Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

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


James Wolfe



Wolfe, James (1729-1759). Born at Westerham, Kent, England. His father came originally from Limerick . His father had risen to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the armies of Marlborough and Prince Eugene. Throughout his short life he was seriously handicapped by a very delicate constitution. At the age of sixteen he took part in his first campaign in Flanders. Took part in the battle of Dettingen, where he distinguished himself by his bravery and coolness, was made lieutenant and adjutant, arid shortly afterwards promoted to captain. Fought in the battle of Culloden, and at the age of twenty-three was a lieutenant-colonel. Spent five years at Inverness in the Highlands with the garrison where, in spite of ill-health, he won popularity by his tact and good spirits. Spent the winter of 1753 in Paris. Recalled to England on the opening of the Seven Years' War, and sent to Rochefort, where he won golden opinions from his military chiefs. Sent by Pitt with the expedition against Louisbourg, he received the appointment with mixed feelings. His military genius and ambition drew him forward, while his wretched health, dread of the sea, and longing for that home life which he had never known, pulled him the other way. "Impetuous and irascible," says Casgrain, "his weak constitution often allowed him to be carried away by outbursts of passion. His temperament was Celtic rather than Saxon. He was liberal in his ideas, more devoted to his country than to his ambition, and a model of filial piety. Friendships, which he readily formed, he knew how to retain. He was ever a slave to duty, a stern disciplinarian, and a soldier before all else, and consequently beloved both by officers and by rank and file." Of the capture of Louisbourg in 1758, in which he took a notable part, Wolfe had no very high opinion. "Our force," he wrote, "was so superior to the enemy's that we might hope for greater success. Amongst ourselves be it said that our attempt to land where we did was rash and injudicious, our success unexpected (by me) and undeserved. There was no prodigious exertion of courage in the affair. Our proceedings in other respects were as slow and tedious as this undertaking was ill-advised and desperate." He returned to England for a short rest, was promoted to brigadier-general, and entrusted by Pitt with the command of the expedition against Quebec, with the rank of major-general. His three brigadiers were Monckton, Townshend and Murray. Saunders commanded the fleet, with Holmes and Durell. Thanks to Durell's chart, the great fleet - one hundred and forty-one ships - made its way safely up the river to Quebec. Wolfe's army was only nine thousand, much less than the strength of the fleet. Montcalm had seventeen thousand, but most of them were militia, badly armed and half-starved. Nevertheless, his was the easier task. He had only to sit tight and hold Quebec until the approach of winter would force the fleet to withdraw. Wolfe had to find some way into the fortress, seemingly impossible, not by reason of its artificial defences but because of its natural position. Having taken possession of the Island of Orleans, he established siege batteries at Lévis, and landed a strong force at the mouth of the Montmorency. On July 8th he reconnoitred the north shore above Quebec, some of his ships having succeeded in forcing their way up past the French batteries. The last day of that month he suffered a severe defeat at Montmorency. Convinced that nothing could be done below the town, he began to study the possibilities above, and slowly and with complete secrecy worked out the details of what, finally, became the plan of attack. Even his brigadiers were kept in ignorance of the fact that the army was to reach the Plains of Abraham by way of the Anse du Foulon, about two miles above Quebec. August 29th he had put three alternatives before the brigadiers, none of them involving an attack above the town. In their reply they recommended an attack above Quebec, but contemplated a point about twelve miles up-stream. Wolfe was no doubt influenced by their advice, but the daring selection of Anse du Foulon, together with the brilliant plan of attack, and the minute working out of the details, were entirely his own. If the success of his plan was partly good-luck, it was at least equally due to his very complete knowledge of the situation and his fine strategy. As he wrote the brigadiers on September 12th: "To the best of my knowledge and abilities I have fixed upon that spot where we can act with the most force, and are most likely to succeed. If I am mistaken I am sorry for it, and must be answerable to his majesty and the public for the consequences." Wolfe realized that the burden of decision rested, in the last analysis, on his own shoulders. He gambled greatly, but not blindly, and won. He died, as he would have wished to die, in the hour of victory, on the Plains of Abraham . Bib.: Doughty, Siege of Quebec; Wood, Fight for Canada; Willson, Life and Letters of James Wolfe; Wright, Life of Wolfe; Salmon, Life of Wolfe; Bradley, Life of Wolfe; Bradley, Fight with France; Casgrain, Wolfe, Montcalm; Waddington, La Guerre de Sept Ans; Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe; Wood, Winning of Canada.


Source : Lawrence J. BURPEE, The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Canadian History, London and Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1926, 699p., pp. 690-691.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College