1759-07-31 - Battle of Beauport

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Battles >> 1759-07-31 - Battle of Beauport

French victory

Prelude to the Battle

By the end of July 1759, the siege of Québec by major-general James Wolfe's British army had already lasted more than a month and Wolfe was not closer to his objective than upon landing on June 27. Quite desperate, he decided to made a frontal attack on the camp of the marquis de Montcalm on the shore of Beauport.

After leaving troops enough to hold Pointe Lévis and the heights of Montmorency, less than 5,000 men would be left for the attack. For the attack, Wolfe chose a strand at about 1.6 km from the gorge of the cataract of the Montmorency river. Wolfe could not see from the river that the French redoubts protecting the strand were commanded by the musketry of the entrenchments along the brink of the heights above. He hoped that, if he attacked one of the redoubts, the French would come down to defend it, and so bring on a general engagement; or, if they did not, that he should gain an opportunity of reconnoitring the heights to find some point where they could be stormed with a chance of success. Moreover there was a ford below the falls of the Montmorency by which some at least of his troops on that river could join in the attack, and so compensate in part for his numerical inferiority. Wolfe held the Canadian militia in such contempt that he was not afraid to pit against them, at whatever odds, the valour of his own disciplined soldiers.

Map

map not yet available

The strand chosen by Wolfe for his attack was located towards the Montmorency river where the borders of the Saint-Laurent was extremely high and steep. At about 1.6 km from the gorge of the cataract there was, at high tide, a strand, about 200 m. deep, between the foot of these heights and the river. Its depth increased to some 800 m at low tide. At the edge of the dry ground the French had built a redoubt mounted with cannon, and there were other similar works on the strand 400 m. nearer the cataract. These redoubts were commanded by the musketry of the entrenchments along the brink of the heights above. These entrenchments were so constructed that they swept with cross-fires the whole face of the declivity, which was covered with grass, and was very steep.

Description of Events

On the morning of July 31 about 11:00 AM, the tide then being at the flood, the French saw the Centurion (60) anchor near the Montmorency and opened fire on the redoubts. Then 2 armed transports, each of 14 guns, stood in on both sides of the Centurion and as close as possible to the first redoubt.

At noon, these 3 vessels fired upon the redoubts. At the same time a British battery of more than 40 heavy pieces, planted on the lofty promontory beyond the Montmorency, began a furious cannonade upon the flank of the French entrenchments. It did no great harm, however, for the works were protected by a great number of traverses, which stopped the shot; and the Canadians, who manned this part of the lines, held their ground with excellent steadiness. Meanwhile, the British troops at Pointe Lévis and Isle d'Orléans embarked. General James Wolfe had placed James Chads, commander of the Vesuvius fireship, at the head of the flat bottomed boats for this amphibious landing. Meanwhile, the British troops positioned on the left bank of the Montmorency started a movement towards the ford at the foot of the cataract defended by M. de Repentigny with 800 volunteers.

At 1:00 PM, the chevalier de Lévis was informed that 2,000 British were advancing from the left bank of the Montmorency towards the ford. He sent 500 French and 500 Indians to reinforce Repentigny. Lévis also ordered Royal Roussillon Infanterie to move forward. However, when Lévis saw the flat bottomed boats carrying the troops from the camps of Pointe Lévis and Isle d'Orléans, supported by ships, moved closer towards the coast west of the parish church of Beauport, as if meaning to land there, he rather decided to send the battalion of Royal Roussillon to support the part of the line threatened by this movement. Lévis also instructed the commander of this battalion to keep contact with the battalion of Montréal.

Montcalm was perplexed, doubting whether the real attack was to be made here, or toward the Montmorency. Hour after hour the boats moved to and fro, to increase his doubts and hide the real design; but he soon became convinced that the camp of Lévis at the Montmorency was the true object of his enemy.

About 2:00 PM, Montcalm went to the camp of Lévis on the left wing. The latter had already made preparations for defence with his usual skill. Montcalm informed Lévis that he had sent forward Guyenne Infanterie along with 2 grenadier companies and 100 militia. It was also resolved that if the left wing was attacked, Montcalm would sent additional troops from the centre and the right wing. Then, Montcalm left to join the marquis de Vaudreuil. Lévis reinforced Béarn Infanterie who was guarding the extreme left near the cataract with the grenadiers. The grenadier company of La Sarre Infanterie were deployed between the militia of Montréal and the battalion of Montréal who had been sent forward to man the entrenchments between the 2 threatened redoubts. The 100 men of the militia of Trois-Rivières were kept in reserve to reinforce Repentigny or the forward line depending on the British manoeuvres. Lévis then joined his troops in the entrenchments between the 2 redoubts. Lévis was informed that the British troops coming from the left bank of the Montmorency were retiring. He immediately recalled the troops deployed at the ford.

Wolfe hoped that the cross fire from the batteries on the left bank of the Montmorency and of the 3 vessels positioned in front of the redoubts would force the French to abandon these redoubts. However, this cannonade did not produce the expected results.

As the tide went out, the 2 armed British transports stranded and lay bare upon the mud.

At 5:00 PM, part of the flat bottomed boats moved towards the two targeted redoubts.

At 5:30 PM, the tide was out, and the crisis came. The batteries across the Montmorency, the distant batteries of Pointe Lévis, the cannon of the Centurion and those of the two stranded ships, all opened together with redoubled fury while the French batteries replied.

At 6:00 PM, the British boats set their troops ashore at the edge of the broad tract of sedgy mud that the receding river had left bare, between the 2 flat bottomed vessels which had been run aground. Unfortunately some of the boats grounded on a ledge short of the flats, which caused some confusion and delay, but eventually all of them reached the strand and set the men ashore. At the same time a column of 2,000 men was seen, 1.5 km away, moving in perfect order across the Montmorency ford. The first troops that landed from the boats were 13 companies of grenadiers and 200 men of the 60th Royal Americans. They dashed swiftly forward while at some distance behind came Monckton's brigade, composed of the 15th Amherst's Foot and the 78th Fraser's Highlanders. The day had been fair and warm but the sky was now thick with clouds and large rain-drops began to fall, the precursors of a summer storm.

With the utmost precipitation, without orders, and without waiting for Monckton's brigade to come up, the grenadiers in front made a rush in the greatest disorder and confusion for the redoubt near the foot of the hill. Orders were given to the French troops defending this redoubt to abandon it, after spiking their guns. Lévis then advanced Royal Roussillon supported by Guyenne directly behind the entrenchments crowning the heights. The British artillery intensified its fire.

As soon as the British had made themselves master of the redoubt, they advanced in column towards the heights. The French battalions replied with a lively fire. A tempest of bullets fell among the assailants. The grenadiers recoiled for a moment. Then, recovering themselves, they ran forward again and made a mad effort to struggle up the steep, slippery grass of the ascent, but only to roll down by scores, killed or wounded by the hail of musketry from the French lines. Meanwhile with yells and shouts of "Vive le Roi!" the French regulars and Canadians at the top poured upon them a hailstorm of musket-balls and buckshot, and dead and wounded in numbers rolled together down the slope. At this moment a furious storm took place, hiding the advancing British troops from sight. Ammunition was wet on both sides and the grassy steeps became so slippery that was impossible to climb them. The British grenadiers drew back into the redoubt. Wolfe saw the madness of persisting, and ordered a retreat. When the sky cleared, British troops could be seen re-embarking on the shore. Troops of Indians came down the heights to scalp the fallen.

Towards 7:30 PM, the British retreated in good order, after setting fire to the 2 stranded vessels. Those of the grenadiers and Royal Americans who were left alive rowed for the point of Orléans; the 15th Foot rowed for Pointe Lévis and the 78th Highlanders, led by Wolfe himself, joined the column from beyond the Montmorency, placing themselves in its rear as it slowly retired along the flats and across the ford.

Outcome

The grenadiers and the 60th Royal Americans, who had borne the brunt of the fray, bore also nearly all the loss; which, in proportion to their numbers, was enormous. British losses amounted to 443 killed, wounded, and missing, including 1 colonel, 8 captains, 21 lieutenants, and 3 ensigns.

The French lost only 21 men killed and 46 wounded. Elated by their success, they thought that the campaign was as good as ended. However, the victory was far from decisive and represented a mere setback for the besiegers.

Order of Battle

British Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: major-general James Wolfe

Summary: less than 5,000 men

French Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: Louis Joseph de Saint Véran, marquis de Montcalm

Summary: 12,000 regulars and militia but just a part (mostly the left wing under Lévis) of this force took part to the battle

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, Journal du siège de Québec du 10 mai au 18 septembre 1759, annotated by Aegidius Fauteux, revised and updated edition, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2009
  • Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 366-367
  • Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 185-188
  • Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 438-440