James Wolfe Lays the Foundations of the Future Dominion of Canada
Although John Cabot from Bristol reached the shores of the North American continent in 1497, and Jacques Carrier from St Malo entered the Gulf of St Lawrence in 1534, the history of Canada properly begins with the foundation of the first settlement of Europeans at Port Royal, now Annapolis, Nova Scotia, by Samuel de Champlain in 1605. Three years later he founded Quebec, a site chosen with a soldier’s eye, for it stands high on the bluffs commanding the St Lawrence River.
The main motive for the settlement of the country was the fur trade, and the struggle for supremacy in Canada between the French and the British in the century and a half that followed has been described as “a fight for the possession of the skin of a rat”. But French aims were not wholly commercial, and the charter of the Company of One Hundred Associates, formed in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu to support the new settlement, assigned first place to missionary endeavor.
The earliest missionary workers and explorers, Pere Marquette, the Jesuit missionary to the Indians round the Great Lakes, discovered the Mississippi, included not only the great Society of Jesus, but the Recollets, the Sulpicians and the Ursulines, all of whom are active in the province of Quebec still.
In 1613 the English from Virginia almost completely destroyed the settlement at Port Royal, and sixteen years later Quebec itself surrendered to an expedition sent out from England under David Kirke. The Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye, in 1632, restored France’s former possessions to her, but the Company of One Hundred Associates had received its quietus. It gave way to a new company, the Company of the West Indies, formed in 1664, which marked its inception by sending out to Canada the first of the “bride ships”. Despite a vigorous policy of intensive immigration, the new company was no more successful in inducing the French to leave France for Canada than its predecessor had been, and in 1647 its charter was revoked. Since 1663 the country had been governed as a royal province by a Sovereign Council of New France, and the first governor to leave a lasting mark, especially in his control of the Indians, was Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac.
De Frontenac had been preceded a few years earlier by Jean Talon, whose recognition of the industrial potential all around him gave a spur to commercial development. De Frontenac, an imperious ruler, met his match in the equally imperious Cardinal Laval-Montmorency, who was determined that Canada should be governed by the Church. The two men quarrelled and de Frontenac was recalled.
With his strong hand removed, the Indians rose and almost overwhelmed the colony. The massacre of the settlers at Lachine, and a later incident involving the heroism of the fourteen-year-old Madeleine de Vercheres in an Iroquois attack on a fort below Montreal, are part of the great founding story of French Canada. In 1689, when de Frontenac was sent back to restore the situation, he found that the Iroquois Confederacy was not the only danger confronting him. In 1670 King Charles II of England had granted a charter to the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay, and the pressure of commercial rivalry from the north was beginning to be felt.
In the south, the English colonies were claiming the country round the Great Lakes, and there was a ruthless and relentless border warfare. In 1690, Sir William Phipps, sailing from Boston, captured Acadia, the Nova Scotia founded by Sir William Alexander in 1629, but surrendered under the Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye, and attempted an attack on Quebec, but was beaten off. The French, in their turn, led by D’Uberville, seized every English settlement in Newfoundland, and occupied the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Port Nelson. But once again a truce was called, and the Treaty of Ryswick, in 1697, restored the status quo.
In the following year de Frontenac died. He had subdued the Iroquois and beaten back the English; and in consequence, New France might have thought herself reasonably secure. But the truce proved to be of short duration, and war with the English was renewed in 1701; and though no great change was brought about in the early stages, Sir Hovenden Walker, in 1711, made a major effort to take Quebec. Though this attempt failed, Acadia fell once more into English hands, and this time permanently, for with the victories of Marlborough behind her, when England came to the conference table in 1713 for the drawing up of the Treaty of Utrecht, she demanded that France should renounce her claims to Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and this was secured by the ‘ Treaty.
The French, however, still commanded the shores of the St Lawrence, dominating the river’s entrance from the fortress of Louisberg, 011 Cape Breton Island. In 1745, the English colonists attacked and raptured this fortress in retaliation for an unexpected and, as it proved, unsuccessful French attack on Nova Scotia in the previous year. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, however, returned Louisberg to the French, to the English colonists’ disgust.
The position at this time was that the French claimed all but the Atlantic seaboard and the English all but the valley of the St Lawrence. With claims so vague, clashes were inevitable, and it was in one of these, at Fort Duquesne, that a young officer of the Virginia militia, Major George Washington, first appeared on the stage of history.
In 1755 the most memorable event of these times occurred, the deportation of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia, a harsh measure immortalized in Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline. A year later the Seven Years War broke out.
This struggle, between Britain, Prussia and Hanover on the one side, and France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Saxony and finally Spain on the other, had two main aspects. In one it was a struggle by Prussia against encirclement; in the other it was a duel between Prance and England for the overseas empire in America and India.
The first blow was struck with the attack on Minorca, its capture by the French initiating the naval contest. The other powers remained at peace, but in the autumn of 1756 Frederick of Prussia, satisfied that Austria was only waiting to complete her preparations before launching against him her own armies and those of her allies, struck before his enemies were ready, and attacked Saxony. Saxony, however, put up a stiff resistance which compelled him to postpone the invasion of Bohemia, which was his objective.
The war in India had two phases, the conquest of Bengal, which was only indirectly connected with the quarrel with the French, and the destruction of the French power in southern India consequent upon the inability of France to send to her possessions there adequate naval and military assistance. The decisive incidents were the battle of Plassey, on 23 June, 1757, and the overthrow of the French at Wandewash, on 22 January, 1760.
Between these two events, in the simultaneous campaign against the French in North America, there occurred one of the most brilliant exploits in British military history, the capture of Quebec by General James Wolfe.
Born at Westerham in Kent, on 2 January, 1727, in 1741 James Wolfe was commissioned in his father’s corps of marines, from which he presently transferred to the 12th Regiment of Foot, with whom he fought in Flanders and in Prussia between 1742 and 1745. His military genius was early recognized, and in 1745, already a brigade-major, he fought against Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, at Falkirk and Culloden.
Following a campaign in the Netherlands in 1747, he served in England and Scotland on garrison duty for several years, chiefly on account of wounds which he had received in the Netherlands at Lawfeldt. In 1757, however, he was appointed quartermaster-general to the expedition to Rochefort, and in the following year was appointed to command a brigade in America, where he gained early distinction at the siege of Louisburg, the French fortress in the mouth of the St Lawrence River.
In 1759, promoted major-general, he was given command of the force sent up the St Lawrence against Quebec. Before Wolfe’s arrival in Canada the fortunes of the British had been black. Several campaigns had been fought and, though all were inconclusive, the French had proved themselves, under their commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, more than a match for the English armies. But in 1757 the incompetent ministry of Newcastle forced the king to approve a coalition in which one of the leaders was a man whom George II heartily detested, William Pitt, later to be known as Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham. Fortunately, the new ministry was one in which “Newcastle said what he liked, and Pitt did what he liked”.
There is no space here to dilate upon the political genius of Pitt, but some measure of it can be taken when it is known that by his conduct of the Seven Years War he raised Great Britain from a position of humiliation to one of world supremacy.
Pitt had taken office too late to make 1757 a year of victory, and it ended, as it had opened, in deep gloom, for the more hopeful events which had taken place in India were not yet known. In America the new British commander, the Earl of Loudon, not only seemed unable to take the measure of Montcalm, but had no inclination to make an effective effort, or indeed any effort at all.
In the first months of Pitt’s ministry the Earl sailed once again to try to take Louisburg, the key to the St Lawrence and therefore to Quebec, spent six weeks at Halifax, where he set his troops planting cabbages, found that the French fleet at Louisburg was stronger than he had expected, and sailed back to New York.
While he had been diverting himself in this way, Montcalm had come up Lake Champlain and Lake George and captured Fort William Henry. The garrison emerged from the fort to be taken to a safe place under the protection of Montcalm’s troops, but his Indians fell upon them and massacred a hundred and carried off the rest as captives.
Montcalm did what he could, short of force, to restrain the Indians, but force he dared not use, because he knew that sooner or later he would need his savage allies, and that if he thwarted them now they would desert him. It must be recorded, however, that he risked his life in trying to save the victims.
Montcalm was nevertheless held to blame, and the massacre roused the British to anger. “Remember Fort William Henry” became the battle cry from now until the end of hostilities, and its memory was still so bitter that when peace did eventually come the British for once refused to compromise, and demanded the expulsion of the French from the whole of the North American continent.
The effect of Pitt’s genius now began to be felt upon the conduct of the war, and it inculcated into the troops a new spirit which had been entirely lacking before. Relying now chiefly on regular troops, he formulated a plan of campaign which was to include a triple attack, carefully timed and co-ordinated, and prepared with all his eye for detail.
Ticonderoga was to be attacked by Abercromby and Fort Duquesne by Forbes, while a new expedition under Boscawen and Amherst set sail from England in February to attack Louisburg once more. With this expedition sailed James Wolfe, aged thirty-one, as one of the three brigadiers in the attack on the fort.
The fortifications of Louisburg had cost the French the equivalent of a million pounds, and they had garrisoned it with some of their best troops. Nevertheless, it was no match for the new British troops, imbued with their new spirit and led by officers whom they trusted. By the end of July Louisburg had unconditionally surrendered.
Meanwhile, Forbes had found Fort Duquesne burnt and empty, its garrison having retreated into Canada, and Ohio abandoned by the French. But at Ticonderoga, Abercromby was not so successful. After a succession of frontal attacks he was repulsed with terrible losses. A battery would have put the French defences out of action in an hour, but Abercromby had left his guns behind. He could have starved the garrison into submission, but he was a general of the old school, and preferred to fight to gain his objectives. His failure postponed the fall of Canada for another year.
The fall of Louisburg had made that event certain, and it was with this confidently in mind that Pitt laid his plans for 1759. Though Amherst had won considerable victories, he was not yet on the St Lawrence, which was one of the two major thrusts which Pitt had ordained for this year. The other was a combined expedition which had been sent against Quebec under the dual command of Admiral Saunders and Major-General Wolfe.
Superb seamanship brought the British up the St Lawrence to Quebec, through channels where, so a Frenchman reported, “we dare not risk a vessel of a hundred tons by night or day”. But Montcalm, who knew that he could hope for no reinforcements from France, believed that he had made Quebec impregnable. When the British landed on the Isle of Orleans on 27 June, 1759, they saw, four miles to the west across the water, a city of batteries and barracks, the capital of a country of soldiers.
In the inaccessible Beauport lines, Montcalm had fourteen thousand men holding the ridge to the east which barred all access to the city. Despite everything Wolfe might do, he could not reach the Beauport lines, nor was there any way round them. He could not expect Montcalm to budge, and time was running short, because the English would have to move away before the Canadian winter set in.
Several attempts to get at the city proved costly failures, and the general “lay helpless with a fever, and full of black despair”. But within a few days he was out of danger, and up again, his head filled with a last desperate plan.
For the next week a series of sudden bombardments and feint attacks kept the French permanently on the qui vive, but also completely mystified. Then on 6 September, with a fleet and some 3,600 men, Wolfe moved up eight miles west of the city, to Cap Rouge, where the high cliff barrier made its first dip.
The British activity convinced Montcalm that a general assault was imminent and he believed that it would be made where the River Charles flows into the St Lawrence under the city walls. But Wolfe was surveying the sheer line of cliffs to the west of Quebec, which Montcalm declared could be held with a hundred men.
On the night of 12 September, while the French general Bougainville was guarding the cliffs well to the west, and Montcalm was expecting an assault on his Beauport lines, to the east, Wolfe, with sixteen hundred men, climbed quietly into boats, and with oars muffled rowed and drifted under cover of darkness towards the Anse du Foulon, under the shelter of the high north bank. It was a desperate plan and required superlative seamanship and good fortune if it was to succeed.
A French post challenged them, and a Highland officer replied in French that they were a convoy bringing up provisions, and the point of landing was safely reached. There, led by young Captain Howe, brother of Lord Howe, the hero of Ticonderoga, a handful of picked men hauled themselves up the cliff face, and in the first light of dawn overpowered the astonished French pickets on the summit. This done, the remainder of the British force swarmed and scrambled up the cliff face.
By the time Montcalm received the news that the British were on the plateau to the west, Wolfe was leading his men towards the city. He met Montcalm on the Heights of Abraham. Within the hour the French were on the run. But the brilliant young English general, who had planned and executed it all, had been wounded in the first exchange of shot, and “died”, as Pitt put it, “in the moment when his fame began”.
Though the French did not capitulate with the fall of Quebec, and only surrendered when the Seven Years War in Europe came to an end, the final outcome was never in doubt thereafter. With the peace that terminated the struggle, the French were required to withdraw completely from Canada. But not even Pitt could then estimate the vast influence on the future of mankind which the brief encounter of Wolfe and Montcalm on the Heights of Abraham was to have, an influence which has not yet been brought to full fruition.
- Introduction: The Seven Years War – Canadian War Museum
- A Soldier’s Account of the Plains of Abraham
- Battle of the Plains of Abraham at the Quebec History Website
- The Plains of Abraham in Google Maps
- From the Warpath to the Plains of Abraham (virtual exhibition)
- National Battlefields Commission (Plains of Abraham)
- Montcalm and Wolfe, by Francis Parkman
- The Battle of the Plains of Abraham from The Canadian Encyclopedia
- Wolfe and Montcalm NFB documentary
- Battle of Quebec animated battle map by Jonathan Webb
- Audio documentary of the Battle of Quebec