Quebec (Canada Invasion)

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Quebec (Canada Invasion)

QUEBEC (CANADA INVASION). 31 December 1775–1 January 1776. Lacking siege artillery, faced with expiring enlistments, and unable to bluff the defenders into surrender, General Richard Montgomery determined that his only chance of capturing the fortified city of Quebec was by assault. But with only one thousand men against seventeen hundred assorted defenders, Montgomery would have to surprise the enemy. The operation would have to be undertaken at night and under cover of a snowstorm to permit getting close enough for the assault to have some hope for success. The western walls, facing the Plains of Abraham, being too strong to attack, the final plan called for feints in this area while Arnold and Montgomery converged on the lower town from opposite sides. The latter forces were to link up at Mountain Street, force Prescott Gate, and push their way into the upper town. British General Guy Carleton had, unfortunately for the Americans, seen that the attack would probably be directed against the lower town, and he had organized his defenses accordingly. The Sault-au-matelot, a narrow, winding street that Arnold's column would have to follow to reach the heart of the lower town from the north, was well defended. Astride the route that Montgomery would have to follow to enter the lower town from the other direction, the defenders had erected a blockhouse with a battery, called Pot-Ash, two hundred yards behind it, from which they could deliver cannon and musket fire along the narrow road before them.

On 29 and 30 December 1775, the weather was fair, but signs of bad weather became apparent on the 31st. The sky clouded over during the afternoon, the wind rose, and whiffs of fine snow appeared. Soon after dark a fierce snowstorm was in progress. The rebel forces assembled at 2 a.m. and two hours later were moving out. The feints fizzled out quickly without deceiving Carleton in the least; Colonel James Livingston's small force of Canadians approached St. John's Gate but then broke and ran; and one hundred Massachusetts men under Captain Jacob Brown (brother of John Brown) delivered a sustained fire against the Cape Diamond bastion, but without any significant effect.


From his position on the Plains of Abraham, Montgomery led three hundred men of the First New York through the howling blizzard, down a mile of narrow, twisting, snow-choked trail to Wolfe's Cove. From this point they struggled along the river's edge with their cumbersome scaling ladders. The Canadian guards in the blockhouse fled when they saw the rebels approaching. As Montgomery led the advance guard of some twenty men up to the battery, the defenders fired their cannon at near point-blank range, instantly killing Montgomery; Captain John Macpherson, his aide-de-camp; Captain Jacob Cheeseman; and two others. Only Aaron Burr, Edward Antil, and one or two men escaped unhurt. The unheroic Colonel Donald Campbell took command and led the New Yorkers to the rear, leaving Arnold unsupported.


Arnold led the vanguard of twenty-five men parallel to the northern wall of Quebec and within fifty yards of its defenders, through the suburb of St. Roque, and toward the Sault-au-matelot's northern end. Captain John Lamb followed with a six-pounder on a sled and forty artillerymen. In single file came the rest of Arnold's command: Virginia riflemen under Captain Dan Morgan and Pennsylvania riflemen under Lieutenant Archibald Steele and Captain William Hendricks. With the exception of Captain Henry Dearborn's company, which was late assembling, the New Englanders, with some forty Canadians and Indians, brought up the rear for a total strength of about six hundred men.

Arnold passed a two-gun battery undetected and was beyond the Palace Gate when the enemy opened fire from the wall. The Americans sustained several casualties as they pushed on another few hundred yards and came up against the first barrier outside the lower town. Lamb's cannon was supposed to be used to batter this down, but it had overturned and been abandoned. Although the weather had rendered most of their muskets useless, the rebels pressed ahead with their attack. Arnold was taken out of action by a leg wound, but Morgan assumed command and carried the first barrier, cutting off and capturing about fifty of its defenders. Morgan was blasted from the top of the first scaling ladder and knocked back into the snow, uninjured, but with his face pocked with grains of burned powder. He roared back to his feet, up the ladder, and over the barrier at the head of his men. The advance guard charged into the Sault-au-matelot to the next barrier, some three hundred yards away. Captain Humphreys led the attack against the next barricade but was killed as his men were driven back by bayonets, Carleton having been able to move defenders from elsewhere in the city to this position. With the British firing on the attackers from the houses above, Morgan ordered his troops to seek cover in nearby buildings. Before the Americans could effect their retreat, Carleton sent a force of two hundred men with two cannon to block their escape. Dearborn's company was surprised just outside the gate and overwhelmed. Arnold and many of his men managed to get away by fleeing across frozen St. Charles Bay; the remaining attackers, 426 men including Morgan, surrendered around 9 a.m.

Carleton lost five killed and thirteen wounded; the Americans suffered sixty casualties. The loss of Montgomery was a particularly hard blow for the rebels, since he was a general of exceptional promise.


Montgomery's attack was audacious and foolhardy, an act of desperation. A coordinated attack in a snowstorm is always a risky enterprise, especially with largely untrained troops. Montgomery refused to consider retreating back to winter bases, feeling that he had a unique opportunity to expel the British from Canada. Hampered by the short enlistments of his soldiers and faced with enormous provisioning difficulties, he hoped that a bold stroke would overwhelm the enemy. Unfortunately for the Americans, Carleton proved a well organized and intelligent opponent.

SEE ALSO Brown, John; Burr, Aaron; Canada Invasion; Carleton, Guy; Dearborn, Henry; Lamb, John; Montgomery, Richard; Morgan, Daniel.


Shelton, Hal T. General Richard Montgomery and the American Revolution: From Redcoat to Rebel. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles