1759: La conquête de Québec

«1759: the conquest of Québec»

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What's the situation in 1759?

For many contemporary historians, the tragic end of the French and Indian war was inevitable. Great Britain possessed a more important navy and was able to stop French supply ships from even reaching New France. Military power clearly favoured the English; New France only had 5000 soldiers at its disposal while the 13 British colonies could count on an army of 23 000 men. The 13 colonies had a population of 1.5 million against only 70 000 Canadiens inhabiting New France. The odds were clearly against the French.

With the war moving ever closer to the Saint-Laurent valley, Québec City fears the worse. The bishop of Québec, Mgr de Pontbriand, wrote to the king of France, Louis XV. He describes the insufferable situation and recommends that reinforcements be sent with great urgency. Gouverneur Vaudreuil, all the military officials and colonial administrators do the same. It is in vain. Paris does not answer. Four years before the Treaty of Paris, it appears that the mother country has already abandoned Canada.


Pierre de Rigaud, marquis de Vaudreuil, is 61 years old in 1759. He is the Gouverneur of Nouvelle-France and the first Canadien-born man to occupy this prestigious office. Contrary to many Frenchmen who are named to occupy positions and hurry back to Europe once freed of their obligation, Vaudreuil is Canadien first. His country and his people are here. He disagrees on everything with général Montcalm. He finds his strategies too passive. The destruction of Québec and of the neighbouring villages breaks his heart, he weeps as he sees his country go up in flames.


At 47 years old, le marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm is seigneur of Saint-Véran, of Candiac, of Tournemine, of Vestric, of Saint-Julien and of Arpaon and baron of Gabriac. In other words, he is the perfect French aristocrat. The historian Lapierre describes him as a man with "an imposing frame, an energetic face, lively eyes and as passionate as a man from Southern France can be. He was also vain, dogmatic and tactless." Montcalm does not get along at all with Gouverneur Vaudreuil whom he finds to be "too Canadien" for his taste. From the moment he arrives in Québec, Montcalm starts to plot behind the back of the Gouverneur in the hopes of being granted his position, but at the same time dreaming of a quick return to France. In his initial reports, he accuses Vaudreuil of being solely preoccupied with the Canadiens. The two men are completely unable to agree on a strategy to defend the city. Montcalm's aide de camp, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, still considers his superior to be a true hero.
Marquis de Montcalm

Montcalm remains a defeatist from the start, as this note written to the Chevalier de Lévis clearly shows: "The colony is lost if peace doesn't come; I see nothing that could save it." Montcalm had in fact elaborated a strategy to retreat with all the French troops to Louisiana, thus abandoning the Canadiens to the enemy but the plan had been rejected by Versailles. The fate of Canada is of much less interest to him than his career and his reputation, an attitude for which he is vehemently criticised by the Canadien inhabitants who consider this part of the world to be their true motherland.


James Wolfe is 32 years old in 1759. He is originally from Kent in England. Lapierre writes that he was a man who "was unattractive to the point of looking ridiculous." Horace Walpole, an XVIIIth century British writer, describes him as an insignificant man, utterly deprived of a sense of humor, extremely arrogant and full of his own importance. One thing is certain, Wolfe is very cruel toward the French-speaking inhabitants of the Saint-Laurent valley. In 1757, after being ordered to destroy the Acadien villages along the Gulf of the Saint-Laurent, he orders his men that "all be burnt." He writes to Amherst to flaunt that he "did a lot of harm and spread the terror of His Majesty's army in all the Gulf area, but without adding to my reputation." As for Québec, Wolfe has a precise goal: to conquer the city by all means or leave it in ruins.
General James Wolfe

He also writes to Amherst: "if for some reason we come to the conclusion that we have very little chance of conquering Quebec, I propose to bombard the city, destroy the crops, houses and animals, upriver as well as down river, expedite as many Canadiens as possible to Europe and leave behind me nothing but hunger and desolation (...)"


The conquest of Québec is more than a single battle, it is the result of a long siege that lasts from June 26th to the 18th of September 1759. During this interminable confrontation, Montcalm adopts a purely defensive strategy and chooses to take no initiative against the enemy. Wolfe attempts twice to take the city before September, but his troops are defeated and repelled on both occasions. Despite these failures, the English surround the city with their boats and bombard it day and night for weeks, reducing theonce proud capital of New France to a desolate pile of smoking ruins. We estimate that about 15 000 bombs were thrown on Québec that summer and the fate of the surrounding villages is also far from lenient. Farms are pillaged and burnt, villages are ravaged and the inhabitants who did not join the militia (women, children, elderlies and priests for the most part) are incarcerated in prisoner camps. The Canadien inhabitants are the ones who suffer the most from this nightmarish British invasion.

The British troops are accompanied by the "Rangers", American militiamen so cruel and pitiless that some British officers loathe to send them on missions. One such officer describes the Rangers as "mangy, cowardly and contemptible dogs." These Rangers commit many atrocities during the war; pillaging, murdering and scalping the often defenseless inhabitants. But it is important to understand that the Rangers were obeying British orders in applying a scorched earth strategy, just like British regulars.

As for the Canadiens who did not join the militia (children or elderly men for the most), they relentlessly harass the British soldiers with the help of their Indian allies. Hiding in the forest, they open fire on the unsuspecting European soldiers who are not used to these sorts of "Indian" combat tactics.

ancient Canadiens
Ancient Canadien
with raquettes
The people of the Saint-Laurent valley are exasperated by Montcalm's inaction. They see their country go up in smoke while the French wait and stay hidden in their trenches. The fact is that the Frenchmen of the time considered the Canadiens to belong to a nation different from theirs. A desperately annoyed high ranking French official once declared: "For the Canadiens, the second most deadly sin is to be a Frenchman!" As for the Canadiens, they are fed up with Frenchmen's arrogance toward them and are frustrated to be only given subordinate and unimportant tasks in the affairs of the colony. Many French observers even predicted that the day would come when new nations would appear on these vast territories where stood New France. Although these predictions will prove to be true for the United States, the events of 1759 will put an end to this normal evolution that might have known French Canada.


On the 13th of September 1759, Wolfe finally decides to make an ultimate attempt at conquering Québec. He only informs his officers Monckton, Townshend and Murray at the very last minute and they are absolutely furious. Wolfe decides that the landing will take place at the Foulon. His goal is to take the French by surprise, but he himself doubts he has any chance to succeed. In the days before the landing, he had already begun to write letters of excuses to explain his failure. Nevertheless, he decides to risk the lives of his 3600 men. Courage or madness?

Around four in the morning, in the pitch black night, soldiers are sent as reconnaissance. When they approach the beach, a French sentry declares: "Qui vive? Qui vive?" (Who's there? Who's there?). To which Captain Fraser answers in his impeccable French: "La France et vive le Roi!" (France and long live the king). Believing that this is the arrival of new supplies, the French let the British soldiers pass and they soon get rid of the sentries. They then begin to ascend the cliff where they face Officer Vergor and his men. Outnumbered and unprepared, the French are beaten.

At five in the morning the true landing begins and Wolfe is there to supervise the operation in person. Montcalm, who was expecting an attack at Beauport, is taken completely by surprise and only reaches Québec at twenty past seven to realise that the English are now in position and ready for battle on the Plaines d'Abraham. The red coats are everywhere. Montcalm reunites his army with great haste. The French soldiers, Canadien militiamen and their Indian allies soon parade across the city in direction of the Plaines at the sound of the drums. Soon afterwards, at nine o'clock, Montcalm has managed to assemble 4500 men. Canadien fusiliers, hidden in the bush and in the long grass, open fire on the immobile British soldiers.

Plaines d'Abraham
Battle of the Plaines d'Abraham

At 10 o'clock, Montcalm orders the charge. The French troops begin their advance but it is disorderly and undisciplined. Many French soldiers open fire too soon, before it can do any real harm to the English. Wolfe waits until his opponents are only a few yards ahead before shouting the order: "Fire!" Many French soldiers fall under the rain of bullets and the others, stunned by the sudden massacre, freeze instead of reacting. Only the Canadiens push the attack while the French army, panicking, retreats towards the city walls.

mort de Wolfe
Death of Wolfe
At 10:24, hidden behind a bush, a Canadien fusilier aims and fires. The bullet pierces Wolfe's chest and lungs and the British general stumbles and falls, mortally wounded. Around eleven o'clock, Montcalm is on his horse at the Saint-Louis gate where he attempts to retake control of his fleeing army. As he was passing the gate, he is shot twice in the back. He dies the next day after a long agony. On the 18th of September, Ramesay signs the capitulation of the city. From that moment, the 15 000 inhabitants living from Québec to Gaspé in one city and 49 villages, parishes and seigneuries, become subjects of the British crown. France, to whom they have always been faithful, has failed them.

Québec in ruins

Nouvelle-France, or what's left of it, is in ruins. Everywhere it is nothing but hunger and misery.

On the day of Québec's surrender, Captain John Knox is sent to officially take possession of the city. Seen from outside the walls, the capital still looks indestructible. But once he passes the gates, he can't believe his eyes. Not one single house has been spared by the English shells. The basse-ville (lower city) is nothing but ruins among which roam hungry women and children, searching for scraps of food. In the haute-ville (upper city), no house is intact, their walls show huge gaping holes. About 2300 civilians have remained in the city, women, children and elderly for the most part. They have lost everything. . The men are gone, they are still with the French army. The Ursuline nuns try to help as best they can the 1200 sick and wounded, French, Canadien and British alike.

On September 20th , John Knox writes in his journal: "The ravage is inconceivable. The houses that have not collapsed are riddled with holes. The parts of the city that are less damaged are the streets that lead to the Saint-Louis, Saint-Jean and Du Palais gates; they nevertheless bear the marks of the general destruction."

In the countryside around Québec, things are no better. All of the Côte-de-Beaupré and Orléans island have been sacked, the soldiers have taken the stocks and burnt the houses and farm buildings. Entire families who have lost their homes and their livelihoods and whom have been separated from their men come to seek refuge in Québec, which only makes the rampant misery even worse. Only the churches, mostly spared by the British army, still stand in the devastated countryside. On the other side of the river, villages have suffered through the same hell. The 19 parishes all the way to Kamouraska have paid dearly for their resistance to the invaders. Not a single village has been spared, most will have to be entirely rebuilt.

Lévis in Sainte-Foy
Sainte-Foy: the last French victory in America

In 1760, Chevalier de Lévis, arrives at Québec, attacks and defeats the English troops at Sainte-Foy. The siege of Québec begins anew, but this time the French are outside the walls. The two armies desperately await reinforcements and supplies, knowing that the one who receives it will be victorious. A ship finally appears on the horizon… and Lévis is devastated to see it fly the Union Jack. He and his men are then forced to retreat to Montréal. France has sent not one reinforcement and the Canadiens, abandoned and betrayed, refuse to take up arms once more.

Vaudreuil's dilemma

In Montréal, Gouverneur Vaudreuil is faced with a cruel dilemma. Three British armies of 11 000 men surround the last French city of North America. Montréal is almost completely defenseless. Everyone, military and civilian authority alike, recommend that he surrender. It seems to be the only option, but he is then shocked to learn that Amherst refuses to grant a dignified surrender with the usual customary military honours. Lévis and Bougainville are outraged. It's their honour that is at stake now! They ask the Gouverneur to allow them one last sortie against the enemy with the 2400 remaining men. At the very least, Lévis asks that he be granted the privilege to retire to Sainte-Hélène island where he may defy Amherst. That way, the officers would please the king and salvage their military careers.

Vaudreuil's career is also at risk. But he knows above all that granting Lévis the permission to fight would mean the destruction of Montréal and new horrible sufferings inflicted to the Canadien people. The British armies have proved their ferocity on many occasions in Ireland, Scotland and more recently in Acadia. It is in adversity, when the time comes to take the most difficult decision of his career, that Vaudreuil proves that he is a great Gouverneur. He rejects Lévis' request and signs a capitulation that protects the rights of the Canadien population, their physical integrity, their belongings, their religion and their code of laws.

Lévis is humiliated but nonetheless obeys. He goes with his soldiers to Sainte-Hélène island where he prefers to burn his flag and break his sword rather than surrender them to the English. On the 8th of September, Montréal and all of Canada is surrendered to Great Britain. French officers, soldiers, bureaucrats and merchants leave for France.

When Louis XV learns of the capitulation of Nouvelle-France, he can't believe his ears. It's not that he is sad to have lost this enormous colony, not at all. He is in no way preoccupied with the fate of the Canadiens, despite the fact they are all of French origin. The English can do what they want with the civilians, the king could not care less. What upsets him so is that his army, the most respected of Europe, has surrendered without receiving the proper military honours. The shame is unbearable! To him, it is worse than the loss of an empire. Someone must be held accountable for this, and it must not be a superior officer of the French army!

Louis XV
Upon his arrival in the port of Brest in 1760, Vaudreuil the sad and vanquished Gouverneur is almost immediately thrown in the Bastille prison in Paris. The king holds him personally responsible for the great dishonour that shames all of the French army. The last Gouverneur of Nouvelle-France, nothing more than a Canadien after all, will pay dearly for this humiliation.

The fate of the Canadiens

After the surrender, very few Canadiens return to France for they were born here and they choose Canada (soon to be renamed "Province of Québec" by the British) for better and for worse. The 76 172 souls that Amherst finds in Canada remain and begin the long reconstruction of this country that is not really theirs anymore. For these brave people and their descendants begins the long struggle for survival and recognition, a battle that to this day continues.

1524-1763: New France

1763-1867: British Lower Canada

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