The French and Indian War [1754 CE – 1763 CE], a component of the Seven Years’ War, is rightly seen as a watershed in American history, though many citizens of the United States and Canada are a bit hazy on the details. One common illusion is the belief that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec on September 13, 1759 was decisive in the transfer of control of Canada from France to Great Britain.
Coming as it did as the apparent apogee of the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, with British victories in North America, Europe, India, and various naval engagements, such a view of the victory before the walls of Quebec was widely shared in England at the time. The news was seized upon for propaganda purposes by William Pitt, who immediately published a Gazette Extraordinary consisting of Brigadier George Townshend’s letter describing the fight for the city. The drama of the battle was crystalized in Benjamin West’s depiction of The Death of General Wolfe [1770 with a second almost identical painting and further copies and revisions to 1776], which for better or worse remains an icon of the conflict.
The history is predictably more complex and illuminating than the popular myths.
French Canada’s fate was not militarily determined until months after the first Battle for Quebec. To understand this, it helps to examine the some of the context and details of the British campaign leading to the combat on the Plains of Abraham and the French response to the loss of Quebec City.
New France’s Governor General Vaudreuil saw the city of Quebec as expendable. In his eyes, French strength in Canada resided in Montreal and in the considerable capabilities of backcountry aboriginal allies for guerilla warfare.
Montcalm, the leader of France’s military in Canada, held views that were the opposite of Vaudreuil’s. Montcalm planned for French troops to hold Quebec until a peace treaty could be negotiated in Europe. He had seen the atrocities tribal warriors were prone to, including torture and cannibalism, and knew from bitter experience their antipathy to European modes of command.
In May 1759 orders from Versailles clearly put Montcalm in charge of the defense of New France. He built his plans on numerous militia forces and volunteers to supplement his small corps of overextended veterans from France.
His opponent, Major General James Wolfe, had a number of high quality British troops. A pitched battle or formal siege, if he could get close enough to Quebec, would work to Wolfe’s advantage.
Montcalm hunkered down in Quebec. The city’s position on high ground protected by steep bluffs rising from the shores of the St. Lawrence River enabled him to engineer imposing defenses. His fieldworks were in many cases superior to the city walls.
Montcalm consciously decided to depend on food being supplied from Montreal. He thought that by doing so, he would not have to transport or abandon his provisions, or worse, lose them to the English if he had to retreat from Quebec. He did not seem to consider seriously enough the possibility that English ships could run past Quebec and interdict French shipments descending the St. Lawrence River.
The French had received reinforcements and supplies in May 1759 before a British fleet transporting Wolfe and his troops ascended the St. Lawrence. Montcalm demonstrated no inclination to leave Quebec’s defensive positions, leaving Wolfe frustrated. In anger, Wolfe ordered the devastation of some 1400 farms in the region. Food was already scarce because of a poor Canadian harvest in 1758.
Wolfe had been given the command of the attack on Quebec largely on the basis of his contributions to the campaign that captured the fortress of Louisbourg in 1758. His health and behavior were not good. He was seriously ill with debilitating fevers, suffering severe pain from kidney stones, dependent on opiate painkillers, moody, and intensely disliked by his Brigadiers, three officers of ability.
Their distrust of Wolfe’s judgment increased as he unproductively wasted the summer of 1759 burning farmsteads near Quebec and launching an ill-considered frontal attack on French lines that utterly failed at the cost of over 400 British casualties, approximately half of whom died.
Wolfe did not increase his military reputation with moping letters to Amherst or his recitation of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard to his officers before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, especially as he is reported to have said that he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec the next day. Short of George Armstrong Custer, it is difficult to think of a commander acting more eccentrically before he achieved a dubious martyrdom.
By September, time was running short for the English. Wolfe knew he had until the end of the month to achieve a military decision before the weather forced the British ships, on which he was dependent, to withdraw.
He met secretly with Captain Robert Stobo, who had lived in Quebec for four years as a prisoner of war. Stobo informed Wolfe of a narrow footpath up the riparian bluffs just to the west of the city. The bluffs were roughly 175 feet [50 m] high.
After weather delays, Wolfe’s attack on Quebec began the night of September 12th.
The first English soldiers up the trail under cover of darkness made short work of the small French camp near the path’s end. Although Wolfe in a moment of confusion issued a command to stop more troops from climbing up, he was ignored. By daylight about 4,000 British troops had formed a line of battle less than a mile from Quebec’s west wall.
Montcalm erroneously thought Wolfe’s men were entrenching. The walls of Quebec were less formidable defensively than the fieldworks Montcalm’s forces had erected. The city had too little food to withstand any protracted siege, and British ships blocked resupply from Montreal.
Montcalm decided to meet Wolfe’s lines on an open field of battle with the troops he had on hand. The French attacked with vigor, but the militia were hopeless in terms of maintaining ranks. The British held their fire until the disorganized French attackers had closed to forty to sixty yards. Then the redcoats unloosed devastating volleys. The French soldiers ran back to the city.
Wolfe, shot three times, expired on the battlefield shortly after the British victory became evident. Montcalm, hit by grapeshot, expired the following day. The number of British and French casualties was relatively small: about 600 wounded on either side, and roughly 60 killed on the English side, 120 on the French.
The British prepared a formal siege of Quebec. Lacking strong leadership and adequate food, Quebec surrendered on September 18th before the British began their bombardment.
Detached French forces under the command of the Chevalier de Lévis lacked the cannons required to attack the English immediately, but were well positioned to spend the winter in relative comfort and retake Quebec the following spring with reinforcements and supplies from France. The farms around Montreal had produced an early and bountiful harvest.
The British, cooped up in Quebec, possessed only what they had brought with them from Europe. Wolfe’s scorched earth tactics during the summer meant there were no local supplies to be had. The French population of rural Quebec by and large fled towards Montreal, where Lévis welcomed the extra manpower for his planned campaign against the English the following spring.
When the British fleet left in October to avoid becoming bound in river ice, Lévis sent a messenger to France urgently requesting cannons, powder, ammunition, and supplies for the recovery of Quebec. If France could send a supply fleet up the St. Lawrence before the English, Lévis could take the city easily. He planned to put Quebec under siege in April 1760.
The British occupiers of the city suffered badly though the winter. Inadequate clothing, disease and malnutrition killed about a thousand men and incapacitated twice as many more, leaving less than four thousand soldiers fit for duty out of a force of seven thousand.
A second and bloodier Battle of Quebec [also known as the Battle of Sainte-Foy] was fought in April 1760. The French pushed the English back into the city, capturing the cannons the redcoats had tried to wheel through the snow and sucking mud underfoot. There were over 800 casualties on the French side and 1,100 on the English side. Lévis completed his siege lines by May 11th 1760.
France had enough confidence in its Atlantic fleet to plan a seaborne invasion of England in early 1759. But in August of 1759 a British fleet mauled a French fleet off the coast of Portugal, near the Bay of Lagos, capturing three battleships and forcing two more to run aground.
Even worse for France, on November 20th 1759 British Admiral Sir Edward Hawke caught the French warships and transports for the invasion of England at Quiberon Bay on the Atlantic coast of France. In a raging storm, he set his captains on the French fleet. A melee ensued. The English fleet lost two ships and approximately 300 men. The French lost seven ships in battle, and nine more that fled up a shallow estuary only to get stuck in the mud. About 2,500 French sailors were lost.
After Quiberon Bay the British fleet blockaded and attacked French ships pretty much at will. French plans for an invasion of England or Scotland were abandoned with the loss of the last effective French fleet in the Atlantic.
The French government sent five ships with 400 reinforcements and supplies for Lévis, but with only a frigate to guard the convoy. British blockaders took three of the transports near the coast of France. On May 14th the remaining French ships reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence only to learn that British warships had headed up the river on May 8th. The French ships anchored in territory defended by Acadians on the southern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where two squadrons of British warships found them. The French burned their ships to prevent their capture.
The first ships to reach Quebec in the spring of 1760 were English, not French. Lévis had no option but to draw back from Quebec. The British, reinforced, pressed him relentlessly. The bravery and heroic efforts of Lévis and his men could not stave off defeat. Vaudreuil surrendered at Montreal in August.
Wolfe’s taking of Quebec in September of 1759, dramatic and poignant as it was, left the final outcome of the war in Canada in doubt. Lévis would almost certainly have recaptured the city if the French reinforcements had arrived earlier than the British ships. The decisive victory was Hawke’s at Quiberon Bay in November. The British Navy redeemed the reputation of the British Army, not for the first or last time, providing the essential military advantage required to add Canada to the Empire.
Not even the astounding failure of the British navy at Plattsburgh in September of 1814 could reverse Hawke’s victory.
• Francis Parkman’s multivolume France and England in North America is epic narrative history in a grandiloquent style no longer in fashion, but still thrilling. Montcalm and Wolfe stands as the capstone to the series.
• Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America 1754 – 1766 is a judicious and concise treatment of the determining conflict between Great Britain and France for dominion in the Americas.
• Ian Steele writes perceptively about the cultural misunderstandings between Native American warriors and European officers in Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre.