L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Winning of Canada
A Chronicle of Wolfe
Epilogue – The Last Stand
[This text was written by William WOOD. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]
WOLFE'S victory on the Plains of Abraham proved decisive in the end ; but it was not the last of the great struggle for the Key of Canada.
After Wolfe had died on the field of battle, and Monckton had been disabled by his wounds, Townshend took command, received the surrender of Quebec on the 18th, and waited till the French field army had retired towards Montreal. Then he sailed home with Saunders, leaving Murray to hold what Wolfe had won. Saunders left Lord Colville in charge of a strong squadron, with orders to wait at Halifax till the spring.
Both French and British spent a terrible winter. The French had better shelter in Montreal than the British had among the ruins of Quebec ; and, being more accustomed to the rigours of the climate, they would have suffered less from cold in any case. But their lot was, on the whole, the harder of the two ; for food was particularly bad and scarce in Montreal, where even horseflesh was thought a luxury. Both armies were ravaged by disease to a most alarming extent. Of the eight thousand men with whom Murray began that deadly winter not one-half were able to bear arms in the spring ; and not one-half of those who did bear arms then were really fit for duty.
Montcalm's successor, Levis, now made a skilful, bold, and gallant attempt to retake Quebec before navigation opened. Calling the whole remaining strength of New France to his aid, he took his army down in April, mostly by way of the St Lawrence. The weather was stormy. The banks of the river were lined with rotting ice. The roads were almost impassable. Yet, after a journey of less than ten days, the whole French army appeared before Quebec. Murray was at once con-fronted by a dire dilemma. The landward defences had never been strong ; and he had not been able to do more than patch them up. If he remained behind them Levis would close in, batter them down, and probably carry them by assault against a sickly garrison depressed by being kept within the walls. If, on the other hand, he marched out, he would have to meet more than double numbers at the least ; for some men would have to be left to cover a retreat ; and he knew the French grand total was nearly thrice his own. But he chose this bolder course ; and at the chill dawn of April 28, he paraded his little attacking force of a bare three thousand men on the freezing snow and mud of the Esplanade and then marched out.
The two armies met at Ste Foy, a mile and a half beyond the walls ; and a desperate battle ensued. The French had twice as many men in action, but only half of these were regulars ; the others had no bayonets ; and there was no effective artillery to keep down the fire of Murray's commanding guns. The terrific fight went on for hours, while victory inclined neither to one side nor the other. It was a far more stubborn and much bloodier contest than Wolfe's of the year before. At last a British battalion was fairly caught in flank by overwhelming numbers and driven across the front of Murray's guns, whose protecting fire it thus completely masked at a most critical time. Murray thereupon ordered up his last reserve. But even so he could no longer stand his ground. Slowly and sullenly his exhausted men fell back before the French, who put the very last ounce of their own failing strength into a charge that took the guns. Then the beaten British staggered in behind their walls, while the victorious French stood fast, worn out by the hardships of their march and fought to a standstill in the battle.
Levis rallied his army for one more effort and pressed the siege to the uttermost of his power. Murray had lost a thousand men and could now muster less than three thousand. Each side prepared to fight the other to the death. But both knew that the result would depend on the fleets. There had been no news from Europe since navigation closed ; and hopes ran high among the besiegers that perhaps some friendly men-of-war might still be first ; when of course Quebec would have to surrender at discretion, and Canada would certainly be saved for France if the half-expected peace would only follow soon.
Day after day all eyes, both French and British, looked seaward from the heights and walls ; though fleets had never yet been known to come up the St Lawrence so early in the season. At last, on May 9, the tops of a man-of-war were sighted just beyond the Point of Levy. Either she or Quebec, or both, might have false colours flying. So neither besiegers nor besieged knew to which side she belonged. Nor did she know herself whether Quebec was French or British. Slowly she rounded into the harbour, her crew at quarters, her decks all cleared for action. She saluted with twenty-one guns and swung out her captain's barge. Then, for the first time, every one watching knew what she was ; for the barge was heading straight in towards the town, and redcoats and bluejackets could see each other plainly. In a moment every British soldier who could stand had climbed the nearest wall and was cheering her to the echo ; while the gunners showed their delight by loading and firing as fast as possible and making all the noise they could.
But one ship was not enough to turn the scale; and Levis redoubled his efforts. On the night of the 15th French hopes suddenly flared up all through the camp when the word flew round that three strange men-of-war just reported down off Beauport were the vanguard of a great French fleet. But daylight showed them to be British, and British bent on immediate and vigorous attack. Two of these frigates made straight for the French flotilla, which fled in wild confusion, covered by the undaunted Vauquelin in the Atalante, which fought a gallant rearguard action all the twenty miles to Pointe-aux-Trembles, where she was driven ashore and forced to strike her colours, after another, and still more desperate, resistance of over two hours. That night Levis raised the siege in despair and retired on Montreal. Next morning Lord Colville arrived with the main body of the fleet, having made the earliest ascent of the St Lawrence ever known to naval history, before that time or since.
Then came the final scene of all this moving drama. Step by step overpowering British forces closed in on the doomed and dwindling army of New France. They closed in from east and west and south, each one of their converging columns more than a match for all that was left of the French. Whichever way he looked, Levis could see no loophole of escape. There was nothing but certain defeat in front and on both flanks, and starvation in the rear. So when the advancing British met, all together, at the island of Montreal, he and his faithful regulars laid down their arms without dishonour, in the fully justifiable belief that no further use of them could possibly retrieve the great lost cause of France in Canada.
Source: William WOOD, “Epilogue – The Last Stand”, in The Winning of Canada. A Chronicle of Wolfe, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915, 152p., pp. 140-145.
© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College