men soon arrived. At a final hasty conference, Morgan urged the commanders to try to cut their way out through Laws’s men, but a majority insisted on holding out in the hope of being relieved by Montgomery.
By this time—sometime after 9:00 A.M.—Laws’s gunners had gotten a nine-pounder in position where it could sweep the street or batter down house walls. While the American officers continued to argue, men began to give up, holding their musket butts out of doors and windows in sign of surrender. Finally Lieutenant Colonel Greene, stepping in, made a formal offer of surrender, and it was accepted. Americans were routed out of houses to be lined up and marched away as prisoners.
But not Dan Morgan. He set his back against a housefront, and with tears of rage and frustration streaming down his face, defied his enemies. Canadians were calling on him to hand over his sword or be shot, while his men were shouting at him, begging him to give up before he was killed. The scene ended when Morgan spotted a man in black among the crowd of onlookers. When Morgan was assured that the man was a priest, he bellowed, “Then I give my sword to you. But not a scoundrel of these cowards shall take it out of my hands.”
The three-hour battle for the Sault au Matelot was over. With its end went all hope of taking Quebec by storm. The American losses were 60 killed or wounded and 426 captured. Among the prisoners were Captain Dearborn’s entire company, which had been cut off while trying to catch up to Arnold’s column and forced to surrender. Carleton’s losses were insignificant: 5 killed and 13 wounded out of his garrison of 1,800.
When one reflects on the failure to take Quebec by storm, it is tempting to play the game of “what if.” What if the gallant Montgomery had not been struck down? What if Arnold had not suffered the wound that removed him from command? What if Morgan had shown the moral courage to match his physical courage in the moment that called for bold decision? It may seem reasonable to hypothesize that a reversal of any of those three misfortunes might have made Canada a fourteenth colony. But after all, the hard reality is that the attack on Quebec turned out to be what Wellington was to say of Waterloo: “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” And that is how Quebec must remain in history—a near thing.
What followed in the months after the failure at Quebec is a dismal tale. An indomitable Arnold held out, trying to keep up the semblance of a siege until he could get the reinforcements he pleaded for. When the reinforcements eventually came, it was the old story of too little too late, never enough at any time to enable Arnold and the commanders who succeeded him to mount an effective offensive. The three generals who followed Arnold in command—Wooster, Thomas, and Sullivan—ranged in performance from mediocre to unfortunate. Then the arrival of General Burgoyne at Quebec in early May 1776 brought Carleton’s forces up to 13,000 men. The American effectives in Canada never numbered over 5,000 at any time, although a total of 8,000 men had been committed at various stages throughout the invasion.
Finally, after further severe reverses, the demoralized remnants of the American army straggled into Crown Point in mid-July 1776. Just ten months after the first expedition had left there to conquer Canada, the invasion of Canada was over.