Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Fight For Oversea Empire

The Seven Years War

1759: the Decisive Year


[This text was written by William WOOD and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]




GLORIOUS as the year 1759 proved to be for the British cause, it began badly abroad, witnessed a wild panic at home, was of doubtful issue in Canada until the autumn, and closed without re-establishing British military prestige on European battlefields. The French made a great effort, took Frankfort in January, and defeated Ferdinand of Brunswick at Bergen in April. Frederick attacked double his numbers of Austrians and Russians at Kunersdorf in August, when he suffered a terrible and exhausting defeat, which more than offset Ferdinand's incomplete victory over the French at Minden, where the British infantry did so magnificently well and the British

cavalry so disgracefully ill.


But what the British public felt most was the fear of the great invasion which the French, stung to the quick by British naval supremacy all over the world, were determined to attempt against the heart of the Empire. Choiseul was active and able, and his plans well laid. The malcontents in Ireland and the military weakness in Scotland were to make the invasions of these two countries feasible with comparatively small forces. Fifty thousand of the best French troops were to strike at England direct. Transports were collected at Dunkirk, Havre, Brest and Rochefort. The Brest and Toulon squadrons were to unite at the Morbihan and convoy the army for Ireland . Five frigates were to convoy the smaller army for Scotland . The main body, convoyed by every ship available, was to make a dash for the south of England in flat-bottomed boats from Havre. Naturally enough, the public soon caught the invasion scare. But Pitt, Anson, Ligonier, the king, and the few other real leaders of the time, all knew better. Three years before, a ministry of mediocrities were for hiring Hanoverians to defend England on shore against a French invasion. But now Pitt carried his colleagues with him in planning and executing a scheme for defending both England and the Empire by a well co-ordinated system of fighting blockade and oversea attack. He was of the same opinion that Pericles had expressed at Athens two thousand years before : 'If the enemy are kept off the sea by our superior force, their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill will make them timid.' Of course there was a concurrent plan of pure defence ; but it was subsidiary ; and the home-defence forces were always held in readiness to strengthen the attacking line abroad. The main objective was the French army of invasion. But, instead of waiting to fight it on land at home, Pitt used the navy to destroy its means of ever crossing the sea. Havre, Brest and Toulon were watched by Rodney, Hawke and Boscawen. Flying squadrons cruised off Dunkirk and the Morbihan ; and a reserve fleet was held ready in the Downs. The wisdom of this course was apparent only to the few at first ; the mass of any scared public is always mob-minded enough to prefer forts and soldiers which it can see to ships and sailors which it can not. But, fortunately for the British Empire at this great crisis in its history, the public did have sufficient confidence in Pitt to let him act like the supreme war-statesman that he was.




Nothing shows Pitt's consummate genius better than the fact that he sent a quarter of the whole navy against Quebec, although a great French army was then preparing to strike at London. He thoroughly grasped the basic principle that as all the seas in the world are one, so the sea-power that commands them must also be one ; and, grasping this, he applied it - east and west and center - with perfect consistency, to the whole world-wide theatre of war. He stood like a battlefield commander whose right was in America, whose left was in Asia, whose front was in France, and whose base was England. With this whole field continually before him, he told off the right flank of his united service to effect the conquest of Canada .


But Pitt was more than even a world-strategist. He was the heart as well as the head of the war. The British Colonies in America responded at once to the sympathetic insight with which he handled them. It was an unwonted touch which came from London, and it put them on their mettle. He gave their officers relative rank up to colonel ; and they became companions in arms with the British regulars. He promised them munitions of war and suitable reimbursements ; and New England, New York and New Jersey raised their twenty thousand men, while Pennsylvania and the South recruited others to attack the West. Massachusetts and Connecticut raised their real estate war tax to the enormous height of thirty-six per cent, though they also had a personal tax of nineteen shillings on every male over sixteen. Of course there were other motives : hatred and revenge in many instances ; and a very strong feeling among the puritans that they were doing battle against the powers of darkness and papistry together. Their preachers never failed to beat the 'drum ecclesiastick' at every opportunity, with quite as much vigour as ever it was beaten by the catholic priests across the border. Then, it was felt that the campaign of 1759 was something like a long-deferred fulfilment of the 'Glorious Enterprise' of conquering New France, which Peter Schuyler of Albany had formulated as early as seventy years before. But all these were only tributary streams to the great current of popular enthusiasm which had been roused by the feeling that the hour and the man had at last come together at headquarters.




The local objectives were three, as usual. The French right was to be finally cut off from the West by the capture of its last remaining link at Niagara. The centre was once more to be driven in along the line of Lake Champlain. But, as the French left had already been uncovered by the fall of Louisbourg, the attack against it was to be pressed home to Quebec, which, being the greatest stronghold and point of connection with France, was really more central and far more important than Montreal, Three Rivers, or any other position that could be reached by the line of Lake Champlain. The plan also provided for concerted action and eventual junction between the British right and centre, according to the developments of the campaign. If the centre got through, it was to combine with the right. If the right took Quebec early enough, or the enemy retired, it was to combine with the centre. The object in either case was to crush Montcalm between them.


The French plan was simply to maintain an effective foothold, if possible, at Quebec. Should Quebec itself fall the army might retire to safety till the next year, when the war might take a favourable turn elsewhere, or peace might supervene. In this case the actual possession of a strategic point, preferably Quebec, would be of the last importance. France certainly had no intention of abandoning Canada ; but how could she reinforce her colony in face of the ubiquitous British fleet ? Besides, if the invasion of England should succeed, the fate of Canada could be settled in Europe. So Montcalm concentrated at Quebec, with his outposts at Niagara and Ticonderoga, and prepared to do his best with the very imperfect means at his disposal.


The total French effectives did not exceed 20,000. The best troops, the French regulars, were under 4.000 ; the Canadian regulars were 1,500 ; the militia was about 13,000 ; there were a few hundred coureurs de bois along the Lakes and in Acadia, say 500 ; and about 1,000 Indians remained faithful. Some deduction should be made for the average of sick and for other ineffectives. But this would be offset by the seamen of the few men-of-war and transports. Against this mixed force of 20,000 the British could bring about 40,000. There were 5,000 men told off against Niagara, 11,000 against Crown Point, and 9,000 - with a fleet manned by about 14,000 - against Quebec. Some small parties and Johnson's Indians made-up the total. Brigadier Stanwix, who was to safeguard Pittsburg from Indian raids, may be left out on the British side, and his opponents on the French.




Late in June Brigadier Prideaux and Major-General Johnson arrived at the ruins of Oswego. Leaving Haldimand here to secure their communications, they crossed Lake Ontario, vainly summoned Pouchot to surrender, and opened their first parallel at 600 yards. Ten days later, after vexatious muddling on the part of the incompetent engineers, the attack was being pressed, when the premature explosion of a shell killed Prideaux on the spot. Johnson succeeded him, and, five days later, on July 24, had to repel a determined effort by troops from Presqu'Isle to raise the siege. The French reinforcements attacked the British with the utmost bravery, and lost every officer except three. But they and their Indians finally broke and made for their canoes. They subsequently destroyed the forts at Presqu'Isle, Le Boeuf and Venango, and retired to Detroit. After this, Pouchot had no choice left, and surrendered on July 25, with his little garrison of less than 500 men, who were sent to New York as prisoners of war. There was then no combatant body of Frenchmen left in the whole Ohio region. Their last link with the West was broken.


Two days before Pouchot surrendered Niagara more than 2,000 men under Bourlamaque slipped out of Ticonderoga, before which Amherst was appearing at the head of 11,000, nearly half of whom were provincial militia. The French left behind 400 men, who defended themselves vigorously against the overwhelming British force. On the night of July 26 three deserters arrived with the news that the garrison was stealing away, and had left a slow match burning towards the magazine. Amherst vainly offered a hundred guineas to any one of them who would point it out. At midnight a gigantic geyser of flame shot skyward with an explosion which lifted one entire bastion into the air. The white and gold of the fleur-de-lis stood out against the lurid background, still waving defiantly. A British sergeant ran through the flames, braving the powder and shells which were blowing up on every side, and hauled it down. This was the last fleur-de-lis to fly over the lake which Champlain had discovered exactly a century and a half before, and which the long fight for its possession has made so famous in Canadian history.


On August 1 Amherst learnt that Bourlamaque had also blown up Crown Point. Except for two obstacles the way was now open for an attack on Isle-aux-Noix, at the north of Lake Champlain, where Bourlamaque had been ordered to defend himself to the last extremity. The first was the little French flotilla of four vessels, carrying thirty-four guns, which Vaudreuil, foreseeing this eventuality, had wisely built some time before. The second was Amherst himself, who, though a good soldier, was over-cautious and meticulously slow. He looked on the most open campaign as a sort of siege, and he approached a distant enemy in the field as if by sap and parallel. However, he is not to blame for building a little navy of his own, because the country was impassable by any force in face of an enemy that had command of the lake. But some one - perhaps he or the colonial authorities, or even Pitt - is certainly to blame for not having foreseen this difficulty and provided against it. The work went slowly, owing to a lamentable lack of plant; and it was late in the autumn before a naval supremacy was obtained. A cutting-out expedition might have been tried, long before, failing other means. But Amherst was not the man to cut out the smallest fleet with mere boats. He crept along with his 11,000 men, held Bourlamaque at Isle-aux-Noix, caused Montcalm to detach Lévis with a few good troops from Quebec, and made his own path smoother for the next year. But he might not have required it then had he been more dashing this year and more farsighted the year before.


There was only one brilliant bit of work done; and that was done by provincial rangers out of sight of Amherst. Major Robert Rogers, the famous fighting scout, was sent from Crown Point to punish the Abnakis on the St Francis River near its junction with the St Lawrence. The day Wolfe and Montcalm met on the Plains of Abraham, Rogers sailed for Missisquoi Bay with 200 men. There he hid his boats and started through the bush. The second day out an Indian overtook him to say a stronger force of French was on his trail. A lesser man would have lost his objective and perhaps his own command too ; but Rogers immediately quickened his pace, outmarched his pursuers, destroyed the Indian settlement, killing more than his own men numbered altogether, and returned by another way, after incredible privations. His triumph would have been complete had the relief party, which he asked Amherst by courier to send to meet him by this unexpected way, only kept its rendezvous. But this was not his fault. He succeeded alone. And his raid stands out as the one vivid feature of the dull Amherstian campaign.


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Source: William WOOD, "The Fight for Oversea Empire: The Decisive Year", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 269-275.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College