L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Fight For Oversea Empire
Seven Years War
The Siege of Quebec
[This text was written by William WOOD and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]
DESPERATE STATE OF THE COLONY
FOR eight long, weary months not a single word passed the sea between Old France and New. Every one in the colony felt that the crisis of its whole life was at hand. Bigot and his peculating followers hastened to get rich quickly before the crash came. As the wealth of Canada sank the amounts of the government contracts rose. In 1757 they doubled ; in 1758 they trebled. Famine prices ruled the market, and not an honest man could pay them, so impossible was it to make money honestly by competing against Bigot's men in trade, or for officers to live on their pay. The miserable habitants never once had even half-rations all the winter. Vaudreuil threatened to imprison those who complained ; but Montcalm befriended them to the utmost of his little power. He lived on horse-flesh, four ounces a day, like his officers and men. But the intendant's palace was always full of gluttony, gambling and flaunting debauchery.
In the autumn Vaudreuil had agreed that an immediate appeal to France should be sent by the hands of two men whom both he and Montcalm could trust. Two good men were chosen, Doreil, the 'commissary of war,' and Bougainville, an exceedingly able young colonel, whose scientific attainments had ensured his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in England, who subsequently distinguished himself as a naval officer and great explorer, and who lived to see Napoleon at the zenith of imperial glory. Vaudreuil officially recommended Doreil : 'I have full confidence in him,' he wrote ; and of Bougainville : 'He is in all respects better fitted than any one else to inform you of the state of the colony. You can trust entirely to what he tells you.' But, by the very same ship, he sent a secret letter saying, 'I have given letters to MM. Doreil and Bougainville, but I have the honour to inform you that they do not understand the colony, and to warn you that they are creatures of M. de Montcalm.' This, of course, was no isolated stab in the dark. Vaudreuil, with Bigot and his associates, had taken good care for some time past that the minds of the home authorities should be poisoned against Montcalm and his army as much as possible.
The mission was foredoomed to failure so far as great reinforcements were concerned, because the sea was closed to them. More might have been done if the increasingly bitter experience of the last few years had not taught the French government that no amount of supplies could keep Canada from the verge of ruin. On May 10 Bougainville arrived in Quebec. By the 20th there were twenty-three sail in the harbour. They got through just in time ; for three days later the beacon-fires announced the arrival of the vanguard of the British fleet at Bic, 170 miles down the river. 'A little is precious to those who have nothing,' said Montcalm. There were 326 recruits for his eight battalions, and Quebec was provisioned for a siege, that is, if it could keep communications open up the river, whence the only food-stuffs raised in the country would come when the British fleet had sealed the St Lawrence below. Little enough, indeed, would have come from the country below in any case, as Wolfe had been sent with Admiral Hardy to waste the farms and fishing-places along the gulf shortly after the surrender of Louisbourg.
Bougainville had brought out instructions, promotions and decorations in profusion. Montcalm was made a lieutenant-general and decorated for his victory at Ticonderoga. At a bound he had become famous all over France, even in the stress of that great European war. The little children in the streets all knew his name as the champion of France against the English. But there was sad news, too. One of his daughters had died, and Bougainville had sailed before hearing which. 'It must be poor Mirète,' wrote Montcalm. 'I love her so much.' To his wife he wrote: 'Can we hope for another miracle to save us ? . . . We have had no news for the last eight months, and who knows if any more can reach us again this year.' He never did hear from home again. The instructions he received from Marshal Belle-Isle were, in fact, his death-warrant : 'However small the space you can retain may be, you must, positively, keep some foothold in America . . . . I have answered for you to the king.' In his reply Montcalm said : 'I shall do everything to save this unhappy colony or die.' And he kept his word.
WOLFE AND HIS FORCES
Meanwhile Pitt was busy at the British headquarters. On December 29 he wrote secret instructions to Durell and Amherst, the naval and military commanders in America. In January 1759 he wrote to them again, and three times to Saunders, the naval commander-in-chief against Quebec.
On February 5 he gave Wolfe his secret orders. All the commanders, afloat and ashore, were put into confidential touch with each other. Transports were collected and prepared on both sides of the Atlantic, and on February 16 Saunders and Wolfe sailed from Spithead for the general rendezvous at Louisbourg. The winter had been very severe - Durell had several men frozen to death - and there was so much ice off Cape Breton that the course was shaped for Halifax, which was reached only on April 30. Louisbourg was reached on May 15, and twenty very busy days were spent in final preparations.
Saunders had a great reputation in the service, but was little known outside. He had been Anson's first lieutenant on the famous voyage round the world. He had distinguished himself in action as a captain under Hawke, with whom he went out, nine years later, as part of the 'cargo of courage' sent to retrieve the situation in the Mediterranean after Byng's disgrace ; and he closed his career by being one of the most efficient first lords who ever ruled the Admiralty. He was in the direct line of the greatest naval tradition, Anson being his patron, and he himself being a patron of Jervis, who was a patron of Nelson. His fleet comprised a full quarter of the whole royal navy, and 1759 was a year in which the naval estimates reached an unprecedented height. His total personnel would have been quite 15,000 had some of his ships not been short-handed. Some excellent colonial seamen were recruited at Boston for the campaign, but they did not suffice to complete the ship's companies, which numbered barely 14,000 all told. There were 49 men-of-war, carrying nearly 2,000 pieces of ordnance, and making the most formidable single fleet which had ever sailed the sea up to that time. The transports were, of course, under the admiral's control, and their crews brought the total number of seamen up to over 18,000. Thus there were twice as many seamen as landsmen engaged in the siege of Quebec.
Wolfe's little army of 9,000 men was the highly efficient landing party from this mighty fleet, which was now about to play its part in the world-wide strategy of the 'Maritime War.' Wolfe, now thirty-two, had had a long and distinguished career for his age. Like nearly all our great commanders he belonged to a good family of comparatively small means. His father served under Marlborough , and he began his own service under his father at thirteen. At sixteen he was acting as adjutant to a battalion on active service. He fought at Dettingen, Culloden and Laffeldt ; and at twenty-four became commanding officer of the 20th Foot. Two years later, in 1753, he visited Paris, where he had a conversation with the king from whom he was to wrest New France, and with the Pompadour, whose personal charms impressed him very strongly. He was extremely anxious to study the best army in Europe by spending some time in Prussia. But the wiseacres at the War Office refused him leave to do so. During the eight years of peace he trained his men to such a state of efficiency that they became the 'show regiment' of the army whenever any distinguished personage was to see the British infantry at its best. He was a marked man even before the Rochefort fiasco in 1757, and his restless energy and professional skill at Louisbourg decided Pitt to select him, junior as he was, for the highly responsible task of reducing Quebec. Some senior dullards called him mad. 'Then I wish he'd bite my other generals,' said the king. But though sane in genius Wolfe was sickly in body. He suffered so much from rheumatism and gravel that he only faced life with a gallant despair, knowing his time was short in any case. In person he was very tall, thin, rather awkward, with reddish hair and protruding nose and mouth - not unlike the younger Pitt, and equally open to caricature. But no one took liberties with him. Officers who were slack in their work naturally resented his masterful zeal ; but those who were really keen about their profession admired him immensely, and he was very popular with the men. His army was by far the best the New World had yet seen. It was under strength - there were to have been 12,000 instead of 9,000 - and it was stinted in money and equipment. But it was homogeneous, nine-tenths of it being excellent regulars ; and the men had already been seasoned to American conditions by the Louisbourg campaign. It was also exceptionally well officered, and the three brigadiers, Monckton, Townshend and Murray, all sons of peers, were chosen on their merits. Townshend - cold, critical and cursed by enjoying too much political favour - was the only unsympathetic element, The great point, however, is that the fleet and army, with their total of 27,000 men, worked well together, and so formed a splendid single force of the truly British united-service type. This by no means reduced the individual value of either branch, but greatly enhanced both. Neither fleet nor army could have taken Quebec alone. But proper combination halved their difficulties, doubled their strength, and made Wolfe victorious.
On May 5 Durell left Halifax to block the St Lawrence. He was too late, as Bougainville and the twenty-three French transports had just passed in towards Quebec. Durell had
spent a hard winter on the station, and his ships were none of the best. But he was rather like Amherst, always slow and not always sure. On the 25th he arrived at Isle-aux-Coudres, sixty miles below Quebec, and sent some vessels ahead to clear the way through the Traverse, a narrow passage thirty miles below Quebec. Montcalm had wished to fortify this, but Vaudreuil overruled him, and the result was that, after a short bombardment, the feeble French batteries were silenced, and the celebrated Captain Cook - then a 'master' or navigating officer - sounded the Traverse from end to end. Colonel Guy Carleton was in command of the troops with Durell and landed on Isle-aux-Coudres, which was an excellent strategic position, and which Wolfe thought of as a good place to entrench himself for the winter, if he failed and was not recalled. Montcalm, for his part, had thought that, as a last alternative, he might, if beaten from Quebec, elude pursuit, strike west to the Lakes and then south to the swamps of Louisiana, there to 'keep a foothold in America' as long as he could.
On June 4, 141 sail weighed anchor at Louisbourg with Saunders and Wolfe. All ranks were in the highest spirits, knowing that they were the picked force chosen for the decisive work of a great campaign, and believing that, led by men with 'the eye of a Hawke and the heart of a Wolfe,' they would soon plant 'British colours on every French fort in America.' On the 6th the last vessel cleared the harbour, and the voyage to Quebec began. This was one of the greatest feats of navigation ever performed by any fleet under any circumstances. Safe enough when there are plenty of aids to navigation, the St Lawrence was anything but easy for a fleet that had only poor French charts, worse French pilots, and no other outside aids at all. The pilots were generally worse than useless, and the fleet was navigated by its own officers, with consummate skill, through practically unknown waters and without one wreck. The French were dumbfounded when they saw that mighty armada sail with perfect impunity through the redoubtable Traverse, where they would only risk a single vessel of their own with much misgiving. When Vaudreuil and Bigot were on their trial they called the whole colony to witness that the Traverse had always been universally accepted as a natural obstacle impassable by any fleet in the world. What made this exploit all the greater was the fact that the ships - like British vessels generally, throughout the whole of the Great Imperial War - were decidedly inferior in material and design to those of the French and sometimes even to the Spanish. Nelson's captains always competed for the command of foreign prizes. It was the men, not the ships, that won the British command of the sea.
On June 23 Durell's squadron off Isle-aux-Coudres heard guns to the east just before dawn, and immediately cleared their decks for action. No one knew at first what the new fleet was ; for there were two naval possibilities that might have let an enemy appear instead of a friend. The conclusive British command of the sea had not yet been won in Europe, where the French fleets were still in being, and Bompart was known to have passed the winter in the West Indies with a strong squadron. There was little to fear from Europe. But Bompart might have raided the base after Saunders had sailed, extremely difficult as this would have been without a friendly port, or might even have cut in between Saunders and Durell. In either case, if he had fought to the last, his destruction might have meant enough loss on the British side to have made the capture of Quebec impossible for that campaign. As a matter of fact, Bompart limped home with fever-stricken crews, and had the best of his squadron merged with that of Conflans, whose defeat by Hawke at Quiberon in November settled the fate of Quebec in quite the other way.
On June 26 Saunders and Wolfe arrived at the Island of Orleans. Here the twenty days' voyage ended, and the twelve weeks' siege began.
THE FORTRESS AND ITS DEFENDERS
An excellent British amphibious force of 27,000 now faced a heterogeneous French army of 17,000. But the many qualifying circumstances made the task before Saunders and Wolfe extremely complex and difficult. Montcalm's 17,000 were a collection of all sorts, good, bad and indifferent.
About 10,000 were militia, that is, the whole male population supposedly fit to bear arms. In addition to the usual drawbacks of such forces, these poor people were naturally beginning to be lukewarm towards the civil government which robbed them right and left. But they could not help admiring the brave, honest and capable military commanders under Montcalm, and some of their own officers, who were also honest. On the whole they answered the call to arms very well indeed, partly owing to the exhortations of their good bishop, Henri de Pontbriand, who had fearlessly denounced the political parasites the winter before. Half the remaining 7,000 were French regulars, all sound soldiers, except the half battalion of Languedoc which had been picked up anyhow and sent out to replace the men taken by Boscawen in the gulf before the declaration of war. The troupes de la marine, or French-Canadian regular soldiers, and the naval and mercantile seamen together, each numbered between 1,000 and 1,500, and several hundred Indians completed the total. Most of the officers of the French-Canadian regulars had become tainted with the prevailing corruption, especially those connected with the supply work of the posts and settlements. The naval seamen were only trained as gunners, and the mercantile seamen were not trained at all. The ships either did transport duty or were sent up the river out of harm's way. When the British fleet was nearing Quebec a council decided to sink eight in the Traverse, which Montcalm had long wished to have put in a state of defence. But it was then too late. The Indians were less numerous and reliable than before, as the British command of the sea prevented the French from getting the usual supplies for trade and presents. The whole force had been underfed for a year, and the best part of it was to be overworked during the siege ; and it suffered, as usual, from being divided into five semi-independent services, all legally under the supreme command of Vaudreuil, whenever that fussy pettifogger chose to interfere with Montcalm, who technically commanded only the French regulars and who was only the 'adviser' to whom Vaudreuil was told to 'defer'' on general military affairs.
But nature had made Quebec almost impregnable by land and immensely strong even if attacked by both land and water. It stands on the eastern extremity of a high, narrow promontory between the St Lawrence and the valley of the St Charles. The St Lawrence is only one thousand yards across opposite the city ; it has an eighteen-foot spring tide, with a down current fourteen hours out of the twenty-four ruining to as much as five knots. The prevailing summer wind blows down stream. Both banks are over three hundred feet high and favourable for defence by artillery. Consequently no fleet, certainly not one with a huge convoy, could safely run up between them. Below Quebec was the only comparatively open ground, running seven miles, from the mouth of the St Charles to the mouth of the Montmorency. But Montcalm had entrenched it all, defended it with floating batteries, and occupied it with his whole force, except the two thousand men in Quebec itself. As Wolfe's eye swept the French position he saw every point of vantage on the north shore amply defended by nature and man.
INCIDENTS OF THE SIEGE
Some troops were landed on the south shore below the 'Point of Levy' [Pointe Lévis] and had a little brush with the enemy. But most were landed on the west end of the Island of Orleans , where the hospital and stores were permanently established. The landing was no sooner effected, on the morning of June 27, than a westerly gale blew furiously down on the crowded shipping. The men-of-war escaped with minor damages; but nine transports went ashore and two were burnt by the enemy. The next day the French were busy with seven fire-ships which Vaudreuil had got Bigot's friends to build, at a profit of some hundreds per cent. A confident coxcomb, who was put in command, lost his nerve, fired his own vessel prematurely, and five more of the ship commanders followed his example. The result was a magnificent display of fireworks rounding the 'Point of Levy.' The seventh ship, however, was in charge of a hero, Captain Dubois de la Milletière, who stood by his vessel to the last, in the hope that she would get among the fleet before being fired. But the other vessels fouled her, set her ablaze, and La Milletière died at his post. The British man-of-war boats towed the whole flotilla ashore, where it burnt out without doing any harm whatever. A month later seventy-two fire-rafts were sent down, with similar results.
On July 2 Montcalm again recommended the effective occupation of the Lévis heights opposite Quebec. But Vaudreuil again refused ; whereupon Wolfe occupied them himself and built the batteries that reduced Quebec to ruins. On the 9th, under cover of a naval demonstration, Wolfe seized the left bank of the Montmorency, where he made an entrenched camp opposite the French left. He now had three camps, which would have been fatally separated on land, but which were admirably connected by waters under the absolute control of the fleet. The first day that ground was broken on the Lévis heights he lost sixteen men killed and many wounded by the French fire from Quebec. But two frigates helped him greatly, the gun epaulements progressed rapidly, and the batteries were soon ready for work under the most capable artilleryman in the service, Colonel Williamson. The largest ordnance was the 13-inch sea-service mortar, throwing a 200-lb. shell more than two miles with great effect. The batteries, which had been built with the aid of the bluejackets ashore, and covered by the fire of the frigates afloat, were guarded by a battalion of marines and by a detachment from Monckton's brigade, which was encamped within supporting distance at the 'Point of Levy.' As soon as they were ready to defend themselves Vaudreuil thought it would be a good thing to recover the ground they stood on, which he had so wantonly abandoned ten days before. Accordingly, on the night of the 12 th , 1500 men crossed over some distance up stream, and marched down to the attack in two columns. All but a tenth of this body was militia, and most of this militia were men who had never done even militia work before. Many were students or schoolboys, which made the soldiers nickname the whole affair 'the Royal Syntax.' The two columns presently lost touch, fired into each other, got panic-stricken, and ran for their boats as hard as they could.
On the 18th Wolfe reconnoitred the north shore above Quebec from the south side, and at night two frigates and some smaller craft ran past the town without receiving much damage. Three days later Wolfe reconnoitred again ; more vessels passed the town; and presently a landing was effected at Pointe-aux-Trembles, twenty-two miles above Quebec . This alarmed Montcalm for the safety of his vitally important line of communications up the river. He at once detached Bougainville with a small corps of observation, including the 200 mounted infantry specially formed for the siege. But at this period Wolfe could not have made any great successful surprise attack on the north shore above Quebec . Even Vaudreuil would have noticed the transfer of the bulk of the British army to any point above, when there was little or nothing to prevent his watching the process. The situation in September was very different from that in July.
Wolfe now resolved to see whether he could cross the Montmorency at the fords, five miles up, and then march down the long natural slope to Montcalm's entrenchments, which he would attack from the rear. But a reconnaissance in force on the 25 th convinced him that this was impracticable. He lost 55 men, the French only 18 ; and the wooded ground favoured their Canadians while hindering his own regulars.
On the 31st he made a determined effort to storm a point in the entrenchments about a mile from Montmorency. Ships and troops were early in motion, though the attack did not actually take place till late in the afternoon. In the morning a strong detachment marched up the Montmorency, as if to try the fords again. A battalion also marched up the St Lawrence from the Lévis batteries, and Saunders kept his ships manoeuvring all over the basin. At high tide two armed transports were run ashore 800 yards from the entrenchments, and the Centurion, of 60 guns, anchored at the mouth of the Montmorency to help both them and the military batteries at Wolfe's camp to bombard the trenches. All opened fire at once and kept it up till the attack. At Lévis the batteries also opened furiously on Quebec , and Monckton's brigade crossed over and lay to, opposite the bombarded trenches, under cover of four men-of-war. A little after half tide, when the mouth of the Montmorency became fordable, the two brigades from the camp there crossed it and marched along the beach just out of musket-shot of the French. Monckton's brigade then rowed in, and all the 1000 grenadiers of the army moved to the front to lead the assault on the advanced redoubt. But, what with their eagerness to charge and the cheering of the men behind them, they rushed on before their ranks had been properly formed, and in less than two minutes had the redoubt to themselves. Here there was no holding them, and they surged forward again in a mad, tumultuous rush, straight for the entrenchments, which crowned a slope 150 feet high. The French, who had ample time for concentration, leant over their works and poured in a deadly fire, which killed and wounded 450 men in a very few minutes.
The thunderstorm, which had been brewing all that burning day, now burst in torrents, and the steep slope became too slippery to climb. But the attack had failed already, the tide was rising and would presently cut off the Montmorency fords, the French were in great force and admirably handled by Montcalm himself, whose clever arrangement of the traverses had prevented the British batteries at Montmorency from doing much damage; and Wolfe ordered an immediate retreat. Monckton's brigade had their hands full with the wounded and their own embarkation. But Townshend's and Murray's brigades marched back to Montmorency in perfect order, the men repeatedly waving their hats and daring the French to come down and fight it out in the open. The grenadiers had shown a lack of discipline, and Wolfe did not spare them in his caustic orders. But he recognized his own mistake in combining his forces in full view of an enemy who had already had ample time to concentrate for defence. It was evident that Montcalm could not be driven out of Montmorency, either from the front or rear.
THE CRISIS AT HAND
August was a time of great trial for both armies. Montcalm had been victorious, as he always had been before ; he had only lost 500 men, and still had half as many effectives again as Wolfe. But Quebec was becoming a heap of ruins, the country round it a desert; though no harm was done to women and children, under any circumstances, nor to any really non-combatant man. Montcalm could do nothing to stop the destructive work. He knew that the mass of his forces were of little value at close quarters, to which they had never been trained. His hospitals were filling. His stores were getting emptier and harder to replenish, as the fleet now had a considerable squadron above Quebec under Holmes, a very active admiral. These ships were constantly interrupting the river line of communication as far as Deschambault, forty miles above Quebec ; and this meant that supplies had to wait on the river, or creep down at imminent risk of capture, or else be landed and brought in by road, for which there was no adequate transport. Besides, Murray 's brigade was being used as a landing party to destroy magazines on shore, and had succeeded only too well at Deschambault. Bougainville drove Murray off at Pointe-aux-Trembles with a loss of 82. But this did not ease the general strain on the French supply and transport.
Wolfe's army was as good as ever. The fleet commanded the whole river below Quebec , and the south shore and channel for forty miles above, besides often being able to interrupt the supply boats that crept down along the north shore under cover of Bougainville 's corps of observation and various little posts and batteries. It also served as a cavalry screen and as an indispensable aid to the artillery, engineers and hospitals ; and in all matters of commissariat and transport it was practically everything. Convoys were continually arriving from the base a thousand miles away, and keeping the British better supplied with camp luxuries than the French were with the barest necessities. But even the fleet could not ensure victory at Montmorency or Quebec, or anywhere else for miles above, where an undistracted enemy could easily repulse any force that tried to climb those steeply scarped north-shore banks. Moreover, the fleet could not remain beyond the end of September. Then, the little British army, good as it was, had troubles of its own. Wolfe was much criticized in private, though most of the officers and all the men still believed in him. The casulties had reached 854, nearly ten per cent, and Wolfe himself had gone down with fever. Besides, the honour of the British arms had been tarnished by a very discreditable incident, when Captain Montgomery murdered his Canadian prisoners at Château Richer. He had rightly given no quarter in the heat of action there, because the eighty Canadians who sallied out against him were disguised as Indians, and both sides knew that Indians never gave it themselves. But the identity of the prisoners was fully revealed before he had them killed. The subsequent scalping was a little less criminal, as the wilder sort of Canadians and Americans both scalped with all the zest of the Indian when occasion served them. This Montgomery was brother to the American general who was defeated and slain before Quebec in 1775.
In the game of war there appeared to be a stalemate. Montcalm certainly could not drive Saunders and Wolfe away; but neither could they crush him. And the critical month of September was now at hand.
Source: William WOOD, "The Fight for Oversea Empire: The Decisive Year", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 275-288.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College