Episode 015

Benedict Arnold in Quebec – Part II

Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery make their assault on the fortified city of Quebec in December of 1775. Indecision and poor leadership from Arnold's forces will cost them the battle.

At the end of our last episode Arnold, on December 2, complete with his honor guard had transferred command of his ragged, underfed, and exhausted 600 men to Brigadier General Montgomery who had arrived from Montreal.

Arnold’s men were instantly taken with Montgomery, a solider by the name of John Joseph Henry described him as “noticeably pock-marked, but well limbed, tall and handsome, with an air and manner that designated the real soldier”. Montgomery was further described as having “a bright magnetic face, and winning manner”. His air of command, while not inviting familiarity, was pleasant yet forceful. Montgomery shared the same feelings for the men under Arnold’s command. In a letter who wrote to Phillip Schuyler (who was still technically in command of the American forces in Canada) he wrote

“I find Colonel Arnold’s corp an exceeding fine one, inured to fatigue…there is a style among them much superior to what I have used to see in this campaign”

Perhaps one of the reasons the men liked Montgomery so much is because he brought many things that the troops needed. There were over 300 more men added to the ranks, a supply of ammunition, clothing, and provisions, as well as much needed artillery. The biggest morale builder was by far the clothing, much needed by Arnold’s ragged, half-shod men. Montgomery distributed winter uniforms that he captured from the 7th and 26th British regiments – long white overcoats, heavy leggings, moccasins, and cloth caps with fur tails.

However, Montgomery and Arnold were not in Canada for a fashion show. They wasted no time in returning to Quebec with a reorganized and resupplied force. They took up siege, with Arnold positioned on the north in the St. Roche suburbs that had been burned by the Canadian forces as a defensive measure. Montgomery held the plains between St. Roche and Cape Diamond. Montgomery then sent a personal letter to British General Guy Carleton, with a standard surrender demand. This time he used a woman a messenger, hoping that 1: she would not be shot at like Arnold’s previous two messengers and 2: that Carleton would actually greet her and read the letter. It didn’t work. Ten days later Montgomery tried again, with the same result.

Montgomery wasn’t relying on the forces inside Quebec to surrender, he was busy getting his artillery batteries into position. On the night of December 10th, his biggest battery was setup 700 yards from the walls. The men were unable to entrech, the ground was frozen solid, so gabions were filled with snow. A gabion is typically some type of box or cylinder that’s filled with rocks or sand & soil, or in this case, snow. The soaked the snow with water, which froze them into solid walls of ice. Montgomery’s artillery had a good position, but they were six and twelve pound guns and unable to have a large effect on the walls. A Quebec citizen commented that the rounds had no more effect “than peas would have against a plank”

Montgomery evaluated his situation. He had no effective siege artillery, so he couldn’t breach the walls that way. The ground was frozen so he couldn’t dig siege trenches. Arnold’s men’s enlistment was done at the end of December and they currently made up the bulk of his fighting force. Resupply from the colonies was not coming, and he couldn’t use his paper Continental money in Canada, it was worthless. He also couldn’t dig in and wait for spring, that would allow the St. Lawrence to fully thaw and usher in British reinforcements.

Montgomery was a realist and knew that taking Quebec by siege would be a longshot. As early as November 4th he had written Schuyler of his intention to attack Lower Town, which was less defended than Upper Town. He made the decision that his objective would now be Lower Town and began to make plans to that effect.

Montgomery and Arnold decided to wait for a dark night with snow, which would give his small force of less than a thousand men better odds and storming the city. The night of December 27th was perfect, but while the Americans were moving to the assembly areas the sky cleared and moon came out. Montgomery called off the attack, and received more bad news. A man by the name of Stephen Singleton, a sergeant from Rhode Island had deserted and almost surely carried the plan of attack to the British.

Montgomery was forced to revise his method of attack, but he kept Lower Town as his objective. He added two feints against the western walls. His new plan also called for two converging attacks on Lower Town. Arnold would approach from the north through the suburbs of St Roche and smash through the barriers at the north end of Lower Town, he and Montgomery were to link up in or near the street called Sault au Matelot. Montgomery’s attack would move along the shoreline of the St Lawrence River, pass Cape Diamond and break into Lower Town, from there he would push towards Sault au Matelot to meet with Arnold. Once joined they would make a combined attack against Upper Town, which was less defended from this angle of approach. The two feints would be against St. John’s gate and the Cape Diamond bastion. Montgomery shared his plan with his senior officers and settled in to wait for a black night with a snowstorm to cover his approach. That night was not long in coming…

Inside the city, Carleton knew that Lower Town was Quebec’s most vulnerable spot. He blocked Sault au Matelot with two formidable log barricades covered by cannon. He erected palisades in the south along the Saint Lawrence shoreline. Carleton had assigned his forces defensive positions along the walls and inner defenses, using to best advantage his 1,800 men.

2:00 am, Sunday Morning, December 31st. The last day of 1775. A thick blowing snow was falling and the night was very dark. The American forces began moving to their assembly areas. In St. Roche, Benedict Arnold stood in a shed under lantern light, waiting with his Captain Oswald as he checked off the units that were reporting in. In the south Richard Montgomery finished a letter to his wife Janet, stating:

“I wish it were well over with all my heart, and I sigh for home like a New Englander”.

It would be the last letter he ever wrote to her…

Montgomery put on his outer coat and stepped out into the night to take command of his 300 men assembling on the Plains of Abraham.

As Montgomery stood in that still, cold night he caught sight of the signal rockets fired by Captain Jacob Brown to signal the launching of his feint attack against the Cape Diamond bastion. He set out to meet up with his men, followed by his three aides: Macpherson, Cheeseman, and Burr. Behind them was Montgomery’s second in command, Colonel Donald Campbell. As the men walked they could hear the alarm bells in the city, alerted by Brown’s rockets.

Montgomery and his men marched a treacherous two miles in the dark along the river. The river was frozen and had piled heaps of ice slabs against the shoreline that forced the men already marching single file to detour up against the rocky cliff. As they passed Cape Diamond they finally began to make out the outer palisade. It was undefended and Montgomery sent his carpenters with the advance party to remove it. They quickly sawed down four posts, Montgomery was the first through the opening followed by his aides. They came around a curve to the second palisade, also undefended, he took a saw and he himself cut through the first two posts. He and only fifty of his 300 men slipped through the opening and made their way up the narrow street. As they moved up the street he could make out the dim outline of a two-story building about a hundred paces ahead. There were no guards or sentries visible and given that the first two palisades were undefended, he made the assumption that this two was undefended. He waved his storming party forward, drew his sword, and strode ahead for about 50 paces, he then burst into a run with the others close at his heels. In the darkness of that night, a blinding yellow flash burst from in front of the building and the grapeshot from that cannon killed Montgomery instantly shooting him through the head. He lay on his back in the snow, one arm still extended, a dozen men dead behind his body. The small storming party had been almost wiped out; only Aaron Burr and a few others managed to escape unharmed.

Colonel Campbell, now in command, convened with his officers who “justified his receding from the attack” The column turned around, leaving the bodies of Montgomery and others. It retraced it’s grim path through the storm back to the Plains of Abraham. No word of Montgomery’s death or the subsequent retreat would reach Arnold until after the battle.

At St. Roche, Arnold, clutching a musket, led his column of in single file at 4:00am. His advance guard consisted of 25 men; following them came Captain John Lamb with forty artillerymen dragging a six pound gun on a sled. Next came three rifle companies led by Cpt. Morgan, Lt. Steele, and Cpt. Hendricks. The main body of the force followed, made up of New England musketmen, followed by a mixed unit of forty Canadians and Native Americans. Arnold’s plan called for Lamb’s cannon to attack the first barricade and then send the riflemen in to flank the barricade on both sides.

Also unknown to Arnold at this point was the status of the two feints. The feint against St. John’s gate was a fiasco, with Colonel Livingston and his men retreating as soon as they were fired at. The Cape Diamond bastion feint fared better, as they maintained back and forth fire. However, Carleton was not fooled and the return fire at Cape Diamond was mainly just to keep the American forces occupied.

Arnold and his 600 men kept moving, parallel to the north wall, and were able to pass the Palace gate undetected. However, when the advance party came into view of a row of buildings beyond the battery a fierce musket volley rang out and caused several casualties. Arnold had no way to return fire, so he pushed on towards his objective, taking no time to attend to the casualties. The motto “Let the dead bury the dead” had been in place since the start of the attack. He and his men ran the gauntlet of musket fire for 600 yards.

Arnold and his advance party finally arrived at the first barricade, which also unknown to him, was lightly defended. The two sides began to exchange musket fire. Arnold ordered the men to stop wasting ammunition shooting at the barricade and to assault it. The cannon, which he had planned to use in this assault, was left behind when the men had to dash through the musket fire. Arnold decided to lead the assault himself. As he was rallying his men and shouting commands a ricocheting bullet struck his left leg below the knee, torn along the leg bone and lodged itself in his Achilles tendon.

He tried to prop himself up, using his musket as a crutch and continue to order his men forward, however when they saw him wounded they held back. Arnold was carried to the rear, Morgan came up and though he was only a Captain, the field officers turned command over to him.

Morgan shouted for a ladder to assault the barricade just as a battery opened up on him. The first two volleys were ineffective and Morgan began to lead his men up the ladder, he was almost over when a blast from a defender’s musket hit the ladder and blew him backwards. A bullet went through his cap, another grazed his cheek, and his beard was singed by powder grains off the rounds. Morgan hopped back to his feet and back up onto another ladder, he flung himself over the top of the barricade, tumbled to the ground, rolled under the muzzle of a British cannon to dodge the defenders bayonets and was saved only by his men who had swarmed over the wall behind him. The defenders ran into a house and Morgan demanded their surrender. He accepted the surrender from their Captain, Captain McCloud.

Morgan and his riflemen pressed on and made it to Sault at Matelot. Two hundred yards down the street they could see the second barricade and the cannon platforms behind it. They could also see that the sally port, or the door, of the barricade was standing open. The barricade was undefended as was the street.

It’s here that we see Morgan make his first mistake. He called a war council, He was for pushing forward, but his officers counseled against it. Later he would recall “Here I was overruled by sound judgement and good reasoning”. For one thing, his orders specified that he was to wait on Montgomery, he had also just taken 150 prisoners. He couldn’t take them with him as they outnumbered his riflemen, he couldn’t release as they could fall behind him and cut off his retreat. He concluded that Montgomery and the main body must be close behind, and when they all joined forces they could take Upper Town. So Morgan hesitated and gave in to the war council, he stated later “I gave up my own opinion, and lost the town”. He had unknowingly given Carleton, who knew of Montgomery’s fate the time to dispatch more forces to stop the Americans at the second barricade.

Morgan went back to find the main body of his forces, he found Lt. Colonel Greene and Major Meigs with 200 men. Morgan led them forward to the second barricade and now decided to push forward. Meanwhile, one of British Colonel Caldwell’s officers was massing a detachment behind the second barricade and preparing to sally out and pin down the American forces. That officer, Lt. Anderson stepped out from the gate and called on the Americans to surrender. Morgan took a rifle and shot Anderson through the head. There was a brief pause…almost a shock…then the fiercest firefight of the battle broke out, As Morgan’s men exchanged volleys with the British, others packed down mounds of snow to which they could set ladders on. Morgan and his best leaders tried to scale the barrier but were forced back.

Riflemen broke into the lower story of a stone house where they could fire on the defenders. Caldwell saw the tactical importance of the house and ordered a detachment to use a captured ladder and scale to the second floor of the house and flush the Americans out with bayonets. The fire from the defending forces was at such an intensity that Morgan and his forces were simply getting slaughtered.

Morgan ordered his men to take cover in nearby houses while he conferred with his senior officers. Morgan argued for continuing the fight but there was a consensus from the officers to retreat immediately. However, there fate was being sealed. Carleton had ordered Cpt. Laws with 200 men and two field pieces to move down from the Palace Gate and cut off the American rear. At a final hasty conference with his senior officers, Morgan urged his commanders to try and cut his way through Laws’ men. He had learned of the men, because Laws had managed to get himself captured. However the majority of Morgan’s officers believed that Montgomery would be there soon to relieve them.

It was now after 9:00AM, Laws’ men had gotten a nine pound cannon in position to sweep the street or batter down house walls. While the American officers continued to debate, men began to give up, holding their musket butts out of doors and windows in a sign of surrender. Eventually Lt. Col. Greene made a formal offer of surrender and it was accepted. The Americans were routed out of houses and lined up to be marched away as prisoners.

But not Dan Morgan. His back to a house front, tears of rage and frustration streaming down his face, he defied his enemies. The British were calling on him to hand over his sword of be shot, his own men were begging him to give up before he was killed. Morgan finally spotted a man in black among the citizens of Quebec who had started to watch the scene. When Morgan was assured that the man was indeed a priest, he said “I give my sword to you. But not a scoundrel of these cowards shall take it out of my hands!”

All told, the battle on Sault au Matelot lasted around 3 hours. The Americans lost 60 men and had 426 captured out of around 900. The British lost only 5 men killed and 13 wounded out of 1,800

It’s easy to play the “what if” game with Quebec. What if Montgomery had not been killed? What if Arnold had not been injured? What if Morgan had acted on his own accord vs. bending his will to that of his officers? — it’s easy and often fun to speculate, but in reality, the loss of this battle removed all hope for the Americans in Canada to take Quebec by force. While there would be a presence near the city, mostly led by Arnold for many months following the battle, the Americans finally gave up and in July of 1776 returned to American soil, officially ending the Canadian campaign.

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