February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The key to control of Canada was a city whose defenders doubted they could hold out for long once the American Rebels attacked
Sixteen years after General James Wolfe’s famous assault on Quebec, the city was subjected to another siege—and another storming—that, though less celebrated, was vitally important to Americans in the early months oj their revolution. It was a dramatic episode in Revolutionary history that is exceptionally well documented. This article, based mainly on firsthand accounts by participants, has been adapted by Michael Pearson, an English author, from his new book about the Revolution, Those Damned Rebels , Io be published this winter by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The perspective may seem strange to some readers, since, as the title of the book suggests, the action is seen not from the American viewpoint but through the eyes of the British, who, in Canada in the winter of 1775, were in a situation that appeared very grave indeed.
Sixteen years after General James Wolfe’s famous assault on Quebec, the city was subjected to another siege—and another storming—that, though less celebrated, was vitally important to Americans in the early months oj their revolution.
It was a dramatic episode in Revolutionary history that is exceptionally well documented. This article, based mainly on firsthand accounts by participants, has been adapted by Michael Pearson, an English author, from his new book about the Revolution, Those Damned Rebels , Io be published this winter by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
The perspective may seem strange to some readers, since, as the title of the book suggests, the action is seen not from the American viewpoint but through the eyes of the British, who, in Canada in the winter of 1775, were in a situation that appeared very grave indeed.
On New Year’s Eve it began to snow again. The wind blew up suddenly from the northeast and howled cold across the icy wastes of northern Canada.
That night, on Quebec’s high, thick stone walls, the sentries—mainly civilians unused to the rigors of guard duty—huddled against the battlements for protection against the blizzard and eyed the lights they could see moving in the darkness: the lanterns of the besieging Rebels who encircled the upper part of the town.
The storming of the city was imminent. For three weeks the garrison had waited, tensed for attack under constant shelling. Every day reports had come in of the Rebels’ preparations—of the scaling ladders they had made, of the weather conditions that General Montgomery favored, of the assault points he had selected, of the reinforcements joining him.
In that grim December of 1775 the city of Quebec was the last small portion of Canada that the British still controlled. Early in September, some three months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, an invading army of nearly two thousand American Rebels, led by General Richard Montgomery—who had taken over command at the last minute from the ill Philip Schuyler—advanced up Lake Champlain across the Canadian border. St. Johns and Chambly—the two main towns on the Richelieu River that connected the lake to the St. Lawrence were soon under siege, and by October advance Rebel units were threatening Montreal.
On the morning of September 7 the news of the Rebel strike across the border reached the Château St. Louis in Quebec. Erom this majestic gray stone building with its round slate-roofed towers the British had ruled Canada for the sixteen years since they had wrested the province from the French.
Immediately, Sir Guy Carleton, Canada’s aggressive, buoyant governor, hurried to Montreal to organize what forward defense he could. In Quebec he left the lieutenant governor, Hector Cramahé—a rather anxious civil servant with little knowledge of military techniques with orders to prepare the city for siege.
By then Carleton knew that the only hope the British had of retaining even a toehold in Canada lay in Quebec, which—built as it was on the side of a cliff at the protective junction of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers—was brilliantly sited for defense. But the Governor, though normally optimistic by temperament, was gloomy about his chances of holding even that fortress city. “I think our fate extremely doubtful, to say nothing worse,” he was to write to London in November.
The British were still absorbing the first impact of the revolt. The armies that would be crossing the Atlantic in a few months’ time were still a subject of discussion in Whitehall. To protect the whole vastness of Canada, as reports of Rebel preparations streamed into Quebec that summer, Carleton had barely six hundred troops.
Certainly, there was little hope of reinforcement. All the way down the Atlantic coast, the royal governors had either sought refuge on British warships or were under arrest or, in one case, had joined the Rebels. There were troops in Boston—then an island connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus—but they were threatened and outnumbered by the newly formed Continental Army that blocked all the land approaches to the town.
Carleton sent an urgent request for help to Boston, but he did not expect much in the way of practical response. In London, from 3,500 miles away, the problem of manpower in the province seemed relatively simple. The Earl of Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, had ordered Carleton to raise a force of two thousand Canadians; then, after mature reflection by the Cabinet, the figure was increased to three thousand. He even dispatched the equipment for them. But Whitehall was still living in a world of fantasy. The Canadians had declined to send delegates to the congress of Rebels in Philadelphia—who indiscreetly had expressed anti-Catholic sentiments in an appeal to the king—but they were not keen to fight them. Carleton’s recruitment drive was a failure. In fact, as he protested angrily, more Canadians joined the Rebels than enrolled in the service of the king—mostly Protestants, who were resentful because the Quebec Act had just brought recognition to the Catholic Church in the province but who were Canadians for all that.
Unhappily, the Governor awaited the inevitable, although he did what little he could to postpone it. On October 19 Chambly was captured by the Rebels, and on November 2 St. Johns fell. There was nothing now to divert them from Montreal.
In Quebec, meanwhile, Cramahé was supervising the final preparations for the defense of the city. The high walls that reached round the upper part of the town between the two rivers had been repaired. Civilians were being trained to use the big guns on the ramparts that covered the approaches to the city over the wide plateau, the Plains of Abraham. Four merchant ships had been fitted out with cannon.
Threatened as it soon would be by Montgomery’s troops, Quebec was not in an enviable situation. But on November 3 the city’s prospects grew dramatically and unbelievably worse. News reached the Château St. Louis of an enormous danger from an entirely unexpected direction. A letter addressed to John Manir- an incorrect spelling, it was assumed rightly, for a Quebec merchant with Rebel sympathies named John Mercier—was seized from an Indian courier. It was from Benedict Arnold, who claimed that he was at Dead River with a force of “2,000 men … to restore liberty to our brethren of Canada"—anexaggeration; the force was closer to 750 Americans.
Dead River was south of Quebec in the vast rugged wilderness of Maine that, in November when the territory was snowbound, the British regarded as impassable. Although Arnold was magnifying his numbers, Cramahé and his advisers, as they considered his startling letter, had no way of knowing that.
As the British must have realized when they studied the maps, if Arnold truly had brought a force to Dead River, it meant that he had travelled with boats and baggage by an old Indian route leading from the Atlantic up the rapids-choked Kennebec River. This effort involved hauling their equipment over portages—one of twelve miles. To reach Quebec it would mean traversing Lake Megantic and the Chaudière River. In winter, for a force of men who were not all woodsmen, it was unbelievable.
However, Cramahé’s initial incredulity was soon dispelled. On November 9, just six days after the arrival of Arnold’s letter in Quebec, the Rebels were sighted from the city at Point Levisjust across the water. But they could not attempt a crossing in the canoes of the Indians who had joined them, for a gale was soon churning the broad river.
Although the weather checked Arnold, the St. Lawrence was not too rough for a flotilla of bigger boats under the command of Colonel Allan Maclean, who was returning to Quebec with the remnants of a small force that had failed abysmally in an attempt to relieve St. Johns. Maclean, who had raised a corps of loyalist emigrant Scots, was a professional soldier, and it was with some relief that Cramahc handed over to him the military command of the city.
On November 13 the gale blew itself out. That night, despite the British ships and the small craft that patrolled between them, Arnold and his men slipped across the river, landed at Wolfe’s Cove, and climbed the same cliffs— now made easier with a path—that the British had clambered up to reach the Plains of Abraham in the celebrated assault sixteen years earlier. By the time one of the British patrol boats detected them, they had almost completed landing on the north shore. As the boat approached to investigate, the Rebels opened fire, and the craft veered sharply to carry the alarm to the Lizard , the frigate anchored oil the town.
That morning the Rebels marched to within eight hundred yards of the city and gave three great cheers. The men watching them from the guns at the walls put their matches to the touchholes of the twenty-four-pounders, which were loaded with grape and canister shot. The guns flashed, the explosions following each other loudly in quick, uneven succession. For a few seconds smoke obscured the view from the ramparts. Then, as it cleared, the artillerymen saw that the Rebels were dropping back.
Later in the day Arnold sent a letler to the town under a flag of truce, demanding surrender “in the name of the united colonies.” “If I am obliged to carry the town by storm,” he warned, “you may expect every severity practised on such occasions and the merchants who may now save their property will probably be involved in the general ruin.”
During those critical hours, as they waited for Arnold to attack, the situation of the city seemed verygrave. All too soon thick sea ice would block the approach to the St. Lawrence, and no ships from England would be able to reach the town until the spring. Arnold, however, would soon be strongly supported. With Montreal on the point of surrender, it would not be long before Montgomery’s army advanced with its guns down the river to join the besiegers.
Cramahé summoned a council of war in the Château St. Louis to decide policy; present were Maclean, the captains of the naval ships, the masters of some of the cargo vessels, the colonels of the militia, and the town mayor. The anxious men in the big room in the gloomy château must have been only too conscious that sixteen years earlier, the French Field Marshal Louis de Montcalm had presided over a similar conference. Then it had been the British who were outside the walls.
The French, however, had been in Quebec in some strength. Montcalm had had regular soldiers to defend the town. Now, Maclean had only a handful of trained men—thirty-five marines, one or two gunners, and a few fusiliers. In addition, he had his Royal Highland Emigrants, whom he had recruited in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the summer; but they had only been under arms a few weeks.
The truth was that if Quebec was to be held, the main brunt would fall on civilians -merchants, civil servants, sailors, and fishermen. The town’s walls were long, and though the civilians had guns to fight off attack, they had very few experienced gunners.
On the other hand Quebec was a fortress that had never been taken by storm. Moncalm’s fatal error had been to march out from behind his strong protection and fight the British in straight combat. Furthermore, there was enough food in the city to last until spring, and adequate ammunition—if only the amateur garrison could succeed in firing it. The war council decided to fight, to hold Quebec to “the last extremity.”
There was still just time for a ship to get through to the Atlantic before the ice closed in. A naval officer, it was decided, would be sent to Britain to describe the exact situation. Pilots would go with him to bring in the relief forces on the off chance—which seemed remote at the moment —that the garrison could hold out until the ice melted. A secret signal—a blue pendant over a Union Jack and the firing of five guns—would inform an approaching fleet that the ships which remained, and the city itself, were still in British hands.
For four days after they paraded in front of the walls on the Plains of Abraham, Arnold’s men, quartered in nearby houses, besieged the town. Then, on the eighteenth, the men on duty on the walls saw the enemy trailing west across the snow in a long and ragged column. Reports came in that they had withdrawn to Pointe aux Trembles, twenty miles up the St. Lawrence, to wait for Montgomery.
By the morning of November 19, there was still no news in Quebec of Carleton or Montreal, but reports had arrived of Rebel plans to stop his withdrawal downriver. At Sorel, where the Berthier Islands split the waters of the St. Lawrence into narrow, rocky streams, the Americans had set up batteries of guns.
By then, Montreal—and more—was in Rebel hands. As soon as St. Johns had fallen, Carleton had known that he could not even mount a temporary defense of the city because of the lukewarm attitude of its residents. “It is obvious that as soon as the Rebels appear outside the town in force,” he had written to London, “the townspeople will give it up on the best terms they can procure. I shall try to retire the evil hour … though all my hopes of succour now begin to vanish.”
On the eleventh—eight days before Cramahé held his crisis council of war in the Château St. Louis—Carleton had been warned that the main body of Montgomery’s troops was approaching, and he had ordered his troops to evacuate Montreal. He had eleven ships of varying sizes, and their captains prepared for the run down the river that was certain to be strongly challenged. At dusk the vessels—loaded with ammunition, supplies, and more than a hundred fighting men, including nonprofessionals—weighed anchor and moved down the St. Lawrence under fire from Rebel guns on the south shore.
The next day one of the ships ran aground, and the little fleet had to heave to until it could be cleared. Then, that night, the easterly gale that had held Arnold down opposite Quebec roared up the river past Sorel. The British vessels had no alternative but to drop anchor and ride out the storm. But Carleton’s luck was bad. On the sixteenth, five days after they had left Montreal, the wind was still in the east. Until it veered west, the vessels would have no hope of running the gauntlet through the long narrows at Sorel—with Rebel guns pounding them at close range from both sides.
At last Carleton decided that he should go on ahead of the rest of his force and try to escape past the Rebels so that he could assume command in Quebec. Dressed as a Canadian peasant habitant, the Governor was transported by a whaler with muffled oars through the nine-mile narrows of the Berthier Islands. As the craft moved into the flickering pools of illumination from the Rebel fires on the banks, the crew stopped rowing and crouched down so that the boat resembled one of the big hunks of rotten timber that were always floating downstream.
Just past the town of Three Rivers the fugitives found at anchor a British armed brig, which took them the rest of the way to Quebec. By then, the British flotilla of vessels, held immobile by the wind, had been captured by the Rebels. More than a hundred fighting men—many of them British regulars needed in Quebec—had been taken prisoner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.