Sunday, January 13, 2019

Episode 079: The Battle of Quebec

When we left off last week, General Montgomery and Colonel Arnold had finally combined their forces just upriver from Quebec City.  Their combined force of around 1100 was smaller than each individual force had been at the outset of their marches a few months earlier.  Disease and illness related to exposure were big reasons for the loss of men.  Many of their forces had simply gone home.  Montgomery lost about half of his remaining army after he took Montreal.  Arnold had lost about one-third of his force when one of his brigades had given up in the wilderness and simply turned around and went back to Boston.

Even worse, most of the men who had held out this long looked forward to the end of the year, when their enlistments ended and they could go home.  In less than a month, the army might dissolve away without a shot fired.  They could not count on George Washington to send reinforcements, he was facing his own end of year deadline when the Continental Army around Boston turned into a group of 15,000 civilians.  Montgomery and Arnold though, were not men who would sit around long, especially with the looming deadline.

Assault on Quebec, 1775 (from Wikimedia)
By December 6, the Continental Army was back surrounding Quebec.  Montgomery again offered terms if the city surrendered, but they refused.  Next the Continentals tried to communicate directly with the inhabitants by shooting arrows with notes attached into the city.  After a few days, Montgomery began using his artillery on the city.  But with only a few small cannons, it was not enough to do any real damage, especially after the British used their own artillery to take out the largest Continental battery.  The only effective tool that intimidated the defenders was Morgan’s Rifle companies.  They acted as snipers, taking out anyone who stood on the walls of the city long enough to become a target.

Inside the city, Governor General Guy Carleton felt secure.  His Highlander regiment and navy sailors whipped up the citizenry into an effective militia force.  Carleton now had about 1800 men ready to defend the city against about 1200 attackers who would have to charge entrenched lines and artillery.  He would not make the mistake the French had made during the French and Indian War, and leave the safety of the city walls.  Even with a superior force, he was content to remain behind his walls and force the enemy to attack.

Unable to get the city to surrender, unable to mount an artillery barrage and storm the walls, and unable to field an army long enough for a siege, Montgomery found himself left only with a longshot: wait for a stormy night when the enemy was not ready, and then storm the walls with scaling ladders and take the city.

The Attack Begins

Knowing they had to make an attack before the end of the month, Montgomery and Arnold waited for a stormy night, hoping it might give them enough cover to get over the walls and into the city.  After a few tense days of waiting, a heavy snow began to fall on December 27.  As the army prepared to attack, the snow suddenly stopped.  After conferring with his officers, Montgomery called off the assault.

Uppertown Gate at Quebec (from Wikimedia)
That was actually a good decision.  A Continental deserter had alerted the defenders to the planned attack.  They were ready and waiting.  After Montgomery saw reinforcements on the wall right where he had planned to attack, he changed his plan.

Quebec city consisted of two parts.  The upper town on the west side faced the Plains of Abraham.  This was where any large army would have to attack.  Therefore, the defenders had their highest walls and most of their artillery in this section.  Behind the uppertown was the lower town, where most of the civilian population lived.  This area had walls, not quite as high as those in upper town, but most of lower town was surrounded by the St. Lawrence and St. Charles Rivers.  There was no room to put a large military force on the narrow strip of land between the walls and the rivers.

Quebec 1775 (from British Battles)
General Montgomery had originally planned a direct assault from the Plains of Abraham against the Upper town.  After calling off the December 27 attack, Montgomery decided he would only send a small force against the upper town as a feint.  While less than 200 men launched a cannon and rocket attack against main gate, Arnold would take a force to the north, move along the wall, and attack the lower town from the north side.  Montgomery would move along the southern wall and attack the lower town from the south side.  The forces would meet in the middle and then slowly work their way through town, past a series of barricades, until they reached the upper town. From there the combined force could either storm the upper town walls or compel a surrender.

Finally, on the night of December 30, another storm rolled in.  Montgomery put his plan in motion at around 5AM on the morning of December 31.

As Arnold and Montgomery both moved into position, the diversion force launched an assault against the main gate on the western side of the city.  They hoped to set the gates on fire, diverting attention from the main attacks on the other side of town.  They also launched rockets against the main gate.  The rockets were not only an attempt to divert the enemy’s attention, they were the signal for Arnold and Montgomery go begin their attacks at the same time.

Montgomery’s Attack

Gen. Montgomery led his men along a narrow and rocky path along the south side of the city.  They reached the outer barricades and found them unmanned.  They moved across the field toward the first buildings, where they found the defenders.  The British had established a line of defense using sailors and militia to occupy several houses with both muskets and cannon containing grapeshot.  Grapeshot essentially turns a cannon into a giant shotgun, scattering dozens of metal balls all over a field of fire.  It is designed to take out an entire line of soldiers.

Death of Montgomery (from Yale Art Gallery)
Montgomery led the advance force directly against the enemy line.  The defenders held their fire until Montgomery and his men were within 50 yards of their lines, then opened fire all at once with devastating effects.  Most of the attackers fell to the ground, dead or wounded.  Gen. Montgomery who had been out in front, leading the charge, was hit in at least three places and died instantly, the first Continental Army general to give his life.

Montgomery would become a hero to the patriot cause, lauded for his bravery and sacrifice.  He would never learn that the Continental Congress had already promoted him to major general weeks earlier.  He died before the news reached him.  A decade later, when Philadelphia County created a new county out of its western half, the State named it Montgomery County in the General’s honor.  Montgomery Alabama and a host of other localities are named for this fallen hero.

Despite his heroics, that cold morning, Montgomery's corpse lay dead on the field and his men needed a new leader.  The few men in the advance force who were not hit, quickly ran back toward the outer barricade and fled the field.  Among the survivors was Captain Aaron Burr, who had left Arnold to take a commission and serve as Montgomery’s aide de camp.

With Montgomery dead, command of the southern attack fell to Lt. Col. Donald Campbell who was bringing up the second line of attackers.  Had Campbell renewed the attack, he might have succeeded.  The militia defending against the southern assault were ready to run away.  Their regular officers had to keep them on the lines at gunpoint.  A second charge might have been enough to chase them away.  Then again, a second attack might have to suffer a second deadly volley like the one that took out Montgomery.  Campbell decided not to take that gamble.  He turned around his men and retreated back down the same narrow trail they had taken to get there.  The southern assault was over.

Arnold’s Attack

At the same time Gen. Montgomery was moving along the south side of the city to begin his attack, Col. Arnold was moving his force along a similar narrow path on the north side of the city, following along the bank of the St. Charles River.  Arnold led the column which initially escaped the notice of the defenders.  However, after part of the force had passed by a section of the wall, the defenders noticed the attackers slipping by and opened fire.  The defenders killed a few Continentals who continued to rush past, but now the element of surprise was gone.  Arnold had brought with him a small field cannon to use against the enemy in his main assault.  He hoped to blast at the enemy while Captain Daniel Morgan and his riflemen slipped around to the side where they could open a second line of fire.  But with the column under fire while still getting into position, the cannon got stuck in the mud.  Its crew left it behind and continued forward without it.

Quebec Troop movements (from Wikimedia)
Without a cannon, Arnold decided a frontal attack was his best option.  Like Montgomery, Arnold charged an embedded line of soldiers armed with muskets and cannon.  Like Montgomery, Arnold led the charge and was shot in the first volley.  Unlike Montgomery, Arnold only took a shot in his leg and would survive.  Still, he could not continue and turned over command to Morgan.  Unlike Montgomery’s second in command, Morgan charged forward inspiring his men to attack.  He led the assault, with his attackers scaling ladders up a wall in the face of enemy fire.  They scattered the defenders and took about 100 prisoners.

As the patriots swarmed into the streets of the lower town they saw the second barricade, unmanned and open, leading into the upper town.  Morgan attempted to advance his men toward the barricade, but they would not go.  Only a few dozen of them had advanced past the first barricade.  The rest said they needed to wait for the larger force before simply running into the part of town that probably contained over 1000 defenders.  Reinforcements were on the way, but seemed to be getting lost on the docks and in the streets of Quebec.  Remember, it was still night, in the middle of a snowstorm, and in an unfamiliar town.

Before Morgan could get a large enough force, the British defenders in upper town sent 30 highlanders to put some backbone into the 200 militia who were supposed to be defending the second barricade.  Morgan’s attackers now found themselves stuck in street fighting with defenders picking them off from the upper floors of houses as they marched through the streets.

The defenders quickly realized that the attack on the main gate had been a feint and that  Montgomery’s attack from the south was over.  They could focus all their attention on Morgan’s soldiers now scattered all over lower town.  The defenders circled around and recaptured the first barricade that Morgan’s men had taken.  Now the patriots were caught in the city between the first and second barricades, with nowhere to go.

House to house fighting continued for hours as soldiers began to take refuge in houses.  As morning broke, the patriots found themselves trapped, outnumbered, and running out of ammunition.  Morgan tried to order a retreat, but most of his men refused to leave the safety of the houses.  They would have had to run a gauntlet of fire down the street, only to face a wall of hundreds of defenders to break out of the city again.


It was now daylight and the few hundred patriots trapped in the city were surrounded by much larger numbers of mostly sailors and militia.  Eventually, almost all of them surrendered, except Morgan.  The British trapped Morgan in a house and surrounded him in a back room.  He refused to give up though, slashing with his sword at anyone who tried to come near him.  Eventually, a Catholic priest came into the house, and Morgan finally, reluctantly, turned over his sword to the priest.

By late morning, the fighting was over.  As usual, casualty reports differ.  The patriots suffered about 50 dead and another 40 wounded.  Well over 400 were taken prisoner, almost all of the attack force led by Arnold and Morgan.  The defenders suffered very little.  Official reports claim only 5 killed and 14 wounded, but other estimates indicate that 40 or 50 died or suffered serious injuries.


With nearly half of the patriot force now killed, wounded, or captured, Carlton had nearly a three to one advantage over his enemy.  Even so, he would not venture of out of the city to finish off the remaining Continentals.

Repulse of Continentals in Lower Town (from Wikimedia)
With Gen. Montgomery’s death, Col. Arnold took command of the remaining force of about 800 men still surrounding Quebec, including several hundred Canadians and Indians who had joined the patriot side.  Arnold had no intention of retreating or even withdrawing. His men, however, had different ideas.  Most of their enlistments expired on January 1, 1776.  Following this loss, more than 100 simply started to head home.

Arnold, still in a field hospital having his wounded leg treated, sent a messenger to Gen. Wooster back in Montreal asking that he stop them and force them to return to their posts.  Arnold also called for more reinforcements so that they could mount another attack on the city.  Wooster did nothing, and Arnold’s force soon fell to under 600.  Wooster had no extra troops.  He only had about 600 men himself, what he judged barely enough to keep Montreal under control.  He feared Indian attacks or a possible French uprising if the bulk of his troops left the city.

Eventually, word got back to Gen. Schuyler in Albany, to Gen. Washington at Boston, and to the Congress in Philadelphia.  All were stunned by the loss, as well as the death of Gen. Montgomery.  None of them, however, had reinforcements to send to Arnold.  Congress called on Pennsylvania and New Jersey to raise more regiments to send to Quebec, but that would take months.  Washington was watching his own army around Boston dissolve as enlistments ended.  Schuyler was still worried about British agents organizing the Iroquois against the patriot forces in New York.  He did get Col. Seth Warner to collect a few hundred Green Mountain Boys to send to Quebec.  That was nowhere near enough to launch another attack though, and the first reinforcements did not arrive for nearly a month.

After six weeks, Congress  voted to send a three man commission, headed by Benjamin Franklin, up to Canada to make whatever political or military decisions they deemed helpful to the cause.  Rather than an army of reinforcements, Arnold would get a civilian oversight board to question everything he was doing.

For most of the winter, Arnold got no real military support at all.  As his leg wound healed, his men maintained their siege, even though it seemed obvious to Arnold that the British could probably march out of the city and destroy his force with relative ease.  British General Carleton, though, was playing his hand conservatively.  He only had to hold out until spring, when the British Navy would send an expected relief force down the St. Lawrence river to secure Quebec, retake Montreal, and probably begin an invasion of New York.  Carleton was content to remain inside the city walls and let the patriot rabble sit outside the walls during an extremely cold and miserable winter.

While Arnold never got the reinforcements he wanted, Congress recognized his bravery and leadership ability.  In January, Congress promoted him to brigadier general.

Despite his bravery in battle, Arnold still wasn’t playing nice with most of his fellow officers.  Having taken over the remnants of Montgomery’s army, Major John Brown and Col. James Easton fell under his command once again.  Arnold felt both men had slandered his reputation in the political wrangling after the fall of Fort Ticonderoga the prior year.  Brown came to Gen. Arnold saying that Montgomery had promised him a promotion before his death.  Arnold basically responded oh well, it’s a shame he is dead, because I’m sure not giving you one.  Arnold accused both men of looting the baggage of captured British officers at Montreal.  Brown demanded a court martial to defend his name, but Arnold refused to give him one.

Arnold also criticized Col. Seth Warner, another enemy from the fight for credit over Ticonderoga.  Warner had allowed his troops to inoculate themselves against smallpox, against orders.  Since inoculation usually made one sick with a weak version of smallpox for several weeks, and the men had only signed up for three months of duty, most of them were on sick duty for almost the entire time they were stationed at Quebec.  Arnold also complained about lack of support from his superior, Gen. Wooster, who failed to send him reinforcements or resources.  Wooster, you may recall was the man Captain Arnold had threatened to shoot a few days after Lexington when Wooster refused to give his company ammunition to march to Cambridge.

Gen. Arnold had secured a reputation as a brave fighter, and fearless leader in battle under harsh conditions in the field.  But at the same time, he seemed to do his best to make enemies among his fellow officers, and hold grudges forever.

- - -

Next  Episode 80: The Knox Expedition

Previous Episode 78: Advancing on Quebec

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Further Reading


Randall, Willard "Why Benedict Arnold Did It" American Heritage: Sept/Oct 1990, Volume 41,  Issue 6:

Aaron Burr:

Daniel Morgan:

List of Places Named for Richard Montgomery:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Codman, John Arnold’s Expedition To Quebec,  New York, MacMillan Co., 1901.

Dearborn, Henry Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn in the Quebec expedition, 1775, Cambridge: University Press, 1886.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 2, Washington: Peter Force, 1837.
An accurate and interesting account of the hardships and sufferings of that band of heroes, who traversed the wilderness in the campaign against Quebec in 1775, by John J. Henry (1812).

Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 5,  Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887

Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 6,  Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887

Meigs, Return Journal of the expedition against Quebec: under command of Col. Benedict Arnold, in the year 1775, (Charles Bushnell, ed) New York: (Private Publisher) 1864.

Melvin, Andrew (ed) The journal of James Melvin, private soldier in Arnold's expedition against Quebec in the year 1775,  Portland, ME: Hubbard W. Bryant, 1902.

Smith, Justin Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony: Canada, and the American Revolution, Vol. 2, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.

Stocking, Abner An interesting journal of Abner Stocking of Chatham, Connecticut, detailing the distressing events of the expedition against Quebec, under the command of Col. Arnold in the year 1775, Catskill, NY: Eagle Office, 1810 (reprint 1921).

Thayer, Simeon & Edwin Stone The invasion of Canada in 1775: including the Journal of Captain Simeon Thayer, describing the perils and sufferings of the army under Colonel Benedict Arnold, in its march through the wilderness to Quebec, Providence: Knowles Anthony & Co. 1867.

Winsor, Justin (ed) Arnold's expedition against Quebec. 1775-1776: The Diary of Ebenezer Wild, Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, 1886.

Withington, Lothrop (ed) Caleb Haskell's diary. May 5, 1775-May 30, 1776. A revolutionary soldier's record before Boston and with Arnold's Quebec expedition, Newburyport: W.H. Huse, 1881.

Würtele, Fred C. Blockade of Quebec in 1775-1776 by the American revolutionists (les Bastonnais) Vol 1) Quebec: Daily Telegraph Job Printing House, 1905.

Würtele, Fred C. Blockade of Quebec in 1775-1776 by the American revolutionists (les Bastonnais) Vol 2) Quebec: Daily Telegraph Job Printing House, 1906.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Anderson, Mark The Battle for the Fourteenth Colony: America’s War of Liberation in Canada, 1774–1776, University Press of New England, 2013.

Beck, Derek The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2016.

Desjardin, Thomas A. Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005

Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.

Lefkowitz, Arthur S. Benedict Arnold's Army: The 1775 American Invasion of Canada During the Revolutionary War, El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2008.

Martin, James Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero, New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, New York: Viking Penguin, 2012.

Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

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