Military history


The Insufficiency of Valor LÉVIS AND VAUQUELIN AT QUÉBEC


LÉVIS’S ONE OBJECTIVE was to retake Québec, and with only a little help from home he had it within his power to accomplish this. Wolfe’s devastation of the countryside around the city had forced most of the Québecois to seek refuge in the Trois-Rivières and Montréal districts during the winter. The flood of refugees had strained the available food supply, but it had also placed at his disposal several thousand men eager to help expel the enemy from their city. The grain harvest in the Montréal district had been sufficient to provision a siege; once the streams thawed and wheat could be milled into flour, full-scale operations could begin. 1

The trick would be in timing the start of the campaign, for although he had the troops and the bread, Lévis lacked siege guns and ammunition sufficient to hammer the city into submission if Murray chose to shut himself up within its walls. Lévis had sent a messenger to France after the British fleet had departed in October, urgently requesting reinforcements, heavy cannon, and supplies: all of which had to arrive as soon as the St. Lawrence became navigable and ahead of the British supply fleet. He therefore intended to open his siege in April. If the supply ships came promptly with the men and matériel he needed to finish the job, he would have recaptured the city before the British could relieve it; at which point his enemy would have to perform, once more, the feat that Wolfe had taken all summer to accomplish in 1759.

Since Lévis did not propose to repeat Montcalm’s mistakes, he did not assume that the British would succeed—or indeed, that they would even try to besiege the city again. If, as seemed likely, they chose to withdraw from Québec and to concentrate their efforts on seizing Montréal by way of the upper St. Lawrence or the Richelieu River, he was reasonably confident that he could fight them to a standstill. Captain Pouchot, the talented former commandant of Niagara, had lately returned in a prisoner exchange, and Lévis had placed him in charge of Montréal’s upriver defenses. Île-aux-Noix still stood unchallenged at the head of the Richelieu, supported by newly built gunboats. The British would have to take the Montréal district inch by inch, by sieges and in woodland combat against Canadian militiamen and Indians: no easy prospect. If by winter the Anglo-Americans had not captured their prize, they would have no choice but to withdraw once more to their base of supply, in New York.2

Thus on April 20, having made what preparations he could, the chevalier de Lévis led a surprisingly large army (over seven thousand men) with a tiny train of artillery (“twelve miserable old cannon”) out of Montréal, for Québec. The spring thaw was well along, and in the middle of the river enough water lay open for two of the four frigates in Canada, the Atalante and the Pomone, to escort the barges and bateaux that carried the troops. Lévis was staking everything he had on the venture. On board the boats rode all eight of his regular battalions, their ranks brought to full strength by militiamen; two battalions of troupes de la marine; a battalion of Montréal militia; a variety of Indians from the St. Lawrence missions; and even a kind of scratch cavalry squadron, its horses still bony from the winter’s privations. Other than a few hundred men left behind at Montréal, the garrison of Île-aux-Noix, and the detachments that had accompanied Pouchot upriver, practically every able-bodied soldier and militiaman in Canada was rowing down the great river, hoping against hope that a supply fleet was also making its way toward them. On April 24, at Pointe aux Trembles, they stopped, unloaded supplies, and readied themselves to march overland toward the city. By dawn on the twenty-seventh, the advance guard had almost reached the little village of Ste. Foy, less than six miles from Québec. That was where they saw the British, entrenched across the road in front of them.3

A lucky accident had given Murray advance warning that a French force was advancing on Québec, for it was not until early that same day he had had any inkling of the size of the threat he faced.4 For many reasons, the appearance of so formidable a force made him almost desperate with worry. Murray’s men had suffered dreadfully during the winter. The troops had lacked clothing adequate for the climate—the Highlanders in the 78th, in fact, had had only their kilts, along with whatever Scotsmen wear underneath, to fend off the cold—but disease and inadequate nutrition had taken the gravest toll. By late April, the Québec garrison, which had originally included seven thousand men, could count fewer than four thousand “effectives.” The diseases and mishaps of a cruel winter— typhus, typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, frostbite, hypothermia—had killed a thousand men and rendered “above two thousand of what remained, totally unfit for any Service.”5

Even those men who remained capable of mounting guard and performing the tasks of garrison duty suffered from scurvy and overwork. In particular the necessity of fetching firewood—a task that required long daily treks through snow to the city’s woodlots—had grown steadily more fatiguing for the fit as the numbers of sick men mounted. Finally, Murray knew no better than Lévis whether the first ships to arrive with supplies and reinforcements would be English or French. By taking the field at Ste. Foy on the twenty-seventh, therefore, he was not trying to entice Lévis to battle, but only to cover the retreat of his light infantry, which had been manning outposts as far upriver as Cap Rouge. Unlike Lévis, Murray had no plan. Although he had expected the French to move against Québec, when faced with the reality, he could only play for time.6

Lévis was too canny a commander to attack the British abatis at Ste. Foy, and so waited for nightfall and the chance to flank the redcoats through the woods that lay to their left. Murray, realizing this danger, ordered a retreat as evening drew on, pulling his men back to a position not far from where Montcalm had arrayed his troops seven months before. He worried that he had too few men to construct advanced lines with which to hold the French outside cannon range from the city’s weak western wall. He knew, moreover, that his effective strength was dwindling by the day, and that if the French (whose numbers he had estimated at “ten thousand men, and five hundred Barbarians”) laid siege, his garrison might not be able to sustain a defense. But he also knew that his men, weakened as they were, were all regulars, while Lévis’s army had to be composed principally of militia. Therefore, mindful “that our little Army was in the habit of beating that Enemy,” Murray “resolved to give them Battle” on the Plains of Abraham. Early on the morning of April 28 he mustered about 3,800 troops—every man healthy enough to carry a musket—along with twenty field guns, and ordered them into position on the broken ridge where Montcalm’s line had stood before the attack on September 13. Having effectively recapitulated Montcalm’s reasoning, Murray was about to reenact the Battle of Québec.7

Lévis had expected to lay siege, not to fight an open-field engagement, but he was willing to take advantage of the opportunity that Murray seemed intent on offering. Even though he had so far brought up about half of his force, when between six and seven o’clock he saw that the British had assumed a position outside the city, he ordered his available men (also numbering about 3,800) forward, to take up an opposing position. Murray, who was at this same time reconnoitering ahead of his lines, realized that the French were still on the march and impulsively decided to abandon the high ground. If he could deliver an attack on the enemy’s left flank while they were still in column, he reasoned, he might hope to drive them back against the cliffs of the St. Lawrence and annihilate them once and for all.

But eager as they were to fight, Murray’s men could not deliver the quick blow he wanted. On the lower ground the melting snow still lay half a leg deep, and underneath it was a mire of mud; what he had intended as a decisive maneuver bogged down near the village of Sillery in ferocious combat. Eventually, after more than an hour of fighting, often at hand to hand, the French began to push back both flanks of the British line, forcing Murray to order a withdrawal. Since their field guns had become hopelessly trapped in the muck and slush, the redcoats spiked and abandoned them on the battlefield. By midday they were back where Montcalm had been seven months earlier, within the walls of Québec, and Lévis was exactly where Townshend had been, opening siege lines before the city. Back at Sillery, French artillerymen were busy drilling the touch-holes of the cannon that Murray had obligingly supplied.8

The Second Battle of Québec had been a much bloodier affair than the first. Out of approximately equal numbers engaged on each side, the French lost 193 killed and 640 wounded (22 percent of the men on the field) while the British sustained losses of 259 killed and 829 wounded (28 percent). Since Murray not only had sustained heavier casualties, abandoned his artillery, and retreated, but had also lost a much higher proportion of his effective men than the French (28 percent as opposed to less than 12), it is no exaggeration to say that he had taken a spectacular gamble and sustained a spectacular loss. The sight of French engineers laying out siege lines opposite the walls of Québec could hardly have made it clearer that Murray’s “passion for glory” would in all likelihood cost him the city, unless help soon arrived from below. By May 11, with his lines complete and his guns securely in place, Lévis was ready to begin bombarding Québec. Although the British could respond with twenty rounds to every one the Gascon brigadier could afford to fire from his meager stock of ammunition, Murray knew that the outcome of the siege would depend not on guns and gunners but on whatever ships and sailors the northeast winds were carrying up the river.9

And so, in the end, it was Lagos and Quiberon Bay that proved decisive at Québec, and control of the Atlantic that settled the ownership of Canada. Although the French ministry had ordered up a convoy of five big store ships carrying four hundred regulars and a large quantity of supplies, it had been able to send only a single frigate, the thirty-gun Machault, as an escort. Boscawen’s blockaders picked off three of the transports when they sailed from Bordeaux early in April; when the rest reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence on May 14, they found that warships from Louisbourg had sailed up the river six days earlier. Rather than risk certain disaster they had then put in at Chaleur Bay, a deep inlet on the south shore of the gulf, and anchored in the Restigouche River, where Acadian refugees still kept up an armed resistance. Making the best they could of their situation, the surviving two hundred regulars and the sailors of the Machault used the ship’s cannon to erect shore defenses and strung a chain boom across the river’s mouth; meanwhile, their commander sent a messenger overland to communicate with Lévis and Vaudreuil. Long before any word came back from Québec, however, the Restigouche had become the expedition’s grave. On July 8 two squadrons of British warships converged on Chaleur Bay. Hopelessly outmatched, the defenders sank the forlorn Machault, burned all but one of the other vessels to the waterline, and fled into the woods. When the first warships appeared at Québec on the evening of May 12, therefore, the blunt fact that they wore not the Lilies of France but the Union Jack compelled Lévis to raise his siege and retreat to Jacques-Cartier. 10

“Ah!” Jean-Nicholas Desandrouins, Lévis’s engineer, exclaimed: “A single ship of the line and the place would have been ours!” That was very likely true; but the only ship of the line in the river was H.M.S. Vanguard, which sailed past Québec to the cheers of Murray’s men and opened fire on the French lines. On the morning of the thirteenth, carrying what they could on their backs and leaving everything else behind, Lévis’s men scrambled on board their boats and rowed for their lives. The frigate Pomone ran aground while trying to maneuver into position to cover the retreat, leaving the sturdy Atalante alone to stand off two British warships until the bateaux had made good their escape. Captain Jean Vauquelin, who had been master of the only frigate to escape Louisbourg in 1758, sailed his little man-of-war upriver to Pointe aux Trembles and ordered his men to drop anchor. There he nailed his colors to the mast and shot it out with his pursuers, refusing to give up until his gunners ran out of powder. In the end, wounded but still defiant, he ordered his crew to abandon ship, threw his sword into the river, and waited on his quarter-deck for the British to take him prisoner. 11

Jean Vauquelin’s defiance was, in the classic sense, heroic: as audacious, and as futile, as the eleventh-hour attack on Québec. And in miniature Vauquelin’s fate, and that of his ship, foretold what lay in store for the chevalier de Lévis and French Canada. Henceforth Lévis’s operations would be limited to retreat and defense; henceforth his hopes would be limited to finding some last gesture by which he could temper defeat with honor. As with Vauquelin and the crew of the Atalante, neither Lévis’s audacity nor his soldiers’ courage, nor any possible act of collective valor, could stop the impending juggernaut.

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