Military history




AT QUÉBEC in August, James Wolfe was playing a waiting game of another, savage, sort. He, too, had been late to open his campaign, leaving Louisbourg only on June 4, a month later than Pitt had wished; he had not been able to begin landing his 8,500 troops on the Île d’Orléans, below Québec, until June 28. Throughout July he had been unable to dent the city’s defenses, either by the relentless shelling of the town that he began on July 12 or by the frontal assault on the French lines six miles below it, which he ordered on the last day of the month: a foolhardy attack that had cost his army 443 casualties, including 210 killed. By the beginning of August, Wolfe was out of ideas and at odds with his brigadiers, three talented, aristocratic officers who had come to distrust his judgment. With no more promising target offering itself, and lacking the strength to drive the French from their defenses, Wolfe therefore “reduced [his] Operations to . . . Skirmishing Cruelty & Devastation,” launching a “War of the worst Shape” in the hope of goading his enemy to give battle. By the end of August Wolfe’s terrorism had reduced the “agreeable prospect of a delightful country” that had delighted the eye in June—“windmills, water-mills, churches, chapels and compact farm-houses, all built with stone and covered, some with wood and others with straw”—to a smoldering wasteland. A conservative contemporary estimate held that fourteen hundred farms had been destroyed. No one ever reckoned the numbers of rapes, scalpings, thefts, and casual murders perpetrated during this month of bloody horror. 1

But the defenders of Québec could no more be drawn out of their trenches by British terrorism than they could be driven out by bombardment and frontal attack. In the midst of his brutal enterprise, Wolfe’s health broke down. From August nineteenth until the twenty-second he was too sick to leave his bed: by turns wracked by fever and convulsed with pain from “the gravel,” or kidney stones, Wolfe despaired of ever forcing a decision, or even of living to see the end of the campaign. Gradually he improved, but by the beginning of September he was sick again and verging on mental collapse. More than a third of his army was unfit for duty, eaten alive by the same fevers that threatened his life; healthy men were deserting to the enemy in alarming numbers.2 The French had proven themselves more resourceful, and much more difficult to defeat, than he had imagined. But why? And what—supposing his health even permitted him to remain in command—could he do to lure them out of their fortifications, to fight the battle that haunted his feverish dreams?

The French were able to put up so successful a resistance in part because their situation was so desperate—who in Québec could have doubted that New France was fighting for its life?—and in part because, at literally the last possible minute, a small relief convoy had arrived from France. In late April, before Wolfe’s transports and their powerful escort could begin to ascend the St. Lawrence, a couple of French frigates and fourteen supply ships had picked their way through the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and slipped up the river, carrying food, reinforcements, and Montcalm’s returning aide, Bougainville. These, and ten or so unescorted merchantmen that crept in after them, reached Québec between May 9 and 23. In all, they numbered just two dozen vessels, but few as they were, they had come in time to make Wolfe’s task a nightmare. For these ships not only carried five hundred badly needed reinforcements but two commodities that the defenders of New France needed even more desperately than men: food and instructions.3

The harvest of 1758 had been the worst of the whole war in Canada, and the winter of 1758–59 the coldest in memory. Without provisions from France, no defense at all would have been possible. Even with sufficient supplies, Canada had too few men left to mount a full defense along every possible invasion route; but Bougainville (who returned bearing the rank of colonel and a knighthood in the order of Saint-Louis) had brought intelligence concerning Wolfe’s expedition and its target, and he arrived early enough to alert Québec’s defenders of their peril. At the same time, and equally important, he carried detailed instructions from the French court, which were intended to settle the festering dispute between Vaudreuil and Montcalm—a feud that had nearly destroyed the ability of Canada to defend itself. The cultural divide between Canadian and Frenchman, as well as the personal animosity that set the provincial aristocrat against the professional soldier, had aggravated relations between the two men to the point that neither could see the sense in the other’s plans. In fact, both had strategic merit; but they were in effect mutually exclusive, and the letters that Bougainville carried determined that Montcalm’s conception would prevail.4

Vaudreuil saw the problem of defense in light of the proven Canadian strategies of Indian alliance and wilderness warfare. His was essentially a guerrilla’s conception of defense, for it rested upon his confidence that although the British might conquer territory, they could never hold it so long as Canada’s French and Indian peoples remained united and capable of resisting in the interior. The true security of New France therefore lay in keeping open communication with the tribes of the pays d’en haut, for if properly led these warriors could visit such havoc on the enemy’s frontiers that the British would eventually be forced to sue for peace. Québec itself might be abandoned to the enemy without disabling the colony’s defenses; if the west held the key to Canada’s survival, then Montréal was the critical post to defend, and that meant giving priority to manning both the forts that flanked its southern approaches and those like Niagara that protected its links with the pays d’en haut. Thus while Vaudreuil’s plan envisioned the defense of Québec, its overriding concern was not with improving the city’s fortifications, but with evacuating the region’s civilian population upriver to Trois-Rivières, halfway to Montréal. The governor-general’s strategy thus called for a staged withdrawal rather than a supreme effort to stop the invaders outside the walls of the capital.5

Montcalm had seen matters in almost exactly the opposite way. As a conventionally minded European professional officer, he thought it suicidal to dissipate the forces available for defense by holding western posts. In his view the only key to Canada was the city of Québec; the only way to hold it was to concentrate as much force as possible there and oppose to the last extremity the coming invasion. Montcalm did not entirely discount the value of Indian allies, but he distrusted them as uncontrollable, unreliable, and barbarous. The specters of Oswego and Fort William Henry had convinced him that Vaudreuil’s preferred approach was no better than a surrender to savagery. Nor did he wish to rely upon Canadians. The rapacity of Bigot and the imperfect discipline of the militiamen, like Vaudreuil’s parochial “prejudices” and preference for irregular warfare, had led Montcalm to disdain the military capacities of the people he had been sent to defend. He therefore intended to contract the perimeter of defense to a core region centering on the St. Lawrence Valley from Québec to Montréal. Unlike Vaudreuil’s plan, which required dispersion of force, his would maximize the number of disciplined men—regulars and troupes de la marine— available to stave off the British attack. If the invaders could be repulsed, Canada might be preserved until a general peace could be concluded in Europe, and the prewar frontiers might be restored diplomatically. But if, on the other hand, the colony should fall to an overwhelmingly strong enemy, at least Montcalm would have conducted an honorable defense. For the diminutive marquis held as an article of faith what so few Canadians seemed able to grasp: that there were more important things in war than winning.

Until Bougainville arrived with the clarifying directives from Versailles, Vaudreuil had directed Canada’s defenses. He had decided to reinforce Niagara and to support Lignery’s efforts to regain the Forks of the Ohio; by the same token, he had placed little emphasis on repairing Québec’s fortifications. After May 10, however, once it was known that the king had given Montcalm the principal military authority in New France, Montcalm’s strategic vision prevailed. Hence the order for Bourlamaque to withdraw by stages from the advanced posts on Lake Champlain; thus the sudden emphasis given, in the days before Wolfe’s arrival, to constructing entrenchments and emplacing artillery around Québec. By pulling every available soldier into the vicinity of the capital, by mobilizing the region’s militia, and by accepting as volunteers both graybeards and boys whose ages ordinarily would have excluded them from serving, Montcalm managed to meet Wolfe’s invaders with between twelve and fifteen thousand men. All the regulars in Canada except Bourlamaque’s three battalions were there: the Régiments Béarn, Guyenne, Languedoc, La Sarre, Royal-Roussillon. So were the militia companies of Québec as well as those from settlements as far up the valley as Trois-Rivières; so too were companies made up of the sailors from the ships that had arrived in May, of refugee Acadians, of three hundred or so Indians (about half of whom were Indian converts from the local missions and the remainder Crees from the remote north, who had heretofore taken no role in the fighting), and even of thirty-five scholars from Québec’s Jesuit seminary—a unit so improbable that some wit labeled it the Royal-Syntaxe. After years of fighting and few replacements, the regulars were too thin on the ground to do all the fighting, so Montcalm integrated the fittest of the militiamen into their ranks. The rest of the militia he set to work on the prodigious task of fortifying the countryside around the city, turning what was already difficult terrain into a network of obstacles to defy the most ingenious attacker.6

Québec stood on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence at the point where the river flowed into a broad basin, its channel widening from three-quarters of a mile to nearly two miles across. Atop a headland, 200 to 350 feet above the water, the Upper Town nestled snugly within walls, looking out across the basin and down upon the houses and docks of the Lower Town as well as the suburbs of St.-Roch and Palais. Immediately below, the St. Charles River flowed into the St. Lawrence, defining the northern boundary of the city’s promontory with a steep escarpment. From the confluence downriver for the next three miles or so the northern shore lay low along the basin; then, near the village of Beauport, the land began to rise. From that point onward, bluffs and increasingly steep slopes lined the shore for another three miles, until they climaxed at the spot where the Montmorency River hurled itself off a three-hundred-foot cliff in a fall so spectacular that a contemporary observer could only describe it as “a stupendous natural curiosity.” Thus below the town the St. Charles and the Montmorency presented substantial obstacles to the movement of attackers overland, while the shoreline offered few promising footholds for assaults from the St. Lawrence itself. Above Québec, steep wooded slopes, naked cliffs, and bluffs lined the river’s northern shore for miles. Behind them lay farmland that, west of the city, flattened into a narrow plateau between the St. Lawrence and the St. Charles, where Abraham Martin, one of Champlain’s pilots, had settled to farm in the early seventeenth century. There, on what has ever since been called the Plains of Abraham, the level ground swept gently upward through farms and woodlots to a broken ridge, and then on to the walls of Québec.7

Viewed from the river, the least forbidding approach to the city lay on the eastern (downstream) side, and it was there that Wolfe had first probed the French defenses. But Montcalm had strongly fortified the riverbank and the hillsides from the St. Charles all the way to the Montmorency Falls, and Wolfe’s inability to crack this defensive barrier had frustrated him into launching his campaign of “Skirmishing Cruelty & Devastation” in August. Montcalm had stationed most of his regular troops along these so-called Beauport lines, where he expected Wolfe to concentrate his attacks. The French commander had, however, also fortified the heights west (upriver) of the city as insurance against the possibility that the British fleet would be able to ride the tides past Québec’s batteries. Because the threat seemed less severe upriver, Montcalm had posted militia units to defend those lines, reinforcing them with a thousand picked men under Bougainville—a mobile force poised to repel any effort to land above the city. Montcalm’s final measure had been to send his supply ships about fifty miles upriver, to the settlement of Batiscan near Trois-Rivières. This made defenders dependent on a long supply line, which could be cut if the British managed to land above the city. But by refusing to concentrate his provisions and munitions in the city, Montcalm intended to leave himself an out: should Québec have to be abandoned, his army could retreat upriver without losing its supplies.8

Montcalm’s efficient, conventional disposition of his forces baffled the equally conventional Wolfe. Military operations in America so far had consisted either of sieges or raids, and thus far no full siège en forme had failed to bring an attacker victory. But the defenses of Québec were so nearly seamless that Wolfe could not gain a foothold on the north shore of the St. Lawrence from which he could open a formal siege. So long as the French remained able to resupply themselves, and so long as Montcalm could shift his forces freely from one part of the lines to another, Wolfe had little hope of even beginning a successful siege. To decide the issue he needed something that had never yet taken place in America, an open-field battle. Until Montcalm consented to give him one, he could do no more than shell the town, ravage the countryside, and issue bombastic proclamations calling upon the French to surrender. As he explained in a letter to his mother, “My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can’t get at him without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose. The Marquis de Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers, and I am at the head of a small number of good ones, that wish for nothing so much as to fight him—but the wary old fellow avoids an action doubtful of the behaviour of his army.” In recognition of this predicament, hoping that perhaps they would approve of an all-out assault on the Beauport lines, Wolfe at the end of August convened his three brigadiers—Robert Monckton, George Townshend, and James Murray—as a council of war, and asked their advice. He did so not because he particularly valued their opinions (indeed, he had come to such bad terms with them that he would have preferred not to deal with them at all), but because the etiquette of eighteenth-century command demanded that he consult his chief officers before ordering a major attack. Their response was categorically to deny the wisdom of making another assault on Montcalm’s stoutest defenses. Instead they advised Wolfe to look for an opening upriver from Québec and sever the defenders’ line of supply.9


Three brigadiers. All three of Wolfe’s chief subordinates came from social origins superior to their commander, and by late summer 1759 all of them had come to despise him. The feeling was entirely reciprocated. Clockwise from top left, in order of seniority: Robert Monckton (1726–82); Lord George Townshend (1724–1807); and James Murray (1722–94). Monckton and Townshend appear more or less as they looked in 1759; Murray as he looked at about age sixty. Monckton and Townshend portraits are courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; Murray, courtesy of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal / Musée McCord d’histoire canadienne, Montréal.

By the ordinary expectations of professional military leadership, the brigadiers’ opinion was binding upon Wolfe only if he wished it to be, but he was too sick, and in too precarious a mental state, to ignore their advice. He had only recently recovered from his fever enough to leave his bed; his consumptive cough was worsening; he was weak from the blood-letting to which he had been subjected; and except for the opiates his physician prescribed, he was unable even to urinate without excruciating pain. His weakness was so apparent that when he collapsed once more on September 4, the rumor spread throughout the army that he was dying. He himself believed that he had little time left and begged his doctor only to patch him up sufficiently to do duty for a few days more. Even if he lived, Wolfe realized, he would have to abandon the campaign unless he could bring Montcalm to battle before the end of September. Thereafter the change of season meant that his naval support would have to withdraw, for although the army had supplies sufficient to survive the winter, the crews of the ships, numbering more than thirteen thousand sailors, did not.

Wolfe also knew that if he did not succeed, he alone would bear the blame for failure. His brigadiers, who had come to loathe him—especially George Townshend, a member of Parliament, heir to a viscountcy, and political ally of Pitt—would see to that. Convinced that he had not long to live and fearing that inaction would bring disgrace upon his memory, with his judgment clouded by opiates and his body weakened by therapeutic bleedings no less than disease, Wolfe threw himself into planning a final desperate attack on the French lines above Québec. No one knew what he hoped to accomplish or how or where he intended to act. He consulted neither Monckton, Townshend, Murray, nor his senior naval commanders, Rear Admirals Charles Saunders and Charles Holmes, who had previously run ships past Québec and from whose vessels he surveyed the shoreline for a place to land troops. 10 Wolfe sought the advice of only one officer, a man who knew Québec better than anyone else on the expedition, Captain Robert Stobo.

Stobo, one of the most vivid characters in a story that has no shortage of them, had lived in the city from 1755 through the spring of 1759 as a prisoner of war. He was, in fact, one of two British prisoners of longest standing, for he and Jacob Van Braam had been the officers whom Washington had given up as hostages at the surrender of Fort Necessity. Thereafter he and Van Braam had been moved from Fort Duquesne to Québec for safekeeping, but not before Stobo had drawn—and, in folly or bravado, signed—a sketch of the fort’s defenses and arranged for Shingas to smuggle it out to the Pennsylvania authorities. The letter in which he described the fort turned up in Braddock’s captured baggage after the Battle of the Monongahela. Before this damning document came to light, Stobo had had the run of Québec, mingling in its high society and even forming a business partnership with one of its biggest merchants. Once his role in revealing Duquesne’s defenses became known, however, both he and Van Braam were arrested and tried as spies. The court acquitted Van Braam but found Stobo guilty and sentenced him to death—a punishment he escaped only when the sentence was sent to Versailles for confirmation, and ordered suspended. Thereafter he enjoyed less freedom but eventually managed to move around the city and its immediate vicinity, carefully noting (as was his habit) the disposition of its defenses. Twice in 1757 he tried to escape; twice he was caught. Finally, on May 1, 1759, he led eight other prisoners, including a woman and three children, in the attempt that finally succeeded. Descending the St. Lawrence—first in a stolen canoe, later in a schooner that he and his companions hijacked, complete with captain and crew—he had reached Louisbourg shortly after the Québec expedition had sailed. With barely a pause, he turned around and ascended the river, joining Wolfe’s army in July.11

Although no independent evidence survives to corroborate Stobo’s own account, there is good reason to believe that it was he who told Wolfe of the footpath at L’Anse au Foulon (Fuller’s Cove)—a track that angled steeply up the bluff from the riverside to the Plains of Abraham, a couple of miles west of the city. On September 5, Wolfe ordered preparations for the move upriver, and on that or the following day met with Stobo. Then, evidently feeling that he had critical secret information to communicate to Amherst, he sent Stobo off with a packet of dispatches on the seventh. The next day he reconnoitered with his brigadiers above the city. He spent a good deal of time looking through a field telescope at L’Anse au Foulon but said nothing to Murray, Townshend, and Monckton about any plan to land there. They believed that the assault would be made higher up the river, at Cap Rouge, which they had recommended, or perhaps at Pointe aux Trembles. As the reconnaissance progressed, more than a score of transports and warships, bearing approximately 3,600 men, rode the flood tides upriver past Québec, anchored off Cap Rouge, and awaited Wolfe’s command.12

But his command did not come on the tenth—a heavy storm did, forestalling all amphibious operations. Nor did it come on the eleventh, when Wolfe ordered another thousand men upriver, stripping bare the defenses of his base camp on Île d’Orléans. At last on the twelfth he issued an order warning the army to make ready for an attack that would take place that night. Even then he did not inform his brigadiers of where he intended their forces to land; nor of when, exactly, they were to do so; nor of what objectives they were to seize. On the evening of the twelfth, nervously, they sent him a letter requesting further instructions. It was not until 8:30 that night—a half hour before the troops were to begin boarding their boats—that Wolfe wrote to inform them that the goal was “the Foulon distant upon 2 miles, or 2 ⁄2 from Quebec, where you remember [from the reconnaissance] an encampment of 12 or 13 Tents and an abbatis, below it.”13 They and their men would wait until the signal that had been announced was given—two lanterns hoisted on the main top-mast of Holmes’s flagship, H.M.S. Sutherland—and then would ride the ebbing tide downriver, under the direction of naval officers who knew the spot at which they were to disembark.

Wolfe’s partisans have interpreted his delay in informing his brigadiers of their objective as a sign of his genius. More likely than any concern for secrecy, however, it would seem that a combination of disdain for his subordinates and a highly precarious state of mind explain Wolfe’s silence. When the brigadiers’ letter arrived at his cabin on the Sutherland, he was busy making what can only be interpreted as careful preparations for his death. He had summoned a friend, Lieutenant John Jervis of the Royal Navy, in order to hand over a copy of his will, all his personal papers, and a miniature portrait of his fiancée, along with instructions on how to dispose of them. Jervis had found him dressed in a bright new uniform. The two men were talking over Wolfe’s presentiments of death when a messenger brought in the brigadiers’ letter, impelling him to pen his irritated reply. There is no evidence that he would otherwise have troubled to tell them where they and the army were bound. Wolfe would be in one of the first boats. Somehow, that was supposed to be enough.14

Although Wolfe was more eager to court his grim muse than to anticipate what might happen when the boats reached the cove, his troops embarked without a hitch. Quietly the river’s current and the ebbing tide began to carry the first wave of boats downriver, close to the north shore, at about 2:00 a.m. The night was calm. The moon, in its last quarter, gave little light. Sentries ashore could dimly make out the silent passing column, and they challenged it, but when French-speaking officers in the boats responded that they were convoying supplies down from Batiscan, the guards let them continue unimpeded. About a half hour before first light, the lead boats scraped ashore a little below the cove. Without waiting for further instructions, a detachment of light infantrymen scrambled up the 175-foot-tall bluff face, following the 58th Regiment’s big, nimble lieutenant colonel, William Howe. He had just turned thirty and had served in the siege of Louisbourg. Wolfe respected him for his physical courage no less than for his distinguished family connections—he was the youngest brother of Lord Howe, killed at Ticonderoga—and had given him command of a light-infantry battalion formed from the most agile men of several regiments. Now, as the boats carrying Wolfe and the rest of the advance party ground onto the shingle in the cove, Howe proved himself worthy of Wolfe’s confidence. In the last minutes of darkness he and his men mounted to the top of the cliff, fixed bayonets, and charged into the little French camp. When the brief flurry of musket fire was over, the British found among the wounded the detachment’s commander, Captain Louis Du Pont Du Chambon de Vergor—an officer whose only previous distinction was that in 1755 he had surrendered Fort Beauséjour to Robert Monckton. Vergor had barely had time to dispatch a runner to warn Montcalm that the British had begun to land at L’Anse au Foulon.15

It was about four o’clock when Wolfe struggled up the path from the cove to the top of the bluff. Together with Howe’s party, there were perhaps two hundred men with him. The remaining troops of the first wave were disembarking from their boats in the cove and starting to labor upward under the weight of their arms and packs; a French artillery battery several hundred yards upriver had just opened fire on the transports and armed sloops of the second wave, which were now approaching the cove. Things were not going as he had expected.

Wolfe had assumed that he would come ashore with the advance guard, that there would be resistance, and (if his meticulous preparations are evidence of his expectations) that he would be killed leading his men against the French outpost. If his wish were granted, he would have risked only the advance guard, the survivors of which would be free to reembark; Monckton, the second-in-command, would be free to call off an operation of which he clearly disapproved. In the event that he escaped death, Wolfe would at least have led one last heroic attempt to land troops before Québec and could order a withdrawal from the St. Lawrence with a certain degree of honor. His maladies were sure to kill him before he reached home—and disgrace; he would merely exchange a wretched lingering death for the quick glorious one he coveted.16

But now on the heights Vergor’s men had fled, there was no resistance except the ineffectual fire from the battery up the river, and Howe had already led his light infantry off to silence the guns. The three brigadiers were still below, and Wolfe, alone in the gray light before dawn, had no idea what to do next. In confusion he sent word down to the officer supervising operations at the cove, Major Isaac Barré, to halt the landings. Fortunately for Wolfe’s historical reputation, Barré ignored the order and rushed more men up the path. Howe’s light infantry meanwhile drove off the French gunners; the landings proceeded with dispatch; and Wolfe, at length collecting himself, went off to find a position for his men. Shortly after sunrise, in weather that had turned “showery,” Wolfe returned and gave the order to march for Québec.

By the full light of day, seven British battalions could be seen drawn up in battle order across the Plains of Abraham, blocking the Grande Allée—the main road into town—a little less than a mile from Québec’s western wall. Behind them, five more battalions were busy improving the path, guarding the landing, and harrying Canadian and Indian skirmishers out of the woods and cornfields. At the cove a detachment of sailors manhandled a pair of brass six-pounders up the trail. More than twenty sail of ships rode at anchor in the river. Wolfe’s luck, always uncommonly good, had held once more.

Indeed, it had outlasted his judgment. Wolfe might have ordered his men six hundred yards farther on, to entrench along the highest ground in front of Québec, the Buttes à Neveu, as a first step toward opening a siège en forme. To do so would have given them both protection from an enemy assault and a clear view of the walls of the city, which would have lain within the range of siege guns brought up from the ships. But he did not. Instead he continued to extend the line of battle across the thousand-yard breadth of the plains, and to wait. What happened next would rest entirely in the hands of the French.17

THE REDCOATS HAD already formed a preliminary line across the plains between 6:30 and 7:00 when the disbelieving marquis de Montcalm rode in from Beauport. He had been up all night, supervising defenses on the Beauport shore, where he had expected the British to make an assault landing. As part of an elaborate ruse, Admiral Saunders’s sailors had begun placing buoys off Beauport on the eleventh, as if to mark obstacles for assault craft to avoid. At eleven o’clock on the night of the twelfth Saunders had ordered sailors into the ships’ boats and instructed them to row noisily back and forth between Beauport and the mouth of the St. Charles, to convince the French that an attack was imminent. Montcalm had taken the bait and bent every effort to improving the defenses east of the city; he was convinced that the ships that had passed up the river were intended merely to distract him from fully manning the Beauport lines. He knew, of course, that the ships above the city represented a real threat, and as a result he had also detached enough men to bring Bougainville’s flying column up to a strength of about two thousand; but he himself remained in command of the eastern defenses, where he expected Wolfe to strike.

Montcalm and his officers at Beauport had spent so tense a night waiting for the attack that they had missed the first warning signal from the city, which indicated that something was amiss west of town. The general had sent his haggard men to their tents as soon as it was light enough to see that the British had withdrawn their boats and were not in fact preparing to land. Even the arrival at daybreak of a panting, panicked refugee from Vergor’s camp did not immediately set the army in motion. An aide, listening to the man, concluded that he was a lunatic; rather than further disturb his commander (or himself) the aide had gone off to bed. But not for long: a flurry of urgent messages suddenly arrived, verifying the initial report without clarifying the size of the threat. Only then had Montcalm been summoned from his bed and the general alarm sounded. Finally, after some hesitation—for he could not believe that any substantial number of men had been able to mount the cliffs above town—Montcalm had ordered his four regular battalions to post themselves before the walls of the city. Then, leaving fifteen hundred men behind to hold the Beauport lines in the event that the British landing was only an elaborate diversion, he had mounted his horse and ridden off to see what could be done.18

Nothing had prepared Montcalm for what he saw when he finally arrived on the Buttes à Neveu, overlooking the plains. To the aide who rode beside him, even the sight of the redcoats was less striking than their effect on Montcalm, who sat in the saddle as if thunderstruck, wordlessly surveying the long scarlet line: for a long moment, “it seemed as though he felt his fate upon him.” Then, somberly, he set about arranging his battalions in a line of battle facing the British. Elsewhere on the field, sporadic firing was already under way, as Canadian militiamen and Indians who had moved out from the city on Vaudreuil’s orders sniped from cover at the double rank of redcoats, who seemed unperturbed by the harassment. More than anything else it was the impassiveness of the British that unnerved Montcalm, for their very lack of response to the snipers bespoke a kind of discipline that he knew his own forces, so heavy with militia, lacked. With increasing anxiety he waited—for it was several miles from the east end of the Beauport defenses to the Plains of Abraham—while his men marched up and assumed the positions he indicated before the walls.19

As they arrived, and as he rode up and down the line positioning them for action, Montcalm’s thoughts surely eddied around the perils of his situation. Québec was almost out of provisions; Wolfe’s army was standing astride the road to Batiscan; and the British ships in the river were blocking access to the supply depot by water. The walls of the city offered little protection in comparison to the trench network at Beauport and Montmorency; indeed the section of wall behind his men, around the Bastion of St. Louis, was particularly weak. At most he could position about 4,500 men on the field, a number perhaps equivalent to the force of redcoats arrayed a half mile or so ahead of him. No more reinforcements were available unless Bougainville and his flying column should appear; but although a messenger had been dispatched to Bougainville’s camp at Cap Rouge at 6:45, Montcalm knew that to put two thousand men in motion and to march them in good order over the eight miles to Québec would take three hours. 20 But did he have that much time to spare?

It was about half-past nine when Montcalm concluded that he had no choice but to attack. To his chief of artillery he distractedly announced, “ ‘We cannot avoid action; the enemy is entrenching, he already has two pieces of cannon. If we give him time to establish himself, we shall never be able to attack him with the sort of troops we have.’ He added with a sort of shiver, ‘Is it possible that Bougainville doesn’t hear all that noise?’ ” Without waiting for a reply, he cantered off down the line to warn his officers to prepare their men to advance.21

In fact his enemy was not entrenching, even though from a distance of six hundred yards it looked to Montcalm like they were. What had actually happened was that, once the last units had joined his line at about eight o’clock, Wolfe had ordered his men to lie down, and so they remained until after nine. The Indian and Canadian snipers in the woods on the British left and in the cornfields that lay between the British right and the cliff edge had been gallingly effective since early in the day. By eight o’clock Howe’s light-infantrymen had done a fair job of clearing them out, but then Montcalm’s gunners had opened fire with four or five fieldpieces, and the cannonballs, bounding over the turf with enough force to cut a man in two, had begun to tell on the redcoat battalions. Notwithstanding the legend of a thin red line standing calmly under fire, to order one’s men to lie on their arms was far from unknown under such circumstances. Although Wolfe himself continued to walk the line and tempt the enemy gunners to try their skill on his brilliantly clad, scare-crow figure, he knew perfectly well that if he hoped to have an army fit to do battle he would have to preserve it until the moment came for his men to receive the French charge.22

While it is clear that by this point Wolfe had long since recovered from his cliff-top bout with indecision, it is by no means obvious that he had any plan other than to wait for Montcalm to make the next move. He knew that he had the better, more disciplined troops, and that in any open-field encounter they should be able to prevail against the imperfectly trained levies Montcalm had at his disposal. But he also knew, or should have known, that his chances of winning such a battle were diminishing by the minute. For not only were his men exposed to fire from the French cannon to their front; they were intensely vulnerable to attack from the west, their rear, and when Bougainville’s flying column came, it would approach from that direction. Because he had not formed a plan that went beyond taking a position in front of Québec, Wolfe had succeeded in placing his entire army between the hammer of Bougainville and the anvil of Montcalm. He had not given an order to entrench, as Montcalm feared: he had not even thought to order entrenching tools to be brought from the ships.23


The Battle of Québec, September 13, 1759. This shaded topographical rendering of the locale shows the city, within its six-bastioned wall; the rise, called the Buttes à Neveu, where Montcalm ordered his men into line; and the open, gradually sloping fields to the west, where Wolfe took his stand. The westward arm of the compass rose points almost directly to Wolfe’s landing place, L’Anse au Foulon. Note the steepness of the escarpment (indicated by darkness of shading) along the north side of the river, above the city. Downstream, north of the entry point of the St. Charles River, the flatness of the terrain presented a different kind of obstacle. As the sketched-in featureless expanse at the top of the map suggests, at low tide mud flats extended a half mile or more between high- and low-water marks. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Indeed Wolfe had denied his men not only the protection of a ditch but even the chance for escape, since there were now nearly 4,500 of them on the field and the only route of retreat lay back the way they had come, down a path so narrow that men could descend it only by twos. If he had hoped to sacrifice his own life heroically and then to leave the inglorious business of retreat to the brigadiers he despised, his hopes had been dashed. Instead—because he had enjoyed such extraordinary good fortune in landing his men, and because they had shown such professionalism in taking their position before Québec—James Wolfe now stood a fair chance of sacrificing twelve superb battalions to no larger purpose than gratifying his desire for a heroic death. We cannot know whether he worried, in the last moments of his life, over the consequences of his actions, or whether he even fully understood them. But his men, lying facedown in the mud while cannon shot ricocheted through their ranks and musket balls whistled overhead, could hardly have relished the position into which their commander, ardent for any desperate glory and maudlin in his attachment to Gray’s Elegy, had thrust them.24

What Montcalm really needed to do was wait for Bougainville, whose force of picked men included some of the best regulars in Canada; but he did not. He had long been pessimistic about his chances of preserving the colony and had even joked about the prospects of defeat. Yet self-deprecating and even defeatist as he had been, until this moment he had either acted on the offensive or had been able to exploit defensive advantages in such a way as to deprive his adversaries of the initiative. Now, for the first time in the war, Montcalm found himself out-generaled, and it rattled him out of his wits. Despite the fact that he knew Wolfe’s soldiers were, man for man, far superior to his own, at ten o’clock Montcalm ordered his troops to advance, head-on, against the British line. Now that he had decided to attack, the topography of the plains gave him no alternative to a frontal assault: with the British line extending virtually from the St. Charles escarpment on Montcalm’s right to the St. Lawrence cliffs on his left, he had no room to maneuver, no opportunity to outflank his adversary. The battle would be a firefight, pure and simple.25

In the French center were the regular battalions of Béarn and Guyenne, in wide shallow columns; on the left stood the men of Royal-Roussillon and the Montréal and Trois-Rivières militia, in line; on the right, also in line, were the battalions of Languedoc, La Sarre, and the militia of Québec. All told they numbered about 4,500 men, and they were keen for a fight. When the order came to advance, they responded with a tremendous cheer. It was almost the last thing they would do in unison that day.

In the eighteenth-century infantryman’s world, everything depended upon deliberation, precision, order: the better the army, the more machinelike its maneuvers on the battlefield would be. Cohesion was all, and in order to maintain it the best soldiers of the day had been trained to march at a parade-ground pace to within hailing distance of an enemy line, halt, and fire a final volley on order before they could charge headlong, bayonets fixed, at their opponents. The fate of every infantry battle ultimately rested on the ability of soldiers to withstand the physical and psychological shock of that climactic volley. But while the white-coated regulars of Montcalm’s army had the discipline to perform as their general needed them to do, the un-uniformed militiamen mixed throughout their ranks had no appreciation of the necessity of making a deliberate, dress-right-dress approach to their enemy. Accordingly, almost as soon as they heard the order to advance, the militiamen broke into a run, despite the fact that the British line was at least five hundred yards away. The loss of coherence was instantaneous. “We had not gone twenty paces,” wrote one witness, before “the left was too far in [the] rear and the centre too far in front.” As his efforts to restore order failed, all Montcalm could do was ride along with the adrenalized tide that surged toward the still, scarlet line of British troops.26

Seven redcoat battalions stood facing the French in a double rank that stretched a half mile from end to end. Wolfe had ordered the men to load their muskets with an extra ball and had instructed their officers to fire the first volley only when the French were within forty yards. The redcoats stood quietly, more intent on the orders that were to come than on the enemy soldiers they could see haring wildly toward them. Every battalion, and most of the men in them, had seen combat before. The 58th and 78th Regiments, on the left, like the 43rd, the 28th, and the Louisbourg Grenadiers on the right, had all been at Louisbourg in 1758. Wolfe had put the units with the longest service in America in the center and the second line: the 47th had fought at Fort Beauséjour, and the 48th had accompanied Braddock to the Monongahela.27 There was remarkably little movement within the British formation. Apart from Wolfe’s aides, sprinting with orders to various commanders, the British ranks stood stock-still as they awaited the onslaught.

Montcalm’s men, shouting as they ran, finally halted at about “half-musket-shot” range, between 125 and 150 yards, from the British front; dropped “down on one knee,” and fired, probably in platoon volleys among the regulars, followed by “wild scattering” shots from the rest. Wolfe, standing on a rise near the Louisbourg Grenadiers, was one of the first to be hit. His wound, a shattered wrist, would have been agonizing, but he responded almost casually, wrapping it in a handkerchief without leaving his post. Other men, wounded more seriously, dropped from the ranks, which closed up as they fell. The range, however, was extreme; the effects of the French fire were virtually random and not (except to the individual victims) severe. No one in the British line shot back.28

At this point, when they were still at a considerable distance from the British line, Montcalm’s men had their last chance to regroup, but did not. Instead their cohesion dissolved altogether as the regulars paused to load in conventional style, standing upright in ranks, while the militiamen reloaded as they had been trained to do in forest fighting, by taking cover or throwing themselves onto the ground. “This false movement,” wrote a participant, “broke all the battalions”; and with that, the attack disintegrated. Men continued to advance and to fire, by companies and platoons and as individuals, but their piecemeal movement toward the British line exposed them to grave danger and guaranteed that their shots would be without collective effect. The redcoats stood impassive until the first attackers were within sixty yards; then they opened fire by platoons, especially on the left and the right wings. In the center, however, the 43rd and 47th Regiments stood fast until the enemy was within forty yards. Then, according to a captain of the 43rd, they delivered as close and heavy [a] discharge, as I ever saw performed at a private field of exercise, insomuch that better troops than we encountered could not possibly withstand it: and, indeed, well might the French Officers say, that they never opposed such a shock as they received from the center of our line, for that they believed every ball took place, and such regularity and discipline they had not experienced before; our troops in general, and particularly the central corps, having levelled and fired—comme une coup de canon. [H]ereupon they gave way, and fled with precipitation, so that, by the time the cloud of smoke was vanished, our men were again loaded, and, profiting by the advantage we had over them, pursued them almost to the gates of the town[,] . . . redoubling our fire with great eagerness, making many Officers and men prisoners.29

As the pursuit began, the British stood in danger of losing their discipline for the first time in the day. With hair-raising cries, the Highlanders of the 78th Foot slung their muskets, unsheathed their clay-mores—theirs was one of the few regiments left in which privates as well as officers carried swords—and set off at a run after the enemy. Along the rest of the line, huzzahing and shouting, the men of the English regiments charged forward with bayonets fixed. At the extreme right, Wolfe himself led the 28th Foot and the Louisbourg Grenadiers in the advance.

After a morning of intermittent rain, the sun broke through the clouds and now shone warmly over a field where blood lust had banished caution. As the British began to chase the scattering mob helter-skelter toward the city and the St. Charles River, Canadian and Indian skirmishers opened fire from their positions on the margins of the battlefield. They took the heaviest toll of the day. On the left it was the Scots of the 78th, charging along the woods that lined the northern edge of the field, who suffered the most heavily. On the right the 28th and the Louisbourg Grenadiers fell victim to marksmen concealed in a cornfield. It was there, as he urged the Grenadiers on, that one bullet tore through Wolfe’s intestines and another punctured his chest. In shock and hemorrhaging uncontrollably, he clung to consciousness long enough to learn that the French had fallen into a general rout. He gurgled a few words in reply. Then James Wolfe achieved the consummation he had so long sought, and so devoutly wished.30

AS WOLFE BLED to death, his second-in-command, Monckton, also lay severely wounded with a musket ball through the lungs. Meanwhile, Murray, a Scot, had led his countrymen of the 78th in their wild charge, only to be tied down along with them in a vicious firefight near the St. Charles River. Barré, who as adjutant general had been acting as Wolfe’s chief of staff, had been hit in the face with a musket ball and was unable to give any direction at all. Everywhere on the Plains of Abraham battalions were disintegrating; men who had stood fast all morning responded to their sudden release by trying to skewer every Frenchman in sight. At last someone found Townshend, the only available brigadier; he assumed command with an intense awareness that the British force was falling to bits around him. Immediately he sent runners to the battalion commanders with orders to halt the pursuit and re-form their units on the battlefield. Discipline slowly reemerged, and none too soon. Within minutes Bougainville and his flying column appeared on the road from Cap Rouge, hoping to reinforce Montcalm, and not yet aware of his defeat. Townshend scraped together every available man and gun—two battalions and two fieldpieces—to oppose them. Even though his men outnumbered the redcoats blocking his path by more than two to one, Bougainville was taken aback. He drew off to assess his situation from the safety of the nearby Sillery Woods.

In calling off the pursuit Townshend saved the day for the British. Even though later critics would denounce him for betraying Wolfe’s boldness and success, Townshend’s prudence and presence of mind enabled him to face down a comparatively well-rested force with the capacity to wreak havoc on his still scattered, disorganized command. By about noon, with security reestablished, his soldiers could tend to the wounded, eat their first meal of the day, and count the dead. The British army had lost fifty-eight killed and six hundred wounded, almost exactly the same number as the French. At last Townshend sent to the ships for the picks and shovels that his men now needed more than the muskets and bayonets that had been the tools of a bloody morning’s work. Although somewhat fewer than four thousand weary redcoats remained on the field and fit for service on the afternoon of September 13, Townshend set them to digging the first trenches for a siège en forme.31

So small a number of effective troops should not have been able to invest the city successfully, for they had no hope of isolating it from reinforcement and resupply. Within the walls of Québec and in the Beauport camp, however, the comparative weakness of the British went unremarked as the shock of defeat bred disorganization and despair. Montcalm had had his belly and one leg ripped open by grapeshot during the retreat but tried to retain command, sending advice to Vaudreuil and even dictating a letter to the British commander, despite shock and pain that steadily loosened his grip on reality. He died at four o’clock the next morning. Other than Montcalm, there was no senior commander within the walls of Québec. The two lieutenant colonels who had acted as his brigadiers in the battle, Fontbonne and Sénezergues, had both received mortal wounds; Bougainville was somewhere west of the city, out of contact. Nobody had reliable information on the state of the French forces, let alone that of their enemy. No one was sure of how many soldiers had been killed and wounded on the field, how many had deserted, how many had made it back to Beauport.

In the Beauport camp Vaudreuil was nominally in charge. He had witnessed only the end of the battle, lacked a clear sense of the overall situation, and could form no idea of what could be done until late afternoon, when he finally managed to convene a council of war. At about six in the evening, on the council’s advice, he ordered the army to evacuate the Beauport lines. Giving the British a wide berth, the troops were to march to the north and then west as far as the settlement of Jacques-Cartier, about twenty-five miles up the St. Lawrence. Neither Vaudreuil nor the officers he consulted believed there was any alternative. The retreat would preserve whatever remained of the army and protect whatever was left of the supplies at Batiscan; Bougainville’s force could cover their rear and then consolidate with them at Jacques-Cartier; and the chevalier de Lévis, who had been summoned from Montréal, could assume command of the whole. Québec, of course, would have to be left to the British. Vaudreuil hoped against hope that the city would be able to hold out until the army could be reorganized but nonetheless left behind draft terms of surrender along with his other instructions for the city’s garrison when he rode off with the army at nine o’clock.32

It is a measure of the confusion in the French command that they abandoned artillery, ammunition, and large stores of provisions in the Beauport camp without making any effort to move them into Québec proper. The force left behind to defend the city numbered about 2,200 men, mainly militia and sailors. None of them could have been happy to be charged with protecting the four thousand or so civilian, sick, and wounded noncombatants who had taken refuge within the walls—especially when it became known that the city had less than three days’ supply of food on hand, and when anyone with eyes could stand on the ramparts and see the British constructing batteries and redoubts within a thousand yards of the fragile western wall. Thus when the formal siege opened on September 14, the demoralization of Québec’s defenders posed at least as great a threat to the city’s survival as the guns of the besiegers. The British, in fact, did not fire a shot that day—or the next, or the next, or the next—but instead concentrated on digging siege works and hauling cannon and howitzers up from the Foulon cove. Meanwhile Québec’s garrison noisily shelled its enemy and quietly collapsed from within. On the afternoon of the seventeenth, with a heavy British battery making ready to fire on the St. Ursule Bastion and with Admiral Saunders preparing to open a bombardment of his own from a line of ships in the basin, the French commandant ordered his gunners to cease fire. At four o’clock an envoy preceded by a flag of truce approached the British lines bearing the terms of capitulation that Vaudreuil had left behind.33

The town major of Québec, Jean-Baptiste-Nicholas-Roch de Ramezay, hoped to spin out the negotiations long enough to allow the army to return from Jacques-Cartier and attack the British. Delay was the only defense he had left, for his troops were out of food and the city’s civilian population lacked protection from the coming bombardment. But no relief was imminent, the terms to which Townshend and Saunders were willing to agree turned out to be surprisingly generous ones, and to judge by the rate at which they jumped the walls and deserted to the enemy, Québec’s militiamen seemed prepared to make peace regardless of what the town major intended. At eleven o’clock that night Ramezay accepted the British terms, and at eight o’clock the next morning, Tuesday, September 18, 1759, signed the formal capitulation of Québec. That afternoon a detachment of the Royal Artillery marched into the city to raise the Union Jack over the citadel while the Louisbourg Grenadiers mounted guard on the walls. After nearly three months of trying, a British army had conquered Québec. But now they had to keep it.34

For in fact the action of September 13, despite the haze of romance that has come to envelop it, was no more a decisive battle than a brilliant one. Few battles, perhaps none, are ever as decisive as generals hope that they will be; and nowhere was it truer than in eighteenth-century North America that victories on the battlefield win wars only when the victors can retain their conquests. Therefore Townshend, Murray, Saunders, and Holmes immediately set about consolidating control over Québec and the surrounding countryside, preparing to defend it against the return of the French army. Here their most effective weapon was clemency, for they were far too weak to impose order on the city and its people and therefore offered terms infinitely more generous than those Amherst had allowed at Louisbourg. For the only time after Fort William Henry, the British permitted a defeated Franco-Canadian garrison to surrender with the honors of war. The regulars were not to be made prisoners of war but rather transported under flag of truce to France, where they would be free to rejoin the French army. Militiamen who had borne arms in the siege would not be required to accompany the army, but could remain with their families, providing that they surrendered their weapons and swore an oath of fidelity to the British Crown. No one from the civil population would be subject to exile. Citizens would be guaranteed the security of their property and assured of their right to continue practicing their religion under the care of the bishop of Québec. Anyone willing to take the oath of fidelity would enjoy all the protections normally afforded to British subjects.35

Thus from the occupation’s beginning, the British sought to secure the voluntary cooperation of a civil population they knew they could not control by force. And from the beginning it could hardly have been clearer that at the very least the neutrality of this population would be necessary, for a reorganized French army was marching back toward the city even as the terms of capitulation were being negotiated. François-Gaston, chevalier de Lévis, the tough Gascon brigadier who had served Montcalm as second-in-command, was in every sense equal to the responsibilities he had inherited. He had taken over at Jacques-Cartier on the seventeenth, and at once had stiffened the spines of the refugees he found there. Showing nothing but scorn for their flight, he had ordered the troops back downriver—so rapidly that by the time the Union Jack first fluttered over Québec, his advance guard had reached St. Augustin, less than a day’s march from the city. Had Ramezay held out for two more days, Lévis could have invested the lightly entrenched British camp. Since he lacked cannon and the supplies sufficient to besiege the city, however, he had had no choice but to order his men back to Jacques-Cartier, once he learned of the surrender. There he ordered a fort to be built and watched for an opportunity to run a ship past the British fleet at Québec. With reinforcements and supplies from France, Lévis knew, he could regain the city for his king. 36


Mort du Marquis de Montcalm-Gozon. This engraving, after a painting by Louis-Joseph Watteau, attempts to cast Montcalm’s demise in the same heroic mold as Benjamin West’s more famous Death of General Wolfe. Montcalm was in fact buried within the city on the evening of the day after the battle; his grave was a shell hole inside the chapel of the Ursuline convent. Here the shell hole alone remains true to the facts. Watteau’s decision to show the two Indian warriors lifting a spent mortar shell from the crater at left reflects sheer fancy, or perhaps an homage to the Mohawk warrior whom West gave a central position in The Death of General Wolfe. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.


The Death of General Wolfe. Benjamin West’s 1771 history painting caused an immense stir when first exhibited in London; William Woollett made this engraving in 1776 and grew rich on the sales of thousands of copies. At least in part, West’s success depended on his ability to depict so much in a single scene. Here, simultaneously, is a classically ordered tableau with historical figures (Robert Monckton stands at the apex of the left-hand grouping, clutching his wounded chest, while Colonel Isaac Barré cradles his dying commander at the center); a mythically climactic moment (the figure running in from the left brings news of victory while Wolfe gasps thanksgiving to God and gives up the ghost); and an allegory of empire that unites all ranks and nationalities in symbolic witness to a martyr’s death. The central figures are a general, a colonel, a major, and two captains, but on the right a grenadier private clasps his hands in prayer, and in the background a detachment of sailors drags a cannon up from the river, where the Royal Navy’s ships ride at anchor. Most significant of all, however, was West’s decision to place in the left foreground a Mohawk warrior, who views the drama from a pose of classic contemplation while an American ranger and a Scottish soldier point back to the running messenger and relay the news of victory to the dying Wolfe. That none of this happened in the way West shows it did not matter. His enterprise was not to create a historically accurate painting, but to apotheosize both Wolfe and the empire, and at that he succeeded brilliantly. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

The rugged chevalier did not doubt that he could make it through the coming winter, and indeed that the winter might actually serve his interests better than those of the British. For once his army had adequate, if not copious, provisions on hand: Montréal had at last enjoyed a bountiful harvest, and even an early one. Most of the Québec district, of course, had had no harvest at all, but that was a British problem. As the redcoat officers prepared their men to enter winter quarters in the city they were acutely aware of what Wolfe’s August campaign of terror had actually accomplished. Together with the large numbers of Canadian civilians who were coming to Québec to swear fealty to King George, the British garrison would face great hardships during the winter, for all they had to live on was what they had brought from England. No British provision fleet could possibly reach Québec before the St. Lawrence froze.

In the meantime the British prepared for the ordeal that lay ahead. Virtually every soldier—including those sick and wounded men deemed likely to recover—would have to remain at Québec to make the garrison strong enough to stand off an attack. This amounted to more than seven thousand troops, a number that would stretch the food supply to its uttermost limit. Moreover, they all had to be sheltered, along with the returned civilians, in a city that ordinarily housed about seven thousand souls. Few structures in Québec and its suburbs had come through the ordeal of the summer undamaged; thus the month between the capitulation and the departure of the fleet was consumed with feverish efforts not only to strengthen the city’s walls, bastions, and batteries, but to repair enough shell-shattered houses to preserve the garrison against a Canadian winter.

Since no sane person who was free to leave would have stayed at Québec under such circumstances, Monckton—who had made enough of a recovery from his wounds to assume command but was still far from fit—elected to return to New York to convalesce. Townshend, who had his political health to nurse, opted to return to England. On October 18, therefore, when Admiral Saunders’s fleet weighed anchor and slipped downriver on the ebbing tide, it was the junior brigadier, James Murray, who remained as commandant of His Majesty’s garrison and governor of Québec. He could hardly have been delighted with his prospects. Unpleasant as his future looked, however, Murray’s men must surely have known that theirs was bound to be worse. 37

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