1760-04-28 - Battle of Sainte-Foy
Prelude to the Battle
In the spring of 1760, the French governor of Canada, the marquis de Vaudreuil and the French commander-in-chief in North America, the chevalier de Lévis undertook an expedition against Québec, hoping to recapture the town before the arrival of the British fleet with fresh troops.
Indeed, the British garrison of Québec had severely suffered from winter. The effective strength of the garrison was reduced to less than half, and of those that remained fit for duty, hardly a man was entirely free from scurvy.
On April 20, the French army embarked at Montréal and set out for Québec. On April 26, the French army landed at Saint-Augustin, crossed the Cap-Rouge river on bridges of their own making, and moved upon the British outpost at Ancienne-Lorette. The British abandoned it and fell back to Sainte-Foy. On April 27 soon after daybreak colonel James Murray marched out of Québec with 10 pieces of cannon and more than half the garrison. He then covered the withdrawal of his advanced posts at Sainte-Foy, Cap-Rouge, Sillery, and Anse-au-Foulon before returning to Québec. Murray then resolved to confront the French on the battlefield rather than sustain a siege.
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.
Description of Events
Arrival of the French vanguard
On April 28, at daybreak the French vanguard took possession of the block-houses built by the British in the last autumn above Anse-au-Foulon at the southern edge of the plateau. Lévis initially believed that Murray had opted for the passive defence of Québec. Accordingly, he ordered provisions to be delivered as soon as possible at Anse-au-Foulon.
Lévis then reconnoitred the positions where he intended to deploy his army. He also reconnoitred the British detachment occupying the redoubt. Furthermore, to cover his line of supply from Anse-au-Foulon, he sent dismounted cavalry to occupy a redoubt which the British had just abandoned. However, the British opened fire on the redoubt and assembled a force to recapture it. Lévis, who had no troops at hand to support the cavalrymen in this advanced position, ordered them to retire.
From a neighbouring hill, Lévis then saw a large British column pouring out of the gates of Québec. He sent orders to his major-general to resume the advance with the army and instructed Bourlamaque to leave 5 grenadiers coys in the fortified house, which would become the anchor of the French left wing, and to send the 5 other grenadier coys to occupy a small height where he intended to anchor his right wing. Furthermore instructed Bourlamaque to deploy the French brigades from right to left as they arrived on the battlefield.
Initial British approach
At 6:30 AM, Murray had marched with all the force he could muster, a bare 3,000 men. Some of these had left the hospitals of their own accord in their eagerness to take part in the fray. The rain had ceased; but as the column emerged from Saint-Louis Gate, the scene before them was a dismal one, there was no sign of spring. Patches of bare earth lay oozy and black on the southern slopes: but elsewhere the ground was still covered with snow, in some places piled in drifts, and everywhere sodden with rain; while each hollow and depression was full of that half-liquid mixture of snow and water called "slush".
Murray's army had 2 howitzers and 20 field-pieces, which had been captured when Québec surrendered, and had formed a part of that very battery which Ramesay refused to Montcalm at the battle of the autumn before. As there were no horses, the cannon were dragged by some of the soldiers, while others carried picks and spades; for as yet Murray seems not to have made up his mind whether to fortify or fight. Thus they advanced nearly 1 km; till reaching the Buttes-à-Neveu, they formed in order of battle along their farther slopes, on the same ground that the French had occupied during the battle of the Plains of Abraham the previous year. In order to cover the entire plateau, the battalions were each drawn up in two ranks with three-foot gaps between files, instead of the normal elbow-to-elbow formation. There were 40-yard intervals between battalions.
Murray went forward to reconnoitre. Immediately before him was a rising ground, and, beyond it, a tract of forest called Sillery Wood, some 2 km distant. Murray perceived that the French line was not yet formed.
Arrival of the French main army
That Lévis had chosen his ground was clear, he had already occupied the block-house and the redoubt above Anse-au-Foulon, as well as a house and a fortified windmill belonging to one Dumont at the northern brink, and had extended his vanguard along the ridge between these two points. But the French main body was still debouching in columns along the road from Sainte-Foy, then turning, battalion after battalion, and rapidly marching across the plateau along the edge of Sillery Wood 2 km in rear. Only two brigades of the leading column had already reached the blockhouse and redoubt by the Anse-au-Foulon, and formed themselves as the right wing of the French line of battle; but those behind were not yet in position. A third French brigade was debouching from the woods.
Thinking the opportunity favourable, Murray ordered an immediate advance. His line consisted of 8 battalions, numbering a little above 2,000. In the intervals between them the cannon were dragged through slush and mud by 500 men; and, at a little distance behind, the remaining 2 battalions followed as a reserve. The right flank was covered by Dalling's light infantry; the left by Hazen's company of rangers and 100 volunteers under major MacDonald. They all moved forward till they were on nearly the same ground where Wolfe's army had been drawn up. Then the cannon unlimbered, and opened on the French.
When Lévis, who was on horseback in the middle of the field, saw that the entire British army was advancing against the two brigades forming his right wing, he sent them orders to retire to the entrance of the wood to await the arrival and deployment of the other brigades.
The movement caused some disorder among French troops. Murray mistook it for retreat, and ordered the line to renew its advance. The whole British line, extending itself towards the right, pushed eagerly forward: in doing which it lost the advantage of the favourable position it had occupied; and Burton's brigade soon found itself on low grounds, wading in half-melted snow, which in some parts was knee deep. Here the cannon could no longer be worked with effect. Just in front, a small brook ran along the hollow, through soft mud and saturated snowdrifts, then gurgled down the slope on the right, to lose itself in the meadows of the Saint-Charles. A few rods before this brook stood the house and windmill of Dumont, occupied by 5 companies of French grenadiers. While the last French brigade (La Sarre) was forming line, Dalling's Light Infantry attacked the French grenadiers defending these buildings. A furious struggle ensued, till at length the French gave way, and the victors dashed forward to follow up their advantage. Their ardour cost them dear.
La Sarre brigade fell back into the woods to complete its formation. When the fire of the British artillery ceased, this brigade resumed its advance with the utmost impetuosity, led by a gallant old officer, lieutenant-colonel Dalquier, of Béarn Infanterie. Now supported by the La Sarre brigade, the French grenadiers fell on the rash British light infantry. These battalions soon overwhelmed them and recaptured the the house and the windmill. Over 200 of the British light infantry were killed and wounded, and the few survivors hurrying back in confusion upon Burton's brigade prevented it from firing on the advancing French, who thus seized the opportunity to reform their broken ranks. At length the British light infantry got themselves out of the way and retired to the rear, where, having lost nearly all their officers, they remained during the rest of the fight.
Lévis sent Bourlamaque to command the left but he was almost immediately wounded by a cannon shot which killed his horse. Murray then committed the 35th Foot from his reserve and restored the right flank of the British line.
Seeing that combat intensified on his left wing, Lévis personally went there to organise the defence of the the house and mill of Dumont. Another struggle followed for the house and mill of Dumont, of which the French again got possession, to be again driven out. Lieutenant-colonel Dalquier of Béarn Infanterie, at the head of La Sarre brigade and 5 grenadier coys, finally reconquered the position and then withstood all attempts of the British to turn the French left flank. For this reason, this brigade suffered the most heavily during the battle, Dalquier himself being wounded.
Meanwhile, Lévis had moved across the front of his army, giving orders to charge to each brigade as he passed by. Upon reaching the right wing, he marched the 5 grenadier coys. For above an hour more the fight was hot and fierce. "We drove them back as long as we had ammunition for our cannon," says sergeant Johnson; but now it failed, and no more was to be had, because, in the eccentric phrase of the sergeant, the tumbrils were "bogged in deep pits of snow."
While this was passing on the British right, it fared still worse with them on the left. The advance of the line was no less disastrous here than there. The block-houses were indeed carried by Hazen's rangers and MacDonald's volunteers and held for a time and Lévis had ordered his troops to fall back into the woods for a time. This brought the British troops close to the woods which circled round to this point from the French rear, and from which the Canadians, covered by the trees, now poured on them a deadly fire.
Lévis intended to charge the British left flank with La Reine and Royal Roussillon brigades which outflanked them. However, his orders were misinterpreted and La Reine brigade, instead of retiring to the edge of the wood, moved behind the French left wing. Nevertheless, Lévis resolved to execute the manoeuvre with Royal Roussillon alone. when the fire of the British artillery ceased, the French advanced again in overwhelming force, extending themselves along the British front and flank. The sieur Delaas, captain at La Reine Infanterie, commanded the Canadian militia attached to La Reine brigade. These militia were deployed on the extreme right wing. They did not follow La Reine brigade, when it mistakenly marched for the French left wing, but rather joined the Royal Roussillon brigade in its advance against the British left flank. The French artillery, though consisting of only 3 pieces, played its part with good effect. Hazen's rangers and MacDonald's volunteers could not hold the two blockhouses covering the British left flank. Hazen was wounded, MacDonald killed, and their party overpowered. The Royal Roussillon brigade, along with the militia of the La Reine brigade, then moved beyond the British left flank.
Murray sent in his final reserve, the III./60th Royal American Foot to stop this attack. He also pulled out the 43rd Foot from his centrer, which Lévis had mostly ignored, and moved it to support his left flank. The British troops stood for a time in sullen desperation under the storm of bullets; but they were dropping fast in the blood-stained snow. Disorder gradually began to spread along the entire British line. With both flanks turned the efforts of the British were hopeless and the order came at length from Murray to fall back.
So first the British left brigade and then the right retired, cursing as they went. Some of the regiments tried to carry off their guns with them, but finding this impossible owing to deep snow and mud spiked and abandoned them. The French followed in pursuit, hoping to cut them off from the town. However, considering the absence of La Reine brigade and perceiving the orderliness of the British retreat, Lévis judged it more prudent to recall his troops, and Murray brought back the remnant of his force in safety to Québec.
The fight had lasted about two hours, and did credit to both sides. The Canadians not only showed their usual address and courage when under cover of woods, but they also fought well in the open field; and the conduct of the whole French force proved how completely they had recovered from the panic of the last autumn. From the first they were greatly superior in number, and at the middle and end of the affair, when they had all reached the field, they were more than two against one. The British, on the other hand, besides the opportunity of attacking before their enemies had completely formed, had a vastly superior artillery and a favourable position, both which advantages they lost after their second advance.
In this battle, the British lost 292 men killed, 837 wounded and 53 taken prisoners (including 20 officers), or more than a third of their whole number. The 15th Foot, 28th Foot, and 78th Fraser's Highlanders were, after the Dalling's Light Infantry, the greatest sufferers
The French lost 193 men killed and 640 wounded.
Order of Battle
British Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: colonel James Murray
Summary: about 3,175 regulars in 10 battalions, 116 artillerymen, 78 rangers, 3 howitzers, 20 field-pieces
|First Line||Second line|
|Dalling's light infantry
Hazen's Rangers (1 coy of 78 men)
Volunteers (110 men) under major MacDonald
|In reserve behind the centre|
Protecting the right and left flanks: Light Infantry and Provincial Rangers.
French Order of Battle
Commander-in-chief: François-Gaston chevalier de Lévis
Summary: 4,140 regulars, 2,751 militia, 270 Indians and 3 field-guns
|First Line||Second line|
|Royal Roussillon brigade
Compagnies Franches de la Marine brigade (2 bns totalling about 970 regulars and 240 militia)
La Sarre brigade
|Indian Allies (270 men) on the extreme right wing
Montréal militia (about 280 men)
Artillery: 3 field pieces under officers Louvricourt and Duverny.
Lévis also had 200 militia cavalry accompanying his army but they did not take part in the battle.
N.B.: All regular battalions had been reorganised during the winter 1759-60 and 3 companies of militia were now attached to each battalion. These mixed battalions were drilled to fight in 6 ranks.
N.B.: in his relation of the battle Lévis pretends that, because of the numerous detachments he had already, his army counted only 5,000 men when it deployed on the battlefield. He also mentions that the Indians did not take part into the action but rather retired into the woods. Finally, he indicates that among his 5,000 men, 1,400 (La Reine Brigade and his cavalry) did not take part in the battle.
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. 503-504
- Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 391-394
- Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 264-271
- Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 508-511
Wikipedia Battle of Sainte-Foy