Biography of Sir Guy Carleton

Governor-general of Canada during the American Revolution

Guy Carleton half-length portrait, facing left. Wood engraving.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Born Sept. 3, 1724, at Strabane, Ireland, Guy Carleton was the son of Christopher and Catherine Carleton. The son of a modest landowner, Carleton was educated locally until his father's death when he was 14. Following his mother's remarriage a year later, his stepfather, Reverend Thomas Skelton, oversaw his education. On May 21, 1742, Carleton accepted a commission as an ensign in the 25th Regiment of Foot. Promoted to lieutenant three years later, he worked to further his career by joining the 1st Foot Guards in July 1751.

Rising Through the Ranks

During this period, Carleton befriended Major James Wolfe. A rising star in the British Army, Wolfe recommended Carleton to the young Duke of Richmond as a military tutor in 1752. Building a relationship with Richmond, Carleton began what would become a career-long ability to develop influential friends and contacts. With the Seven Years' War raging, Carleton was appointed as an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland on June 18, 1757, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After a year in this role, he was made lieutenant colonel of Richmond's newly-formed 72nd Foot.

In North America With Wolfe

In 1758, Wolfe, now a brigadier general, requested Carleton join his staff for the Siege of Louisbourg. This was blocked by King George II who reportedly was angered that Carleton had made negative comments regarding German troops. After extensive lobbying, he was permitted to join Wolfe as quartermaster general for the 1759 campaign against Quebec. Performing well, Carleton took part in the Battle of Quebec that September. During the fighting, he was wounded in the head and returned to Britain the following month. As the war wound down, Carleton took part in expeditions against Port Andro and Havana.

Arriving in Canada

Having been promoted to colonel in 1762, Carleton transferred to the 96th Foot after the war ended. On April 7, 1766, he was named Lieutenant Governor and Administrator of Quebec. Though this came as a surprise to some as Carleton lacked governmental experience, the appointment was most likely the result of the political connections he had built over the previous years. Arriving in Canada, he soon began to clash with Governor James Murray over matters of government reform. Earning the trust of the region's merchants, Carleton was appointed Captain General and Governor in Chief in April 1768 after Murray resigned.

Over the next few years, Carleton worked to implement reform as well as improve the province's economy. Opposing London's desire to have colonial assembly formed in Canada, Carleton sailed for Britain in August 1770, leaving Lieutenant Governor Hector Theophilus de Cramahé to oversee matters in Quebec. Pressing his case in person, he aided in crafting the Quebec Act of 1774. Besides creating a new system of government for Quebec, the act expanded rights for Catholics as well as greatly expanded the province's borders at the expense of the Thirteen Colonies to the south.

The American Revolution Begins

Now holding the rank of major general, Carleton arrived back in Quebec on September 18, 1774. With tensions between the Thirteen Colonies and London running high, he was ordered by Major General Thomas Gage to dispatch two regiments to Boston. To offset this loss, Carleton began working to raise additional troops locally. Though some troops were assembled, he was largely disappointed by the Canadians' unwillingness to rally to the flag. In May 1775, Carleton learned of the beginning of the American Revolution and the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Colonels Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen.

Defending Canada

Though pressured by some to incite the Native Americans against the Americans, Carleton steadfastly refused to allow them to conduct indiscriminate attacks against the colonists. Meeting with the Six Nations at Oswego, NY in July 1775, he asked them to remain at peace. As the conflict progressed, Carleton permitted their use, but only in support of larger British operations. With American forces poised to invade Canada that summer, he shifted the bulk of his forces to Montreal and Fort St. Jean to block an enemy advance north from Lake Champlain.

Attacked by Brigadier General Richard Montgomery's army in September, Fort St. Jean was soon under siege. Moving slowly and mistrustful of his militia, Carleton's efforts to relieve the fort were repulsed and it fell to Montgomery on November 3. With the loss of the fort, Carleton was compelled to abandon Montreal and withdrew with his forces to Quebec. Arriving at the city on November 19, Carleton found that an American force under Arnold was already operating in the area. This was joined by Montgomery's command in early December.


Under a loose siege, Carleton worked to improve Quebec's defenses in anticipation of an American assault which finally came on the night of December 30/31. In the ensuing Battle of Quebec, Montgomery was killed and the Americans repulsed. Though Arnold remained outside of Quebec through the winter, the Americans were unable to take the city. With the arrival of British reinforcements in May 1776, Carleton forced Arnold to retreat towards Montreal. Pursuing, he defeated the Americans at Trois-Rivières on June 8. Knighted for his efforts, Carleton pushed south along the Richelieu River towards Lake Champlain.

Constructing a fleet on the lake, he sailed south and encountered a scratch-built American flotilla on October 11. Though he badly defeated Arnold at the Battle of Valcour Island, he elected not to follow up on the victory as he believed it too late in the season to push south. Though some in London praised his efforts, others criticized his lack of initiative. In 1777, he was outraged when command of the campaign south into New York was given to Major General John Burgoyne. Resigning on June 27, he was forced to remain for another year until his replacement arrived. In that time, Burgoyne was defeated and forced to surrender at the Battle of Saratoga.

Commander in Chief

Returning to Britain in mid-1778, Carleton was appointed to the Commission of Public Accounts two years later. With the war going poorly and peace on the horizon, Carleton was selected to replace General Sir Henry Clinton as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America on March 2, 1782. Arriving at New York, he oversaw operations until learning in August 1783 that Britain intended to make peace. Though he attempted to resign, he was convinced to stay and oversaw the evacuation of British forces, Loyalists, and formerly enslaved people from New York City.

Carleton's Later Career

Returning to Britain in December, Carleton began advocating for the creation of a governor-general to oversee all of Canada. While these efforts were rebuffed, he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Dorchester in 1786 and returned to Canada as the governor of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. He remained in these posts until 1796 when he retired to an estate in Hampshire. Moving to Burchetts Green in 1805, Carleton died suddenly on November 10, 1808, and was buried at St. Swithun's in Nately Scures.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "Biography of Sir Guy Carleton." ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, November 15). Biography of Sir Guy Carleton. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Biography of Sir Guy Carleton." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).