The Siege that Saved Quebec

The War Years (1775-1783)

January 20, 2014
by Jeff Dacus Also by this Author


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Engraving of General Richard Montgomery by Alonzo Chappel.
Engraving of General Richard Montgomery by Alonzo Chappel.

The failure of the rebellious colonists to capture the fortress of Quebec during their invasion of Canada in 1775 had many causes; ironically, a major cause was the colonial force’s victory at St. John’s (the original French, and present, name is Fort Saint Jean).

Guy Carleton, the British governor of Canada, had been watching the colonists’ movements since the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May of 1775. Raids further north convinced Carleton to fortify St. John’s on the west bank of the Richelieu River.  He sent the bulk of the British regulars in Canada to the town and ordered them to build strong defenses in anticipation of American attacks toward the St. Lawrence River and Montreal. Two redoubts were constructed, about one hundred yards apart and connected by a trench and fence. The northern redoubt was centered on a two story stone house and the southern redoubt built around a brick house and out buildings. The backbone of the garrison was about five hundred British regulars of the 7th and 26th Regiments. Including militia, sailors and locals, the British at St. John’s had about 725 fighting men and 80 civilians in the fortifications. There were also several vessels to defend the river.

On September 6, 1775, Philip Schuyler, the rebel commander in the North, began the attack on St. John’s with a force of about 1,200 men that was little more than loosely affiliated militia. The assault was doomed when Indians ambushed a part of the American detachment. The entire American force retreated, even though they outnumbered the Indians nearly ten to one.

On September 10, Schuyler’s second in command Richard Montgomery led a force to attack St. John’s from the north, cutting it off from nearby Fort Chambly. Most of the attackers fled when they perceived another force moving around them. Sadly, the encircling force that precipitated their flight proved to be fellow colonists. Montgomery managed to rally them for a second attempt but the Americans were dissuaded when British artillery fired a few long range shots that scattered the attackers. Montgomery tirelessly organized the men for another attempt on the following morning but the mere rumor of approaching British naval reinforcements cowed the Americans into calling off their attack.

Near mutiny, poor supplies and an overall lack of experience plagued the Americans. Officers refused to follow orders. Colonial provincialism kept the “soldiers” from operating in unison.  Bad weather slowed movement and kept the troops miserable. Commander in name only, Schuyler proved physically incapable of leading the expedition and Montgomery officially became commander of the invasion on September 16.

Tall, erudite, and accomplished, Montgomery was an Irishman who had attended Trinity College in Dublin, served in the French and Indian Wars, and was a friend of Isaac Barre, Edmund Burke and Charles Fox. Leaving British service in 1773, he moved to New York, bought a farm near King’s Bridge, became involved in Whig politics and married Janet Livingston, part of the powerful New York family. A delegate to the first New York provincial congress, Montgomery was chosen as a brigadier general when the Continental Army was formed in May of 1775.

Even with the arrival of reinforcements, Montgomery realized that the poor quality of his troops, the cold conditions, illness, and a shortage of supplies made it almost impossible to carry the fort by assault. Instead he organized a siege like position around the British and began a nuisance bombardment with his light field pieces. He proved his ability as a general by keeping the ragged, disorganized, and insubordinate force together as the colonials settled into what would prove to be a siege of nearly two months.

One of the subordinate officers, Ethan Allen, was assigned to recruit Canadian volunteers. Chafing at the slow siege and the slow rate of enlistments, Allen took a small force on September 25 and attacked Montreal, where Carleton had his headquarters. The ill advised, and unsanctioned, attempt was driven off and Allen was taken prisoner. Morale sagged; many Americans were embarrassed and frustrated by Allen’s action. Washington put it best: “Colonel Allen’s Misfortune will, I hope, teach a Lesson of Prudence and Subordination to others, who may be too ambitious to outshine their General Officers, and regardless of Order and Duty, rush into Enterprizes, which may have unfavorable Effects to the Publick, and are destructive to themselves.”[1]

491px-American_attack_on_QuebecGloom set in as the siege dragged on. Frustrated, Montgomery poured out his feelings to his wife: “…the instant I can with decency slip my neck out of the yoke, I will return to my family and farm, and that peace of mind which I can’t have in my present situation.”[2] Still, he moved to change the situation in his favor, sending a small force with two cannons against the supporting fort at Chambly, which fell on October 18. Large amounts of supplies were taken, sustaining the American force. In addition, Schuyler pushed reinforcements forward that allowed Montgomery to cut off St. John’s completely.

After many disagreements with his officers on placement of batteries, Montgomery set up a position on the eastern shore of the river opposite the fort that put the British boats under fire, ultimately destroying them. Additional artillery from Ticonderoga allowed Montgomery to send more and bigger shots into the Fort, making life miserable for the defenders.

In addition to adroit handling of his troops, Montgomery was equally skilled in dealing with fellow officers. When General David Wooster arrived with troops extremely loyal to him, Montgomery soothed any ill feelings: “My commission is older than yours and I must command…I am but a young man, and you are an old man experienced in war, I shall take your advice as a son would that of his father.”[3]  The two cooperated effectively until Montgomery moved on to join Arnold at Quebec and Wooster stayed as the commander at Montreal.

The arrival of Wooster and more cannons allowed the colonial forces to place batteries to the northwest of St. Jean. Carleton mounted a relief expedition but it was turned back by troops positioned by Montgomery just for that purpose. Completely cut off, British Major Charles Preston chose to surrender St. John’s on November 2. He still had plenty of ammunition but only a three-day supply of food. The victory resulted in the elimination of the majority of trained British fighting troops in Canada, including a young officer named John Andre, who would suffer another, fatal, capture in 1780.  Unfortunately, the victorious siege had taken 54 days and this loss of time would prove fatal to American hopes of taking Canada.

Montgomery’s troops moved on and easily captured Montreal. It was a significant victory, for they not only captured an important outpost but also secured large amounts of supplies that included desperately needed clothing. The capture of the major fur trading post in Canada was also a boost to American morale.

Montgomery linked up with Benedict Arnold’s scraggly force just outside the walled capital of Canada. Unfortunately it was full winter and Montgomery had left half of his troops to guard his supply line back to Ticonderoga. Advanced to the rank of major general on December 9, 1775, Montgomery took over command of the “siege” that Arnold’s men had commenced around the city. Sadly, Montgomery would be killed on December 31 in the ill-fated attack on the fortress.

The unfortunate demise of Montgomery so early in the war was a blow to many. Washington honored the dead general in a letter to Schuyler: “In the Death of this Gentleman, America has sustained a heavy Loss, as he had approved himself a steady Friend to her Rights and of Ability to render her the most essential Services.”[4] Congress thought so much of his accomplishments that they ordered the first “national” monument to be built in his honor. Originally ordered in 1776, it was finally put in place at St. Paul’s Church in New York City in 1788.  Montgomery was originally buried in Quebec but his body was recovered by his wife in 1818 and reinterred at St. Paul’s Church.  Fort Saint Jean served as a military post until 1952, when it became the Royal Military College of Saint Jean, as it remains today.


[1] Washington to Schuyler, October 26, 1775, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Volume 2, September-December, 1775(Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 239.

[2] Richard Montgomery, letter of October 9, 1776. Hunt Louise Livingston, Biographical Notes Concerning General Richard Montgomery together with Hitherto Unpublished Letters (Poughkeepsie, NY: News Book and Job Printing House, 1876), 14.

[3] Statement of Justus Bellamy, pension application 1833. Quoted in John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 382.

[4] Washington to Schuyler, January 18, 1776, The Papers of George Washington, 141.


  • Very nice article. It is fascinating to look at the invasion of Canada and then to compare that with Burgoyne’s campaign in 1777. The same problems presented themselves in both campaigns. Yet, Burgoyne ignored them. For all that vaunted superior military ability, Britain had some really poor decision making in the war. The invasion of Canada showed the factor that would decide the war and that was logistics.

  • Good overview of a little known aspect of the Canadian campaign. Thanks for submitting it.

    In July, 1818, General Montgomery’s remains traveled over Lake Champlain on the steamship “Phoenix.” The next year she caught fire and sank. The wreck is now part of the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve and registered divers can visit her.

  • When Stoughton’s Ezra Tilden is marching up to Ticonderoga in the summer of 1776, he meets soldiers coming back from the ill-fated Quebec expedition. He writes in his diary: “But what disheartened and discouraged me most of all was viz._ to see so many poor soldiers a going home that looked like death almost like walking ghosts or skelitons, that had been to Quebec and some had been taken by the Indians and abused and almost killed: and they had smallpox and some had lost their eyes, one or both of them. Several I saw in one day that had lost one of their eyes and some lost the use of their hip and some hurt one way and some another.

    These I met many of them and saw many others at houses as I was going to Ticonderoga and I asked many of them how the soldiers fared at the Tye or Ticonderoga and they almost told pretty much one story about it. They said the provision was very short and some said it was very poor too; that they drawed no sauce nor not half salt enough neither, and that their duty was very hard on fatigue or guard every day; and that their officers were very cruel and severe to them, (especially to these new recruits) and that they would confine or whip them for little or nothing and such like kind of stuff they told me a great deal of. I am at present not able to say, but if I may venture to say it we shall fare bad enough.”

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