1759-09-13 - Battle of Québec
Prelude to the Battle
Throughout the summer, Wolfe had vainly tried to lure the marquis de Montcalm out of his entrenchments between the Saint-Charles and Montmorency rivers, hoping to fight an open battle where his army of regulars would overcome the Montcalm's larger army mostly composed of militia.
At last on Wednesday September 12, an opportunity presented itself to Wolfe. Two deserters came in from the camp of Bougainville, Montcalm's aide-de-camp, with intelligence that at next ebb tide a convoy of provisions would pass down the river to Québec. Wolfe saw at once that, if his own boats went down in advance of the convoy, he could turn the intelligence of the deserters to good account. He sent orders to the British troops at Saint-Nicolas to embark and made his disposition for a landing at Anse-au-Foulon, placing James Chads, commander of the Vesuvius fireship, at the head of the flat bottomed boats for this amphibious landing.
During the night of September 12 to 13, Saunders' fleet made a faint on the shoals of Beauport while the squadron of Holmes prepared for the real landing above Québec.
Lieutenant-colonel William Howe, of the light infantry, called for 24 volunteers to lead the venture. Meanwhile, 30 large bateaux and some boats belonging to the squadron lay moored alongside the vessels. Late in the evening, the first 1,700 men (300 men from the 28th Foot, 43rd Foot, Howe’s division of Light Infantry, 47th Foot, 58th Foot and 200 men of the 78th Fraser's Highlanders) were ordered into them. The rest remained on board (300 men of the 15th Foot, 240 grenadiers, 250 men of the 78th Fraser's Highlanders, 200 light infantry, 400 of the 35th Foot, 400 of the 60th Foot). Bougainville could discern the movement but thought that he himself was to be attacked. The tide was still flowing; and, the better to deceive him, the vessels and boats were allowed to drift upward with it for a little distance, as if to land above Cap-Rouge. Wolfe was still on board the Sutherland (50) waiting for the turning of the tide.
The Plains of Abraham was a tract of grass, tolerably level in most parts, patched here and there with cornfields, studded with clumps of bushes. It formed a part of the high plateau at the eastern end of which Québec stood. On the south it was bounded by the declivities along the Saint-Laurent; on the north, by those along the Saint-Charles, or rather along the meadows through which that lazy stream crawled like a writhing snake. At the place that Wolfe chose for his battlefield the plateau was less than 1.6 km wide.
Description of Events
On September 13 towards 2:00 AM, the tide began to ebb and a fresh wind blew down the river. Two lanterns were raised into the maintop shrouds of the Sutherland (50). It was the appointed signal. The boats cast off and fell down with the current, those of the light infantry leading the way. The vessels with the rest of the troops had orders to follow a little later.
Bougainville had already countermanded the convoy of provisions that he intended to send to Montcalm. However, the sentries posted along the heights were not informed that the convoy had been countermanded. Furthermore, Vergor at the Anse-au-Foulon had permitted most of his men, chiefly Canadians from Lorette, to go home for a time and work at their harvesting. Finally, the battalion of Guyenne, ordered to take post on the Plains of Abraham, had, for reasons unexplained, remained encamped by the Saint-Charles.
For full 2 hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the Saint-Laurent. The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. Wolfe was in one of the foremost boats. As they neared their destination, the tide bore them in towards the shore. The dead stillness was suddenly broken by the sharp "Qui vive?" of a French sentry. "France!" answered an officer of the 78th Fraser's Highlanders from one of the boats of the light infantry. He had served in Holland and spoke French fluently.
"À quel régiment?"
"De la Reine", replied the Highlander. He knew that a part of that corps was with Bougainville. The sentry, expecting the convoy of provisions, was satisfied, and did not ask for the password.
Soon after, the foremost boats were passing the heights of Samos, when another sentry challenged them, and they could see him through the darkness running down to the edge of the water, within range of a pistol-shot. In answer to his questions, the same officer replied, in French: "Provision-boats. Don't make a noise; the English will hear us." In fact, the sloop-of-war Hunter (10) was anchored in the stream not far off. This time, again, the sentry let them pass.
In a few moments the British boats rounded the headland above the Anse-au-Foulon. There was no sentry there. The strong current swept the boats of the light infantry to Anse-des-Mères, a little below the intended landing-place. They disembarked on a narrow strand at the foot of heights as steep as a hill covered with trees can be. The 24 volunteers led the way, climbing with what silence they might, closely followed by a much larger body. When they reached the top they saw in the dim light a cluster of tents at a short distance, and immediately made a dash at them. the French, utterly surprised, at once took to their heels. Vergor, who was reputed a coward, stood firm and fired his pistols. One or two French were caught, the rest fled.
The main body of British troops waited in their boats by the edge of the strand. The heights near by were cleft by a great ravine choked with forest trees and in its depths ran a little brook called ruisseau Saint-Denis. At length, Wolfe heard a sound of musket-shots, followed by loud huzzas, and he knew that his men were masters of the position. The word was given, the troops leaped from the boats and scaled the heights. The narrow slanting path on the face of the heights had been made impassable by trenches and abattis, but all obstructions were soon cleared away, and then the ascent was easy. In the grey of the morning the long file of red-coated soldiers moved quickly upward, and formed in order on the plateau above, taking possession of Levasseur's farm.
The British deploy on the Plains of Abraham
Before many of the British troops had reached the top, cannon were heard close on the left: : the batteries of Sillery and Samos were firing at the rearmost of the boats and at Holmes' squadron. descending from Cap-Rouge. Howe and his light infantry were detached to silence them. The Samos battery was soon taken and the more distant battery at Sillery was next attacked and taken. As fast as the boats were emptied they returned for the troops left on board the vessels and for those waiting on the southern shore under lieutenant-colonel Ralph Burton. Before the sun was well up the whole force of 4,400 men had accomplished the ascent, and was filing across the plain at the summit of the heights.
The day broke in clouds and threatening rain. Wolfe's battalions were drawn up along the crest of the heights. No enemy was in sight, though a body of Canadians had sallied from the town and moved along the strand towards the landing-place whence they were quickly driven back. The British army was now in a critical position: on one side was the garrison of Québec and the army of Beauport, on the other side was Bougainville. Wolfe's alternative was victory or ruin for, if he should be overwhelmed by a combined attack, retreat would be hopeless.
Wolfe went to reconnoitre the ground and soon came to the Plains of Abraham. He chose an emplacement less than 1.6 km wide to deploy his army.
Then, the British troops marched by files towards the Plains and wheeled to form their line of battle, which stretched across the plateau and faced the city. The British line consisted of 6 battalions and the detached grenadiers from Louisbourg, all drawn up in ranks three deep. Its right wing was near the brink of the heights along the Saint-Laurent but the left could not reach those along the Saint-Charles. On this side a wide space was perforce left open and there was danger of being outflanked. To prevent this, brigadier Townshend was stationed here with 2 battalions, drawn up en potence fronting the Saint-Charles. The 48th Webb's Foot, under Burton, formed the reserve; the III./60th Royal Americans was left to guard the landing and Howe's light infantry occupied a wood far in the rear. Wolfe, with Monckton and brigadier James Murray, commanded the front line, on which the heavy fighting was to fall. This front line numbered less than 3,500 men.
Québec was not a 2 km distant but the British troops could not see it, for a ridge of broken ground intervened, called Buttes-à-Neveu, about 600 paces off. The first division of troops had scarcely come up when, about 6:00 AM, this ridge was suddenly thronged with French troops. It was the battalion of Guyenne arrived from its camp by the Saint-Charles. Some time after there was hot firing in the rear. It came from a detachment of Bougainville's command attacking a house where some of the light infantry were posted. The assailants were repulsed, and the firing ceased. Light showers fell at intervals.
Montcalm had passed a troubled night. Through all the evening the cannon bellowed from the ships of Saunders, and the boats of the British fleet hovered in the dusk off the Beauport shore, threatening every moment to land. Troops lined entrenchments till day. Montcalm walked the field near his headquarters till 1:00 AM, accompanied by the chevalier James Johnstone and lieutenant-colonel François-Médard de Poulariez. At daybreak he heard the sound of cannon above the town. It was the battery at Samos firing on the British ships. He had sent an officer to the quarters of the governor, the marquis de Vaudreuil, which were much nearer Québec, with orders to bring him word at once should anything unusual happen.
About 6:00 AM, Montcalm mounted and rode towards Québec with Johnstone. As they advanced, the country behind the town opened more and more upon their sight; till at length, when opposite Vaudreuil's house, they saw across the Saint-Charles, some 3 km away, the red ranks of British soldiers on the heights beyond. Montcalm sent off Johnstone at full gallop to bring up the troops from the centre and left of the camp. Those of the right were in motion already, doubtless by the governor's order. Vaudreuil came out of the house. Montcalm stopped for a few words with him, then set spurs to his horse, and rode over the bridge of the Saint-Charles to the scene of danger.
The French army followed in such order as it might, crossed the bridge in hot haste, passed under the northern rampart of Québec, entered at the Porte du Palais and pressed on in headlong march along the quaint narrow streets of the town. They then poured out upon the plain, some by the gate of Saint-Louis and some by that of Saint-Jean, and hurried to where the colours of Guyenne Infanterie still fluttered on the ridge.
Montcalm waited long for the forces he had ordered to join him from the left wing of the army. He waited in vain. It is said that the governor had detained them, lest the British should attack the Beauport shore. Neither did the garrison of Québec come to the aid of Montcalm. He sent to Jean-Baptiste chevalier de Ramesay, its commander, for 25 field-pieces which were on the Palais battery. Ramesay would give him only 3, saying that he wanted them for his own defence. There were orders and counter-orders; misunderstanding, haste, delay, perplexity.
Montcalm and his chief officers held a council of war. Meanwhile, Bougainville was but a few km distant, and some of his troops were much nearer; a messenger sent by way of Ancienne-Lorette could have reached him in 90 minutes at most and a combined attack in front and rear might have been concerted with him. If, moreover, Montcalm could have come to an understanding with Vaudreuil, his own force might have been strengthened by up to 3,000 additional men from the town and the camp of Beauport. Notwithstanding these facts, Montcalm felt that there was no time to lose, for he imagined that Wolfe would soon be reinforced, which was impossible, and he believed that the British were fortifying themselves, which was no less an error. Montcalm finally resolved to attack. He spoke a few words to his troops.
The 3 field-pieces sent by Ramesay plied the British ranks with canister-shot, and 1,500 Canadians and Indians fusilladed them in front and flank. Over all the plain, from behind bushes and knolls and the edge of cornfields, puffs of smoke sprang incessantly from the guns of these hidden marksmen. Skirmishers were thrown out before the lines to hold them in check, and the soldiers were ordered to lie on the grass to avoid the shot. The firing was liveliest on the British left, where bands of sharpshooters got under the edge of the declivity, among thickets, and behind scattered houses, whence they killed and wounded a considerable number of Townshend's men. The British light infantry were called up from the rear. The houses were taken and retaken, and one or more of them was burned.
Towards 8:00 AM at Cap-Rouge, Bougainville was informed that the British were on the Plains of Abraham. He began to collect as many as possible of his detachments posted along the Saint-Laurent for many km towards Jacques-Cartier. About the same time, British sailors dragged up 2 guns up the heights at Anse-au-Foulon.
Towards 10:00 AM, the French on the ridge had formed themselves into 3 bodies: regulars in the centre, regulars and Canadians on right and left. The 2 British field-pieces fired on them with grapeshot and the British troops, rising from the ground, prepared to receive them.
Montcalm held no troops in reserve, but launched his whole force at once against the British line. In a few moments more the French were in motion. They came on rapidly, uttering loud shouts and firing as soon as they were within range. Their ranks, ill ordered at the best, were further confused by a number of Canadians who had been mixed among the regulars, and who, after hastily firing, threw themselves on the ground to reload. The British, who until now had been lying down, then sprang to their feet and stood steady with recovered arms. They advanced a few rods, then halted and stood still. When the French were within 40 paces the word of command rang out, and a crash of musketry answered all along the line. Another volley followed, and then a furious clattering fire that lasted but a minute or two. When the smoke rose, a miserable sight was revealed: the ground cumbered with dead and wounded, the advancing masses stopped short and turned into a frantic mob, shouting, cursing, gesticulating. Montcalm, himself unhurt and conspicuous on a black charger, galloped frantically up and down his shattered ranks in a vain effort to restore order. Wolfe gave the order to advance, and after one more volley the scarlet line strode forward with bayonet and claymore to complete the rout.
Over the field rose the British cheer, mixed with the fierce yell of the Highland slogan. Some of the corps pushed forward with the bayonet; some advanced firing. The 78th Fraser's Highlanders drew their claymores and dashed on. At the British right, though the attacking column was broken to pieces, a fire was still kept up, chiefly, it seems, by sharpshooters from the bushes and cornfields, where they had lain for an hour or more. Here Wolfe himself led the charge, at the head of the Louisbourg grenadiers. A shot shattered his wrist, another shot struck him in the groin and he still advanced, when a third passed through his lungs. He staggered, and sat on the ground. Lieutenant Brown, of the grenadiers, one Henderson, a volunteer in the same company, and a private soldier, aided by an officer of artillery who ran to join them, carried him in their arms to the rear. He begged them to lay him down. They did so, and asked if he would have a surgeon. "There's no need," he answered; "it's all over with me." A moment after, one of them cried out: "They run; see how they run!" "Who run?" Wolfe demanded, like a man roused from sleep. "The enemy, sir. Egad, they give way everywhere!" Wolfe then instructed a messenger to go to lieutenant-colonel Burton and to tell him to march the 48th Webb's Foot to the Saint-Charles, to stop the French from retreating on the bridge. Wolfe died soon afterwards.
Montcalm, still on horseback, was borne with the tide of fugitives towards the town. As he approached the walls a shot passed through his body. He kept his seat; 2 soldiers supported him, one on each side, and led his horse through the Saint-Louis Gate. He was placed in the house of the surgeon Arnoux, who was then with brigadier François-Charles de Bourlamaque at Isle-aux-Noix, but whose younger brother, also a surgeon, examined the wound and pronounced it mortal. During the battle, Montcalm's second in command, brigadier Étienne-Guillaume de Senezergues, had been mortally wounded too.
Nevertheless there was some resistance to the pursuit. It came chiefly from the Canadians, many of whom had not advanced with the regulars to the attack. Those on the right wing, instead of doing so, threw themselves into an extensive tract of bushes that lay in front of the British left; and from this cover they opened a fire, too distant for much effect, till the victors advanced in their turn, when the shot of the hidden marksmen told severely upon them. Two battalions, therefore, deployed before the bushes, fired volleys into them, and drove their occupants out.
Again, those of the Canadians who, before the main battle began, attacked the British left from the brink of the plateau towards the Saint-Charles, withdrew when the rout took place, and ran along the edge of the declivity till, at the part of it called Côte Sainte-Geneviève, they came to a place where it was overgrown with thickets. Into these they threw themselves; and were no sooner under cover than they faced about to fire upon the 78th Fraser's Highlanders, who presently came up. As many of these mountaineers, according to their old custom, threw down their muskets when they charged, and had no weapons but their broadswords, they tried in vain to dislodge the marksmen, and suffered greatly in the attempt. Other troops came to their aid, cleared the thickets, after stout resistance, and drove their occupants across the meadow to the bridge of boats.
A part of the fugitives escaped into the town by the gates Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean, while the greater number fled along the front of the ramparts, rushed down the declivity to the suburb of Saint-Roch, and ran over the meadows to the bridge, protected by the cannon of the town and the two armed hulks in the river.
The rout had but just begun when Vaudreuil crossed the bridge from the camp of Beauport. It was four hours since he first heard the alarm, and his quarters were not much more than 3 km from the battlefield. He did not explain why he did not come sooner; it is certain that his coming was well timed to throw the blame on Montcalm in case of defeat, or to claim some of the honour for himself in case of victory. Vaudreuil lost no time in recrossing the bridge and joining the militia in the redoubt at the farther end, where a crowd of fugitives soon poured in after him. The place was full of troops and Canadians in a wild panic.
On the appearance of the British troops on the plain by the bakehouse, Montguet and La Motte, two old captains in the regiment of Béarn, cried out with vehemence to M. de Vaudreuil that the hornwork would be taken in an instant by assault. Yet the river was wide and deep, and the hornwork was protected on the water side by strong palisades, with cannon. Nevertheless there rose a general cry to cut the bridge of boats. By doing so more than half the army, who had not yet crossed, would have been sacrificed. The axemen were already at work, when they were stopped by some officers who had not lost their wits.
The British were now fortifying themselves on the field of battle. Like the French, they had lost two generals; for brigadier-general Robert Monckton, second in rank, was disabled by a musket-shot, and the command had fallen upon brigadier-general George Townshend at the moment when the enemy were in full flight. He had recalled the pursuers, and formed them again in line of battle, knowing that another foe was at hand.
At noon, Bougainville appeared from Cap-Rouge with about 2,000 men, but withdrew on seeing double that force prepared to receive him.
In this battle, the British lost Wolfe along with 664 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing. The 78th Fraser's Highlanders suffered the heaviest loss, followed by the 15th Foot, 58th Foot and II./60th Foot who bore the brunt of the sharpshooting on the left flank. The French loss was placed by Vaudreuil at about 640 and by the British official reports at about 1,500. MM. de Senezergues and Louis Restoineau de Fontbonne, respectively commanding La Sarre Infanterie and Guyenne Infanterie were killed in action while Montcalm was mortally wounded.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: major-general James Wolfe
Summary: less than 4,400 regulars
|First Line||Second Line|
|En potence on the right flank
Main line of battle (from right to left)
Formed en potence on the left flank under brigadier-general George Townsend
|In reserve behind the centre
Protecting the rear of the British army: Light infantry (400 men) under lieutenant-colonel William Howe
Guarding the landing place: 58th Anstruther's Foot (2 coys)
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: Louis Joseph de Saint Véran, marquis de Montcalm
Summary: 1,900 regulars and 1,500 militia and Indians
Deployment on a single line (from right to left)
- Right wing under Dumas (François-Xavier de Saint-Ours commanded a body of light infantry under Dumas)
- 2 field guns
- Montréal and Québec militia
- II./La Sarre (1 bn)
- Centre under Montcalm
- Left wing under Senezergues
This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 436-440
- 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
- Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 208-209
- Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 375-384
- Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 471-479
Chartrand, René; Quebec 1759, Osprey, 1999 (for the exact deployment on the battlefield)