The Three Sieges of Quebec: Marking the 250th Anniversary of General Wolfe's Victory over the French at Quebec, Jeremy Black Considers the Strategy Employed by British Forces in Their Struggle to Gain and Hold Canada

By Black, Jeremy | History Today, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Three Sieges of Quebec: Marking the 250th Anniversary of General Wolfe's Victory over the French at Quebec, Jeremy Black Considers the Strategy Employed by British Forces in Their Struggle to Gain and Hold Canada


Black, Jeremy, History Today


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Last year Canada and France celebrated the foundation of the first lasting French settlement at Quebec in 1608. This year Canada and Britain commemorate the heroism and skill of James Wolfe on the 250th anniversary of the British capture of Quebec, the key military position in New France, the French colony in North America.

Yet Wolfe's victory in 1759 was not the end of the story. The nature of the British achievement of 1759 can best be appreciated if it is seen in relation to two other sieges of Quebec that followed. The first took place in 1760 when French forces tried to recapture the city, the second when the Americans laid siege to it in 1775-76. Significantly, 1759 was the only one in which the city fell.

The fortress-city on the St Lawrence had been the target of British operations almost from its foundation. Captured for Charles I by Sir David Kirke in 1629, while still only weakly defended, it was returned in 1632 as part of the treaty ending the war between England and France that had broken out in 1627. In the 1690s, plans for its capture had been thwarted. That year, an expedition under Major-General Sir William Phips consisting of 32 New England ships and 2,200 troops failed at Quebec due to adverse winds, a shortage of ammunition and an epidemic of smallpox. An advance north from Albany fell victim to poor logistics and morale.

Thereafter, during the Nine Years' War (1687-96--also known as the War of the League of Augsburg), William III's European ambitions caused American aims to be set aside. Phips journeyed from Boston to London in 1691 to urge the king to continue the attack on Canada with its profitable furs and fisheries, but the threat to William's native Netherlands proved more pressing. Thus, Namur, not Quebec, was captured in 1695.

The situation was more encouraging during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), although not initially so. In 1707 a New England force attacked Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal), the main French base in Acadia (Nova Scotia). Failure there increased pressure for the use of regular troops who were better suited for siegecraft although their deployment was delayed by the demands of the European theatre. Consequently, there was no support for an invasion of Canada in 1709, as originally promised. In 1710, 400 British marines joined 1,500 New England militia to successfully capture Port Royal. The following year the largest British expedition yet to be sent to North America had Quebec as its objective. The operation was abandoned, including the advance of the landward prong from Albany to Montreal, after navigational error led to the loss of nearly 900 men on the rocks in the St Lawrence estuary even though more than 6,000 troops and most of the fleet survived.

In 1745, the French naval base of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island was captured but the planned expedition to the St Lawrence was postponed in 1746 and then cancelled entirely in favour of an attack on the port of Lorient in France.

Wolfe's triumph, therefore, emerges as the glorious culmination of a long saga of planned attacks on Quebec by the British. However, it was only another stage in a struggle for the fortress that really ended 17 years later in 1776. The death of Wolfe and the capture of Quebec are traditionally seen as marking the end of New France, but this is mistaken. The French had designated 1759 as the year of a planned invasion of Britain. The defence of Britain was a key element in the struggle for North America both in terms of strategic planning and in the politics entailed in choosing between commitments. Had French forces landed in Britain then the British is in North America would have been desperately missed. French success in Europe could have forced the British to return colonial gains as the price of peace, as happened in 1748 (when Louisbourg was returned to France) and 1802.

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Though cut off from supplies and reinforcements from France, the substantial French forces remaining in Canada did not passively await the war's end. …

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