1759 - British expedition against Québec – Preparations and Arrival

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1759 - British expedition against Quebec >> Preparations and Arrival

The siege lasted from June to September 1759. This article describes the first phase of the campaign from January to June 27 1759.


By the autumn of 1758, food, arms, munitions, and everything else were fast failing in Canada. Louis Antoine de Bougainville and the commissary of wars André Doreil were sent to France to appeal to the court for reinforcements and supplies. Both Bougainville and Doreil escaped the British cruisers and safely reached Versailles. The court made the Marquis de Montcalm lieutenant-general, the Chevalier de Lévis major-general, François-Charles de Bourlamaque brigadier, and Bougainville colonel and chevalier of Saint-Louis. Bougainville laid four memorials before the court, in which he showed the desperate state of the colony and its dire need of help. He begged for troops, arms, munitions, food, and a squadron to defend the mouth of the Saint-Laurent.

By the end of January, the British fleet assembling in Great Britain was almost ready.

In February, it became clear that the aid required by Canada could not be sent. All that could be obtained was some 350-600 recruits for the regulars and Troupes de la Marine, 60 engineers, sappers, and artillerymen, and gunpowder, arms, and provisions sufficient, along with the supplies brought over by the flotilla of Jacques Kanon chartered by munitionnaire (contractor) Cadet, to carry the colony through the next campaign – including flour, gunpowder, wine and lard for candle making.

In February 1759, Bougainville left Versailles and went to Bordeaux. At Blaye, he reviewed the 400 recruits destined for Canada.

On March 22, Kanon's flotilla set sail from Bordeaux for Québec. Bougainville sailed aboard the Chézine (26).


Map of the siege of Québec in 1759 - Source: An Historical Atlas of Canada, by Lawrence J. Burpee, 1927
Courtesy of Tony Flores

Québec with its fortifications stands on the north bank of the Saint-Laurent river. It is located on a rocky headland where the river narrows from a width of some 30 km down to a strait of about 1 km. Immediately to northward of this rock, the Saint-Charles river flows down to the Saint-Laurent. Some 11 km to eastward of the Saint-Charles, the shore is cut by the rocky gorge through which pours the cataract of the Montmorency.


British Preparation

On February 17, 1759, Major-General James Wolfe sailed from Spithead in Great Britain aboard the Neptune (90), the flagship of a fleet of 22 ships of the line, with frigates, sloops-of-war, and a great number of transports. This fleet was placed under the command of Admirals Charles Saunders, Charles Holmes, and Philip Durell. The voyage was long and tedious. When the fleet finally reached Louisbourg, it was to find the harbour blocked with ice, so that the fleet made for Halifax instead. The squadron of Admiral Holmes, which had sailed a few days earlier, proceeded to New York to take on board troops destined for the expedition.

On April 30, Saunders and the bulk of the British Fleet arrived at Halifax. Durell's squadron was still in the harbor. The previous year, Harvey had left Halifax on April 6.

On May 5, Durell was detached from Halifax to the mouth of the Saint-Laurent with 10 ships to intercept Kanon's flotilla which was expected with supplies from France. However, Durell arrived too late to do so.

In May, the entire expeditionary force for the reduction of Québec, to the exception of Durell's squadron, was assembled at Louisbourg. Wolfe had been led to expect a force of 12,000 men, but the regiments which should have been detached from Guadeloupe could not yet be spared, and those drawn from the garrisons of Nova Scotia had been reduced considerably beneath their proper strength by sickness during the winter. The quality of the troops, however, was excellent. Wolfe counted on the quality of his troops to compensate for his numerical inferiority.

The force counted about 9,000 men and was distributed into three brigades:

The grenadiers of the army were, as had now become usual, massed together and organised in two divisions, those of the regiments in garrison at Louisbourg being known as the Louisburg grenadiers. They came from the 22nd Foot, 40th Foot, and 45th Foot. Another separate corps was composed of the best, marksmen in the several regiments, and was called the Light Infantry. Some companies of artillery were also part of Wolfe's forces. Besides these troops, the 62nd Foot and 69th Foot served as marines on board the fleet.

A fortnight sufficed for the final arrangements, for Lord Jeffrey Amherst and his staff had spared no pains to provide all that was necessary.

The British fleet escorting this expeditionary force consisted of (excluding transport vessels):

On May 23, Durell's squadron, the first elements of the British Fleet, got up in the Saint-Laurent River as far as Isle Bic.

On June 1, Saunders' fleet began to leave the harbour of Louisbourg.

On June 6, amid a roar of cheering from the men, the last division of transports carrying Wolfe's army sailed out of Louisbourg for the Saint-Laurent.

French Preparations

The French commanders had been making their preparations for defence. They were sure that the British would make at least a double attack upon Canada, from Lake Champlain on the south and Lake Ontario on the west.

In early spring, Bourlamaque, with 3 battalions, was ordered to take post at Fort-Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga), hold it if he could, or, if overborne by numbers, fall back to Isle-aux-Noix, at the outlet of Lake Champlain. Louis-Luc Chevalier de La Corne was sent with a strong detachment to entrench himself at the head of the rapids of the Saint-Laurent and oppose any hostile movement from Lake Ontario. Every able-bodied man in the colony, and every boy who could fire a gun, was to be called to the field.

In April, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, Governor of Canada, estimated that the governments of Montréal, Trois-Rivières and Québec counted about 13,000 effective men. To these were to be added 3,500 troops of the line, including the late reinforcement, 1,500 colony troops (Compagnies franches de la Marine), a body of irregulars in Acadia, and the militia and coureurs-des-bois of Détroit and the other upper posts, along with about 1,500 Indians. Furthermore, the army barely had enough ammunition to sustain campaigning for a month.

In late April and early May, the militia of the Government of Québec were assembled.

On May 10, Bougainville arrived at Québec from France with the news of the intended British advance by the Saint-Laurent. This threw the whole colony into consternation. It was then decided to give priority to the defence of Québec. Immediately, 5 regular battalions, nearly all Compagnies franches de la Marine and the militia from every part of Canada were summoned to Québec, together with some 1,000 Indians. Isle-aux-Coudres and Isle d'Orléans were ordered to be evacuated. Montcalm held the command of the troops under the governor of the city. After much debate, Montcalm decided on his scheme of defence.

French Reinforcement

In May, Kanon's flotilla of 22 vessels arriving from France appeared in the gulf of the Saint-Laurent River. The flotilla was under the command of Kanon with the French Navy providing a few frigates as additional escort. It sailed up the Saint-Laurent, bearing the powder, provisions and the petty reinforcement (600 recruits) which the court had sent. Rear-admiral Durell came too late to intercept this squadron, catching but 3 stragglers (Bonnes-Amies (4), Charmante-Rachel (4), Rameau (2)) that had lagged behind the rest. Durell's initial performance was a deep disappointment and in direct conflict with Pitt's orders.

At his arrival at Québec, Kanon's flotilla consisted of:

  • Frigates
    • Chézine (26), captain Nicolas-Pierre Duclos-Guyot: a privateer chartered by munitionnaire Cadet transporting Bougainville (arrival at Québec : May 13)
    • Machault (24), captain Jacques Kanon: a privateer chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Maréchal de Senneterre (24), captain Joseph Goret de Grandrivière: a privateer chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Aimable Nanon (26), Captain Martin de Mimbielle: a privateer chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17) aka La Manon
    • Atalante (32), Captain Jean de Vauquelin: belonging to the Marine Royale (arrival May 19)
    • Pomone (30), Captain Sauvage: armed in flûte belonging to the Marine Royale (arrival May 19)
    • Pie (18), Captain Duvilliers: armed in flûte belonging to the Marine Royale (arrival May 22)
    • Marie, Captain Cornillaud: armed in flûte belonging to the Marine Royale (arrival May 23) this appear to have been a dedicated naval supply ship, not a warship
  • Merchant ships
    • Angélique, Captain sieur Jean de Grammont: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Bienfaisant, Captain François-Louis Poulin de Courval: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Saint-Augustin, Captain Reboul: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Elisabeth, Captain Brecheau: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Toison d'Or, Captain Joseph Marchand: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Vénus, Captain Jean Carbonelle: belonging to munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Quatre-Frères, Captain François Girard: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Amériquain, Captain François de Louches: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • an unidentified British prize: belonging to munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 17)
    • Swinton, Captain Michel Guyon: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 18)
    • Amitié, Captain Michel François Voyer: belonging to munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 23)
    • Soleil Royal, Captain Joseph Duffy-Charest: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 23)
    • Duc de Fronsac, Captain Jacques Villeurs: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet (arrival at Québec : May 23)
    • Colibri, Captain Jean Hiriard: chartered by munitionnaire Cadet, armed as a privateer (arrival at Québec : May 23)
N.B.: merchantmen were lightly armed – e.g. the Soleil Royal carried 13 pieces of various sizes, pierriers (swivel guns) and a few small cannon.

Montcalm then ordered to remove the buoys and marks on the Saint-Laurent River.

French Entrenchments at Québec

On May 22, Montcalm, Bougainville and Malartic arrived at Québec from Montréal.

On May 23, Montcalm sent two courriers to Governor Vaudreuil, informing him that British warships had been spotted on the Saint-Laurent River and asking him to send all troops available in the Government of Montréal.

On May 24, the French commanders at Québec were informed that a British squadron of about 11 vessels had reached Bic. This was actually Durell's squadron. At 4:00 p.m., Vaudreuil arrived at Québec from Montréal.

Governor Vaudreuil was a naval officer while the Marquis de Montcalm was a soldier and there was not a good understanding between them. Montcalm prudently desired to make his preparations with a view to the necessity of a retreat but Vaudreuil maintained that such precautions were needless and that, if the whole French force were concentrated on the north side of the river, the worst the British could do would be to demolish some of the houses in the city.

On May 25, Durell's squadron reached Isle-aux-Coudres.

On May 26, the French resolved to transform 8 of the largest merchantmen of Kanon's squadron into fireships (among which the Amériquain, Angélique, Jaloux, Quatre-Frères and Toison d'Or).

On May 27, the construction of a floating battery of 12 guns began. The same day, Vaudreuil ordered the evacuation of Isle-aux-Coudres and the destruction of the firerafts built in this area.

On May 28, Durell disembarked some troops on Isle-aux-Coudres.

On May 29 and 30, the Chevalier de Lévis arrived at Québec with all 5 battalions of regulars (II./La Sarre Infanterie, II./Royal Roussillon Infanterie, II./Languedoc Infanterie, II./Guyenne Infanterie and II./Béarn Infanterie) along with the Milice du district de Montréal. While awaiting the arrival of the British fleet, the French army encamped on the right bank of the Saint-Charles River and fortified it to serve as a second line of defence if ever the British were able to land at Beauport.

On May 31, Niverville was detached with 95 Abenakis and about 40 Canadien volunteers for a reconnaissance at Isle-aux-Coudres.

On June 3, the French successfully tested a fireraft.

On June 4, the 5 companies of French grenadiers along with 500 militia, all under the command of Bougainville, undertook the construction of the redoubts of the first line of defence on the coast of Beauport. The construction of ovens for a bakery at Pointes-aux-Trembles was ordered.

Early in June, the French entrenched camp (tents, huts and wigwams) extended on both side of the road for 12 km from the Saint-Charles to the rocky gorge of the Montmorency along the parish of Beauport. Montcalm had established his headquarters in a large stone house midway between the two extremities of the encampment. Redoubts, batteries and lines of entrenchment were being built along the borders of the Saint-Laurent. From the Montmorency River to the river of Beauport, these earthworks were planted on the brink of abrupt and lofty heights while, from the river of Beauport to the Saint-Charles they were established behind broad flats of mud. A boom of logs chained together was drawn across the mouth of the Saint-Charles, which was further guarded by two hulks and a floating battery (12 heavy 24-pdrs and 18-pdrs). The bridge of boats that crossed the stream more than a km above, formed the chief communication between the city and the camp. Its head towards Beauport was protected by a strong and extensive earthwork; and the banks of the stream on the Québec side were also entrenched, to form a second line of defence in case the position at Beauport should be forced. In the city itself every gate, except the Porte du Palais, which gave access to the bridge, was closed and barricaded. A numerous artillery (106 guns) was mounted on the walls. A floating battery of 12 heavy pieces, a number of gunboats (each equipped with a 6-pdr or 8-pdr gun), 8 fireships, and several firerafts formed the river defences. Above the city, for several km, the Saint-Laurent was walled by a range of easily defended steeps. At Cap-Rouge, about 13 km distant, the high plateau was cleft by the channel of a stream which formed a line of defence as strong as that of the Montmorency. Québec was a natural fortress.

Montcalm still hoped that no British ship would dare to attempt the intricate navigation of the Saint-Laurent.

On June 5, all the vessels of Kanon's squadron (Aimable Nanon (24), Amitié (6), Bienfaisant (22), Chézine (22), Duc de Fronsac (24), Elisabeth (10), Machault (30), Swinton (8), Vénus (8)), which had not been sacrificed to make fireships, were sent for safety to Sainte-Anne-de-Batiscan near Trois-Rivières, 100 km upstream from Québec on the Saint-Laurent, whence about 1,400 of their 2,000 sailors returned to man the batteries and gunboats. Only the frigates Atalante (32) and Pomone (30) remained at Québec. It was resolved to form a Corps de Cavalerie of 200 cavalrymen for rapid interventions. This corps was placed under the command of M. de la Rochebaucourt.

On June 7 at 4:00 a.m., Niverville's detachment returned from Isle-aux-Coudres with 3 British prisoners.

On June 8 around 8:00 a.m., the Toison d'Or which had been transformed into a fireship accidentally took fire and burned completely. About 10 men died in this affair.

On June 9, part of Durell's squadron reached Isle-d'Orléans and sent boats to reconnoitre the passage along this island, before returning to Isle-aux-Coudres a few days later.

On June 10, the French commanders sent a detachments under M. de Courtemanche (500 Canadiens) to Isle-d'Orléans and another one under LeGardeur de Repentigny (200 men) to Saint-Joachim on the north shore.

On June 11, Bigot gave instructions for the construction of a bakery at Saint-Augustin.

On June 14, 6 or 7 vessels of Durell's squadron sailed the southern passage along Isle-d'Orléans up to Saint-François. The same day, each French regular bn received 108 Canadiens who would be attached to these bns for the entire campaign.

On June 15, Le Mercier and Courval were sent to Isle-d'Orléans to roconnoitre the British fleet. Meanwhile, the newly established Corps de Cavalerie, encamped at Charlesbourg, went to Québec to get its arms and equipment.

On June 16, the French sent Le Mercier with four 12-pdrs to establish a battery on Isle-d'Orléans at Saint-François. They also sent the fireship Jaloux to Isle-d'Orléans. Militia from Montréal and Trois-Rivières continued to arrive at Québec. The same day, a vessel arrived at Québec from Chambly with about 650 12 inches bombs and some guns carriages.

On June 17 at 5:00 p.m., the British launched their boats against the fireship Jaloux but they were chased by about 24 Abenaki canoes who captured a boat belonging to the Squirrel (20), taking 8 prisoners.

On June 18, 3 gunboats were sent to reinforce Le Mercier on Isle-d'Orléans but they arrived too late and, after a brief cannonade, Le Mercier was forced to abandon his position and to retire to Québec. The same day, about 70 Ottawa and Sauteux (aka Ojibways) Indians arrived at Québec. For the first time, French gunboats patrolled Québec basin to prevent incursions by British boats.

On June 19, the fireship Jaloux was recalled to Québec. The same day, the floating battery Diable was finally launched.

Arrival of the British amphibious Force

On June 21, the masts of 3 three British vessels could plainly be seen from the French positions at Québec. One of the French fireships was consumed in a vain attempt to burn them, and several firerafts and a sort of infernal machine were tried with no better success. Meanwhile the whole British fleet had slowly advanced, piloted by Denis de Vitré, a Canadian captured at sea some time before and now compelled to serve, under a threat of being hanged if he refused. Furthermore, when Durell reached the place where the river pilots were usually taken on board, he raised a French flag to his mast-head. The pilots launched their canoes and came out to the ships, where they were all made prisoners; then the French flag was lowered and the red cross displayed in its stead. By this date, the French had 18 gunboats ready (12 small ones each carrying an 8-pdrs and 6 larger ones each carrying a 24-pdrs).

On June 23, the British fleet found Rear-admiral Durell near Isle-aux-Coudres and obtained from him some of the French pilots whom he had captured. Durell, reinforced, was left off Isle-aux-Coudres to bar the river and Saunders, hoisting his flag in the Stirling Castle (70), proceeded.

On June 24, a messenger from Montréal announced the imminent arrival of 250 Renards (aka Fox) and Potawatomis Indians.

The French commanders at Québec received intelligence that the British fleet had now reached Isle-aux-Coudres, that it consisted of 160 sail and that it carried about 11,000 troops.

Towards the end of June, the main British fleet was near the mountain of Cap Tourmente. The passage called the Traverse, between the cape and the lower end of the island of Orléans, was reputed one of the most dangerous parts of the Saint-Laurent; and as the ships successively came up, the captive pilots were put on board to carry them safely through, on pain of death. Vaudreuil was astonished that the British passed several ships of war where the French hardly dared risk a vessel of 100 tons. As it was, the whole fleet sailed safely through.

On June 26, the whole British fleet of Vice-admiral Saunders was anchored safely off the southern shore of Isle-d'Orléans, a few km below Québec without loosing a single ship. A British narrator found the neighbouring country most agreeable with windmills, watermills, churches, chapels, and compact farmhouses, all built with stone, and covered, some with wood, and others with straw. The lands was well cultivated and the grounds enclosed with wooden pales.

The same day, the French army moved to its encampment at Beauport. In the camps along the Beauport shore were about 15,000 men, including more than 1,000 Indians. The 5 battalions of regulars, forming a single brigade, held the centre; the militia of Québec were on the extreme right and the militia of Trois-Rivières were on the right; the left was manned by the militia of Montréal along with 1 battalion combining Troupes de la Marine and militia of Montréal. In Québec itself there was a garrison of about 1,500 men under Jean-Baptiste Chevalier de Ramesay. Thus the whole number, amounted to more than 16,000 men and, though the Canadians who formed the greater part of it were of little use in the open field, they could be trusted to fight well behind entrenchments.

During the night of June 26 to 27, Lieutenant Meech, with 40 New England rangers, landed on Isle-d'Orléans, and found a body of 60 Indians, who tried to surround him. He beat them off, and took possession of a neighbouring farmhouse, where he remained till daylight; then pursued the enemy, and found that they had crossed to the north shore.

On June 27 at 6:30 a.m., the ships of the line Centurion (60) and Pembroke (60) (on which James Cook was serving as master) along with the sloop of war Porcupine (16) anchored at the south-western point of Isle-d'Orléans, reconnoitring the French positions around Québec. The same day, the whole British army landed on Isle-d'Orléans and were drawn up on the beach near the village of Saint-Laurent. The army then marched westward and encamped. Wolfe, with his chief engineer, Major Patrick Mackellar, and an escort of light infantry, advanced to the extreme point of the island. On the same afternoon a sudden squall drove many of the ships ashore and destroyed several of the flat-boats used for the disembarkation. The storm raised high hopes of providential deliverance in the French, which, however, were speedily dashed, for the tempest subsided as suddenly as it had arisen. Towards night the British ships were disposed to the best advantage and measures were taken to prevent damage from the French fireships which were known to be in readiness higher up. A certain number of Marines had been taken from those ships which had been left at Isle-aux-Coudres under Durell, and these were distributed throughout the fleet.


The other phases of the expedition are described in the following articles:


This article is mostly an abridged and adapted version of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 422-425
  • Anonymous, Journal du siège de Québec du 10 mai au 18 septembre 1759, annotated by Aegidius Fauteux, revised and updated edition, Presses de l'Université Laval, 2009
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 204-209
  • Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 360-388
  • Lévis, chevalier de, Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 175-185, 192, 211-236
  • Malartic, Comte de Maurès de: Journal des Campagnes au Canada de 1755 à 1760, Dijon: Damidot, 1890, pp. 235-244
  • Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 406-408, 416-441, 457-491

Other sources

Deschênes, Ronald, Jacques Kanon (1726-1800)

Reid, Stuart, Quebec 1759 – The Battle that won Canada, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003