Sunday, October 8, 2017

Episode 013: The Battle of Quebec (1759)

Gen. Jeffery Amherst took command of North American operations following his victory at Louisbourg, at the end of 1758.  Around the same time, William Pitt granted Col. James Wolfe, now brevetted to the rank of Major General, an independent command to capture Quebec.  Wolfe returned to Louisbourg in February 1759 to prepare for a spring attack on the last great French stronghold in Canada.

James Wolfe

Wolfe had an impressive command for someone only 32 years old.  But he was not inexperienced. The son of British General Edward Wolfe, James had joined his father’s regiment in 1740 at age 13. He had seen considerable military action in Europe during the War of Austrian Succession (known as King George’s War in America) rising to the rank of Lt. Col. When the Seven Years War began, he became a full Colonel.  His bravery and gallantry in Europe during 1757, caught William Pitt’s attention.  Pitt decided to send him to America where he served as second in command to Gen. Amherst in the Battle of Louisbourg.
James Wolfe
(from Wikipedia)

After Louisbourg fell in 1758, Wolfe returned to London on sick leave.  For years he had had “consumption” which flared up at times, and also killed his brother.  Historians speculate that he had tuberculosis.  In any event, the most recent bout did not keep him from returning to take command of the army sent against Quebec.

All three of Wolfe’s subordinates for the operation: Robert Monckton, Lord George Townshend, and James Murray were older than Wolfe and, more importantly, came from socially superior families. They all resented Wolfe’s command and did not work well with him.  Still, they were soldiers and would obey orders.  With 8500 regulars to take the city, Wolfe set out to conquer Quebec.

British Forces Arrive at Quebec

Complications departing Louisbourg led to a late start on June 4, 1759.  By June 28, the force had occupied the Île d'Orléans just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec.
Marquis de Montcalm-Gozen

The French Commander, Gen. Montcalm himself, had organized Quebec’s defenses.  His well designed defenses frustrated Wolf at every turn, preventing him from getting across the river where he could begin a siege.  Over the course of the summer Wolfe tried to find a way to break the defense. The British began shelling the city from a distance on July 12.  While it did cause some harm, it presented no chance of forcing a surrender.  The French well knew that this would be their last stand in Canada.  If they did not win here, the game was over.  Montcalm, his soldiers, and the civilians in general, were determined to block the British at all costs.

Frustrated with the slow pace of things, Wolfe tried a bold frontal assault, landing his infantry six miles down river and marching on the city.  This proved impossible, as entrenched French and Canadian forces killed or wounded nearly 500 soldiers while talking very little damage themselves.

Wolfe turned to a scorched earth policy.  He burned and destroyed all the farms and outbuildings for miles around Quebec, allowing his men to rape and kill civilians at will.  He hoped to anger the French to the point where they would leave their protective walls and come out for an open fight. Montcalm, however, refused to take the bait.  His men were well supplied, behind seemingly impregnable defenses.

Montcalm had concentrated virtually all of Canada’s remaining military forces in Quebec, meaning his Regulars and militia totaled nearly 15,000.  This however, included many questionable militia as Montcalm was scraping the bottom of the barrel for men.  Montcalm did, have a few regiments of top notch French regulars and some experienced militia, against the smaller 8500 British attacking force. Even so, Wolfe believed his well trained regulars could prevail in a traditional face to face land battle if he could provoke one:
"My antagonist has wisely shut himself up, in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can't get at him, without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose. The Marquis de Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers & I am at the head of a small number of good ones, that wish for nothing so much as to fight him – but the wary old fellow avoids an action; doubtful of the behavior of his army."
Siege of Quebec (from: Wikipedia)
To make matters worse, Wolfe’s troops began to drop from disease after spending several hot summer months on a swampy island.  More than one-third of them had become incapacitated by sickness. Wolfe himself became so sick that he was bedridden for several days in August.  His greatest fear seemed to be that he would die ignominiously from disease before he had a chance to fight a major battle as a commander.

In desperation, Wolfe convened a council of war with his three generals to get their views on another all out infantry assault on the French lines.  Wolfe remained on bad terms with his commanders, who mostly seemed to be waiting for him to fail or die.  He did not really want their opinion, but the military etiquette required such councils prior to any major operation, particularly one that might go terribly wrong and for which the commander did not want to be singled out for blame.  His three Generals unanimously rejected his plan.  He could have overruled them, but was so sick that he felt doing so might be seen as acting out of delirium.

Wolfe knew that if he did not do anything by the end of September, he would have to retreat in failure.  The naval fleet would have to leave before the winter ice locked their ships.  The army could not remain without naval support.  By all appearances, Wolfe saw his two likely outcomes as dying from disease or overseeing a retreat back to Louisbourg, having accomplished nothing.  Either way, he knew his subordinates would blame him for the failure.  One of them, Townshend, was also a member of Parliament and a friend of William Pitt.  Wolfe’s reputation as a capable officer would be ruined.  Just as all seemed lost, Wolfe received some helpful advice.

Secret Passage

Capt. Robert Stobo is an unsung hero of this adventure so far.  Stobo had served with Col. Washington way back at the battle of Fort Necessity in 1754, or as I like to call it, Episode 5.  He was one of the hostages that the French took in order to guarantee the return of French prisoners per Washington’s agreement.  While held at Fort Duquesne, Stobo had drawn a sketch of the fort’s defenses that he gave to a friendly Indian to aid a British attack.  This was the sketch that the tribal chief provided to Gen. Braddock as he began his ill-fated attempted assault on Fort Duquesne in 1755.  When the French captured Braddock’s baggage after his death in battle, they found Stobo’s sketches.  They tried and convicted Stobo as a spy. He only lived because the order to cut off his head and stick it on a pike outside the city had to go back to France for ratification.  Officials back in France never gave approval.  Stobo, who had been moved back to Quebec already, figured his best bet was to attempt an escape.  On his third attempt in May 1759, Stobo finally escaped the French and promptly offered his services to Gen. Wolfe.

Stobo told Wolfe about a relatively unguarded footpath that led from the river up to the Plains of Abraham, just a few miles west of Quebec. If Wolfe could get sufficient men and cannon onto the Plains, he would either force Montcalm into the infantry battle he wanted, or could bring up siege cannon to take out the city walls.  Wolfe told no one about this secret path, not even his top generals.  He even sent Stobo away, asking him to carry some important documents to Gen. Amherst.

The Plains of Abraham by Hervey Smyth (1797)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
On Sept. 5, Wolfe commanded his troops to move up river.  His officers assumed he had taken their advice to look for an entry point many miles upriver to cut off the enemy supplies.  His force of 3600 moved past Quebec to the point his subordinates had recommended.  A few days later, he sent another 1000 men, leaving his base with mostly the sick, who were not combat ready.  Wolfe continued to keep all his officers in the dark and without further orders until 8:30pm on Sept. 12.  At that time he ordered his army were to board ships at 9:00 PM and sail back down river about two miles to the secret footpath that Stobo had identified.

By all appearances, Wolfe did not seem terribly optimistic that his plan was going to work.  He handed over his will and instructions for dissemination of his papers and other personal effects in the event of his death.  He planned to go ashore in one of the first landing craft, and to be at the head of the invasion force.  Still terribly sick, it looked like he simply wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.

The boats ferried the first troops downriver around 2:00 AM.  French sentries heard the boats.  French speaking British officers called out that they were bringing supplies down to the city and they were permitted to pass without further challenge.  Wolfe climbed the footpath with the advance force and reached the plains of Abraham without incident.  With him was the highly capable Lt. Col. William Howe, youngest brother of Col. George Howe who was killed at the first raid near Fort Carillon in 1758, if you don’t remember, see Episode 10.  The advance force took out a small French sentry camp, but not before they sent a runner to warn Montcalm of the attack.

By 4:00 AM, only Wolfe and the 200 man advance force were on the Plains of Abraham.  The first full wave was still disembarking at the river.  French artillery fired on the second wave as it moved downstream.

Gen. Robert Monkton
(from Wikimedia)
Wolfe probably expected to face a more effective French defense. If he were killed with the advance guard, his second in command, Gen. Monckton would likely call off the attack and pull back.  Monckton had already expressed disapproval of the plan.  At least Wolfe would die nobly trying to engage the enemy, rather than suffer a death from disease without glory.  But the failure of the French to mount much of any defense left Wolfe surprisingly alive.  Not sure what to do next, he ordered his commanders, still disembarking below, to halt the landing. Fortunately, they ignored his order and the main force continued to make its way to the Plains.

By dawn seven battalions stood on the Plains of Abraham in line of battle.  Five more battalions were still making their way up the footpath from the river.  So far, they had only met with a few French skirmishers, presumably sent out to see what was going on.  They even managed to bring up two 6 pound brass cannon (the “6 pounds” refers to the weight of the cannonballs they threw, not the weight of the much heavier cannons themselves).

The Plains of Abraham

I always thought “the Plains of Abraham” was some lofty name with a Biblical reference.  It turns out, the name comes from a guy named Abraham Martin who had settled in the area in the 1630’s and had begun farming there.  It was a wide flat plain covering several hundred acres, perfect for a traditional line battle favored by professional European officers like Wolfe and Montcalm.

French Gen. Montcalm had spent all night setting up defenses northwest of the city at Beauport. British sailors had put out markers in the river near Beauport, presumably as guides for landing craft to avoid hidden sand bars.  It was a ruse to distract Montcalm.  It worked.  Montcalm assumed the British transports traveling upriver were a ruse to distract him from a landing at Beauport, not the other way around.  Instead, the British army stood several thousand strong on the Plains of Abraham facing the southeastern walls of the city, one of its weakest points.

By 7:00 AM, Montcalm came back to the Plains of Abraham, apparently stunned by the British infantry lines facing him.  He saw the cannons and saw the British beginning their entrenchments for a siege.  He sent for reinforcements, but knew they would take hours to arrive.  At present, he could only field about 4500 soldiers to face the similarly sized British force.

In fact, though, the British were not entrenching.  They did not have any more than the two small cannons they already had on the field.  Wolfe expected to be dead by now and to have his Generals retreating.  He had not planned properly for a full scale siege.  His army’s entrenching tools were stilling sitting in the ships at the river below.  His men were only lying down on the field to make themselves smaller targets to the snipers and cannon firing at them.  If French reinforcements did arrive, the British would be surrounded on three sides, with the only avenue of retreat being the small footpath that had taken all night to climb.  Despite their incredible luck so far, they were still facing the very real possibility of a slaughter.

Montcalm, however did not wait.  He did not know that more British were not coming nor that they could not mount a proper siege.  Montcalm therefore sent his infantry forward to meet the British on the field of battle.  When the French lines advanced to within about 150 yards, they fired.  This was still too far to hit much of anyone.  A few British fell, but the lines of professionals quickly closed the gaps.  One of those hit was Wolfe himself.  He received a shot through his wrist, but casually wrapped it in a handkerchief and continued with his duties.

The Death of Gen. Wolfe by Benjamin West (1770)
(from National Gallery of Canada)
As the French reloaded, the British line stood impassively, still not firing back.  There were too many militia in the French lines.  As the regulars reloaded, the militia began to take cover or fall to the ground to avoid fire.  As a result, the French line began to fall apart.  Individual units advanced, but did not maintain a solid line of battle. When the French got within 60 yards of the British line, the British regulars fired a destructive volley followed by a bayonet charge into the enemy.  The already broken French line now fled back to the city walls.  The only return fire came from the fields off to the side where enemy snipers could pick off only a few of the advancing British.  One of the few hit was once again Gen. Wolfe.  This time, he sustained two fatal shots to his torso.  His second in command, Monckton also sustained a serious wound around the same time.  Gen. Murray had led his men on a wild charge that had taken him away from the main force.  Wolfe’s aid Isaac Barré, a name you might want to remember, also took a shot to his face.  He would live, but was out of commission for now.

George Townshend
(from Wikimedia)
Finally, Gen. Townshend came forward to take command.  He quickly reestablished the British lines and returned order.  By noon, both sides had suffered around 700 casualties each.  Less than 10% of those were deaths, but given the medical care of the day, many of the wounded would not survive long.  On the French side, Montcalm was among the wounded, out of commission, and would die the following morning.  The next two highest ranking French officers had also been killed.  Eventually the civilian Governor of Canada Vaudreuil conferred with the highest ranking officers available and decided to evacuate the city.  The main army would leave and try to link up with relief forces for a counter attack.  Meanwhile 2200 local militia were left in charge of defending Quebec against the British Army.  No one had much hope in them, as they left them with papers on how to ask for surrender terms.  As the French regulars departed the City, they left behind these militia, along with large amounts of supplies and ammunition.

Siege of Quebec

The cautious Townshend still did not dare send his infantry against the walls of the city, where artillery could cut them down.  Rather, he waited for British artillery to arrive so that he could begin a proper siege. The British siege began the next day, as British cannon finally arrived for use.  The British did not even bother to fire their artillery as their entrenchment lines moved closer to the city over several days.  The cannon only had to sit in the entrenchments to deter a French charge as the British dug ever closer entrenchments.  Defensive fire from the French was largely ineffective.  By September 17, the British were in position to open fire point blank on the walls of the City.  As they prepared to open fire, the commander of Quebec’s remaining forces offered terms of surrender.

James Murray
(from National Galleries Scotland)
Townsend surprised the defenders by agreeing to all of their terms.  Defenders were granted the honors of war.  The British would protect the civilians and their property.  They were free to continue to practice their Roman Catholic religion.  French militiamen were free to remain in the city as long as they gave up their arms and swore an oath of loyalty to King George.  Any possible French attempt to string out the negotiations until a relief force could arrive had failed because the British simply agreed to everything.

There was good reason for this.  Townshend’s position was tenuous.  If a relief column did arrive, his forces would be in a dangerous position.  Further, his small force required the cooperation of the civilians. He simply did not have enough soldiers to fight off a relief force and control a hostile population.

In fact, a relief force was only about one day away when the British occupied Quebec.  When the French arrived, they did not have the equipment to lay siege now that the British were behind the walls of Quebec.  The French constructed a fort nearby and waited for an opportunity to retake Quebec.

British Occupation

By mid-October, the British fleet needed to leave.  No one really wanted to stay in Quebec for the winter, but all able bodied soldiers were needed for its defense.  Mockton still recovering from wounds, opted to leave for New York.  Townshend decided to return to London.  The most junior General Murray remained in command.  His men would have to endure a difficult winter on short rations.  However, Quebec had fallen and the British stood victorious.

Next Week: Canada becomes British, and Britain gets a new King.

Next Episode 14: Canada Becomes British & Britain Gets King George III

Previous Episode 12: Forts Duquesne, Niagara, and Carillon Fall

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Further Reading


Battle of Quebec:

Gen. James Wolfe:

Robert Stobo Biography:

The Fantastic Adventures Of Captain Stobo, by Robert Alberts American Heritage Vol. 14, Iss. 5, Aug. 1963:

Isaac Barré: Advocate for the Americans in the House of Commons, by Bob Ruppert, Journal of Am. Rev., Aug. 11, 2015:

The Battle That Won An Empire, Sir Basil Hart, American Heritage Vol. 11, Iss. 1, Dec. 1959:

Free eBooks:
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Montreal, 1535-1914, Vol. 1, by William H. Atherton (1914).

The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Vol. 1, by Arthur Doughty & George Parmelee - also, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, & Vol. 6 (1901).

The Battle of the Plains, by J.M. Harper (1909).

The Fall of New France, 1755-1760, by Gerald E. Hart, (1888).

The History of Canada, Vol. 4,  by William Kingsford (1889).

The battle of Quebec from Captain John Knox's "Historical journal of the campaigns in North America for the years 1757, 1758, 1759 and 1760" by John Knox (1896) (a short contemporary account by a British Captain who participated in the Battle).

An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760Vol 1Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, by John Knox (1914).

Journal of the siege of Quebec, 1760, by James Murray (1871) (a short contemporary account by one of Wolfe’s field generals).

Montcalm and Wolfe, Vol. 3, by Francis Parkman (1885).

Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60Vol. 1, & Vol. 2, by Pierre Pouchot (1866).

Memoirs of Major Robert Stobo of the Virginia Regiment, by Robert Stobo (1854).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Anderson, Fred Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Brumwell, Stephen Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Jennings, Francis Empire Of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies & Tribes in the Seven Years War in America, W.W. Norton & Co. 1988.

MacLeod, D. Peter The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years' War, Dundurn Press, 2012.

Manning, Stephen Quebec: The Story of Three Sieges, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009.

Stacey, C.P. Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle, Robin Brass Studio, 2014 (original 1959).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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