Wolfe fails to conquer Canada

British artillery devastated in 1759 Quebec, but the attempted conquest of Canada failed. Richard Short. Library and Archives Canada C-000357.


From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.

British General James Wolfe is widely credited with the conquest of Canada by defeating Louis-Joseph Montcalm and the French on the Plains of Abraham, September 13, 1759. Not so. Wolfe won the battle, but not the war. The French lost a battle but their army was not defeated. The destiny not only of Canada but North America was cast on the far side of the Atlantic, in a pair of events that many histories have ignored or overlooked.

With periodic outbreaks of peace, the French and English began fighting each other for control of North America almost as soon as their first settlers landed. The shooting started in 1613 when Virginia Company sea captain Samuel Argall and Virginia colonials attacked the French Jesuit Mission on the Îsle Monte Désert, off the northern end of Maine. In a second attack that year, Argall sacked every building in Port Royal—seven years after the first French settlers arrived there; six years after the first English settled at Jamestown; five years after the French at Quebec.

Now, 141 years later, the stage is set for the final conflict.

It is 1754, and the French claim the most territory. New France sprawls over the heart and length of the continent, from Labrador and the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. It is home for possibly 80,000 people: half of them in Canada, straddling either side of the St. Lawrence for a distance of 400 kilometres; the rest in Acadia, mostly present day New Brunswick; and in Louisiana with its New Orleans. The English have far more people, 1.2 million in colonies on the Atlantic seaboard between Acadia and Spanish Florida.

“A volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America, set the world on fire,” as Horace Walpole noticed. The young Virginian was 22-year-old militia captain George Washington. He came to the Ohio Valley on behalf of speculators and their Ohio Company, which had been granted 200,000 acres, nominally by generous King George II, in territory the French claimed lay within their New France. To protect their fur traders and prospective settlers, the Virginians built a small fort at what is now Pittsburgh. The French sent troops to stop the English trading with the Indians and establish settlements. Washington was dispatched with a small troop and orders to restrain French obstruction, “and in case of resistance to make prisoners of or kill and destroy them.” At daybreak on May 28, the future U.S. president, his troops, and a few warriors swept down on a camp of 31 sleeping Canadien militia, killing 10.

Two years of undeclared war in North America had started. This was the first phase of the global Seven Years’ War that pitted England and its allies against France and its allies. By the time it was over, 1.4 million people were killed in fighting in North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, India, and the West Indies. Winston Churchill called it the first world war.

England and France sent shiploads of soldiers across the Atlantic to join the fight in North America. The certain losers were the First Nations. Mohawk Chief Hendrick told a conference of colonial governors at Albany:

“The Governor of Virginia and the Governor of Canada are both quarrelling about land which belongs to us, and such a quarrel as this may end in our destruction: they fight who shall have the land.” The Europeans took no heed.

We need not detail all the North American battles—Oswego, Fort William Henry, Monongahela, Ticonderoga, Fort Frontenac (Kingston), Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh), and more—before the shooting stopped, except to briefly note two. At the instigation of New England land speculator, the British captured what remained of French Acadia (i.e., present day New Brunswick) and began the historic expulsion of more than 11,000 Acadians to distant lands. In 1758, the British captured Louisbourg, the French fortress on Cape Breton Island that guarded the St. Lawrence gateway to Canada. James Wolfe was in the thick of that action, leading the Fraser Highlanders. Wolfe and the Highlanders sailed the next year for what historian D. Peter Macleod has called, “The battle that would decide the fate of Canada and the French and British Empires in North America.”

Quebec, the key to New France, might have fallen without a shot, if a British fleet had acted more promptly to cut off a daring exploit by a Canadien butcher.

“We could perish from lack of food without firing a shot,” Louis-Joseph Montcalm, New Frances’ military leader warned in early 1759 as Quebec prepared for an anticipated British invasion. Food shortages seemed a graver threat than the British. Heavy rains and cold weather had yielded poor crops. There was not enough food to feed Quebec’s civilians and armed forces until more might come in the summer from the more fertile fields of Montreal, 130 kilometres upstream. Pierre de Vaudreuil, the first Canadian-born governor of New France, asked France for a large shipment of provisions and arms. France was too preoccupied with the British navy, on the other side of the Atlantic, to offer much help.

Joseph-Michel Cadet secured the needed provisions in France, and chartered a private fleet of supply ships and two armed frigates to bring them to Quebec. Cadet learned the butcher trade from his uncle; started a butcher shop, added wheat, flour, peas, and biscuits to his business; won a nine-year contract as purveyor general of Canada. With a string of warehouses and 4,000 employees, he was possibly the wealthiest man in New France, and seemingly undeterred by any risk.

While Cadet was organizing his food convoy, British Rear Admiral Philip Durell was ordered to sail with his fleet, harboured at Halifax, to blockade the St. Lawrence as soon as the breakup of ice permitted. Wolfe was less than pleased when he learned that Durell would be in charge of the blockade, describing the admiral as “vastly unequal to the weight of the business.”

In late March, Durell sent small ships to survey ice conditions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By April 8, his warships were ready to sail. Ostensibly because of ice conditions and bad weather, it was a month later, May 5, before Durell and his fleet set sail from Halifax.

Too late!

By the time Durell’s fleet was in position to block the river, Cadet’s navy had delivered their provisions to Quebec. The French navy came through with at least token support: one supply ship and two frigates. With short rations, Quebec had enough food to last until August. Food remained on short rations and lack of supplies a constant threat, but Cadet overcame formidable obstacles to keep Quebec on life support for 18 months.

The fortress city

For a fortified city, a more impregnable site than Quebec is difficult to imagine. It perches at the apex of a 15-kilometre plateau, edged by steep banks that rise 50 to 90 metres from three rivers: the mighty St. Lawrence, along the length of the plateau, narrowed at Quebec to little more than two kilometres; the smaller St. Charles to the north and Cap Rouge to the south. Only the western edge of the city lacked the barrier of a steep bank. In its place was the wall, six metres of solid stone and mortar, 12 metres high, stretching across the plateau. Upper Quebec, housing most of city, its army, its administrative and business buildings, its splendid cathedral, looks down on Lower Quebec, hugging a narrow shoreline.

Across the St. Charles River the Beauport Flats shoreline stretches invitingly for 10 kilometres. Montcalm is convinced that the Beauport shore is “the only place where the enemy can, and must, make their landing.” He has built his defence here: entrenchments for thousands of soldiers backed by artillery batteries, well positioned to fire muskets and cannons on any force foolhardy enough to try a landing. He dismissed the possibility of an attack landing against the steep banks upstream from the city. “We don’t have to believe that the enemy has wings that allow him to cross [the river], disembark, and climb over the city walls,” he assures Governor Pierre Vaudreuil. Throughout the coming three-month siege, few of Montcalm’s forces guard 60 kilometres of upstream; most remain entrenched along the Beauport Flats, with a garrison behind the city wall, in case an enemy should ever reach that far. Montcalm has made his first mistake.

The St. Lawrence south shore, opposite Quebec, is left unguarded. Montcalm did not believe the British could bombard the city from a distance of close to two kilometres. Another mistake.

With tricky navigation in the narrowed St. Lawrence opposite Quebec, planted with false navigation aids, Montcalm felt confident that no large British warships could get upstream past the city, between Quebec and its vital food supplies from Montreal, and to where a large cache of guns and ammunition had been stockpiled for safe keeping. Yet another miscalculation.

The armies

There were more armed forces than unarmed civilians in Canada at the start of the prolonged conquest: 48,000 soldiers and sailors, as estimated by the National Battlefields Commission, close to double the number of children, old folks, and women.

Montcalm had an armed force of about 19,000, double Wolfe’s 9,000 troops, although estimates of Montcalm’s forces vary significantly. The British also had 20,000 sailors aboard 320 large and small ships. More than half of Montcalm’s forces were part-time soldiers, poorly trained and ill equipped. Wolfe’s troops were full-time professionals, well equipped, tightly disciplined, and endlessly trained and drilled whenever not fighting.

Montcalm had about 6,000 full-time armed forces: 2,400 regular troops from France; 2,000 land-based navy artillery and infantry; 1,000 or more Troupes de la Marine. Montcalm also had 11,000 part-time militia soldiers, and as many as 1,800 First Nations warriors. Montcalm had no faith in the effectiveness of the militia, and not much more in the incongruously named “Troops of the Navy.” They had long since ceased to be an active party of any navy; they were land-based companies of full-time guerrilla and bush fighters, led by Canadian-born officers and largely staffed by Canadiens. Despite Montcalm’s misgivings, they were skilled and highly effective in ambushing and harassing the flanks of British armies. Montcalm’s militia supposedly embraced every able-bodied male civilian in Canada between ages 16 and 60. But if the Battlefield Commission’s estimate of 11,000 is near the mark, the ranks most likely included younger teenagers and perhaps some older than 60.

The English, who formed the bulk of Wolfe’s troops, likely included many who were there through “sheer necessity.” Gloucestershire was one of five “shires” from which the English troops were recruited. Three years earlier, Wolfe had been sent to Gloucester to quell rioting weavers. He hoped, he wrote, to secure “a good recruiting party, for the people are so oppressed, so poor and so wretched, that they will perhaps… turn soldiers through sheer necessity.” Gloucester was not the only pocket of poverty in England.

Many of the Scots who formed Wolfe’s largest regiment, the 78th Fraser Highlanders, were likely there for the same reason as the English. Their commanding officer, Simon Fraser was chieftain of the clan from which he recruited 1,500 members for the regiment. He was there to further his own interests. Twelve years earlier, his clansmen fought the English in the Battle of Culloden that killed the hope of an independent Scotland. Now—reduced to 1,200 after serving in the siege of Louisbourg—they were in Canada to fight once more for the English.

American colonists, from the seaboard south of Acadia, were 3,000 strong, one-third of Wolfe’s army. They were natural allies of the British: they did not like the prospect of being ruled by a French-speaking, Catholic monarchy, especially one which stood athwart their territorial ambitions, and they had inducements of pay and the prospect of land grants. Once the French were kicked out of North America, the colonists would be free to kick out the English, which they set out to do 16 years after the Conquest of Canada.

The long siege

The British armada arrived in mid-June, carrying troops, guns, ammunition, and enough food—including 591 cattle—to feed some 29,000 men. They set up their first camp within sight of the city, on the evacuated Île d’ Orléans, commandeering the church for their field hospital.

The first three months of the siege were a stalemate. For the British it was a frustrating time of failure to entice the French into an open-field pitched battle; a failed attack at Montmorency Falls; of searching for another point of attack; of disease and sickness that thinned the ranks; of ceaseless artillery pounding of Quebec; and a terror campaign of burning and pillage along the undefended south shore. Montcalm remained largely ensconced behind his fortifications.

When Wolfe found that his plan of launching an attack at the Beauport Flats had been rendered impossible by Montcalm’s defence, he vowed a campaign of terror. “[If] we find that Quebec is not likely to fall into our hands… I propose to set the town on fire with Shells, to destroy the Harvest, Houses & cattle, both above and below, to send off as many Canadians as possible to Europe, & to leave famine and desolation behind me,” Wolfe wrote to General Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America.

Artillery commander George Williamson established a large battery of guns on the south shore at the closest point to Quebec: 20 cannon that shot solid iron balls weighing up to 14.5 kilogram (32 pounds), and 13 mortars that shot flaming firebombs to burn the city. Only about a fifth of Quebec’s buildings were made of wood, but the stone buildings had wooden roofs. The shelling began in mid-July. By the time it was over, most of the city lay in rubble. The city was evacuated. A few remained to stop looting, put out fires, safeguard stores and provisions. The evacuees did not have far to go. The artillery range was 1,200 to 1,800 yards, according to Williamson. The stone wall on the far side of the city was 2,200 yards away. It remained intact. Safe, too, was the general hospital, more than a kilometre past the city wall, a haven for civilians and soldiers alike, and later for British soldiers.

Under cover of darkness and heavy bombardment by Williamson’s artillery, five British warships, commanded by Rear Admiral Charles Holmes, slipped upstream past Quebec, undetected. Soldiers marched along the south shore to join the fleet. The British now stood athwart Quebec and its Montreal food supply. Wolfe is positioned to launch an amphibious attack either upstream or downstream from Quebec. Montcalm is compelled to pay more attention to guarding the upstream shoreline. As many as 2,000 are sent to patrol it, marching up and down along the banks, following the movement of British warships that were not supposed to be there. Some of the upstream forces are later sent back to the Beauport Flats, where Montcalm remains convinced the attack must come.

Wolfe’s first amphibious attack comes from the downstream side of Quebec, at Montmorency Falls, on the flank of the fortifications along the Beauport Flats. It is a disaster. The British charge uphill, to be mowed down by entrenched French forces. The British suffer 210 killed; 233 wounded. The French suffer 60 casualties.

The terror campaign on undefended villages begins upstream from Quebec when Admiral Charles Holmes launches small amphibious attacks on four villages on either side of the river. The first attack is repelled with British losses. On the other attacks, his forces burn a storehouse of weapons and ammunition, disperse a few warriors, and slaughter more than 100 cattle and sheep. Two villages on the south shore that pose no military threat are torched; every house in the perish of Saint-Croix is burned.

Wolfe assigns American Major George Scott to a much greater terror campaign, with orders to “burn all the country” along 120 kilometres of the south shore until it “is totally destroyed.” Scott leads a force of 600 American Rangers and 1,000 light infantry, supported by a small fleet of warships. They burn crops, houses, barns and almost every building in sight, kill cattle and horses, imprison old men, women and children. At Rivierè Ouelle, the manor house, flourmill, sawmill and fishing boats of a prosperous seignior are turned to charred wrecks and ashes. At another site, a woman nine months pregnant was forced to flee into the forest where she gave birth to a baby on a bed of leafs. Not surprisingly, Canadiens who had not been conscripted into the militia fired pot shots with their farm muskets, causing a few casualties. One Ranger was scalped.

With hot summer days and poor camp sanitation, diarrhea, dysentery and typhus claimed numerous lives and left more than 1,000 too sick to fight. That, plus fighting casualties at Montmorency Falls and 1,600 troops marauding the south shore, left Wolfe with just 6,000 of his original 9,000 available for the siege of Quebec. Wolfe, too, was laid low with a fever, fell into despair and despondency, while his generals and brigadiers fell to arguing and criticizing his military leadership. But Wolfe recovered to take firm control. There was general agreement that an attack should be made upstream from Quebec, but no agreement just where that should be. Wolfe finally made the decision. It would be “where the enemy seems least to expect it.”

The Anse au Foulon lies at the foot of a steep, 53-metre, heavily-wooded bank, a little more than two kilometres from Quebec. A road from the cove runs diagonally across the bank up to the Plains of Abraham. A barrier of sorts has been placed across the road: a trench and a bramble barricade of logs and sharp, pointed branches. It is lightly guarded. Thirty gunners man the Samos battery of three small cannon and one mortar overlooking the cove from the upstream side. No more than 100 troops guard the landing site and the barricade, and patrol the top of the bank.

September 12 finds many of the French confident that they have withstood the siege, “invincible” behind the entrenched Beauport Flats. The British have been noted moving about. The camp at Montmorency has been removed. The British must be preparing to leave. “Everyone considered the campaign to have finished, and finished gloriously for us, the enemy up until then had done nothing but make useless attacks,” a senior staff officer later recalled.

Not quite so. Time and tide can turn fortune or misfortune. At Cap Rouge, 15 kilometres upstream from Quebec, two parties awaited an ebb tide that will turn on the first hours of September 13 to carry their craft silently downstream. Close to shore are 19 bateaux, loaded with 4,500 litres of flour and wheat that Cadet has brought from Montreal. They are urgently needed at Quebec. Ready to weigh anchor midstream are 30 British landing craft, three sloops and four battleships, scheduled to carry 4,400 troops, field cannons, and ammunition to Anse au Foulon.

The British are informed of the planned food shipment, reportedly by a pair of French deserters, or possibly captives. In the event, the food bateaux never leave Cap Rouge. No matter. The British put their knowledge of the planned shipment to good use.

The 30 landing craft, crammed with the troops, start out at 2:20 a.m., the other vessels following during the next hour. It is 4 a.m. and dimly light when the first landing craft comes abreast of the Samos Battery. It is challenged by a French sentry. A Scot with the Fraser Highlanders replies in perfect French that these are the vessels with the food for Quebec. The reply comes from either Captain Donald MacDonald or Captain Simon Fraser; historians differ. It does not come from Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser, the regiment commander who missed the Battle of Culloden 12 years ago. He now misses the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. He is in the church at Saint Laurent on Île d’ Orléans that serves as the British field hospital, convalescing.

The ebb tide sweeps the landing craft half a kilometre past the intended landing site—fortunately for the British. The first soldiers leap ashore at 4:07 a.m., under the fire of the guns at the Samos Battery and the muskets of the guard troops. The attackers suffer their first casualties, but are only a few steps from the forest where they are less exposed than if they had landed where originally intended. In fewer than 15 minutes the first troops have ascended the bank, attacked from the rear and silenced the Samos battery. The French troops continue to fire their muskets at the British. The shooting has started and is almost continuous throughout most of the day, even though the pitch battle lasts only minutes.

By early morning, Wolfe’s army was established on the Plains of Abraham; the Foulon Road has been cleared; the first cannons hauled up for a field battery; entrenchments dug. Wolfe is positioned on a small hill with a view of the battlefield. He has 2,100 troops arranged two-abreast on the front battle line, across the width of the plain; others are shooting back at the militia and warriors who harass his flanks; the rest are held in reserve.

Facing the British, Montcalm stands on a wooded hill, the Buttes-À-Neveu, with 2,000 regular troops, about to disobey an order from Governor Vaudreuil, who is also commander-in-chief of French forces in New France. Vaudreuil and Montcalm were seldom in agreement. Montcalm was a careful, methodical, somewhat cautious military leader. Vaudreuil, a seasoned soldier, was an aggressive fighter, constantly itching to be on the attack. Now the roles are somewhat reversed. Vaudreuil ordered Montcalm to wait on his hill for the arrival of reinforcements; 1,200 militia upstream at Cap Rouge under the command of Colonel Louis-Antoine de Bougainville; 1,500 from the Beauport Flats; 2,000 standing guard within the city gates, in case they are needed for a last-ditch stand. The British, claimed Vaudreuil, would thus “find themselves surrounded on all sides, and would have no alternative but to retreat or face certain defeat.”

Montcalm saw it differently. “We cannot avoid action,” he reportedly told an artillery officer. “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 troops we have.” He placed little value on help from the militia; he relied on his regular troops from France, massed on the hill, and ready to go.

Montcalm gave the order at 10 a.m. It was not an orderly advance. Over-eager troops rushed pell-mell down the rugged hill, through bush and wheat fields, jumping over fences. They formed a ragged line, 120 metres from the British. Without waiting for an order, the French began firing. The range was too far. Most bullets fell to the ground, others hit with such little force that they caused no damage.

The two sides approach to within less than 35 yards, the French spread out in three clustered formations, the British in a solid line. They stand for as long as two minutes, each side waiting for the other to fire first. The French fire first, causing relatively few casualties. The British response is more deadly. In dense smoke from musket fire, the shooting continues for about another 10 minutes. The French fight against the overwhelming power of British cannon and musket firing, suffering heavy casualties before retreating in a route that becomes a panic. Wolfe and Montcalm are among the casualties. Wolfe dies on the battlefield; Montcalm dies the next morning inside the city gates.

While the French soldiers of the battle line broke and ran, the Canadian militia and the warriors continued to harass the British. From the big hill, they covered the fleeing French soldiers. On the northern edge of the battlefield, the militia inflicted heavy losses on the Fraser Highlanders.

The British and the French each suffered about 600 casualties on the Plains of Abraham.

The French army lost the battle but the British had not yet taken Quebec. Fewer than 500 soldiers and sailors remained in the city to defend it, together with 2,700 refugees who fled there for safety. For four days, the British prepare to launch an attack. The French fire back, but to little effect. The British dig their entrenchments and mount their batteries. They were preparing to bomb an opening through the city’s wall, then pour in for a fight that would cause great casualties on both sites. It would be a blood bath that neither the British nor the French really wanted.

From his camp at the Jacque Cartier River, 50 kilometres upstream from Quebec, Vaudreuil planned a two-day march back to Quebec, with the forces that escaped the battlefield, overwhelm the British, and save the city. They marched only one day before word reached them that the garrison, faced with hunger and the threat of an imminent fight in which hundreds of militia and their families would be killed, had reached a negotiated surrender.

Artillery commander George Williamson was the first British soldier to march into Quebec. He found that “535 houses are burned down, besides we have greatly shattered most of the rest.”

Two days after the surrender, Major George Scott returned from ravaging the south shore, with large herds of cattle and sheep and “an immense deal of plunder, such as household stuff, books, and apparel.” He reported to Brigadier Robert Monckton, now in command of the British forces, that his Rangers and infantry had “burnt nine hundred and ninety eight good buildings, two sloops, two schooners, ten shallops, and several bateaus and small craft, took fifteen prisoners (six of them women and five of them children) killed five of the enemy,” with three of his troops killed and five wounded.

The first Battle of the Plains of Abraham was over, but not the conquest of Canada. The French forces retreated to Montreal to fight another day.

Throughout the summer, the sisters at the Hôpital Général, beyond the range of the British south shore artillery, cared for Montcalm’s sick and wounded fighters, and refugees from the city. Throughout the fall and winter, they now gave the same devoted care to the British.

With the capture of the city, Monckton, wounded, and other officers returned with the fleet to Britain. Brigadier James Murray, formerly Wolfe’s fourth in command, was left in charge, to face a grim winter.

The British garrison slept in hastily repaired houses and other buildings that did little to keep out the cold. Fuel was a problem. Murray sent 800 troops to cut firewood, and rationed its use. Yet cold and scurvy took a bigger toll than all the shooting. When liquor could be found, soldiers too often drank to excess for a feeling of warmth that only hastened their death. “By April 24,” writes historian D. Peter MacLeod, “2,312 members of the garrison had been hospitalized and 682 lay stacked like firewood on the frozen ground,” awaiting the spring thaw and burial.

Spring would also bring the second Battle of the Plains of Abraham, aka the Battle of Sainte-Foy. At Montreal, Vaudreuil and Francois-Gaston de Lévis, now New France’s military commander, assembled their forces for a campaign to retake Quebec. On April 28, 3,800 soldiers led by Lévis marched out of the woods, two kilometres southwest of the city. In a three-hour bloodbath 558 are killed, 1,610 are wound, both French and British. The outnumbered British are forced to retreat beyond the city gates. The French have won the second battle, but like the British less than eight months earlier, they have not yet captured Quebec. Both sides await the breakup of St. Lawrence ice and the arrival of ships from the across the Atlantic.

After the first Plains of Abraham Battle, Vaudreuil and Lévis sent a joint letter to Paris requesting provisions, 10,000 troops, and, perhaps most importantly, heavy artillery. With this, the French recapture of Quebec, control of Canada, and all New France, would seem almost assured.

The first battleship is sighted May 9. Is it French? Is it British? Upon that ship, and others in its wake, rest the destiny of a continent.

Quebec is rocked by an explosion of joyous shouting and the welcoming boom of blank cannon fire. The ship is the British HMS Lowestoft. Two more British ships arrive May 15. “I think that the colony is lost,” Lévis writes. The siege is lifted. The English again hold Quebec. New France is doomed.

The French did send a token force to aid its colony: a frigate and three transport ships with 400 soldiers. None of these reached Quebec: all were either lost at sea or captured by the British. At Montreal, on September 8, after 147 years, two months and six days of shooting at each other, the English and French finally stop fighting for control of a continent. With their force of 3,000 surrounded by 17,000 British troops, Lévis and Vaudreuil had no choice but unconditional surrender. At least in North America, the Seven Years’ War was over.


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