For the British, 1759 was indeed the “year of victories.” Triumphs were reported from India, Africa, the West Indies and on the high seas. In North America, Forts Niagara, Ticonderoga and Crown Point fell, but the crowning achievement was the French loss of Québec.William Pitt’s North American strategy for 1759 campaign envisioned the following:
- The capture of Fort Niagara, the key bastion between lakes Erie and Ontario, which would isolate all French positions to the west
- A thrust northward along lakes George and Champlain, then down the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence, where this force was intended to join another British army in an assault on Québec
- Combined army and navy forces were to be assembled in a fleet and sent up the St. Lawrence to besiege the key French bastion, Québec.
In June, the plan was implemented. William Johnson’s army successfully captured Fort Niagara and the forces of General James Wolfe and Vice Admiral Charles Saunders arrived at Québec via the St. Lawrence. Jeffrey Amherst took the abandoned and destroyed French positions on Lake Champlain in July and August, but then dedicated his efforts to reconstruct those forts rather than push on to join Wolfe in the Québec offensive.The arrival of the 200-ship British fleet outside Québec was in itself a minor triumph. The passage up the St. Lawrence was difficult for large ships, but was accomplished without loss. An initial position was taken on the Island of Orleans, east of the city.The task facing the British was daunting. Located high on a bluff above the swiftly flowing St. Lawrence, Québec appeared to be an unassailable fortress. The defenders, numbering more than 14,000 men, were confident that 180-foot cliffs made it impossible for an invading army to make a direct assault, while rivers and tide flats made the approach from the east unlikely. To guard against an overland advance at Beaufort, the north bank of the river, the French deployed the bulk of their force there, including the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm. Québec itself was defended by combined French regulars and Canadian militiamen.
Wolfe then split his forces; some remained in place on the Island of Orleans, while others under Robert Monckton occupied Point Levy, an undefended position on the south shore. From there, British guns were capable of reaching the city's lower portions. Intermittent shelling of Québec continued throughout the summer, but the British failed in their efforts to discover a means of breeching the French defenses.In September, in a stroke of extreme good fortune, Wolfe learned of the existence of a steep path that ascended from the river to the Plains of Abraham outside of the city. Some authorities have reported that his vital information was provided by Wolfe’s scouts, but others have suggested that the path was identified by a disgruntled Québec resident. Seizing on this thread, Wolfe devised a new war plan that was put into action on the 12th. He first ordered the bombardment of the Beaufort shore, then loaded landing craft with soldiers and put them ashore east of the Montmorency River. Next cannon fire was directed against the city from the British battery near Point Levy. Finally, a portion of the British fleet sailed past Québec and appeared to be headed for Montreal. The impact on Montcalm’s command was one of confusion. The bulk of the French forces were deployed along the Beaufort heights in anticipation of a British assault from the east.Under the cover of night, British forces quietly converged off of Le Foulon. Small boats ferried more than 4,000 soldiers ashore. At 4 a.m. on the 13th, a scouting party ascended the pathway to the top of the cliff and dispatched the single French sentry. When dawn broke a few hours later, the city was greeted by the spectacle of a British army in battle formation immediately outside its walls.Montcalm tried to gather his widely dispersed army, but by 10 a.m. made the premature decision to confront the British army with whatever soldiers were at hand. The great battle on the Plains of Abraham lasted only 30 minutes; British ranks held firm in the face of a French advance. A devastating volley was fired when the British musketeers could see the whites of the French soldiers’ eyes. Huge numbers of men were mowed down and many others broke ranks and fled. A British counterattack quickly ended the battle. Both commanders were struck down; Wolfe lived long enough learn of his victory and Montcalm died from his wounds the next day.The risk that Wolfe chose to undertake cannot be minimized. If Montcalm had not taken the bait and engaged in battle on an open field, then the British prospects would have been extremely grim. Ice would soon have closed the St. Lawrence and the prospect of marching an army southward to the colonies was equally unappealing. For all intents and purposes, the British victory at Québec spelled the end of New France, although Montreal held out for another year.
See French and Indian War Timeline.
See also Indian Wars Time Table.
Battle of Quebec - History
The first major military initiative of the Revolutionary War was the invasion of Quebec, Canada by American forces. The purpose of the campaign was to capture Quebec and convince the French speaking colonists to join the thirteen colonies in revolt against the British Empire, which would strengthen the position of the rebels in the western seaboard of the continent.
The Battle of Quebec was fought early in the Revolutionary War. The American commanders included Major General Benedict Arnold and Brigadier General Richard Montgomery, both leading a raiding force of roughly 1,200 men to capture Quebec City from the small British garrison and Canadian conscripts stationed there. It took place on December 31, 1775 and ended in a major defeat for American forces.
The foundation for the battle had been laid in the capture of the fort of Ticonderoga, a key defensive location, which was swiftly followed by the capture of Montreal and the near capture of a senior British General, Guy Carleton. The force which eventually fought in the battle at Quebec City was a combination of troops which has previously marched on Montreal, led by Montgomery, and the second column under the command of Arnold which had marched from Boston through the wilds. It is of particular note that the long march of Arnold’s troops through the cold Maine winter wilderness left his troops on the brink of starvation and lacking in virtually all supplies. Only half of the 1,000 men who left Boston took rank on the field.
Arnold’s column arrived before the rest of the force and failed to extract surrender by messenger, indeed the messengers were set upon by cannon fire. The starved soldiers lacked artillery, ammunition, and half the strength with which they left Boston. They were forced to resort to a blockade of the Western road to the city. After some days they were forced to retreat in fear of a British counterattack. In their retreat they positioned at Pointe-aux-Trembles, and there they sat awaiting the arrival of Montgomery.
Montgomery arrived on December 1st and the force had deployed around Montreal to lay siege by the 6th. All messages delivered were burnt upon reception, Quebec retained faith in its walls. The artillery set up by the American forces had no real effect on the walls, so Arnold awaited a snowstorm which would enable his men to scale the fortress walls under cover. On the 27th such a storm arrived but soon faded, leaving Arnold with no choice but to concoct a different plan of attack. The matter was further compounded by the desertion of a Rhode Island sergeant who gave the plan of the original attack to the British.
A new plan was drafted which involved two diversionary attacks against Cape Diamond Bastion and St. Johns Gate in the North, these were to be conducted by two militia companies who would simply open fire at the targets but not attempt to storm them.
On the 30th of December another storm began and the order was given to attack. Montgomery, who had once been an officer in the British army, attacked the city in tandem with Arnold following the two feint attacks. The British general Carleton had set up a formidable deployment in addition to the already strong city walls and the American forces found themselves under heavy fire from the outset. Unbeknownst to them, recent enlistments had bolstered the defending forces numbers to 1,200. This was in part helped by the fact the British had threatened the French speaking populace to “volunteer” or face accusations of being spies or traitors. Ironically the feint attacks were too hasty and alerted the garrison to the imminent attacks.
Montgomery’s attack in the South was a complete failure and he was killed on the first day of the battle after storming a two-story building and taking shots to the head. He was killed instantly. He had led his forces through the outer palisades with the help of carpenters. The assault forces in the South lost so many of their officers and suffered such resistance that they retreated in disarray, leaving any chance of victory in tatters. Arnold’s assault in the East was more successful and the garrisons of the Sault-au-Matelot barricade were initially slow to respond. The British commander Carleton however had realized the Northern feints were of no threat and had already reinforced the lower town near the river including the northern section of the lower town where Arnold was attacking. Arnold, unaware of Montgomery’s death and the failure of the Southern push, was shot in the ankle after his force received heavy fire from the high stone walls and was carried off the field. Things were rapidly deteriorating for the American forces.
With Arnold injured, Daniel Morgan took command of the attack and ordered the men to take shelter within buildings near the palace gate in order to dry out their powder and rearm. It is well worth remembering that the average ammunition count for Arnold’s men stood at only five cartridges after the march from Boston and the aforementioned shortages.
While Morgan attempted to rearm, 500 troops rushed forth from the gate and recaptured the palisade, trapping Morgan and all the men inside. Surrounded and under heavy fire, the entire contingent surrendered, marking the end of the battle at 10 a.m.
Arnold refused to give up the siege and lay outside the city for nearly three months before being replaced. By May, the American commander, now General Thomas, concluded victory was impossible and ordered a retreat. The vanguard of a far larger British force, consisting of some 200 men, arrived on the 6th of May which spurred Carleton to sally forth from the city in order to conduct a joint attack on the now disorganized American troops.
The American forces retreated ravaged by smallpox and harried by British forces until they reached Ticonderoga Fort. General Thomas was lost on the journey from smallpox and the American Congress never again attempted to bring the Canadian populace into the revolution with them.
Armies & Commanders:
To the east, a second American expedition fought its way north through the Maine wilderness. Organized by Colonel Benedict Arnold, this force of 1,100 men had been picked from the ranks of General George Washington's Continental Army outside Boston. Proceeding from Massachusetts to the mouth of the Kennebec River, Arnold had expected the trek north through Maine to take around twenty days. This estimate was based on a rough map of the route developed by Captain John Montresor in 1760/61.
Moving north, the expedition soon suffered due to the poor construction of their boats and the faulty nature of Montresor's maps. Lacking adequate supplies, starvation set in and the men were reduced to eating shoe leather and candle wax. Of the original force, only 600 eventually reached the St. Lawrence. Nearing Quebec, it quickly became clear that Arnold lacked the men needed to take the city and that the British were aware of their approach.
A point in history.
While gathering ancestors on my father's side (The Lizottes), I often ran into the designation of 'a hero of Rivière-Ouelle'. Since there are thirteen of these heroes in my family, it seems the incident deserves some retelling.
The year is 1690 and the British are angry, insulted and horrified by Québec's Governor Frontenac's mid-winter orders for three damaging raids on New York and New England. British General Phips of Boston is sent out to even the score. His first and nearest target was Acadia. Its governor was caught by surprise and not in the position to resist, so Acadia was capitulated on May 21, 1690 to lessen further damage. On May 22, Phips records "We cut down the cross, rifled the Church, pulled down the High-Altar, breaking their images" and on May 23 he added, ". kept gathering Plunder both by land and water, and also under ground in their Gardens." It has been said that 28 houses were burned.
Enough to say, Phips arrived back in Boston victorious and somewhat of a hero, himself. In August of the same year, he set out again. This time the target would be Québec. With a contingency of about 2,000 men and 32 ships, he felt secure in his endeavor, even though only 5 or 6 of the fleet were actually warships.
On his way up the St. Lawrence River, Phips decided to create mischief. burn and loot a few villages. One such settlement would be Rivière-Ouelle.
A British ketch.
Speaking through the translated words of the 19th century writer, H. R. Casgrain.
One morning in the month of October 1690, a considerable detachment of Canadian settlers, armed for war, strode through the forest of spruce, fir and maple trees that still shade the edge of the River Ouelle.
The leader of the militia was none other than the parish priest, Father Francheville, a fifty-year old of fiery and impetuous character. "My friends," he told the men of the village earlier, "the news is about war. I just learned by letters from Québec, the English intend to seize the country to avenge the defeats we have inflicted upon them. It seems that a fleet of over 30 sails will soon appear. Already M. de Frontenac has sent detachments of militia to both sides of the river to prevent the enemy from making any landing. It must be believed that our governor is relying on your courage, since he sent none of his soldiers here. I would not recognize you were you to be so cowardly as to allow these Bostonian miscreats to land without firing a shot. You know what awaits you if you allow them to succeed: they will burn your houses, your church, desecrate what's holy as they have already done elsewhere, and they will drag everyone into captivity, you, your wives and children."
"Take arms and be ready for the first signal. "
And ready they were as they listened to the murmur of hurried voices and watched small boats filled with soldiers plying their way to shore. The tide was high and the boats would easily come within shooting range.
English orders were given, oars pulled from the water and the disembarkment began. In the moment of confusion that almost always accompanies this type of activity, the good priest shouted, "Fire!" Explosions erupted. A hail of bullets fell hard upon the stunned soldiers. Many fell dead on the spot, a larger number were seriously injured. In a general panic, the English rushed back to their boats.
For the moment, Rivière-Ouelle was saved by a handful of determined Canadians who got to watch the small British armada sound its way up the river to Québec under the leadership of General Phips. This time it was the steely Governor Frontenac who awaiting them. When a British envoy asked for surrender in the name of the King of England, Frontenac's reply was something along the lines of: Je vous répondrai par la bouche de mes canons! (I will answer you with the mouth of my canons!). Frontenac opened a damaging fire on the fleet below.
Nine vessels were wrecked. A week later, out of ammunition, Phips weighed anchor and sailed for Boston. On his way back home, three more of his ships including a brigantine were lost in and off the waters of the Saint Lawrence.
The story wasn't over, though. At this time New France had a population of about 11,000. New England had 10 times more.
The Canadians involved in this rout are listed with my thirteen heroes in block print:
François and Joseph Deschamps, sons of M. de la Bouteillerie (he was the seigneur or lord of the settlement)
Pierre Hudon dit Beaulieu
Charles Miville Jean Miville
Galleran Boucher and his two sons, Pierre and Philippe
Michel Bouchard and his three sons, Étienne, François and Pierre
Joseph Renault and his son, Joseph
René Ouellet and four of his children, Abraham, Mathurin-René , Grégoire and Joseph
Jean Lebel and his son, Jean-Baptiste
Jean Gauvin and his son, Jean
Nicolas Durant and his son, Nicolas
The source of much of this article is the booklet entitled Une paroisse Canadienne au 17ème siècle (A Canadian Parish in the 17th Century), by Henri Raymond Casgrain, published in Québec in 1880.
Battle of Quebec
The hopes for the Battle of Quebec were high, especially after the success of the fall of Fort St. Jean. Afraid of having the threat of the British always in the north, George Washington sent General Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold to gain military control of Quebec.
Montgomery’s party headed out in August and began the attack on of Fort St. Jean, capturing it finally in November. They headed towards Quebec to meet with Arnold with a much smaller army than they had originally had (due to sickness, expired enlistments, and desertion).
They reached Quebec in December. The plan was for Montgomery’s party to attack from the south and Arnold’s from the east. After the Siege at Fort St. Jean, Arnold’s and Montgomery’s armies were in pretty rough shape. They had traveled nearly 600 miles overland, were literally starving, and since General Carleton had escaped the siege and begun shoring up Quebec, they had lost the element of surprise.
The American soldiers were ordered to maintain good relationships with the Canadians (The French who had settled Canada), who were selling supplies to both the English and the Americans, but the Americans were quickly running out of gold. Eventually, after the French refused to accept American paper money, they simply took what they needed from French merchants.
Arnold’s army arrived before Gen. Montgomery’s, who were still camped out at Fort St. Jean. By the time Montgomery arrived, winter was setting in hard, they were out of supplies, the outbreak of sickness had significantly reduced their numbers, and the men were desperate. They planned a direct assault on the walls during a storm. The element of surprise and the cover of the snow storm would hide them. However, an American deserter informed General Carleton of their plan.
On December 30, the blizzard arrived. Montgomery led his men towards the city and were ambushed. Montgomery died in the gunfire exchange. While this was happening, Arnold took his men around the north side. With “Liberty or Death!” pinned to their hats, they approached the city’s walls and were promptly fired on by the British regular troops. They stormed forward and were met with a street fooricade.
John Trumbull’s depiction of General Montgomery’s death
in the Battle of Quebec | Public domain painting.
The Americans overcame this obstacle and the rest of Arnold’s men pressed through the fooricade. They had fallen into a trap. A larger fooricade blocked further progress and they were attacked with musket fire from above. Arnold was shot in the leg and taken from the field. Almost 400 men surrendered, and the rest of Arnold’s army was either dead or had retreated—some 1,000 men. The Americans were soundly beaten in the battle of Quebec, and though Canada didn’t join the United States, the French did end up helping the Americans win the war.
Arnold and the remainder of his men stayed, waiting for reinforcements, but eventually abandoned the area when British reinforcements arrived the next Spring.
Saratoga National Historical Park
The Saratoga Monument in Saratoga National Historical Park honors key players of the Battle of Saratoga. Its southern niche is empty in recognition of Arnold’s conflicting roles of top general and turncoat.
A memorial statue of a lone boot, also located in Saratoga National Historical Park, represents Arnold’s actions and leg wound at Saratoga. Neither the Boot Monument nor the southern niche bears Arnold’s name.
The Battle of Quebec occurred as part of a failed American attempt to invade Canada and rally French-Canadian support for the Patriot movement against the British. Limited troops, illness, and disorganization on the Patriot side contributed to a British victory on December 31, 1775.
British victory. Due to Quebec’s strong fortifications, most American forces were forced to retreat before entering the city limits. The American militia that made it into the city found themselves disorganized as a blizzard impaired their visibility. Because of these circumstances, the Patriots were forced to retreat. Although Benedict Arnold attempted to lay siege to the city after the defeat, the arrival of British reinforcements ended the American campaign for Canada.
After the Americans had successfully captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, Patriot commanders, including Gen. Phillip Schuyler, gained confidence in the strength of the American forces. With faith in the Continental army, Schuyler made plans to invade Canada in order to rally support among French-Canadians for the American cause. Quebec was held by British Gen. Guy Carleton, who acted as both provincial Governor and commander of the British troops.
The initial American efforts to invade Canada began in September 1775, when Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys“ attempted to capture Montreal. With a force of only 100 militia, Allen’s men were defeated, and Allen was imprisoned. In addition to this failed attempt, Gen. Schuyler, who was also meant to lead his army into Montreal, fell ill and was forced to delegate the invasion to Gen. Richard Montgomery. Although the preceding circumstances were demoralizing, Montgomery successfully captured Montreal on November 13, 1775. Following this success, the Patriot forces turned their attention towards invading Quebec.
After seeing American success in Montreal and other areas of Canada, Quebec Governor, Gen. Guy Carleton, began fortifying the defenses of his city and building up his militia in preparation for the inevitable incoming American attack. Meanwhile, Gen. Montgomery turned his victorious army north towards Quebec, targeting the western region of the city. At the same time, Gen. Benedict Arnold, who had helped capture Fort Ticonderoga months earlier, moved his army around New England, planning to move in on the eastern region of Quebec. Working together, Montgomery and Arnold planned to surround Quebec on either side. However, when the two Patriot forces met, their combined numbers only totaled about 1,000 troops - fewer than the British, who had amassed greater numbers in defense.
The Americans were camped outside of the city by early December 1775, trying to lay siege to the city and force a British surrender however, Gen. Carleton refused to comply. In the meantime, encamped Patriot forces were freezing in the harsh winter conditions and were unable to dig trenches because the ground was too frozen. Conditions worsened when an outbreak of smallpox plagued both American armies. Because of starvation, freezing temperatures and disease, the strength of the Patriot forces was compromised. In addition, the American assumption that they would find support from French-Canadians was proven wrong when these potential allies joined forces with the British. Despite these threatening conditions, the Americans prepared to attack Quebec.
On December 31, 1775, Gen. Montgomery led the first attack on the fortified city of Quebec by moving around the city walls and into the coastal shore areas of the Saint Lawrence River. Along the coastal areas, there were fewer British defenses, leading Montgomery to believe that it would be an easier access point into the city. Although a blizzard had begun the night prior, the Patriots moved forward, operating with significantly decreased visibility. In order to coordinate the attack between the Patriot armies on either side of the city, Montgomery’s men were tasked to shoot rockets into the air as a means of communicating to Arnold’s militia that it was time to invade. However, as the attack began, disorganization and disorientation ensued, with American militia getting lost in the blizzard.
As Montgomery’s men pushed forward toward the city, Canadian militia caught sight of the lanterns guiding the Continentals and opened fire. The opposing sides were in close range at this point, and a grapeshot from the Canadian fortress killed Gen. Montgomery and others in his group. After seeing their commander fall, some Continentals, began to flee, while others continued the attack. Despite their best intentions, these remaining devoted men from Montgomery’s militia were eventually forced to retreat when they could not breach the defenses of the city.
Meanwhile, General Arnold and his men were not having much success in their efforts either. Arnold had moved his militia to attack the north side of the city however, his movements were detected, and incessant musket and cannon fire rained down on his men from the tops of the city walls. Because of the height of the city walls, Arnold and his men could not effectively return the gunfire. Eventually, the Patriots successfully breached the fortress and began flooding into the city. Unfortunately, during the assault, Arnold was shot in the leg and forced to retreat. In his absence, Gen. Daniel Morgan took command and the Patriots moved into the city from the north, moving towards the previously agreed upon meeting point with Montgomery’s army. Once there, Arnold's men realized they were fighting without backup when Montgomery’s troops failed to arrive. Gen. Carleton took advantage of the Patriot confusion and reorganized his defenders into an attack force.
General Morgan led his men through the unfamiliar streets of Quebec until they were met by the reorganized British forces. The two forces met at close range and began fighting in the street. Many of the American guns ran out of ammunition, or were rendered useless by the weather, leaving the Patriots to fight a losing battle. Finally, at around 9 am, General Morgan and over 400 Americans surrendered and were taken prisoner by the British.
The Battle of Quebec
By late August 1759, Maj. Gen. James Wolfe had reached a dead end: For two months the gaunt, red-haired 32-year-old commander and his army of some 8,500 soldiers had laid siege to the French city of Quebec without success. The British army had tried artillery bombardment, frontal attacks on French fortifications and raids on the surrounding countryside, all in an effort to lure the defenders into an open-field battle in which Wolfe could exploit his superior infantry. Seeking to break the deadlock, Wolfe formulated a bold plan: In mid-September, a portion of his army would board royal navy ships, sail upriver, stage a secret landing and then force the French to do battle on the Plains of Abraham, less than a mile west of Quebec.
A soldier since boyhood, Wolfe was no military dilettante: In an age when most officers rose through patronage, Wolfe rose through patronage and talent. He approached command in a professional manner, continually looking to improve tactics and training while looking after the welfare of his troops.
By the middle of the 18th century, the British had achieved proficiency at what contemporary commentator Thomas More Molyneux called “conjunct expeditions.” The term referred to the cooperation between the army and navy that allowed the British to project effective military power around the globe. The same amphibious capability that would finally bring success at Quebec in 1759 would also serve them well at Havana and Manila during the Seven Years’ War and in the battles for control of New York City in 1776.
Geography determined the British approach. The two most significant French settlements, Quebec and Montreal, both lay along the St. Lawrence River. In peacetime, the river was the key commercial artery from the Canadian interior to the Atlantic and France. But in wartime, the St. Lawrence offered the British a highway to Quebec.
Several hundred miles inland, the fortified city was the strongest remaining French bastion in Canada. While it was not impossible to approach the city by land in the 18th century—as the American army of Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold would prove in 1775—the river offered the best option for an army on the move to remain wellsupplied and maintain secure lines of communication and retreat. The British had closed the mouth of the river the previous year by capturing the Fortress of Louisbourg. Capturing Quebec would move the British closer toward their ultimate goal: conquest of the French empire in North America.
Opening the campaign on June 26, 1759, the British fleet dropped anchor in the St. Lawrence, and the British army set up base on Isle d’Orleans, in the middle of the river about four miles from the city. Three days later the army crossed to the south bank and established another camp, from which they could shell the city. Wolfe’s 32-pounders and 13-inch mortars opened up on Quebec on July 12 and continued the bombardment for 68 days, burning much of the city. It marked Wolfe’s first attempt to compel the French either to yield or to come out from behind their defenses.
Those defenses were formidable. Opposing the besieging British forces were some 15,000 French soldiers, a mixed force of regulars and provincials. Lt. Gen. Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Véran, a 44-year-old veteran of campaigns in Europe and America, commanded the garrison. Montcalm had successfully countered the British during the early years of the French and Indian War, leading the force that captured Fort William Henry on New York’s Lake George in 1757— an action memorialized in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
At Quebec, Montcalm faced the challenge of defending not just the city, but miles of riverfront. Simply withdrawing behind the battlements and ceding the surrounding area would have allowed the British to bring siege guns to bear directly on the city walls. Montcalm needed to control the north bank of the river to keep Wolfe’s army at bay, or at least to slow the pace of the siege and delay the British until the onset of winter.
Though the French claimed numerical superiority, many of its troops were militia, and even the regulars were not up to par with their British counterparts, who were as well trained as any army in the world at the time. British control of the St. Lawrence delta made the delivery of reinforcements and supplies from France difficult, though not impossible. Additionally, while the British could concentrate their forces at points they wished to attack, the French had to defend all their towns.
On July 9 the British landed on the north bank of the St. Lawrence and established a camp east of Quebec, across the Montmorency River. That summer they made repeated attempts to draw the French into open-field battle. Wolfe’s army struck the French defenses on July 31, hoping to turn their eastern flank in a complicated maneuver that called for a series of amphibious landings near the mouth of the Montmorency. But a poorly selected landing site and stiff French resistance thwarted the offensive, with the loss of over 400 British lives.
In August, Wolfe again attempted to provoke the French into battle by sending raiding parties to ravage the countryside around Quebec. After issuing two fruitless proclamations calling on civilians to withdraw support from the French forces, Wolfe turned to harsher measures: British forces moved through the countryside destroying farms and villages, burning hundreds of buildings and driving off livestock. They also engaged in continual skirmishing with Native American auxiliaries allied with the French.
By September it must have been clear to Wolfe that time was running out. His forces had repeatedly failed to bring Montcalm to battle, and wounds and disease plagued the besieging forces—including Wolfe himself, who experienced fevers and fatigue. Moreover, the royal navy could not linger very late in the year so far north. The onset of winter in Canada brought pack ice to the notoriously treacherous St. Lawrence, making navigation even more difficult.
Finally, Wolfe decided to lift the siege and send his army upriver to a sheltered cove at Anse-aux-Foulons, where they could ascend a steep bluff west of the city. Here Wolfe hoped to outflank the French defenses and—if the French would cooperate—bring them to battle on favorable terms. It was a perilous plan, though. If the battle were lost, the Redcoats could be captured or even slaughtered on the retreat to their boats.
Just past midnight on September 13, Wolfe and more than 4,000 soldiers, under orders to maintain silence, rowed upriver into battle. Legend has it that night Wolfe recited to British officers his favorite poem, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Wolfe’s most recent biographer, Stephen Brumwell, discounts this anecdote as unlikely, since Wolfe knew better than anyone the need to keep quiet while on the river, lest he alert French defenders. Still, the image of doomed commander Wolfe reciting the lines
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave
remains irresistibly dramatic.
Despite their precautions, the British advance did not go unnoticed. As the boats moved upriver in the darkness, a French sentry challenged them. The attack hung in the balance. If the sentry realized what happening and alerted the city defenders, the French could at least prevent the landing and perhaps pick off the British in their boats. But a quick-thinking multilingual British officer answered the challenge in French, convincing the sentry that the boats held cargo bound from settlements in the interior.
Around 4 in the morning, the Redcoats landed at Anse-aux-Foulons and set to scaling the 175-foot bluffs—no mean feat, as loose shale made such a scramble difficult even in daylight during peacetime. Colonel William Howe, who would later command British troops against General George Washington in the Revolutionary War, personally led the advance force up the cliff. They quickly secured the beachhead.
Once atop the bluffs, Wolfe deployed his troops on the Plains of Abraham in a line running parallel to the river, both to cover the landing and to defend against a feared French counterattack. Named for former landowner Abraham Martin, the plains offered a relatively level battlefield, no more than a mile wide.
In his opening action, Wolfe sent a detachment of light infantry to silence a French artillery battery that had opened fire on the British troops. The British line spanned a half-mile front composed of, from right to left, the 35th Foot, the Louisbourg Grenadiers and five other regiments, with the 48th Regiment held in reserve. Wolfe anchored the right of his line on the St. Lawrence, despite harassing fire from French and Native American sharpshooters. Three more infantry units arrived later and formed up on the left, perpendicular to the main line, to guard that flank against attack by French irregular forces. Wolfe deployed his troops two ranks deep, a departure from the usual three-rank-deep line, in order to cover the large area with his relatively small force. The official British strength on the field, according to Brig. Gen. George Townshend, who would succeed Wolfe in command, was 4,441 men under arms.
Eighteenth century battles required a great deal of stoic endurance from soldiers. Tactics of the time mandated that they stand in formation to maintain cohesion under enemy fire, and while contemporary weapons offered little in the way of precision fire, they produced gruesome wounds. The sight and sound of massed muskets firing at once could easily convince soldiers with poor training or low morale that they had urgent business elsewhere. Relentless drills and confidence in their officers helped mitigate fear among rank-and-file soldiers, but a land battle in the Age of Reason remained a terrifying spectacle of blood, smoke and death.
The French were slow to react to the British landing. Around 9:30 a.m., Montcalm began forming his force of some 4,500 regulars and militiamen into three columns, each six ranks deep. Columns offered notable advantages, enabling an attacking force to maneuver with ease and close rapidly with one’s foe. Unfortunately for Montcalm’s soldiers, columns also faced two significant disadvantages when engaging troops deployed in lines: First, given their comparatively narrow frontage, columns could not match lines in firepower. Second, the broader lines could fire on both the front and flanks of a column.
The Redcoats held their fire until the French had advanced to within 40 yards, each British soldier executing a quarter turn as they brought their 46- inch Brown Bess muskets to their shoulders. Then the British line vanished behind a cloud of smoke, and a wall of lead slammed into the French columns. Wolfe had ordered his soldiers to load their muskets with an extra ball, and his regiments likely fired by company. Montcalm’s columns wilted in the face of such massed firepower. After less than 10 minutes of musketry, the British regulars ceased fire, fixed bayonets and charged the French line, which broke and retreated. Some French Canadians stood their ground to cover the retreat and exacted a price from their attackers, notably the Scottish Highlanders, who favored broadswords over bayonets. Reinforcements only arrived later in the day, by which time most French forces had fled back inside the fortified city.
The brief exchange on the Plains of Abraham claimed a heavy toll. British losses numbered 58 killed and 600 wounded. French estimates placed their casualties at around 600, while the British tallied French losses closer to 1,500 casualties. The officer corps on both sides suffered heavily. Montcalm fell during the retreat, mortally shot in the stomach he was carried from the field to die of his wounds the following day. The British second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Robert Monckton, fell wounded at the height of the conflict.
The battle also claimed the life of the British commander, in dramatic fashion. One musket ball struck Wolfe in the wrist, while another sliced across his stomach. Then two more struck him in the right chest. The last of these wounds lay beyond the reach of 18th century medicine. (Large-caliber—.75- inch in today’s terms—soft lead musket balls of that era created hideous wounds, akin to those delivered by a modern-day shotgun.) Assisted from the field by Lieutenant Henry Browne and volunteer James Henderson of the Louisbourg Grenadiers, Wolfe soon succumbed to blood loss. He lived long enough to learn that his troops had carried the day, and to order a regiment to cut off the French retreat.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham proved a stunning tactical success for the audacious British invaders. The records of Lowescroft, a royal navy ship supporting the attack, show that it dropped anchor at 7 in the morning, the battle erupted at 10 and Wolfe’s body was carried onto the ship at 11. In less than an hour, Wolfe’s Redcoats had shattered the French forces.
For all its tactical decisiveness, however, the clash did not instantly decide the fate of either Quebec or the French Empire. Most surviving French troops slipped away quietly to fight another day, while a small number of troops remained behind to hold Quebec. But the city would only hold out until capitulating on September 18, 1759. Another year passed before the final French battalions surrendered at Montreal, on September 9, 1760, marking the end of France’s North American empire.
For further reading, Mitchell MacNaylor recommends: Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General Wolfe, by Stephen Brumwell Montcalm and Wolfe, by Francis Parkman Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle, by C. P. Stacey and Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1760, by Fred Anderson
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.
Battle of Quebec Facts: The Fighting
The Battle of Quebec was the culmination of an epic journey through the wilderness. The Americans had marched through a blinding snowstorm to arrive at Quebec. The commanding officers, Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery were forced to make quick preparations for an attack due to enlistments running up.
On December 31, Richard Montgomery mustered his men to make a surprise attack on Quebec. Due to the snowstorm their movements had went unnoticed by the British until a deserter from the American forces arrived in Quebec and alerted Carleton of the attack. The two commanders planned a pincer attack where the forces would attack Quebec simultaneously on both sides.
The American plan was ambitious but it was met with disaster. General Montgomery led his troops near Wolfe&rsquos cove at the southern end of Quebec and was met with an ambush. Carleton was waiting for him and unleashed a deadly barrage of infantry and artillery fire. It was during this attack that Richard Montgomery died. Lieutenant Colonel Donald Campbell took over command and ordered retreat. The remaining men fell back, including future vice-president Aaron Burr. They would be unable to assist Arnold in his attack.
On the other side of the lower city of Quebec, Benedict Arnold successfully maneuvered his men through Quebec. He did not know of Montgomery&rsquos fate and continued to push forward. During his advance he took on many British prisoners and his line became scattered. On the recommendation of his fellow officers he halted his advance to re-organize his men. This gave British commander Guy Garleton time to strategically place his men around Quebec. Arnold&rsquos advance was quickly ended and some of the officers in command were thrown into precarious situations. Arnold ordered a retreat, but ended up losing many of his men including losing Daniel Morgan to capture.
Battle of Quebec 1759
Size of the Armies at the Battle of Quebec: The British Army besieging Quebec was around 8,000 troops. The force Major General Wolfe took onto the Plains of Abraham for the battle was around 4,500 men and 1 gun. The Marquis de Montcalm brought to the battle a force of around 5,000 men and 3 guns.
Marquis de Montcalm French commander at the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville
British Regiments at the Battle of Quebec:
15th Foot later the East Yorkshire Regiment and now the Yorkshire Regiment *
22nd Foot later the Cheshire Regiment (only the grenadier and light companies) and now the Mercian Regiment
28th Foot later the Gloucestershire Regiment and now the Rifles *
35th Foot later the Royal Sussex Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
40th Foot later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment (only the grenadier and light companies)
43rd Foot later the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Rifles *
45th Foot later the Sherwood Foresters and now the Mercian Regiment
47th Foot later the North Lancashire Regiment and now the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment *
48th Foot later the Northamptonshire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment *
58th Foot later the Northamptonshire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment *
60th Foot later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and now the Rifles *
Fraser’s Highlanders, disbanded at the end of the war.
The Louisburg Grenadiers, the Light Infantry and 6 companies of American rangers.
* These regiments have Quebec as a battle honour.
General Wolfe and his troops climbing the Heights of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville
Uniforms, arms and equipment at the Battle of Quebec:
The British Foot wore red coats falling to the knee with the skirts, lapels and cuffs turned back to reveal a wide expanse of the lining of the regiment’s colour. The coat was embroidered with the regiment’s distinctive lace pattern. The lining colour was part of a regiment’s character so that the 3rd Foot was known as the “Buffs” and the 19th Foot as “the Green Howard’s” from their lining colours. The main headwear for the foot was the black tricorne hat, a wide brimmed hat with the brim turned up and fastened to form three angles.
The grenadiers wore a mitre cap with an embroidered front of the regimental facing colour. This was the standard form of uniform. However on arrival in America the soldiers quickly adapted their dress. Coats were cut back or abandoned. Many took to wearing hunting shirts and leggings. Hats were adapted and mutilated. It is unlikely that the grenadiers retained their inconvenient mitres for long. The new light companies in particular adopted local dress.
Each soldier carried a musket, 24 rounds of ammunition carried in a pouch slung from a shoulder belt, a short sword and a bayonet that he fixed to the muzzle of his musket. In America the sword was quickly abandoned as useless.
The city of Quebec lies on the north bank of the St Lawrence to the West of the St Charles river. Montcalm established his army along the north shore of the St Lawrence between the St Charles and Montmorency rivers building fortifications along the St Lawrence bank. The city was strongly fortified and ships added to the defences.
French fire ships off Quebec: Battle of Quebec September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
The British and American force arrived and established itself on the Isle of Orleans downstream from Quebec in late June 1759. Monckton’s brigade took post on the southern bank of the river opposite the city and began to bombard it. The other two brigades occupied the banks of the Montmorency.
Major-General James Wolfe: Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
The musket of the period was a cumbersome and inaccurate weapon. Each round of ammunition comprised a charge of gunpowder and a lead ball wrapped in “cartridge paper”. When ordered to load the soldier took a cartridge and ripped it open, often with his teeth. He poured sufficient powder into the pan of the firing mechanism to fill it. He poured the main portion of powder down the barrel, folded the paper and pushed it into the barrel and dropped the ball on top. He used the ramrod carried under the barrel of the musket to push the whole charge to the bottom of the barrel next to the hole leading to the firing pan.
He then cocked the firing mechanism which comprised a hammer holding a wedge of flint and the weapon was ready to fire. Pulling the trigger caused the flint held by the hammer to strike against the pan lid, flicking it open as it did so. The spark from the flint ignited the powder in the pan which fired the charge in the barrel. With a significant number of shots the musket would fail to fire, particularly in wet weather.
If the musket did fire it gave out a gout of flame and smoke with the discharged ball and if the target was large and within 50 yards it might be hit. An experienced user of the musket might be able to load and fire three or four times in a minute.
After ten rounds or so the musket began to foul from the powder residue and loading became slower and more difficult. The soldier would use a “picker” to keep the hole from the pan through the barrel clear. After each shot he would blow down the barrel. Sparks from each shot might fly into his eye or onto his hair. His face and hands would become blackened with soot.
Officers carried short pikes and swords. In America they too quickly adapted their equipment and dress to local usage. Pikes were abandoned and many officers carried muskets and pistols.
The French foot wore similar uniforms to the British but of white. They also quickly adapted their dress to local conditions. The French musket fired a smaller ball than the English.
The Rangers and Militia wore whatever they chose. In addition to their muskets these troops being largely hunters carried tomahawks, knives and other implements.
Map of the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: map by John Fawkes
Account of the Battle of Quebec:
Following the capture of Louisburg in 1758, Wolfe took sick leave in England. In February 1759 he returned to America to command the attack on the St Lawrence and Quebec. The British force assembled at Louisburg as three brigades under Monckton, Townsend and Murray. The grenadier companies were formed into one battalion and other picked men into a battalion of Light Infantry.
British landing barge: Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
In the first week of June 1759 the force set sail for the St Lawrence. The French had been expecting attacks from Lake Ontario in the West and Lake Champlain in the South and the descent on the St Lawrence took them by surprise. Montcalm assembled five regular French battalions, militia and a thousand Indians to Quebec.
On 31st July 1759 Wolfe attempted an attack on Montcalm’s riverside fortifications. The disorganised assault was repulsed with heavy loss. The grenadiers and 60th losing around 500 casualties.
Over the following weeks British ships managed to pass the batteries into the area of the river above the city. This move prevented supplies from reaching the French garrison and population. On his recovery Wolfe determined to attempt a landing on the steep northern bank of the St Lawrence to the West of the city.
On the night of 4th September 1759 the troops encamped on the Montmorency were disembarked. On 12th September Wolfe was informed that French supply ships were expected to venture down the St Lawrence that night. A feint attack was made on Montcalm’s fortifications east of the city to draw French troops away from the proposed landing site.
General Wolfe and his troops climbing the Heights of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville
That night Wolfe’s flotilla rowed from the West down the river to the Anse du Foulon, the point Wolfe had chosen for the landing on the north bank. A French sentry challenged the boats but was answered by a highland officer in French. The force landed and scaled the cliff. By dawn 4,500 British and American troops were assembled on the cliff top.
The situation of this British force was precarious as Bougainville and a French force lay to the West in their rear. About a mile to their front was the area of wide open country called the Plains of Abraham extending to the walls of the city.
Battle of Quebec 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by John Fawkes
Wolfe formed his army on the plains in a single line of battalions, the right resting on the edge of the heights above the St Lawrence. From the right his regiments were: the 35th Foot, the grenadier companies of the 22nd, 40th and the 45th Foot, the 28th, 43rd, 47th Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders and the 58th Foot. One light gun had been dragged up the cliff and stood between the 47th and the Highlanders. The 15th Foot was formed at a right angel to the line on the left to protect the flank. Two battalions formed a reserve, the 3rd/60th and the 48th Foot. Two companies of the 58th guarded the access up the cliff and 3rd/60th guarded the rear against any incursion by Bougainville.
General Wolfe and his troops: Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville
Of the brigadiers, Monckton and Murray commanded the line and Townsend the reserves. Wolfe positioned himself with the 28th on the right of the line.
Montcalm did not become aware of the British incursion until the morning, when he saw the line formed outside Quebec. French, Canadian and Indians streamed through the city towards the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm applied to the governor of the city for some of the guns from the ramparts, but the governor agreed to release only three. Nevertheless Montcalm decided to attack the British line.
Montcalm formed his army from the right a battalion of Canadian militia, then the regiments of Bearn, La Sarre, Guienne, Languedoc, Rousillon and another battalion of militia. Skirmishing Canadians and Indians formed on the flanks.
A savage fight developed on Wolfe’s left between the skirmishers and the British Light Infantry and the reserve regiments under Townsend. The three French guns and the single British gun fired at the opposing lines. The French regular battalions advanced to the attack and the British regiments, who had been lying down to avoid the fire, rose up. The French fired ineffectually at too great a distance and came on. The British foot withheld its fire until the range was 35 yards, it is said. Two volleys were sufficient to destroy the French line. The British infantry then advanced and drove the French from the field.
Death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
Wolfe, who had been wounded in the hand, advanced with the 28th Foot until he was shot in the groin and then in the chest. A group of soldiers carried him to the rear.
Canadian skirmishers continued to fire on the British until they were driven back. The French army retreated into the city in confusion. Montcalm, who had been shot, was carried with the retreating throng until he was taken from his horse iinto a house nearby, where he died.
Wolfe rejected medical attention and was laid on the ground. Someone called “See them run”. Wolfe said “Who?” He was answered, “The French.” Wolfe directed the 28th to march to the bridge across the St Charles River to cut off the retreat and then died.
In addition to the two generals, Montcalm’s deputy was killed and Brigadier Monckton wounded. Townsend took command and immediately had to fight off an attack from Bougainville to his rear.
City of Quebec during the battle: Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
Casualties (killed and wounded) at the Battle of Quebec:
Royal Artillery: 15
15th Foot: 132
28th Foot: 126
35th Foot: 111
40th Foot: 38
43rd Foot: 48
47th Foot: 69
48th Foot: 65
58th Foot: 155
Fraser’s Highlanders: 187
Roger’s Rangers: 51
Royal Marines: 30
The French casualties are unknown.
Death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War: picture by Benjamin West
Follow-up to the Battle of Quebec:
After the battle the French civil governor of Canada, M. Vaudreuil left Quebec taking the majority of his surviving force and on 18th September 1759 the governor of Quebec surrendered the city to Townsend. The taking of Quebec was the beginning of the end of French rule in Canada although the British troops had to endure a severe winter in the ruined city.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Quebec:
- The 47th Foot took to wearing a black line in their lace to commemorate the death of Wolfe.
- The 35th Foot took the plumes from the hats of the Rousillon Regiment and adopted them as the regimental badge. The Rousillon Regiment held the same number in the French line of 35th.
City of Quebec after the fighting: Battle of Quebec 13th September 1759 in the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War
References for the Battle of Quebec:
- History of the British Army by Fortescue
- Montcalm and Wolfe by Parkman
- Wolfe of Quebec by Robin Reilly
The previous battle of the French and Indian War is the Capture of Louisburg
The next battle in the British Battles sequence is the Battle of Lexington and ConcordeList of site sources >>>