1759 - British expedition against Québec – Siege till the Battle of Beauport
The siege lasted from June to September 1759. This article describes the second phase of the campaign from June 28 to July 31, 1759.
The British and French preparations, the arrival of French reinforcements and the arrival of the British expeditionary forces are described in our article 1759 - British expedition against Québec – Preparations and Arrival.
Québec with its fortifications stands on the north bank of the Saint-Laurent river. It is located on a rocky headland where the river narrows from a width of some 30 km down to a strait of about 1 km. Immediately to northward of this rock, the Saint-Charles river flows down to the Saint-Laurent. Some 11 km to eastward of the Saint-Charles, the shore is cut by the rocky gorge through which pours the cataract of the Montmorency.
Description of Events
The British expeditionary had no sooner anchored at Orléans island, on June 27, that the French made an immediate attempt to destroy their fleet.
French attack with fireships
On June 28, the French Outarde (44) (armed in flute), which was trying to reach Québec, arrived near Bic and saw Durell's squadron posted there. Her captain then decided to return to France. The same day, the marquis de Vaudreuil resolved to launch 7 fireships (among which the Amériquain, the Quatre-Frères, the Angélique, the Ambassadeur and the Jaloux under the command of Delouche) and 2 fire rafts down the river upon the British fleet. He gave the chief command of them to a naval officer named Delouche. At 10:00 p.m., the fireships set sail. The night was moonless and dark. In less than an hour they were at the entrance of the north channel. There was a British outpost at the point of Orléans island and, about 11:00 p.m., the sentries descried the approaching ships. About this time, Delouche set fire to his ship, the rest following his example. The fireships were now a blazed but they had been set fire to 30 minutes too soon. The British troops at the point, amazed at the sudden eruption, the din of the explosions, and the showers of grapeshot that rattled among the trees, lost their wits and fled. The British army was drawn up in array of battle, lest the French should cross from their encampments to attack them in the confusion. Finally, the fireships did no other harm than burning 7 of their own crew who failed to escape. Some of them ran ashore before reaching the fleet, the others were seized by the British sailors, who, approaching in their boats, threw grappling-irons upon them and towed them towards land. Vaudreuil watched the result of his experiment from the steeple of the church at Beauport; then returned, dejected, to Québec.
The French had now only one remaining fire ship.
British entrench at Lévis
Meanwhile major-general James Wolfe reconnoitred the French lines and the city, but could see no possible opening for a successful attack. Vice-admiral Charles Saunders then decided to move some of his vessels into the open space of water immediately below the town, known as the basin of Québec and, to afford them some protection, he induced general Wolfe to order the occupation of Pointe Lévis by brigadier-general Monckton. Indeed, the occupation of the heights of Pointe Lévis located on the south shore in front of Québec, in the narrowest part of the river, would allow the British artillery to fire across the river upon the city.
Accordingly, on June 29, a part of Monckton's brigade was ferried over to Beaumont, on the south shore, and the rest followed in the morning. The rangers skirmished with a party of Canadians, driving them off. The regulars then landed unopposed. Monckton ordered a proclamation, signed by Wolfe, to be posted on the door of the parish church. It called on the Canadians, in peremptory terms, to stand neutral in the contest, promised them, if they did so, full protection in property and religion, and threatened that, if they presumed to resist the invaders, their houses, goods, and harvests should be destroyed, and their churches despoiled. As soon as the troops were out of sight the inhabitants took down the placard and carried it to Vaudreuil. Monckton's brigade marched along the river road to Pointe Lévis, drove off a body of French and Abenaki Indians posted in the church, and took possession of the houses and the surrounding heights. The same day, 230 Ottawa Indians, under the command of Langlade, arrived at Québec from Montréal.
In the morning of June 30, Monckton's troops were entrenching themselves, when they were greeted by a brisk fire from the edge of the woods. It came from a party of Indians, whom the rangers presently put to flight, scalping 9 of them.
On July 1, Wolfe came over to Monckton's camp, reconnoitred the area from Pointe Lévis to the Etchemins river, selecting a place to plant his main batteries. Cannon and mortars were brought ashore, fascines and gabions made, entrenchments thrown up, and batteries planted. The French tried to dislodge Monckton's force with 6 gunboats. From 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. , these gunboats cannonaded the British camp but they were driven back by the fire of the Richmond (32), Trent (28) and Sutherland (50).
From July 2 to 4, the guns of Québec showered balls and bombs upon the British workmen, but they still toiled on. The citizens of Québec, alarmed at the threatened destruction, begged the governor for leave to cross the river and dislodge their assailants. At length Vaudreuil consented. During the following days, a party of 1,400 men was raised among burghers, Canadians from the camp, a few Indians, some pupils of the seminary, and about 100 volunteers from the regulars. Dumas, an experienced officer, took command of them.
British land at L'Ange-Gardien
From July 5 to 8, while the British batteries on Point Lévis were being constructed, Wolfe reconnoitred the shores of Beauport from Isle d'Orléans to see whether a vulnerable point could be found on the marquis de Montcalm's left flank.
On July 5, a British frigates sailed with impunity into the basin of Québec the French floating battery remaining quiet.
On July 7, 110 Potawatomi Indians arrived at Québec and headed directly to the camp at Beauport.
On July 8, the frigate Richmond (32), along with the Sutherland (50) and a bomb vessel took their stations before the camp of the chevalier de Lévis, who, with his division of Canadian militia, occupied the heights along the Saint-Laurent just above the Montmorency Fall. Here they shelled and cannonaded him all day; though, from his elevated position, with very little effect. Towards evening, the British troops on the point of Orléans broke up their camp. Major Hardy, with a detachment of marines, was left to hold that post.
During the night of July 8 to 9, the British troops of Isle d'Orléans embarked in the boats of the fleet under convoy of the Porcupine (16) and of the armed ship Boscawen (16). They were the brigades of brigadier-general George Townshend and of colonel James Murray, consisting of 5 battalions, with a body of grenadiers, light infantry, and rangers (overall 3,000 men). They landed before daybreak in front of the parish of L'Ange-Gardien, a little village on the north shore below the fall. The only opposition was from a troop of Canadiens and Indians, whom they routed, after some loss, climbed the heights, gained the plateau above, and began to entrench themselves. A company of rangers, supported by detachments of regulars, was sent into the neighbouring forest to protect the parties who were cutting fascines, and apparently, also, to look for a fording-place across the Montmorency river. Lévis and Johnstone, his aide-de-camp, had watched the movements of Wolfe from the heights across the cataract of the Montmorency. Canadians informed Johnstone that there was a ford across the Montmorency. A detachment was immediately sent to the place, with orders to entrench itself, and Repentigny, lieutenant of Lévis, was posted not far off with 1,100 Canadians. Furthermore, 400 Indians passed the ford under the partisan Langlade, discovered Wolfe's detachment, hid themselves, and sent their commander to tell Repentigny that there was a body of British in the forest, who might all be destroyed if he would come over at once with his Canadians. Repentigny sent for orders to Lévis, and Lévis sent for orders to Vaudreuil, whose quarters were more than 5 km distant. Vaudreuil answered that no risk should be run, and that he would come and see to the matter himself. It was about 2 hours before he arrived; and meanwhile the Indians grew impatient, rose from their hiding-place, fired on the rangers, and drove them back with heavy loss upon the regulars, who stood their ground, and at last repulsed the assailants. The Indians recrossed the ford with 36 scalps. If Repentigny had advanced, and Lévis had followed with his main body, the consequences to the British might have been serious. Vaudreuil then called a council of war to determine if an effort should be made to dislodge Wolfe's main force. Montcalm and the governor were this time of one mind, and both thought it inexpedient to attack, with militia, a body of regular troops whose numbers and position were imperfectly known. Bigot gave his voice for the attack. He was overruled, and Wolfe was left to fortify himself on the eastern side of the Montmorency river.
Wolfe's occupation of the heights of Montmorency exposed him to great risks. The left wing of his army at Pointe Lévis was 10 km from its right wing at the cataract, and major Hardy's detachment on the point of Orléans was between them, separated from each by a wide arm of the Saint-Laurent. Any one of the three camps might be overpowered before the others could support it; and Hardy with his small force was above all in danger of being cut to pieces. But the French kept persistently on the defensive, reinforcing the entrenchments of their left wing to sustain an eventual attack. Disheartened Canadians began to desert. By this date the French army was deployed as follow:
- Left Wing, under Lévis, near the fall of Montmorency
- Volunteers (800 men), under M. de Repentigny, occupying the ford near the fall of Montmorency
- Milice du district de Montréal (4,200 men)
- Allied Indians (500 men), under M. de Courtemanche
- Centre, under Montcalm, between Lévis' positions and the Beauport River
- Right wing, under Vaudreuil and Bourlamaque, from the Beauport River
- Corps de Cavalerie du Canada (200 men), no assigned position
- Detachment at Anse-des-Mères above Québec (about 400 men including a few Indians)
On July 9, the British frigates and the Dublin (74) of rear-admiral Holmes cannonaded the French left wing near the fall of Montmorency. A skirmish occurred near the fall. Dank's Rangers were attacked and defeated by a party of Canadians and Ottawa Indians who was in turn repulsed by the grenadiers of the 28th Foot. Dank lost 13 killed and 7 wounded, the 60th Royal American lost 14 killed and several wounded. The Canadians lost 4 killed and 1 wounded, the Indians 3 killed and 4 wounded.
During the night of July 11 to 12, Dumas' party (about 1,400 men, including several inexperienced volunteers) went up to Sillery and crossed the river. They had hardly climbed the heights of the south shore when they grew exceedingly nervous, though the enemy was still 5 km off. The seminary scholars fired on some of their own party, whom they mistook for British; and the same mishap was repeated a second and a third time. A panic seized the whole body, and Dumas could not control them. They turned and made for their canoes.
On July 12 at 6:00 a.m., they reappeared at Québec, overwhelmed with despair and shame. The same day at 9:00 p.m., the British battery at Pointe Lévis opened on Québec. The families of the town fled to the country for safety.
From July 13 to 17, the British battery at Pointe-Lévis bombarded the town, destroying several houses.
On July 15, Vaudreuil limited the artillery fire to a few shots each hour in order to spare ammunition.
By mid July, Wolfe had accomplished nothing decisive. The news that lord Jeffrey Amherst was advancing against Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) did indeed discourage the Canadians and increase desertion among them. Nonetheless, in all other respects the operations before Québec had come to a deadlock.
On July 18 about 11:00 p.m., favoured by the wind and covered by a furious cannonade from Pointe-Lévis, the Sutherland (50), with the frigates Diana (32) and Squirrel (20), 2 armed sloops, and 2 transports sailed safely up the Saint-Laurent and reached the river above the town of Québec. However, the Diana ran aground at Pointe-Lévis without much damage. These British vessels anchored above Québec. This came as a surprise to the French who considered that no vessel could pass the batteries of Québec without destruction. Now, for the first time, it became necessary for Montcalm to weaken his army at Beauport by sending 600 men under Dumas, to defend the accessible points in the line of precipices between Québec and Cap-Rouge.
On July 19 at 9:00 a.m., the British vessels above Québec attacked and destroyed the last French fireship and some small craft that they found at Anse-des-Mères. The British stationed some large ships a little above Québec, these ships were protected by frigates posted upstream and further upstream by armed boats which rowed guard every night. On the other hand, Wolfe had become more vulnerable than ever. His army was now divided, not into 3 parts, but into 4, each so far from the rest that, in case of sudden attack, it must defend itself alone. That Montcalm did not improve his opportunity was apparently due to want of confidence in his militia. The same day, M. De Boishébert arrived at Québec from Acadia with 110 exhausted men.
On July 20, Wolfe took advantage of the presence of British vessels above Québec and sent a detachment to ravage the country to westward of Québec. Montcalm transferred 2 guns to the battery of Samos and sent additional troops above Québec when it became known that the British had dragged a fleet of boats over Pointe Lévis, launched them above the town, and despatched troops to embark in them. Thus a new feature was introduced into the siege operations, and danger had risen on a side where the French thought themselves safe.
During the night of July 20 to 21, Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Carleton, with 600 men, rowed 29 km up the river, and landed at Pointe-aux-Trembles (present-day Neuville), on the north shore. Here some of the families of Québec had sought asylum; and Wolfe had been told by prisoners that not only were stores in great quantity to be found here, but also letters and papers throwing light on the French plans.
On July 21, Carleton and his men drove off a band of Indians who fired on them, and spent a quiet day around the parish church of Pointe-aux-Trembles; but found few papers, and still fewer stores. They withdrew towards evening, carrying with them nearly 100 women, children, and old men. They were no sooner gone than the Indians returned to plunder the empty houses of their unfortunate allies. Shortly after, the prisoners were all sent to Québec under a flag of truce.
On July 22, the daily bombardment continued and 18 houses and the cathedral were burned by exploding shells. But however this cannonade might afflict the nerves of the inhabitants, it could contribute little, as Wolfe well knew, to advance the real work in hand. The same day, the Corps de Cavalerie du Canada was sent to Pointe-aux-Trembles.
On July 23 at 3:30 a.m., the frigate Lowestoffe (28) and the sloop Hunter (10) made an attempt to sail above Québec to join the British vessels already stationed there. However, the fire of the French batteries obliged them to abandon their project.
On July 25 at 3:00 a.m., British boats made an attempt to land some troops at Anse-des-Mères but were repulsed. There was a truce from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m.. The same day, Wolfe issued a new proclamation. It declared that the Canadians had shown themselves unworthy of the offers he had made them, and that he had therefore ordered his light troops to ravage their country and bring them prisoners to his camp. Such of the Canadian militia as belonged to the parishes near Québec were now in a sad dilemma; for Montcalm threatened them on one side, and Wolfe on the other. They might desert to their homes, or they might stand by their colours; in the one case their houses were to be burned by Indians and in the other by British light infantry.
On July 26 around 11:00 a.m., a skirmish took place at the ford below the fall of Montmorency between a party of volunteers and Indians led by Repentigny and a British detachment accompanying Wolfe in a reconnaissance. In this skirmish, the British lost 45 men and the French 12. The same day in the afternoon, Major Dalling's light infantry brought to Monckton's camp 250 male and female prisoners, 250 cattle, 70 sheep and lambs and a few horses. They were sent in the evening on board of transports in the river.
On July 28 in the morning, colonel Fraser's detachment returned to Monckton's camp with a great number of families as prisoners and 300 black cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses.
During the night of July 28 to 29, Vaudreuil tried again to burn the British fleet, sending down a huge fireraft (some 180 meters long), which consisted of 70 rafts, boats and schooners chained together. The fireraft, under the command of Courval, was covered with grenades, old swivels, gun and pistol barrels loaded up to their muzzles, and various combustible matters. The British seamen grappled the fireraft before it got down above a third part of the Basin and towed it safe to shore.
On July 30, the British unmasked a new battery of 6 pieces at Pointe-Lévis. The same day, Montcalm countermanded Vaudreuil's orders and from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., the French batteries opened an intense fire against the British batteries on Pointe-Lévis.
Battle of Beauport
By the end of July, the buildings of Québec were in ruins and the neighbouring parishes were burned and ravaged. But Montcalm still occupied the fortified camp of Beauport while detachments guarded all access above the city and Dumas with 1,000 men held the impregnable heights of Cap-Rouge. Wolfe was not closer to his objective than upon landing on June 27. Quite desperate, he decided to made a frontal attack on Montcalm's camp.
On July 31, after leaving troops enough to hold Pointe Lévis and the heights of Montmorency, less than 5,000 men were left for the attack. Wolfe chose a strand towards the Montmorency 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. Wolfe could not see from the river that 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. Wolfe 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.
In the ensuing battle of Beauport, the British were repulsed, suffering heavy losses.
On August 1, Wolfe rebuked his grenadiers for their precipitation. The French, on the other hand, were naturally much elated, and considered that the campaign was virtually at an end. The same day, the Corps de Cavalerie du Canada returned to the camp at Beauport.
The ensuing phases of the expedition are described in the following articles:
- 1759 - British expedition against Québec – Siege till the Battle of Québec
- 1759 - British expedition against Québec – Capture and Defence of Québec
This article is mostly an abridged and adapted version 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. 426-433
- 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. 204-209
- Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 360-388
- Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 175-185, 192, 211-236
- Malartic, Comte de Maurès de: Journal des Campagnes au Canada de 1755 à 1760, Dijon: Damidot, 1890, pp. 245-263
- Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 406-408, 416-441, 457-491
Charbonneau, André; Québec, ville assiégée; in Serge Bernier et al., Québec, ville militaire (1608-2008), Montréal: Art Global, 2008, p. 140 for the strength of each French unit