- 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
The French, however, had been in Quebec in some strength. Montcalm had had regular soldiers to defend the town. Now, Maclean had only a handful of trained men—thirty-five marines, one or two gunners, and a few fusiliers. In addition, he had his Royal Highland Emigrants, whom he had recruited in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the summer; but they had only been under arms a few weeks.
The truth was that if Quebec was to be held, the main brunt would fall on civilians -merchants, civil servants, sailors, and fishermen. The town’s walls were long, and though the civilians had guns to fight off attack, they had very few experienced gunners.
On the other hand Quebec was a fortress that had never been taken by storm. Moncalm’s fatal error had been to march out from behind his strong protection and fight the British in straight combat. Furthermore, there was enough food in the city to last until spring, and adequate ammunition—if only the amateur garrison could succeed in firing it. The war council decided to fight, to hold Quebec to “the last extremity.”
There was still just time for a ship to get through to the Atlantic before the ice closed in. A naval officer, it was decided, would be sent to Britain to describe the exact situation. Pilots would go with him to bring in the relief forces on the off chance—which seemed remote at the moment —that the garrison could hold out until the ice melted. A secret signal—a blue pendant over a Union Jack and the firing of five guns—would inform an approaching fleet that the ships which remained, and the city itself, were still in British hands.
For four days after they paraded in front of the walls on the Plains of Abraham, Arnold’s men, quartered in nearby houses, besieged the town. Then, on the eighteenth, the men on duty on the walls saw the enemy trailing west across the snow in a long and ragged column. Reports came in that they had withdrawn to Pointe aux Trembles, twenty miles up the St. Lawrence, to wait for Montgomery.
By the morning of November 19, there was still no news in Quebec of Carleton or Montreal, but reports had arrived of Rebel plans to stop his withdrawal downriver. At Sorel, where the Berthier Islands split the waters of the St. Lawrence into narrow, rocky streams, the Americans had set up batteries of guns.
By then, Montreal—and more—was in Rebel hands. As soon as St. Johns had fallen, Carleton had known that he could not even mount a temporary defense of the city because of the lukewarm attitude of its residents. “It is obvious that as soon as the Rebels appear outside the town in force,” he had written to London, “the townspeople will give it up on the best terms they can procure. I shall try to retire the evil hour … though all my hopes of succour now begin to vanish.”
On the eleventh—eight days before Cramahé held his crisis council of war in the Château St. Louis—Carleton had been warned that the main body of Montgomery’s troops was approaching, and he had ordered his troops to evacuate Montreal. He had eleven ships of varying sizes, and their captains prepared for the run down the river that was certain to be strongly challenged. At dusk the vessels—loaded with ammunition, supplies, and more than a hundred fighting men, including nonprofessionals—weighed anchor and moved down the St. Lawrence under fire from Rebel guns on the south shore.
The next day one of the ships ran aground, and the little fleet had to heave to until it could be cleared. Then, that night, the easterly gale that had held Arnold down opposite Quebec roared up the river past Sorel. The British vessels had no alternative but to drop anchor and ride out the storm. But Carleton’s luck was bad. On the sixteenth, five days after they had left Montreal, the wind was still in the east. Until it veered west, the vessels would have no hope of running the gauntlet through the long narrows at Sorel—with Rebel guns pounding them at close range from both sides.
At last Carleton decided that he should go on ahead of the rest of his force and try to escape past the Rebels so that he could assume command in Quebec. Dressed as a Canadian peasant habitant, the Governor was transported by a whaler with muffled oars through the nine-mile narrows of the Berthier Islands. As the craft moved into the flickering pools of illumination from the Rebel fires on the banks, the crew stopped rowing and crouched down so that the boat resembled one of the big hunks of rotten timber that were always floating downstream.
Just past the town of Three Rivers the fugitives found at anchor a British armed brig, which took them the rest of the way to Quebec. By then, the British flotilla of vessels, held immobile by the wind, had been captured by the Rebels. More than a hundred fighting men—many of them British regulars needed in Quebec—had been taken prisoner.