The Siege Of Quebec, 1775–1776

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For Carleton, every day that passed increased his hopes of saving Quebec. In London, as he knew, two armies were being assembled to sail for America to smash the rebellion: a main force of twenty-five thousand men to join the troops in Boston, now commanded by General William Howe, and a smaller expedition of nine thousand men destined for Canada, which, after the recovery of the province, would strike south by way of Lake Champlain and the Hudson.

However, Lord George Germain, the newly appointed secretary for the colonies, had been warned that the Quebec garrison had only enough food to last until May. Ahead of the main troop convoys he sent an advance squadron of three ships carrying two hundred British regulars, with orders to get through to Quebec as early as they could.

On the morning of April 12 the three vessels were hove to in the Atlantic at the edge of a ten-foot thick ice field, “to which,” as Captain Charles Douglas, the commander of the squadron, reported from the fifty-gun H.M.s. Isis , “we saw no bounds towards the western part of our horizon.”

To test the strength of the vast field that lay between his ships and Canada, he ordered canvas. The helmsman of the Isis headed straight for the ice at a speed of five knots. The bow of the ship struck the frozen wall. For a few minutes the ship checked, shuddering; then the ice split, cracking loudly, and the vessel began to plow a channel.

“Encouraged by this experiment,” Douglas wrote to the Admiralty jauntily, “we thought it… an effort due to the gallant defenders of Quebec to make the attempt of pressing her through by force of sail.”

It was a bold decision, but progress was slow—so slow that the troops could be drilled on the ice beside the vessels as they plowed a passage. Blizzards and adverse winds delayed them further. It was not until May 6 that the frigate Surprise, sailing ahead of the others in the St. Lawrence, came in sight of the gaunt towers of the besieged city.

Fluttering at the head of the flagstaff was a blue pennant over a Union Jack, and five guns roared out from the walls—the agreed signal that the town was still in British hands.

Until then, Carleton had resisted stubbornly any temptation to attack his besiegers. But now that he had two hundred more regulars and the knowledge that thousands of reinforcements were on their way, he switched his policy to the offensive. His troops marched out of the gates onto the Plains of Abraham “to see what those mighty boasters are about,” as he reported scathingly to London. “They were found very busy in their preparations to retreat … the plains were soon cleared of those plunderers; all their artillery, military stores etc were abandonned. …” Carleton led the pursuit, advancing up the St. Lawrence to the town of Three Rivers, where he set up temporary headquarters until the first of the troop convoys arrived at the end of May.

Apart from one small clash, the British were virtually unopposed by a Rebel force that was demoralized, appallingly diseased with smallpox, and torn by conflict between its commanders. The Americans retreated to Lake Champlain in a confusion that was not too great to prevent them from setting fire to Chambly and St. Johns as they passed.

By June the British had regained control of Canada and—though they lost America—they were never to release it again until the province ceased to be a colony.