The Heights of Quebec

The Heights of Quebec
The Heights of Quebec

That hardy mariner, Jacques Cartier, sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1535, but it was not until 1608, when Champlain’s vessel brought the first permanent colonists of New France, that Quebec was founded. The storm tossed little caravel entered the St. Lawrence in the early summer of that year. Champlain landed his miscellaneous following, built “L’Habitation,” as he named the first official residence in Quebec, and laid the foundations of a small fort, an act portentous of the stirring events which the future held calmly waiting their turn and which were to give Quebec so conspicuous a place in the military annals of the New World.

The first fortifications were little more than gun platforms placed at an advantageous position so as to command the river. Their site became the location of Castle St. Louis and is today the eastern end of the Dufferin Terrace. So it is easy to remember where Champlain laid the foundations of the new city.

The new seat of power was shortly to see its master exerting his authority in a way not to be lightly mistaken. Treachery was plotted by some among Champlain’s followers, who planned to assassinate their chief and sell his new city to the Spaniards. News of this move was brought to Champlain’s ears. He caused the ringleaders to be seized by his soldiers and hung in the fort until dead. In this fashion the stronghold saw its first acts of violence. Scurvy marked the passage of the first winter in the New World of the little fort’s defenders, and by the spring only the most hardy were alive.

The years, which came between 1608 and 1629, the date of the first formal siege of Quebec, brought enlargement and strength to both the fort and the city. During this period both had been frequently surrounded by hostile Indians, who feared the white man’s guns too much to attempt an attack by storm but who prowled around beneath the very ramparts of the fort seeking for unwary adventurers who might be without the gates. The control of the little colony in France had passed through various hands, but always the chief executive in the New World had been its founder, the rugged Champlain. The year 1629 finds the little colony in the possession of the Company of the 100 Associates, an organization founded by His Excellency, Cardinal Richelieu, and of which His Eminence was himself a member, and the winter of this year finds the colony in its usual desperate straits, beleaguered by winter and by savage foe and deserted in all but name by its sponsors in France.

In the spring of 1629 the inhabitants of Quebec were gladdened by the intelligence that a fleet had been discerned from Cap Tourmente in the mouth of the river and that it was even then approaching the city. It was supposed that this was the long wished for squadron of relief ships and that all would be prosperity and good cheer in the town for a time now. The citizens assembled on the walls of the fort to descry the distant sail, when word was brought by a friendly Indian that the looked for vessels, far from being messengers of peace, were, in fact, emissaries of war; that they were English, and that they had just burned and pillaged a fishing village in a carefree, happy-go-lucky fashion on the way up the river. War had been declared between England and France and Quebec had not received word of it! Joy was changed to woe.

The next day emissaries arrived from Sir David Kirke, the English admiral in command of the fleet, demanding the surrender of the town and the fort, but Champlain, believing that help would soon arrive from France and not being of the temper, anyhow, which quickly gives up, turned these messengers away with words of defiance. The first siege of Quebec was now begun.

To tell the truth it was an informal sort of matter, anyhow, this first siege of Quebec. The English vessels pounded away at the town for a day or two in a casual fashion and then drifted down the river. The French, on their part, had but fifty pounds of powder and were very careful about wasting any of this. Time passed and still no aid came from distant France. At length the intelligence which Champlain had been dreading was brought to him. The long a waited French relief ships had entered the mouth of the St. Lawrence only to be overcome and seized by the English blockader. Hope had now departed, and when, in July, three English ships sailed up to the town, Champlain and his sixteen soldiers watched them apathetically because they knew that they, themselves, could do no more. Quebec was surrendered to the English and on July 20, 1629, the English flag for the first time flew over the little settlement. Said one of Kirke’s captains: “There was not in the sayde forte at the tyme of the rendition of the same, to this examinate’s knowledge, any victuals save only one tubb of bitter roots.”

It was not until 1632 that Quebec was restored to the French by the treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, and during its three years of English occupancy the point had made no progress. The Indians did not like their rough, new associates and trade had languished. Even the fort was in sad condition.

The summer of 1632 saw the little settlement in French hands and under the guidance of Emery de Caen, a fiery French Huguenot. The next year found the colony once more in the direction of the veteran Champlain. It is not clear why de Caen was given power for this one year. On Christmas Day, 1635, the Father of New France passed peacefully away in the fort which had seen so many of his earthly activities. His body was laid to rest in a “chambre particular,” according to old record. Late investigation inclines to the belief that Champlain’s last resting place was a niche hollowed out of the stone half way down Mountain Hill in full view of the strand on which his early “Habitation” was built.

The successor of Champlain, M. de Montmagny, a Knight of Malta, rebuilt of stone Champlain’s fort shortly after his arrival in 1636, and Castle St. Louis had now a most martial appearance. Close to the castle was the Jesuit presbytery, this close conjunction of church and Mars well typifying the union of powers, which held authority in the colony. All public functions were religious in character and the black robed priests held the balance of power in the council room.

Throughout the quarter century following Champlain’s death the threat of Iroquois marauding hung over the little city and in 1660 Castle St. Louis witnessed a strange spectacle. It was the burning at the stake by the French of an Iroquois captive as retaliation against the savages for their outrages. The Indian met his fate with fortitude, but reviled his captors unceasingly and predicted a dire future for the city. At length death put an end to his sufferings and his predictions. His spirit, according to the priests who were standing by, winged its way to the place of the redeemed, having been freed from sin by the fiery ordeal through which its body had passed.

Time went its way and brought the second siege of Quebec to Castle St. Louis. The bold and impetuous Frontenac was now at the helm of state and it was due to a three-headed expedition of his against the English colonies that this second siege was brought about. Incidentally, this expedition may be looked upon in another light as the opening blow in that long struggle between New France and New England, which was to result in the extinguishing of the latter power in the New World. Three war parties set out from the fortifications at Quebec, Montreal and Three Rivers. The first reached the Dutch settlement of Corlaer (Schenectady) on the Hudson and brought about the horrible and historic Schenectady massacre. In similar fashion the other parties fell upon towns in New England. The northern English colonies, which had hitherto been kept asunder by jealousies, united against a common foe and equipped an expedition, which was to set forth from Massachusetts against Quebec.

The vessels of the fleet consisted of thirty-two ships ranging in size from the Six Friends, a roisterer of the seas, which had been engaged in the dangerous West India trade, and mounted forty-four guns, to humble fishing smacks. The commander was William Phips, afterward Sir William Phips, a strange favorite of Fortune whose adventurous and large fisted career carried him through gold seeking in the Spanish Main, knighthood from the British Crown, and the governorship, by royal appointment, of Massachusetts. Volunteers were called for and nearly four thousand men responded to the call. Provisions were laid in for four months and all was ready for the start.

After waiting so long in Boston for help from England that winter was almost at hand, Sir William at length gave the order to sail and the New England armada was launched upon its career. Its only lacks were a pilot who knew the St. Lawrence River, a sufficiency of gunpowder and a commander competent to direct the expedition. The eventual failure of the undertaking was not hard to forecast.

The fleet anchored a little below Quebec in the autumn of 1690. Frontenac was ready and waiting for it. A messenger was sent from the fleet to the French governor demanding surrender. He was taken in a canoe to the landing place and blindfolded. Then he was directed up the steep streets and crooked stairs of the little city by a devious path to Castle St. Louis where Frontenac, with his aides in full uniform, was waiting to receive him. During his progress onward he was jostled and pushed to make him think that there were immense crowds of people in the little city, and hoarse orders were shouted near his ear to imaginary soldiery. At length he stood in the council room of our little fort and the bandage was taken from his eyes. The scene of splendor before him at first filled him with confusion, but he quickly recovered poise and delivered his message.

“No,” returned Frontenac, “I will answer your general only by the mouths of cannon, that he may learn that a man like me is not to be summoned in this fashion. Let him do his best and I will do mine!”

During the short and futile siege, which followed, the cannonading between the vessels of Sir William’s fleet and the French fortification was so terrific that experienced military officers declared that they had heard nothing like it. At length the besiegers sailed away baffled and the furious little fort grumbled down to another season of peace. Phips reached Boston in November, and the rest of his fleet straggled in one by one, such as were not lost in the storms of the perilous Nova Scotia coast. Frontenac, in celebration of the deliverance of Quebec, established the little church of Notre Dame de la Victoire, which stands in Quebec as a memorial of those days.

The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the fortifications of Quebec strengthened and enlarged. Vauban, the great engineer, furnished the plans, which were carried out under Frontenac’s personal supervision. For twenty leagues around, the habitants were pressed into service and even the gentlefolk of the colony volunteered for work with pick and spade, so eager was the sentiment to carry out Vauban’s plans.  A line of solid earthworks was extended on the flank of the city from Cape Diamond to the St. Charles River, and now for the first time the summit of Cape Diamond was fortified, this redoubt with sixteen cannon being the foundation of the present day citadel of Quebec.  In the foundation of the new work a copper plate, discovered at the demolition of the old walls in 1854, was buried bearing the following inscription:

In the year of grace 1693 under the reign of the Most August, Most Invincible and Most Christian King, Louis the Great, fourteenth of that name, the most Excellent and Most Illustrious Lord, Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, twice viceroy of all New France, after having three years before repulsed, routed and completely conquered the rebellious inhabitants of New England, who besieged this town of Quebec and who threatened to renew the attack this year, constructed at the charge of the King, this citadel, with the fortifications therewith connected, for the defense of the country and the safety of the people and for confounding yet again a people perfidious towards God and towards its lawful king.  And he has laid this first stone.

In 1709 the sturdy colonists of New England planned another expedition against Quebec.  This time the home government had promised to help.  But arrangements were delayed and it became late autumn before the expedition was ready to set out.  Under the circumstances a fight against the frigid winter of Quebec as well as its stone strongholds was not to be considered.

The next attempt upon the little city took place in 1711, when a strong fleet under Admiral Sir Hovenden Walker set sail from Boston on the 30th of July.  Under a different commander this effort might have resulted in success to the British arms, but Admiral Walker scorned all advice and drove his big frigates on so recklessly amidst the dense fogs and sharp reefs of Newfoundland, that eight battleships were beaten to pieces by the waves and rocks.  Eight hundred and eighty-four people, thirty-four of them women, were drowned.  Admiral Walker sailed ignominiously back to Boston and in Quebec the happy French changed the name of their little church of Notre Dame de la Victoire to that of Notre Dame des Victoirea.

Yet the persistence of the English was at length to have its way.  In 1720 the walls of Quebec were enlarged and made mightier and the citadel largely in the form of which it exists today, was erected.  Vaudreuil, the last governor of New France, loudly proclaimed that the city was impregnable.  In 1759 came the expedition of Wolfe against Quebec, the final outcome of which was the method of attack, with Wolfe’s heroic death on the Plains of Abraham, is a story that every schoolboy knows.

This conflict was the first in which the citadel took part.  The mighty works in which Vaudreuil trusted so loudly had been overcome on their first trial, while the high perched, precariously placed little “Castle,” which Champlain had first built and which his successors had altered to suit their times, had withstood innumerable Indian attacks and had seen three assaults by Europeans fail against it. The spirit of the men who manned the forts had changed with their times.

There is another tale of siege and Quebec which is not widely familiar and yet which all Americans should know. It is the story of Montgomery’s expedition during the Revolution – an expedition in which he lost his life and in which Benedict Arnold played a conspicuous part.

Richard Montgomery was a lieutenant in Wolfe’s army and was thoroughly familiar with Quebec. At the outbreak of the War of Independence he was deputized to lead an army up the Hudson and by the familiar approach along the Richelieu River and the St. Lawrence to Quebec. Benedict Arnold led another force through the tangled forests of northern Elaine and New Hampshire, reaching Quebec ahead, even, of Montgomery. The combined forces laid siege to the city through the winter, and in the most desperate assault of all, one in which Wolfe’s feat of scaling the cliff was attempted, Montgomery lost his life. After six months the United States troops departed, confessing failure.

From that time to this the military history of Quebec has been uneventful. In the early part of the nineteenth century old Castle St. Louis, which had stood so many storms and assaults, succumbed to fire. The site is now an open square with some relics and a fine view over the river.

The great citadel of Quebec rises three hundred and fifty feet above the river and covers nearly forty acres. The portion of the works overlooking the St. Lawrence is called the Grand Battery, while the surmounting pinnacle of the citadel is known as the King’s Bastion. From the King’s Bastion a most glorious panorama is spread out before one, embracing the city, the great river, hundreds of miles of forest and farm land, the Laurentian Mountains in the distance in one direction and the green hills of Vermont far away in another.

All of the old works of Quebec have been retired from active service in a military sense. The city is protected by modem fortifications in other quarters.

Two memorials record two great events in the history of the citadel. The chief is the Wolfe Montcalm monument erected just behind the Dufferin Terrace in a little green enclosure known as the Governor’s Garden. The second is a simple tablet set up in the face of the cliff on the riverfront below the citadel, marking the spot where the United States General Montgomery fell in the winter of 1775.

Forts, History,

Quebec Canada,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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