- 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
It was a wise precaution, for on the following day a Rebel deserter ran up to the St. John’s Gate on the west of the Upper Town, fired his musket into the air, clubbed it to indicate surrender, and asked for admission. Because the guards had orders not to open the gates, they hauled him onto the wall by ropes. He reported that the attack had indeed been planned, but Montgomery had postponed it when he realized that Wolfe’s escape would raise the alarm. They would surely attack that night, the deserter warned, unless his own escape deterred them.
But nothing happened—although the guards “saw many lights all around us which we took for signals.” The weather, meantime, turned milder—which, so Ainsley conjectured, would make attack more likely. However, as it later appeared, Montgomery planned to attack under cover of bad weather.
On New Year’s Eve the weather changed. By the evening it was snowing heavily and an icy wind was chilling the sentries on duty.
At 4 A.M. the officer of the guard, Captain Malcolm Fraser of the Emigrants, trudged along the wall, with his body bent before the gale, on his routine rounds. As he approached the posts at the southern end of the walls, he saw what looked like musket flashes on the heights, but he was puzzled because he could not hear any shots. He questioned the sentries facing Cape Diamond, which overlooked the St. Lawrence, and they said they had seen the flashes for some time. He moved back along the wall and asked the guards at the next post about the lights. “Like lamps in the street” was how one man described them. Fraser guessed that they were lanterns and that the Rebels were forming for attack. He ordered the alarm.
Again the drummers pounded out the call to arms. Once more the bells of the city clanged out an insistent warning through the noise of the storm. Officers ran through the streets bawling to the militia to turn out. Men tumbled from beds on which they were lying in their clothes, grabbed their guns, and hurried to their posts. Two rockets whooshed skyward in quick succession from Cape Diamond. Then the firing started. Rebels, shooting from the cover of rocks on high ground by Cape Diamond, were only eighty yards from the posts on the ramparts and at a level that was almost as high.
However, by firing, the Rebels inevitably exposed their positions. “The flashes from their muskets made their heads visible,” recorded Ainsley, “[and] we briskly returned the fire.”
Farther north, on the wall by St. John’s Gate, the gunners had fired flaming shot to illuminate the approaches beyond the circles of light thrown by the lanterns thrust out from the ramparts on long poles. Anxiously, they stared through the snowstorm toward the suburb of St. John, which was a good starting point for an assault.
The attack came fast—men running from the far blackness of the houses toward the gate, the flickering fireballs striking from them dark, giant moving shadows.
The big guns crashed out, the muzzles flaring white flame, and jerked back on their carriages until they strained the retaining ropes. Between the cannons the militiamen lined the walls, shooting volley after volley at their attackers.
Still the Rebels came on until they were almost at the big gates. Then, suddenly, they broke and ran. It was, so the British discovered later, only a diversion, with no intention to follow through; but to the men on the walls it had looked determined enough.
Meanwhile, the men posted above the Palace Gate, on the north of the city facing the St. Roche suburb, were suddenly alerted. Here the walls merged into tall buildings, the backs of which overlooked the St. Charles River way below. At the foot of the buildings, above the wavewashed rocks, was a path that led down around the eastern edge of the town to the port.
Shells from the Rebel mortars in St. Roche had been falling for some time. Now, suddenly, the guards over the gate—their attention diverted until then by the noise of attack on the west—noticed in the dim light a long column of men in single file passing silently from the direction of St. Roche down the rock path to the harbor. The column, already going by below them, was too close for cannon fire. But the militiamen opened up with their muskets.
Seamen from the ships in the port were manning the eastern windows of the Hôtel de Dieu immediately: above the path. As the Rebel file passed below them—so Ainsley reported—“they were exposed to a dreadful fire of small arms which the sailors poured down on them.”
The pathway was rough, heaped with rugged piles of ice and soft snow. Fireballs, lobbed from the town, illuminated the long line of slipping, sliding men, some of them carrying scaling ladders, as they worked their way down toward the harbor. To the defenders above, they made easy targets. Gaps were ripped in the file by the musket shot; men jerked and toppled into the snow.
But still, despite the heavy shooting from above them, the Rebel column went on, stepping over their dead and wounded, toward the Lower Town.
The Lower Town, the underbelly of the fortress city, was—as Carleton fully realized—where Quebec’s weakness truly lay. Log palisades and barriers—supported by guns and men with muskets—blocked the streets that led from the wharves and from paths such as the one to the east that Arnold’s men were now descending under heavy fire.