THE STRUGGLE FOR THE BORDER

The escape that saved the nation

BRUCE HUTCHISON March 5 1955
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE BORDER

The escape that saved the nation

BRUCE HUTCHISON March 5 1955

ON NEW YEAR’S EVE 1775, the freezing hands of the Quebec garrison clutched sword and musket. They also clutched the invisible stuff of a new nation and could lose it before the New Year dawned.

A blizzard howled over the ancient rock that night and muffled the boom of American guns on the Field of Abraham, where Wolfe had died only sixteen years before. Two young generals of the Continental Congress had taken his place in yet another siege of Quebec. For in the reasoning of the Philadelphia philosophers of inalienable rights and by the inevitable logic of nature itself, Canada belonged to the American Revolution.

As the light of signal fires and the flare of rockets across the sky announced the attack, a lonely and unruffled figure waited inside the town walls. Guy Carleton had reached his hour. If Canada was to be saved for the British Empire, and ultimately for itself, this man alone could save it.

To an English gentleman of the old school like Carleton, the course of human events in America had lately seemed evil, unnatural, incredible. Why, French power had hardly been driven from Canada before the Thirteen Colonies of the Atlantic coast apparently were taking leave of their senses.

A Virginian named Patrick Henry—a shambling, shabby, red-headed yokel, as it was reported in London had introduced in the House of Burgesses a series of outlandish “Resolves” and had cried out: “If this be treason, make the most of it!” Sam Adams, in English eyes a still more repulsive character, a mere demagogue, burly, ragged and vulgar, was stirring up the mobs of Boston. Even the gentry seemed to be infected by this madness and were pursuing what they were pleased to call liberty—as if they had not secured, by the Seven Years’ War, all the liberty any Englishman could possibly desire.

Carleton had fought with Wolfe on the Plains, had been severely wounded beside his dying friend and had supposed that this victory would settle the future of America for good, to the satisfaction of all sensible men. It was therefore shocking and painful to hear that the Thirteen Colonies doubted the result of the war and the wisdom of His Majesty’s Government, which had saved them from the old menace and the countless attacks of the French Canadians since Champlain’s time.

Being an English gentleman (though born in Ireland) Carleton rather resembled in character his future enemy, George Washington—and in destiny, too, since the careers of these two men were to run in unlikely parallel to shape the destinies of two nations. And in appearance the loyal Briton and the American rebel were not unlike.

Carleton stood over six feet tall. His body was massive and muscular, his face, like Washington’s, square, heavy-jowled and solid. A staid and silent young officer in the British Army, he had earned the nickname of “grave Carleton.” Two grave men of middle age, one from Virginia, the other from County Tyrone, had some ten years of business to transact between them, none of it pleasant.

Now that Wolfe and Montcalm were gone and New France transformed into the fourteenth British colony, who would govern the continent? As it was to happen—against all calculation, all geographic facts, economic laws and political theories—Washington and Carleton would split the continent and share its government.

Carleton’s career, like Washington’s, began in misfortune and mistake. About the time that Washington was driven from Fort Necessity after a military blunder, Carleton incurred the high dudgeon of King George II by some indiscreet and bitter remarks about the alien Hanoverian dynasty.

But Carleton was an able officer. When Wolfe was ordered the next year to capture Quebec, he insisted on Carleton’s appointment to his staff over the King’s objections. Carleton served at Quebec with outstanding skill, was wounded in the head and was willed a thousand pounds by his commander, besides all Wolfe’s books and papers. He had become the dead hero’s closest friend.

Between 1759 and 1766 he continued to fight bravely in Britain’s wars, being twice wounded. Then in 1766, appointed Governor of Quebec by the new monarch George III—his old affronts to the Royal Family forgiven Carleton arrived at his capital to find it astir, not for the reasons agitating the Thirteen Colonies and not so angrily, yet with a depressing lack of loyalty to its new King.

Busily stamping the imperial design on the Thirteen, the government of England had little time to consider the fourteenth, in Quebec. Carleton was left alone to grapple with the same design in Canadian terms. He found those terms unworkable but, unlike the conspirators of Boston and Williamsburg, he could quietly change the design in a lonely foreign region, where an alien and conquered people would do whatever he ordered, where England saw little of interest or importance anyway.

The local politics of Quebec soon warped the whole impossible design of the British Empire in America and at last received the earnest attention of the British government. What it had heard from its local Governor was most confusing. He seemed to have turned almost into a Frenchman, or at least into a Canadian. Here he was, writing to London that “barring a catastrophe shocking to think of, this country must to the end of time be peopled by the Canadian race, who have already taken such firm root and got so great a height that any new stock transplanted will be totally hid, except in the towns of Quebec and Montreal.”

He was wrong about that because he did not expect the American Revolution and its backwash into Canada. How could he foresee that the French-speaking Canadians of Quebec would soon be a minority in an unimaginable new state? For the present he had only the first known fact to work with — the fact that the Canadians would be themselves—and it was enough to reverse the entire policy of Britain in America.

The original policy was designed to anglicize the Canadians and, if possible, convert them to Protestantism as part of a homogeneous British and Protestant continent. Carleton had not been in Canada a year before he saw the futility of that hope. Since the Canadians would remain Canadians, if not French, Britain must accept the fact and alter its policies accordingly. Since the other Thirteen Colonies were growing restive, Britain must consolidate the loyal fourteenth, even if it was not British by race or religion. The Canadians must be attached to Britain, not on Britain’s terms but on their own.

That conclusion was the gauge of Carleton’s statesmanship and marked him as one of the decisive figures in North American history. For under his cool management began the great Canadian paradox. It would drastically alter in America the course of human events so complacently laid down and so greatly misunderstood in the Thirteen Colonies.

LIKE ALL workable human institutions, the Forty-Ninth Parallel is a paradox. It was created by animosity but it lives by friendship. It divides two peoples but unites them in one neighborhood, all the more durable because it permits diversity. It separates two political entities but it carries back and forth in ceaseless motion, day and night, the largest freight of goods, travelers and ideas crossing any frontier in the world.

The boundary is like a mighty heart nourishing one community of two parts, separate hut organically interdependent. In modern times the heartbeat has been so steady and reliable that the potent body of the continent is hardly aware of it. Though the organism seems outwardly tough and muscular, inwardly it is as delicate as any human body. The very intimacy of the American-Canadian friendship makes it brittle and supersensitive —as the closest friends will ignore a stranger s offenses but will be wounded by the smallest slight from one another. Thus the border is marked by many secret scars, slowly healed, and by a few recent scratches.

They are hardly surprising when many of the greatest North Americans have resisted the continental division. Did not Jefferson, in 1812, proclaim again the wholeness and indivisibility of America? Did not Henry Clay lay down the dictum that the United States should "take the whole continent and ask no favors” for "I wish never to see peace till we do?” Did not the United States, indeed, hold a "mortgage” on every inch of Canadian soil, solemnly filed by Senator Zachariah Chandler in 1871? And even in 1911 did not the Honorable Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, affirm that he expected to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole?”

Those thinkers regarded the contrary notion—that America must be sundered by a scrawl of ink on a fictitious map—as a heresy, an aberration from the human norm, a repeal of reason, an insult to self-evident truth, not to he borne by rational men.

Nor were they obliged to hear it, at least in the past century. Grant’s Grand Army of the Republic could have taken Canada in an easy march, as an afterthought to the Civil War, and Canadians listened anxiously for the tramp of that third and final invasion. At any time since then the conquest of Canada would have been a fairly simple military operation.

Given the two quarrelsome breeds on either side of the border, the wonder is not that they fought so long but that they halted their struggle short of final conquest. On both sides the advances and retreats, the broken truces, the blunders, deceptions and crimes were beyond reckoning. So were the heroism, agony, patience, labor and ingenuity. These peoples threatened continental war because a worthless little ship had been burned and sent flaming over Niagara Falls, and again because an aged pig had been stolen and eaten on a Pacific island. Even a man as sensible as Macdonald, the first Canadian Prime Minister, was suggesting, on April 9, 1867, that India attack San Francisco to divert the United States when it attacked Canada.

All those alarms have passed. The great change—little more than half a century old and hardly to be judged decisive until the last two decades—has followed a long and fitful fever. Madness and sanity, greed and generosity, quarrel and reconciliation, sin and forgiveness, loss and gain have welled along the border of America in tidal flow. They have left behind, in firm sedimentary layers, the continent we now inhabit, the only continent surely at peace and divided by agreement.

The joint future of the two American nations can be understood if we put our minds to it. That we have hardly begun to do. In the eyes of most Canadians the United States, for all its devices of information, remains a caricature compounded of Broadway, Hollywood and the dark underside of Washington politics. To most Americans the people of Canada are pioneers on a lonely northern frontier, suburban residents just outside the walls of the Republic or exiled Englishmen, and in any case good, honest folk, reliable in the pinch, safely to be taken for granted and indistinguishable from their neighbors, except for their tricks of accent or silence.

The two-sided caricature contains enough truth to make it mischievous. Americans are usually not angry but deeply hurt when Canadians misunderstand and criticize them. Canadians, being even more sensitive under a placid exterior, cannot bear to he taken for granted. So, in an age of mechanical communication, the real lifestuff of both peoples fails to come through the radio waves, the television boxes, the speeches and the printed word.

How many Americans have yet distinguished the hard facts of the border from among the genial myths?

The fact that two peoples, so alike in their outer habits, differ fundamentally because their historic experience is different.

The Americans spiritually whole after cutting their ties in Europe; the Canadians refusing to cut those ties and thus spiritually split.

The Americans devoted to their written doctrines, fixed principles, self-evident truths, iron-clad Constitution and government by laws, not men; the Canadians sceptical of all theory, deliberately pragmatic and inconsistent in great concerns, compelled to live, hugger-mugger, by compromise in a society of two races, yet grimly attached to their curious institutions, their folkways and their Queen who happens to live in London.

The Americans lively, humorous, articulate, excited, certain of man’s essential equality and truly democratic; the Canadians superficially stolid, apparently humorless, silent, unruffled, yet full of a hot inner pride, always aware of man’s inequality and convinced that democracy has its limitations.

Two peoples, in fact, who have been exposed to the same American environment but see it through divergent angles of refraction.

How many Americans have considered the fact that no foreign people on earth has so intimately, persistently and inevitably affected the course of American history as a few million Canadians who only wished to be left alone?

How many Canadians have grasped the fact that they have built their nation mainly by the consent and co-operation of the United States, despite its occasional gestures to the contrary; that Canada not only began as the child of the American Revolution but is viable today only under American protection; and that if Canada cannot contract out of American power and American mistakes, yet no nation of its size and strength has ever received such generous treatment from a giant on its undefended flank?

Such paradoxes have long roots. They come out of an endless adventure, a combination of men, geography, natural forces and sheer accident—the unbelievable story of the 49th parallel. It is a story at first dominated by outsiders but essentially the story of two distinct peoples striving to subdue the American environment in their own separate fashions. Though all the innumerable bunglers of Europe attempted to print the Old World’s image on the New, the American nations quickly took their own from the earth around them.

When Frontenac gloatingly reported his massacres of New England settlers, when La Salle announced a new empire awaiting France on the Mississippi, and the La Vérendrye brothers mistakenly registered their first sight of the Rockies, they wrote in French. When Mackenzie recorded the white man’s first crossing of the continent, when Simpson noted the secrets of the fur trade in his private code, when the Founding Fathers devised the American Constitution, they wrote in English. All of them were thinking, unconsciously, in a language of new meanings. Their minds had taken on an American dimension. They might regard themselves as transplanted Frenchmen or Englishmen, hut they had been transformed by the continental environment, by the wilderness and far places, by the spectacle of river, lake, prairie and mountain, by the very air, the fierce sun, the cruel winter, the loneliness of their land—and not least by their struggle to unify or divide it. ★

As an English gentleman Carleton could see great political advantages and a highly congenial social climate in Quebec. There was no democratic nonsense among the peaceable Canadians, none of those instincts of revolt and class warfare now upsetting even the stable society of New England.

A gentleman in Quebec could remain a gentleman. The well-trained, respectful peasants would not question his status, having always been governed by gentlemen; whereas in the Thirteen Colonies persons obviously not gentlemen were uttering the most outrageous notions of sovereignty, equality, human rights and God alone knew what other seditious libels. Why then destroy, by amalgamation, standardization and social debasement, this Canadian island of sanity in the dark ocean of American democracy?

The Proclamation of 1763—signed in Paris—had ended the Seven Years’ War with France and established the details of British rule in Quebec. Carleton began to break the Proclamation not outwardly at first but in detail. That document, like so many other imperial designs for America, was soon in tatters.

It had imposed English law in Quebec but the local courts still followed the law of Paris in civil disputes.

It had promised freehold tenure of land on the English model but land was still being granted in the French style.

It had abolished the established Catholic Church but the church still controlled the people.

It had promised a legislative assembly but none was ever called together. No one wanted it, save the carpetbaggers from the Thirteen Colonies, who wanted it mainly to nail down their monopoly of the fur trade.

Thus, by another of the queer paradoxes that must always govern Canada, its new English settlers from the Thirteen Colonies were mostly opposed to the English King, the Canadian seigneurs and priests were his most ardent supporters and the peasantry was largely disregarded by its betters. Not, however, by Carleton. To satisfy the ordinary Canadian, he was reducing the Proclamation, with its boundaries, to a solemn fiction, more transparent every year.

But for events in the Thirteen Colonies the British policy might have been left to perish peaceably in stages. As Carleton judged them, those events necessitated a sudden change to end the dying fiction outright and substitute a viable fact, if Britain was to hold Canada.

Patrick Henry’s treason—as an English gentleman must view it—had spread far, but treason in Canada was confined to a few agitators from the rebellious colonies to the south. The Canadians were sullen and disgruntled like any conquered people, heartsick at the loss of their motherland and their fathers’ dream, soul-wounded, baffled by a process beyond their comprehension, but they were passive. Under an outer air of submission they hid their passions deeper, more stubborn and durable than an American revolutionary or an English gentleman could conceive.

Still, grave Carleton saw enough below the calm exterior to confirm his early calculation. He hurried to London with his own revolutionary notions, designed to prevent a revolution in Canada. It took him four years to sell those notions to the British government, hardly surprising since they proposed a complete and overt change in the imperial design. At length, when the Thirteen Colonies were clearly on the verge of rebellion, the British government decided that Carleton could be right about his colony after all, that his new plan might insulate Canada from the approaching storm.

So, in 1774, parliament began a new and unique experiment with the passage of the Quebec Act. It was the first timid and unconscious step in the construction of the second Empire, and, unknown to its authors, a step toward the third, to be called a Commonwealth. The Quebec Act repealed the Proclamation of 1763 bag, baggage and boundary. The old French system was virtually re-established in Canada.

There was to be no legislative assembly but an appointed gentleman’s government, composed of a few British gentlemen, supported by the Canadian gentlemen who, though Catholic, were legalized and made fit for office by an ingenious new oath. The seigneurial land laws were confirmed. French law was established in civil cases and English law in criminal cases. The Catholic Church was permitted to collect its old tithes. Far more important for the future of the continent, the country between the Ohio and Mississippi was restored to the Canadian colony, its original discoverer and owner.

Britain had retreated from the imperial design so far as Canada was concerned, swallowed its pride and sacrificed its Anglo-Saxon ideals within eleven years. The Thirteen Colonies, however, saw only a surrender to the French idolators, whom they had defeated, a brazen theft of their western lands. Nothing could better suit Sam Adams and the hotheads of New England.

If England had made another fatal mistake in the Thirteen Colonies, she had achieved, whether she knew what she was doing or not, a supreme stroke of statecraft in Canada. She had laid the foundations of a loyal British community—not the community she expected or desired, to be sure, but a friendly community perhaps able to abort the whole concept of continentalism and draw a boundary across the continent. A community, in short, which held the first stuff of nationhood.

Carleton, that cold imperious English gentleman, could not see far through the mists of the latest human events. Who could? Not even a Washington or a Franklin, much less an Adams. For human events were now running wild from New England to Georgia in the first stages of a civil war with the English-speaking family.

On the night of April 18, 1775, a lantern glowed in the steeple of a Boston church, a silversmith named Paul Revere rode breakneck into the countryside and next morning, at Lexington, an angry knot of American farmers fired on English troops the opening shots of the Revolution.

This, then, was the end of something and the beginning of something else. King George did not guess that yet, but it was clear to a greater man. Benjamin Franklin, in London, heard of Lexington from a long distance. The news shattered his last hopes of reconciliation. Tears blinded his eyes as he read the American newspapers.

Carleton did not cry so easily. At times he seemed to have no emotion in him but a loyalty to the King and his own private code. However, at the age of forty-eight, while the world reeled and exploded and the British parliament was pondering his Quebec Act, he had yielded to a brief and rather stuffy interlude of romance by proposing marriage to Lady Anne Howard, young enough to be his daughter. She declined the honor and, with appropriate weeping, admitted to her younger sister, Lady Maria, that she had “been obliged to refuse the best man on earth.”

“The more fool you,” Maria retorted. “I only wish he had given me the chance.”

A matchmaking spinster carried that story to the downcast lover. He immediately accepted the alternative thus offered and married Maria. She was tiny, with fair hair, blue eyes and such a delusion of grandeur that the court at Quebec soon became the fussiest in the contemporary world. Carleton humored his child wife, almost as if he remembered the domestic misfortunes of his predecessors, Champlain and Frontenac.

When the bridal pair arrived at Quebec early in 1775, protocol was of small account. The Continental Congress was preparing to invade and liberate Canada. Its reasons were sound enough. Canada was a base from which the British would certainly strike southward. Canada, therefore, must be neutralized.

To this end the Congress first invited delegates from Quebec to join Canada to the Revolution. As the Canadians paid no attention—the seigneurs and priests saw to that—they must be liberated from their British oppressors by force.

Little force surely would be required. Quebec had been softened up by American agitators. The agents reported to the Congress that Canada was groaning, like its neighbors, under the imperial boot. As viewed from Philadelphia, Canada looked ripe for rebellion and needed only a little outside help to throw off its chains.

Carleton the statesman reluctantly laid aside his Quebec Act, which had been intended to keep Canada loyal by generous concessions, and became a soldier again. There was no alternative. He found himself in the exact middle of the Revolution. For once, by blind luck, England had the right man in the right place.

While the Congress argued and delayed, Ethan Allen, a towering frontiersman and leader of the Green Mountain Boys, had been conducting a private war with the authorities of New York. Now he took the war against Canada into his own hands.

Across Lake Champlain from Ticonderoga he was joined by a horse dealer and amateur soldier, Benedict Arnold. They mustered altogether two hundred and thirty men. The great fortress was held by about forty unsuspecting troops who freely allowed spies to inspect their lack of preparation.

The Americans crossed the lake in the first light of May 10, 1775, the sentry’s musket missed fire, the commander was awakened by a knock on his door and the hoarse voice of Allen ordering him to surrender “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” Or so Allen told the story afterwards. The commander surrendered in his dressing gown.

Allen’s partner, Seth Warner, captured Crown Point and its thirteen surprised soldiers. Arnold seized Fort St. Johns on the Richelieu in the same bloodless fashion.

The American Revolution controlled the historic invasion corridor at the moment when the Continental Congress was solemnly resolving “that no Expedition or Incursion ought to be undertaken or made, by any Colony or Body of Colonies, against or into Canada.” Philadelphia changed its mind within a few days and commissioned General Schuyler to “pursue any measures in Canada that may have a tendency to promote the peace and security of these colonies,” always providing that “it will not be disagreeable to the Canadians.”

By mid-August fifteen hundred troops and three generals were at Ticonderoga on their way to Canada. When Schuyler fell ill, the supreme command went to Richard Montgomery, a former captain in the British Army. He was now thirty-eight years old, tall, handsome and dashing, the very image of America in arms. But concerning his army, he wrote to his wife: “Such a set of pusillanimous wretches never were collected.” Their orders were to take Montreal and besiege Quebec, according to the proved strategy of Wolfe.

The right wing of a double assault, under Arnold (“that horse jockey,” as Carleton called him), was to strike at Quebec overland from the southeast. In September Arnold’s force of eleven hundred picked men was dragging its bateaux up the Kennebec. The toiling colonials included some of the crack frontier fighters of the Seven Years’ War and an undistinguished character called Aaron Burr, of whom more would be heard.

Canada’s old friend, northern winter, caught the expedition on an overgrown, swampy and almost impassable trail. Three hundred starving men turned back. The dauntless remainder pushed forward, eating dogs and moccasins, shot down the Chaudière by raft and reached Levis, opposite Quebec, on November 8. After one of the most desperate marches on record, Arnold stood where Wolfe had stood and prepared to duplicate his strategy without his resources or his luck.

There loomed the rock, as Wolfe had seen it. There was a difference this time. The Canadian habitants, who had fought the English invaders for a century and a half, now decided to help them. It was a good omen for the Thirteen Colonies. As always, they were deceived by the outer look of Canada.

Boats and scaling ladders were supplied by the Canadians. Arnold landed at Anse au Foulon in Wolfe’s footsteps and marched his bold scarecrow army toward the walls of Quebec. His written demand for surrender was ignored by Colonel Hector Theophilus Cramahé, the Swiss officer commanding the weak town garrison in Carleton’s absence at Montreal.

This was not what Arnold had been led to expect by the pundits of the Continental Congress. Inalienable rights, it now appeared, included one not dreamed of in the philosophy of Philadelphia. The French Canadians and British in Quebec, under a Swiss commander, assumed the right to exclude Canada from the Revolution. Arnold thought that over and wisely marched twenty miles upriver to await the other invasion army of the Richelieu.

Carleton, in Montreal, now faced at firsthand the unanswered question of Canada’s future—would the French Canadians defend British America? Evidently not. The idiotic government in London had authorized the Governor to raise six thousand of the King’s loyal Canadian subjects, but the Canadians refused to rise even at the exhortation of their seigneurs and priests. Why should they? The civil war among the English was none of their business. The invaders under Montgomery probably would be no worse and might be better than those under Wolfe. A conquered people saw no reason to assist their conquerors.

A lesser man than Carleton would have judged the prospects hopeless. With a handful of British and a few Canadian seigneurs he was expected to hold the historic line of the St. Lawrence against the nearly three million people of the Thirteen Colonies. Like France before it, England had left Canada and the few acres of snow to their fate. The prospects were worse than Carleton then knew. He had heard nothing of Arnold’s army as he faced the advance guard of Montgomery’s.

The advance guard was led by Allen. Disregarding his commander, the chosen instrument of Jehovah and the Congress undertook to seize Montreal almost single-handed as he had seized Ticonderoga. His hundred and twenty men were easily captured or driven off by Carleton’s little force. Allen was handcuffed, angrily protesting this indignity to a soldier, and later imprisoned in a Cornish castle.

Into the American Ambush

Montgomery easily took the Richelieu forts and advanced on Montreal. Carleton knew his town could not be defended. Most of the few Canadian militia who had grudgingly enlisted promptly deserted. The Indian allies fled. Following Montcalm, in precisely the same circumstances, Carleton was compelled to fall back on the citadel of Quebec.

This proved no simple matter. Arnold and Montgomery had blocked the roads on both sides of the St. Lawrence. Carleton proposed to descend the river by boat, but a northeast gale held him landlocked in Montreal. The wind shifted on November 11. A single cannon shot summoned the “whole military establishment” of a hundred and thirty men, among whom stood Carleton, grave as usual, “wrung to the soul but firm, unshaken and serene,” perhaps aware that half a continent might well depend on his ability to reach Quebec. The little company boarded eleven boats and slipped down the river in the darkness.

Carleton had once been afloat with his lucky friend, Wolfe, on a similar adventure. Now Wolfe’s luck deserted him. Near Sorel the tiny British fleet stumbled without warning on Arnold’s ambush. Offered honorable surrender, Carleton still refused, staking his life and probably Canada’s on a last wild gamble. Since his fleet was doomed he withdrew it upstream and left it. He must reach Quebec alone.

The English gentleman quickly dressed himself as a Canadian habitant, in a tasseled red bonnet, grey homespun clothes, a gay sash and moccasins. Thus disguised he boarded the whaleboat of a French Canadian riverman named Bouchette, better known for his exploits as the “Wild Pigeon.”

The Wild Pigeon knew his business. His crew rowed silently down-river in the night, oars muffled, and at the narrow passage between Isle St. Ignace and the Isle du Pas, a few yards from Arnold’s battery, paddled with their hands. Now Wolfe’s luck returned to rescue Carleton. The American sentries heard nothing.

Carleton’s escape on the St. Lawrence, like Washington’s on the Ohio, was to produce large consequences. Bouchette, the Wild Pigeon, had played his little part in the course of human events and, with many other vital players, was forgotten.

“On the 19th,” says the diary of Thomas Ainslie, customs collector at Quebec, “to the unspeakable joy of the friends of the Government, and to the utter dismay of the abettors of Sedition and Rebellion, General Carleton arrived . . . We saw our Salvation in his Presence.”

Arnold captured the Canadian flotilla up the river only to see that his essential British quarry had slipped through his fingers in the guise of a Canadian.

Carleton found Quebec in grave straits and himself in a singular situation. Only sixteen years before he had helped Wolfe capture this town from a French general, now buried in a British shell hole. A British general must take Montcalm’s place and defend the town for England against English troops calling themselves Americans. For England? Possibly Carleton alone among his miserable garrison, among the statesmen of England and the philosophers of Philadelphia, dimly suspected that he was defending Quebec for the Canadians.

He was caught in the perennial paradox of Canada and must use the means at hand. They were not much, proportionately about equal to Montcalm’s.

His first step was to expel from the town all the able-bodied Canadians who would not fight. That left 5,000 people of doubtful sentiment within the walls, about 350 British regulars, 400 sailors and 530 Canadian militia. About 1,300 men must face the resources of the Continental Congress, hold Quebec under its fourth siege or, in losing it, probably lose Canada to the Revolution. As so many times before, a scant square mile of rock beside the river contained the destiny of at least half the continent.

Montgomery took Montreal and joined Arnold at Quebec. The two American generals surveyed, in their shrunken army, the tragic military miscalculations of the Continental Congress—and something more, Philadelphia’s total miscalculations of the Canadian nature. Desertion and disease had reduced the American force on the Plains of Abraham to about a thousand men. Still, Montgomery, knowing war but not Canada, was certain that the Canadians would surrender. He had that on the word of the Philadelphia philosophers and who could doubt it? Therefore, he would “eat his Christmas dinner in Quebec or in hell.” He ate it in his own camp. He would eat only seven more dinners in this world.

A written demand for Quebec’s surrender was tied to an arrow and shot over the walls. It informed Carleton that Quebec was “incapable of defense, manned by a motley crew of sailors, the greatest part our friends, or of citizens who wish to see us within their walls and a few of the worst troops who ever styled themselves soldiers.” The townspeople were warned that Quebec would soon be a “city in flames, carnage, confusion, plunder, all caused by a general courting ruin to avoid his shame.”

The Fateful New Year’s Eve

There spoke the Continental Congress. It was speaking a lot these days and knew everything. Not enough, however, to save its gallant servant Montgomery.

Carleton paid no attention to the message by arrow. The Canadians of his garrison appeared to have little wish for liberation. And in their loyalty under siege Canada unwittingly was turning the critical corner of its future.

The futile arrow was followed by mortar shells which “even the women came to laugh at.” The walls were weak but Montgomery lacked artillery to smash them. His troops shivered in their thin captured British uniforms and soon were assailed by a familiar enemy. With smallpox in his camp and Quebec deaf to the counsels of democracy, Montgomery must attack or retreat.

He hesitated for some time knowing that the odds were against him, decided on a frontal assault from the Plains hut yielded to his own officers, on the new principles of democratic decision by vote, and accepted a subtler strategy.

Christmas came. His broken promise to eat his dinner in the town, his lack of money, the quarrels between his officers and the well-hated Arnold had changed Montgomery from a gay conqueror to a tired and despondent young man. In the depressed humor of his predecessor, Wolfe, he had almost given up hope of victory. Finally he ordered the two-pronged assault for the night of December 31, a New Year’s Eve to be remembered throughout America.

It did not find Carleton unprepared. His garrison was in good order. The Canadian militia stood with unquestioning discipline beside the British regulars—for the first time, but by no means the last. Unity of the two races under arms might mean Quebec’s salvation now. It meant much more later. If it could survive this night it might turn the tide of sentiment among the wavering Canadians. Though no one thought of it then, the men of Quebec might begin, for all their puny numbers, to demonstrate the possibility of a biracial state.

Carleton had no time for such long thoughts. As midnight passed and the world entered a new year of Independence, Inalienable Rights and Self-Evident Truth, a swirling blizzard hid the Plains of Abraham and the American camp. Then, towards four o’clock, signal fires blazed beside the St. Charles, north of the town. They were answered by two green rockets, arching across the blackness beyond the rock of Cape Diamond. The attack evidently was coming from two sides. Carleton’s hour, like Champlain’s, Frontenac’s and Montcalm’s, was coming with it.

The American guns on the Plains began to fire against the western walls. Carleton soon surmised that their sound, dulled by the howl of the blizzard, was a feint. He was right. Montgomery intended to round Cape Diamond and attack the lower town from the St. Lawrence bank. Arnold, attacking from the St. Charles on the north, would meet Montgomery and the joint forces would scale the heights to capture the garrison.

Carleton had guarded against all these possibilities. Grave as usual he stood with his reserves in the Place d’Armes, ready to move where he was needed. Drums, bugles and church bells sounded a general alarm.

Montgomery and five hundred men crept out of Wolfe’s Cove, by a narrow trail along the river bluffs, in the teeth of a fine, cutting snow. This time no Vergor but an alert guard of fifty British and Canadians, under John Coffin, stood at the barricade of Près-de-Ville with four small guns. They waited in silence and saw nothing but the snow, heard only the guns on the Plains.

Suddenly vague figures appeared not twenty yards away. A man crawled forward, looked at the barricade and retreated. Still the guard kept silent in their baited trap.

Now they could see a knot of Americans huddled together in consultation. Montgomery waved his sword and shouted: “Come on, brave lads, Quebec is ours!” As he charged the trap closed. From a distance of ten yards the four guns of Près-de-Ville fired their single volley of grapeshot. The foremost Americans lay on the snow. No second volley was needed. The surviving attackers had fled.

A man came screaming down the street with the false news that the Americans had burst into the town from the St. Charles. The guard at Près-de-Ville started to bolt in panic. Its commander threatened to shoot the first man who moved. No one moved, but the danger had passed. Montgomery would never come back again.

The battle had shifted to the north. There Arnold’s force of six hundred, in captured British uniforms, a scrawled slogan, “Liberty or Death,” pinned to their hats, was advancing along the road between the St. Charles and the walled cliffs of Quebec. They swept past the outer Canadian lines of snipers with heavy losses and reached the main defense works of Sault-au-Matelot. Their single gun, hauled on a sleigh to smash the barricade, stuck fast in the snow. Arnold paused only a moment before ordering a charge. “Now boys,” he cried, “all together, rush!”

The words were hardly uttered before he fell with a bullet through his leg. He propped himself against a wall with a musket for a crutch but soon fainted from loss of blood and was carried out of gunshot.

Daniel Morgan, leading the charge against the barricade, found himself snared in a dark street, enfiladed by British guns, raked by Canadian muskets from every house window. The cul-de-sac instantly became a shambles of confusing red uniforms on both sides, cannon flashes, grapeshot and exploding grenades—a few hundred men, cooped up in a few square yards, but fighting one of the world’s decisive battles. American soldiers would never fight better or more hopelessly. Such men could make a Revolution. They could not capture Quebec against these odds.

“Take Care, my Lads”

Two hours of blind tumult and carnage left a third of the invaders dead in the snow of a mean Canadian alley. When Carleton’s reserves sallied out from the Palace Gate and took the Americans in the rear, Morgan perforce surrendered.

The defenders had lost thirty men killed and wounded. That was the price of saving Quebec. But Quebec was a foothold only of British power in America. Carleton understood the larger forces and dangers in play and was desperately anxious to save the last small chance of reconciliation with the Americans. His prisoners, therefore, were given a good breakfast, warm quarters and a friendly lecture.

“My lads,” said the Governor, “why did you come to disturb an honest man in his government that never did you any harm in his life? Come, my boys, you are in a very painful situation and not able to go home in any comfort. I must provide you with shoes, with stockings and good warm waistcoats. I must give you some victuals to carry you home. Take care, my lads, that you do not come here again, lest I should not treat you so kindly.” Sound advice, no doubt, but the Revolution was past its point of no return and, for its leaders, Quebec was only a minor incident.

Search parties were sent out to collect the wounded Americans and bury the dead. They found thirteen rounded humps of snow beside the Près-de-Ville barricade. From one of them a frozen hand protruded. It was the hand of Montgomery.

Carleton and his officers watched the body of that rash and gallant young man lowered into an honorable grave hard by the St. Louis Gate. After all, this was no ordinary war. It was a hateful quarrel within the British family. Montgomery had died because neither he nor the Continental Congress understood the position of Canadians in that quarrel.

Why should they understand it when the Canadians hardly understood it themselves? Even Ben Franklin, wisest of English-speaking North Americans, was baffled by these Americans of older residence and different tongue. Next spring he set up a printing press in the basement of the Chateau de Ramesay at Montreal; he concentrated the ablest journalistic mind of the continent on persuasive propaganda; he proved beyond the doubt of reasonable men that Canada’s place was in the free union of the Thirteen Colonies. Obviously the Canadians were not reasonable men. They listened, unmoved, to Franklin’s arguments as they had been equally unmoved by Carleton’s.

Up to now most of them had remained neutral in the English family quarrel. When Carleton had saved their beloved Quebec, when the American commissioners paid for supplies in the worthless paper money of the Continental Congress, when the soldiers mocked the Catholic Church, when Franklin’s proclamation of liberty began to wear the look of an unwanted alien system, the habitants turned sour. Liberation of this sort seemed to be only another invasion of the Canadian homeland under a new name. Militarily and morally it was already the Revolution’s first and only permanent defeat.

The survivors of Montgomery’s army could maintain the futile siege of Quebec through the winter. Franklin could turn out his tracts, manifestoes and homespun logic in the Montreal cellar, but the doubtful scales of Canadian sentiment had tilted quietly and forever in favor of England, not because the Canadians loved it more but the Americans and their democracy less. On these humble and invisible scales the political balance of the continent tilted also—and much further than the British government or the Continental Congress yet supposed. The Revolution had lost its fourteenth state and America’s northern half, thanks to the foresight of a grave English gentleman of the old school.