||The siege of the City of Quebec during the winter of 1775 to 1776 was one of the most important events in the history
of colonial Canada. The failure of the siege ensured that Canada would not join the rebellious Thirteen Colonies but
would instead remain part of the British Empire.
||Above: Governor General Sir Guy
Carleton, the Governor of
the Colony of Quebec.
The Invasion of Canada and Siege of Quebec
The political origins of the invasion of Canada in 1775 stem from the insurrection launched by the New England colonists
in April of that year. After attacking a column of British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, a sizeable proportion of the
colonists in Massachusetts were in de facto rebellion against the Crown. The British forces besieged in Boston lost
control of the rest of the Colony, and the resulting vacuum of power allowed the Colonists' own Committees of Public
Safety and, later, Continental Congress, to form a provisional government.
The Continental Congress embarked on the invasion of Canada ostensibly to deny the Royal Navy and British Army a
base of operations in North America. In fact, territorial acquisition seems to have also been a strong motivation. As a
provisional government which had not yet declared independence from the British Crown and which was not recognized
by any state, it is important to note that in international law Congress' armies were, at best, insurgent rebels and, at worst,
terrorists. The decision to invade the Colony of Quebec, which had not sent representatives to Congress, must be
appreciated for its audacity.
Congress authorized an invasion by two insurgent armies.. The first, led by a half-pay British Army officer named Richard
Montgomery, planned to follow the traditional invasion route up Lake Champlain and down the Richelieu Valley to the St.
Lawrence, from where it could launch attacks on the major towns and cities of the colony of Quebec. The second army's
plan was more strategically innovative. Led by Benedict Army, this army planned to traverse what is now the State of
Maine and descend the Chaudiere River to the St. Lawrence above the City of Quebec.
Montgomery's army crossed the Frontier into the Colony of Quebec on 30 August, seized the strategic island of
Isle-aux-Noix, and besieged the main British fortification on the Richelieu, Fort St. John. The Fort's garrison comprised a
detachment of the Royal Artillery, several companies of the 7th Royal Fuzileers and of the 26th Regiment, and a force of
British and French Canadian militia, all under the command of Major Sir Charles Preston. Preston planned to hold the
Fort until the onset of winter compelled the insurgents to withdraw or freeze.
At first, the siege progressed well for the British garrison. The insurgents possessed little artillery and only modest
supplies of ammunition and could do little damage to the fortifications. Although they fully invested the Fort, the insurgents
could neither compel the garrison to fight nor reasonably expect to succeed in storming the fortifications. Time was on the
side of the garrison.
Circumstances changed, however, when in late October a detachment of insurgents captured the nearby, antiquated Fort
Chambly. Chambly is several miles downriver from St. John, and its fortifications had been designed to overawe native
warriors rather than more conventional armies. The garrison comprised two companies of the 7th Royal Fuzileers and a
small detachment of Royal Artillery under the command of Major the Honourable Joseph Stopford.
Stopford was not as audacious as his counterpart Preston. Knowing that Chambly was indefensible, he surrendered the
post to the insurgents on 21 October. The disaster was compounded by his failure to order the destruction of the stores
of artillery, firearms, and ammunition. To add a final insult, the Regimental and King's colours of the Royal Fuzileers
were surrendered. The insurgents carried off the materiel to the main army, and immediately Preston realized that his
opponents were now much better able to conduct the siege. His provisions running low, Preston was confronted with
little choice but surrender unless a relief column arrived soon.
At this time, the Governor General of Quebec, General Sir Guy Carleton, arrived in Montreal from his capital at Quebec.
He was shocked to learn that the fall of Fort Chambly had seriously weakened Preston's position. More alarming still
was the fact that Montreal itself -- the second largest city in the Colony -- had a garrison of one only company of Royal
Fuzileers, some recently raised Scots veterans enlisted in a regiment called the Royal Highland Emigrants, and a mixed
force of French and British militia. In total, the force numbered approximately
1,000 men-at-arms, of whom a sizeable majority were English and French
Carleton assumed command of the Montreal garrison and prepared his plans to
relieve St. John. At Sorel, downriver from Montreal and the place where the
Richelieu flows into the St. Lawrence, Colonel Allan MacLean, the commander
of the Royal Highland Emigrants, waited with a second force of approximately
500 men including most of the Emigrants, a company of the Royal Fuzileers,
and the predominantly French-Canadian militia from the parishes between Montreal
Because Montreal is an island, the first step in Carleton's expedition was to
load his relief column into boats and cross the St. Lawrence to the south shore.
He then planned to follow the road from Longeuil to St. John. The column
embarked on 30 October, but a small unit of rebel soldiers led by Seth Warner
of Vermont anticipated his plans and repelled Carleton's landing at Longueil.
Unwilling to test his militia in an amphibious landing, Carleton withdrew to Montreal.
MacLean recognized this defeat as the passing of the last chance to relieve St. John. After a half-hearted march up the
Richelieu to St. Denis, he returned to Sorel, dispersed his militia and withdrew his regulars to Quebec.
On 2 November, Major Preston surrendered Fort St. John to the rebel general Montgomery's army. After a seige of 55
days the garrison, comprising all of the remaining men of the 26th Regiment and six companies of the Royal Fuzileers,
marched southwards into captivity.
Carleton learned of St. John's capture on 4 November. He was painfully aware that Montreal was both indefensible and
the seat of the pro-Congressional faction in the Colony. Of his three regular regiments, all of the men of the 26th Foot
had now been captured. Two companies of Royal Fuzileers remained. One formed part of the Montreal garrison and
the other had returned to Quebec with MacLean. The King's 8th Regiment was beyond recall, scattered in
company-sized detachments in the western posts of Oswegatchie, Fort Niagara, Fort Detroit, and Fort Michilimackinac.
Carleton decided to abandon Montreal and concentrate his defence of the Colony on the fortress of Quebec. He left the
City by ship on 11 November with his second-in-command, General Richard Prescott, as well as one company of Royal
Fuzileers and some Royal Highland Emigrants from the Montreal garrison. Mongomery's army arrived in Montreal on
Carleton's run of ill luck was not over yet. Downriver from Montreal on 12 November, one of the ships of his flotilla ran
aground, delaying the escape. On 15 November, a rebel force appeared on the south shore commanded by a Colonel
Easton of Montgomery's insurgent army. Armed with artillery, they appeared to block Carleton's retreat. However,
Carleton slipped into a small boat crewed by a group of French Canadian sailors under the command of Jean Baptiste
Bouchette. Bouchette and his men were familiar with the river, and had offered to slip Carleton passed the rebel army.
The small boat and its occupants, leaving Prescott to surrender the flotilla and the last regulars from the Montreal garrison
Carleton and Bouchette reached Trois Rivieres, and there Carleton boarded a ship which carried him downriver to
Quebec. He slipped past the loose cordon established by Benedict Arnold's Army after it had arrived on 8 November.
Carleton sent a message to the Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Department, with a
request for early reinforcement of the City of Quebec when the ice left the St. Lawrence in the spring of 1776.
Carleton found the City full of rumours of a seige, but MacLean and Carleton's deputy, Lieutenant Governor Hector
Cramahe, had wasted no time in organizing the City's defences. Food stores had been laid in to provide provisions for a
lengthy siege. MacLean had organized the militia into eleven French Canadian and six British companies. Cramahe had
identified all of the King's enemies still in residence. The garrison was limited to 60 men of the Royal Fuzileers, 150 Royal
Highland Emigrants, 300 British militia, 480 French militia, 24 sailors, 90 recruits for the Emigrants, and 32 artificers
recently arrived from Newfoundland. Buildings around the walls of the City were razed to provide clear fields of fire for
the fortress' artillery. The last ship of the year, HMS Lizard arrived with 37 marines and 130 more recruits for the
Emigrants to augment the garrison.
Carleton took one final step as his time was running out. He ordered all residents of the City who sympathized with the
forces of Congress to leave the City before 1 December. When that date had passed, Quebec was ready for a siege.
Montgomery arrived two days later.
On 4 December, Montgomery and Arnold's armies combined to take position around the City of Quebec, with
Montgomery in overall command. One of his first acts was to send a message to Carleton under flag of truce, asking him
to surrender the City. The request was a bluff, and Carleton ignored it. Both commanders knew that the combined
insurgent armies numbered little more than 1,000 men, and winter was upon them. Siege operations were out of the
question, and Carleton had the advantage of comfortable accommodations, well-built defences, and ample provisions.
Montgomery must have realized that he was able to prevent egress from the City by land, but he had no control over the
St. Lawrence River. Nor was the Continental Congress likely to be in a position to send a fleet to complete the
encirclement in the spring. If the City were to fall, it would have to fall by assault and before the Royal Navy arrived with
reinforcements in the spring.
Montgomery had one final problem which sealed his strategy. Most of his men were enlisted under limited term contracts
due to expire in the New Year. Shortly after his artillery commenced an ineffectual bombardment on 9 December,
Montgomery held a council of war which decided that an assault would take place before the end of the year.
The assault was originally scheduled for 27 December, but in the end was launched before dawn on 31 December. The
plan called for Montgomery to lead a column along the north shore of the St. Lawrence into the western approaches to
the Lower Town. A second column, under Arnold, would follow the shore of the St. Charles River and enter the Lower
Town through the northeastern approaches at the gate where a street led into the Lower Town. Once the two columns
met, they would assault the Upper Town and carry the fortifications from the inside.
Unfortunately for Montgomery, deserters and British spies provided intelligence to Carleton about the assault. At 4:00
am on 31 December, the alarm was sounded and the American batteries responded by beginning a bombardment of the
walls of the fortress. Montgomery's column moved forward along the narrow defile between the cliffs of Cape Diamond
and the River, clearing obstacles as it went. Montgomery and his staff passed the first barricade without incident, but then
approached a fortified stone house belonging to a merchant named Simon Fraser. The column hesitated, but decided to
rush the fortification. Montgomery led with his second-in-command, Captain Cheeseman and his aide-de-camp, Aaron
Burr close behind.
Fraser's house was occupied by a detachment of militia armed with a cannon loaded with grapeshot. The militia were
alert and fired at close range as Montgomery's column approached. Montgomery was killed instantly by the blast along
with Cheeseman and a number of other officers. Burr panicked, and command devolved on Captain Campbell.
Campbell and Burr ordered the assault abandoned. The column fled the scene.
Arnold's column fared better. It entered the Lower Town on schedule and passed the gate. Moving along the street, the
column made good progress until it reached a point where the route narrowed into a defile between the cliff face and the
harbour wharves. At this point, there was (and still is) a street called the Sault-au-Matelot. Here, the garrison had built a
barricade. Arnold's men assaulted and captured the barricade, but Arnold himself was wounded. Command of the
column devolved on Daniel Morgan.
After passing the first barricade, the column encountered a second barricade further along the Sault-at-Matelot. Behind
this, MacLean and Carleton had placed the 60 men of the Royal Fuzileers, In the windows of buildings all along the
street militiamen fired upon Arnold's column. Again, the rebel insurgents attempted to storm the barricade, but this time
they were unable to succeed in the face of the withering musket fire of the garrison. Gradually, the willingness to continue
the assault ebbed and the rebels began to retreat back the way they had come. MacLean, meanwhile, had slipped a
flying column of Royal Highland Emigrants and militia into the Lower Town behind the rebel column, and soon the
insurgents found themselves outfought and surrounded. They surrendered piecemeal, and eventually even Morgan was
compelled to surrendered, albeit to a passing Jesuit priest.
Carleton's garrison now seized the initiative and sallied out of the fortifications to the headquarters of Arnold's army,
capturing a number of artillery pieces and burning buildings occupied by rebel soldiers.
The defeat was total. A total of 389 men had been captured. A further 42 were wounded and at least 30 killed. Five
members of the garrison had been killed and one had been wounded.