On New Year’s Eve 1775, Caleb Haskell was lucky to be recovering from smallpox in a house miles from the Battle of Quebec.
Haskell, a private from Newburyport, had volunteered for Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec in May. Arnold had convinced George Washington it was a good idea to try to capture Quebec from the British. It wasn’t.
The city was fortified and defended by about 1,800 men including the Royal Highland Emigrants, a local militia and marines from two Royal Navy ships stationed in the St. Lawrence River. There were about 1,200 Continental forces, many sick and weak after a grueling trek through the Maine wilderness.
Gen. Richard Montgomery had arrived from Montreal to join Arnold’s forces in the planned attack. He decided to assault the city on Dec. 31, 1775, because the enlistments of Arnold’s men were expiring and a snowstorm would mask the scaling of the walls.
The Battle of Quebec was the first major defeat of the Revolution for the Americans. Fifty men were killed, 34 wounded and 431 captured. The British lost only five killed and 14 wounded.
On Sunday, Dec. 31, 1775, Caleb Haskell wrote in his diary:
Heard from the camp that General Montgomery intended to storm the city soon. A bad snow storm. One of our company died of small-pox about twelve o’clock tonight.
On Jan. 1, 1776:
About four o’clock this morning we perceived a hot engagement at the city by the blaze of the cannon and small arms, but could hear no report by reason of the wind and storm, it being a violent snow storm. We supposed that General Montgomery had stormed the city. Just after daylight all was still. We are fearful and anxious to hear the transaction of last night. This morning I took my clothes and pack on my back, being very weak and feeble after the small-pox. Returned to the camp. Found all my officers and three of my messmates and almost all the company taken or killed, and the rest in great confusion. Could get no particular account of the siege till the afternoon, when we received the following:
This morning about four o’clock, the time appointed to storm the city, our army divided into different parts to attack. General Montgomery was to storm the upper town and scale the walls, while Colonel Arnold was to cut the pickets leading from the walls to Charles river and enter the lower town as soon as the signal was given. They proceeded; it being dark no discovery was made. They got near the walls, when a heavy fire of cannon and small arms began from the enemy, they being prepared and expecting us this night. Here a number of our men were killed and wounded. The rest not being disheartened rushed on; came to the walls, cannon roaring like thunder and musket balls flying like hail. Our men had nothing for cover. Our General and his Aide-de-camp and Captain Cheeseman were killed by a charge of grape-shot from the walls, which put they party in great confusion. There appeared no officer to take command. Colonel Camrael came up and ordered them to retreat. Colonel Arnold was wounded and brought off and a number of his men killed or wounded. The rest advanced and cut the pickets, so that with great difficulty they entered the town and took possession of the battery and secured themselves to wait till daylight. Hearing a great shout and the firing cease, and not knowing the occasion, concluded that the General had got in and the city and surrendered. After it was light, to their great disappointment, they found it otherwise. They found themselves surrounded and no retreat, and that they must fall into the hands of their enemies. Thus we were defeated, with the loss of our General and upwards of 400 of our officers and men killed or taken. Every Captain in Colonel Arnold’s party was killed or taken, and but four of his men escaped and they invalids.