The Undaunted Fifty
At the Pres-de-Ville Barricade
On the last day of
Two hundred and thirty-five years ago tonight [31 December 2010], American soldiers attacked the city of Quebec during a raging blizzard in a desperate attempt to capture Canada early in the Revolutionary War. Two separate American expeditions converged in the vicinity of Quebec City in December 1775. One led by General Richard Montgomery had moved up Lake Champlain from Albany, captured Montreal, and came to Quebec from the southwest. The other force, commanded by Benedict Arnold, had originated in Cambridge from the colonial forces gathered around Boston . . . Because Canada had only become a British possession sixteen years earlier, the Americans hoped to recruit many French Canadian residents to their cause, but most either ignored the Americans or sided with the handful of British defenders of the city. Without a popular uprising and lacking artillery sufficient to overcome the walls of the city, Montgomery and Arnold decided that their only chance of success was to attack during a snowstorm. The opportunity arose on New Year’s Eve. Montgomery led his force from the west along the banks of the Saint Lawrence. Arnold would come in from the northeast, skirting the walls of the upper city. The Americans hoped to first capture the lower city and then move upward to the main portion of Quebec. Montgomery’s force met with some initial success, but the snow obscured a heavily defended British-Canadian blockhouse. As Montgomery and his aides passed nearby, those inside fired a cannon which wiped out the American command group, causing the rest of the force to immediately retreat. Arnold fared little better. He made it into the lower city, but the narrow streets of the old town restricted his ability to maneuver. Arnold was shot in the foot and was evacuated by his men. Those who stayed behind were soon surrounded and surrendered.
RichardHowe.com: The Battle of Quebec: December 31, 1775
A storm broke out on December 30, and Montgomery once again gave orders for the attack. Brown and Livingston led their militia companies to their assigned positions that night: Brown by the Cape Diamond redoubt, and Livingston outside St. John’s Gate (fr). When Brown reached his position between 4 am and 5 am, he fired flares to signal the other forces, and his men and Livingston’s began to fire on their respective targets.] Montgomery and Arnold, seeing the flares, set off for the lower town. Montgomery led his men from Wolfe’s Cove down the steep, snow-heaped path towards the outer defenses The storm had turned into a blizzard, making the advance a struggle. As they advanced over the ice-covered rocky ground, the bells of the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church began to ring, signaling the militiamen to arm themselves, as sentries manning the walls of Quebec City saw the American lanterns in the blizzard.
Montgomery’s men eventually arrived at the palisade of the outer defenses, where an advance party of carpenters sawed their way through the wall. Montgomery himself helped saw through the second palisade, and led 50 men down a street towards a two-story building. The building formed part of the city’s defenses, and was in fact a blockhouse occupied by 39 Quebec militia and 9 sailors armed with muskets and cannons. Montgomery unsheathed his sword as he led his men down the street as the blizzard raged. The defenders opened fire at close range, and Montgomery was killed instantly, shot through the head by a burst of grapeshot while most of the men standing beside him were either killed or wounded. The few men of the advance party who survived fled back towards the palisade.