The Fall of Quebec

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In 1759, General James Wolfe, was in command of the largest British naval force ever to cross the Atlantic. Assisting Wolfe were Brigadiers General Robert Monkton, James Murray, and George Townsend. The flotilla had forty-nine men-of-war, fully one-quarter of the entire Royal Navy, plus two hundred transports, storage vessels, and provision ships. This large fleet was commanded by three admirals, Saunders, Holmes, and Durrell. Its chief navigator was Captain James Cook, the future explorer of the pacific. Nearly nine thousand soldiers were carried in the transports.

 After making stopovers at Halifax and Louisbourg to pick up several hundred North American Rangers and the Louisbourg Grenadiers, the fleet sailed for the St. Lawrence in mid-June. After rounding the Gaspé Peninsula, it entered the mouth of the mighty river.

 The ship's crews were to be tested as the fleet neared the Isle aux Coudres forty miles below Quebec. At this point, the river narrows, becoming swifter and treacherous. Shallows, sandbars, and submerged rocks become a hazard for ships. The French Navy feared the place and had stationed pilots on the island to guide ships through the channel. Only one ship at a time, sailed past the Isle aux Coudres.

 So it was that when French lookouts at the pilot station saw several ships appear, they paddled out to meet them. They were captured by the British, who had been flying the colors of France. Once captured, they were given the choice of hanging or guiding the ships through the channel. They then agreed to help, but several British captains thought it best to sail through on their own. They had sailed English waters far more treacherous than these!

 On June 26, the fleet anchored off the Island of Orleans, located in the St. Lawrence River, three miles below the Quebec. About sunset, forty rangers, under command of Lt. Meech, made the first reconnaissance of the island. Upon entering the woods, they came across a larger party of Canadians, and managed to find shelter in a cabin, where they remained until landing parties were put ashore and the island was secured.

 During the following days, General Wolfe set up his main camp on the Montmorency, across from Montcalm's trenches. On the 30th of June, Brigadier General Robert Monckton, captured Point Lévis, taking it after a short fight. He set up his own camp there and moved the artillery into position. From this most commanding position, the artillery was able to lay a deadly fire on Quebec less than a mile away. The British cannon fired every day. Shot rained down on Quebec day after day, and night after night.

 Bands of Canadians and Indians, mostly Abenaki, haunted the woods around Monkton's batteries. Sentries were knifed and scalped. Patrols were ambushed and mutilated. But soon these guerrilla tactics backfired. The redcoats now longer panicked at thought of Indians, the rangers had taught them better. They now turned their jackets inside out and dubbed the linings with clay. They had darkened their gun barrels, and took to the woods in small groups. Before long the Indians were complaining that the redcoats no longer stood still and allowed themselves to be killed. Wolfe also issued orders allowing his men to scalp Indians and French dressed as Indians.

 Quebec itself, was a natural fortress. The Lower Town, with its homes, warehouses, and docks, lay along the riverside. The Upper Town was perched atop the bluffs. Here was the governor's palace, cathedral, hospital, and citadel. Steep, narrow streets connected both sections of the city.

 Steep cliffs two hundred feet high stretched unbroken for miles on either side of the city. No paths led from the riverbank to the Plains of Abraham at the top. Here and there, a few men could climb the cliffs by holding onto rocks and bushes. But a few determined men at the top could hold off an army.

 Rivers enclosed Quebec to the east. The Cap Rouge River flowed between cliffs and high, wooded banks until it joined the St. Lawrence west of the city. To the east, Quebec was protected by the St. Charles River, it's mouth blocked by a boom of logs bound with chains and anchored in place. Beyond, the cliffs overlooked a stretch of land known as the Beauport shore. Beauport stretched for six miles, ending at the Montmorency, a swift river that ran through a steep gorge and tumbled over an eighty-foot falls where it joined the St. Lawrence.

 Montcalm had ordered trenches dug along the cliffs from the St. Charles to the Montmorency. Cannon were placed at key points on the cliffs and in the town, so as to make passage upriver almost impossible. Colonel de Bougainville was stationed with a thousand men near Cape Rouge to deal with any English who managed to slip past the batteries and come ashore.

Montcalm would not have to fight to win, by simply holding on, avoiding an all out fight until winter drove the invaders away would work just fine . To remain until October, would mean trapping the fleet when the St. Lawrence froze over. Wolfe on the other hand, had to force Montcalm to fight, either by tricking him down, or by scaling the cliffs.

 It was with this desperate position that Wolfe gave the orders to raise the farms to the south of Quebec. Rangers, Highlanders and light infantry, were sent out on both sides of the St. Lawrence, burning houses, barns and stables. The inhabitants were forced to flee to Quebec. All the villages from Riviére Ouelle to L’Islet were reduced to ashes. Even a few churches were destroyed, though Wolfe ordered they be spared.

 Montcalm, watching all this from his headquarters at Beauport, dispatched a few parties to interceded, but refused to let these cruelties draw his army from the walls of Quebec. He had no choice but to be satisfied that things would go his way. Though his heart went out to the people of the parishes, his best option was to let Wolfe bombard Quebec and burn villages, for every day Wolfe failed to bring him into battle was a day closer to winter and victory.

 Wolfe knew this and decided upon a desperate gamble. He had noticed that the French had gun batteries at several points along the shore above the high water line. At low tide, mud flats as much as a half mile wide were exposed from the Beauport shore to the mouth of the Montmorency, where the water was waist-deep for a few hours each day. His plan was to have troops rowed across from the Island of Orleans and landed on the mud flats. The first wave would be the grenadiers, elite units trained to throw grenades. At the same time other regiments of troops would wade across the Montmorency from the main camp. He hoped Montcalm would come down from his trenches to save the batteries. This would allow Wolfe to draw him into a battle.

 On July 30, the first wave of 800 grenadiers rowed toward the shore. But submerged rocks kept the boats from reaching land, forcing the men to wade ashore under heavy French fire. It became a hellish dash for land, musket balls fell like rain, and many men were ripped apart by the deadly cannonballs. Those who made shore were overcome by a type of madness. In fear and desperation, they attacked a French battery with their bayonets fixed. The artillerymen who failed to run, were skewered where they stood.

 Soon the second wave landed and formed ranks. Drummers taped out the charge, followed by a band playing "The Grenadiers March". Now the Grenadiers became enraged. Screaming, they ran past their officers, and began scaling the cliffs. After a moment of shock, the French began to fire volley after volley down the slope. The brave grenadiers began dieing by the dozens, their bodies falling to the beach below.

 All the while, the black clouds of a summer storm were gathering overhead. A blinding downpour soon began, wetting everyone's powder. The cliff side soon became cataract of muddy water. The grenadiers lost their grip, sliding down upon their fallen comrades. With the rain, there was nothing could be done, but to fall back. A retreat was then sounded by the drummers. As the English troops began to fall back to their boats, Indians came down the cliffs to scalp the dead and wounded. At the end of the day, the English counted 443 men, were reported, killed, wounded, or missing. The French camp on the other hand, believed the battle for Quebec was surly over.

 This defeat was devastating to Wolfe, he became worried that his health would not allow him time to find a way to win. After several weeks of worry, nervous strain, and sleeplessness, he was confined to bed with a high fever. Wolfe realized his time was short, and after ten days in bed, he rose. On August 29, he called a meeting of his senior officers, in order to decide how Quebec could be taken. They recommended a landing above Cape Rouge, about 25 miles west of the city. The area was lightly defended and offered the best chance of climbing the cliffs in safety. Once on top, they would cut the French supply line to Quebec. Montcalm must then fight to reopen the roads or starve.

 Wolfe excepted their plan and put it into operation. He evacuated the camp on the Montmorency and concentrated his army at Point Lévis. Each night, Admiral Saunders maneuvered a few ships upriver, past the batteries at Quebec, until he had a squadron of twenty vessels west of the city. Each day the squadron drifted downstream with the ebb tide, as if searching for a place to land. Then each night it rode upstream on the flood tide. This soon forced Bougainville's detachment, now at a strength of three thousand, to follow along the cliffs. The idea was to tire the French, and get them used to seeing English ships that never attacked. When the French became overconfident, the attack would occur.

 Wolfe had in the meantime made an important discovery. He had found a inlet two miles west of Quebec with an overgrown path winding up the cliff face. The top was guarded by a company of Canadian militia under Captain Duchambon de Vergor. It was here that Wolfe found the soft underbelly of Quebec's defenses. This secret Wolfe kept to himself until the moment of action, telling no one.

 At 2:00 A.M., Thursday, 13 September, 1759, a procession six miles long drifted downstream on the ebb tide. Wolfe rode in the lead whaleboat with Captain William Delaune, commander of " The Forlorn Hope". It was to be these twenty-four men, all volunteers, were the pathfinders who would lead the way up the cliff and silence the French sentries at the top.

 Behind Wolfe's longboat, were others carrying the Highlanders, and light infantry who would secure the beachhead. Behind them came the remaining transports with a second wave, artillery, and supplies. The rest of the army waited at Point Lévis. Once the first wave was ashore, they would cross.

 There was no moon, and the advance boats moved silently, with padded oarlocks, over the black water. At about a quarter mile from the landing point, a French sentry called out "Qui vive?". Stunned, the men set silent, but almost a once a Highlander responded in perfect French "François! Et vive le roi !, France!" And long live the king ! With this, they continued on their way. Now the Cove, since known as Wolfe's Cove, lay just ahead. As the assault team splashed ashore, navel cannon fire erupted from the east. British frigates stood on station from Quebec to Beauport, firing with every gun. It was hoped this would direct all French attention to the city.

The landing party, led by Captain Delaune, jumped on onto the sand, and advanced to the cliff. Then, with muskets strapped to their backs, the men scrambled up the path, using clumps of grass for leverage. Stones, being dislodged by the men clattered down the cliff, and the soldiers prayed the French could not hear. Soon, winded, hands and knees scraped by rocks, Delaune's men cleared the top of the cliff. The white of French tents could just be seen outlined against the dark background.

Once formed, they opened fire, taking the French by complete surprise. They rushed the French sentries, who fired and the fell back towards the tents. Captain Vergor, being awakened by the shots, rushed out with about thirty men, to form a defense. He had earlier sent most of his men home to gather in the crops! A picket of light infantry which had landed, came to aid the volunteers. Vergor was caught between them, but all but one of his men escaped by running through the brush. Captain Vergor, was shot through the foot, while attempting his escape.

 At the cheers from the advance party, the remaining light infantry men started up the cliff, General Wolfe was with them. It was 5:00 A.M. when he reached the top. Meanwhile, the fusillade had been heard at the battery at Samas, which opened a heavy fire on the English ships. As the first light of dawn approached, the second wave of troops were in route to the landing point, under this heavy cannon fire. Colonel Howe was now dispatched with some light infantry, to capture the batteries. These two artillery garrisons, being assaulted by superior forces and near being surrounded, retreated towards Cap Rouge.

 As soon as the regiments reached the top, they were marched to their assigned positions. The left wing extended towards Silvery, the right in the direction of Quebec, the whole line facing the St. Louis road. Before them stretched a broad, flat strip of land leading to the walls of Quebec. Here at last were the Plains of Abraham! The Plains of Abraham were named for the early Canadian settler, Abraham Martin, who had first cleared the land. This plateau is about three-quarters of a mile wide, bounded on the right by a steep cliff which at the foot of, flows the St. Lawrence River. On the left, it is bounded by the Cóte St. Geneviéve, below which the river St. Charles meanders. The two cliffs meet over a mile to the east, at Cape Diamond, crowned by the citadel of Quebec. In front of the plateau lies a slight ravine.

 Montcalm was making his morning rounds, when a messenger brought a note from Governor Vaudreuil. The general had heard the cannonade from the ships, but had gone to bed when no attack had occurred. Now he would learn the truth. Patrols had spotted the British on the Plains of Abraham. He rode in the direction of the plains, and saw an awful sight. It was not yet 7:00 A.M., but in the distance, long double lines of the infantry stretched across the plains. They were standing motionless as a soft rain fell. The morning breeze carried the sound of bagpipes. With the English on the plains, there were no options but to fight.

 At 9:30 A.M., Wolfe walked along the ranks, talking to the troops, and giving his final orders. Canadian and Indian sharpshooters appeared at the edge of the woods and began sending bullets his way. One captain, standing next to him, was hit in the chest. Wolfe kneeled and held him in his arms, promising a promotion when the fighting was over. Shortly after standing again, Wolfe, himself received a musket ball in the wrist, shattering it. An aid wrapped it with a handkerchief, and Wolfe continued as if nothing had happened.

 By this time, the French regulars were forming their lines near the walls of Quebec. They formed up in three lines as they arrived. Militia formed the two wings, regiments of the line in the center, the Royal Roussillon near the river, then those of Guyenne, Béarn, Languedoc and La Sarre. Major Dumas commanded the largest party of Canadians on the right. Some pieces of artillery were brought out. Once formed, Montcalm, in a uniform of green and gold, rode along the ranks encouraging his men. "Are you tired? ", he joked. Cheers and laughter rose from the men. "Are you ready my children?" another cheer arose. With this he raised his sword, and gave the signal to advance.

 Wolfe was happy for the first time in months, finally he had his chance to take Quebec! He started back down the line when he was struck by a shell fragment. The shot had ripped into his abdomen, but still he kept his feet, staggering for only a moment. Somehow, he then gathered himself up and returned to his place by the grenadiers.

 On Montcalm’s orders, French began their charge. The French army advanced, three rows deep, with Canadians and Indians on their flanks. They held their fire until they were within one hundred yards of the British lines. But their lines became broken while crossing the ravine, due to the rough ground. The opening volley was fired strangely by all three lines at once, with little affect on the British line. Now the firing became ragged and scattered, the men firing and reloading on the run.

 Wolfe's troops stood still as death, the only moment, when a man fell and was replaced by another. They stood with their muskets shouldered, and their bayonets fixed. The French were now only seventy-five yards away, more Redcoats fell. Now, on command, the first rank dropped to one knee. Both ranks leveled their weapons, each of which were loaded with double ball, at the advancing French line. Fifty yards, now the French were close enough to count the buttons on their coats, hear the tramp of their shoes.

 At forty yards, Wolfe gave the order to fire. One great volley, with a sound like a thunder clap exploded. The opening volley was devastating. A deep cut appeared in the first rank. Screams of anguish could be heard through the haze of smoke that drifted over the enemy. The English reloaded, and taking twenty paces forward, fired again.

 Both armies were than advancing, and the fight was short, but intense. The two French commanders of the La Sarre and Guyenne regiments, Senezergues and Fontbonne, were mortally wounded, as was the second in command on the right, M. St. Ours. Then Lieutenant Colonel Privat, of the Languedoc regiment was critically wounded. Adjudent Malartic had two horses shot from under him. Montcalm, ran from one point to another trying to rally his men.

The last volleys were fired with the two armies mere feet apart! With this final hail of musket balls, the French lines were broken. Those that survived the volley, were dazed and shaken. The shattered bodies of the dead and wounded littered the ground. Wolfe gave the order to charge. The British bayonet charge caused the French center to give way, and the whole army began to turn to the rear. Those that were able, were forced to ran for their lives. The redcoats set off in pursuit of the fleeing French, they would finish them with bayonet.

The Canadians fell back, but then rallied in some places. In the little woods on the right, they held back part of the British regulars for a time. Indians and Canadians were not offered a chance to surrender, memories of William Henry were still fresh, French officers though were sometimes spared.

 Wolfe was leading the grenadiers when a bullet hit him in the chest, puncturing both lungs. Two soldiers ran to his aid, but he was beyond help. They carried him to cover, and propped him up. It was at this moment, someone yelled "see how they run". Wolfe opened his eyes an asked "who runs?", a soldier replied, " The French run sir". With this it is said, Wolfe replied, "Now God be praised, I die in peace", and closed his eyes forever.

 Montcalm, meanwhile, had been swept along in those attempting to regain the horn work, or towards the city in panic. He was riding among his men, trying to rally some companies in front of the St. Louis Gate, when two bullets passed through his body. In rapid secession he received one in the groin, a fatal wound, and one in the thigh He asked two soldiers to hold him up in the saddle, so as not to cause more panic. Thus he rode through the St. Louis Gate, to the surgeon. He was there informed that he had but hours to live. He replied " So much the better, I shall not see the surrender of Quebec". He died early the next morning and was buried in a shell hole in the convent of the Urseline nuns. Wolfe's body was returned to England for hero's funeral.

 Governor Vaudreuil, had just reached a point near the heights, when his regiment came in contact with the British and was soon defeated. He tried in vain to rally his fleeing troops, with only a few militia going to the aid of those fighting in the woods on the St. Foy road.

 The Highlanders charged with their backswords held high. Anyone in their path failing to flee, died instantly, until they reached the edge of the woods, where they were halted by a hail of musket fire. After they made several attempts to dislodge the Canadians, the Highlanders were forced to fall back and regroup on the St. Lawrence road

There, they were reinforced by the Anstruther regiment and the second battalion of Royal Americans. They then advanced to the edge of the St. Geneviéve hill, attacking the woods from the rear, and then cleared the Canadian sharpshooters from the cliff edge.

 The Canadians made a final stand in the military bakery, which stood in the center of the valley, surrounded by several houses. Out numbered, and desperate, the Canadians managed to hold the British regiments in check for a long while. Thus, delaying the British advance, they saved many refugees, and gained time for the French army retreat to the horn- work. This brave action cost the loss of almost every man killed on the spot, and broke what remained of French resistance.

 With the English in control of the heights, Montcalm dying, and the French army demoralized, Governor Vaudreuil, for now, had to abandon Quebec, leaving it's people to the conquerors.

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