St. John's, Canada

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St. John's, Canada

ST. JOHN'S, CANADA. 5 September-2 November 1775. Twenty miles southeast of Montreal and near the head of navigation from Lake Champlain down the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence, St. John's occupied a critical position along a historic invasion route. Military works established there by the Marquis de Montcalm in 1758 were enlarged and strengthened by Guy Carleton, governor of Quebec and commander of British forces in Canada, after the fall of Ticonderoga. Carleton considered it to be critical to the defense of Canada. In addition to the fortifications and barracks complex, St. John's also had a small shipyard and a modest civilian settlement. When the Americans approached on 5 September, Major Charles Preston was in command with about two hundred regulars from the Twenty-sixth Foot and small Indian contingent.

On 17 August, General Philip Schuyler left Brigadier General Richard Montgomery in temporary command on Lake Champlain and went to Albany for a meeting. While Schuyler was gone, Montgomery learned that the British were rushing to complete two small vessels under construction at St. John's and realized that naval control of Lake Champlain could be lost. The crisis did not allow him to get Schuyler's approval to cross the border. On 28 August he set out for Ile aux Noix, a swampy island in the Richelieu, twenty miles south of St. John's; here he intended to set up defenses that could prevent the vessels from entering the lake.

Montgomery's command comprised about 1,200 men and a few cannon. They moved north in a small fleet of two sailing vessels (the sloop Enterprise and schooner Liberty), and an assortment of bateaux and canoes. Troops involved were most of Waterbury's Fifth Connecticut Regiment and half of the First New York Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema. The latter included Captain Gershom Mott's infantrymen, who had been temporarily converted to an artillery section.

Schuyler caught up with his aggressive subordinate the morning of 4 September, approved his action, and by night the invaders were at Ile aux Noix. Although the expected Canadian allies did not appear to reinforce them, neither did the majority of the French-speaking militia turn out for Carleton. Schuyler stripped his men of baggage and pushed toward St. John's. On 6 September they landed a mile and a half away and were advancing through the swamps to attack when a flank patrol ran into an Indian ambush. The resulting skirmish in dense underbrush ended when the Indians withdrew, but the Americans lost sixteen men and did not pursue. That night a man who was apparently sympathetic to the American cause visited Schuyler's entrenched camp and convinced him that St. John's was too strongly held for him to capture, so the next day he fell back to Ile aux Noix.

Additional Connecticut and New York troops arrived, swelling Schuyler's strength to about 1,700 men (more than twice the entire strength of British regulars in Canada). Although his health was failing, Schuyler sent out aggressive combat patrols to gather better intelligence and prepared for a second attack. Montgomery and Ritzema landed at the previous camp site after dark on 10 September. Montgomery remained with a party at the site while Ritzema and 500 New Yorkers started forward with the mission of investing St. John's from the north. Within fifteen minutes the advance turned into a fiasco. In the darkness of the heavy woods, the skittish New Yorkers thought they were ambushed and stampeded back to the boats. Montgomery rallied them and tried again. The second movement ground to a halt when Preston's cannon fired a few rounds and the vanguard had a small skirmish. About 3 a.m. the Americans withdrew to the beachhead. A third try the next morning ended when the men were panicked by a report that the Royal Savage, one of the new ships, was near their boats and ready to go into action, and Montgomery had to return to his base.

Back on Ile aux Noix, Montgomery assumed command on 16 September when Schuyler was invalided to the rear. Despite a sick list of 600, and all the makings of a mutiny among his demoralized, ill-disciplined troops, Montgomery was able to resume the offensive. He had received additional reinforcements: 170 Green Mountain Boys under Seth Warner, 100 New Hampshire Rangers under Timothy Bedel, and an Independent Company of Volunteers that included some Dartmouth students. Others were on the way.


Rather than pull in his outposts and concentrate his meager forces around Montreal and Quebec, General Carleton adopted a "forward strategy": he reinforced St. John's to a total of 500 regulars from the Seventh ("Royal Fusiliers") and Twenty-sixth Foot. Another 90 officers and men of the Seventh Foot were posted at nearby Chambly. Preston was further reinforced by 225 men scraped together from all the sources at Carleton's disposal: an ensign and 12 sailors from the Gaspée, 100 Canadian militia, and 70 of Allan MacLean's newly recruited Royal Highland Emigrants.

On 17 September Montgomery finally made it to St. John's and began siege operations. The Americans contended with illness, cold weather, swampy ground, and a shortage of supplies as they struggled to construct their lines and batteries. Although an effective artillery fire could be delivered into the British camp, the raw Americans lacked the training and discipline to take the place by assault.

Schuyler at Ticonderoga kept pushing food forward, which boosted morale considerably. With the surrender of Chambly on 18 October, the Americans obtained supplies that permitted successful conclusion of the siege. The arrival of Captain John Lamb's artillery company (along with more Connecticut infantry) soon after enabled the attackers to utilize that materiel effectively. Carleton's attempt to rescue Preston was stopped at Longueuil on 30 October, when American forces kept the British from crossing the St. Lawrence; another detachment kept MacLean from crossing farther up the river. After having delayed the American invasion almost two months, and with only three days' supplies left, Preston surrendered St. John's on 2 November 1775. Among the prisoners was Lieutenant John André. During the actual forty-six-day siege, few men were killed on either side.


Although Carleton lost most of his regular troops at Chambly and St. John's, the time spent eliminating them bought him time to organize resistance at Quebec. Forcing the Americans to fight a winter campaign is generally considered to have saved Canada for the British.

SEE ALSO André, John; Canada Invasion; Chambly, Canada; Green Mountain Boys; Longueuil, Canada.


Huot, Lucien. Siege of the Fort of St. Johns in 1775. St. Johns, 1889.

Naval Documents of the American Revolution. Edited by William B. Clark. Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964–1996.

                           revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.

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