- 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 plan to trap the Rebels in the narrow Sault-au-Matelot was brilliant, but it depended completely on Caldwell’s holding the barricade. He arrived barely in time. The Rebels were just about to assault the stockade that blocked the twenty-footwide street. Already, scaling ladders were propped against the barrier.
Caldwell had more room in which to deploy his forces than had the Rebels. The road curved upward away from the Sault-au-Matelot and then split into two branches. Swiftly, he ordered the fusiliers into line, backs against the houses and facing the barricade with fixed bayonets. From there they could fire at the Rebels as they mounted the tops of their ladders and charge with the bayonet if any of them succeeded in getting over the stockade.
Some of the militiamen, on Caldwell’s instructions, hurried into the nearby houses so that, from the upper windows, they could fire both at the barricade and over it into the men crowded in the narrow street behind. Already, as part of the planned defense of the post, there was a cannon mounted on a platform, positioned so that it could fire over the stockade.
The Rebels charged, clambering up the ladders onto the barricade, and the fire from the defenders mowed them down. Again and again they attacked as musket shot and grape from the barking cannon raked the top of the log barrier.
It was obvious that against the murderous density of shot that Caldwell could concentrate on the summit of the barricade, no one could get over it alive. The Rebels’ only course was to weaken the defense, holding it down with heavy fire while they stormed again. So they swarmed into the houses on either side of the Sault-au-Matelot and opened fire from the upper windows, concentrating their shooting from the cover of the stone walls on the cannon crew, who, on their platform, were well exposed.
As an assault tactic it succeeded. The gunners leaped from the platform to take cover. On Caldwell’s orders another gun was set up farther back along the curving hill road. This gun was out of sight of the Rebel marksmen, but because of its high position, it could fire on the houses that were sheltering them. Solid shot began to drop through the roofs, smashing the floors and stone walls.
So far, because of the narrow area on which Caldwell could concentrate his musket fire, none of the Americans had yet gotten over the barricade; but at one moment they came close to it. They swung a ladder over onto the defenders’ side of the stockade so that if they could only surmount the top, they could get down fast into the street. A burly French-Canadian rushed to the barricade —exposing himself to pointblank fire through the loopholes—and wrenched the ladder away.
Almost immediately the colonel was faced with new danger. The Rebels had entered a house on one side of the barricade. The doorway was in the Sault-au-Matelot, but some of the side windows overlooked Caldwell’s main defense position. From there the attackers would be able to shoot down at close range on the fusiliers and militia in the street below them.
It was a critical moment. A Highland Emigrant officer named Major Nairne grabbed the captured ladder, placed it against the side of the house, and then leaped up it, followed by the others. They met the Rebels coming into the house and fought them back down the stairs. “I called out to Nairne in their hearing,” Caldwell reported later, “that he should let me know when he heard firing on the other side”—from the big party, in other words, that Carleton had sent outside the city to attack the Rebels from the rear.
The Governor’s design to trap the Americans in the Sault-au-Matelot worked exactly as he planned. His men swarmed through the barricade at the other end of the street and demanded surrender from the Rebels, now hemmed in from both sides.
The first prisoners—each with a label pinned to his hat reading “Liberty or Death"—were passed through the window and down the ladder from the house that Nairne had taken. Then Caldwell had the gate in the barricade opened for the remainder.
Daniel Morgan, who would later win fame at Saratoga and in the Carolina campaign, was now in command (Arnold had been wounded and carried from the town). Refusing angrily to hand his sword to the British, whom he hated, Morgan insisted on giving it to a priest in the crowd.
In all, 426 Rebels were taken prisoner. Among the bodies lying in the snow outside the blockhouse on the western side of the Lower Town was the corpse of the Rebel General Montgomery. Carleton, who was often magnanimous, gave orders that it should be buried with full military honors.
Carleton had held Quebec, but the city was still under siege and there could be no relief until the spring. On the other hand Arnold—now commanding from a hospital bed in St. Roche—could be reinforced so that he could mount another assault on the walls.
The Rebels allowed the opportunity to pass. Arnold made a few attempts to fire the town with redhot shot from batteries set up across both the St. Lawrence and the St. Charles—and on one occasion his men sailed a flaming fire ship into the harbor—but none of these efforts was successful. A virulent epidemic of smallpox severely weakened the morale of his men as they endured the extreme cold of those early weeks of 1776.