L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Battle of the Plains of Abraham
[This text was written in 1915 by William WOOD. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]
SEPTEMBER 3 looked like July 31 over again. One brigade of redcoats came in boats from the Point of Levy and rowed about in front of the left of Montcalm's entrenchments. The two others marched down the hill to the foot of the Falls of Montmorency. But here, instead of fording the mouth and marching along the beach, they entered boats and joined the first brigade, which was hovering in front of the French lines. Meanwhile, the main squadron of the fleet, under Saunders himself, was closing in before these same lines, with decks cleared for action. Montcalm thought that this was likely to be Wolfe's last move, and he felt sure he could beat him again. But no attack was made. As the ships closed in towards the shore the densely crowded boats suddenly turned and rowed off to the Point of Levy. Wolfe had broken camp without the loss of a single man.
Now began for Montcalm ten terrible days and nights. From the time Wolfe left Montmorency to the time he stood upon the Plains of Abraham, Montcalm had no means whatever of finding out where the bulk of the British army was or what it intended to do. Even now, Vaudreuil had not sense enough to hold his tongue, and the French plans and movements were soon known to Wolfe, especially as the Canadians were beginning to desert in large numbers. Wolfe, on the other hand, kept his own counsel ; the very few deserters from the British side knew little or nothing, and the fleet became a better screen than ever. For thirty miles, from the Falls of Montmorency up to above Pointe aux Trembles, the ships kept moving up and down, threatening first one part of the north shore and then another, and screening the south altogether. Sometimes there were movements of men-of-war, sometimes of transports, sometimes of boats, sometimes of any two of these, sometimes of all three together ; sometimes there were redcoats on board one, or two, or all three kinds of craft, and sometimes not. It was a dreadful puzzle for Montcalm, a puzzle made ten times worse because all the news of the British plans that could be found out was first told to Vaudreuil.
Gradually it seemed as if Wolfe was aiming at a landing somewhere on the stretch of thirteen miles of the north shore between Cap Rouge, nine miles above Quebec, and Pointe aux Trembles, twenty-two miles above. Camp gossip, the reports from Bougainville, who was still watching Holmes up the river, and whatever other news could be gathered, all seemed to point the same way. But Saunders was still opposite the Beauport entrenchments ; and the British camps at the island of Orleans, the Point of Levy, and the Levis batteries still seemed to have a good many redcoats. The use of redcoats, however, made the puzzle harder than ever at this time, for Saunders had over 2000 marines, who were dressed in red and who at a distance could not be told from Wolfe's own soldiers.
Perhaps Wolfe was only making a feint at Pointe aux Trembles, and might, after all, come down against the entrenchments if he saw that Montcalm had weakened them. Perhaps, also, he might try to land, not at either end of the French line, but somewhere in the middle, between Cap Rouge and Quebec. Nothing could be found out definitely. Certainly the British were looking for the weakest spot, wherever it was. So Montcalm did the best he could to defend nearly thirty miles of shoreline with the reduced army of 13,000 men which he now had. Sickness, desertion, losses in battle, and the reinforcements for Lake Champlain had taken away a good 4000. Again he reinforced Bougainville , and told him to watch more carefully than ever the menaced thirteen miles between Cap Rouge and Pointe aux Trembles . He himself looked after the garrison of Quebec. He made sure that the bulk of his army was ready to defend the Beauport entrenchments as well as before, and that it was also ready at a moment's notice to march up the river. He sent a good battalion of French regulars to guard the heights between Quebec and Cap Rouge, heights so strong by nature that nobody else seemed to think they needed defending at all.
This French battalion, that of La Guienne, marched up to their new position on the 5th, and made the nine miles between Quebec and Cap Rouge safe enough against any British attack. There were already posts and batteries to cover all the points where a body of men could get up the cliffs, and the presence of a battalion reduced to nothing the real dangers in this quarter. By the 7th Vaudreuil had decided that these real dangers did not exist, that Montcalm was all wrong, especially about the Plains of Abraham, that there could be no landing of the enemy between Quebec and Cap Rouge, that there was not enough firewood there for both the Guienne battalion and the men at the posts and batteries, and that, in short, the French regulars must march back to the entrenchments. So back they came.
On the 8th and 9th the British vessels swarmed round Pointe aux Trembles. How many soldiers there were on board was more than Bougainville could tell. He knew only that a great many had been seen first from Cap Rouge, that later a great many had been seen from Pointe aux Trembles, and that every day bodies of soldiers had been landed and taken on board again at St Nicholas, on the' south shore, between the two positions of Cap Rouge and Pointe aux Trembles. The British plan seemed to be to wear out their enemy. Daily the odds against the French grew ; for shiploads of redcoats would move up and down with the strong tide and keep Bougainville 's wretched, half-starved men tramping and scrambling along the rough ground of the heights in order to follow and forestall this puzzling and persistent enemy.
On the 10th a French officer near the Foulon, one of the posts on the heights between Quebec and Cap Rouge, saw, through his telescope, that six British officers on the south shore were carefully surveying the heights all about him. When he reported this at once, Montcalm tried again to reinforce this point. He also tried to send a good officer to command the Foulon post. The officer stationed there was Vergor, one of the Bigot gang and a great friend of Vaudreuil's. Vergor had disgraced himself by giving up Fort Beausejour in Acadia without a fight. He was now disgracing himself again by allowing fifty of the hundred men at the post to go and work at their farms in the valley of the St Charles , provided that they put in an equal amount of work on his own farm there. It was a bad feature of the case that his utter worthlessness was as well known to Wolfe as it was to Montcalm.
On the 11th and 12th the movements of the fleet became more puzzling than before. They still seemed, however, to point to a landing somewhere along those much threatened thirteen miles between Cap Rouge and Pointe aux Trembles, but, more especially, at Pointe aux Trembles itself. By this time Bougainville 's 2000 men were fairly worn out with constant marching to and fro ; and on the evening of the 12th they were for the most part too tired to cook their suppers. Bougainville kept the bulk of them for the night near St Augustin, five miles below Pointe aux Trembles and eight miles above Cap Rouge, so that he could go to either end of his line when he made his inspection in the morning. He knew that at sunset some British vessels were still off Pointe aux Trembles. He knew also that most of the British vessels had gone down for the night to St Nicholas, on the south shore, only four miles nearer Quebec than he was at St Augustin. Bougainville and everybody else on both sides-except Wolfe and Montcalm themselves-thought the real attack was going to be made close to Pointe aux Trembles, for news had leaked out that this was the plan formed by the British brigadiers with Wolfe's own approval.
Down the river, below Quebec, in his six miles of entrenchments at Beauport, Montcalm was getting more and more uneasy on the fatal 12th. Where was Wolfe's army ? The bulk of it, two brigades, was said to be at St Nicholas, thirteen miles above Quebec, facing the same thirteen miles that Bougainville's worn-out men had been so long defending. But where was Wolfe's third brigade ? Saunders remained opposite Beauport, as usual. His boats seemed very busy laying buoys, as if to mark out good landing-places for another attack. He had redcoats with him, too. Which were they ? Marines ? Soldiers ? Nobody could see. There were more redcoats at the island of Orleans , more at the Point of Levy, more still near the Levis batteries. Were these all soldiers or were some of them marines ? Why was Saunders beginning to bombard the entrenchments at Beauport and to send boats along the shore there after dark ? Was this a feint or not ? Why were the Levis batteries thundering so furiously against Quebec ? Was it to cover Wolfe's crowded boats coming down to join Saunders at Beauport ?
Montcalm was up all night, keeping his men ready for anything. That night Bougainville reported much the same news as for several days past. He expected to see Holmes and Wolfe back at Pointe aux Trembles in the morning. If occasion arose, he was, however, ready to march down to Cap Rouge as fast as his tired-out men could go. His thirteen miles were being well watched.
What, however, about the nine miles of shore under his guard between Cap Rouge and Quebec ? About them Vaudreuil was as stubborn as ever. They were a line of high cliffs, seemingly impregnable, and Vergor who defended them was his friend. Surely this was enough ! But Montcalm saw what a chance the position offered to a man of such daring skill as Wolfe. Again he tried to have Vergor recalled, but in vain. Then, in the afternoon of the 12th, he took the bold but the only safe course of ordering the Guienne four hundred strong, to go up at once and camp for the night at the top of the Foulon, near Vergor. The men were all ready to march off when Vaudreuil found out what they were going to do. It was no order of his ! It would belittle him to let Montcalm take his place ! And, anyhow, it was all nonsense ! Raising his voice so that the staff could hear him, he then said : 'The English haven't wings ! Let La Guienne stay where it is ! I'll see about that Foulon myself to-morrow morning ! '
'To-morrow morning' began early, long before Vergor and Vaudreuil were out of bed. Of the two Vergor was up first ; up first, and with a shock, to find redcoats running at his tent with fixed bayonets. He was off, like a flash, in his nightshirt, and Wolfe had taken his post. He ought to have been on the alert for friends as well as foes that early morning, because all the French posts had been warned to look out for a provision convoy which was expected down the north shore and in at the Foulon itself. But Vergor was asleep instead, and half his men were away at his farm. So Vaudreuil lost his chance to 'see about that Foulon himself ' on that 'to-morrow morning.'
Saunders had been threatening the entrenchments at Beauport all night, and before daylight the Levis batteries had redoubled their fire against Quebec. But about five o'clock Montcalm's quick ear caught the sound of a new cannonade above Quebec . It came from the Foulon, which was only two miles and a half from the St Charles bridge of boats, though the tableland of the Plains of Abraham rose between, three hundred feet high. Montcalm's first thought was for the provision convoy, so badly needed in his half-starved camp. He knew it was expected down at the Foulon this very night, and that the adjacent Samos battery was to try to protect it from the British men-of-war as it ran in. But he did not know that it had been stopped by a British frigate above Pointe aux Trembles, and that Wolfe's boats were taking its place and fooling the French sentries, who had been ordered to pass it quietly.
Yet he knew Wolfe ; he knew Vergor ; and now the sound of the cannonade alarmed him. Setting spurs to his horse, he galloped down from Beauport to the bridge of boats, giving orders as he went to turn out every man at once.
At the bridge he found Vaudreuil writing a letter to Bougainville . If Vaudreuil had written nothing else in his life, this single letter would be enough to condemn him for ever at the bar of history. With the British on the Plains of Abraham and the fate of half a continent trembling in the scale, he prattled away on his official foolscap as if Wolfe was at the head of only a few naughty boys whom a squad of police could easily arrest. 'I have set the army in motion. I have sent the Marquis of Montcalm with one hundred Canadians as a reinforcement.'
Montcalm took up with him a good many more than the 'one hundred Canadians' Vaudreuil ordered him to take, and he sent to Bougainville a message very different from the one Vaudreuil had written. What hero was ever more sorely tried ? When he caught sight of the redcoats marching towards Quebec, in full view of the place where Vaudreuil was writing that idiotic letter, he exclaimed, as he well might : 'Ah ! there they are, where they have no right to be ! 'Then, turning to the officers with him, he added : 'Gentlemen, this is a serious affair. Let every one take post at once !'
The camp was already under arms. Mont-calm ordered up all the French and Canadian regulars and all the militia, except 2000. Vaudreuil at once ordered a battalion of regulars and all the militia, except 2000, to stay where they were. Montcalm asked for the whole of the twenty-five field guns in Quebec . Vaudreuil gave him three.
Wolfe's 5000 redcoats were already on the Plains when Montcalm galloped up to the crest of ground from which he could see them, only six hundred yards away. The line was very thin, only two-deep, and its right did not seem to have come up yet. Some sailors were dragging up a gun, not far from the Foulon. Perhaps Wolfe's landing was not quite completed ?
Meanwhile half the 5000 that Montcalm was able to get into action was beginning to fire at the redcoats from under cover and at some distance. This half was militia and Indians, 2000 of the first and 500 of the second. The flat and open battlefield that Wolfe had in his front was almost empty. It was there that Montcalm would have to fight with his other 2500, in eight small battalions of regulars-five French and three Canadian.
These regulars wasted no time, once they were clear of Vaudreuil, who still thought some of them should stay down at Montmorency. They crossed the bridge of boats and the valley of the St Charles, mounted the Heights of Abraham, and formed up about as far on the inner side of the crest of ground as Wolfe's men were on the outer side. Montcalm called his brigadiers, colonels, and staff together, to find out if anyone could explain the movements of the British. No one knew anything certain. But most of them thought that the enemy's line was not yet complete, and that, for this reason, as well as because the sailors were beginning to land entrenching tools and artillery, it would be better to attack at once.
Montcalm agreed. In fact, he had no choice. He was now completely cut off from the St Lawrence above Quebec . His army could not be fed by land for another week. Most important of all, by prompt action he might get in a blow before Wolfe was quite ready. There was nothing to wait. for. Bougainville must have started down the river bank, as hard as his tired-out men could march. To wait for French reinforcements meant to wait for British ones too, and the British would gain more by reinforcements than the French. The fleet was closing in. Boats crowded with marines and sailors were rowing to the Foulon, with tools and guns for a siege. Already a naval brigade was on the beach.
Montcalm gave the signal, the eight battalions stepped off, reached the crest of the hill, and came in sight of their opponents. Wolfe's front was of six battalions two-deep, about equal in numbers to Montcalm's eight battalions six-deep. The redcoats marched forward a hundred paces and halted. The two fronts were now a quarter of a mile apart. Wolfe's front represented the half of his army. Some of the other half were curved back to protect the flanks against the other half of Montcalm's, and some were in reserve, ready for Bougainville.
Montcalm rode along his little line for the last time. There stood the heroes of his four great victories- Oswego, Fort William Henry, Ticonderoga, Montmorency. He knew that at least half of them would follow wherever he led. The three Canadian battalions on his right and left might not close with an enemy who had bayonets and knew how to use them, when they themselves had none. The Languedoc battalion of Frenchmen was also a little shaky, because it had been obliged to take most of the bad recruits sent out to re-place the tried soldiers captured by the British fleet in 1 755 . But the remainder were true as steel.
'Don't you want a little rest before you begin ?' asked Montcalm, as he passed the veteran Royal Roussillon. 'No, no ; we're never tired before a battle !' the men shouted back. And so he rode along, stopping to say a word to each battalion on the way. He had put on his full uniform that morning, thinking a battle might be fought. He wore the green, gold-embroidered coat he had worn at court when he presented his son to the king and took leave of France for ever. It was open in front, showing his polished cuirass. The Grand Cross of St Louis glittered on his breast, over as brave a heart as any of the Montcalms had shown during centuries in the presence of the foe. From head to foot he looked the hero that he was; and he sat his jet-black charger as if the horse and man were one.
He reined up beside the Languedoc battalion, hoping to steady it by leading it in person. As he did so he saw that the Canadians and Indians were pressing Wolfe's flanks more closely from under cover and that there was some confusion in the thin red line itself, where its skirmishers, having been called in, were trying to find their places in too much of a hurry. This was his only chance. Up went his sword, and the advance began, the eight six-deep battalions stepping off together at the slow march, with shouldered arms. 'Long live the King and Montcalm !' they shouted, as they had shouted at Ticonderoga ; and the ensigns waved the fleurs-de-lis aloft.
Half the distance was covered in good formation. But when the three battalions of Canadian regulars came within musket-shot they suddenly began to fire without orders, and then dropped down flat to reload. This threw out the line ; and there was more wavering when the French saw that the Canadians, far from regaining their places, were running off to the flanks to join the militia and Indians under cover. Montcalm was now left with only his five French battalions-five short, thick lines, four white and one blue, against Wolfe's long, six-jointed, thin red line. He halted a moment, to steady the men, and advanced again in the way that regulars at that time fought each other on flat and open battlefields : a short march of fifty paces or so, in slow time, a halt to fire, another advance and another halt to fire, until the foes came to close quarters, when a bayonet charge gave the victory to whichever side had kept its formation the better.
A single British gun was firing grape-shot straight into the French left and cutting down a great many men. But the thin red line itself was silent ; silent as the grave and steadfast as a wall. Presently the substitutes in the Languedoc battalion could not endure the strain any longer. They fired without orders and could not be stopped. At the same time Montcalm saw that his five little bodies of men were drifting apart. When the Canadian regulars had moved off, they had left the French flanks quite open. In consequence, the French battalions nearest the flanks kept edging outwards, the ones on the right towards their own right and the ones on the left towards their own left, to prevent themselves from being overlapped by the long red line of fire and steel when the two fronts closed. But this drift outwards, while not enough to reach Wolfe's flanks, was quite enough to make a fatal gap in Montcalm's centre. Thus the British, at the final moment, took the French on both the outer and both the inner flanks as well as straight in front.
The separating distance was growing less and less. A hundred paces now ! Would that grim line of redcoats never fire ? Seventy-five ! !-Fifty !I-Forty ! ! !-the glint of a sword-blade on the British right !-the word of command to their grenadiers ! - ' Ready !-Present ! Fire ! ! !' Like six single shots from as many cannon the British volleys crashed forth, from right to left, battalion by battalion, all down that thin red line.
The stricken front rank of the French fell before these double-shotted volleys almost to a man. When the smoke cleared off the British had come nearer still. They had closed up twenty paces to their front, reloading as they came. And now, taking the six-deep French in front and flanks, they fired as fast as they could, but steadily and under perfect control. The French, on the other hand, were firing wildly, and simply crumbling away before that well-aimed storm of lead. The four white lines melted into shapeless masses. They rocked and reeled like sinking vessels. In a vain, last effort to lead them on, their officers faced death and found it. All three brigadiers and two of the colonels went down. Montcalm was the only one of four French generals still on horseback ; and he was wounded while trying to keep the Languedoc men in action.
Suddenly, on the right, the Sarre and Languedoc battalions turned and ran. A moment more, and Béarn and Guienne , in the centre, had followed them. The wounded Montcalm rode alone among the mad rush of panic-stricken fugitives. But over towards the St Lawrence cliffs he saw the blue line of the Royal Roussillon still fighting desperately against the overlapping redcoats. He galloped up to them. But, even as he arrived, the whole mass swayed, turned, and broke in wild confusion. Only three officers remained. Half the battalion was killed or wounded. Nothing could stay its flight.
On the top of the crest of ground, where hehad formed his line of attack only a few minutes before, Montcalm was trying to rally some men to keep back the pursuing British when he was hit again, and this time he received a mortal wound. He reeled in the saddle, and would have fallen had not two faithful grenadiers sprung to his side and held him up. His splendid black charger seemed to know what was the matter with his master, and walked on gently at a foot's pace down the Grande Allée and into Quebec by the St Louis Gate. Pursuers and pursued were now racing for the valley of the St Charles, and Quebec itself was, for the moment, safe.
Never was there a greater rout than on the Plains of Abraham at ten o'clock that morning. The French and Canadians ran for the bridge of boats, their only safety. But they came very close to being cut off both in front and rear. Vaudreuil had poked his nose out of one of the gates of Quebec when the flight began. He then galloped down to the bridge, telling the Canadians on the Cote d'Abraham, which was the road from the Plains to the St Charles, to make a stand there. Having got safely over the bridge himself, he was actually having it cut adrift, when some officers rushed up and stopped this crowning act of shame. This saved the fugitives in front of the broken army.
Meanwhile the flying troops were being saved in the rear by the Canadians at the Côte d'Abraham under a French officer called Dumas. These Canadians had not done much in the battle, for various reasons: one was that the fighting was in the open, a mode of warfare in which they had not been trained ; the British, moreover, used bayonets, of which the Canadians themselves had none. But in the bush along the crest of the cliffs overlooking the valley they fought splendidly. After holding back the pursuit for twenty minutes, and losing a quarter of their numbers, they gave way. Then a few of them made a second stand at a mill and bakery in the valley itself, and were killed or wounded to a man.
Montcalm heard the outburst of firing at the Côte d'Abraham. But he knew that all was over now, that Canada was lost, and with it all he had fought for so nobly, so wisely, and so well. As he rode through St Louis Gate, with the two grenadiers holding him up in his saddle, a terrified woman shrieked out : 'Oh ! look at the marquis, he 's killed, he 's killed ! ' 'It is nothing at all, my kind friend,' answered Montcalm, trying to sit up straight, 'you must not be so much alarmed !' Five minutes later the doctor told him he had only a few hours to live. 'So much the better,' he replied; 'I shall not see the surrender of Quebec .'
On hearing that he had such a short time before him his first thought was to leave no possible duty undone. He told the commandant of Quebec that he had no advice to give about the surrender. He told Vaudreuil's messenger that there were only three courses for the army to follow : to fight again, surrender, or retreat towards Montreal ; and that he would advise a retreat. He dictated a letter to the British commander. It was written by his devoted secretary, Marcel, and delivered to Wolfe's successor, Townshend :
And then, his public duty over, he sent a message to each member of his family at Candiac, including 'poor Mirète,' for not a word had come from France since the British fleet had sealed up the St Lawrence, and he did not yet know which of his daughters had died.
Having remembered his family he gave the rest of his thoughts to his God and to that other world he was so soon to enter. All night long his lips were seen to move in prayer. And, just as the dreary dawn was breaking, he breathed his last.
'War is the grave of the Montcalms.'
For an extensive discussion of the events leading to the battle of the Plains of Abraham and of the historical context, consult the page on the Seven Years War.
Source: William WOOD, "The Plains of Abraham", in The Passing of New France. A Chronicle of Montcalm, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915, 149p., pp. 120-142.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College