James Wolfe (1727-1759) was a British general, significant for his role in Britain’s conquest of Canada. His capture of Quebec City at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759 was the turning point in the French and Indian Wars that brought the British dominion over Canada.
JAMES WOLFE OF QUEBEC
NOT long after the discovery of America by Columbus, Cabot, Cabral, and Amerigo Vespucci, it was realised that a new world had been revealed; not the far eastern shores of Asia and Australasia.
Magellan’s passage the straits which now bear his and the of the name, circumnavigation of the globe by the surviving ship of his expedition, definitely settled that question and revealed to the eagerly watching peoples of Western Europe the possibilities of trade with the Far East by the route of the Far West.
However, the great dip through the stormy seas of the south necessary for passing the Straits of Magellan inspired first the French and next the English with the longing to discover a north-west passage, a sea route round or through North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Jacques Cartier, a bold navigator of Brittany, started on such an errand in 1534, rediscovered Newfoundland and Labrador (already reached by English and Portuguese ships), entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and sailed up that river to Quebec and “Canada” as he called the region where the great St. Lawrence narrowed from a vast estuary to a broad river.
Cartier and his successors founded the trade in furs, and established the French claim to Canada, or, as “New France.” This claim was re-established (after an interval of about twenty years of abandonment) by another great pioneer, Samuel Champlain; and from 1603 onwards French Canada grew from a few settlements on the lower St. Lawrence to a French North-American Empire which reached from Nova Scotia almost to the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains.
But England followed these proceedings with parallel movements of colonisation. A vague but intermittent claim, supported by a great fishing fleet, was constantly laid to the shores of Newfoundland. About fifty years after Cartier’s first enterprise, expeditions under Amadas, Barlowe, and Bartholomew Gosnold discovered the coasts of North Carolina, Virginia, and Massachusetts; and a few years after Champlain, in 1603, had commenced the actual French colonisation of Eastern Canada, the Pilgrim Fathers of Eastern and Southern England (in the reign of Charles I.) founded those settlements on the eastern coast of North America which grew by degrees into the United States.
In the reign of Charles II. some definiteness was given to the schemes of other bold adventurers, who, taking no heed of French claims to sovereignty over all North America, were boldly carrying on a fur trade from Newfoundland and Labrador, round the shores of that Hudson’s Bay which had been discovered in 1610 by the great English navigator, Henry Hudson.
In the revival of imperialism which followed the re-establishment of the English monarchy under Charles II., a charter was given to the English fur traders who became the Hudson’s Bay Company. Thus in the seventeenth century the French colonisation of the valley of the St. Lawrence River and the shores of Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron, was balanced on the north by the English fur-trading settlements of Hudson’s Bay and Labrador, and on the south by the New England colonies.
But the French, pushing westwards, passed beyond the great Lake Superior to the upper waters of the Mississippi, and guessed that in this river and its mighty affluent the Missouri, there were water-ways from the heart of Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Early in the eighteenth century, despite angry opposition from Spain, a French colony Louisiana, with its capital of New Orleans – was founded on the delta of the Mississippi, and French authority more or less was established all the way up the course of that stream; so that means of the French control of the Mississippi a western barrier was put to any British expansion westwards from New England. The French King even claimed that his rule should extend some day from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean north of the Spanish possessions in California.
In short, it seemed in the early part of the that France and not Britain would rule in North America. The two countries were almost incessantly at war on one pretext or another, and very often the quarrels between the French colonists in Canada and Louisiana and the British pioneers of Hudson’s Bay, of Newfoundland and New England, were a fresh incitement to warfare.
At last, owing to their superiority in sea power and the fighting qualities of the New England settlers, the British began to get the upper hand, while the French slowly lost interest in their over-sea possessions. Even if they won a battle in America their defeats elsewhere entailed on them the sacrifice of one portion of Canada after another. First they had to surrender all claims to Newfoundland (except the tiny islands off its south coast still under the French flag).
Secondly, they lost Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, including their great fortified place of Louisbourg. The fear of having to surrender Louisiana to the British caused France to transfer that country to Spain.
Her last great stronghold in North America (from which of course with any favourable turn of events in Europe she might once more have built up her vast American Empire) was Canada proper, the basin of the St. Lawrence River, that is to say, the region between Lake Superior, Lakes Erie and Ontario Montreal and Quebec. But in 1756 the seven years’ war broke out between Britain on the one hand, Spain and France on the other.
It was resolved then to take advantage of this war provoked by the conflicting colonial ambitions of France, Britain, and Spain, to conquer the whole of Canada from the French, and make Great Britain the only ruling power of any importance on the North American Continent. This aim was naturally prompted by the growing success of the British colonisation of eastern North America, where the population in the middle of the eighteenth century was a million as compared to the sixty thousand or seventy thousand French in Canada.
But the French, though they were few in numbers, were brave and resourceful, perhaps at that period the finest soldiers in Europe, and the most advanced on the scientific side of war. Their two strong places were Quebec and Montreal, separated the one from the other by only about two hundred miles, a trifling distance in the vastness of North America. If Quebec could be taken by a British force whilst Great Britain possessed the necessary vigour and the command of the sea, the dominion over Canada was doomed.
But the place once or twice captured British in earlier periods of Canadian history by the had and was fortified with all the engineering art that the French long been prepared for such a struggle, had developed in the eighteenth century. The city was built on the extremity of a rocky headland which rises abruptly from the banks of the St. Lawrence to a height of three hundred and thirtythree feet.
To the east of this precipitous tableland is a little river, the St. Charles, which in those days was a sufficient defence against an attacking force. A series of strong fortifications defended any approach of artillery to the town and citadel of Quebec on the north side. To the west lay the elevated “Plains of Abraham,” from which indeed a damaging attack could be made, but which were thought to be so inaccessible from the riverside that they were not properly fortified in that direction.
This great crisis in the history of English-speaking North America found a man fit to cope with it James Wolfe.
James Wolfe was born at Westerham, on the borders of Kent and Surrey, on January Although he was a delicate boy he was born with an ardent desire for adventure and achievement. His father was a colonel in the British Army, and when James was only thirteen years old he actually accompanied him on a military expedition to Cartagena, in Spain.
After his return with his father to England, though he was only fourteen years of age, he was made an ensign in the British Army, and the next year at the age of fifteen – a slight and delicate lad – he proceeded with his regiment to the Rhine to take part in the wars waged by George II. against France.
At the battle of Dettingen he behaved with such bravery and ability that he was made a lieutenant. By the time he was seventeen he was actually a captain, and had the acting rank of major when he took part in putting down the 1745 rebellion in Scotland and Northern England. He next fought as an officer in the British Army sent to Belgium, and had become a lieutenant-colonel in the year 1750 at the age of twenty-three.
During a brief interval of peace with France he made his way to Paris and lived there for six months, endeavouring to acquire not only fluency in the French language, but an acquaintance with French military science. When a new war broke out in 1755 he took part in an expedition which was to attack the sea-town of Rochefort, and endeavour to foment an insurrection of the French Protestants in the west of France. The expedition, however, was badly managed, and against Wolfe’s advice, and resulted in a complete failure.
In 1758, James Wolfe was sent as a brigadier-general to North America in the forces under the general command of Lord Amherst. The first object of this comparatively powerful army sent across the Atlantic to attack the French in North America was to recapture the important fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, a fortress commanding the southern entrance into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the most important hold which the French possessed on the western shores of the north Atlantic.
Louisbourg had been captured by the British settlers in North America some years previously, but had been restored to France on the conclusion of peace. Without Louisbourg France could not hope to retain free access to the colony of Canada, nor without capturing it was any British attack on Canada likely to succeed. The fighting, therefore, was terrific on both sides, but the place was besieged for some weeks and finally taken by a series of assaults, the foremost of which were led by Wolfe himself.
His health, however, never good, suffered greatly from the hardships he underwent, and he returned to England after the surrender of Louisbourg to recruit his health, proceeding to do so at Bath, which has been the resort of so many British heroes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Here he got engaged to be married, but soon afterwards, hearing that a determined attack was to be made to finish the struggle with France and North America for the capture of Quebec and Montreal, he at once offered to return. His offer was only too gladly accepted by the great minister, Pitt, who appreciated his talents, and it was decided that Wolfe, now made a major-general, should take command of the Quebec expedition. He therefore returned to Louisbourg in the spring of 1759, and on June 1st in that year he started for Quebec with a force of seven thousand troops, and a great fleet of warships and gunboats.
This fleet sailed unopposed up the gulf and estuary of the St. Lawrence, and disembarked the British forces on the Isle of Orleans, which, with another smaller island, lies in the middle of the broad St. Lawrence, just where the great estuary narrows into the tidal river.
Point Lévis, on the south side of the St. Lawrence and to the south-east of Quebec, was first of all captured by Wolfe. From here he attempted to bombard the city and induce it to surrender; but the distance was much too great for the artillery of those days, and the results were ineffective.
Wolfe’s next plan was to cross to the north side of the St. Lawrence, approach the city by the St. Charles River, and get at the back of its defences in that way; but such a very palpable line of attack had long since been thought out by the French, and was guarded by fortified posts which made it impossible.
Wolfe attacked one of these lines of fortification known as the Montmorency, but was repulsed on the last day of July, 1769, with such a heavy loss that he almost gave way to despair. All this time he was suffering agonies of pain from an internal disease, and the defeat of July 31 made his illness acute. But he realised in all probability he had not long to live, and was determined to die victorious. He held several councils of war, and debated all possible means of getting up without too great a loss of life on to the plateau of Quebec from the north side, and so being able to command the city with his artillery.
Collecting all possible information from his scouts and from the examination of the northern shore of the river by the gunboats, he decided to land as large a force as he could spare at a little cove to the west of Quebec. From this point he had ascertained that it was just possible for determined men to scramble up the precipitous cliffs along a path which would lead to the dominating Heights of Abraham.
The watchfulness of the great French commander, Montcalm, was deceived because the British expedition of boats (conveying the 3,600 men, their artillery, and stores) proceeded ostentatiously much higher up the St. Lawrence than the little cove at which they were finally to land.
They behaved, in fact, as though they were going to abandon Quebec for the time being and attack the city of Montreal, far to the west. But as soon as the summer night was completely dark, and the dawn not too far off – that is to say,at one in the morning – General Wolfe, with about 1,300 men, dropped down the stream again in boats, the intensest silence being observed as the muffled oars were plied.
They landed at Wolfe’s Cove, as it is now called, and still in utter silence, and in the faint light of a summer dawn, climbed the precipitous cliffs, leaving the actual path (which was guarded by one or two outposts), and reaching the summit in extended order. Then they rapidly concentrated, and soon overcame the garrisons of the small fortified posts. They were speedily followed by the other half of the force of 3,600 men.
Wolfe by this time had become a spirit almost independent of a weak and ailing body. He forgot his dire illness and its cruel pains, and applied his energies to directing the operations that were so urgent if they were to get their artillery up to the plateau above the cliffs and be able to meet the inevitable French attack in force.
This had been held off for a time by the clever manoeuvres of Admiral Saunders, who was making a demonstration on the part of his fleet far away to the east of Quebec. In this direction, therefore, the French commander, Montcalm, had sent the greater part of his available forces, thinking that the Montmorency River might otherwise be crossed by the British.
To his horror, however, he was told, when it was fully morning on September 13, that a body of British troops was encamped on the plains of Abraham. He hurried to meet them, and at first repulsed the skirmishers and the light infantry. But the British having no chance of escape if they were defeated, with their backs, so to speak, against a precipice, and, above all, animated by Wolfe’s sublime example of cool, undaunted courage, concentrated themselves to meet the great charge of the French.
When at close quarters they delivered deadly volleys, and took advantage of the first arrest of the French impetus (produced by the slaughter in their front ranks) to hurl themselves at the enemy. Wolfe, already wounded in two places, led the great charge, and was shot through the lungs. But the French commander, Montcalm, was also wounded to the death. The French wavered, turned, retreated, and at last ran towards the fortifications of the upper town. The loss of life amongst them was tremendous.
Wolfe, rallying from the blood that choked his utterance, gasped out a final order for cutting off the French retreat; then, exclaiming, “Now, God be praised! I will die in peace,” he expired.
Five days afterwards the fortress of Quebec surrendered, and, although the French still fought on in Canada, the blow was decisive. All Canada passed under the British flag at the conclusion of peace in 1763. The bravery of the French and the real worth of the French Canadians impressed even the stupid Ministers of George III., so that honourable terms were offered them for their transference of allegiance.
The efforts of France to colonise North America have no more been thrown than the efforts of England, Scotland, and Ireland to do the same. The French language is spoken by a couple of millions of Canadians at the present day, and by a million or so of United States citizens in and French influence has counted for much in the development of North America.
Probably it seems to us at the present day, in the twentieth century, a mighty waste of valour, acuteness, and science that two such men as James Wolfe and Louis Joseph Montcalm de St. Véran should have perished in the wars of their rival nations. But the gain of the British cause through the splendid, the rarely equalled, personal bravery of Wolfe, and his genius as a commander, counted for much at that crisis in the world’s history for the enlargement of freedom and the betterment of the human race.
Source: A gallery of heroes and heroines, with coloured portraits by Joseph Simpson, by Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927). London Wells Gardner, Darton 1915.