Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Siege of Fort Saint-Jean

Fort Saint-Jean in southern Quebec was the place at which the British hoped to turn back the American invasion of Canada. The Americans were not strong enough to take the fort by assault, and so intended to capture the fort by siege. However, the Americans’ initial attempts to approach the fort were easily turned back.

Some events described in previous posts:

Over the next week, the Americans expanded their main camp, and constructed a road leading towards Fort Saint-Jean. At the edge of the woods south of the fort, the Americans constructed two gun emplacements. These guns opened fire at 3pm on September 25th, 1775 (the same day that Ethan Allen met with defeat near Montreal).

On November 1st, the British garrison, worn down by the bombardment, low on rations, and without hope of relief, decided to enter into surrender negotiations. The garrison formally surrendered on November 3rd.

I don’t plan on providing an exhaustive review of the month-and-a-half long siege. Instead, this post is intended to provide a broad overview of the siege. An upcoming post will describe, in detail, the dramatic, final bombardment of the fort on November 1st.

The Americans had four camps in the vicinity of Fort Saint-Jean during the siege. Their approximate location is identified by the following letters on the map below:

A. Main camp, commanded by Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery. In use from September 17 to October 28, 1775. On the 28th, Montgomery relocated all of the forces in the main camp to the lower camp.

B. Lower camp, commanded by Colonel Timothy Bedel (superseded by Brigadier-General David Wooster on October 27, and Montgomery on October 28). In use from September 18 to November 3, 1775.

C. Camp near Hazen’s house, commanded by James Livingston. First occupied by September 22 and probably in use for the remainder of the siege. In mid-October, Livingston and most of his men departed to attack Fort Chambly.

D. East camp, commanded by Colonel James Clinton. In use from around October 11 to November 3, 1775.

The Americans also established four gun emplacements during the siege. For the most part, these pieces were manned by Lamb’s artillery company with support from various infantry detachments. The location of the emplacements is identified by the following numbers on the map below:

1. 2-gun battery of 12-pounders. Intended to fire on the British shipyard and the British vessels. Operational September 25-October 27.

2. Mortar battery, including a 13-in. mortar nicknamed the “old sow”. Intended to shell the fort. Operational September 25-October 27.

3. East battery, consisting of 2 4-pounders (the Canadian artillery) and 2 12-pounders. Intended to fire on the British vessels and the fort. Operational October 11-November 1 (the 4-pounders first opened fire on the 11th, the 12-pounders on the 14th).

4. Northwest battery, consisting of four 12-pounders and 6 mortars. Intended to fire on the fort. Operational November 1.

The Siege of Fort Saint-Jean (click to enlarge). For details on construction, see here. The site of the gun emplacements indicated on the map is fairly exact; however, the map should not be used for guidance as to the shape and size of the emplacements. A number of the roads shown on this map were constructed after the siege began. While the existence of these roads is clearly indicated in primary sources, their exact course is not, and the manner in which I’ve represented these roads is based on interpretation. The British fort consisted of two redoubts connected by a trench and picket fence. The trench and fence were constructed after the siege began and do not appear on earlier maps I've made of the area. Bedel constructed at least one breastwork to defend his camp at Grosse Pointe. His men also felled trees (not shown) at several places across the road leading north from the fort, and they controlled the shore opposite Hazen's estate.

Comments on Research

I do not document here the various sources used to support each of the above statements. However, interested readers are welcome to contact me with specific questions regarding sources and interpretations.

One subject that I've wrestled with in composing this post concerns the location of the Canadians' guns.

Foucher, a Canadian officer serving with the British garrison, recorded in his journal "On the fourth [of October] several Bostonians [actually, they were primarily Livingston's men] were noticed on the south side of the river near Moses Hazen's house. Several cannon shots were fired at them, to which the enemy replied in the same way."

From this statement, I concluded that the Canadians' had built, or were building, a gun emplacement for their 4 pounders by Hazen's house, and I indicated as much in an earlier post.

This view seemed confirmed by an October 6 letter from General Montgomery to Major-General Philip Schuyler, in which Montgomery noted, "Mr. Livingston, some days ago, took post at Mr. Hazen' s house, with near two hundred of the Canadians; they are erecting a battery there, which seems to make the garrison very uneasy." [Emphasis in original]

However, only Foucher's account suggests the Canadians fired their cannon on this occasion; other accounts indicate only that the Canadians responded to British fire with their muskets.

A British officer's journal (thought to have been written by Lieutenant John André), noted in the entry for October 5th that "Some imagin'd they saw men at work opposite the north redoubt on the east side of the River." His account makes it clear that this is a new enemy position: on October 7th, a British row galley is sent out both "towards Hazens House and along the side of the River opposite the N. Redoubt." No account mentions the Canadians' guns in action on this occasion, strongly suggesting that such a battery had not yet been erected. The British officer's journal indicates that a battery across from the north redoubt was completed on October 11th and opened fire on the fort the same day.

On considering these and other sources again, I've concluded that Foucher was probably mistaken in his characterization of the October 4th incident, and that Montgomery's description probably applies to the battery that began to be constructed on October 5th and that the garrison discovered on the 11th.

All of this is a very minor point, of course, but it is illustrative of the difficulty that arises when one attempts to reconcile participant accounts.

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