Revolutionary War Historical Article
By James Frassett
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from Vol.3 Issue 6 of the Lock Stock and Barrel Living History Newsletter and Event Calendar, 2001
The "Epic March" up the Kennebec and Chaudiere Rivers being completed at a tremendous cost in men, energy and supplies, the American expedition to take Quebec crossed the St. Lawrence River on November 13, 1775.
Earlier on October 10th when Daniel Morgan's advance company had reached the Dead River, Benedict Arnold, commanding officer of the expedition, made a serious if not fatal decision. Arnold sent two Indians with information concerning the expedition to Canada. The Indians carried correspondence for General Schuyler still thought to be in command of the American force moving towards Quebec from Montreal and the other for Mr. Mercier, a gentleman in Quebec, favorable to the American cause. This correspondence contained in letter form, information concerning the progress of Arnold's expedition and probable dates for arrival at Quebec. It is clear that neither of these letters reached their destination and most likely ended up in the hands of Lieutenant Governor Cramahe' s hands, who was then commanding the garrison at Quebec in Sir Guy Carleton's absence. This lack of character analysis is the first and perhaps the most questionable of Arnold's decisions. It undermined the entire expedition, which was taken to invoke the element of surprise, and literally drew a blueprint of the intentions of the Americans.
Approximately 40 small boats and canoes were assembled and the crossing proceeded under cover of darkness. The crossing itself was dangerous as British frigates and gunboats lay at anchor in the river and any detection of the American movement would have been cause enough to blow them out of the water. The boats made two crossings undetected, each convoy bringing approximately 160 men. On the third crossing, as the men were disembarking on the shore a British guard-boat discovered the Americans and gunfire erupted from both sides. The British lost three men before rowing off.
Arnold, arriving in the second convoy, had sent Lieutenant Heth and Morgan to scout out the fortifications and Morgan returned to report that the enemy was not aware of the Americans crossing and that the city was wide open and ready to be taken. Morgan argued for an immediate advance on the city at an officers meeting. He received no endorsement for attack from any of the ranking officers as they were convinced that the letters sent by Arnold had alerted the garrison and they were ready to repel any attack. Arnold wanted to wait for Schuyler's reinforcements. While the argument waged the guardboat incident erupted and any thought of surprise was thrown out of the meeting. The truth of the matter was that the garrison at Quebec did not know for several additional hours after the guard-boat incident that the Americans had crossed the river and in fact the gates to the city had been left open and unguarded throughout the night.
This then was the second in a series of questionable decisions made by Benedict Arnold. This important and perhaps catastrophic decision not to listen to Morgan's plan was based upon his earlier decision to blueprint his position and intentions which had fallen into the enemy's hands.
The garrison at Quebec had indeed been given notice of an impending attack upon their forces and had immediately begun to make preparations. Col. McLean and 170 men stationed at the Sorel moved to Quebec to protect the city. On November 5th a vessel from Newfoundland arrived in Quebec and the men, mostly carpenters, began work repairing the defenses of the city and repairing the platforms for the cannons. A frigate and two sloops were stationed in positions to guard the city against any attack from the river. Between four hundred and five hundred of the ships crew were landed and taken into the city to man the defenses. The residents were asked to help defend the city but only one hundred and seventy English and Scottish citizens responded. The Canadians, who were hoping to be liberated by the Americans, took up arms only after the British threatened them with expulsion from the city should they refuse to help with the defenses.
The next morning Arnold received word that Col. McLean was preparing an attack on the American forces. When the attack failed to materialize, Arnold decided to approach the town in the hopes of inviting a conflict. As Arnold's forces approached, hundreds of inhabitants lining the parapets let out a loud huzza, which the Americans returned. Cramahe had no intention of meeting Arnold the way Montcalm had met Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, and promptly discharged a volley from his cannons prompting Arnold to retreat.
Arnold sent a letter with an officer and a flag of truce summoning Cramahe to surrender the town, but the officer was fired upon as he approached. Morgan was angry. He now knew that an attack on the previous evening would have given the Americans the town and he could not see how parading the army in front of the walls of Quebec could possibly be beneficial. He and Arnold had a serious altercation in which it is recorded that he almost struck Arnold. Another flag calling for surrender was sent the following day with the same results.
From the 15th of November until the 18th the Americans went about performing siege duties and checking on equipment. Nearly one-fourth of the rifles and muskets were unserviceable. Powder had been so ruined during the expedition that each man had only enough for five rounds. Many of the men had come down with sickness and the problem was growing. Clothing was deficient and the Canadian winter was about to set in.
On the 18th, news of Montgomery's victory at Montreal arrived. This exciting news was tainted by the news that Sir Guy Carleton had escaped with 200 soldiers and was headed for Quebec. Rumors had it that Cramahe was preparing for an attack on the American forces, so Arnold ordered the men to Point aux Trembles for defensive purposes.
The men spent the next 10 days in relatively good quarters with plenty of provisions. On the first of December, Montgomery arrived with his victorious army of only 300 men and three schooners laden with artillery. General Montgomery addressed the troops with a passionate speech and the following morning Morgan's men were ordered to march towards Quebec with the main body of the army to follow on the next day.
Snow had fallen daily during the previous week but Morgan's men mad good time and surprised and captured some of the enemy's pickets. Montgomery and the main body of 975 men arrived on Dec. 5th. A summons to surrender was again sent and it to received the same results. A few days later, vessels laden with clothing and supplies arrived and the troops were supplied with winter clothing.
The army was broken into three segments. On the right, Montgomery and his victorious Montreal troops. In the center was Arnold with the New England infantry and on the left Morgan's riflemen. On the morning of December 17th, Captain Lamb constructed a battery of snow consisting of five ninepounders and one howitzer but was quickly driven off by the larger guns of the enemy. Morgan's riflemen skirmished every day and it became common knowledge that if you showed your head within gunshot range of Morgan's men you ended up either wounded or dead.
The freezing weather began to take its toll on the Americans. Smallpox broke out among the men and spread quickly. Many looked forward to January when their terms of enlistment were up while others looked with composure at death as perhaps their only way out of their agony. The patriotism of 1775 was being swallowed up in the incredible hardships of the Canadian winter.
After a council of war was convened, Arnold, Montgomery and Morgan decided that an assault on the city was essential. The plan was to use the cover of darkness and the first snowstorm. Two light divisions were to feign an assault on the upper part of the town while the main body attacked the lower section of the city.
The first snowstorm occurred on the night of December 30th. At 5:00 AM on the morning of the 31st Colonel Livingston and 160 Canadians along with Major Brown and a small detachment of Massachusetts's troops began the action against the upper section of the city. The upper part of the city was so unprepared for an attack against the strongest fortifications that Quebec had to offer, that they failed to garnish even the slightest resistance from the defenders.
The main body of the army was divided into two battalions. The first battalion included Major Lamb's artillery with one cannon mounted on a sled, a storming party of thirty men under the command of Major Ogden, and the rifle companies under Daniel Morgan. The riflemen were issued scaling ladders and each man carried a spontoon in addition to his rifle. The second battalion was made up of New England infantry under the command of Colonel Green and Major Meigs.
Arnold was to advance along the St. Charles river and assault the barriers at the northern and western extremities of the lower town. Montgomery, with four battalions of New York troops, and a part of Colonel Easton's regiment, formed on the plains near the St. Lawrence and was set to attack the strong defenses around the base of Cape Diamond. Accompanying Montgomery in the storming party was Captain Cheeseman, Major McPherson, and Aaron Burr.
Arnold's division moved forward along the road towards the Palace Gate, when the garrison became aware of their danger. The town bells began to ring the alarm and a furious cannonade opened from the city walls at the assailants. Had it not been for the darkness of the night and the furious snowstorm the fire from the batteries would have annihilated Arnold's division.
Arnold reached the first barrier and was met with a furious charge of musketry. Instead of rushing the barrier the men began to return a useless fusillade. Before Arnold could muster the troops to charge he was wounded in the leg by a musket ball shattering the bone.
Morgan who had been moving to the front, upon the urging of the field officers, took command of the American assault. Morgan raised his voice above the roar of battle and ordered his riflemen to the front. His men cheered the order and without delay stormed over the barrier, driving the enemy into retreat.
A short distance from the first barrier was a second, flanked on both sides by houses and on which were mounted two 12 pounders. As Morgan's men approached the guns opened up on them with grapeshot and cannister. The first gun was elevated to high and was of no consequence, the second failed to fire. Morgan's men reached the barrier and planted their ladders. Morgan was the first one over the top and was shouting to his men, "Now, boys, follow me!" As Morgan's head ascended over the barrier a volley of muskets was fired at him. The volley was so close to his head that the burning powder scorched his hair and grains of powder were imbedded in his face. The concussion of the volley was so great that it knocked him off of the ladder down into the snow below. The assault began to wane as the soldiers thought Morgan was dead, but Morgan was instantly on his feet and again ascended the ladder. Another cheer arose from his men and the assault continued. Keeping his head down at the top of the ladder Morgan sprung over the top of the barrier and was immediately followed by Cadet Porterfield and Lieutenant Heth. Morgan landed on the cannon on the other side of the barrier injuring his knee. A dozen bayonets were instantly leveled at him, but his men began pouring over the wall and rescued him.
The enemy retreated into a building flanking the battery and renewed the conflict from the windows. Morgan ordered a volley to be fired into the building and an attack with the spontoons. The enemy retreated out the back of the building. Morgan and his men ran around the corner and caught the retreating enemy demanding that they surrender if they expected any quarter. Captain McCloud and about 30 men were taken prisoner.
At this point in the conflict Morgan and his rifleman were far in advance of the main body of the division. Had the main body kept up with Morgan they could have easily captured the whole of the lower town. Morgan did not know that they had either halted or lost their way. He tried to press forward, but the darkness and his lack of knowledge of the town, combined with so small a force, rendered an advance too hazardous to be attempted.
It was here that Morgan later wrote in his journal, "I was ordered to wait for Montgomery; and a fatal order it was. It prevented me from taking the garrison, as I had already captured half the town. The sally port through the (second) barrier was standing open; the guard had left it, and the people were running from the upper town in whole platoons, giving themselves up as prisoners, to get out of the way of the confusion which might shortly ensue. I went up to the edge of the upper town incog., with an interpreter, to see what was going on, as the firing had ceased. Finding no person in arms at all, I returned and called a council of what few officers I had with me; for the greater part of our force had missed their way, and had not got into the town. Here I was overruled by sound judgment and good reasoning. It was said, in the first place, that if I went on, I should break orders; in the next, that I had more prisoners than I had men; and that if I left them, they might break out, retake the battery we had just captured and cut off our retreat. It was further urged, the Gen. Montgomery was certainly coming down along the shore of the St. Lawrence, and would join us in a few minutes; and that we were sure of conquest, if we acted with caution and prudence. To these good reasons, I gave up my own opinion, and lost the town."
As the assault halted in anticipation of Montgomery's arrival, no more firing could be heard throughout the town. The blinding storm and piercing cold began to chill the men to the bone and at the same time their firearms became almost unserviceable. Morgan tried to bolster the moral of the men by assuring them that victory was at hand if they would just stand firm. Morgan ran back through the route of the advance to the outskirts of the town and found Colonel Green and Major Meigs with about two hundred of the New England troops who immediately pushed forward towards the first barrier to meet up with the rifle corps.
The decision was made to penetrate further into the town as day began to dawn. The company moved towards the enemy's second defensive position, which was a barrier eight to ten feet high, erected across a narrow street, which led into the center of the town. Behind the barrier, at a level with the top of the walls, platforms had been constructed and on it were two additional 12 pounders. When Morgan had gone to reconnoiter the upper town the enemy had abandoned this position, but after Montgomery's attack had been repulsed the enemy had re-manned their works, which should have and could have been taken by the assailants during the initial assault without bloodshed.
The defenders of this position, flushed with confidence over their victory over Montgomery, under the command of Lieutenant Anderson, sallied forth from the barricade just as Morgan and his force was moving up the street. The two forces collided and Anderson stepped forward and commanded the Americans to lay down their arms. Morgan, snatching a rifle from the hands of one of his men, replied by shooting him through the head, stretching him lifeless upon the ground.
The British troops retreated to the safety of the barricade and a fierce and bloody conflict commenced. From the windows of the houses on the street and the loop-holes in the barricade a murderous fire poured out on the Americans, who were penned up on a street not thirty feet wide. Undaunted, the rifle company prepared to assault the barricade.
Only a few scaling ladders had been brought along and only by Morgan's men. They were placed at the base of the wall and up the ladders went Morgan, Hendricks, Steel, Humphreys, Heth and Porterfield. As they reached the top of the wall, the two 12 pounders fired a volley of grape shot. The musket fire from the windows was furious and at the bottom of the wall they beheld a double row of bayonets waiting to receive them should they descend.
With the lack of additional ladders and against these almost impossible obstacles, the attempt was relinquished. The accuracy of the rifle company during the conflict had not been in vain. So exact was their aim, that the defenders on the cannon platform deserted their battery before three rounds had been fired. The fire from the houses was not so easily controlled and Humphreys and Captain Hendricks fell mortally wounded along with a number of soldiers.
The soldiers pressed into the houses which afforded them protection from the enemy and the cold. It was from the windows of the houses that the enemy began to take their most serious losses at the hands of the riflemen. Morgan in the meantime was furious that the assault on the barrier had been repulsed and would not retire to the safety of a house, but rather with a few of his bravest officers remained opposite of the barrier waiting for the precise time to renew the attack. Morgan called at the top of his lungs for the men to abandon their positions in the houses and resume the assault, but none came forward. Morgan realizing that the assault was over ordered his men to join the rest of the men in the safety of the houses.
Morgan and Lieutenant Heth worked their way towards the first barrier and met with Majors Bigelow and Meigs who concurred that a plan of retreat was in order. Captain Heth was sent to signal the withdrawal of the troops nearest to the second barrier, which was in effect a suicide mission. Heth met the challenge manfully. The men closest to the second barrier could not be convinced by Captain Heth to expose themselves to the firepower that was now leveled at the street. Had the men followed Heth, they may have been able to effect a retreat under the cover of the rest of the division.
The indecision was costly. The British under Captain Law captured Captain Dearborn, with all 200 of his men. Dearborn had been kept in reserve to facilitate an orderly retreat. With his capture, all retreat to the rear was cut off.
An enemy far superior in numbers now encircled the Americans. Morgan's unconquerable spirit called for a council of officers. Morgan proposed the collection of as many officers and men as possible and an attempt to cut their way out of the town. After much discussion, they decided to maintain their position for a while longer. The outcome of Montgomery's attack was still unknown and the decision to stay put was predicated on not putting Montgomery in jeopardy.
Both opposing forces kept up the fighting for a time. Eventually it became evident that Morgan's division was the sole object of the garrison and they recognized that surrender was the only option.
Morgan was so upset at the thought of surrender that he wept like a child. When summoned to give up his sword, he put his back against a wall, sword in hand, and dared anyone to try and take it. He persisted in his determination until the soldiers threatened to shoot him and his own men begged him not to sacrifice his life in useless opposition. Morgan eyeing what appeared to be a clergyman asked the man if he was a priest. When the man affirmed that he was, Morgan delivered his sword to him saying, "I give my sword to you; but not a scoundrel of those cowards shall take it out of my hands."
The captives were immediately told of the fate of Montgomery. Montgomery at the head of his column along with Captains Cheeseman and McPherson and Aaron Burr, had advanced towards the defenses at Anse de Meres under Cape Diamond. The defenses consisted of two rows of pickets leading up to a square two story block-house constructed of logs with loop-holes below for musket fire, and portholes above, which housed two 12 pounders full of grape and cannister. The cannons were pointed towards the narrow avenue by which an enemy must approach.
The Americans had made it through the first row of pickets before they were discovered. The garrison, consisting of Canadians and seamen, after briefly engaging the enemy from the block-house retreated towards the center of the town. It appeared as though this formidable position had been abandoned. Had the Americans pressed forward at this moment in time they could have easily penetrated into the lower town. However, the difficulties of ascending the hill and waiting for the rear to come up trumped their advantage.
After 200 men had been assembled Montgomery moved forward at the head of the column towards the block-house exclaiming, "Push on, brave boys, Quebec is ours." These were Montgomery's last words. One of the cannons from the block-house discharged. Montgomery, Captains Cheeseman and McPherson, an orderly sergeant and a private were all killed. The cannon was fired by a fleeing seaman who had returned to the block-house to retrieve something, saw the American advance, and fired the cannon as he himself was beginning his retreat.
Lieutenant Colonel Campbell succeeded the command and lacked the qualities of a Morgan or an Arnold to further prosecute the attack. He spent precious moments in useless consultation, until the enemy returned to the block-house at which time he ordered a retreat. The enemy sallied forth from their position in hot pursuit of the Americans.
The surrender of Morgan and the defeat of Montgomery terminated the expedition to Quebec.