The Three Sieges of Quebec
Marking the 250th anniversary of General Wolfe’s victory over the French at Quebec, Jeremy Black considers the strategy employed by British forces in their struggle to gain and hold Canada.
Last year Canada and France celebrated the foundation of the first lasting French settlement at Quebec in 1608. This year Canada and Britain commemorate the heroism and skill of James Wolfe on the 250th anniversary of the British capture of Quebec, the key military position in New France, the French colony in North America.
Yet Wolfe's victory in 1759 was not the end of the story. The nature of the British achievement of 1759 can best be appreciated if it is seen in relation to two other seiges of Quebec that followed. The first took place in 1760 when French forces tried to recapture the city, the second when the Americans laid seige to it in 1775-76. Significantly, 1759 was the only one in which the city fell.
The fortress-city on the St Lawrence had been the target of British operations almost from its foundation. Captured for Charles I by Sir David Kirke in 1629, while still only weakly defended, it was returned in 1632 as part of the treaty ending the war between England and France that had broken out in 1627. In the 1690s, plans for its capture had been thwarted. That year, an expedition under Major-General Sir William Phips consisting of 32 New England ships and 2,200 troops failed at Quebec due to adverse winds, a shortage of ammunition and an epidemic of smallpox. An advance north from Albany fell victim to poor logistics and morale.
Thereafter, during the Nine Years' War (1687-96 - also known as the War of the League of Augsburg), William Ill's European ambitions caused American aims to be set aside. Phips journeyed from Boston to London in 1691 to urge the king to continue the attack on Canada with its profitable furs and fisheries, but the threat to William's native Netherlands proved more pressing. Thus, Namur, not Quebec, was captured in 1695.
The situation was more encouraging during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), although not initially so. In 1707 a New England force attacked Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal), the main French base in Acadia (Nova Scotia). Failure there increased pressure for the use of regular troops who were better suited for siegecraft although their deployment was delayed by the demands of the European theatre. Consequently, there was no support for an invasion of Canada in 1709, as originally promised. In 1710, 400 British marines joined 1,500 New England militia to successfully capture Port Royal. The following year the largest British expedition yet to be sent to North America had Quebec as its objective. The operation was abandoned, including the advance of the landward prong from Albany to Montreal, after navigational error led to the loss of nearly 900 men on the rocks in the St Lawrence estuary even though more than 6,000 troops and most of the fleet survived.
In 1745, the French naval base of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island was captured but the planned expedition to the St Lawrence was postponed in 1746 and then cancelled entirely in favour of an attack on the port of Lorient in France.
Wolfe's triumph, therefore, emerges as the glorious culmination of a long saga of planned attacks on Quebec by the British. However, it was only another stage in a struggle for the fortress that really ended 17 years later in 1776. The death of Wolfe and the capture of Quebec are traditionally seen as marking the end of New France, but this is mistaken. The French had designated 1759 as the year of a planned invasion of Britain. The defence of Britain was a key element in the struggle for North America both in terms of strategic planning and in the politics entailed in choosing between commitments. Had French forces landed in Britain, then the British troops in North America would have been desperately missed. French success in Europe could have forced the British to return colonial gains as the price of peace, as happened in 1748 (when Louisbourg was returned to France) and 1802.
Though cut off from supplies and reinforcements from France, the substantial French forces remaining in Canada did not passively await the war's end. In 1760, six months after the fall of Quebec, the remaining French army under the Chevalier de Levis advanced to recapture the city. Brigadier-General James Murray had been left in command of a garrison of 4,000 troops but his position was weakened by the closure of the St Lawrence by ice which deprived him both of naval support and supplies. The latter contributed to the scurvy that weakened the garrison; other diseases caused further depletion.
When Lévis's much larger army advanced to threaten British outposts, Murray repeated the mistake of Montcalm, the French commander in 1759. He engaged on the Plains of Abraham when it would have been wiser to remain with his sickly troops on the defensive within the city walls. On the other hand, Murray felt that the battlefield dominated Quebec's weak fortifications. In the battle of Sainte-Foy of April 28th, 1760, the French carried the day with a bayonet charge that benefited from disorder on the advancing British flank. Nevertheless, the battle was not easy for either side and lasted for three hours. Obliged to yield to superior numbers' commented Richard Humphrys of the 28th Regiment on the British retreat into Quebec. British casualties were considerably higher than the French: 1,088 dead and wounded out of some 4,000 troops, compared with 833 French casualties out of about 5,000 troops. The British also had to abandon most of their cannon, a key loss. The battle is one of several engagements forgotten in the teleological account of Britain's imperial rise in this period.
Quebec was then besieged, but the French artillery batteries did not begin firing until May 11th, 1760. They had little time to do damage: a British fleet arrived with reinforcements five days later. The French ships supporting the siege on the St Lawrence scattered in their wake and ran aground. The arrival of the British fleet sealed the fate of Canada: Levis raised the seige and fell back to Montreal. As Humphrys noted in his journal, 'had a French fleet appeared first in the river the place must certainly have fell'. In the event, a three-pronged British advance finally triumphed and the governor-general of New France surrendered his force at Montreal.
The seiges left the town in ruins and the suburb of Saint-Roch destroyed. The British swiftly rebuilt Quebec although it continued to have a military character. This was less with the threat of foreign conquest in mind than the possibility of a rising by the largely French population, a fear that did not materialise. In fact, relations with the Catholic French population and its Protestant British overlords were eased by the passage of the Quebec Act of 1774 giving Catholics civil rights in Quebec and recognising the Catholic establishment there. Instead, the attack came from Britain's colonies further south. Canada in British hands was seen as a strategic threat by the Americans. It was hoped that the French population would assist in overthrowing the small British garrison but this proved wishful thinking. Although the majority of Quebec's inhabitants showed little support for George III, it accepted British rule with its backing for the Catholic church and the preservation of French culture. As a result, the invading Americans found few allies in Canada. This presented major difficulties for a military lacking an institutional structure and reliant on popular support. Available in New England, such support was absent in Canada.
Moreover, there was no organised and powerful American naval force capable of helping. Thus, in the nowhostile presence of British naval power, the Americans could not repeat earlier successful expeditions against (then French-held) Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island or the St Lawrence. Amphibious operations were about capability as well as opportunity and this required infrastructure and training in which the Americans were deficient.
Canada, however, was vulnerable to American attack overland, as the Seven Years' War had shown. The route along Lake Champlain was open to the Americans in 1775, not least because the peacetime deployment of the British army was not arranged for war in the event of a widespread American rebellion. Crown Point and Ticonderoga, the main British positions that blocked this axis, had a combined garrison of fewer than 60 men. They fell in May 1775.
Later that year, the main American invasion force, 2,000-strong under Richard Montgomery, advanced from Ticonderoga. It was delayed, however, for seven weeks besieging St Johns, a fort just north of the border with New York state on the Richelieu river. This lengthy siege in cold and wet conditions demoralised Montgomery's force, already weakened by disease. The siege displayed the potential strength of the defensive strategy as the British did not surrender until they had only three days' provisions left. It also showed the extent to which well- made plans could be swiftly overturned. After the fall of St Johns, Montgomery marched on Montreal. Outnumbered, the British Governor, Guy Carleton, fled to Quebec leaving Montreal to surrender on November 12th.
Meanwhile, another American force under Colonel Benedict Arnold had been sent across Maine to the St Lawrence. It was handicapped by ignorance of the distance and terrain, poor maps, rain, food shortages, strong currents on the rivers and rough trails across the intervening carrying places. Several hundred men turned back. Ir Arnold's ability to get through proves that the terrain in non-cultivated parts of North America was not totally impassable as was suggested, the advance was certainly a debilitating one. Nevertheless, such efforts contributed to the warrior image best characterised by native Americans and frontier militiamen of American man at one with the country's inhospitable terrain.
In December 1775, the combined American force besieged Quebec, but Carleton and Colonel Allan Maclean, who headed the garrison there, displayed great talents of improvisation. A defending force was organised, composed of French Canadian militia, Loyalists, seamen and marines from British warships and merchantmen and about 100 regulars. The British refused to sally out and risk defeat in the field as the Americans had hoped. Bitter weather and terms of service due to end on December 31st made the siege-works that were begun appear foolish. Instead, the Americans attempted to storm Quebec in the early hours of December 31st under cover of snowfall. Though the plan was betrayed by a deserter, the defenders' confusion in the heavy snow and darkness gave the outnumbered Americans a good chance. However, Montgomery's death, the wounding of Arnold and the capture of Daniel Morgan deprived them of decisive leadership. Sixty were killed and wounded and 426 taken prisoner, compared to 18 British casualties. The siege continued until the ice on the St Lawrence melted and the British relief fleet arrived on May 6th, 1776. This forced the Americans to retreat; they attacked the pursuing British at Trois Rivières on June 8th but were outnumbered and defeated. Canada was then cleared.
Comparisons between Wolfe's victory and these two later unsuccessful siege attempts underline the importance of naval power and of bold, effective command. Amphibious operations were instrumental in British successes in the colonies during the Seven Years' War (such as the seizure of the fortress of Louisbourg in 1758) in terms of transport, supporting firepower and in cutting off opponents from supplies. Yet to take full advantage, amphibious power also had to be translated into effective use in conflict on land. Here the British benefited from the quality of their regular soldiers as well as from strong commanders such as Wolfe and Carleton. The presence of nearby colonies was helpful in 1759, though in 1760 they were distanced by snow and in 1775-76 it was the former colonies that posed the problem.
In 1758, the British had made operations along the Hudson-Lake Champlain route their first priority. In 1759, the target was the St Lawrence and it was there that British naval power could be used most effectively. American provincial troops garrisoned Louisbourg, freeing regulars for the advance on Quebec. Benefiting from reliable pilots and nearby harbour facilities at Halifax, both of which had been lacking in 1690 and 1711, the navy convoyed a force of 8,600 men under Wolfe to Ile d'Orléans, near Quebec.
Although only 32, James Wolfe was an experienced soldier with a well deserved reputation for energy and determination. His first operations along the Beauport shore were unsuccessful. On July 31st, an attack on French positions was repelled by Montcalm's larger army, with the British suffering 440 casualties while the French lost 60. As winter approached, it seemed increasingly likely that the British would fail to capture the city which had formidable natural and man-made defences.
Wolfe risked a bold move. James Cook, later famous as the explorer of the Pacific, had thoroughly surveyed the St Lawrence, charting its rocks, enabling British warships to pass beyond Quebec which they did from July 18th onwards, making upriver raids on August 8th. The army was to follow. On September 1st, British troops began to leave their camp at Montmorency moving along the southern bank of the river opposite Quebec. On September 10th, Wolfe, having reconnoitred the river, decided to land at l'Anse au Foulon to the west of the city. After delays caused by the weather the British came ashore in the early hours of September 13th. Some 200 light infantry scaled the cliffs and successfully attacked a French camp of 100 men. The remainder of the British force, fewer than 4,500 men, then landed and advanced to the Plains of Abraham.
With a total of 13,000 men in the area, and with fresh troops approaching Wolfe's rear, Montcalm was in a strong position but, instead of waiting on the defensive and uniting his forces, he chose to attack immediately with the men available. Richard Humphrys noted:
The French lined the bushes in their front with 1,500 Indians and Canadians where they also placed their best marksmen, who kept up a very galling, though irregular fire upon the whole British line, who bore it with the greatest patience and good order, reserving their fire for the main body of the French, now advancing, this fire was however checked by the posts in General Wolfe's front ... The general exhorted his troops to reserve their fire, and at forty yards distance they gave it, which took place in its full extent, and made terrible havoc amongst the French. It was supported with as much vivacity as it was begun and the enemy everywhere yielded to it.
British volley fire put paid to the French column advance after which a bayonet charge drove the disordered French from the field. British troops were indeed adept at both volley fire and bayonet charges. Both the French and British generals were killed in the battle. An anonymous British participant recorded:
About nine o'clock the French army had drawn up under the walls of the town, and advanced towards us briskly and in good order. We stood to receive them; they began their fire at a distance, we reserved ours, and as they came nearer fired on them by divisions, this did execution and seemed to check them a little. However they still advanced pretty quick, we increased our fire without altering our position, and, when they were within less than an hundred yards, gave them a full fire, fixed our bayonets, and, under cover of the smoke, the whole line charged.
Although Quebec had not been captured and more French troops arrived immediately after the battle, French morale was shattered. The French officers decided not to risk taking the field again but to retreat upriver. This decision was reversed a few days later but even as a French relief force approached Quebec the French officers suffered a loss of nerve and surrendered.
Though all three siege attempts could well have succeeded, in each case victory went to the side that controlled the waters. Quebec proved most vulnerable when cut off from support by sea. This is not to suggest that mastery of the seaward approaches to Quebec was the sole factor determining the ability to hold the city. In each case, the command decisions taken in response to difficult situations coincidentally and advantageously confirmed British naval mastery. Finally, the climate of Quebec also played an important role. Winter shortened the campaigning season and helped isolate the defenders - but also hampered the efforts of the attackers, as the American colonists found in 1775-76.
The importance of these factors were to be shown again. US advances on Lower Canada in 1812, 1813 and 1814 targeted Montreal but were ultimately aimed at control of Quebec. On these occasions, rather than being thwarted by Britain's position at sea, American efforts failed on account of deficiencies in leadership and the strength of the resistance.
Jeremy Black is author of Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the 18th Century (Hambledon Continuum, 2008) and What If? Counterfactualism and the Problem of History (Social Affairs Unit, 2008).
- S. Brumwell, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- S. Brumwell, Paths of Glory. The Life and Death of General Wolfe (Hambledon Continuum, 2007)
- R.M. Hatch, Thrust for Canada.The American Attempt on Quebec in 1775-1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1979)
- R. Middleton, Amherst and the Conquest of Canada (Sutton, 2003)
- G.F.G. Stanley, New France: The Last Phase, 1744-1760 (Oxford University Press, 1968)
- M.C. Ward, The Battle for Quebec, 1759 (History Press, 2005)
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