The Assault on 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.



      The task that the Americans had set for themselves – so Arnold had written Washington on November 20 – could not be properly undertaken with less than twenty-five hundred men. More than a month had elapsed since that letter was written, and the garrison of Quebec, reinforced, had well improved the time in strengthening and repairing the fortifications. Nevertheless, Montgomery had determined to hazard an assault with scarcely one thousand effectives, not counting one hundred and sixty Canadians upon whose steadfastness he could not rely. But the enlistment of the New England troops had now but a day or two longer to run, and Montgomery knew that the assault must be made now or never. The American officers watched any indications of the weather with the greatest anxiety, while the rank and file were allowed to return to quarters and even given some liberty in the farmhouses and tippling shops of the vicinity, doubtless from fear that too great strictness of discipline would breed more rapid desertion; and perhaps also to allay the suspicions of the garrison. But it was well understood among them that the first snowstorm in the early hours of the morning was to be the signal for reassembling and for the long-expected attack upon the city. These hours of leisure the soldiers employed in characteristic fashion. It is recorded that several men, who, according to general belief, had feigned sickness to avoid military duty, had halters placed about their necks, and were driven by their more resolute brothers-in-arms with jeers and lashes through the camp.

      One by one the precious days, still clear and cold, slipped away. The army had undergone its share of stormy weather; now, when a cloudy sky was essential to its plans, the heavens were exasperatingly clear. On the last night of the year the moon rose in unclouded splendor over the fortified city and its environs; its placid light glistened on the snow-covered roofs and icy ramparts, and sent broad bands of silver across the frozen crust on the Plains of Abraham. All was quiet in the direction of the town, except at long intervals, when the cries of the sentinels on the walls, “All’s well!” could be distinctly heard. Nor was there much movement within the American lines. Now and then, when a door of one of the public houses in St. Roque opened, the roistering laughter of a group of soldiers could be heard, as the light from a huge wood-fire flashed on the snow without. In front of the Holland house, arrayed in a blanket coat and cape, paced a solitary sentinel, who saluted as officers passed in and out, and then briskly continued on his beat, for it was intensely cold.

      Montgomery, alone in his quarters, strode anxiously to and fro, much agitated, no doubt, by thoughts of his terrible responsibility, and of the fleeting hours which were rapidly ending the enlistment of many of his men, most of them doubtless as anxious to return to their wives and families as he was to rejoin his own dear young wife, so bravely left at his beautiful home on the Hudson. He had bade her adieu saying, “You shall never blush for your Montgomery!” But was his duty plain? A refusal to order his men to storm the city might well be excused, so desperate was the undertaking. Many experienced military men would unhesitatingly condemn such an attempt as mad and criminal; perhaps he would be court-martialed for sacrificing his troops in a hopeless enterprise, undertaken without any fair warrant of success, contrary to his own recorded judgment. Was it true patriotism that animated him? Let him examine himself well, lest he fight for personal glory, to round out his triumphant career in Canada by the capture of this last stronghold of the Crown.

      On the other hand, to raise the siege meant not only losing Quebec, but would soon make it necessary to evacuate Montreal, and to give up Chambly and St. Johns; for, with the breaking of the ice in the spring, Quebec would be heavily reinforced, and Carleton ready for an aggressive campaign. Then the “back door” would be again opened, the British would pour in, and the colonies would cry shame upon the man who, by one gallant effort, might have seized Quebec and turned the tide. Could he not foresee the British armies of Burgoyne and St. Leger on their triumphant march of invasion? Could he divine their blunders? To withdraw now laid him open to a charge of cowardice. Was he only capable of easy victories?

      But even as he despondently dwelt upon his perplexing situation, a cold wind arose and there fell the first snow-flakes of a gathering storm. It was midnight and the heavens were overcast, the moon totally obscured. On this, the last day of the enlistment of the New England men, the storm, so long and impatiently awaited, had come at last! Providence pointed toward Quebec. Officers and men knew full well what the coming storm signaled, and already the tramp of hurrying feet could be heard in the narrow village street, as the men left the farmhouses where they lodged to join their commands. The die was cast; the command given; and the columns formed for the assault. To replace the sprig of hemlock, every man fixed a piece of paper in his cap on which he scribbled the device of the riflemen, “Liberty or death!”

      The New York regiments and part of Easton’s Massachusetts militia assembled at the Holland house; Arnold’s detachment and Lamb’s company of artillerists at Captain Morgan’s quarters; the corps of Canadians under Captain James Livingston and a small party under Captain Jacob Brown, at their respective parade grounds. It is evident from the entries in several diaries, as well as from a letter from Colonel Campbell, that it was Captain Brown of Major Brown’s (his brother’s) detachment who led this party. I think even Mr. Bancroft and Mr. Sparks, as well as every other historian whose work has come to my attention, have overlooked this fact and have not unnaturally credited Major John Brown with the leadership. Captain Brown died soon after of smallpox before Quebec. Major Brown fell in action during the war; perhaps this will explain why the mistake has not been corrected before this time.

      The original daring plan for an assault upon the wall of the Upper Town itself had long ago been abandoned. The Lower Town was now to be the object of the attack. In accordance with the scheme devised by the council of war, Arnold’s detachment was to approach the city from the General Hospital through St. Roque, and then to storm the barrier at Sault au Matelot; Montgomery’s force was to advance to the city from the Holland house, descending first to Wolfe’s Cove, and moving along the beach of the St. Lawrence by way of Anse des Meres, to force the barrier and palisades on the opposite side of the Lower Town at Prés de Ville; then to penetrate into the Lower Town through Champlain street. These were the important movements upon which Montgomery relied. Should they succeed, the two divisions were to press on to the center of the Lower Town, where they were to join near the foot of Mountain Street, which led through the narrow picketed passage to the Upper Town.

      If victory still attended them, their intention was then either to attack the Upper Town at once, to put into practice the cowardly suggestion before mentioned of massing the women and children, and using them as a shield (let us hope this project was never seriously entertained), or to count upon the pressure which the citizens might bring to bear upon Governor Carleton to surrender. Some unexpected chance might come to their aid. Should the Lower Town be gained, while they were still unable to force the works leading to the Upper Town, they could fire the buildings and shipping near them, keeping to the windward. And should the enemy sally, in the midst of the dire confusion which must arise, as the populace, crazed with terror, rushed upon the open gate whence the sallying party had issued, the Americans, mingled with the crowd and concealed by the dense clouds of smoke, might force their way, pell-mell, within the walls of the Upper Town, driving back the garrison before them.

      These were desperate chances, but every chance was weighed. Failing in all this, they believed that so great an achievement as the taking of the Lower Town would greatly encourage the wavering Canadiams, and felt confident that they would hasten to aid the victors, and recruit their strength till they could assail the Upper Town at so many different points at once that the garrison could not adequately man the walls. Why should Montgomery expect less sympathy in Quebec than in Montreal? Had not Carleton confessed the feebleness of the allegiance of the Canadians when he abandoned a city of twelve thousand inhabitants to defend one of half that number? It appears from Montgomery’s letters to his wife that he had conceived a contempt for the British troops and officers then in Canada owing to their conduct at Montreal, at Chambly and at Sorel, and doubtless thought they might be seized with another panic. Should not his star, so strangely fortunate, reach the zenith, even if, like Wolfe, he fell while it shone most brightly?

      Further to distract and deceive the city’s defenders, Captain Livingston, with his Canadians, was to make an attempt to burn St. John’s gate, while Captain Brown with his party was to make a feigned escalade near Cape Diamond bastion. Ensign Khowles with a few men was to proceed to Palace gate, and, if possible, set it on fire, for which purpose a number of boxes of tar and pitch and other combustibles had been prepared by Captain Noble. An advance party of thirty-five men was to proceed to Drummond’s wharf, below Cape Diamond; still another advance party under Captain Eleazer Oswald was to steal past Palace gate, and attack the barricade at Sault au Matelot street. The St. Roque battery was to shell the town. The plan was well thought out, could the appearance and attacks of the respective advance parties and feigned assaults be absolutely simultaneous. For thus the garrison, seemingly assailed at once in every direction, must be scattered in at least five detachments over fortifications nearly three miles in extent. Then the full weight of the columns of Montgomery and Arnold, suddenly hurled into the support, respectively, of the Drummond wharf and Sault au Matelot advance parties, were to break the ends of the line, and join, as nearly as possible, in the center of the Lower Town.

      In Arnold’s column there must have been nearly six hundred men; in Montgomery’s not many more than three hundred; with Captain Livingston, there were between one hundred and fifty and two hundred, while the men under Captain Brown probably numbered from fifty to one hundred.

      As the lines were formed, the officers moved back and forth between them, inspecting each man’s arms and accoutrements. It was now very dark, the storm was fully upon them, the wind sending the snow in swirls along the road, as it swept in gusts around the corners of the houses. It was too cold to keep the men long out of doors, except when in motion. Very soon, about half-past three o’clock, the order came to march, and each column moved to the duty assigned to it. The signal for the assault was to be three sky-rockets sent up at five o’clock near Cape Diamond by Captain Brown.

      Montgomery and Arnold headed their respective divisions – Montgomery much against the wishes of his officers, who begged him, as their leader, to exercise more discretion for the good of all. But he was stubborn in his resolution to set a good example for his men, who, he must have felt, would need to be led, rather than driven, to such a desperate undertaking. It certainly was a crisis that demanded that reckless enthusiasm which great personal risk on the part of a commanding officer usually arouses in his followers. Into such a breach Napoleon threw himself at the bridge of Arcole, Berthier at Lodi; so did Wolfe and Montcalm venture their lives on these very Plains of Abraham. Who shall say, therefore, that Montgomery should not have trusted fortune as did Napoleon, because he met the fate of Montcalm?

      Arnold, with Morgan and Greene beside him, and the thirty pickets under Captain Oswald in advance, passed silently through the streets of St. Roque, and crept forward with the utmost caution along the waterfront toward the first barrier at Sault au Matelot. He was closely followed by his division in the following order:

      Morgan’s company of Virginians; Lamb’s company of artillery, with an eight-pound brass field piece on a sled; then the companies of Topham, Thayer, Ward and Hendricks; Smith’s company under Lieutenant Steele, and last the companies of Goodrich, Handchett and Hubbard. Major Bigelow was with Ward’s company, and commanded the center; Major Meigs was with Hubbard’s company, and commanded the rear. Captain Dearborn’s company, quartered across the St. Charles at Mr. Henry’s, was to join at St. Roque and to fall in behind Morgan’s company, but Arnold’s division having got under way later than the others, because they failed to see the signal rockets, passed through St. Roque nearly a half hour behind time, and noting that the tide was up so that Dearborn could not yet cross the St. Charles, pressed on without waiting, expecting him soon to arrive and drive up the rear.

      Meantime the British officers were watching the suburbs St. John and St. Roque and the Plains of Abraham for any signals of the Americans which might mean a movement upon the works, for informed as they were by deserters that they might expect an attack on the first stormy night, they had now every reason to think that the conditions prayed for by the Americans had been granted. As Captain Malcolm Fraser of the Royal Emigrants, who that night commanded the main guard in the Upper Town, was going his rounds, and had passed the guard at the gate St. Louis, about five o’clock in the morning he saw the three sky-rockets spring into the air from the heights without the works at Cape Diamond. Surmising at once that this was the signal for the assault, he hurried notice to all the guards, and ran down St. Louis street, shouting, “Turn out, turn out!” His cry was heard by General Carleton and his staff at the Recollects, who instantly sprang to arms. Captain Fraser ordered the alarm-bell rung, while the drums of his guard beat to arms. Within a few minutes most of the garrison were at their alarm-posts, every person able to bear arms was in motion, even old men upwards of seventy, and before long all the bells of the city were clamoring forth the alarm. All the British sentries between Cape Diamond and Palace gate now reported many repeated flashes like lightning, and at regular distances, on the Heights of Abraham, lights which seemed to be lanterns placed on poles. A few moments later a heavy and hot fire was opened upon the ramparts by a body of men posted behind a rising ground within eighty yards of the wall at Cape Diamond. By the flashes of their muskets their heads could be seen though their bodies were covered.

      The head of Arnold’s column had by this time silently picketed in past Palace gate, and even beyond the Hotel Dieu without being discovered. It was still very dark. The storm had become almost a blizzard. A cutting northeast wind blew the fine particles of snow into the men’s faces, half blinding them, so that they were obliged to bend under the blast and move faithfully in the footsteps of their leaders, filled and concealed, almost as soon as made, by the fast-falling snow. They protected the pans of their flintlocks as well as they could under the skirts or lapels of their woollen blanket coats, but the snow catching on the rough surface was soon melted by the heat of their bodies, and most of their muskets and rifles were soon rendered useless. The ice from the St. Charles forced up in great blocks against the roadside occasioned deep snow-drifts and narrowed the passage beneath the walls so much that the column had to break into files in order to advance rapidly. There were many warehouses, sheds, and wharves scattered along the river, and ice-bound small craft were moored to them by ropes and hawsers.

      Suddenly from the direction of St. John’s gate and Cape Diamond faint reports of small arms smothered by the storm, followed by thundering detonations of artillery, broke the stillness, and a few moments afterwards the first shot from a sentry on the walls warned them that they were discovered. It was followed by another and another, till a storm of bullets from the muskets of the sailors under cover of the pickets behind the Hotel Dieu and Montcalm’s house swept their narrow path. Many of Arnold’s men fell under this fire. Fire balls, hurled frequently from the ramparts, illuminated the spaces of open road between the buildings, across which the Americans had to rush, encumbered as they were, not only with scaling ladders, but also with long pikes or spontoons for the escalade of the barrier. At every disadvantage, they could neither see their enemy nor tell in which direction to return the fire, except as they might guess from the flashes of flame which spurted from every loophole in the towering walls, while the British, not fifty yards distant, secure in casemates and sheltered from the storm, picked them off as they ran past.

      Beneath the pickets behind the Hotel Dieu, a musket bullet from the wall shattered Arnold’s leg and stretched him, bleeding profusely, in the snow. It had been his intention to order the small advance party to open first a musketry fire on the barrier and then, while Morgan and his company stole around the end of the barrier on the ice, to open to the right and left and permit Captain Lamb to bring up the field-piece and occupy the enemy’s attention till Morgan had time to take them by surprise in the rear. Arnold’s wound, and the delay in bringing up the field piece owing to the difficulties of the road, necessitated a hurried change of plan at a critical moment. In a short and hasty consultation it was agreed that Morgan should assume the command, though Greene was his ranking officer, for Morgan had seen service, and this was the first time the three field officers, Greene, Bigelow and Meigs, had been under fire. The Reverend Mr. Spring, a fighting parson, with a soldier of Morgan’s company, supported Arnold on the long and painful journey back to the General Hospital, while Morgan, gathering about him his Virginians, and backed by a few of the most daring officers and men, who had pressed on to the head of the coluum, dashed around the precipice of Sault au Matelot directly upon the first barrier.

      Captain Daniel Morgan. Afterwards Major-General U. S. A. and Member of Congress.
      Captain Daniel Morgan. Afterwards Major-General U. S. A. and Member of Congress.

      So completely had the British been taken by surprise in this quarter, that the firing to the north of Sault au Matelot deadened by storm, had just aroused the guard of about thirty Englishmen under Captain McCloud, half drunk with healths to the new year. Accustomed to such sounds by the frequent false alarms of the past two weeks, they started with reluctance to leave their comfortable shelter in the guardhouse, to join the solitary sailor who was on guard near the two twelve-pounders on a platform a few yards behind the barrier. The Americans, led by Morgan with a Canadian guide, yelling like demons of the storm, dashed upon the barrier, and before the guard heard the sentry’s cry, were sweeping over it and rushing upon the platform and wharf battery, which was flanked by houses on either side. Neither courage nor presence of mind deserted the plucky sailor; having no slow-match, he discharged his gun into the vent of one of the cannon, and its charge of grape burst with a roar in the very face of the Americans. It killed the Canadian guide, but, being aimed too high, hurt no one else. In an instant the Americans had their ladders against the barrier which immediately covered the two guns.

      Morgan, seeing the foremost soldier hesitate, pulled him down and springing upon the ladder, mounted first of all, crying in terrific tones, “Follow me, boys!” As his head appeared above the barrier, the whole guard fired at him from within. So close were his enemies, and so charmed this man’s life, that one ball passed through his cap, another grazed the left side of his face, cutting off a lock of his hair, while fire scorched him and grains of powder were embedded in his face. The concussion was so great as to knock him from the top of the ladder into the snow beneath. For a moment the assailants were checked. But the gallant frontiersman was instantly on his feet again, and had recommenced ascending the ladder. A wild cheer of admiration rose from his men as they followed his example. As Morgan leaped over the wall he landed on the muzzle of one of the cannon, falling thence on the platform under the gun. Luckily the accident saved him from a dozen bayonets of the guard, which were presented at his breast. In that single second of delay the ensign of his company, Charles Porterfield, Lieutenant Heth and others, as fast as there was room to jump down, followed and saved him. Once more on his feet, though severely bruised on the knee, he was able to direct his followers to fire into the guard-house, from the windows of which the retreating guard were firing, and to follow up with pikes and bayonets. This they did with a will, killing the sailor sentry with their pikes before he could reach his comrades, and driving the guard through the house into the street.

      Morgan, with Captain Thayer and others, rushed on through a sally port at the end of the platform and around the corner of the house, and met the retreating guard as they fled before the oncoming provincials. The gigantic rifleman, shouting to them to lay down their arms or receive no quarter, advanced upon them to make good his word. The guard threw down their arms and surrendered. Stopping only long enough to stack their wet guns and exchange them for the dry and better arms of the captured guard, Morgan’s men, with bayonets fixed, poured up the narrow street of Sault au Matelot, taking prisoner everybody who opposed them. But they had not advanced more than two hundred yards before they perceived another barrier, and battery, which appeared to close the further end of the street, here not more than twenty feet wide, and it was deemed prudent to halt and await the arrival of reinforcements before assaulting it.

      The fighting up to this time had been done chiefly by Morgan’s Virginians and fragments of some of the other leading companies. While they waited, Morgan, adopting some disguise and attended only by an interpreter, made his way, according to his own account, almost to the Upper Town, “to see what was going on.” He returned and called a council of officers, to whom he related that the sally port of the second barrier was standing open, that its guard had deserted it, and that “people were running from the Upper Town in whole platoons, giving themselves up as prisoners; to get out of the way of the confusion,” and that he had found no one in arms to oppose them.

      But the Americans had already more prisoners than they knew what to do with. Captain Thayer accounted them to be nearly one hundred and fifty – almost as numerous as their captors, whose comrades, having lost their way in the crooked streets, were coming up very slowly. Furthermore, Morgan’s orders were to await Montgomery here. But Montgomery did not come. The golden moments of victory were flying. It was urged that if they advanced further they would do so contrary to orders; that their prisoners might break out, and turn the battery they had just taken upon them and cut off their retreat; that Montgomery was certainly coming down the St. Lawrence River and would join them in a few moments, so that if they acted with caution and prudence, they were sure of conquest. To this reasoning Morgan reluctantly yielded his own opinion, and it was agreed to remain where they were until Morgan had gone back over the ground they had covered, to bring up Bigelow and Meigs with men from the center and rear to guard the captured barrier, and augment their strength.

      After Morgan left them, his men sought cover where they could behind the houses, in them, or in the doorways, but the British and French were more familiar with the ground, and often gained points from which they picked off the Americans even within the houses. Ensign Porterfield found himself in a room with Lieutenants Bruen and Cleek and seven or eight men; two of his companions were killed outright beside him. Some of the Americans who disdained any sort of prudence, and were near enough to the enemy to reach them with their voices, seized this lull to challenge them from the open street to come out and do honest battle. But the enemy discreetly clung to their defenses. Those in some of the houses pointed the muzzles of their firearms from the windows, while they screened themselves entirely behind the window frames, and fired into the street at random. The Americans, jeering and laughing, responded as blindly by emptying their rifles in at these same windows, creeping up under the sills for the purpose. As no one dared to show his head above the barrier at the end of the street, it was even possible for a few of the Americans, by a quick rush, to get so close to it that the British could not dislodge them, and these men succeeded by discharging their pieces through the portholes in preventing the service of some of the guns behind the barricade.

      Meanwhile the feints of Livingston and Brown along the wall of the Upper Town had not been wholly without effect. To the British, the city had seemed to be assailed at every point, the noise of their own guns and musketry helping to produce the impression. Other quarters had been reinforced; this of Sault au Matelot had been neglected. But Livingston’s Canadians only too well acted out their reputation for unreliability and cowardice, and as soon as the firing became heavy, took to their heels and no longer figured in the conflict.

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