Battle of Quebec: America’s ill-fated attempt to seize Canada in 1775

Battle of Quebec 1775

The Battle of Quebec was an important battle that took place during the first few months of the American Revolution. Occurring in December, 1775, the battle saw American Patriot forces make an ill-fated attempt to capture the Province of Quebec, a fortified British territory (present-day Canada). The Continental Congress of America hoped to gain the support of the province; thus, they wanted Quebec to become the 14th colony to rebel against Great Britain.

In the end, the two-pronged American force, which were under the leadership of General Richard Montgomery and General Benedict Arnold, were resoundingly repelled by a very a capable British force led by General Sir Guy Carleton. The casualties on the American side were far greater than the ones in the British camp. The biggest loss to the Americans had to be the death of seasoned commander General Montgomery, who was killed in action.

Facts about the Battle of Quebec in 1775

The following takes a close look at why and how America invaded Canada during the Battle of Quebec 1775.

Reasons for America’s invasion of Canada in 1775

A few months into the American Revolution in 1775, many high-ranking military generals and politicians at the Second Continental Congress devised a plan to get the Province of Quebec to join the Revolution against Great Britain. If that plan had gone through, Quebec would have been welcomed as the 14th British North American colony to rebel.

The plan seemed more likely after Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold had captured Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775, leaving the path wide clear for the Americans to march forward into Quebec.

Secondly, American Patriots reasoned that by capturing Quebec they could help keep the northern boundaries (i.e. New England and New York) relatively free from future incursions by Native Indians allied to Great Britain.

What Plans were made for the invasion?

Battle of Quebec 1775 – America’s two-pronged attack

In the early part of 1775, the generals who came out with the plan to attack Canada were able to get Congress’ approval for the invasion. The plan involved launching two military expeditions into British-controlled province of Quebec.

The first expedition, which was under the leadership of Major General Philip Schuyler, was to move from Ticonderoga and then seize Montreal. And once Montreal fell into the hands of the Americans, the expedition was expected to proceed to Quebec.

The second attack was headed by Colonel Benedict Arnold. Arnold’s troops – 1100 men in total – were asked to move via the Kennebec River, through the wilderness of Maine, and then rendezvous with Gen. Montgomery troops.

In total, Congress approved a force of 3,000 men for the invasion.

How large was the American force that marched into Quebec in 1775?

Initially, the entire Northern military campaign was headed by Philip Schuyler. General Schuyler worked extremely hard to secure some modicum of support from some Native American tribes. Schuyler had troops primarily from New York and New England.

Although many Native American tribes did not heed to the call of Congress to join them in fighting the British, it is believed that some members of the Oneida and the Tuscarora were already speaking to the Americans about joining the course. Commanders Arnold and Allen had high hopes that the French Canadians (“Les Canadiens”) would join their course and see the Americans as liberators of their land. It turned out that the Canadians were not very keen in joining the battle.

British forces and Quebec defense preparations

Sir Guy Carleton, British commander in Canada

The British forces in Quebec were under the astute command of General Sir Guy Carleton, governor of Quebec. Carleton’s forces were made up of both regular British soldiers and some bit of French-Canadian militia. Following the seizure and raid of Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Saint Jean (Fort St. John) respectively, Great Britain had long suspected that the American Patriots would proceed to invade Montreal and Quebec.

Carleton had also secured the verbal commitment of members from a few Native American tribes – such as the Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk and the Iroquois – to lend their support to Great Britain once the Americans marched into Canada. However, Carleton knew that he could not completely count on those Indian tribes; their loyalty to Britain was shaky at best.

Carleton’s preparations began around June, 1775. Although Carleton bemoaned the inadequate nature of troops to properly defend Canada from the Americans, he still turned down a total of 1600 Native Americans (primarily from the Mohawk tribe) that were willing to fight for the Crown. Carleton was worried of what he called the “savage way” the Indians fought in battles.

Carleton agreed to command the defenses at Montreal; he then put Lieutenant Governor Hector Cramahé in charge of defending Quebec.

Carleton’s second in command at Montreal was able to halt Ethan Allen’s September 25 attack on the city. The attack saw about three dozen American soldiers captured. About 5 Americans were also killed in the process. Shortly after the attack, about 1200 French Canadians signed up and joined Carleton’s militia. In spite of this sudden boost in troops, Carleton still refused to go on the offensive. Instead he focused on defending Montreal.

First Expedition – Forces Led by Brigadier General Richard Montgomery

Battle of Quebec 1775 | Irish-born General Richard Montgomery was the head of the first military expedition to Quebec in 1775

The American troops effectively started marching into Canada in late summer of 1775. The first expedition’s plans went as planned, except the withdrawal of Major General Philip Schuyler. Due to an illness that Schuyler suffered, the general had to hand leadership of the first expedition over to Brigadier General Richard Montgomery.

Towards the latter part of August, Montgomery and his men moved from Fort Ticonderoga to Lake Champlain. They were able to breach and capture Fort St. John. By mid-November 1775, Montreal had fallen into the hands of Montgomery. Carleton and his men then fled to Quebec, leaving the city of Montreal firmly under the control of the Americans.

Montgomery was very nice to the Canadians in Montreal. This was because the city reminded him of his Irish roots. He admonished any American soldier that treated a Canadian harshly.

Before leaving Montreal, Montgomery left the city in the hands of Brigadier General David Wooster. Unlike Montgomery, Wooster was largely anti-Catholic; he treated the people of Montreal so badly that the French Canadians decided to withdraw the little support that they gave to the Americans.

Second Expedition – Benedict Arnold’s forces and the expedition through the wilderness of Maine

Battle of Quebec 1775 | Benedict Arnold courageously led his troops out of the wilderness of Maine

While Montgomery and his men moved from Ticonderoga to Montreal, Arnold and his troops of 1000 men set off for Quebec on September 5, 1775.

Arnold’s forces were made of three main battalions. From Georgetown, Arnold and his men proceeded to go up the Kennebec River beginning September 20. The journey that those men made came to be etched permanently in the minds of Americans.

As a result of a bad map that Arnold was using, the troops made provisions for a 180-mile trip. It turned out that the distance was actually over 300 miles. Additionally, Arnold’s troops had to contend with harsh conditions only a few people in the world can survive. The trip through the wilderness of Maine ate away the strength, courage and resilience of the men. Many of them starved to death; they were diseased; and they were completely exhausted from the cold. Their provisions were either depleted or destroyed by the bad weather. The troops’ clothes and boots were all soggy and worn out.

Such were the terrible conditions that the men were forced to eat shoe and belt hides for food. Another account of the trip states that the men killed and ate the dog of one of the senior officers, Henry Dearborn. They reasoned that rather than let the dog starve to death they should rather put it out of its misery.

Close to 500 men either died on the way or turned back home. Those that retreated most likely died on their way back home. What this meant was that only 600 out of the 1100 soldiers made it to Quebec on November 9. Using canoes from an Indian chief, Arnold’s men crossed the St. Lawrence River and made it to the city proper. The completely exhausted troops then settled and made camp on the Plains of Abraham.

General Arnold quickly called on the city of Quebec to surrender. General Carleton did not budge. The British commander was well aware of his numerical advantage.

Arnold then went ahead to blockade the city and wait for Montgomery’s arrival. However, that did not bother Carleton and his men. They city had enough food and other provisions that could last them for the coming winter.

The Siege of Quebec City in December, 1775

Montgomery and his troops arrived at Quebec on December 1, 1775. Montgomery followed in Arnold’s footstep and demanded the complete surrender of Quebec. Montgomery and Arnold hoped that the French Canadians in the city would have a change of heart and rise up against Carleton and his men.

Montgomery had to contend with the expiration of enlistments among his troops. Many of the troops’, including Arnold’s men’s, expiration dates were on December 31.Most of them expressed an unwillingness to renew their enlistments. Montgomery knew that he had to act swiftly and take the city before the expiration date of the soldiers’ enlistment.

In the meanwhile, Montgomery’s men had difficulties digging trenches in the frozen ground. As a result of this, as well as the sophisticated nature of Carleton’s defenses, Montgomery could not penetrate the city’s walls.

To make matters worse, the Americans lost two very vital mortars on December 17. The mortars were taken out by British canons. Montgomery was then left with only three mortars.

The American soldiers were also running out of ammunition. There were rumors going around the American camp that several thousands of British soldiers were en route to lift the American siege of Quebec. The suspicion was that those British reinforcements would be in Quebec by spring.

Montgomery’s window of opportunity seemed to be shutting close. On December 25, Montgomery gave a passionate speech to the troops about how he intended taking the city of Quebec.

The Snowstorm and the Quebec Attack Plans

General Montgomery and his men were betrayed by a sergeant who went to the General Carleton with the plans that Montgomery had made on December 27. In Montgomery’s plans, the Americans were to use the cover of the snowstorm of December 27 to carry out a surprise attack on the city.

With his first plan ruined, Montgomery devised a new plan. He divided the American troops into three sections. The first attack, made up of two feints, would approach the western walls of the city. The second and third group would launch an incognito attack via the Lower Town of the city. It was agreed that Arnold would command the attack via the north end of the Lower Town. Montgomery, on the other hand, would lead his group via the saint Lawrence into the Lower Town. If everything went according to plan, the two groups were hoping to meet and then proceed to attack collectively the Upper Town of the city.

Snowstorm of December 30 and the ultimate attack

Battle of Quebec 1775

On December 30, a snowstorm swept through Quebec. Similar to his earlier plan, Montgomery saw the snowstorm as a blessing. Therefore he gave the order for the attack to begin.

Montgomery’s Attack

As Montgomery and his men approached the palisade of the city’s defenses, the sentries raised the alarm bell. Montgomery no longer had the element of surprise on his side. The troops soldiered on, sawing through the walls of the city. Unknown to Montgomery and his 50 men, the streets that marched into had about three dozen Quebec militiamen stationed there. Upon seeing Montgomery’s men, these city defenders, armed with muskets and cannons, unleashed hell on the American troops.  General Montgomery was immediately shot and killed. A similar fate was suffered by Montgomery’s men, including his two next most senior officers. Some of Montgomery’s men were severely injured. The few that survived retreated back to the city’s palisade. With command of the group falling to Colonel Donald Campbell, the troops decided to abandon the attack and retreat to the Plains of Abraham. The men could not even retrieve the body of their general.

Benedict’s Arnold’s Attack

Arnold’s men engaged in a fierce street battle with British forces

Benedict and his men moved to the northern end of the Lower Town. Accompanying Arnold were 30 riflemen. The troops crossed the barricades at Sault-au-Matelot. From there they proceeded to the outer gates without any problems. It was only when they got near the Palace Gate that they came under immense fire from the enemy. In the ensuing chaos, the troops took cover at the docks of Quebec City.

Arnold, the commander of the troops, would later sustain an injury while organizing his men to return fire. Arnold was shot in the leg. The wound from the musket ball was severe, forcing the colonel to head back to base. The command of the troops then moved to Daniel Morgan.

Morgan bravely led his men up the barricade and forced a number of opposition militiamen to surrender. With the barricade fully under the Morgan’s control, the troops pondered whether to move forward or wait for Montgomery’s troops.

Unbeknownst to Morgan’s men, Montgomery’s troops had abandoned their attack. Morgan’s men went on to wait for about half an hour.

Now aware that the northern gates’ attack was a diversionary tactic, General Carleton redistributed some of his troops to the lower town. When the British forces found out where the Americans were holed up, a barrage of fire was aimed at Morgan’s men. The American troops could not overpower the large British troops that repeatedly fired at them. Soon, Morgan realized that he and his troops were trapped in the city. And there were no signs of Montgomery’s men showing up to alleviate the situation.

Once the Americans started running out of ammo, the fight in them was no more. Morgan and his men surrendered to the British forces.

Aftermath of the Battle of Quebec 1775

The death of Richard Montgomery was a huge blow to the morale of the American troops, which abandoned the attack in May 1776

While the Americans camped outside, Carleton approved the release of disease-infected mostly smallpox) prisoners and prostitutes from the city of Quebec. He hoped those diseased persons would transmit their illnesses to the American troops besieging the city.

After the battle in December 1775, General Carleton also ordered the rounding up of all French Canadians that gave help to the Americans. Many of those people were either imprisoned or sent to forced labor. The Continental Congress came to the rescue of those few that fled Canada to America. Many of those people were given lands to settle and farm on.

Injured, rocked by diseases, and exhausted, Arnold had only about 600 men at his disposal as at January 1776. David Wooster could not send him additional reinforcements because he worried about an uprising in Montreal. Similarly, the commander of the Northern troops, General Schuyler, turned down Arnold’s request for more troops.

In the end, Arnold was left with a few forces to continue the siege. Congress approved the sending of more troops up north. Some of those troops were sent to Montreal. The rest were sent to Quebec.

A Congressional commission, which included Catholic priest Father John Carroll, Charles Carroll, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase, arrived in late April 1776. They were tasked to reverse the anti-Catholic policies instituted by General Wooster in Montreal. It was revealed that the inhabitants were not willing to join the rebellion against Great Britain.

On May 6, 1776, the British sent about 200 men to Quebec City. When news of this reached the Americans, the American troops quickly packed up and retreated back to Fort Ticonderoga. And so the Battle of Quebec was over.

Why America lost the Battle of Quebec

The Americans could not capture the City of Quebec largely because they did not have enough heavy artillery. And credit must be given to General Carleton for setting up his defenses in a manner that proved impossible for the Americans to breach.

Also, it appears the attack on the Quebec was rushed. Both Montgomery and Arnold were in a race against time to attack, least the enlistment of their troops expired on New Year’s Day. Plus, Arnold’s troops that emerged out of the wilderness of Maine were completely beaten by the harsh conditions. Arnold’s losses in the wilderness were a huge setback to the overall mission of the expedition.

Another point worth mentioning is that: had Morgan proceeded to push forward without the 30-minute wait, perhaps his forces could have inflicted immense damage to Carleton’s men. Morgan waited and waited for Montgomery’s troops to rendezvous at the place they agreed upon.

Related to the above point, we must consider the immense gravity of the loss of General Montgomery. Many historians believe that had Montgomery survived, the American troops might have had a better chance of capturing the city of Quebec, or at least the Lower Town.

There was the bad weather condition that inhibited the American troops’ journey from Fort Ticonderoga all the way to Quebec. And even in Quebec, the freezing and blizzard-induced conditions prevented the American troops from digging any trenches or other fortifications for their weapons. The fortifications built out of snow by the troops proved to be very inadequate at offering protection against the British onslaught. For example, two of Montgomery’s field guns were effectively destroyed by mid-December. The snow also caused a lot of weapons to fail. The gunpowder that the troops carried was mostly damp and useless in some regard.

Finally, the American camp found itself in a continuous struggle to get adequate provisions for the troops. There were several shortages and the troops lacked proper clothes and shoes. Supplies could not get into the camp primarily due to the freezing weather conditions. The American commanders in the camp also ran out of gold coins to buy enough provisions from the locals. Their paper money was considered worthless to the French Canadians.

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