The Siege Of Quebec, 1775–1776

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Sixteen years after General James Wolfe’s famous assault on Quebec, the city was subjected to another siege—and another storming—that, though less celebrated, was vitally important to Americans in the early months oj their revolution.

It was a dramatic episode in Revolutionary history that is exceptionally well documented. This article, based mainly on firsthand accounts by participants, has been adapted by Michael Pearson, an English author, from his new book about the Revolution, Those Damned Rebels , Io be published this winter by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The perspective may seem strange to some readers, since, as the title of the book suggests, the action is seen not from the American viewpoint but through the eyes of the British, who, in Canada in the winter of 1775, were in a situation that appeared very grave indeed.

On New Year’s Eve it began to snow again. The wind blew up suddenly from the northeast and howled cold across the icy wastes of northern Canada.

That night, on Quebec’s high, thick stone walls, the sentries—mainly civilians unused to the rigors of guard duty—huddled against the battlements for protection against the blizzard and eyed the lights they could see moving in the darkness: the lanterns of the besieging Rebels who encircled the upper part of the town.

 
 
 
 
 

The storming of the city was imminent. For three weeks the garrison had waited, tensed for attack under constant shelling. Every day reports had come in of the Rebels’ preparations—of the scaling ladders they had made, of the weather conditions that General Montgomery favored, of the assault points he had selected, of the reinforcements joining him.

In that grim December of 1775 the city of Quebec was the last small portion of Canada that the British still controlled. Early in September, some three months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, an invading army of nearly two thousand American Rebels, led by General Richard Montgomery—who had taken over command at the last minute from the ill Philip Schuyler—advanced up Lake Champlain across the Canadian border. St. Johns and Chambly—the two main towns on the Richelieu River that connected the lake to the St. Lawrence were soon under siege, and by October advance Rebel units were threatening Montreal.

On the morning of September 7 the news of the Rebel strike across the border reached the Château St. Louis in Quebec. Erom this majestic gray stone building with its round slate-roofed towers the British had ruled Canada for the sixteen years since they had wrested the province from the French.

Immediately, Sir Guy Carleton, Canada’s aggressive, buoyant governor, hurried to Montreal to organize what forward defense he could. In Quebec he left the lieutenant governor, Hector Cramahé—a rather anxious civil servant with little knowledge of military techniques with orders to prepare the city for siege.

By then Carleton knew that the only hope the British had of retaining even a toehold in Canada lay in Quebec, which—built as it was on the side of a cliff at the protective junction of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers—was brilliantly sited for defense. But the Governor, though normally optimistic by temperament, was gloomy about his chances of holding even that fortress city. “I think our fate extremely doubtful, to say nothing worse,” he was to write to London in November.

 

The British were still absorbing the first impact of the revolt. The armies that would be crossing the Atlantic in a few months’ time were still a subject of discussion in Whitehall. To protect the whole vastness of Canada, as reports of Rebel preparations streamed into Quebec that summer, Carleton had barely six hundred troops.

Certainly, there was little hope of reinforcement. All the way down the Atlantic coast, the royal governors had either sought refuge on British warships or were under arrest or, in one case, had joined the Rebels. There were troops in Boston—then an island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus—but they were threatened and outnumbered by the newly formed Continental Army that blocked all the land approaches to the town.

Carleton sent an urgent request for help to Boston, but he did not expect much in the way of practical response. In London, from 3,500 miles away, the problem of manpower in the province seemed relatively simple. The Earl of Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, had ordered Carleton to raise a force of two thousand Canadians; then, after mature reflection by the Cabinet, the figure was increased to three thousand. He even dispatched the equipment for them. But Whitehall was still living in a world of fantasy. The Canadians had declined to send delegates to the congress of Rebels in Philadelphia—who indiscreetly had expressed anti-Catholic sentiments in an appeal to the king—but they were not keen to fight them. Carleton’s recruitment drive was a failure. In fact, as he protested angrily, more Canadians joined the Rebels than enrolled in the service of the king—mostly Protestants, who were resentful because the Quebec Act had just brought recognition to the Catholic Church in the province but who were Canadians for all that.