The Assault Is Planned | Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec


    About the author

    John Codman headshot.
    John Codman the 2nd

    John Codman was a sailor and writer from Dorchester, Massachusetts. A religious man, and son of a pastor, he published a number of works about his travels at sea and American history during the 19th century.



      On the 16th of December, a general council of war was held, and the voice of the majority was for storming the works as soon as the soldiers were supplied with bayonets, hatchets and hand grenades. Montgomery himself seems to have favored the further use of the artillery, and had a plan for concentrating his fire on a certain point in the north redoubt, which was rather inadequately commanded by the guns of the garrison. He hoped that by means of parallels a very close approach could be made to the ramparts, which his cannon would have battered more or less to pieces, and saw in this plan the best opportunity for a successful assault. The other officers to a man opposed his project, and though chagrined at their decision, the commander yielded to the unanimous judgment.

      The plan of assault which was finally concerted by the council was both cunning and desperate, and though subsequent events necessitated its abandonment, it probably had as good a chance of success as that finally adopted. Four simultaneous attacks were to be made upon the Upper Town at different points along the wall between Cape Diamond and Palace gate. Three of these were to be mere feints; the fourth and real attack was to be an heroic attempt to scale the walls at the Cape Diamond bastion, which the English considered impregnable by reason of the defenses which nature had provided there. On the night of a severe storm, being much exposed to the weather, it might be left with a very small guard. The very rashness of such an exploit was its only warrant for success. It would be hardly possible to sufficiently depress the guns mounted in the bastion so as to sweep any enemy from the cliff when once at close quarters, and if the bastion was gained and held even for a very short time, reinforcements, as they ascended, would be sheltered by the declivity, and the Americans would hold a vantage point from which they could turn the guns of the bastion on the city below them.

      Aaron Burr, who had been taken into Montgomery’s military family, and commissioned a captain, was enthusiastically in favor of this daring scheme, and having obtained permission from Montgomery to select and instruct a picked party of fifty men, drilled them unceasingly with scaling ladders, till they were able to mount with all their accoutrements with great ease and rapidity. He was much chagrined, therefore, when, owing to the representations of Mr. Edward Antill, and Mr. James Price, rebel merchants of Montreal, the former serving as Montgomery’s engineer, this first plan was dropped. These gentlemen urged that the Lower Town, alone, should be first attempted, for they believed it could be taken with much less loss of life, and if once occupied, they were satisfied the citizens of Quebec, whose wealth was chiefly there, would force Governor Carleton to surrender the Upper Town without further bloodshed. It was also suggested by some one, though we hope not by an American, that after having acquired possession of the Lower Town, and having forced the women and children, priests and citizens to mingle with the American soldiers, they should advance upon the Upper Town, in the expectation that the garrison would not slaughter the crowd indiscriminately. There were barriers, pickets and redoubts in the Lower Town to be presently described, which would have to be passed before Mountain Street and the narrow pass to the Upper Town to which it led were reached, and unless they were surmounted in this, or some other nobler way, the Americans could not hope to long continue in possession of the Lower Town.

      The execution of any plan at all was delayed from day to day, however, by unfavorable weather, two days of heavy snowfall being followed by several days of such severe cold that the soldiers could hardly venture from their cantonments. Men who were working at the batteries had their feet frozen; it was so cold that it was not possible to handle metal of any sort, and the walls of the city were covered with a glistening sheet of ice, which no scaling party, however gallant, could surmount.
      In the midst of this vexatious delay a fresh discouragement dashed the spirits of the army. Smallpox, which had for some time been prevalent both within the city and among the Canadian peasantry outside the walls, broke out in camp. Five men of Captain Ward’s company who were first stricken with the disease were taken to the General Hospital, Dearborn’s company moving their quarters from that building to a house just across the River St. Charles. But as the malady spread and the sick list became menacing in its size, the sufferers were all isolated in a camp between Wolfe’s Cove and Sillery, three miles from their comrades. There, without beds, medicine or careful nursing, their constitutions wrestled stubbornly with the loathsome disease.

      As if Montgomery’s anxieties were not yet sufficiently great, they were further augmented by dissension among the officers of Arnold’s detachment, and by the openly expressed determination of three of the New England companies, whose term of enlistment was to expire on the last day of the year, not to remain at Quebec after that date. Captain Handchett, who, as we have seen, had incurred Arnold’s rebuke on at least two occasions for failure to perform the duty to which he was assigned, seems to have been at the bottom of most of the trouble. He, with Captains Goodrich and Hubbard and the men of their companies, declared that they would not engage in so perilous an undertaking as the proposed assault unless they were at least withdrawn from Arnold’s command. Montgomery, as we learn from a letter to General Wooster, had scant patience with the malcontents, and had his position enabled him to do so, would have dealt rigorously with them. But in the weakened condition of his slender force, stern measures might easily prove too drastic. He had recourse to diplomacy and succeeded at last in restoring the semblance of subordination and discipline, though the relations between Arnold and his recalcitrant officers remained cool, and the New England volunteers refused to promise the extension of their enlistment.

      Within the city the spirits bf the garrison rose, as the embarrassments of the besiegers thickened. Nearly three weeks of inactivity on the part of the Americans had done much to restore the confidence of the soldiers and the loyal citizens. The British could see that the battery on the plains was shattered and useless; they had watched the bodies of the cannoneers carried off in sleighs; and had it not been for the pernicious activity of the riflemen, their enemy would have seemed already discomfited. How could they have any apprehension of the result of an assault? The cold stiffened every sinew, benumbed every sense, and made it impossible to execute any design which required agility. The ice and snow lying on the ways leading to even the weakest places in their defenses rendered them very strong. The snow-drifts against the ramparts could only be crossed on snow-shoes.

      The riflemen, as has been said, were alone superior to the rigor of the elements. In the face of driving snow-storms, or of piercing arctic winds, they stood manfully to their posts. From behind walls, and from garret windows in St. Roque, from the site of “La Friponne,” and from the cupola of the Intendant’s Palace (the old palace of Bigot), the unerring bullets of these “sons of liberty” carried death, wounds or dismay to every combatant who was in the least rash or incautious. Even at noon they would creep close to the houses, which were under cover of the hill near Palace gate, till they were within forty yards of the walls; then, firing through windows, or the crevices between the logs of some cabin, at an angle of seventy degrees or so, they deliberately picked off the sentries for the very sport and excitement of the thing. The sheltering acclivity which favored them continues from the walls around the Lower Town (where it is steepest) for many miles up the St. Lawrence and St. Charles, and surrounds the Plains of Abraham; near the suburb St. Roque it is called the Côte St. Genevieve.

      The British officers were especially exasperated at what they called the “skulking” tactics of the riflemen, for though a score or more of their sentries were thus killed or disabled, it was impossible to inflict any punishment in return. Only one of the sharpshooters is reported to have been wounded. He was shot through both lungs by a grapeshot, but supported by a comrade walked more than a mile to the hospital.

      Everything now united to convince Montgomery that if an assault was to be made with any hope of success, it must be made at once. The smallpox was daily making fresh inroads upon his slender effective force, and there was barely more than a week left before the expiration of the enlistment of the three disaffected companies in Arnold’s corps. Arms and ammunition were distributed to the men, and every man was ordered to wear a sprig of hemlock in his cap to distinguish him from the enemy, for the captured British regimentals in which so many provincials were comfortably clad were otherwise likely to prove the death of them in the confusion of a night assault. The night of the 23rd was set for the great adventure, but at the last moment another annoying postponement was rendered necessary. During the day Major Caldwell’s clerk, Joshua Wolfe, who had been detained outside the walls, with the assistance of a deserter, one Singleton, a sergeant of Montgomery’s force, and a bottle of rum judiciously used, managed to make his escape, and the two men, passing by the way of Wolfe’s Cove and Près de Ville, were admitted to the city at ten o’clock in the evening. The knowledge of this circumstance caused the postponement, for it was correctly surmised that Wolfe would probably carry with him information of their intentions for that night. It was a prudent decision, for Wolfe and Singleton informed the British circumstantially of the preparations which were making, adding that “Montgomery had offered his soldiers $800 plunder each and that he had five hundred clumsy scaling ladders prepared. ”

      “How can they think to pass the ditch weighed down with such burdens, and wading in the snow in the face of our fire?” writes the officer who records these items of news. “The enemy reported to be about 2,000; sickly; the smallpox among them.”

      Christmas day dawned upon an army still inactive, restless and anxious, hesitating at the difficulties which lay before it, uneasy at its own weakness, daunted by the epidemic of smallpox which continued to spread through its ranks. A few weeks before, Montgomery, in boastful confidence, had declared that he would eat his Christmas dinner either in Quebec or in hell. Neither alternative was realized, though, oppressed by the increasing perplexities of his unfortunate position and cheered only by a forlorn hope of success, he may well have suffered some of the pangs of purgatory. His letters show that he was determined to force Congress to accept his resignation as soon as he could with honor do so. These extracts from a letter to Schuyler show how hard, not to say desperate, he found his situation:

      When last I had the honor to write, I hoped before now to have had it in my power to give you some good news. I then had reason to believe the troops well inclined for a coup-de-main. I have since discovered, to my great mortification, that three companies of Arnold’s detachment are very averse to the measure. There is strong reason to believe their difference of sentiment from the rest of the troops arises from the influence of their officers. Captain Handchett, who has incurred Colonel Arnold’s displeasure by some misconduct, and thereby given room for harsh language, is at the bottom of it, and has made some declarations which I think must draw upon him the censure of his country, if brought to trial. … This dangerous party threatens the ruin of our affairs. I shall, at any rate, be obliged to change my plan of attack, being too weak to put that in execution that I had formerly determined upon. … Strain every nerve to send a large corps of troops down the instant the lake is passable. It is of the utmost importance we should be possessed of Quebec before succor can arrive, and I must here again give it to you as my opinion, and that of several sensible men acquainted with this province, that we are not to expect a union with Canada till we have a force in the country sufficient to preserve it against any attempt that may be made for its recovery.

      One difficulty occurs to me: How are these troops to be paid here? The continental money will not be received by the inhabitants. I had distributed part of it to the troops at Montreal; few would accept it. The consequence was the soldiers offered it for less than its value, and so it became depreciated. One scheme has occurred to me, which I shall communicate by this opportunity to you and our other friends at Montreal. If they can send down to the army such articles as soldiers choose to lay out their money upon, employing sutlers for that purpose who will receive our paper, the troops may then be paid in continental currency, which will not be depreciated; the soldiers will not grumble, as they may be regularly paid, and, by degrees, the inhabitants may acquire confidence in it, seeing our merchants take it freely. I am amazed no money has arrived. The troops are uneasy, and I shall, by and by, be at my wits ends to furnish the army with provisions. I am the more surprised, as I am credibly informed cash arrived from Philadelphia at Ticonderoga three weeks since. I have almost exhausted Price, having had upwards of five thousand pounds, York, from him. I must take this opportunity of acknowledging his service. He has been a faithful friend to the cause indeed. Having so early reported to you my determination to return home, I take it for granted measures are taken to supply my place. Should not anybody arrive shortly for that purpose, I must conclude Congress means to leave the management of affairs in General Wooster’s hands; and, therefore, if this business should terminate in a blockade, I shall think myself at liberty to return. However, if possible, I shall first make an effort for the reduction of the town.

      I will shortly comply with several articles of directions which I have received from you, and which I deferred in hopes of complying with them, before now, in peaceable possession of Quebec. The strange, divided state of the troops, all this campaign, has prevented my sending returns, having never been able to get one with any tolerable exactness. The three discontented companies are within a few days of being free from their engagements. I must try every means to prevent their departure; and in this matter I am much embarrassed. Their officers have offered to stay provided they may join some other corps. This is resentment against Arnold, and will hurt him so much that I do not think I can consent to it.”

      On the afternoon of Christmas day the troops were paraded before Captain Morgan’s quarters, the house of a Mr. Devine, and the General addressed them in a very sensible, spirited manner, on the subject of the intended attack. He pointed out the necessity of it and the certainty of its success, observing that nothing was wanting to ensure victory but the exercise of that valor which they had so triumphantly displayed under the most unparalleled sufferings. He concluded by saying that if they succeeded, they would rescue a province from the British yoke, win it for their country, and obtain for themselves immortal honor. His address greatly encouraged the men, who replied with cheers and expressions of their willingness to follow wherever he led. But the New England farmers and sailors were anxious to return to their families, and the fast-approaching opportunity, together with the harshness of the service and their fear of smallpox, made them so obstinate in their refusal to extend their enlistment that Montgomery needed all his powers of persuasion, tact and eloquence to keep them on the ground. They were almost deaf to all patriotic representations; their enthusiasm for liberty was well nigh frozen to death. The influence of such personal magnetism and magnificent courage as that of Montgomery, Arnold and Morgan, the examples of steadfast patriotism and uncomplaining attention to duty set by Hendricks, Lamb and Meigs, alone held them together; though there were many who, while they anxiously longed to return, had enough of bulldog grit and tenacity left to yearn to make one last attempt upon the city before retiring discomfited.

      An assault upon such formidable works seemed to the officers so exceptionally hazardous that they felt it just to the men to learn and weigh their sentiments with regard to its advisability. Influenced by the spirited words of Montgomery, upon the question being put, they voted in the affirmative. The riflemen, to whom fighting had become second nature and who were more than a thousand miles from their homes, were naturally not unwilling to remain with the General, and gallantly offered to do so, even if he should be abandoned by the eastern men.

      The weather of the 26th did not favor any offensive operations, for it was inconceivably cold, and no man could handle his arms or scale a wall, so the promised assault was delayed until the 27th. “It is employment, enough to preserve one’s nose,” writes a British officer on duty on the ramparts. “A sentry this afternoon had his eyes frozen together, and was carried blind into the guard-house.” The bitter cold continued for several days and made the postponement of the attack again and again necessary.

      All this time the garrison at Quebec had been lying on their arms in momentary expectation of an attack. General Carleton and his officers slept at the Recollects, the Jesuit College, in their clothes. Three nine-pounders were added to the flanks of each bastion. At night the soldiers could see many fire signals all over the surrounding country, which they surmised to be from one guard of Americans to another. They felt the crisis to be close at hand.

      Were there no weak places in the city’s armor? Was it not possible for the Americans, like the Greeks before Troy, to find another wooden horse and to enter, by craft, where they could not force a passage? Officer after officer had closely examined every part of the fortifications, yet no one could devise any expedient which gave encouraging promise of success. They had even tried to seduce the guards at St. John’s gate, but had been circumvented by the vigilance of Duprè, who had discovered the plot, and imprisoned the would-be betrayers. At Près de Ville, by the narrow cart road, some weakness might before have existed, but it was plain that the enemy had diligently strengthened that pass till it was almost impregnable. The Americans could see a long line of strong wooden pickets, fifteen or twenty feet high, knit together by stout railings at the top and bottom, which extended from the wall of masonry on Cape Diamond slantingly down the side of the precipice across the cart-road to the brink of the river, where it ended at the distance of about one hundred yards from the point of the rock. Enormous jagged blocks of river ice had been forced one upon the other, high up on the bank till they reached this palisade and effectually closed any passage around it near the water.

      Within it and only a few yards from the very point of the precipice, they knew there was a second similar palisade, though it did not run so high up the hill. Again, about fifty yards within, and concealed by the rock, was a blockhouse, which nearly filled the narrow space between the foot of the promontory and the precipitous bank of the river, leaving a footpath only on either side of it. This blockhouse was forty or fifty feet square, built of large logs neatly squared and dovetailed. The lower story was loopholed for musketry and the upper story pierced with ports for two cannon mounted within, charged, it was not to be doubted, with grape and canister and pointed accurately toward the cart-road, where it turned the precipice of Cape Diamond within the second palisade. At about twenty paces beyond this second palisade was the potash factory of a Mr. Price, occupied then as a guard-house. Besides the cannon in the upper story of the blockhouse, there were two cannon behind the second palisade, also covering the narrow road, and a fifth, “dans une petite batisse au bout de la maison” which swept the platform of the palisade.

      The obstacles at Sault au Matelot were not less formidable and could not be reached without passing through the suburb St. Roque, along a narrow road past Palace gate, close to the St. Charles, within shot-gun range of the walls. The attacking force would be exposed to a merciless fire of small arms and cannon at this close range for nearly half a mile, sheltered only by such scattered sheds, storehouses and wharves as lined the river, before they reached a barrier and battery mounting two twelve-pounders, just beyond the precipice of Sault au Matelot. Within two hundred yards, closing the western ends of Sault au Matelot Street and St. Peter’s Street, they had been accurately informed by spies and deserters, was another strong barricade about twelve feet high connecting some outbuildings, on the roofs of which cannon were mounted, while flanking the two-gun battery on the northeast was another battery of four guns on Lymbourner’s wharf, so placed as to completely command the guns behind the first barrier. The barrier and battery were connected and further protected on the east by a guard-house and strong palisade. Should the guns of the barrier fall into the possession of the attacking party, they could not hope to fight them till they had also silenced the battery on the wharf.

      Such was the strength of the fortress to be assaulted at night, in the dead of winter, in the face of a garrison of nearly double their numbers! The extent of the works and the hope of a sympathetic uprising of the citizens – what else gave the least encouragement to the Americans!

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