- 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
As soon as Carleton assumed command of the city, he took action against the Rebel sympathizers, who were a constant threat. By proclamation he ordered every male resident to enroll in the militia, quit the city, or risk prosecution as a spy. By the end of November his garrison of sailors and civilians—supported by his few precious regulars—amounted to eighteen hundred untrained, undrilled men. The numbers that Montgomery could deploy have been the subject of conflict. There were probably about a thousand Americans—Arnold’s men plus the three hundred Montgomery brought with him from Montreal. Some historians have doubted the presence of Canadians, but according to reports in Quebec at the time, they added at least some hundreds to the Rebel General’s force.
Tensely, during those last days of November, the garrison in Quebec waited for the return of the Rebels. Snow fell heavily. Ice swirled down the river. Rumors abounded.
On December 2 a man was reported for making alarmist speeches to the superstitious and highly credulous habitants. Already they had been astonished by the light clothing worn by Arnold’s men after the journey that, with some grounds, they regarded as miraculous. The provocateur had played on the French word toile (“linen“) and suggested it should be tôle (“iron plate“). The belief that the Americans were clad in vests of musket-proof sheet iron was soon spreading fast.
On Carleton’s orders one of Quebec’s huge gates was hauled open. Drummers lined the entrance on both sides. A jeering crowd gathered to watch. To the noise of the rolling drums, with the beat emphasizing every step he took, the man was made to walk out of the town.
On December 4 reports filtered through the city that Montgomery had joined Arnold at Pointe aux Trembles with “many cannon” and “4,500 men.” As usual, the rumor turned out to be an exaggeration, but on the following day the sentries on the wall saw in the distance the long American column—the combined forces of Montgomery and Arnold—approaching across the snow on the Plains of Abraham. Not long afterward the bateaux carrying the guns and ammunition were spotted on the river by a naval patrol boat.
The two American forces deployed before the town. Arnold’s men—who had now abandoned their awesome “tôle ” shirts for captured British winter clothing that Montgomery had brought up—occupied the suburbs of St. Roche to the north. Montgomery’s troops camped on the plain to the west. For two days little happened.
On December 7 Montgomery made an attempt to demand surrender. He had copies of a letter to Carleton attached to arrows and fired into the town—with some apparent success, for Carleton sent one home to London. “I am well acquainted with your situation … ,” it warned, taunting that the walls were “incapable of defense, manned with a motley crew of sailors the greatest part our friends, of citizens who wish to see us within the walls. … The impossibility of relief and the certain prospect of wanting every necessary of life, should your opponents confine their missions to a simple blockade, point out that absurdity of resistance.…”
Carleton had much the same view of his hopes of saving the city, but he himself had besieged Quebec and he had learned from Montcalm’s error. There was to be no sallying forth to battle on the Plains. He knew that the classic assault tactic—approaching the walls in trenches—was impractical in the frozen ground. Even with his amateur garrison he could insure that Quebec would be a hard place to storm.
By the morning of the sixteenth, after the city had been under heavy shelling for six days, the guards on the walls near the Palace Gate sounded the alarm. Carleton, sleeping in his clothes, was awakened with the news that six hundred men were approaching from St. Roche. The drummers pounded out the beat to arms. The cathedral bells pealed urgently. Throughout the town the garrison hurried to their posts—and peered through a heavy snowstorm into the blackness beyond the light cast by the lanterns jutting from the ramparts. But the attack never came.
Four days later Thomas Ainsley, a collector of customs serving as a militia captain, wrote in his journal: “Montgomery is reported to have said that he would dine in Quebec or in Hell at Christmas. We are determined that he shall not dine in town and be his own master. … The weather is very severe indeed. No man, after having been exposed to to the air about 10 minutes, could handle his arms to do execution. One’s senses are benumbed. Whenever they attack us, it will be in mild weather. … Ice and snow, now heaped up in places [against the walls] where we have reckoned the weakest, are exceeding strong.”
Two days later it was still bitterly cold. Late that night Joshua Wolfe—a clerk who had been taken prisoner by the Rebels—escaped by getting his jailer drunk. He reported that the Rebels planned to storm the town the following night—the twentythird. Montgomery, he said, was having trouble persuading his men “to undertake a step so desperate.” He had promised them £200 each in plunder. They had five hundred scaling ladders made “in a very clumsy manner.”
“Can these men pretend that there is a possibility of approaching our walls laden with ladders, sinking to the middle every step in the snow?” mused Ainsley. Carleton was not so skeptical. That night a thousand men were posted on the walls, waiting, staring across the snow, until the sun rose.