- Historic Sites
The Siege Of Quebec, 1775–1776
The key to control of Canada was a city whose defenders doubted they could hold out for long once the American Rebels attacked
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
Unhappily, the Governor awaited the inevitable, although he did what little he could to postpone it. On October 19 Chambly was captured by the Rebels, and on November 2 St. Johns fell. There was nothing now to divert them from Montreal.
In Quebec, meanwhile, Cramahé was supervising the final preparations for the defense of the city. The high walls that reached round the upper part of the town between the two rivers had been repaired. Civilians were being trained to use the big guns on the ramparts that covered the approaches to the city over the wide plateau, the Plains of Abraham. Four merchant ships had been fitted out with cannon.
Threatened as it soon would be by Montgomery’s troops, Quebec was not in an enviable situation. But on November 3 the city’s prospects grew dramatically and unbelievably worse. News reached the Château St. Louis of an enormous danger from an entirely unexpected direction. A letter addressed to John Manir- an incorrect spelling, it was assumed rightly, for a Quebec merchant with Rebel sympathies named John Mercier—was seized from an Indian courier. It was from Benedict Arnold, who claimed that he was at Dead River with a force of “2,000 men … to restore liberty to our brethren of Canada"—anexaggeration; the force was closer to 750 Americans.
Dead River was south of Quebec in the vast rugged wilderness of Maine that, in November when the territory was snowbound, the British regarded as impassable. Although Arnold was magnifying his numbers, Cramahé and his advisers, as they considered his startling letter, had no way of knowing that.
As the British must have realized when they studied the maps, if Arnold truly had brought a force to Dead River, it meant that he had travelled with boats and baggage by an old Indian route leading from the Atlantic up the rapids-choked Kennebec River. This effort involved hauling their equipment over portages—one of twelve miles. To reach Quebec it would mean traversing Lake Megantic and the Chaudière River. In winter, for a force of men who were not all woodsmen, it was unbelievable.
However, Cramahé’s initial incredulity was soon dispelled. On November 9, just six days after the arrival of Arnold’s letter in Quebec, the Rebels were sighted from the city at Point Levisjust across the water. But they could not attempt a crossing in the canoes of the Indians who had joined them, for a gale was soon churning the broad river.
Although the weather checked Arnold, the St. Lawrence was not too rough for a flotilla of bigger boats under the command of Colonel Allan Maclean, who was returning to Quebec with the remnants of a small force that had failed abysmally in an attempt to relieve St. Johns. Maclean, who had raised a corps of loyalist emigrant Scots, was a professional soldier, and it was with some relief that Cramahc handed over to him the military command of the city.
On November 13 the gale blew itself out. That night, despite the British ships and the small craft that patrolled between them, Arnold and his men slipped across the river, landed at Wolfe’s Cove, and climbed the same cliffs— now made easier with a path—that the British had clambered up to reach the Plains of Abraham in the celebrated assault sixteen years earlier. By the time one of the British patrol boats detected them, they had almost completed landing on the north shore. As the boat approached to investigate, the Rebels opened fire, and the craft veered sharply to carry the alarm to the Lizard , the frigate anchored oil the town.
That morning the Rebels marched to within eight hundred yards of the city and gave three great cheers. The men watching them from the guns at the walls put their matches to the touchholes of the twenty-four-pounders, which were loaded with grape and canister shot. The guns flashed, the explosions following each other loudly in quick, uneven succession. For a few seconds smoke obscured the view from the ramparts. Then, as it cleared, the artillerymen saw that the Rebels were dropping back.
Later in the day Arnold sent a letler to the town under a flag of truce, demanding surrender “in the name of the united colonies.” “If I am obliged to carry the town by storm,” he warned, “you may expect every severity practised on such occasions and the merchants who may now save their property will probably be involved in the general ruin.”
During those critical hours, as they waited for Arnold to attack, the situation of the city seemed verygrave. All too soon thick sea ice would block the approach to the St. Lawrence, and no ships from England would be able to reach the town until the spring. Arnold, however, would soon be strongly supported. With Montreal on the point of surrender, it would not be long before Montgomery’s army advanced with its guns down the river to join the besiegers.
Cramahé summoned a council of war in the Château St. Louis to decide policy; present were Maclean, the captains of the naval ships, the masters of some of the cargo vessels, the colonels of the militia, and the town mayor. The anxious men in the big room in the gloomy château must have been only too conscious that sixteen years earlier, the French Field Marshal Louis de Montcalm had presided over a similar conference. Then it had been the British who were outside the walls.