AMERICANREVOLUTION.ORG

CHAPTER XV

THE DEATH OF MONTGOMERY

But what had been the fortune of Montgomery's attack at Prés de Ville? What was the meaning of the ominous delay in the appearance of the supporting force which was to have completed the work so well begun by Morgan's brave fellows at the northern end of the town? These were questions which must have been asked with ever-increasing anxiety by the men huddled inactive in the storm-beaten streets of Sault au Matelot, as they saw the precious moments slipping fast away, and still had no tidings from their general, who should by this time have been thundering at the gates of the Upper Town.

Montgomery had found much the same obstacles in his way along the St. Lawrence that Arnold had on the St. Charles. The ice forced up by the high winter tides, and the immense snow-drifts (for the snow on a level was from four to six feet deep), would have impeded his troops even in the strong light of day; now, in the darkness and the storm, they were efficient allies of the British. The column, consisting of the 1st, 2d and 3d battalions of New York troops, was so broken and delayed that Montgomery and his Canadian guide, marching at the head of a straggling line for a mile and a half or two miles from Wolfe's Cove, along the narrow pathway under the cliffs, close to the riverside, did not reach the first palisade at Pres de Ville till some time after Livingston and Brown had aroused the garrison of the Upper Town.

The guard at Prés de Ville, which was under Captain Chabotte of the French-Canadian artillery and consisted of thirty Canadians and eight British militiamen, with nine British seamen to work the guns, had seen the flashlights on the Plains of Abraham. Every man was posted before the alarm was given, and the sailor cannoneers commanded by Captain Barnsfare, master of the transport Tell, and directed by Hugh McQuarters, a trusty sergeant of the Royal Artillery, with lighted matches, stood waiting for the word of command. The good fortune of Arnold's men who had been able to take by surprise the unready guard at the Sault au Matelot, was thus denied to the commander-in-chief.

At length some two hundred men - two-thirds of his force - had come up, and Montgomery, cautiously approaching the palisade, superintended a party of carpenters, who succeeded without discovery in sawing out four of the great wooden pickets of which the palisade was built. At the point where this was done, they were close to the precipice, the angle of which screened them from the view of any sentinel in the blockhouse on the other side of the angle, about one hundred and thirty paces from the first palisade. They were also concealed in part by the second palisade, some twenty paces within the first, which, it will be remembered, ran nearly parallel with it, but not so high up the precipice, which was so steep here as to be practically impassable in itself.

Much encouraged, moving noiselessly in the newfallen snow, the carpenters reached the second palisade, where they were soon again at their dangerous work, well up on the precipice. Montgomery, joined now by his aids, John McPherson and Aaron Burr, nervously watched the workmen until they had two or three of the pickets down. Then the group of officers quickly slipped through the opening and stood for a moment in consultation under the last sheltering point of the rocky cliff, to turn which was almost certain death.

The Canadian guide, Edward Antill, the engineer, and Montgomery's orderly sergeant also passed through the opening, as did Captain Jacob Cheeseman, followed by some of the leading men of his and Mott's companies, while the other troops were crowding up in the narrow pass. Impatient at the slowness of the work, Montgomery laid hands on the pickets himself, while one of the party slipped around the point of rock to discover, if he could, what reception they might expect. The explorer returned at once and doubtless reported that the post seemed alarmed; for immediately Montgomery, with the shout, "Push on, brave boys; Quebec is ours!" sprang forward, closely followed by his staff and as many men as could crowd through the narrow opening which the carpenters had made. On the instant a storm of canister and grape from Barnsfare's cannon swept the narrow pass, and as fast as the sailors could withdraw and recharge, the murderous hail pelted the precipice, the palisade and the cart-road below.

Montgomery, shot through the head and both thighs, Cheeseman, McPherson, the orderly sergeant, Desmarais the Canadian guide, and eight other brave fellows lay dead and dying, and the long column of Americans, like a snake whose head has been suddenly crushed, recoiled on itself, writhing in a panic of dismay and confusion. For a few moments the stripling Burr struggled to animate the troops, already turned in flight, but Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, commanding their rear, unequal to the emergency, hastily gave the command to retire, an order all too readily obeyed by his demoralized men, who carried with them some, though not all, of the wounded. Many of the Canadian and British guards and cannoneers were seized with a like panic, and, deserting their posts, fled to the center of the town. Finding they were not pursued, they soon recovered, manned their guns again and with those who had stood fast, continued to sweep the pass with grape and canister for some minutes after the Americans had retreated. When they ceased firing they could plainly hear the groans and cries of the poor fellows who had fallen, but no other sounds except the dismal howling of the storm; as they peered through the black night, they saw nothing save the driving snow and sleet, fast weaving a funeral shroud for the heroic dead. Even the outcries of the wounded soon ceased, and confident that they had repulsed the rebels, they were cheering lustily, when an old woman appeared among them, breathless, with the news that Arnold had taken the barrier at Sault au Matelot, and would immediately attack their rear. Panic prevailed once more. Some hid their weapons; others hurled them into the river. Then John Coffin, a loyalist volunteer, who with his family had sought the town as a refuge, drew his bayonet, sprang into the midst of the faint-hearted, and swore he would kill the first man who turned his back. His courage and Barnsfare's coolness prevailed; the cowards returned to duty, and those who were steadfast swung the guns about and waited.

News of the disaster at Prés de Ville did not reach Morgan's and Arnold's men; indeed, they received no tidings whatever of Montgomery. When Morgan reached the outskirts of the Lower Town, he found Colonel Greene and Major Meigs with about two hundred of the New England troop, who immediately pushed forward under his guidance to the first barrier, where they made prisoners of a number of young fellows, students it is said, who were but now hurrying to their alarm posts at Sault au Matelot street. The reinforcements were hurried forward to where their comrades still waited under the shadow of the second barrier, and it was determined in spite of Montgomery's disquieting delay to advance at once upon this barricade which closed the entrance to Mountain street, and therefore barred the way to the Upper Town. It is hard to see why Morgan had not ordered this movement long before, since by his own statement the sally port stood open when the Americans first appeared before it. It is a poor answer to say that he had reached the position where he was ordered to wait for Montgomery, and that to have continued to advance was to disobey orders. Never was obedience or blunder, whichever it is to be called, more fatal, for the British having established the true character of the attacks of Livingston and Brown upon the Upper Town, and having repulsed Montgomery, were free to deal with their more successful antagonists at Sault au Matelot.

The Americans hurriedly formed in the narrow street and, led once more by Morgan, rushed cheering upon the barrier; but now they found it occupied, and its defenders, who were chiefly Canadian militia under Colonel Voyer and Captain Alexandre Dumas, checked them with a heavy fire from the houses on either side of the barrier and with cannon elevated beyond the barrier in the second story of a house on the opposite side of the lower end of Mountain street. Every bullet falling in the crowded ranks confined in so narrow a space (for here Sault au Matelot street was only about twenty feet wide) did execution, and the Americans failed to get their ladders up before the Canadians were further reinforced by Captain Maroux and a few Royal Fusileers under Captain Owen.

Captain Anderson, a retired lieutenant of the Royal Navy, sallying from the barrier, as the provincials fell back, met Morgan in the street, again advancing, and summoned him to surrender. The fierce Virginian, furious at his repulse, and raging like a lion that has tasted blood, seized a rifle from one of his men and shot Anderson through the head. The unfortunate officer's men stood only long enough to drag his body within the barrier and close the sally port, and a general melee and assault on the barrier began.

But the Americans were again handicapped; the ladders they had were those brought by Morgan's men and were too few in number to enable many to scale the barrier at once. Further, while they had stood inactive in the storm, the arms taken from McCloud's guard had, in turn, been wet by the melting snow and were useless, except as clubs. Lieutenant Humphries and a few men succeeded in erecting a mound, planted a few ladders, and with Morgan, Hendricks, Steele, Heth, Porterfield, Cooper, Thomas, Thayer and Topham made a desperate attempt to scale the barrier. But Humphries fell back dead, shot through the head and body, and a score of men went down with him. Lieutenant Cooper of Connecticut was also killed outright.

The British had now manned the guns on an elevated platform behind the barrier, and a single cannon in a house on the side of the street, and delivered a front and enfilading fire of grape. Nothing human could stand beneath it and the constant rain of musket bullets. Lieutenant Joseph Thomas was killed, two fingers of Lieutenant Steele's hand were shot away, Captain Lamb of the artillery, who long ago had been ordered to abandon his field piece on account of the impassability of the road, had the left side of his face carried away by a grape-shot. He requested Lieutenant Nichols to bind up the wound with a black handkerchief which he took from his stock, and attempted to continue in action. The chief Sabattis was shot through the wrist; Brigade-Major Ogden in the shoulder; Captain Topham, Lieutenant Tisdale and Commissary Taylor were also wounded. Captain Hubbard had been crippled by a shot which broke his ankle, but he refused to be moved under cover, exclaiming to his would-be bearers, " I came here to serve with you; I will stay here to die with you! Lamb lay unconscious in the open street.

The volleys of musketry from the second barrier in their front and from the high bank and wall close on their left, with the cross-fire from a company of French loyalists on Lymburner's wharf, rendered the position of the Americans a fearful one. The battle-scythe of death steadily swept the street from side to side. The blood-stained snow, trodden by the hurrying tramp of many feet; the corpses piled in heaps beneath the barrier; the cries of the combatants and the groans and screams of the wounded as they struggled from the deep snow-drifts, and endeavored to crawl to the doorways for shelter; the crashing of broken glass which followed every heavy detonation of artillery or announced the passage of those bullets which sought their living targets within the houses; over all the lowered canopy of heaven, the howling of the storm, and driving snow, made a sickening scene of horror and confusion.

The assailants were at last compelled to seek shelter in the stone houses on either side of the street, but it was not until nearly four score of their number lay dead or desperately wounded along a few hundred yards of Sault au Matelot street, after it turns the precipice towards the center of the town. It was now the turn of the British to suffer, for the Americans had an opportunity to dry and reprime their firelocks; and, all being sharpshooters, they repeatedly cleared the platform of gunners, till its guns were all silenced and fifteen or twenty of their enemies had felt their vengeance. But their fire from the windows was returned with interest, for reinforcements under Major Caldwell now reached the British, who used the loopholes of the barrier and the houses on their side of it for cover. Nor were the British bad marksmen. Captain Hendricks, while aiming his rifle from a window, was shot through the heart, and staggering back a few steps he fell dead across a bed.

At this moment, while the firing was slackened because both sides were sheltered in comparative safety behind walls of wood or stone, a Canadian militiaman, one Charland, an ex-convict, a huge fellow of great strength and dauntless courage, was seen to spring upon the barrier. In the face of a storm of bullets, he succeeded in dragging within the palisade one of the precious scaling ladders, which was still attached to the barrier. The British saw their advantage. Ensign Dambourges and Major Nairn, availing themselves of the ladder obtained by Charland, and followed by Captain Campbell, Ensign Cairns and Lieutenant Layard, climbed through a window in the gable end of a house on the rebel side of the barrier. A hand-to-hand struggle ensued to the advantage of the British, who drove back their opponents as they were about to enter the door on Sault au Matelot street, and gained a commanding position from which to fire into the street.

Morgan, with a few of the bravest of the brave, standing in the open street, had called again and again upon those within the houses to join him and to make another attempt on the barrier, while the guns of the platform were silent. But it was useless. So, ordering the few officers he had left to the shelter of the houses, he made his way to the first barrier, accompanied only by Lieutenant Heth, in order to concert with Meigs and Bigelow some plan for drawing off the troops. These officers agreed with him that they must immediately retreat. Lieutenant Heth was accordingly sent back on the dangerous errand of urging the men in the houses to abandon their shelter and risk death in the open in an attempt to reach the first barrier. Heth bravely executed his orders, but succeeded in inducing very few of the men to take their chances with him. While they wasted precious moments in indecision, their opportunity was lost.

We must now ask the reader to return with us to Dearborn's company, which, it will be remembered~ was cantoned on the further side of the St. Charles, and had failed to join Arnold's detachment in time to take part in the assault. It appears that the sergeant-major, whose duty it was to notify Captain Dearborn of the hour of attack, had been prevented from crossing the river by the exceedingly high tide. At four o'clock Dearborn heard by chance, through one of his men, that the attack had been ordered for that morning. He at once gave orders for his men to prepare to march, but as his company was quartered in three different houses and the farthest was a mile from his own quarters, it was nearly an hour before he was ready, and the cannonade announced that the attack was begun before he started.

They had nearly two miles to march. On the way they met the sergeant-major, who informed them that Arnold's column had moved on. Crossing the St. Charles and advancing at double-quick time, they met Arnold, wounded, in St. Roque; he told them that his men had possession of a four-gun battery and would soon carry the town. The battery of St. Roque was playing incessantly, the garrison replying with shot and shell from apparently every part of the town. Dearborn's men were in high spirits and pushed forward as fast as possible. They soon began to meet numbers of wounded men, and almost immediately came under a very brisk fire from the walls and stockades. In the heavy storm and darkness, without a leader or guide who was in the least familiar with the locality, the men were soon bewildered, and although they met several officers and men who said they knew where the division was, yet none of them would act as guides. Dearborn accordingly thought it best to retreat a short distance and make a new attempt to find the way. He accordingly ordered Lieutenant Hutchins, who was in the rear, to retire a few rods. Hutchins obeyed, although in retreating he ran considerable risk from the fire of a picket within a stone's throw, for it had now begun to grow light.

Carleton, advised of the perilous predicament of Dearborn's company, and bent on preventing their reinforcement of Morgan, ordered a sally of a column of men under Captain Laws, who immediately advanced with two field pieces from Palace gate. Captain McDougal of the Royal Emigrants followed closely with a party from his regiment; then Captain Alexander Fraser with another supporting party. Captain Hamilton, of the Lizard, and a party of sailors, brought up the rear. The column was two hundred strong. Before Dearborn's men discovered this movement, the sallying party had taken possession of some houses which Hutchins had to pass, and as he fell back, rushed down upon his little party from a lane. On perceiving their approach, Dearborn divided his company in the middle and leaving half under the command of Lieutenant Hutchins, made another attempt to find the main body, for it was now so light that he thought he stood a better chance of doing so. Ordering those who were with him to follow, he ran on, but the enemy captured some of his men in the rear and opened a brisk fire upon the rest from the houses which they had to pass. As soon as Dearborn reached a place where he could cover his men, he halted them while he attempted to establish the position of the main body, for a shout was heard in the town which convinced him that the Americans were in possession.


Captain Dearborn
Afterward major-General U. S. A., Minister to Portugal, Member of Congress, and Secretary of War
By courtesy of the Calumet Club of Chicago. From the original portrait by Stuart.

The fact that the besieged and their assailants wore substantially the same uniform now worked to the disadvantage of the Americans. In the uncertain light Dearborn could not feel sure whether the men in front of him, who seemed to be numerous, were British or Americans. His own words at this juncture are too graphic to omit: "I was just about to hail them, when one of them hailed me. He asked who I was (I was now within a few rods). I answered, 'a friend.' He asked me 'who I was a friend to.' I answered, 'a friend to liberty.' He then replied, 'G_ d_ you,' and raised himself partly above the picket. I clapt up my piece, which was charged with a ball and ten buckshot, certainly to give him his due, but to my mortification my gun did not go off; I newprimed her and flushed and fired her again, but neither I, nor one in ten of my men, could get off their guns, they being so exceedingly wet."

Dearborn ordered his men into the houses to newprime their guns or prick dry powder into the touchholes; but the enemy closed in upon them and Dearborn soon found himself outnumbered six to one, his company divided and his arms in bad condition, so that, being promised good quarters and tender usage, he surrendered. But before doing so he told his men to make their escape if possible. In the confusion some of them succeeded, several even after they had given up their arms. At the same time one division of the sallying party pounced upon the battery in St. Roque and completed the discomfiture of the provincials by capturing all the guns and dragging them victoriously into Quebec.

The main body of Captain Laws's force, however, after having captured Dearborn's company, closed in on the rear of the Americans under Morgan. It was now long past six o'clock and the morning light was breaking, though the fast-falling snow obscured its disclosures. Morgan and his few remaining officers, ignorant even of this misfortune, now held another consultation, and Morgan advised that they cut their way out, but this proposition was overruled, in the hope that Montgomery might still be heard from and for fear that he might need their cooperation. They resolved to maintain their position at the first barrier a short time longer. Their comrades in the houses along Sault au Matelot street were still keeping up a desultory fire, which was answered by the British in much the same manner, but it was very evident that the end was near.

At this moment Captain Laws, whose zeal had carried him far beyond his men, sprang into the midst of the American officers, and demanded their surrender, upon which they promptly disarmed him, much to his chagrin. But his men, headed by McDougal, soon appeared, and at length the whole disposable force of the garrison surrounded the Americans. The cannon of the sallying party, brought up through St. Charles to Sault au Matelot street in the rear, threatened the houses they occupied, and upon being summoned, the disappointed and exhausted Americans, except a few of their number, who in company with most of the Indians had hazarded an escape across the ice on the Bay of St. Charles, surrendered. The French and English soldiery then rushed in among them for the prize of the officers' side-arms. Some of the Americans threw down their arms from the doors and windows of the houses they occupied, others presented the butts of their muskets, while a few hid themselves in attics and cellars.

Morgan, crying like a child with vexation and anger, backed against a wall and, sword in hand, dared any one of the enemy to come and take the weapon. In spite of the threats of his enemies and the entreaties of his own men not to sacrifice his life uselessly, he persisted in his determination. None took up his gage. At length, noticing a priest among the crowd, he delivered his sword to him, saying, "Then I give my sword to you; but not a scoundrel of these cowards shall take it out of my hands!"

The prisoners were conducted to the Upper Town, where the officers, after a good meal, with wine, at the main guard-house, were confined in the Seminary of Laval, and the non-commissioned officers and privates in the Jesuits College (The Recollects). They now first learned of the repulse of their second column at Prés de Ville and the complete discomfiture of their comrades, though the British themselves were still ignorant that Montgomery was among the killed.

A scouting party of militia sent out shortly after daylight over the ground near the palisades at Cape Diamond had at first seen nothing, owing to the deep snow, for it had fallen all night. At length they noticed a stiffened arm protruding, and pushing away the snow they found a frozen corpse, then another, and another. Shuddering women who had been driven from their beds by the volleys from Barnsfare's cannon which shattered their windows to take refuge in the cellars of their houses, and whose morbid curiosity had incited them forth to follow the soldiers, watched while a number of sleighs were laden with bodies and driven away into the town. There were thirteen killed here; one man, the orderly sergeant, still feebly breathed and was conscious. He was asked where Montgomery was. He replied he had not seen him for some time, and dying within an hour, gave no other answer.

After the bodies were brought into the town, Carleton asked if one of the American officers taken prisoner at Sault au Matelot would identify a body said to be that of Montgomery. A field officer consented, and soon returned with the sad truth. The General had been found lying on his back, about two paces from the river, his arms extended and his knees drawn up as if in agony, though "his countenance appeared regular, serene and placid, like the soul that late had animated it." Close to Montgomery, on his right and left, lay McPherson and Cheeseman. Two other bodies were very near them. Carleton, with commendable humanity, also sent out other search parties for the wounded in the direction of Sault au Matelot and St. Roque. Captains Lamb and Hubbard were rescued with many others, and carried to the hospital.

The causes for the failure of this desperate assault upon Quebec have generally been summed up in the sweeping statement that it was so foolhardy that it never merited success, but we think those who have so characterized it have labored under a misapprehension of Montgomery's real purpose, that they have altogether lost sight of his alternatives (which we have already sufficiently brought in contrast), and have failed to weigh many circumstances and considerations which recent research has brought into prominence.

In the first place, it seems impossible that Montgomery could have had any intention or expectation of gaining the Upper Town by direct assault, except by the aid of the stratagems already referred to; he knew too well from careful inspection of the works from without, and from deserters and friends within the walls, how impregnable they were against so small a force as his at that season of the year. That Montgomery should have kept his opinions and his plans to himself was assuredly to be expected, for he must have been aware of the speed and certainty with which every move of his was reported within the city, and he knew that any information that his attack was to be directed against the Lower Town only would cause the enemy to reinforce heavily the narrow passages at Prés de Ville and Sault au Matelot. He did not wish to dampen the ardor of his troops by suggesting any doubt that their conquest was to be complete, or that they might expect to spend the remainder of the winter less comfortably quartered than in the Upper Town, or with their families at home. The desperate occasion demanded every stimulant. If this explanation of his purposes is the correct one, the criticisms of General Cullom and other American military officers, who have based their conclusions on the assumption that Montgomery's ambition was to take both the Upper and Lower Towns by assault that night, are beside the question. General Carrington, another American officer who has enjoyed some reputation as a military critic of the battles of the Revolution, should not be accorded too much confidence. He states that Arnold's detachment embarked from Newport - a palpable error which we might properly lay to the printer or proofreader, did he not add that they reached that place via Bedford. Charging this also to the printer or proofreader, we read later that Arnold crossed the St. Lawrence with nearly twice as many men as any fair search of authorities reveals. Mistakes like these shake our confidence in the author's conclusions. It seems certain that a narrative manifestly faulty in such matters of record (for these are not the only mistakes to which we might call attention) cannot afford secure premises from which to argue, either with the technical knowledge of a military man or the common sense of a civilian. Perhaps the only British military critic of prominence who has paid this subject any attention, Major-General Sir J. Carmichael Smythe, Bart., writes: "It may be observed of this enterprise against Quebec that the attempt was soldier-like and enterprising," but he is of the opinion that the feints and real attacks should have been reversed. Of course, the same comment may be applied to this criticism as that which we have made in connection with General Cullom's views, but it seems proper to add that General Smythe's work is not at all pretentious, and certainly does not claim to be an exhaustive study of the campaign.

It should be remembered, also, that not only were the two leaders of the real assaults put at the very outset hors de combat, but their Canadian guides were both killed, so that the heads of each column were not only crushed and mutilated, but blinded as well. The night, too, was so dark and tempestuous that even those familiar with the way lost their bearings and wandered helpless among the drifts of snow which are said in some places to have been nearly thirty feet in depth. That the leaders of the little army should have exposed themselves to the greatest dangers was, in Montgomery's case at least, thought necessary. A knowledge of the sort of troops which he commanded can alone determine the wisdom of his decision. From their behavior after his death, it seems that Montgomery's judgment in regard to them was sound. With Arnold the case was different; he could not doubt the courage of the men who had followed him through the wilderness, still his acquaintance with the city was perhaps counted as worth something, and he was not a man to remain aloof in safety while his soldiers were facing death and winning glory beneath the walls of the fortress he had come to capture.

That it was possible to penetrate to the very center of the Lower Town was shown by the result; that it was not burned by the Americans is to be explained by their failure to receive any information with regard to the fate of Montgomery's column. The wind was northeast, blowing very hard, and had they applied the torch without waiting for tidings from Montgomery, they might have enveloped his troops in the general conflagration, and prevented the junction which was so essential a part of the plan. Contrary to most accounts, Livingston and his Canadians and Brown's party were not late, but reached their appointed position in good season, and the rockets were discharged precisely at five o'clock according to orders, but both Arnold's and Montgomery's columns were behind time. What became of the men under Knowles is not known. Very probably, as they were but a small number, they were easily dispersed by Laws's sally. Some one has suggested that the depth of the snow-drifts prevented near approach to the ramparts, so that the danger from these false attacks never appeared imminent to the enemy, but it seems certain that they might have been longer persisted in and to much advantage. They might at least have prevented Laws from sallying from the Palace gate, and have covered the retreat of Morgan and Meigs.

After all is said, Montgomery's error was in thinking that so many points, each at considerable distance from the others, could be approached simultaneously, particularly on such a night, and over such rough and intricate roads. A plan which included a single real attack on the fortified front, strong enough to test the prospect of success there; another main attack in force upon the Sault au Matelot barriers, with a feint at Prés de Ville, calculated to draw the fire of the guns there, and steadily maintained while the other attacks were in progress, offered a very fair prospect of success, if the intention was merely to get possession of the Lower Town long enough either to fire it, or by threats of such a course to bring to bear upon Governor Carleton the pressure of the terrified loyalists of the city, who would urge surrender rather than submit to the destruction of their homes and their property.

These operations would have detected any fault in the strength of the defenses, and offered the shortest and easiest possible supporting distance for the Americans, and the longest and most difficult for the garrison. Where the greatest weakness developed, there the sword should have been plunged home. If no such weakness were exposed, the troops could be drawn off, and the retreat of any one assaulting column if endangered, could be easily covered. There would have been strength enough outside to hold open the mouth of the trap which the Lower Town became for Arnold's detachment. As it was, that important duty was entrusted to Livingston's Canadians, who failed at the critical moment, as there had been too much reason to expect would be the case.