The Plains of Abraham: The Battle that Shaped Modern North America
Death of General Wolfe after painting by Benjamin West. Source: (gettyimages.com)
From the time that Europeans first arrived in the Americas, colonization and conflict ruled the day. The growing overseas European empires of the Spanish, British, French, and Dutch jostled for power to settle who would be the dominant power in the hemisphere. As a result of and dramatic Battle of the Plains of Abraham, France exited the stage of North American geopolitics.
The Seven Years War
The battle took place on September 13, 1759, as part of the Seven Years War which involved nearly every major European power and was fought across the world. The war was called the French and Indian War in North America since it was fought between the French and their native allies against the British and their native allies.
In retrospect, the French were at a severe disadvantage in North America. They controlled a wide swath of territory from Quebec through the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi Valley to New Orleans. In that entire territory, there were perhaps a total of 70,000 French as opposed to the 1.2 million British that inhabited the smaller-sized but more densely packed thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard.
The French and Indian War began in 1754 mostly over control of the Ohio River Valley. After several years of back and forth fighting, the British army had gotten the edge of the French and now believed it possible to expel the French from North America altogether.
The greatest prize for the British was the city of Quebec.
The Prize of Quebec
On the northern banks of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec had been founded by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608. By 1759, the population of the city had reached approximately 8,000. The walled city was atop high bluffs so that an attack by the river was very difficult.
The British military penetrated the St. Lawrence so that in June 1759, they established a base on Île d'Orléans, just a few miles distant from the city. Thus began the siege of Quebec. The French tried to dislodge the British by the use of fireships, but these were lit too soon and removed by British sailors before they could do any harm. By September, the British had managed to capture the entire south bank of the river, many miles upriver of Quebec. However, attacks against the French city had failed repeatedly, although much of the city was a charred ruin from British artillery. The British themselves had taken heavy casualties, morale was at a low, and it seemed that they would need to withdraw before the frigid Canadian winter. The direct attack was not working. So the 32-year old British Major General, James Wolfe, came up with a different plan.
The Path of Glory
On the night of September 12, Wolfe ordered a diversionary assault on the eastern side of the city. Then in the dead of night, he stealthily drifted three brigades of his men west of the city to a cove named Ans-au-Faulon. The general was apprehensive. It is said that he recited a poem by Thomas Gray titled, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” which had the line, “the paths of glory lead but to the Grave.”
Wolfe remarked, “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.”
Wolfe landed and his 4,500 men quickly captured the small French garrison at Ans-au-Faulon. He then set to climb up the winding road to the top of the cliffs. By the morning of September 13, Wolfe and his army arrived in a narrow flatland along the precipice and before Quebec called the Plains of Abraham. While the Plains of Abraham may sound biblical, they were actually named after an early landowner, Abraham Martin.
The 47-year old Lieutenant General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the Marquis of Montcalm commanded the French troops at Quebec. He was five miles to the east at Beauport, lured by Wolfe’s diversion. When word of Wolfe’s bold tactics, he realized he had been outmaneuvered and hurried back to the city. He had his disposal a slightly smaller force than Wolfe composed of regular soldiers, colonials, and native allies.
Montcalm decided to attack the British immediately lest they entrench themselves on the plains or receive more reinforcements. Montcalm ordered a charge at about 10:00 a.m. However, a good number of his troops did not have military discipline and certainly, his Indian allies were more used to fighting in the woods than in the open. They made a disorganized lurch of it while the British redcoats stayed in formation.
The French regulars charged the center while the Indians and colonials fought from cover in the flanks. The French, however, underestimated the size of the British force and when they were on top of them, regiments in waiting leaped to their feet and shot two volleys that drove the French back to the city. Meanwhile, Scot Highlanders charged at the colonials and Indians taking heavy losses.
In the midst of it all, Wolfe was struck in the hand with a musket ball. Then as he was leading the 28th Foot forward two more musket balls struck. His wound was mortal, and he knew it. Waving attention away and falling to the ground one of the last things Wolfe heard was, “They run! They run!” Wolfe revived and an officer reported, “The enemy, sir. The enemy is running everywhere.”
Only fifteen minutes had passed since the initial volley, but the British had won the day. There were roughly 600 British casualties. The French sustained a worse, unknown toll.
Montcalm met the same fate as Wolfe. He was fatally shot while directing his troops on horseback from the rear. He was laid to rest in a crater shot out by British artillery.
Quebec surrendered to the British on September 18, 1759.
The Treaty of Paris, which ended the war ceded Canada from the French to the British. Its vast holding of Louisiana was given to Spain marking the end of direct French influence in North America.