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DEFENSE OF QUEBEC 1775 - 1776



The defense of Quebec started in May 1775, right after word was received that the rebels took Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point without a shot being fired.

In June, General Benedict Arnold commenced the initial attack on Fort St. Johns (Jean). Governor Guy Carleton ordered reinforcements into the area. This force, comprised of elements of the 26th Regiment under Major Preston, was sent directly to Fort St. Johns while an under-strength company of 37 men from the First Battalion, Royal Highland Emigrants, under Captain Daniel Robertson and Lieutenant John McDonald, dispatched to locate and intercept the rebel advance elements.

Robertson soon found himself in a desperate battle which resulted in the destruction of his company. Regimental documents only record Robertson's losses taken in the fight and the need to send subsistence money to the rebels to pay for their keep as prisoners. On June 13th, 1775, we have: "Daniel Robertson taken at St. Johns, now with his regiment", and on the 22nd of March, 1776, we find: "Captain Daniel Robertson and Lieutenant John McDonald with 24 men taken on the capture of Upper Canada lost 13 men killed and wounded at Le Ruce[,] at Lancaster [PA]. I mention this both for your and the agents information; as bills may be drawn for their subsistence."

To suffer the whole company captured and 13 men killed or wounded is unusual. The men of the Royal Highland Emigrants, at this time, were comprised mainly of veteran combat soldiers and officers. These men campaigned long and hard in the previous war and were well versed in frontier tactics. Losing a battle to inexperienced rebels would suggest that the Emigrants were vastly outnumbered and most likely surrounded. If an exit had been available, Robertson most assuredly would have taken his remaining troops and made a tactical withdrawal.

With the fall of Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, the way to Montreal was undefended except for the dilapidated fort at St. Johns, which had originally been a typical French bastion-type fortification that had been destroyed in the last war. The English had built two small redoubts around a barracks and a large stone house within the old fort's grounds. The British earth and picket fortifications were in a sad state of neglect. The fort was also used as a shipyard. The Fort of St. Johns, in May of 1775, presented little credible defense.

Governor Carleton knew that Fort St. Johns was the gateway Montreal. It controlled the La Prairie Road and the Richelieu River. St. Johns could not be bypassed because the overextended American supply lines could easily be cut by sorties from the fort. The fort could also be used to build a fleet of ships that would be needed to retake the American occupied forts on Lake Champlain. When the time came, St. Johns would be the springboard for the attack south.

Carleton knew he had to defend Canada from the frontier. He sent a strong force of regulars to the rotting fort with orders to quickly rebuild it. The new garrison consisted of 474 men from the 7th and 26th Regiments of Foot, 90 Canadian volunteers and militia, 38 gunners from the Royal Artillery, and 20 men from the Royal Highland Emigrants. This detachment of Emigrants was commanded by Captain William Dunbar and Ensign Francois Dambourges. At a later date, an additional 35 men, probably under the command of Lieutenant Neil MacLean and Ensign Hector MacLean, who were part of a supply column, joined the garrison at a later date to bring the number of Emigrants up to 55 officers and men. The fort now had a garrison totaling 662 effectives under the command of Major Charles Preston. The fort's garrison was reinforced by the schooner Royal Savage, the brigantine Gasspe, two unfinished row galleys, and a detachment of sailors. Also in the area was a strong force of Indians totaling about 100 braves under the command of Captain Tice of the Indian Department.

The newly reinforced garrison quickly refurbished the two

redoubts, built a connecting wooden palisade, dug and cleaned out the seven-foot-deep defensive ditches, added sharpened stakes and pickets to make assault difficult, cleared fields of fire, and set in supplies for a protracted siege. Fort St. Johns soon became an efficient placement.

On September 4th, the rebels landed two companies south of the fort under the command of Major General Schuyler. This advanced force was quickly ambushed in a swamp by Captain Tice and his Indians. The rebels, having experience in Indian warfare, quickly dug in and returned fire. The Indians were making little headway until the fort's guns got the range. Under pressure from the guns and the Indians, the rebels withdrew in good order to their boats and then rowed back to the ruined fort on Ile-aux-Noix.

On September 10th, Schuyler returned to the fort with 1,000 men. They immediately dug in and threw breastworks up for protection from the fort's cannon. Patrols were quickly sent out to invest the fort. This was only effective for a short period of time. The Indians under Captain Tice quickly formed and attacked the rebels, once again forcing them to retreat back to Ile-aux-Noix.

On September 16th, General Montgomery took over command of the rebels and led a force of 2,000 men, whom he referred to as the "worst stuff imaginable for soldiers" back to Fort St. Johns. He was reinforced by a schooner, a sloop, two galleys (each with one 12-pounder cannon in the bow), and 10 bateau. Montgomery's force invested the fort and captured a supply train. His men set about building breastworks and bringing up guns. This was made difficult due to harassing sorties from the fort. On September 18th, the fort was fully surrounded.

The garrison was well protected and manned, having a "good number of long range cannon and plenty of ammunition." The garrison's guns outranged the rebels' cannon, which made life difficult for the invaders. Preston knew he could hold out for months or until the expected relief force arrived. The Americans' guns did little damage to the earthworks. They were so ineffective that Montgomery ordered more guns to be brought up from the captured Forts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. The rebel fire was so inept that the garrison was dying of boredom.

In early October, the rebels, reinforced with heavy ordinance, finally got around to establishing a battery across the river. The battery on the opposite side of the river from the fort could shoot directly into the emplacement because the fort did not have a back side along the waterway. Preston had been expecting this move since the first day of the siege! The British Navy ships, which up to this time had done nothing, were fired upon and sunk with hot shot. The ships sank with all store and guns aboard, much to the disgust of Preston, who had ordered the ship's guns and stores removed days before.

The garrison's morale was high and had suffered very few casualties. Food was plentiful, but finding a dry, warm place was difficult. The garrison knew that help was on the way and that the Americans could not take the fort without very heavy casualties. Montgomery knew he had to capture the fort very soon, for winter was not far away and he had to have shelter and Montreal before the snow flew. He ordered his scouts north to try to take Fort Chambly which was a major supply center which was only protected by stone walls and the only fortification between St. Johns and Montreal. He desperately needed the supplies that were there. On the 13th of September, Chambly shamefully fell without a shot being fired. All of the fort's guns and stores were taken; the garrison surrendered without spiking a single gun.

On September 20th, Montgomery marched his prisoners past Fort St. Johns to destroy the defenders' morale. He then sent the captured women and children into the fort as a "humanitarian gesture", knowing that this would use up the fort's food at a faster rate. The Canadian militia became disheartened and demanded to be released from service. Their request was refused and the regulars kept a close eye on their activities. Soon thereafter, Montgomery had Chambly's guns brought down and added their weight to the siege.

On November 1st, Montgomery received 2,000 new troops and prepared to assault the fort. Meanwhile, the relief columns were attacked and turned back from St. Johns sealing the fort's fate. Montgomery sent Preston news that the expected relief columns were driven back and asked that the garrison surrender. Preston, knowing that relief was not coming, considered his options: He had only eight days of food left at two-thirds ration, he was running out of shot, the weather was turning foul, and very little shelter was left standing. Preston decided to try to buy time and parlay for terms. He told Montgomery that he would hold for four more days. At the end of that period, if the fort was not relieved, he would surrender the fort with full military honors. On November 2nd, Montgomery rejected the terms and told Preston that if he did not immediately surrender, no honorable conventions would be given. On November 3rd, after a 55-day siege, Preston marched his men out with colours flying and drums beating. The men were then made prisoner and marched to Connecticut. Preston wrote of the siege in his journal:

We may thank our enemy in some sort for leaving us in such a slight field works the credit of having been only reduced by famine. Had they understood or been a fit people to carry on obsidionial operations, their batteries might with their numbers by means of approaches have been brought much closer to our redoubts, have overlooked us, destroyed our breastworks, and by a slaughter from which there could have been no shelter, have rendered our holding out, a mere sacrifice of men who might have been saved for better services.

The total cost of the siege was 43 Crown casualties; 20 killed, of which half were Canadians and Indians, and 23 wounded, mostly regulars. The Royal Highland Emigrant losses were one man killed. The rebels lost approximately 100 men (killed), and 937 were rendered unfit for service and discharged. The siege also cost the rebels a 55-day delay, which eventually cost them Canada.

The Royal Highland Emigrant detachment served well. The men went into captivity and eventually were exchanged and returned to duty in 1777. Captain William Dunbar, Lieutenant Neil MacLean, Ensign Francois Dambourges, and Ensign Hector MacLean were listed as having been taken at St. John's. All of these officers were released in 1777 and returned to duty, except Dambourges, who escaped and returned to serve in the Siege of Quebec with distinction.

While Fort St. Johns was cut off, the garrison of the fort was not forgotten. Carleton was trying to organize a relief campaign but was first in need of some hard intelligence before he could put any plan into operation. For this, Carleton has been historically criticized for procrastinating the relief, thus allowing the rebels to not only take Montreal, but to threaten Quebec. This is, of course, hindsight and unfair to Carleton. Carleton had very poor intelligence and was smart enough not to risk his small defending force against unknown odds. Carleton also was very familiar with Canada and was willing to let nature and the coming Canadian winter fight much of his battle for him. In fact, Carleton's "cautious" strategy eventually cost the Americans 5,000 men who were killed in action, made prisoners of war or died of sickness for no gain and at little risk to the British forces in Canada.

When Carleton finally organized the relief of the besieged fort, it was without any knowledge of the American strength and disposition. Carleton, thus, organized two relief forces: Lieutenant Colonel Allan MacLean, with 120 Royal Highland Emigrants, 60 fusiliers, and 400 Canadian militia were staging at Quebec and Sorrel and would attack south from there; Carleton himself commanded the force from Montreal. His column consisted of 130 Royal Highland Emigrants and fusiliers, 800 militia and 80 Indians. The militia, however, consisted mainly of French Canadians and were not trusted. Both forces were to converge on the Richelieu River before Fort St. Johns.

Carleton's force set out on October 30th, 1775, in boats, crossed the St. Lawrence and followed along the southern coast. Upon reaching Longueuil, his force came under severe fire from shore. His flotilla had been ambushed by 350 rebels with several field pieces captured from Fort Chambly. Carleton was unwilling to make a frontal amphibious assault on an unknown number of Americans and artillery with untrained and undisciplined troops and elected to withdraw before his force took too many casualties. This was the correct maneuver since his troops only suffered a few Indians killed and three militiamen captured. The low casualties were due to the grossly ineffective fire on the part of the rebels, who had sprung the ambush too soon. If Carleton had engaged in battle and been defeated, Montreal and Quebec would undoubtedly have been open to capture since the only defensive force left in the area was militia (who, again, could not be trusted). The obviously right move was for Carleton to save his men for the defense of Quebec.

Simultaneously, MacLean's force was boating down the Richelieu River under escort of an armed schooner. MacLean's force had run across a number of rebel parties and quickly brushed them aside. When MacLean received dispatch that Carleton was turning back, he decided to abandon the attack. This was not the only reason MacLean chose to retreat. He was also having problems with the militia deserting in droves, as well as a growing opposition by American infantry. He had also received word that Fort Chambly had now fallen and the Americans now had the forts' cannons.

MacLean retreated from St. Denis back to Sorrel, where he dismissed what was left of the French Canadian militia. MacLean then force-marched his regulars to Quebec. MacLean knew that the French citizens and militia would not put up any defense for Quebec and he rightly believed that without his force of regulars, the French would open the gates to the fast approaching American forces. The Americans entered Montreal without a shot being fired on November 13th. Carleton and his small force of regulars were able to evacuate the town one step ahead of the enemy.

MacLean made it into Quebec hours before Arnold arrived outside the gates. With MacLean were 200 veteran Highland soldiers of the Royal Highland Emigrants. A week before the siege, the ship Lizard arrived with Captain Malcolm Fraser and 130 Irish recruits from the Royal Highland Emigrants' second battalion, clothing and arms for 6,000 men, 20,000 pounds sterling in coin and 35 Marines and sundry sailors who had to weather out the winter in Quebec.(1)

On the 15th of November, Arnold found himself before the gates with a handful of men who had only 100 serviceable muskets and 500 rounds between them. Arnold retreated and fortified his position for fear that the Highlanders would sally out of the town and attack his depleted force -- an attack he knew that he could not stand.(2)

Immediately upon his arrival, MacLean expelled all undesirable citizens, cleared fields-of-fire by destroying intervening buildings and put the fear of his Highlanders into the citizens and militia who remained inside the town. He publicly stated that any treasonous talk or conduct would result in severe consequences. MacLean next organized his forces and inventoried the stores. He quickly brought the town up to peak military efficiency and put steel in the garrison's resolve to hold the town through the winter.

MacLean was an experienced "American" campaigner. He convinced Governor Carleton to let winter destroy the Americans. The march north by the Americans had already cost Arnold more than half of his force. MacLean knew that Montcalm foolishly marched out onto the Plains of Abraham to defeat. MacLean was not foolish enough to repeat that mistake. The Crown forces were quite secure inside the walls, and MacLean now knew he had a force of at least equal size to the rebels. By spring, he knew he would have a vastly stronger force, which would easily and without much risk drive, the rebels back south.

For the next six weeks, the siege consisted of trading the occasional musket and cannon shot without serious loss to either side. The rebels were suffering under a severe small pox epidemic said to have been "started by a pretty young girl whom the British sent out." Arnold was out "woman hunting" and picked her up for his depraved pleasures. Starvation and desertion were plaguing the rebels to the point where Montgomery and Arnold decided to storm the city in an attack of desperation. The attack was to take place December 31st and was to be a two-pronged assault. The attack was preceded by a diversion of cannon fire, which alerted Captain Fraser that something was on. He gathered his platoon of Emigrants and alerted the garrison.

Montgomery was attacking the Lower Town with about 300-odd men. They accomplished some minor success at first before being blocked by a picket fence. Montgomery ordered his carpenters to remove the obstacle, which took some time and, thus, put him well behind schedule. Montgomery quickly learned that the garrison was before him and ordered his men to charge ahead with the cry of "Push on, brave boys: Quebec is ours!" Montgomery charged forward, right into a cloud of grape and canister shot. In seconds, Montgomery was dead, his force destroyed and routed.

Arnold was to attack first with some 900 men as a diversion in the Upper Town. He was well behind schedule and unaware that Montgomery's force had been destroyed. Arnold continued with the plan of attack and assaulted the fortifications with ladders. His force advanced over the first barrier under fire without hindrance because Captain Normand McLeod of the Emigrants had passed out from liquor while his men, without leadership and in confusion, fell back. The rebels occupied the surrounding houses for cover. After a short period they then made an assault on the second barrier.

The second barrier was held by the militia until Lieutenant George Lawe made a sortie out of the palace gate with 60 Highland Emigrants and cut off the rebels' rear. Captain John Nairne, with his detachment of Highland Emigrants, reinforced the militia at the second barrier, trapping the rebels between the two forces. Lieutenant Lawe then charged recklessly forward into the enemy only to find that he had charged alone. He had become separated in the heat of battle and was without support. He found himself in the middle of the rebels, alone, with sword in hand. The rebels were so surprised that they did nothing. Lawe, in a moment of desperation (or genius) told the rebels he was there to take their capitulation. This further confused the rebels. Lawe's men attacked moments later with cold steel and took the rebels prisoner.

Captain George MacDougall was sent with a party of Highland Emigrants to reinforce Lawe. This reinforced party took 47 prisoners and started to clear the houses occupied by the rebels. "The rebels were put into such a panic by the Highlanders that they threw down their arms and begged for mercy." Arnold escaped with two wounds in his backside. The major threat being over in the Upper Town with the destruction of Arnold's force, troops were dispatched to the Lower Town to oppose the threat there. Unbeknownst to the garrison's officers', the threat in the Lower Town already had been neutralized.

Captain Nairne and Lieutenant Dambourges and a small detachment of Highland Emigrants started clearing the houses held by rebels who refused to surrender. These "two gentlemen mounted ladders and took possession of a house with fixed bayonets." This was brave work indeed. Nairne was an old hand with arms, but Dambourges was not a soldier until a few weeks before!

When the smoke had cleared and the sun had risen, the count was 426 rebels taken, 42 wounded, and between 80 and 150 killed. The casualties to the Crown were extremely light, with five killed or dead of wounds and about five wounded. The men of the garrison received due praise by Governor Carleton and the men of the Royal Highland Emigrants were praised for behaving "like veterans".

Arnold and his rebels limped back to their lines and reinstated the siege. MacLean and Carleton comfortably took stock of the situation and decided to sit the rest of the winter out. When the ice cleared:

On the arrival of the Surprise frigate and the Issis Man of War the 6th May, early in the morning they landed 100 men of the 29th Regiment and 80 Marines, with these and 720 of the garrison, we marched out at 12 o'clock the same day, the General at one gate, and I at the other gate, all my regiment were relieved from the different guards in town by the militia, as we were the only King's soldiers that were to defend Quebec; and I do say that no troops could behave better than my young men, indeed the officers were all old tried experienced officers who had been long in the service, that no danger or difficulty could startle, or make them deviate from their duty and I am convinced General Carleton will do them justice. On marching out of town Captain Nairn of my regiment commanded the advance party, he in a moment seized upon and took two batteries the rebels had raised against the town, and in half an hour the General with his whole detachment was in possession of the Heights of Abraham, for the moment Captain Nairn marched on to attack the batteries the rebels after firing a few muskets ran away, and by the time we were formed upon the heights with our 900 men and four field pieces, the route of the rebels became general; tho they were 3,000 strong; many of them threw away their arms, the General when he went out, intended nothing more than to demolish their batteries, and did not mean to bring on any general engagement, but when we got a full view of the enemy it was then found that they ran away so fast that it was impossible to bring them to any engagement their two general were amongst the first fugitives and after a retreat was ordered, my regiment eat the dinner of the two generals found upon the table in good order, we took all their cannon, ammunition[,] artillery stores, provisions, baggage, and all their papers, thus never was a more complete victory, without the loss of a man, we took a good many prisoners, many of them sick; and it[']s very certain that this defeat, at the beginning of a campaign, is a glorious prospect for us and ruinous one for them...

Arnold hightailed south. The campaign was over. The effort to take Canada cost the Congress thousands of men's lives for naught. The cost to the Crown was approximately 100 killed. Because of the activities and bravery of the Royal Highland Emigrants and their experienced officers, Canada was preserved for the Crown.

When the rebels were driven off from Quebec in the spring of 1776, about 300 rebel prisoners were taken. All prisoners were given the opportunity to enlist in the Royal Highland Emigrants or face transportation to England to stand trial for treason. One hundred 111 of these misguided subjects chose to take the King's shilling and join the Royal Highland Emigrants (appendix). Most were Irishmen. Despite the early rash of desertions, most of the rebels who chose to stay with the Regiment served long and well. Some were promoted to positions of trust and responsibility.

Some of the "new recruits" soon deserted, taking their new arms and clothing with them. Most of these deserters were caught and punished. Two deserters, James Hogg and Thomas Walker, were caught and sentenced to enlistment for life on the coast of Africa. Another deserter, Drum Major John Basset, was sentenced to 500 lashes and reduction in rank to private. In 1781, deserter John Samuel Grimes was convicted of intent to desert and treason and was hung before the Regiment. Most of the recent recruits only chose to enlist in the hopes of escape. In February, 1776, 12 desertions were committed with two foiled attempts, both of which ended in leg irons. Some escapes were successful; most were not. Regimental dispatch:

Six of the reticent rebels again repenting left Colonel MacLean's corps: Two of them knocked down and disarmed a Canadian sentry and the six escaped over the wall behind the artillery barracks. This morning the remaining eighty four were shut up. It appears that they all intended to run away. We took them in arms, they are rebels still in appearance, yet if there is one among them who wishes not to return to the rebels it is hard on him to be confined -- but as we cannot read their hearts, Prudence says keep them close.

These deserters were chased down by the men of the Royal Highland Emigrants or were intercepted by the scouting parties of the 20th Regiment. Other attempts were made in the following months. July 31st, 1776: "A serjeant and 12 privates of Colonel MacLean's corps deserted, and it is apprehended they have got clean off, as the parties ordered out in pursuit of them are returned without getting the least intelligence of them." And on August 6th, 1776: "Late that night a canoe came down with two wounded men, one proved to be one of the deserters from Colonel MacLean's corps."

These deserters ran into a scouting party from the 20th Regiment, which was on advance picket duty on the frontier:

Lieutenant Norman [20th Regiment] returned with his party and brought in the remaining 10 of the deserters. They had been in the rebel service and taken prisoner some time before and at their own request had been admitted into the King's service, and ordered to join Colonel MacLean's corps. They were sent down to St. John's under a strong guard, 11 only had deserted.

General orders, Lieutenant General Burgoyne, August 9th, 1776, stated:

It cannot but give general satisfaction to the army to know, that the whole gang of deserters from Colonel MacLean's Regiment who sought to redeem their perfidy to the rebels, in whose cause they were once before engaged, by becoming a second time traitors to their King, and lawful state, have been taken by our outposts and they are all in close custody, excepting one who received too honourable a death from the firelock of one of his guard, whom he attempted to murder after he was his prisoner... Pursuit has been truly exemplary... [1] dollar to be given to each man of the party in consideration of the activity perseverance and spirit.

These deserters "volunteered" to serve in Africa for life. Had they chosen the option of being court martialed, they most likely would have been hung as an example to prevent more desertions.

In March of 1777, because of so many desertions, Governor Carleton ordered the "new recruits" to be "disarmed and disuniformed" and to be sent to the holds of the ships in the harbor. Because of the desertions and his personal dislike for MacLean. Burgoyne decided that the Royal Highland Emigrants could not be trusted to field with his invasion force mustering for the attack south. The Royal Highland Emigrants were relegated to logistics and frontier duty, a duty the men and veteran officers were well trained and experienced to perform.





1. There are numerous surviving journals and dairies of the siege of Quebec from British perspective. Some of the more interesting ones have been printed: "Major Charles Preston's Journal", Reports of the Canadian Archives, 1914. Canada Preserved: The Journal of Captain Thomas Ainslie, edited by Sheldon S. Cohen. "Journal of the Most Remarkable Occurrences in Quebec, by an Officer of the Garrison", Collections of the New York Historical Society, 1880. "Quebec Under Siege, 1775-76: The "Memorandums" of Jacob Danford", The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (March, 1969) by John F. Roche. In addition: The "Highland Emigrants" and their Comrades Being an Account of the Siege of Quebec, Canada, in 1775-1776. Complied by Captain R. E.. Key, York and Lancaster Regiment, N.A.C. F5052 K44. For Regimental documents, see the Fraser Papers (MG23) in the National Archives of Canada as well as W.O. 28.

2. A great deal of American journals and dairies have survived. Some written during the campaign but most as remembrances. The reader is directed to the book: March to Quebec: Journals of the members of Arnold's Expedition, Including the Lost Journal of John Pierce, compiled and annotated by Kenneth Roberts, published by Doubleday and Company in 1946. This is a fine selection of the better works (with notes) totaling 17 points of view.