Defeat on New Year’s Eve: The Battle of Quebec, 1775

With 1776 lurking, snow fell over the invading soldiers on New Year’s Eve. They were hundreds of miles from home and in some cases, very ill-equipped for the harsh winter conditions. That night, they would attack a heavily fortified city under the cover a blizzard, a city which had successfully withstood siege many times over the last 100 years. Their stated rationale for laying siege and attacking a foreign city: spread revolution and liberate the inhabitants from tyranny.

In practice though, the revolutionary furor of the soldiers was starting to dim. In two days’ time, many of their enlistments would expire and they could return home. This is why their commanders picked this particular blizzard, in the very early hours of New Year’s Eve, to strike. The American invasion of Canada — 1775 edition — was about to reach its climax.

The First Continental Congress

When we talk about the “13 Colonies”, what we are really saying is “The 13 British Colonies who successfully rebelled against Great Britain.”  In 1774, the First Continental Congress, which was made up of delegates from New Hampshire through South Carolina, tried to recruit other British colonies to the cause (in this case, a boycott of British goods and membership in a second Continental Congress, to be held the next year).

Messages were sent to Georgia, East Florida, West Florida, Nova Scotia, St. John’s Island (the province presently known as Prince Edward’s Island), and Quebec.  Nova Scotia and Georgia had been part of the British Empire for decades (since 1710 and 1732 respectively), but the rest were the spoils of the Seven Years War, aka the French and Indian War, which Great Britain had been awarded from France and Spain. Georgia would join the revolutionary cause of its own free will, but the controlling interests in the Floridas, St. John’s Island, and Nova Scotia, would prove loyal to the Crown. Quebec, with its subjugated French-Canadian majority and new British minority, would prove to be colony the Continentals focused their strongest efforts on.


In the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, the Continentals were making up their rebellion as it went along. Within days of the outbreak of war, Benedict Arnold, a successful and ambitious Connecticut merchant, proposed an attack to the north on Fort Ticonderoga to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Ticonderoga served as the guardian of the Lake Champlain corridor and, during the Seven Years War, had been the site of a bloody defeat of a British-New England Army.  In 1775, it was lightly defended, yet home to a large supply of powerful artillery.

At the end of April, 1775, Arnold got Massachusetts’ backing to seize Ticonderoga. At the same time, Connecticut put together funding for a similar expedition.  They found their military champion in Ethan Allen, a renegade property speculator in the area known at the time as the Hampshire Grants (present-day Vermont).  Allen was gathering an force of his Green Mountain Boys when Arnold arrived.  They agreed to lead a join expedition to the fort that captured the fort without bloodshed.

Upon capturing Ticonderoga and the neighboring Crown Point, Allen and Arnold then raced up Lake Champlain toward the Quebec border, looking for additional guns and glory. Arnold put his seaborne merchant background to good use and raced ahead to capture and sink the British warships on the lake.  He retreated immediately as reinforcements were on the way from Montreal.

The Second Continental Congress

Meeting once more in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress set about creating a national army for the rebelling colonies. George Washington was made commander-in-chief and a number of major and brigadier generals were also commissioned. The attention of the new army focused on the Siege of Boston, and the British forces in Canada remained a concern.

Philip Schuyler

Philip Schuyler

Congress also created a Northern Department of the Continental Army to safeguard the New York border and the newly commissioned Major General Philip Schuyler was the overall commander. Schuyler, one of the wealthiest landowners in New York,  was not an accomplished soldier and owed his appoint more to his political connections and social standing. However, he had a very capable second-in-command, Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. Montgomery had served with distinction in the Seven Years War, but had fallen out of favor in the military over his sympathies with Parliamentary opposition parties (which happened to favor the colonies). He had settled in New York at the end of his military career, but the outbreak of war lead him to take up arms for his adopted country.

In the meantime, Guy Carleton, the governor of Quebec, was trying to make the best of a tenuous situation: holding the entire province of Quebec with a small number of soldiers. He tried to remedy the situation by negotiating with the Six Iroquois Nations, hoping to win them as allies or keep them neutral. This, coupled with reports that the British were scouting the borderlands for possible invasion routes, led Congress to authorize Major General Philip Schuyler to invade Quebec if he thought it in the colonies’ best interests.

The invasion begins, in New York


Diagram of Fort Saint Jean

Schuyler, who owed his high rank more to his wealth and social standing (he was a descendant of the Dutch patroons who had settled New York when it was New Amsterdam), did not take immediate action. When he left to attend a conference with the Iroquois leadership (the six Nations were playing both sides of the game and would ultimately split their allegiance), Montgomery took the opportunity to lead the army, 1000 strong, north to Fort Saint Jean. For better or worse, Montgomery would be in command for the rest of the invasion.

Fort Saint Jean was a tough nut to crack. Commanding the entrance to the Richelieu River, the Continentals would need to capture the fort before advancing on to Montreal and the St. Lawrence River. Despite having outnumbering the garrison, which was made up of only 200 British regulars, Montgomery did not want to waste valuable man power in a bloody attack.  For seven weeks, the Continentals starved and bombarded the garrison. General Schuyler suffered an attack of gout and returned home to New York.

Ethan Allen lost patience with the slow pace of siege warfare. With a small group of New Englanders, he marched north to Montreal to recruit Canadians for the war effort. He successfully gathered around 80 French Canadians volunteers into his small band, but he blundered into attacking Montreal after hearing rumors it was lightly defended. Allen crossed the Saint Lawrence River to attack Montreal and found his intelligence was wrong. He was heavily outnumbered by Guy Carleton and his better armed and trained soldiers. After a short battle, Allen’s men were routed, and the Vermont folk hero was captured and shipped off to London in chains.

The invasion begins, Massachusetts Edition

Allen’s partner in capturing Ticonderoga, Benedict Arnold, had returned to Boston. He proposed to George Washington a different plan for invading Quebec: he would take an army north from Boston, through the wilds of what is now Maine, and arrive on Saint Lawrence River just outside Quebec City, the stronghold that was the key to the province. Washington agreed to the plan and Arnold set about gathering men and material. Over a thousand Continentals volunteered for the expedition, including Daniel Morgan, a charismatic frontiersman from Virginia who lead an elite group of riflemen; future Vice President Aaron Burr; and Henry Dearborn, a future Secretary of War. They set sail from the Massachusetts port of Newburyport on Sept. 11, bound for Fort Western (present day Augusta, Maine). Arnold believed they would be at the gates of Quebec City by early October.

Arnold, a native of Connecticut, had a little knowledge of what lay in store for him and his men.  The region of Maine he planned to march through had no roads and only dangerous, often-flooded rivers. Instead of lasting the projected 3 weeks, the march to Quebec lasted a punishing two and a half months. They battled snow, floods, river rapids, widespread desertion, and disease. Food was scarce; Henry Dearborn is reputed to have killed his dog for food. When the expedition finally reached the Saint Lawrence, they only had roughly half the force they had started with. They were in no shape to attack the mighty citadel of Quebec, so they waited along the Saint Lawrence for Montgomery to arrive.

Montgomery captures Fort Saint Jean and Montreal

Montgomery’s army bombarded Fort Saint Jean for seven weeks. Finally, with their fort in ruins, the garrison agreed to surrender. The Continentals had wasted valuable time, however, and they would have to face the Canadian winter.

Carleton abandoned Montreal without a fight and headed back to Quebec City with his gunboat fleet. Montgomery intercepted the fleet and placed cannon at a strategic bend in the river. The ships surrendered and Carleton fled in disguise, losing even more of his small force.

The reaction of the Canadian citizens was not what the Continentals had hoped for. Two small Continental regiments of Canadians were ultimately created, but the majority of the citizens did not actively support the invaders. Many French Canadians did not trust their neighbors to the south; New Englanders, in particular, were outspoken in their hardline anti-Catholic views. The Continental Congress sent a delegation to Montreal that included Benjamin Franklin, who was guilty of Catholic-baiting during his career as a newspaper publisher, and John Carroll, a Jesuit priest who later founded Georgetown University. The delegates were not particularly successful and the pro-British Bishop of Quebec excommunicated Carroll (the Knights of Columbus were able to get this lifted a few years ago).

Quebec Under Siege

Death of Montcalm

The fate of Montcalm

Montgomery and Arnold joined forces outside Quebec City in early December. Even with a small garrison, Quebec was one of the most formidable fortresses in the world at the time. Sitting on cliffs above the Saint Lawrence River,  it had only fallen to the British in 1759 when the Louis Montcalm, the French commander, had left the safety of the city walls to do in the open battle on the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm had paid for his mistake with his life. Carleton had fought in that battle and he was not about to repeat Montcalm’s mistakes.   He scorned Montgomery’s offers to surrender, shooting at any male messengers who approached the city and burning the messages brought by females. He knew that he had only had to wait until spring, when the Saint Lawrence river would melt and reinforcements would arrive from Great Britain. To bolster his garrison, he drafted every able bodied man in the city and expelled everyone who refused to serve out into the wintry countryside.

The Continentals were in a tough spot, lacking the artillery and equipment that would let them bombard Quebec into submission like they had at Fort Saint Jean. Their only hope for victory would be to carry Quebec by force, before spring arrived and brought British reinforcements with it.

The Continentals faced another more immediate deadline: Many of their soldiers had only enlisted through Dec. 31. If they were not masters of Quebec before Jan. 1, many of the men might begin the long journey home.

Montgomery and Arnold launched an ambitious plan to attack the city. Carleton had posted many of soldiers along the landward walls, so the Continentals would sneak along the river side and attack up the cliffs. In the meantime, the two Canadian regiments would launch decoy attacks on the main city gates. To better ensure surprise, they would wait until they had a blizzard to cover their movements.  On the night of Dec. 30, snow began to fall.  The Continentals would attack in the early morning hours of New Years Eve, 1775.

New Year’s Eve, The Battle of Quebec, 1775

Montgomery and his force attacked the city from the west. As they made their way along a path toward the city’s water front, they encountered a large wooden palisade. Montgomery, who had led such attacks in the past, took a party of men to clear the barrier. Behind the palisade, members of Quebec’s militia loaded a cannon. Instead of using a normal cannon ball, they loaded it with a type of ammunition known as grapeshot, which upon firing would send out a deadly cloud of shrapnel.  At the last possible moment, one of the defenders, an exiled Bostonian named John Coffin, lit the fuse. The cannon blast killed Montgomery and almost all his advance party. Aaron Burr, who had left Arnold’s group, was one of the only survivors. Without their leader, Montgomery’s officers lost their nerve and ordered a retreat, despite the fact that the palisade in front of them was now abandoned.

Arnold and his soldiers attacked from the East simultaneously. As they they forced their way toward the city’s riverfront, Arnold was struck in the ankle by a bullet. He was carried from the battle field and Daniel Morgan assumed command. Morgan, like Montgomery, led his men from the front. As Arnold was carried away, he led rallied his riflemen around him and charged into a hail of musket fire. Using ladders, they climbed over the barricade and drove off the defenders.

Once inside the city, the Continentals found that Carleton was well prepared for the defense. Across the narrow street was another barricade that was rapidly being reinforced. By this time, the British were swarming toward them. They had realized that the Canadians attacks on the north side were a distraction and Montgomery’s forces were in full retreat, allowing them to focus all forces on the area. The first British officer on the scene led his solders out and demanded the Continentals’ surrender. Morgan promptly shot him through the head and ordered his men to attack.

The second barricade proved too difficult to scale. Backed by cannons firing grapeshot and reinforcements firing from the rooftops, the British turned the street into a kill zone and the Continentals broke into nearby buildings to seek shelter. Morgan began to give orders to retreat.

Henry Dearborn was in charge of the rear guard, but he and his men got lost in the unfamiliar city. A group of unfamiliar soldiers approached them and, due to their winter clothing, it was unclear which side they belonged to; Dearborn realized too late they were British. He gave the order to open fire but the men were horrified to discover that most of their powder had gotten wet in the snow. The rear guard was soon forced to surrender. Morgan and the remaining Continentals were surrounded.

Out of all the Continentals, Morgan may have had the strongest hatred for the British. During the French and Indian War, he worked as a wagon driver during a disastrous attack on the French Fort Dusquene (present day Pittsburgh) where he got into an argument with a British officer that quickly got out of hand. The officer hit Morgan over the head with the flat of his sword and Morgan responded by punching his lights out. Morgan was sentenced to receive 500 lashes on the bare back, a punishment that killed most men.

So in Quebec, fueled by rage, Morgan drew his sword and challenged the British to take it from him.  They responded that they would shoot him first. Morgan’s fellow officers were able to convince him to give up, but he would not give a British officer the satisfaction. He saw a French priest in the crowd and surrendered to him. By mid-morning, the revolutionary Battle of Quebec was over and the Continental dream of capturing Canada was in ruins.


With one commander dead, another in the hospital, and half their force captured, the Contintental army at Quebec was could not hope to capture the city. Guy Carleton was content to wait for spring, when, as expected, massive reinforcements arrived, under the command of General John Burgoyne.  By that time, the congressional delegation had departed, having realized the Canadians would by staying loyal to Great Britain. Later in the war, small attacks would be launched on Nova Scotia and Florida, but the Continental Army would never attempt anything on the scale of the 1775 invasion.

Daniel Morgan, Henry Dearborn and the surviving prisoners of war would be released in 1777. Morgan and Dearborn reunited with Benedict Arnold to help win a major victory at the Battle of Saratoga. During the War of 1812, Henry Dearborn, now a major general in the United States Army, would try to lead another invasion of Canada, but it would prove even less successful.

Image: The Death of General Montgomery in the Battle of Quebec, 1775