Before Quebec | Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec


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    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.



      At three o’clock on the afternoon of the 13th, another council of officers was held, and it was resolved to attempt to cross the St. Lawrence that night and to make a landing at Wolfe’s Cove. The evening was calm and cold, and the moon would not rise till the early hours of morning. The troops, numbering some five or six hundred, were drawn up in the cove of the Chaudière, under cover of the mill, where their canoes and dugouts of pine logs had been collected. Men accustomed to steal upon the wary deer and keen-scented moose did not need to muffle their paddles, and indeed it was not necessary to take great precautions against noise, for even had they not been several miles from the ships-of-war, the thunder of the Falls of the Chaudière would have silenced here anything less than a cannon shot, but when they should near Wolfe’s Cove every precaution must be taken. The distance to be traversed was great, because at an angle, probably a mile and a half or two miles, but the tide, being on the ebb, would assist them.

      The first canoes left the shore about nine o’clock. They were seven in number, one of them filled with savages. The pilot boat carried Arnold, Thayer, Topham, Dr. Senter, and two others. Gently, silently, but swiftly, their paddles dipped and turned in the smooth waters of the dark river. Every nerve was. quivering with excitement; every eye on the alert, peering into the darkness. Canoe after canoe was quietly lifted from the bank and touched the water without a splash, almost without a ripple. Llike an army of shades or spirits, they embarked and glided away into the darkness. More than an hour was passed in suspense by those still waiting on shore. Then out of the darkness a darker object took form and the prow of a canoe, paddled by a single occupant, grounded on the shore. It was quickly swung about by ready hands and filled with eager soldiers. Two or three times the same canoes went and returned.

      One of the canoes, steered by Lieutenant Steele, overloaded to the water’s edge with men, baggage and arms, burst apart in midstream. The occupants, except the Lieutenant, were picked up by the nearest canoes. But all were now so crowded that they did not permit the reception of another man, so that Steele could not be taken in. Wheeler, who steered one of the canoes, made Steele throw his arms over the stern – and then, to keep them warm and enable Steele to maintain his hold, sat upon them and towed the Lieutenant ashore, chilled to the bone and exhausted. Nothing was lost except a few guns and clothes. By three o’clock, when the moon began to rise, five hundred men had crossed; only a few more than one hundred were still to be transported.

      Where, all this time, were the Hunter and the Lizard? There was no breeze, and they were swinging sleepily at anchor. And the boat patrol? One of them, a barge from the Hunter, was heard by those already on the northern shore rowing towards them in the darkness-easily to be distinguished from a canoe by the sound of the oars grating in the thole-pins. It rapidly approached. Discovery seemed unavoidable. Arnold, realizing the value of the first blow, hailed. The ship’s boat came to. He gave the order to fire. The volley shook the echoes of the banks, and the guard-boat, “with screaming and dismal lamentations,” backed and rowed away.

      But the alarm was given, and the moon was soon well above the horizon. It was, therefore, impossible for the rest of the detachment to cross that night. Part of the men left behind came over a few days later, though a permanent guard of sixty was maintained at Point Levi.

      There was then a good road cut aslant the precipice which Wolfe had scaled with such difficulty in 1759 – just sixteen years before. The Americans had expected to find sentinels of the enemy posted along this road and perhaps a guard to dispute their landing at the Cove. There was none, however. A reconnoitering party was made up from the first troops landed, and, led by Morgan, it ascended to the Plains of Abraham and disappeared in the direction of the city. It had been necessary to make allowance for the great tides which, with an easterly wind, rise from nineteen to twenty-two feet, and with a westerly wind from sixteen to nineteen. The strong ebb tide had much scattered the canoes, and they reached the shore at different points from the Cove to Sillery. As fast as the men came up they followed Morgan’s party up the pathway, but when they reached the plains they were immediately formed and paraded. Details were counted off and guards mounted.

      The morning air was sharp, the wind northwest and uncommonly penetrating, and the men paced to and fro swinging their arms and trying to keep warm. Everything in the direction of Quebec was so still that they could hear the cries of the sentries on the walls. Very soon Morgan’s party returned and reported that everything was quiet in the neighborhood of the city. The troops now took up their march for “Sans Bruit,” the residence of Major Henry Caldwell, formerly that of General James Murray, a large mansion with outhouses near the St. Charles River, which had the character of a manor-house and its dependencies. It was a mile and a half or two miles from Wolfe’s Cove, and about the same distance from Quebec. The place was stealthily surrounded and Caldwell’s servants surprised as they were loading teams for the city. One of them was taken prisoner.

      The mansion house became headquarters, and the rank and file were comfortably quartered in adjacent buildings. The men proceeded at once to appropriate and butcher some of the stock with which the place was plentifully supplied. They secured twenty working bullocks, four or five fat ones, and all of Caldwell’s horses. Additional provisions were secured from several teams which were stopped by guards posted on the roads leading into the city, and brought into camp. Thus plentifully supplied, the men made a hearty breakfast, and those not detailed for guard duty threw themselves down upon the furniture or the floors of the buildings to which they had been assigned and were soon sleeping heavily.

      It was reported among the soldiers, and the story has been repeated by historians, that all that night St. John’s gate, one of the principal entrances through the city wall, had stood open guarded only by one drowsy sentinel. But if such a golden opportunity to surprise the citadel was lost – which seems at least doubtful – it must be accounted for by Arnold’s anxiety to get his entire command across the river during the hours of darkness, and the delay of any concerted forward movement until that important object was safely accomplished. Morgan’s party does not appear to have discovered that the gate was so inadequately guarded, and Arnold was certainly ignorant of the fact – if fact it was.

      Arnold now dispatched the following letter to Montgomery:

      “COLVIL (sic) PLACE, 2 miles from Quebec, 14 Nov., 1775.

      Dear Sir: – I wrote you yesterday from Point Levi, by an express sent from Sorel by Colonel Easton, of my intention of crossing the St. Lawrence, which I happily effected between 9 and 4 in the morning without being discovered, until my party of 500 men were nearly all over, when a frigate’s barge coming up, discovered our landing and prevented our surprising the town. We fired into her and killed three men. I am this minute informed by a gentleman from town, that Colonel McLean had determined to pay us a visit this morning with 600 men and some field-pieces. We are prepared and anxious to see him. Others from town inform me that the inhabitants in general have laid down their arms. By the best information they are in the greatest confusion; very short of wood and provisions, much divided, and refused provisions from the inhabitants; and if blocked up by a superior force, must, as soon as the frost sets in, surrender. I have thought proper to despatch the bearer to inform you of my situation, as also with a request I have to make. I must refer you to him for particulars, as I have been so unfortunate in my former letters, I don’t choose to commit every intelligence to writing. It is the current report here that you have invested Montreal and cut off their retreat. This, I hope, is true, and that I shall soon have the pleasure of seeing you here.

      I am, dear Sir, with great respect,
      Your obed’t. humble servant,
      B. ARNOLD.


      P. S. – Since writing the foregoing, the enemy found means to make prisoner of one of our out sentinels. I immediately invested the town as nearly as possible with my troops, which has occasioned them to set fire to the suburbs of St. Johns, and several of the houses without the wall are now in flames.”

      George Merchant, of Smith’s company, was the unlucky sentinel captured; he had been stationed in a thicket where he had the disadvantage of seeing little and being seen from higher ground. A daring sergeant of the 7th regiment of the King’s troops, with a few followers, noting his exposed position, for which he was less to blame than the officer of the guard, glided through the suburb of St. John under cover of the houses, and then, concealed by a thicket, crept stealthily within a few feet of Merchant and, springing suddenly upon him, disarmed him before he could discharge his piece. But this was not done without giving an alarm, and the Englishmen and their captive were hotly pursued to the shelter of the guns of the city.

      The excitement incident to the capture of Merchant and the pursuit of his captors gave rise to the report that the enemy were sallying. The drummers beat the assembly; the troops hurriedly formed and marched towards the city. Coming within 800 yards or so of the fortifications they halted, and looking up at the walls, crowded with soldiers and citizens, cheered lustily, while their enemies as loudly shouted their defiance. For some time this foolishness continued, while the little force, lacking unfortunately miraculous trumpets to demolish their Jericho, passed in review before their half-friendly and half-hostile audience. Then the English brought to bear a thirty-six pounder, and though they hurt no one, and some of the Americans in derision chased and picked up the spent balls, as they had at Boston, they hastened the performance. The provincials soon marched back, whence they came, but not before Adjutant Febiger had advanced within a hundred paces of the walls and coolly examined the state of their repair.

      Some biased historians have carelessly claimed that Arnold having been known in Quebec as a humble dealer in horses – a “horse jockey,” as his enemies called him – wished to display before the citizens of Quebec his newly-gained power and importance; but Arnold was no such vain fool. He probably had one of two objects in view. He may have wished, by the smallness of his force, to excite the contempt of Lieutenant-Governor Cramahè, who commanded the garrison during Governor Carleton’s absence in Montreal, and so to induce him, as Wolfe did Montcalm, to seek an easy victory in the open plain, which would have enabled Arnold’s friends to encourage an uprising in his rear – perhaps even to shut the gates of the city upon the regulars and loyalists. This view is borne out by Arnold’s letter to Captain Handchett, sent the very next day, and also a letter sent to a friend at Montreal, dated November 25, from Point aux Trembles. Or else, as we are told by one diarist, the troops were marched past several times so as to give the impression of greater strength than they really possessed. This would have tended to encourage the sympathizers within the walls and to mislead Cramahè into a prudential inactivity which would secure the safety of Arnold’s command till those of his men still on the opposite bank of the St. Lawrence could cross, or till the expected junction with Montgomery could be effected.

      Arnold now sent young Ogden with a flag and the following summons to Lieutenant-Governor Cramahè:

      CAMP BEFORE QUEBEC, 14 Nov., 1775.

      Sir: – The unjust, cruel and tyrannical acts of a venal British Parliament, tending to enslave the American Colonies, have obliged them to appeal to God and the sword for redress. That Being in whose hands are all human events, has hitherto smiled on their virtuous efforts. And as every artifice has been used to make the innocent Canadians instruments of their cruelty by instigating them against the Colonies, and oppressing them on their refusing to enforce every oppressive mandate, the American Congress, induced by motives of humanity, have at their request sent Gen. Schuyler into Canada for their relief. To cooperate with him, I am ordered by His Excellency, Gen. Washington, to take possession of the town of Quebec. I do, therefore, in the name of the United Colonies, demand surrender of the town, fortifications, etc., of Quebec to the forces of the United Colonies under my command; forbidding you to injure any of the inhabitants of the town in their person or property, as you will answer the same at your peril. On surrendering the town the property of every individual shall be secured to him; but if I am obliged to carry the town by storm, you may expect every severity practiced on such occasions; and the merchants who may now save their property, will probably be involved in the general ruin.

      I am, Sir, your most Wt. h’ble servant,
      B. ARNOLD.
      To Hon. HECT. T. CRAMAHE, Lt.-Gov. of Quebec.

      But this threatening missive never reached the man to whom it was addressed, for as the flag approached the walls, it was fired upon and the bearer was forced to retire.

      When it was known that Arnold with his army had reached Point Levi there was, as might have been expected, great excitement within Quebec. Cramahè was thoroughly frightened, and had very little hope of making any defense. Owing to the cabals of the disaffected, that is to say, of the enemies of the government, there was great danger that the city would be given up without even a show of resistance. In the nick of time, the troops from Newfoundland, referred to in Arnold’s letters to Montgomery, arrived, and when McLean with his Emigrants entered the town, the presence and encouragement of this hardy and able Scotch officer restored a state of equilibrium, though it was still one which might at any moment be unsettled to the advantage of the rebels. Martial law had long since been proclaimed by Carleton, and McLean did not hesitate to take advantage of it. One Williams, a rebel partisan, who was haranguing a crowd of doubtful spirits, he caused to be ousted from the place of meeting, and the assemblage was then forcibly dispersed.

      Immediately after McLean’s arrival a, council of war was held, whereat the fresh vigor and courage with which he had inspired the slender garrison was in great evidence. It was determined to lay the war ships by the wharves and keep them in the harbor all winter if necessary, in order that their crews might reinforce the garrison. The defenses were instantly to be put in such repair as the time would allow; all British inhabitants and all seafaring people then in the city were forbidden to leave it, and a bounty of three pounds sterling was offered to any who would volunteer in the King’s service. A roster of the entire available force, regulars, militia, sailors and loyal inhabitants, made for this council, disclosed a total of 1,248 men, not all of whom could be counted on for hard fighting. The supply of arms and ammunition was not exactly inadequate, though the defenders would have been glad if it had been larger. Provisions, in spite of Arnold’s information to the contrary, were in sufficient quantity to enable the city to stand a prolonged siege if system and economy were observed in their distribution.

      Before proceeding further in the narrative of the operations before Quebec, it will aid the reader to a clearer understanding of what is to come if the situation of the city and its famous defenses, natural and artificial, be briefly described. A ridge of high land extending from Cape Rouge on the northern bank of the St. Lawrence about eight miles along the shore, terminates at the eastern extremity in a rocky and very high hill, which rises to the west of the beautiful basin formed by the confluence of the River St. Charles with the St. Lawrence. There stands Quebec. The citadel, in 1775, occupied about forty acres, and towered with independent defenses on the crest of this rocky hill nearly three hundred and fifty feet above the river. Exclusive of the works on the citadel there were continuous fortifications all around that portion of the city, some two hundred feet below the citadel, which is termed the Upper Town. They consisted of bastions connected by lofty curtains of solid masonry and ramparts from twenty-five to thirty feet in height and twenty feet thick. Round towers, loopholed casemates and massive gates recurred at certain distances in this great wall.

      As the American officers from the Plains of Abraham gazed upwards upon this Gibraltar of America, they noted that the city wall began with a lofty bastion on the summit of a steep, rocky promontory, the foot of which might have been washed by a high tide of the St. Lawrence, but was now separated from the river by a narrow cart-road, which ran so close to the water that vessels were often moored to iron staples driven in the rocky bank which formed one side of the road. This cart- road was the sole entrance on the west to the Lower Town, and the road and cluster of houses here were known collectively as Près de Ville. The steep promontory of rock, because of the sparkle of quartz crystals in the black lime slate of its shaggy flank, was called Cape Diamond. It presented, towards the west and south, a sheer escarpment of over three hundred feet. The bastion which surmounted it bore the same name. From Cape Diamond bastion the wall ran toward the interior, inclining to the northeast for about eighteen or nineteen hundred yards, its height varying to meet the natural elevations or depressions of the ground, and separating the suburbs St. Louis and St. John and the suburb St. Roque, which covered the lowland between the suburb St. John and the St. Charles River from the Upper Town; then, making a sharp angle by turning to the right, it was broken by a gateway, known as Palace gate, with an adjacent guard-house.

      Between Cape Diamond bastion and Palace gate there were four other bastions; the nearest to Cape Diamond was called La Glaciere. The other three bastions, St. Louis, St. Ursula, and Potasse, flanked the gateways of St. Louis and St. John, the former admitting the road from Three Rivers to the Upper Town and the latter the road from St. Foy. The suburbs St. John and St. Roque were populous before the siege, and for that reason the English later found it necessary to sally from time to time to burn houses, in order to obtain a clear range for their cannon directed against the American batteries on the Plains of Abraham and in St. Roque.

      From Palace gate the fortifications continued along the brow of a high cliff overlooking the St. Charles for a distance of three hundred yards until they reached a point where Hope gate was subsequently built. Then commenced a gradual elevation of the ground, which served as a continuation of the great wall, completed the circle of artificial and natural defenses around the Upper Town, and terminated at the eastern point of Cape Diamond. The circuit of the fortifications which enclosed the Upper Town was two and three-quarter miles. Beyond the location of Hope gate the wall continued until it reached a perpendicular cliff called the Sault au Matelot, between the foot of which and the water was a narrow street, taking its name, “Sault au Matelot,” from the cliff, as did also that quarter of the Lower Town immediately adjacent. This street formed the only approach to the Lower Town from the east.

      The dwellings and warehouses in the Lower Town, crowded together in the space between Sault au Matelot and Près de Ville, clung like barnacles to the foundation rock which supported the Upper Town and citadel. The scant soil upon which some of the houses of the Lower Town were built had not been left exposed by the river’s receding from its channel, but was merely the drift and accumulated deposit lodged at the base of the mountain of rock by the current and occasional freshets. The streets were narrow, steep and tortuous, and always wet, or slippery with ice. One of the broadest, but steepest, Mountain street, led from near the center of the Lower Town through a narrow, strongly-picketed passage to the Upper Town. This was properly the only way of passing directly from the Lower Town to the Upper Town and the citadel. Accordingly, this steep passageway and Mountain street were so fortified that they fairly bristled with cannon from intersecting barriers and parallel battlements, ready to receive any enemy on his front and both flanks with a raking fire. The entrance itself was approached at the last moment by a declivity which brought any attacking force directly under a row of palisades, from the shelter of which the garrison could crush them en masse with heavy stones and timbers hurled from above. It would be about as easy for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle as for an American soldier to pass safely through the jaws of the British Lion into the Upper Town.

      On the landward side, that is to say to the south and southwest, the great wall of the Upper Town was further protected by a stone ditch or moat, and supported a serried array of heavy cannon, which, with mortars and other pieces of ordnance placed at every point of vantage in the Upper Town and citadel, peered like huge, black, and terrible gargoyles over the redoubts and through bomb-proof casemates. The Cul-de-sac at the Lower Town where the Lizard, the Hunter and a score or more of merchantmen were laid up for the winter; the River St. Lawrence and the Bay and River St. Charles, were commanded by the guns of the Upper Town and citadel.

      The Upper Town contained all the more notable public buildings and charitable and religious houses, such as the governor’s house, the Castle of St. Louis, behind which was the Place d’ Armes, the Church and Convent of the Recollects, the Jesuit College founded in 1637, the Hotel Dieu endowed in 1663 by Mgr. de Montmorency Laval, first Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec and Canada, and the Seminary of Quebec, established in 1639 by the Duchesse d’ AiguilIon, niece of Richelieu, together with the private residences of some of the government officials and leading merchants. The private houses were, for the most part, built of a dark slate and gray limestone, quarried from the rock on which the city stood, and were only one story high. The streets were broad, though as rugged and even steeper than those of the Lower Town, and crossed one another at all sorts of angles. There were too many fine gardens and orchards, squares and open places, so that the high public buildings and eleemosynary institutions were thus given great prominence, terraced, as they were, one above the other, on their lofty site. The approach to the citadel far above was by a winding road leading from St. Louis gate, hewn from the solid rock and commanded everywhere by the guns of the different bastions.

      The Lower Town borrowed none of this grandeur; there were the warerooms and shops, the storehouses and sheds of a commercial district, and the homes of the burghers and the poor. The houses were of the same general character as those of the Upper Town, but were two or three stories in height. Wharves and docks bordered the St. Lawrence and St. Charles, and seemed to keep the Lower Town from slipping backward into the water. But it was this squalid section of the fortress city that created and contained the wealth so generously lavished on the beautiful Upper Town. It was at this, therefore, that Montgomery finally aimed, and through it that he hoped to conquer the Upper Town and citadel.

      The Americans had no means by which to make an attack from the water, and the strong tides and rapid current of the St. Lawrence made any approach on the ice too uncertain thus early in the season. The garrison having, therefore, little to fear on the water side of the Lower Town, were able to man the walls on the landward side in a more effectual manner than their numbers would otherwise have permitted. The Americans could not approach the wall day or night without being fired upon with both cannon and small arms, for at the sound of the least suspicious movement at night, fire balls which would burn brightly even in the snow could be thrown with great advantage. The crossing of the moat, concealed in the deep drifts, would require care and time; any scaling ladders used must of necessity be long and unwieldy and on such treacherous footing would rest most insecurely against the high, ice-covered ramparts.

      The artificial defenses of the city were not in the best of condition; Arnold in one of his sanguine moments spoke of them as “ruinous.” But even so, the natural strength of the citadel made it almost impregnable, and long before the Americans were ready to make their assault, the walls and bastions and gates had been put into such a state of repair, under the energetic supervision of Governor Carleton, that they cannot have failed much of the efficiency they were designed to possess. The garrison which held the fortifications was small, it is true, but it was at least well commanded. General Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, who though absent upon Arnold’s arrival made his way into Quebec soon after, as we shall see, had been Wolfe’s quartermaster-general, and was present at the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. With a firm will, he possessed a gracious and winning manner, and such control over himself that he appeared unruffled and at ease in the midst of difficulties which reduced his subordinates to despondency. He was an excellent and experienced officer withal, devoted to the Crown and unwavering in the discharge of his duty.

      The officer who immediately commanded the troops was Colonel Allen McLean, of the 84th regiment, called the Royal Emigrants, because principally composed of those of the gallant Fraser’s Highlanders, so conspicuous under Wolfe, who had settled in Canada. He was also an officer of experience and zeal, though a fierce partisan, a man of unflagging energy, and most active in devising and promoting plans for the defense of the city. It was he who had arrived with reinforcements in the very nick of time, just as Arnold had appeared at Point Levi.

      The British militia were under the command of Major Henry Caldwell, who had the provincial rank of lieutenant-colonel. He had served as deputy quartermaster-general under Wolfe, and had settled in the province after the conquest. He also was an energetic and efficient officer, and, though his detestation of the rebels needed no stimulant, he had now good cause for personal ill-will, for it was his country seat which they had occupied – and pillaged. The French-Canadian militia within the town were commanded by Colonel LeComte Duprè, an officer of ability and unmistakable loyalty. He had held a commission in 1755 under Marquis Duquesne. Like Caldwell, he had suffered at the hands of the Americans, some four hundred of whom had been quartered on his estate near Quebec, which they nearly ruined.

      The battalion of seamen was led by Colonel Hamilton, captain of the Lizard; and among the crews of the ships were many excellent artillerists, who were of great service in manning the numerous batteries. Besides these there were not a few subordinate officers who had gained valuable experience in frontier service and even in European campaigns. There were between eight and nine hundred regulars, seamen and militia in the town, besides an uncertain number of loyal citizens who could be called upon in emergency to assist in the defense of the fortifications. The total number of persons – men, women and children, within the walls has been estimated at five thousand.

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