1759 - British expedition against Québec – Siege till the Battle of Québec
The siege lasted from June to December 1759. This article describes the third phase of the campaign from August 1 to September 13, 1759.
The British and French preparations for this campaign, 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.
The French attack with fireships, the construction of British batteries at Pointe Lévis, the British installation at L'Ange-Gardien, the passage of part of the British navy above Québec and the battle of Beauport are described in our article 1759 - British expedition against Québec – Siege till the Battle of Beauport.
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
Early in August, the marquis de Vaudreuil and the marquis de Montcalm were informed of the loss of Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) and Fort Saint-Frédéric (present-day Crown Point), the retreat of Bourlamaque, the fall of Niagara and the expected advance of general Jeffrey Amherst on Montréal. It was decided to send the chevalier de Lévis to Montréal with 100 regulars and 700 militia. Vaudreuil promoted him commander-in-chef of the government of Montréal.
Terror in the countryside
On August 1, after his failure at Beauport the previous day, major-general James Wolfe resumed the bombardment of Québec which daily received more than 100 bombs and 800 cannonballs.
On August 4, troops stationed at Pointe-aux-Trembles (present-day Neuville) were recalled to the exception of a force of about 750 men (500 French and Canadiens along with 250 Abenaki, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq Indians). From 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., there was a truce during which the French strengthened their batteries along the shore of Beauport. The same day, the French erected a new battery at the Pointe-à-Roussel on the shore of Beauport.
On August 5, the bombardment continued. A truce took place between noon and 6:30 p.m.. The same day, a French messenger arrived from Montréal with the news that the French troops had retired towards Isle-aux-Noix after destroying Fort Carillon and Fort Saint-Frédéric.
During the night of August 5 to 6, a fleet of flat-bottomed boats passed above Québec and 1,200 troops marched overland to embark in them, under brigadier James Murray. Hitherto, Wolfe's attacks had been made chiefly below Québec. He then changed his plan and renewed on a larger scale the movements begun in July above Québec. With every fair wind, ships and transports passed the batteries of Québec under the cover of a hot fire from Pointe-Lévis.
On August 6 at 11:00 p.m., reacting to the British manoeuvres above Québec, Montcalm sent his aide-de-camp Louis Antoine de Bougainville to Cap-Rouge at the head of a force of 1,500 grenadiers, soldiers and militia. His was a most arduous and exhausting duty but he performed it very well. He must watch the shores for 30 km, divide his force into detachments, and subject himself and his followers to the strain of incessant vigilance and incessant marching.
On August 8, a large British detachment under Murray aboard 28 flat-bottomed boats attempted two landings at Pointe-aux-Trembles above Québec but was twice repulsed with loss (26 killed and 46 wounded) by Bougainville with about 400 men during the first attempt and 600 men (Canadiens along with the grenadiers of II./Béarn Infanterie and a picket of II./Languedoc Infanterie during the second. The French lost 5 men wounded.
On August 9, the lower town of Québec was again set on fire by the British batteries and 167 houses were burned in a night. In the front of the upper town nearly every building was a ruin. At the general hospital, which was remote enough to be safe from the bombardment, every barn, shed, and garret, and even the chapel itself, were crowded with sick and wounded, with women and children from the town, and the nuns of the Ursulines and the Hôtel-Dieu, driven thither for refuge. The same day, Lévis left Québec for Montréal accompanied by M. de la Pause and the Chevalier Le Mercier.
On August 10, the British established an encampment at Sainte-Croix on the south bank of the Saint-Laurent about 35 km above Québec. They occupied this camp till late August. The same day, 400 Canadiens were sent from Québec towards Montréal.
On August 11, the British unmasked a new battery at Pointe-Lévis. Furthermore, vice-admiral Charles Saunders resolved to make some efforts to destroy the French ships above the town and to open communication with General Amherst who was supposed to be advancing from Fort Saint-Frédéric and Lake Champlain. Accordingly, at 10:00 p.m., the frigate Lowestoffe (28), the sloop Hunter (10), the bomb Pelican (8), another sloop, 2 storeships and a schooner tried to pass above Québec but could not do so. The same day, 100 volunteers from the regulars and 400 Canadiens were sent from Québec towards Montréal.
About the middle of August, Wolfe issued a third proclamation to the Canadiens, declaring that as they had refused his offers of protection and made barbarities against his troops, he had decided to chastise them. In fact, he had two objectives: to cause the militia to desert and to exhaust the colony. Rangers, light infantry, and Highlanders were sent to waste the settlements far and wide. Wherever resistance was offered, farmhouses and villages were laid in ashes, though churches were generally spared.
On August 13, the villages of Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Antoine, located on the south shore above Québec, were burned.
On August 14, Saint-Paul, far below Québec, was sacked and burned by Gorham's Rangers. The same day, Montcalm sent 200 men to reinforce Bougainville's Corps.
Night after night the garrison of Québec could see the light of burning houses as far down as the mountain of Cap Tourmente. Near Saint-Joachim there was a severe skirmish, followed by atrocious cruelties. Captain Alexander Montgomery, of the 43rd Foot, ordered the prisoners to be shot in cold blood, to the indignation of his own officers. Robineau de Portneuf, curé of Saint-Joachim, placed himself at the head of 30 parishioners and took possession of a large stone house in the adjacent parish of Château-Richer, where for a time he held the British at bay. At length he and his followers were drawn out into ambush, where they were surrounded and killed. The rangers scalped them all. However, the British, with the single exception of Montgomery, killed none but armed men in the act of resistance or attack. Montcalm let the parishes burn, and still lay fast entrenched in his lines of Beauport.
Murray attempted a new landing at another place on the north shore and was met before landing by a body of ambushed Canadiens. He was again driven back, his foremost boats full of dead and wounded.
On August 19, Murray landed at Deschambault, on the north bank of the Saint-Laurent about 50 km above Québec, and burned a large building filled with stores and all the spare baggage of the French regular officers. Bougainville hastened towards Deschambault with 2 grenadier coys, 1 piquet of infantry, 100 cavalrymen and 60 militia; forcing the British to re-embark. The blow was so alarming that Montcalm too had hastened from Beauport to take command in person; but when he arrived the British were gone.
Now that the British ships were able to intercept supplies coming from Trois-Rivières and Montréal. The French army was on short rations. Indeed, the French had no transport available overland to adequately supply the army entrenched at Québec and were forced to transport it in boats on the Saint-Laurent at night. The decision made earlier to send the French frigates up river had allowed the British to gradually assemble a naval squadron above Québec. Therefore, the French sailors were sent back to man the frigates anew and attack the squadron of Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes.
The town was now isolated and the only hope for the French was that winter might drive the shipping from the Saint-Laurent before Québec should be starved out.
Campaigning season nears the end
With Amherst's prolonged inaction, the French slowly regained confidence while the besieging British troops became more and more discouraged.
On August 20, Wolfe fell seriously ill. He delegated the conduct of operations to the council of his brigadiers. After considering several plans, they fixed their choice on an attempt to gain a footing on the ridge above the city, cut off Montcalm's supplies from Montréal and compel him to fight or surrender. This plan had been made feasible by the control of the river above Québec by the British fleet. Wolfe accepted the plan.
On August 26, Vaudreuil resolved to attack the British vessels above Québec with the squadron of Jacques Kanon. Accordingly, he sent about 550 sailors from Québec to join Kanon at the mouth of the Richelieu.
On August 27 at 9:00 p.m., the frigate Lowestoffe (28), the sloop Hunter (10), 2 storeships and an armed schooner successfully passed above Québec. The same day, Montcalm sent 2 grenadier coys and 2 pickets to take position betwwen Sillery and the "Batterie de Samos".
On August 28, Vaudreuil abandoned his project against the British squadron above Québec. Indeed, this British squadron was now too considerable to consider an attack with the French frigates. However, while sailing downstream towards Québec, the French privateer Aimable Nanon (24) had run aground and had been lost.
On August 30, a detechment of 110 volunteers was posted at the Saint-Jean Gate.
On August 31, the Seahorse (24), 2 more armed sloops and 2 more storeships passed under the guns of Québec to move above the town in preparation for a projected attack on Québec from the west. Rear-Admiral Holmes took command of the flotilla on the upper river. Wolfe was sufficiently recovered to go aboard once more. The same day, the French sailors, sent a few days earlier to join Kanon, returned to Québec.
Towards the end of August, up to 200 Canadiens deserted each night. For its part, the British army was greatly weakened, having already lost more than 850 in killed and wounded (including 2 colonels, 2 majors, 19 captains, and 34 subalterns). To these were to be added a greater number disabled by disease.
The squadron of admiral Holmes above Québec had now increased to 22 vessels, great and small.
At the end of August, the parishes of L'Ange-Gardien, Château-Richer and Saint-Joachim were wasted with fire and sword by British parties.
On September 1, the "Volontaires de Duprat" were sent to Pointe-aux-Trembles.
On September 2, Wolfe wrote to the Secretary of State William Pitt the story of his failure up to that day and of his resolutions for the future.
On September 3, Wolfe evacuated the camp at Montmorency. Montcalm sent a strong force to fall on the rear of the retiring British. Monckton saw the movement from Pointe-Lévis, embarked 2 battalions in the boats of the fleet and made a feint of landing at Beauport. Montcalm recalled his troops to repulse the threatened attack; and the British withdrew from Montmorency unmolested, some to the point of Orléans, others to Pointe-Lévis. At 7:00 p.m., the British attempted a landing at Cap-Rouge but were repulsed.
On the night of September 4, a British flotilla of flat-bottomed boats passed successfully above Québec with the baggage and stores. At 2:00 p.m., II./Guyenne Infanterie was transferred to a new position near the redoubt guarding the bridge on the Saint-Charles River.
On September 5, Murray, with 4 battalions, marched up to the river Etchemin and forded it under a hot fire from the French batteries at Sillery. Brigadier-General Robert Monckton and Brigadier-General George Townshend followed with 3 more battalions, and the united force, of about 3,600 men, was embarked on board the ships of Holmes, where Wolfe joined them on the same evening. Montcalm thereupon reinforced Bougainville to a strength of 3,000 men and charged him to watch the shore as far as Jacques-Cartier, and follow with his main body every movement of Holmes's squadron.
On September 6 around 3:00 p.m., a diminutive British schooner, armed with a new swivels, and jocosely named the "Terror of France", sailed by the town in broad daylight under the fire of the French batteries and passed unharmed.
There was little fear for the heights near Québec, they were thought inaccessible. Even Montcalm believed them safe. Nevertheless, these heights were defended by 150 men under the command of Captain Louis Du Pont Duchambon de Vergor, of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. Furthermore, reinforcements were within his call, for the battalion of II./Guyenne Infanterie had been ordered to encamp close at hand on the Plains of Abraham. Vergor's post, called Anse-au-Foulon, was 2 km from Québec. A little beyond it, by the brink of the cliffs, was another post, called Samos, held by 70 men with 4 guns and, beyond this again, the heights of Sillery were guarded by 130 men, also with guns. These were outposts of Bougainville, whose headquarters were at Cap-Rouge, 10 km above Sillery, and whose troops were in continual movement along the intervening shore.
Major Robert Stobo, who, 5 years before, had been given as a hostage to the French at the capture of Fort Necessity, arrived about this time in a vessel from Halifax. He had long been a prisoner at Québec, not always in close custody, and had used his opportunities to acquaint himself with the neighbourhood. In the spring of 1759, he and an officer of rangers named Stevens had made their escape and he now returned to give his countrymen the benefit of his local knowledge.
Wolfe in person examined the river and the shores as far as Pointe-aux-Trembles; till at length, landing on the south side a little above Québec, and looking across the water with a telescope, he descried a path that ran with a long slope up the face of the woody precipice, and saw at the top a cluster of tents. They were those of Vergor's guard at the Anse-au-Foulon. As he could see but 10 or 12 of them, he thought that the guard could not be numerous and might be overpowered. His hope would have been stronger if he had known that Vergor had once been tried for misconduct and cowardice in the surrender of Fort Beauséjour.
On September 7 in the morning, the weather was fair and warm and the vessels of Holmes, transporting British troops, sailed upstream to Cap-Rouge. Bougainville had his headquarters there and the cove into which the little river ran was guarded by floating batteries while the surrounding shore was defended by breastworks; and a large body of regulars, militia, and mounted Canadiens occupied the hills behind. When the British vessels came to anchor, the horsemen dismounted and formed in line with the infantry, then they all rushed down the heights to man their works at the shore. In the afternoon the ships opened fire, while British troops entered the boats and rowed up and down as if looking for a landing-place. It was but a feint of Wolfe to deceive Bougainville as to his real design.
On September 8 in the morning, a heavy easterly rain set in and lasted 2 days without respite. All operations were suspended and the men suffered greatly in the crowded British transports. Half of them were therefore landed on the south shore, where they made their quarters in the village of Saint-Nicolas, refreshed themselves, and dried their wet clothing, knapsacks, and blankets. The same day, II./Guyenne Infanterie was sent to Cap-Rouge to reinforce the French force against an eventual British attack.
For several successive days, the squadron of Holmes was allowed to drift up the river with the flood tide and down with the ebb, thus passing and repassing incessantly between the neighbourhood of Québec on one hand, and a point high above Cap-Rouge on the other; while Bougainville, perplexed, and always expecting an attack, followed the ships to and fro along the shore, by day and by night, till his men were exhausted with ceaseless forced marches.
On September 9, Guyenne Infanterie returned to its camp near the redoubt on the Saint-Charles river.
On September 10, the British naval commanders held a council on board the flagship, in which it was resolved that the lateness of the season required the fleet to leave Québec without delay. Wolfe decided to make a last attempt before abandoning the siege.
One last attempt
At last on Wednesday September 12, an opportunity presented itself to Wolfe. Two deserters came in from Bougainville's 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 again. From the flagship Sutherland (50), he then issued his last general orders.
- "The enemy's force is now divided, great scarcity of provisions in their camp, and universal discontent among the Canadiens. Our troops below are in readiness to join us; all the light artillery and tools are embarked at the Point of Levi; and the troops will land where the French seem least to expect it. The first body that gets on shore is to march directly to the enemy and drive them from any little post they may occupy; the officers must be careful that the succeeding bodies do not by any mistake fire on those who go before them. The battalions must form on the upper ground with expedition, and be ready to charge whatever presents itself. When the artillery and troops are landed, a corps will be left to secure the landing-place, while the rest march on and endeavour to bring the Canadiens and French to a battle. The officers and men will remember what their country expects from them, and what a determined body of soldiers inured to war is capable of doing against five weak French battalions mingled with a disorderly peasantry."
Wolfe had 3,600 men and officers with him on board the vessels of Holmes and he now sent orders to colonel Burton at Pointe-Lévis to bring to his aid all who could be spared from that place and the point of Orléans. They were to march along the south bank, after nightfall, and wait further orders at a designated spot convenient for embarkation. Their number was about 1,200, so that the entire forced destined for the enterprise was at the utmost 4,800. With these, Wolfe meant to climb the heights of Abraham in the teeth of an enemy who, though much reduced, were still twice as numerous as their assailants.
Vice-admiral Saunders lay with the main fleet in the basin of Québec. It was agreed with Wolfe that, while the major-general made the real attack, the vice-admiral should engage Montcalm's attention by a pretended one.
During the night of September 12 to 13, Saunders' fleet ranged itself along the Beauport shore; the boats were lowered and filled with sailors, marines, and the few troops that had been left behind; while ship signalled to ship, cannon flashed and thundered, and shot ploughed the beach, as if to clear a way for assailants to land. Montcalm, who thought that the movements of the British above the town were only a feint, that their main force was still below it, and that their real attack would be made there, was completely deceived, and massed his troops in front of Beauport and kept them under arms to repel the expected landing.
Meanwhile, the danger was 16 km away, where the squadron of Holmes lay tranquil and silent at its anchorage off Cap-Rouge. 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, 200 men of the 78th Fraser’s Highlanders) were ordered into them. The rest remained on board. 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.
Night fell, dark and moonless, and all was quiet. Monsieur Vergor, who commanded the post at Anse-au-Foulon, gave leave to most of his guard of Canadiens to go harvesting, and saw no reason why he should not himself go comfortably to bed. Bougainville remained on the alert, doubtless impatient for the tide to turn, which would carry the British away from his quarters and leave him in peace. He did not know that Wolfe was even then on board the flagship making his final arrangements for the morrow's battle.
Battle of the Plain of Abraham (Quebec)
On the night of September 12 to 13, Wolfe made a landing at Anse-des-Mères. Indeed, he wanted to land at the nearby Anse-au-Foulon and was thus obliged to march his troops from Anse-des-Mères to Anse-au-Foulon where his troops climbed the heights and took position on the Plain of Abraham near Québec. During the ensuing Battle of the Plain of Abraham, the French were decisively defeated. Wolfe was killed during the battle while Montcalm was mortally wounded.
The final phase of the expedition is described in the following articles:
This article is mostly an abridged and adapted version 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
- 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. 263-287
- Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 406-408, 416-441, 457-491