L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Winning of Canada
A Chronicle of Wolfe
[This text was written by William Wood. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]
IN 1755 Wolfe was already writing what he thought were farewell letters before going off to the war. And that very year the war, though not formally declared till the next, actually did break out in America, where a British army under Braddock, with Washington as his aide-de-camp, was beaten in Ohio by the French and Indians. Next year the French, owing to the failure of Admiral Byng and the British fleet to assist the garrison, were able to capture Minorca in the Mediterranean ; while their new general in Canada, Montcalm, Wolfe's great opponent, took Oswego. The triumph of the French fleet at Minorca made the British people furious. Byng was court-martialled, found guilty of failure to do his utmost to save Minorca, and condemned to death. In spite of Pitt's efforts to save him, the sentence was carried out and he was shot on the quarter-deck of his own flagship. Two other admirals, Hawke and Saunders, both of whom were soon to see service with Wolfe, were then sent out as a ‘cargo of courage' to retrieve the British position at sea. By this time preparations were being hurried forward on every hand. Fleets were fitting out. Armies were mustering. And, best of all, Pitt was just beginning to make his influence felt.
In 1757, the third year of war, things still went badly for the British at the front. In America Montcalm took Fort William Henry, and a British fleet and army failed to accomplish anything against Louisbourg. In Europe another British fleet and army were fitted out to go on another joint expedition, this time against Rochefort, a great seaport in the west of France. The senior staff officer, next to the three generals in command, was Wolfe, now thirty years of age. The admiral in charge of the fleet was Hawke, as famous a fighter as Wolfe himself. A little later, when both these great men were known throughout the whole United Service, as well as among the millions in Britain and in Greater Britain, their names were coupled in countless punning toasts, and patriots from Canada to Calcutta would stand up to drink a health to ‘the eye of a Hawke and the heart of a Wolfe.' But Wolfe was not a general yet ; and the three pottering old men who were generals at Rochefort could not make up their minds to do anything but talk. These generals had been ordered to take Rochefort by complete surprise. But after spending five days in front of it, so that every Frenchman could see what they had come for, they decided to countermand the attack and sail home.
Wolfe was a very angry and disgusted man. Yet, though this joint expedition was a disgraceful failure, he had learned some useful lessons, which he was presently to turn to good account. He saw, at least, what such expeditions should not attempt ; and that a general should act boldly, though wisely, with the fleet. More than this, he had himself made a plan which his generals were too timid to carry out ; and this plan was so good that Pitt, now in supreme control for the next four years, made a note of it and marked him down for promotion and command.
Both came sooner than any one could have expected. Pitt was sick of fleets and armies that did nothing but hold councils of war and then come back to say that the enemy could not be safely attacked. He made up his mind to send out real fighters with the next joint expedition. So in 1758 he appointed Wolfe as the junior of the three brigadier-generals under Amherst, who was to join Admiral Boscawen—nicknamed 'Old Dreadnought'—in a great expedition meant to take Louisbourg for good and all.
Louisbourg was the greatest fortress in America. It was in the extreme east of Canada, on the island of Cape Breton, near the best fishing-grounds, and on the flank of the ship channel into the St Lawrence. A fortress there, in which French fleets could shelter safely, was like a shield for New France and a sword against New England. In 1745, just before the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, an army of New Englanders under Sir William Pepperrell, with the assistance of Commodore Warren's fleet, had taken this fortress. But at the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, when Wolfe had just come of age, it was given back to France.
Ten years later, when Wolfe went out to join the second army that was sent against it, the situation was extremely critical. Both French and British strained every nerve, the one to hold, the other to take, the greatest fortress in America. A French fleet sailed from Brest in the spring and arrived safely. But it was not nearly strong enough to attempt a sea-fight off Louisbourg, and three smaller fleets that were meant to join it were all smashed up off the coast of France by the British, who thus knew, before beginning the siege, that Louisbourg could hardly expect any help from outside. Hawke was one of the British smashers this year. The next year he smashed up a much greater force in Quiberon Bay, and so made ‘the eye of a Hawke and the heart of a Wolfe' work together again, though they were thousands of miles apart and one directed a fleet while the other inspired an army.
The fortress of Louisbourg was built beside a fine harbour with an entrance still further defended by a fortified island. It was garrisoned by about four thousand four hundred soldiers. Some of these were hired Germans, who cared nothing for the French ; and the French-Canadian and Indian irregulars were not of much use at a regular siege. The British admiral Boscawen had a large fleet, and General Amherst an army twelve thousand strong. Taking everything into account, by land and sea, the British united service at the siege was quite three times as strong as the French united service. But the French ships, manned by three thousand sailors, were in a good harbour, and they and the soldiers were de-fended by thick walls with many guns. Besides, the whole defence was conducted by Drucour, as gallant a leader as ever drew sword.
Boscawen was chosen by Pitt for the same reason as Wolfe had been, because he was a fighter. He earned his nickname of ‘Old Dreadnought' from the answer he made one night in the English Channel when the officer of the watch called him to say that two big French ships were bearing down on his single British one. ‘What are we to do, sir ?' asked the officer. ‘Do ?' shouted Boscawen, springing out of his berth, ‘Do ?—Why, damn 'em, fight 'em, of course !' And they did. Amherst was the slow-and-sure kind of general ; but he had the sense to know a good man when he saw one, and to give Wolfe the chance of trying his own quick-and-sure way instead.
A portion of the British fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Hardy had been cruising off Louisbourg for some time before Boscawen's squadron hove in sight on June 2. This squadron was followed by more than twice its own number of ships carrying the army. All together, there were a hundred and fifty-seven British vessels, besides Hardy's covering squadron. Of course, the men could not be landed under the fire of the fortress. But two miles south of it, and running west-ward from it for many miles more, was Gabarus Bay with an open beach. For several days the Atlantic waves dashed against the shore so furiously that no boat could live through their breakers. But on the eighth the three brigades of infantry made for three different points, (1) respectively two, three, and four miles from the fortress. The French sent out half the garrison to shoot down the first boatloads that came in on the rollers. To cover the landing, some of Boscawen's ships moved in as close as they could and threw shells inshore : but without dislodging the enemy.
Each of the three brigades had its own flag —one red, another blue, and the third white. Wolfe's brigade was the red, the one farthest west from Louisbourg, and Wolfe's did the fighting. While the boats rose and fell on the gigantic rollers and the enemy's cannon roared and the waves broke in thunder on the beach, Wolfe was standing up in the stern-sheets, scanning every inch of the ground to see if there was no place where a few men could get a footing and keep it till the rest had landed. He had first-rate soldiers with him : grenadiers, Highlanders, and light infantry.
The boats were now close in, and the French were firing cannon and muskets into them right and left. One cannon-ball whizzed across Wolfe's own boat and smashed his flagstaff to splinters. Just then three young light infantry officers saw a high ledge of rocks, under shelter of which a few men could form up. Wolfe, directing every movement with his cane, like Gordon in China a century later, shouted to the others to follow them ; and then, amid the crash of artillery and the wild welter of the surf, though many boats were smashed and others upset, though some men . were shot and others drowned, the landing was securely made. ‘Who were the first ashore ?' asked Wolfe, as the men were forming up under the ledge. Two Highlanders were pointed out. ‘Good fellows !' he said, as he went up to them and handed each a guinea.
While the ranks were forming on the beach, the French were firing into them and men were dropping fast. But every gap was closed as soon as it was made. Directly Wolfe saw he had enough men he sprang to the front ; where-upon they all charged after him, straight at the batteries on the crest of the rising shore. Here there was some wild work for a minute or two, with swords, bayonets, and muskets all hard at it. But the French now saw, to their dismay, that thousands of other redcoats were clambering ashore, nearer in to Louisbourg, and that these men would cut them off if they waited a moment longer. So they turned and ran, hotly pursued, till they were safe in under the guns of the fortress. A deluge of shot and shell immediately belched forth against the pursuing British, who wisely halted just out of range.
After this exciting commencement Amherst's guns, shot, shell, powder, stores, food, tents, and a thousand other things had all to be landed on the surf-lashed, open beach. It was the sailors' stupendous task to haul the whole of this cumbrous material up to the camp. The bluejackets, however, were not the only ones to take part in the work, for the ships' women also turned to, with the best of a gallant goodwill. In a few days all the material was landed; and Amherst, having formed his camp, sat down to conduct the siege.
Louisbourg harbour faces east, runs in west-ward nearly a mile, and is over two miles from north to south. The north and south points, however, on either side of its entrance, are only a mile apart. On the south point stood the fortress ; on the north the lighthouse ; and between were several islands, rocks, and bars that narrowed the entrance for ships to only three cables, or a little more than six hundred yards. Wolfe saw that the north point, where the lighthouse stood, was undefended, and might be seized and used as a British battery to smash up the French batteries on Goat Island at the harbour mouth. Acting on this idea, he marched with twelve hundred men across the stretch of country between the British camp and the lighthouse. The fleet brought round his guns and stores and all other necessaries by sea. A tremendous bombardment then silenced every French gun on Goat Island. This left the French nothing for their defence but the walls of Louisbourg itself.
Both French and British soon realized that the fall of Louisbourg was only a question of time. But time was everything to both. The British were anxious to take Louisbourg and then sail up to Quebec and take it by a sudden attack while Montcalm was engaged in fighting Abercromby's army on Lake Champlain. The French, of course, were anxious to hold out long enough to prevent this ; and Drucour, their commandant at Louisbourg, was just the man for their purpose. His wife, too, was as brave as he. She used to go round the batteries cheering up the gunners, and paying no more attention to the British shot and shell than if they had been only fireworks. On June 18, just before Wolfe's lighthouse batteries were ready to open fire, Madame Drucour set sail in the venturesome Echo, a little French man-of-war that was making a dash for it, in the hope of carrying the news to Quebec. But after a gallant fight the Echo had to haul down her colours to the Juno and the Sutherland. We shall hear more of the Sutherland at the supreme moment of Wolfe's career.
Nothing French, not even a single man, could now get into or out of Louisbourg. But Drucour still kept the flag up, and sent out parties at night to harass his assailants. One of these surprised a British post, killed Lord Dundonald who commanded it, and retired safely after being almost cut off by British reinforcements. Though Wolfe had silenced the island batteries and left the entrance open enough for Boscawen to sail in, the admiral hesitated because he thought he might lose too many ships by risking it. Then the French promptly sank some of their own ships at the entrance to keep him out. But six hundred British sailors rowed in at night and boarded and took the only two ships remaining afloat. The others had been blown up a month before by British shells fired by naval gunners from Amherst's batteries. Drucour was now in a terrible plight. Not a ship was left. He was completely cut off by land and sea. Many of his garrison were dead, many more were lying sick or wounded. His foreigners were ready for desertion. His French Canadians had grown down-hearted. All the non-combatants wished him to surrender at once. What else could he do but give in ? On July 27 he hauled down the fleurs-de-lis from the great fortress. But he had gained his secondary object ; for it was now much too late in the year for the same British force to begin a new campaign against Quebec.
Wolfe, like Nelson and Napoleon, was never content to ‘let well enough alone,' if anything better could possibly be done. When the news came of Montcalm's great victory over Abercromby at Ticonderoga, he told Amherst he was ready to march inland at once with reinforcements. And after Louisbourg had surrendered and Boscawen had said it was too late to start for Quebec, he again volunteered to do any further service that Amherst required. The service he was sent on was the soldier's most disgusting duty ; but he did it thoroughly, though he would have preferred anything else. He went with Hardy's squadron to destroy the French settlements along the Gulf of St Lawrence, so as to cut off their supplies from the French in Quebec before the next campaign.
After Rochefort Wolfe had become a marked man. After Louisbourg he became an Imperial hero. The only other the Army had yet produced in this war was Lord Howe, who had been killed in a skirmish just before Ticonderoga. Wolfe knew Howe well, admired him exceedingly, and called him ‘the noblest Englishman that has appeared in my time, and the best soldier in the army.' He would have served under him gladly. But Howe—young, ardent, gallant, yet profound—was dead ; and the hopes of discerning judges were centred on Wolfe. The war had not been going well, and this victory at Louisbourg was the first that the British people could really rejoice over with all their heart.
The British colonies went wild with delight. Halifax had a state ball, at which Wolfe danced to his heart's content ; while his unofficial partners thought themselves the luckiest girls in all America to be asked by the hero of Louisbourg. Boston and Philadelphia had large bonfires and many fireworks. The chief people of New York attended a gala dinner. Every church had special thanksgivings.
In England the excitement was just as great, and Wolfe's name and fame flew from lip to lip all over the country. Parliament passed special votes of thanks. Medals were struck to celebrate the event. The king stood on his palace steps to receive the captured colours, which were carried through London in triumph by the Guards and the Household Brigade. And Pitt, the greatest—and, in a certain sense, the only—British statesman who has ever managed people, parliament, government, navy, and army, all together, in a world-wide Imperial war—Pitt, the eagle-eyed and lion-hearted, at once marked Wolfe down again for higher promotion and, this time, for the command of an army of his own. And ever since the Empire Year of 1759 the world has known that Pitt was right.
1. White Point, Flat Point, and Kennington Cove. See the accompanying Map of the siege.
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Source: William WOOD, "Louisbourg, 1758", in The Winning of Canada. A Chronicle of Wolfe, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915, 152p., pp. 52-66.