December 31, This day during the American Revolution

December 31, 1775 – The Battle of Quebec was fought on December 31, 1775 between American Continental Army forces and the British defenders of the city of Quebec, early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle was the first major defeat of the war for the Americans, and it came at a high price. General Richard Montgomery was killed, Benedict Arnold was wounded, and Daniel Morgan and more than 400 men were taken prisoner. The city’s garrison, a motley assortment of regular troops and militia led by Quebec’s provincial governor, General Guy Carleton, suffered a small number of casualties. Montgomery’s army had captured Montreal on November 13, and early in December they joined a force led by Arnold, whose men had made an arduous trek through the wilderness of northern New England. Governor Carleton had escaped from Montreal to Quebec, the Americans’ next objective, and last-minute reinforcements arrived to bolster the city’s limited defenses before the attacking force’s arrival. Concerned that expiring enlistments would reduce his force, Montgomery made the end-of-year attack in a blinding snowstorm to conceal his army’s movements. The plan was for separate forces led by Montgomery and Arnold to converge in the lower city before scaling the walls protecting the upper city. Montgomery’s force turned back after he was killed by cannon fire early in the battle, but Arnold’s force penetrated further into the lower city. Arnold was injured early in the attack, and Morgan led the assault in his place before he became trapped in the lower city and was forced to surrender. Arnold and the Americans maintained an ineffectual blockade of the city until spring, when British reinforcements arrived. In the battle and the following siege, French-speaking Canadiens were active on both sides of the conflict. The American forces received supplies and logistical support from local residents, and the city’s defenders included locally raised militia. When the Americans retreated, they were accompanied by a number of their supporters; those who remained behind were subjected to a variety of punishments after the British re-established control over the province. 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 bastion, and Livingston outside St. John’s Gate. 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 down the steep, snow-heaped path towards the outer defenses. The storm had turned into a blizzard, making the advance a struggle. Montgomery’s men eventually arrived at the palisade of the outer defenses, where an advance party of carpenters sawed their way though 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 15 Quebec militia armed with muskets and cannons. The defenders opened fire at close range, and Montgomery was killed instantly, shot through the head by a burst of grapeshot. The few men of the advance party who survived fled back towards the palisade; only Aaron Burr and a few others escaped unhurt. Many of Montgomery’s officers were injured in the attack; one of the few remaining uninjured officers led the survivors back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving Montgomery’s body behind. While Montgomery was making his advance, Arnold advanced with his main body towards the barricades of the Sault-au-Matelot at the northern end of the lower town. They passed the outer gates and some British gun batteries undetected. However, as the advance party moved around the Palace Gate, heavy fire broke out from the city walls above them. The height of the walls made it impossible to return the defenders’ fire, therefore Arnold ordered his men to run forward. They advanced down a narrow street, where they once again came under fire as they approached a barricade. Arnold received a shot in the ankle as he was organizing his men in an attempt to take the barricade and was carried to the rear, after transferring command of his detachment to Daniel Morgan. Under Morgan’s command, they captured the barricade, but had difficulty advancing further because of the narrow twisting streets and damp gunpowder, which prevented their muskets from firing. Morgan and his men holed up in some buildings to dry out their powder and rearm, but they eventually came under increasing fire; Carleton had realized the attacks on the northern gates were feints and began concentrating his forces in the lower town. A British force of 500 sallied from the Palace Gate and reoccupied the first barricade, trapping Morgan and his men in the city. With no avenue of retreat and under heavy fire, Morgan and his men surrendered. The battle was over by 10 am. This was the first defeat suffered by the Continental Army. Carleton reported 30 Americans killed and 431 taken prisoner, including about two-thirds of Arnold’s force. He also wrote that “many perished on the River” attempting to get away. Allan Maclean reported that 20 bodies were recovered in the spring thaw the following May. Arnold reported about 400 missing or captured, and his official report to Congress claimed 60 killed and 300 captured. British casualties were comparatively light. Carleton’s initial report to General William Howe mentioned only five killed or wounded, but other witness reports ranged as high as 50. Carleton’s official report listed five killed and 14 wounded. General Montgomery’s body was recovered by the British on New Years Day 1776 and was given a simple military funeral on January 4, paid for by Lieutenant Governor Cramahé. The body was returned to New York in 1818. Arnold refused to retreat; despite being outnumbered three to one, the sub-freezing temperature of the winter and the mass departure of his men after their enlistments expired, he laid siege to Quebec. The siege had relatively little effect on the city, which Carleton claimed had enough supplies stockpiled to last until May. Immediately after the battle, Arnold sent Moses Hazen and Edward Antill to Montreal, where they informed General Wooster of the defeat. They then traveled on to Philadelphia to report the defeat to Congress and request support. (Both Hazen and Antill, English-speakers originally from the Thirteen Colonies who had settled in Quebec, went on to serve in the Continental Army for the rest of the war.) In response to their report, Congress ordered reinforcements to be raised and sent north. During the winter months, small companies of men from hastily recruited regiments in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut made their way north to supplement the Continental garrisons at Quebec and Montreal. The presence of disease in the camp outside Quebec, especially smallpox, took a significant toll on the besiegers, as did a general lack of provisions. In early April, Arnold was replaced by General Wooster, who was himself replaced in late April by General John Thomas. Governor Carleton, despite appearing to have a significant advantage in manpower, chose not to attack the American camp, and remained within Quebec’s walls. Montgomery, in analyzing the situation before the battle, had observed that Carleton served under James Wolfe during the 1759 Siege of Quebec, and knew that the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm had paid a heavy price for leaving the city’s defenses, ultimately losing the city and his life in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. British General James Murray had also lost a battle outside the city in 1760; Montgomery judged that Carleton was unlikely to repeat their mistakes. On March 14, Jean-Baptiste Chasseur, a miller from the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence, reached Quebec City and informed Carleton there were 200 men on the south side of the river ready to act against the Americans. These men and more were mobilized to make an attack on an American gun battery at Point Levis, but an advance guard of this Loyalist militia was defeated in the March 1776 Battle of Saint-Pierre by a detachment of pro-American local militia. When General Thomas arrived, the conditions in the camp led him to conclude that the siege was impossible to maintain, and he began preparing to retreat. The arrival on May 6 of a small British fleet carrying 200 regulars (the vanguard of a much larger invasion force), accelerated the American preparations to depart. The retreat was turned into a near rout when Carleton marched these fresh forces, along with most of his existing garrison, out of the city to face the disorganized Americans. The American forces, ravaged by smallpox (which claimed General Thomas during the retreat), eventually retreated all the way back to Fort Ticonderoga. Carleton then launched a counteroffensive to regain the forts on Lake Champlain. Although he defeated the American fleet in the Battle of Valcour Island and regained control of the lake, the rear guard defense managed by Benedict Arnold prevented further action to capture Ticonderoga or Crown Point in 1776.

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