Québec

The British seized the Fortified Wall

During the Fourth Intercolonial War,
the British Seized
Old Québec's Fortified Wall

(1759 to 1760)

Québec City's Fortified Wall faced its third big test in 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and its fourth big test in 1760, at the Battle of Ste. Foy. These two years were so eventful and had so much impact on the evolution of the Fortified Wall that they deserve to be presented separately.

1759 — In June, after having taken and destroyed the vast Fortress of Louisbourg in 1758, the British were firmly determined to seize Québec City, the capital of New France and the key stronghold to control Canada. They assembled an impressive fleet of 166 ships, including 49 warships as well as 117 ships used to carry the troops and military material needed for a major attack on Québec City. On these 166 ships, they brought close to 30,000 men to Québec City. They were mostly professional soldiers. Only 600 of these men were militiamen.

1759 — At the beginning of the summer, this British fleet and its army, led by Admiral James Wolfe, who had played a vital role in the capture of Louisbourg, reached the outskirts of Québec City.

1759 — Québec City and its Fortified Wall were under siege and bombarded for several weeks, day and night. But all those efforts proved to be in vain for the British. The French, led by Governor General Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil and by General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, simply waited. They had a force of about 18,711 men and only 3,611 of these men were professional soldiers. A little more than 60% of them (11,325 to be precise) were militiamen, while 2,000 of them were sailors and 1,775 of them were Amerindian allies. But the French had Québec City's Fortified Wall on their side and could afford to simply wait for fall and a harsh winter to come, which they did up to mid-September.


This is a plan of the St. Lawrence River during the siege of Québec City and its Fortified Wall, in the summer of 1759. It clearly shows the locations of the British ships on the river as well as the French and British encampments on both sides of the river, plus on Île d'Orléans.
Image Credit: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) / Catalogue Iris / Geographical map entitled "Québec pendant le siège, 1759" / Edited in 1882-1884.
Image Source: collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/1956263

1759 — As fall slowly set in, the British began to worry that they would have to remain near Québec City passed that season, as winter would eventually come. Ice would form on the St. Lawrence River and it would become impossible to sail down the river at that time of the year. It was under such trying circumstances that Admiral Wolfe decided to attempt a spectacular breakthrough, to go for "everything or nothing".

1759 — On the night of September 13, Admiral Wolfe and about 4,426 men of his elite troops succeeded in climbing the high cliffs under the Plains of Abraham, by way of a small trail that Wolfe had seen prisoners use just a few days earlier.


This painting summarizes what happened before the famous Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which was fought on September 13, 1759. At night, about 4,426 elite British troops left their ships and used a small trail going up the high cliffs of Anse au Foulon, right under the Plains of Abraham. In the morning, they were ready for battle.
Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Access number 1997-3-2 / Reproduction reference number C-000788 / Engraving by Pierre Charles Canot, circa 1761, of a drawing by Hervey Smith painted by Francis Swaine and entitled "A View of the Landing Place above the Town of Québec".

1759 — Montcalm could hardly believe that any major military force would attempt such a climb, much less at night. Once rumors to that effect were confirmed, he rushed off from nearby Beauport to Québec City with his regular soldiers and militiamen. Instead of taking refuge in the Fortified Wall and waiting for reinforcements (which was the main reason the Fortified Wall had been built in the first place), he and his 4,400 men (almost the same number as the British, but including only 2,600 professional soldiers along with 1,800 militiamen and Amerindian allies) took position to face the British on the open battlefield of the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm and his officers estimated that the Fortified Wall was still incomplete and not ready yet to withstand a major attack at its west side, the side facing the Plains of Abraham. However, it must be said that the surprise factor most probably influenced General Montcalm's decision a great deal. He had to react quickly to what he saw.


The British and French troops had taken position for battle on the Plains of Abraham, in the morning of September 13, 1759. At 10:00 a.m., the battle began, as seen here. This battle would decide the future of Canada.
Image Credit: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) / Catalogue Iris / Engraving based on a drawing by John Henry Walker entitled "Battle of the Plains of Abraham, September 13th, 1759" / Edited in 1877-1879.

1759 — At 10 a.m. on September 13, seeing the British force firmly entrenched in its position and fearing that the enemy would bring heavy artillery onto the Plains of Abraham, Montcalm ordered an attack. A phenomenal number of gunshots were exchanged between the two belligerents. But the French troops fired at will and in large part aimlessly while Wolfe's mostly professional soldiers waited for their order to pull the trigger. Once the French were within 40 paces of the British lines, Wolfe finally gave the order to fire. With apparent calm, as one British line reloaded, another British line stepped forward from the smoke and fired. The volley of gunshots was deadly. The result was general pandemonium among the French troops, so that the confrontation lasted less than 30 minutes. Fatally wounded, Admiral Wolfe's last words were: "Now, God be praised, I will die in peace." At almost that same moment, General Montcalm was wounded by a cannon ball tearing through his side as he was trying to reassemble his troops.  He died 24 hours later, relieved that he would not have to witness the British entering Québec City and its Fortified Wall as victors. 

1759 — On September 17, the besieged city surrendered to the British. Both belligerents had recorded about the same number of casualties at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham: 58 killed and 600 wounded for the British, 200 killed and more than 500 wounded for the French. Both generals had lost their lives. Both armies were in disarray following the loss of their general, but the British army still had a superior force. Surrendering was the only option left for the French.

1759 — The violent bombardments of the summer of 1759 had greatly undermined the structural integrity of the Fortified Wall, Château St. Louis and Québec City itself. The Fortified Wall needed major repairs and improvements. The north wing and the terrace of Château St. Louis overlooking the St. Lawrence River were heavily damaged and they would eventually have to be demolished. The Lower Town of Québec City, at the bottom of the high cliffs right under Château St. Louis, looked like a major disaster area. The following winter would be very harsh and very tough for the French population of Québec City, as well as for the British troops newly in control of its Fortified Wall. Nearly 700 British soldiers died from disease during that winter because of frigid temperatures and insufficient food supplies.


This is what the Lower Town of Québec City looked like after the intense and repeated bombardments of the summer of 1759. This part of the city was not protected by the Fortified Wall and was at the bottom of the high cliffs, not on top of them, at the same level as the St. Lawrence River. During the siege of that summer, 535 houses were burned down and the whole eastern part of the Lower Town only had six to eight houses spared. There was not much left of the Lower Town. It was dismal destruction.
Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Access number 1989-283-12 / Reproduction reference number C-000357 / Engraving by A. Benoist in 1761 of an artwork by Richard Short entitled "A View of the Church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire" / Note here that the exact name of this church located in the Lower Town of Old Québec is "Notre-Dame-des-Victoires".

1760 — Another major battle, the Battle of Ste. Foy, very near Québec City, was fought and won by the French in April. Many men who were still part of the French forces after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham had gone to Montréal for the winter, where they had regrouped. Their main goal was to return to Québec City the following spring to attack a sickened and hungry British garrison, in order to win back the capital of New France and its Fortified Wall.

1760 — During the spring, the French, led by General François-Gaston de Lévis, advanced to attack the enemy who by then occupied Québec City and its Fortified Wall. The British General at that time was James Murray.

1760 — On April 28, 1760, General Murray unleashed artillery fire on the French columns in Ste. Foy and General Lévis for the French was forced to take refuge in the forest. Wrongly interpreting this troop movement as a retreat, Murray sent his forces in hot pursuit of the French. At this point, the French encircled the British and the fighting became a deadly hand-to-hand combat, with soldiers on both sides using their bayonets. Overall, the Battle of Ste. Foy was a vicious two-hour struggle that cost the British more than 1,000 men killed, wounded or missing. The French had more than 800 casualties. On a total of about 3,369 men fighting for the British and about 7,161 men fighting for the French, such losses were huge.


This painting shows the Battle of Ste. Foy, won by the French in about two hours, on April 28, 1760.
Image Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Access number 1993-326-1 / Reproduction reference number C-004501 / Painting by George Bryant Campion, circa 1860, entitled "Representation of the Battle of Québec (also known as the Battle of Ste. Foy), April 28, 1760" / Watercolor over pencil.

1760 — The British were defeated and, in turn, had to take hasty refuge inside Québec City's Fortified Wall, which served them well. They had made some repairs and minor improvements to the Fortified Wall before the spring of 1760. Encouraged by his major victory in Ste. Foy, General Lévis was poised to retake Québec City and its Fortified Wall for France. So, he began a systematic siege of Québec City. But the British, contrary to Montcalm and his officers on September 13, 1759, used the Fortified Wall built by the French to their advantage and proved without a doubt that it was ready to be used in the manner for which it had been built in the first place (to wait for reinforcements while being protected).

1760 — General Lévis had plenty of cannons, but he was limited by his ammunition supply and by the relatively small caliber of his cannons' projectiles, which were incapable of quickly breaching Québec City's Fortified Wall.

1760 — Two weeks into the siege, the ice on the St. Lawrence River melted, allowing sailing on the river. A few days later, after May 8, the arrival of supply vessels flying British rather than French colors sealed the fate of New France. A frustrated Lévis then lost any hope of retaking Québec City and its Fortified Wall.

1760 — Lévis had to withdraw from Québec City and was finally defeated by the British on Île Ste. Hélène, in front of Montréal's harbor, on September 8. Lévis' final defeat was also France's final defeat in Canada. The British had succeeded in their quest. Québec City's Fortified Wall had served them well in their endeavor of conquering and keeping for themselves Canada's most important stronghold.

1760 — In reality, on that September 8, Canada became British and New France ceased to exist. But the French presence and influence would remain very strong afterward in Canada, mostly because of its French population, to the point where today English and French are the two official languages of Canada, French is the only official language of the Province of Québec, and more than 95% of the population living in Québec City speaks French.