The Battle of Quebec was fought on December 31, 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. It was part of the Canada Campaign and ended in a British victory. The Americans lost General Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold was wounded in the failed attack. Afterward, the Continental Army laid siege to Quebec but was forced to retreat in the spring of 1776 when British reinforcements arrived.
Summary of the Battle of Quebec
The Battle of Quebec was fought on December 31, 1775, at Quebec City in the Province of Quebec. It was part of the Canada Campaign of 1775–1776. After the American Revolutionary War started in April 1775, the Continental Congress was concerned the British would launch an invasion from the north, out of Canada. During the Siege of Boston, Congress organized the militia forces surrounding the city into the Continental Army and elected George Washington as Commander-in-Chief. On June 27, 1775, Congress authorized General Philip Schuyler to assemble an army and occupy Fort Ticonderoga. Schuyler received his instructions from the Continental Congress on June 30, which explicitly told him he could only move into Canada if it was not “disagreeable” to the Canadians. With the help of Benedict Arnold, Schuyler and Washington devised a plan to send two armies into Canada and capture Quebec City. The first army was led by Schuyler and moved north from Fort Ticonderoga toward Quebec City. The second army was led by Arnold, and went west, through the rough backcountry of Maine, toward Quebec City. Schuyler fell ill during the Siege of Fort St. John and turned the command over to General Richard Montgomery. Montgomery captured St. John, Chambly, and Montreal, before marching on Quebec City. By the time the two armies converged on Quebec City, the British knew they were coming and were prepared. The Americans gathered outside the city and tried to bombard it with artillery, but they were too far away or the guns were too small to do much damage. Montgomery and Arnold had another problem — the enlistments of many of their men would expire on January 1. On December 25, the Americans held a Council of War and devised a plan to launch an attack on the British. Early in the morning of December 31, Montgomery led an attack on the Lower Town, while other forces attacked strategic positions around the city. Unfortunately, heavy snow, darkness, and confusion created chaos. Montgomery and his men were ambushed and Montgomery was killed. Arnold’s attack also failed, and he was badly wounded in the leg. Daniel Morgan tried to rally the Americans and press the attack, but after fierce fighting, he was forced to surrender. Arnold took command of the remaining American forces outside of the city and organized a siege, which lasted until the spring. British reinforcements, under command of General John Burgoyne, arrived at Quebec City in May 1776 and forced the Americans to scatter and begin the retreat south to Crown Point.
This 1786 painting by John Trumbull depicts the death of General Richard Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec. Image Source: Wikipedia.
- Date Started: The fighting started on Sunday, December 31, 1775.
- Date Ended: The fighting ended on December 31, 1775.
- Location: The battle was fought in Quebec City, in the Province of Quebec.
- Who Won: The British won the Battle of Quebec.
- Military Campaign: The battle was part of the Canada Campaign of 1775–1776.
Key Events in the Battle of Quebec
American Plan of Attack
- Montgomery proposed two attacks, one on the Lower Town and the other at Cape Diamond, which would be carried out at night.
- He planned to divide the troops into two forces, one led by him and the other by Arnold.
- The attack on the Lower Town would set houses in St. Roque on fire, which would also burn the British stockade that was there.
- The main force would attack Cape Diamond.
- A smaller force led by Colonel James Livingston would attack St. John’s Gate and set it on fire. At the same time, Major John Brown would lead an attack on the Cape Diamond bastion on the western side of the city. Montgomery believed these moves would distract the British, which would allow for the attack on the Lower Town.
- Arnold would attack from the north, coming out of the suburbs of Sainte Roche. He would break through the barriers the British had erected at the north end of Lower Town and proceed to meet Montgomery in the street called Sault au Matelot.
- Montgomery and his men would approach the Lower Town by moving along the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River. They planned to break into the Lower Town and combine forces with Arnold and his men at Sault au Matelot.
- Once the two forces joined up they would attack the Upper Town and take the city.
Prelude to the Attacks
- Montgomery issued orders for his men to be prepared to launch the attack at 2:00 in the morning of December 31. He also directed them to fasten a white piece of paper to the front of their hats, so they would recognize each other. Some of the men wrote the famous words of Patrick Henry on the paper, “Liberty or Death.”
- Heavy snow began to fall in the afternoon of December 30.
- The American forces assembled around 2:00 in the morning of December 31 and moved into their positions.
- The Americans launched attacks on the Lower Town and Cape Diamond.
Montgomery Attacks the Lower Town
- Montgomery and his men made their way, single file, down a ravine to Wolfe’s Cove and along the shore of the St. Lawrence River.
- The weather made it nearly impossible for the men to recognize each other from more than a few feet away, and orders had to be communicated by messenger. Their progress was also slowed by ice from the river and rocks covered in snow.
- They were still not to their point of attack when the signal was launched that indicated Brown’s assault on the Cape Diamond bastion had started. It was half an hour too early and alerted the British to the presence of the American forces.
- After cutting through two barriers, the Americans came to a small building and a battery of two small field pieces.
- The building was, in fact, occupied by 30 Canadians and eight British militiamen under the command of Captain John Coffin. There were also nine seamen under the command of Captain Barnsfare. They were in charge of the cannons. They had heard the fighting at Cape Diamond and taken their positions, so they saw the Americans advancing through the snow.
- When the Americans were about 50 yards away, the men in the building opened fire.
- Montgomery was hit in the head and instantly died.
- About a dozen other men were also killed.
- Aaron Burr was one of the few men with Montgomery that survived the attack.
- Montgomery’s second-in-command, Colonel Donald Campbell, called a quick meeting of the officers. Captain Samuel Mott wanted to push forward, but nearly all the rest were against it. They decided to abandon the attack and retreat back to the Plains of Abraham.
Arnold Attacks the Lower Town
- Arnold started his attack around 4:00 in the morning and was not aware of what had happened to Montgomery.
- The advance guard was led by Captain John Lamb. They had a six-pound gun with them, which was mounted on a sled.
- Arnold intended to attack the first barricade in the street of Sault au Matelot with the gun and then send his riflemen to flank the barricade on both sides.
- Arnold’s plan was disrupted when the advance guard came under fire from British troops positioned on the city walls above them. In the effort to push ahead, the sled and cannon were left behind.
- Arnold and his men reached the first barricade in the street and came under fire.
- Arnold organized a ground assault on the barricade and led it himself.
- Just as he gave his orders to his men, he was struck in the left leg by a stray bullet. It did considerable damage.
- He tried to continue, but his men moved him to the rear and he turned the command over to Daniel Morgan.
Benedict Arnold was wounded at the Battle of Quebec. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Morgan Takes Command
- Morgan charged the barricade and led his men over it. They were able to capture some British troops and then made their way into the Sault au Matelot and toward a second barricade, which had been left undefended by the British.
- Morgan hesitated and called for a council of war with his officers. He wanted to press on, but his officers talked him into waiting for Montgomery to arrive. The delay gave Carleton time to reinforce the second barricade.
- By the time Morgan’s forces had regrouped and been reinforced, the British had massed behind the barricade and were preparing to attack.
- The British tried to convince Morgan to surrender, but he refused.
- Intense fighting broke out and the Americans tried to scale the barricade but were repelled.
- Many of the Americans took refuge in homes along the street, but the British forces increased their fire to the extent the Americans were trapped in the houses.
- Morgan called another council with his offices. Again, he wanted to press on, but his officers wanted to fall back and still wanted to wait for Montgomery.
- British reinforcements arrived and moved to the rear of the American forces, cutting off their escape.
- Around 9:00 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Greene offered the American surrender, which was accepted by the British. The Americans came out of the houses and were taken prisoner.
- Morgan refused to surrender, even though his men were begging him to because they were afraid the British would kill him.
- Eventually, Morgan agreed to surrender to a French priest that he saw in the crowd.
- Aaron Burr was given permission to lead some men in the attack, which required ladders to scale the walls. He drilled his men and made sure he was well acquainted with the point of attack.
- Montgomery had to change some aspects of his plan when he found out that Stephen Singleton, a Sergeant from Rhode Island, had defected. Montgomery assumed Singleton provided the British with details of the plan. However, the overall objective of attacking the Lower City stayed in place.
- The Americans tried to launch the attack on December 27, but the sky cleared and the moon came out, which would have exposed their movements to the British.
Results of the Battle of Quebec
- The outcome of the Battle of Quebec was a British victory.
- Arnold was able to escape and took command of the American forces after the battle and laid siege to the city throughout the winter.
- Arnold was promoted to Brigadier General on January 10, 1776.
- British reinforcements arrived in May 1776, under the command of General John Burgoyne.
- American forces withdrew and retreated to Crown Point.
- On June 18, Benedict Arnold was the last American to leave Canada.
- Once the Americans were out of Canada, the Invasion of Canada came to an end.
Important Leaders and Casualties
Prominent American Military Leaders
Prominent British Military Leaders
- Guy Carleton
- Allen Maclean
- The total estimated casualties at the Battle of Quebec were around 535 killed, wounded, or missing.
- The Americans suffered around 515 casualties.
- The British suffered around 20 casualties.
The Battle of Quebec is important because it was a significant failure for the Continental Army in the early days of the American Revolutionary War and ended the possibility of convincing the Province of Quebec to join the 13 Colonies as the 14th Colony. The following spring, the Americans were forced to retreat out of Canada. The British, led by General Guy Carleton and General John Burgoyne followed them, which meant they would be able to invade the colonies — just as Congress and many Americans feared. However, Benedict Arnold assembled a small fleet of ships and made a heroic stand at the Battle of Valcour Island, which delayed the British invasion until the Spring of 1777.
Daniel Morgan took command of the American troops in Quebec City after Benedict Arnold was injured.
Timeline of the Battle of Quebec
This timeline shows how the Battle of Quebec Island fits into the events of the Canada Campaign of 1775–1776.
- May 10, 1775 — Capture of Fort Ticonderoga
- June 27, 1775 — Continental Congress Authorized Invasion of Canada
- September 5, 1775 – Skirmish at Isle Aux Noix
- September 5, 1775 – Skirmish at Fort St. John
- September 10, 1775 — Skirmish at Fort St. John
- September 13, 1775 — Arnold’s Expedition to Quebec City Begins
- September 17, 1775 — Siege of Fort St. John Begins
- September 25, 1775 — Battle of Montreal (Longue-Pointe)
- October 15, 1775 — Skirmish at Montreal
- October 18, 1775 — First Battle of Fort Chambly
- November 3, 1775 — Siege of Fort St. John Ends
- November 13, 1775 — Americans Capture Montreal
- November 14, 1775 — Arnold Expedition Arrives at Quebec City
- November 15, 1775 — Skirmish at Plains of Abraham
- November 19, 1775 — Naval Skirmish at Sorel
- December 31, 1775 — Battle of Quebec
- May 6, 1776 — Skirmish at the Plains of Abraham
- May 15, 1776 — Battle of the Cedars
- May 25, 1776 — Battle of Saint-Pierre
- June 8, 1776 — Battle of Three Rivers
- June 14, 1776 — Occupation of Sorel
- June 16, 1776 — Second Battle of Chambly
- June 24, 1776 — Skirmish at Isle Aux Noix
- July 24, 1776 — Skirmish at Sorel River
- October 11, 1776 — Battle of Valcour Island
Video of the Battle of Quebec
This video from the American Revolution Institute discusses the disaster of the Battle of Quebec.