- 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
There was another route that stretched out of the Lower Town on the other side—this one to the west, along the rock face of the towering Cape Diamond to Wolfe’s Cove. Narrow, cluttered with snow and ice, bordered on one side by bare cliff, it dropped sheerly to the St. Lawrence below.
The main defense of this entrance to the Lower Town was in a blockhouse formed out of an old brewery building that commanded the upward curving roadway from behind a log barrier. Here a small battery of three-pounder guns had been set up with their barrels jutting out of the windows. To man and support this battery with muskets were some fifty men. Most of them were Quebec residents, but they were backed up by eight seamen from the ships in the port and a Royal Artillery sergeant, the only professional among them. In command of the post was one Captain Barnsfair, master of a merchantman.
From the windows of the blockhouse Barnsfair and his men stared out toward the bend in the road, only faintly visible in the early dawn light and falling snow. The gunners had lighted matches waiting ready.
Then they saw them. At first it was just a suspicion, a sense that there was movement out there in the gray storm, followed by the certainty —a group of shadowy figures with the snow swirling round them. They appeared to be an advance unit, for they stopped as soon as they had seen the blockhouse, as though waiting for the main body to catch up.
Tensely, the men in the blockhouse watched the attackers. “We shall not fire,” Barnsfair warned, “until we can be sure of doing execution.”
At last the Rebels began to advance slowly. The gunners in the blockhouse waited for Barnsfair’s order. As they walked, the Americans scuffed the snow with their feet, looking almost unreal in the halflight. When they were about fifty yards away, they stopped again, “as though in consultation.” Then, one of them moved forward, peered at the barricade and the blockhouse for a moment, and returned to the others.
Again, for a few minutes the Rebels seemed to be discussing what to do. Suddenly, as a group, they made a dash, all of them running fast to storm the barricade. Still Barnsfair waited, watching the Rebels advancing swiftly. Then, at last, as the nearest men were almost at the barricade, he gave the order: “Fire!”
The gunners put their matches to the touchholes, and the explosions as the guns went off in those close confines were deafening. The musketeers squeezed their triggers and swiftly reloaded. “Our musketry and guns,” Ainsley wrote, “continued to sweep the avenue leading to the battery for some minutes. When the smoke cleared, there was not a soul to be seen.”
Not on their feet—but thirteen bodies lay in the snow, and two of them were groaning. The slaughter of the close-range firing seemed to convince the Rebels that the post was held too strongly, for they did not attack again.
Carleton was directing the defense of the city from the Upper Town in the Place d’Armes, the parade ground, where the mobile reserve was held waiting. Already he had ordered an artillery officer to hurry down with a militia company to support Barnsfair, who had been reported under heavy attack. Now, he received news of the assault from the east side of the Lower Town that was far more serious. Some schoolboys hurried into the Place d’Armes, shouting: “The enemy’s in possession of the Sault-au-Matelot.”
The Sault-au-Matelot was a very narrow street that led from the waterside into the Lower Town. It was the route for any attack round the outside of the city from the direction of the St. Charles. For this reason it was strongly defended—with a high log barricade, well manned and armed with two cannons—at the point where the Rebels would enter it.
It should have been able to withstand a sustained attack, at least until a message could be gotten to Carleton asking for support. The information that the enemy had broken through so quickly was, therefore, very surprising. (Later, it was charged that the officer in command of the post was a rebel spy.) But the critical aspect of the news was that, since the Sault-au-Matelot led directly into the main part of the Lower Town, once the Rebels gained control of that street, they would have a very strong base from which to assault the Upper Town. Arnold understood this, and had decided to make the Sault-auMatelot the focal point of his main attack.
Carleton was an experienced fighter. Swiftly, when the facts were confirmed, he planned his strategy. The Sault-au-Matelot had cannonsupported barricades at each end. Although the Rebels had broken through the first barricade, they had evidently paused in the street before the second. It was vital to Carleton’s defense planning that they should be held at this point.
Carleton dispatched Colonel CaIdwell of the Quebec militia to reinforce the defense at the vital barricade at the end of the Sault-au-Matelot. With him the colonel took Carleton’s handful of fusiliers and a force of militia and sailors.
At the same time the Governor ordered another strong detachment to march out of the city through the Palace Gate in the north wall of the town and down the same rock path above the St. Charles that the Rebels had traversed earlier under fire from the sailors in the Hôtel de Dieu, and to attack from the rear.