Wednesday, September 8, 2010

250th Anniversary of the Surrender of Montreal

On this day, 250 years ago, the capital of New France surrendered to the English, marking the effective end of the French and Indian War. After the Battle of Sainte-Foy, General Levis fell back to Montreal with his surviving 4,000 French troops. General Amherst with his English soldiers followed. Colonel Bougainville held Isle-aux-Noix against the British, but he withdrew to the safety of Montreal. Capitaine Pouchot fought tenaciously from Fort Levis, but the English army moved on.

In early September, Amherst joined his army to the army of General Murray and the army of Colonel Haviland, who already surrounded the town. This gave General Amherst 16,000 men to besiege Montreal.

Montreal was not a fortress like Quebec. The walls were thin and guarded by a moat, no barrier to artillery. Levis only had 4,000 soldiers to defend it, but there were many French civilians sheltering behind its walls in the wooden houses. The Royal Artillery could have blown Montreal into kindling or set it on fire.

The Governor of New France, Vaudreil, did not want to see this happen, so he sent Bougainville to the English camp to discuss terms. Levis wished to keep the French regimental flags after the surrender. This was perfectly reasonable for an 18th century general to think. Keeping flags constituted part of the “honors of war”, along with keeping personal arms and maybe even a small cannon. Montcalm had given the garrison of Fort William-Henry the honors of war, and so had the British generals, Murray, Townshend, and Monckton, after the surrender of Quebec.

But General Amherst refused. Incidentally, he had refused the honors of war to the garrison of Louisbourg as well. His reason? “I am fully resolved, for the infamous part the troops of France had acted in exciting the savages to perpetrate the most horrid and unheard of barbarities in the whole progress of this war, and for open treacheries and flagrant breaches of faith, to manifest to all the world by this capitulation my detestation of such practices.” He was referring to Fort William-Henry and the massacre, which he believed the French army had perpetrated. In fairness to Amherst, he did grant most of Vaudreil’s requests, though demanding that the soldiers not serve again during the present war.

Levis was furious. He demanded that Vaudreil break off negotiations, but the Governor-General refused. The Chevalier de Levis requested permission to take his troops to Isle-Ste.-Helene and fight to the last man, but Vaudreil would not agree to this, either.

There remained only one thing for Levis to do, one way to avenge himself. He would burn the flags.

The night of September 7-8, Levis and his tattered army gathered on Isle-Ste.-Helene. There they build a bonfire and fed the flags into it. Levis broke his sword, rather than yield it to General Amherst.

Many historians censure Levis for lying about what really happened to the flags, but did he?

Amherst wrote to his superior, William Pitt, Minister of War, that, “the Marquis de Vaudreil, Generals, and the Commanding Officers of the Regts., their words of honour, that the Battalions had not any colours; they had brought them six years ago with them, they were torn to Pieces, and finding them troublesome in this Country, they had destroyed them.”

“Troublesome in this Country”? Perhaps because they needed to be yielded to the English? Maybe Levis did not lie.

At any rate, on September 8, the French regiments laid down their arms in what later became known as “the Place d’Armes.” One French fort alone (Detroit) remained to Louis XV, but it too would surrender. But the surrender of Montreal marks the end of French Canada.

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