L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The Winning of Canada
A Chronicle of Wolfe
The Plains of Abraham
September 13, 1759
[This text was written by William WOOD. For the precise bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]
ON August 19 an aide-de-camp came out of the farmhouse at Montmorency which served as the headquarters of the British army to say that Wolfe was too ill to rise from his bed. The bad news spread like wildfire through the camp and fleet, and soon became known among the French. A week passed ; but Wolfe was no better. Tossing about on his bed in a fever, he thought bitterly of his double defeat, of the critical month of September, of the grim strength of Quebec, formed by nature for a stronghold, and then—worse still —of his own weak body, which made him most helpless just when he should have been most fit for his duty.
Feeling that he could no longer lead in person, he dictated a letter to the brigadiers, sent them the secret instructions he had received from Pitt and the king, and asked them to think over his three new plans for attacking Montcalm at Beauport. They wrote back to say they thought the defeats at the upper fords of the Montmorency and at the heights facing the St Lawrence showed that the French could not be beaten by attacking the Beauport lines again, no matter from what side the attack was made. They then gave him a plan of their own, which was, to convey the army up the St Lawrence and fight their way ashore somewhere between Cap Rouge, nine miles above Quebec, and Pointe-aux-Trembles, twenty-two miles above. They argued that, by making a landing there, the British could cut off Montcalm's communications with Three Rivers and Montreal, from which his army drew its supplies. Wolfe's letter was dictated from his bed of sickness on the 26th. The brigadiers answered him on the 29th. Saunders talked it all over with him on the 31st. Before this the fate of Canada had been an affair of weeks. Now it was a matter of days ; for the morrow would dawn on the very last possible month of the siege—September.
After his talk with Saunders Wolfe wrote his last letter home to his mother, telling her of his desperate plight :
On September 2 he wrote his last letter to Pitt. He had asked the doctors to ` patch him up,' saying that if they could make him fit for duty for only the next few days they need not trouble about what might happen to him afterwards. Their ` patching up ' certainly cleared his fevered brain, for this letter was a masterly account of the whole siege and the plans just laid to bring it to an end. The style was so good, indeed, that Charles Townshend over towards Beauport, just as Monckton's men had done on the disastrous last day of July. At the same time the main division of the fleet, under Saunders, made as if to support these boats, while the Levis batteries thundered against Quebec. Carleton gave the signal from the beach at Montmorency when the tide was high ; and the whole five thousand infantry marched down the hill, got into their boats, and rowed over to where the other boats were waiting. The French now prepared to defend themselves at once. But as the two divisions of boats came together, they both rowed off through the gaps between the men-of-war. Wolfe's army had broken camp and got safely away, right under the noses of the French, without the loss of a single man.
A whole week, from September 3 to 10, was then taken up with trying to see how the brigadiers' plan could be carried out.
This plan was good, as far as it went. An army is even harder to supply than a town would be if the town was taken up bodily and moved about the country. An army makes no supplies itself, but uses up a great deal. It must have food, clothing, arms, ammunition, stores of all kinds, and everything else it needs to keep it fit for action. So it must always keep what are called ‘communications' with the places from which it gets these supplies. Now, Wolfe's and Montcalm's armies were both supplied along the St Lawrence, Wolfe's from below Quebec and Montcalm's from above. But Wolfe had no trouble about the safety of his own ‘communications,' since they were managed and protected by the fleet. Even before he first saw Quebec, a convoy of supply ships had sailed from the Maritime Provinces for his army under the charge of a man-of-war. And so it went on all through the siege. Including forty-nine men-of-war, no less than 277 British vessels sailed up to Quebec during this campaign ; and not one of them was lost on the way, though the St Lawrence had then no lighthouses, buoys, or other aids to navigation, as it has now, and though the British officers themselves were compelled to take the ships through the worst places in these foreign and little-known waters. The result was that there were abundant supplies for the British army the whole time, thanks to the fleet.
But Montcalm was in a very different plight. Since the previous autumn, when Wolfe and Hardy had laid waste the coast of Gaspé, the supply of sea-fish had almost failed. Now the whole country below Quebec had been cut off by the fleet, while most of the country round Quebec was being laid waste by the army. Wolfe's orders were that no man, woman, or child was to be touched, nor any house or other buildings burnt, if his own men were not attacked. But if the men of the country fired at his soldiers they were to be shot down, and everything they had was to be destroyed. Of course, women and children were strictly protected, under all circumstances, and no just complaint was ever made against the British for hurting a single one. But as the men persisted in firing, the British fired back and destroyed the farms where the firing took place, on the fair-play principle that it is right to destroy whatever is used to destroy you.
It thus happened that, except at a few little villages where the men had not fired on the soldiers, the country all round Quebec was like a desert, as far as supplies for the French were concerned. The only way to obtain anything for their camp was by bringing it down the St Lawrence from Montreal, Sorel, and Three Rivers. French vessels would come down as far as they dared and then send the supplies on in barges, which kept close in under the north shore above Quebec, where the French out-posts and batteries protected them from the British men-of-war that were pushing higher and higher up the river. Some supplies were brought in by land after they were put ashore above the highest British vessels. But as a hundred tons came far more easily by water than one ton by land, it is not hard to see that Mont-calm's men could not hold out long if the St Lawrence near Quebec was closed to supplies.
Wolfe, Montcalm, the brigadiers, and every one else on both sides knew this perfectly well. But, as it was now September, the fleet could not go far up the much more difficult channel towards Montreal. If it did, and took Wolfe's army with it, the few French men-of-war might dispute the passage, and some sunken ships might block the way, at all events for a time. Besides, the French were preparing to repulse any landing up the river, between Cap Rouge, nine miles above Quebec, and Deschambault, forty miles above ; and with good prospect of success, because the country favoured their irregulars. Moreover, if Wolfe should land many miles up, Montcalm might still hold out far down in Quebec for the few days remaining till October. If, on the other hand, the fleet went up and left Wolfe's men behind, Montcalm would be safer than ever at Beauport and Quebec ; because, how could Wolfe reach him without a fleet when he had failed to reach him with one ?
The life-and-death question for Wolfe was how to land close enough above Quebec and soon enough in September to make Montcalm fight it out on even terms and in the open field.
The brigadiers' plan of landing high up seemed all right till they tried to work it out. Then they found troubles in plenty. There were several places for them to land between Cap Rouge, nine miles above Quebec, and Pointe-aux-Trembles, thirteen miles higher still. Ever since July i8 British vessels had been passing to and fro above Quebec ; and in August, Murray, under the guard of Holmes's squadron, had tried his brigade against Pointe-aux-Trembles, where he was beaten back, and at Deschambault, twenty miles farther up, where he took some prisoners and burnt some supplies. To ward off further and perhaps more serious attacks from this quarter, Mont-calm had been keeping Bougainville on the lookout, especially round Pointe-aux-Trembles, for several weeks before the brigadiers arranged their plan. Bougainville now had 2000 infantry, all the mounted men—nearly 300—and all the best Indian and Canadian scouts, along the thirteen miles of shore between Cap Rouge and Pointe-aux-Trembles. His land and water batteries had also been made much stronger. He and Montcalm were in close touch and could send messages to each other and get an answer back within four hours.
On the 7th Wolfe and the brigadiers had a good look at every spot round Pointe-aux-Trembles. On the 8th and 9th the brigadiers were still there ; while five transports sailed past Quebec on the 8th to join Holmes, who commanded the up-river squadron. Two of Wolfe's brigades were now on board the transports with Holmes. But the whole three were needed ; and this need at once entailed another difficulty. A successful landing on the north shore above Quebec could only be made under cover of the dark ; and Wolfe could not bring the third brigade, under cover of night, from the island of Orleans and the Point of Levy, and land it with the other two twenty miles up the river before daylight. The tidal stream runs up barely five hours, while it runs down more than seven ; and winds are mostly down. Next, if, instead of sailing, the third brigade marched twenty miles at night across very rough country on the south shore, it would arrive later than ever. Then, only one brigade could be put ashore in boats at one time in one place, and Bougainville could collect enough men to hold it in check while he called in reinforcements at least as fast on the French side as the British could on theirs. Another thing was that the wooded country favoured the French defence and hindered the British attack. Lastly, if Wolfe and Saunders collected the whole five thousand soldiers and a still larger squadron and convoy up the river, Montcalm would see the men and ships being moved from their positions in front of his Beauport entrenchments, and would hurry to the threatened shore between Cap Rouge and Pointe-aux-Trembles almost as soon as the British, and certainly in time to reinforce Bougainville and repulse Wolfe.
The 9th was Wolfe's last Sunday. It was a cheerless, rainy day ; and he almost confessed himself beaten for good, as he sat writing his last official letter to one of Pitt's friends, the Earl of Holderness. He dated it, 'On board the Sutherland at anchor off Cap Rouge, September 9, 1759.’ He ended it with gloomy news : ‘I am so far recovered as to be able to do business, but my constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the state, or with-out any prospect of it.'
The very next day, however, he saw his chance. He stood at Etchemin, on the south shore, two miles above Quebec, and looked long and earnestly through his telescope at the Foulon road, a mile and a half away, running up to the Plains of Abraham from the Anse au Foulon, which has ever since been called Wolfe's Cove. Then he looked at the Plains themselves, especially at a spot only one mile from Quebec, where the flat and open ground formed a perfect field of battle for his well-drilled regulars. He knew the Foulon road must be fairly good, because it was the French line of communication between the Anse au Foulon and the Beauport camp. The Cove and the nearest point of the camp were only two miles and a quarter apart, as the crow flies. But between them rose the tableland of the Plains, 300 feet above the river. Thus they were screened from each other, and a surprise at the Cove might not be found out too soon at the camp.
Now, Wolfe knew that the French expected to be attacked either above Cap Rouge (up towards Pointe-aux-Trembles) or below Quebec (down in their Beauport entrenchments). He also knew that his own army thought the attack would be made above Cap Rouge. Thus the French were still very anxious about the six miles at Beauport, while both sides were keenly watching each other all over the thirteen miles above Cap Rouge. Nobody seemed to be thinking about the nine miles between Cap Rouge and Quebec, and least of all about the part nearest Quebec.
Yes, one man was thinking about it, and he never stopped thinking about it till he died. That man was Montcalm. On the 5th, when Wolfe began moving up-stream, Montcalm had sent a whole battalion to the Plains. But on the 7th, when the British generals were all at Pointe-aux-Trembles, Vaudreuil, always ready to spite Montcalm, ordered this battalion back to camp, saying, ‘The British haven't got wings ; they can't fly up to the Plains !' Wolfe, of course, saw that the battalion had been taken away ; and he soon found out why. Vaudreuil was a great talker and could never keep a secret. Wolfe knew perfectly well that Vaudreuil and Bigot were constantly spoiling whatever Montcalm was doing, so he counted on this trouble in the French camp as he did on other facts and chances.
He now gave up all idea of his old plans against Beauport, as well as the new plan of the brigadiers, and decided on another plan of his own. It was new in one way, because he had never seen a chance of carrying it out before. But it was old in another way, because he had written to his uncle from Louisbourg on May 19, and spoken of getting up the heights four or five miles above Quebec if he could do so by surprise. Again, even so early in the siege as July i8 he had been chafing at what he called the ‘coldness' of the fleet about pushing up beyond Quebec. The entry in his private diary for that day is : ‘The Sutherland and Squirrell, two transports, and two armed sloops passed the narrow passage between Quebec and Levy without losing a man.' Next day, his entry is more scathing still : 'Reconnoitred the country immediately above Quebec and found that if we had ventured the stroke that was first intended we should infallibly have succeeded.’ This shows how long he had kept the plan waiting for the chance. But it does not prove that he had missed any earlier chances through the ‘coldness' of the fleet. For it is significant that he afterwards struck out 'infallibly' and substituted 'probably' ; while it must be remembered that the Sutherland and her consorts formed only a very small flotilla, that they passed Quebec in the middle of a very dark night, that the St Lawrence above the town was intricate and little known, that the loss of several men-of-war might have been fatal, that the enemy's attention had not become distracted in July to anything like the same bewildering extent as it had in September, and that the intervening course of events—however disappointing in itself—certainly helped. to make his plan suit the occasion far better late than soon. Moreover, in a note to Saunders in August, he had spoken about a 'desperate' plan which he could not trust his brigadiers to carry out, and which he was then too sick to carry out himself.
Now that he was ‘patched up ' enough for a few days, and that the chance seemed to be within his grasp, he made up his mind to strike at once. He knew that the little French post above the Anse au Foulon was commanded by one of Bigot's blackguards, Vergor, whose Canadian militiamen were as slack as their commander. He knew that the Samos battery, a little farther from Quebec, had too small a garrison, with only five guns and no means of firing them on the landward side ; so that any of his men, once up the heights, could rush it from the rear. He knew the French had only a few weak posts the whole way down from Cap Rouge, and that these posts often let convoys of provision boats pass quietly at night into the Anse au Foulon. He knew that some of Montcalm's best regulars had gone to Montreal with Levis, the excellent French second-in-command, to strengthen the defence against Amherst's slow advance from Lake Champlain. He knew that Montcalm still had a total of 10,000 men between Montmorency and Quebec, as against his own attacking force of 5000 ; yet he also knew that the odds of two to one were reversed in his favour so far as European regulars were concerned ; for Montcalm could not now bring 3000 French regulars into immediate action at any one spot. Finally, he knew that all the French were only half-fed, and that those with Bougainville were getting worn out by having to march across country, in a fruitless effort to keep pace with the ships of Holmes's squadron and convoy, which floated up and down with the tide.
Wolfe's plan was to keep the French alarmed more than ever at the two extreme ends of their line—Beauport below Quebec and Pointe-aux-Trembles above—and then to strike home at their undefended centre, by a surprise landing at the Anse au Foulon. Once landed, well before daylight, he could rush Vergor's post and the Samos battery, march across the Plains, and form his line of battle a mile from Quebec before Montcalm could come up in force from Beauport. Probably he could also defeat him before Bougainville could march down from some point well above Cap Rouge.
There were chances to reckon with in this plan. But so there are in all plans ; and to say Wolfe took Quebec by mere luck is utter nonsense. He was one of the deepest thinkers on war who ever lived, especially on the British kind of war, by land and sea together ; and he had had the preparation of a lifetime to help him in using a fleet and army that worked together like the two arms of one body. He simply made a plan which took proper account of all the facts and all the chances. Fools make lucky hits, now and then, by the merest chance. But no one except a genius can make and carry out a plan like Wolfe's, which meant at least a hundred hits running, all in the selfsame spot.
No sooner had Wolfe made his admirable plan that Monday morning, September to, than he set all the principal officers to work out the different parts of it. But he kept the whole a secret. Nobody except himself knew more than one part, and how that one part was to be worked in at the proper time and place. Even the fact that the Anse au Foulon was to be the landing-place was kept secret till the last moment from everybody except Admiral Holmes, who made all the arrangements, and Captain Chads, the naval officer who was to lead the first boats down. The great plot thickened fast. The siege that had been an affair of weeks, and the brigadiers' plan that had been an affair of days, both gave way to a plan in which every hour was made to tell. Wolfe's seventy hours of consummate manoeuvres, by land and water, over a front of thirty miles, were followed by a battle in which the fighting of only a few minutes settled the fate of Canada for centuries.
During the whole of those momentous three days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, September 10, 11, and 12, 1759—Wolfe, Saunders, and Holmes kept the French in constant alarm about the thirteen miles above Cap Rouge and the six miles below Quebec ; but gave no sign by which any immediate danger could be suspected along the nine miles between Cap Rouge and Quebec.
Saunders stayed below Quebec. On the 12th he never gave the French a minute's rest all day and night. He sent Cook and others close in towards Beauport to lay buoys, as if to mark out a landing-place for another attack like the one on July 31. It is a singular co-incidence that while Cook, the great British circumnavigator of the globe, was trying to get Wolfe into Quebec, Bougainville, the great French circumnavigator, was trying to keep him out. Towards evening Saunders formed up his boats and filled them with marines, whose own red coats, seen at a distance, made them look like soldiers. He moved his fleet in at high tide and fired furiously at the entrenchments. All night long his boatloads of men rowed up and down and kept the French on the alert. This feint against Beauport was much helped by the men of Wolfe's third brigade, who remained at the island of Orleans and the Point of Levy till after dark, by a whole battalion of marines guarding the Levis batteries, and by these batteries themselves, which, meanwhile, were bombarding Quebec—again like the 31st of July. The bombardment was kept up all night and became most intense just before dawn, when Wolfe was landing two miles above.
At the other end of the French line, above Cap Rouge, Holmes had kept threatening Bougainville more and more towards Pointe-aux-Trembles, twenty miles above the Foulon. Wolfe's soldiers had kept landing on the south shore day after day ; then drifting up with the tide on board the transports past Pointe-aux-Trembles ; then drifting down to-wards Cap Rouge ; and then coming back the next day to do the same thing over again. This had been going on, more or less, even before Wolfe had made his plan, and it proved very useful to him. He knew that Bougainville's men were getting quite worn out by scrambling across country, day after day, to keep up with Holmes's restless squadron and transports. He also knew that men who threw themselves down, tired out, late at night could not be collected from different places, all over their thirteen-mile beat, and brought down in the morning, fit to fight on a battlefield eight miles from the nearest of them and twenty-one from the farthest.
Montcalm was greatly troubled. He saw redcoats with Saunders opposite Beauport, redcoats at the island, redcoats at the Point of Levy, and redcoats guarding the Levis batteries. He had no means of finding out at once that the redcoats with Saunders and at the batteries were marines, and that the redcoats who really did belong to Wolfe were under orders to march off after dark that very night and join the other two brigades which were coming down the river from the squadron above Cap Rouge. He had no boats that could get through the perfect screen of the British fleet. But all that the skill of mortal man could do against these odds he did on that fatal eve of battle, as he had done for three years past, with foes in front and false friends behind. He ordered the battalion which he had sent to the Plains on the 5th, and which Vaudreuil had brought back on the 7th, ‘now to go and camp at the Foulon' ; that is, at the top of the road coming up from Wolfe's landing-place at the Anse au Foulon. But Vaudreuil immediately gave a counter-order and said : 'We'll see about that tomorrow.' Vaudreuil's 'to-morrow' never came.
That afternoon of the 12th, while Mont-calm and Vaudreuil were at cross-purposes near the mouth of the St Charles, Wolfe was only four miles away, on the other side of the Plains, in a boat on the St Lawrence, where he was taking his last look at what he then called the Foulon and what the world now calls Wolfe's Cove. His boat was just turning to drift up in midstream, off Sillery Point, which is only half a mile above the Foulon. He wanted to examine the Cove well through his telescope at dead low tide, as he intended to land his army there at the next low tide. Close beside him sat young Robison, who was not an officer in either the Army or Navy, but who had come out to Canada as tutor to an admiral's son, and who had been found so good at maps that he was employed with Wolfe's engineers in making surveys and sketches of the ground about Quebec. Shutting up his telescope, Wolfe sat silent a while. Then, as afterwards recorded by Robison, he turned towards his officers and repeated several stanzas of Gray's Elegy. 'Gentlemen,' he said as he ended, 'I would sooner have written that poem than beat the French to-morrow.' He did not know then that his own fame would far surpass the poet's, and that he should win it in the very way described in one of the lines he had just been quoting –
At half-past eight in the evening he was sitting in his cabin on board Holmes's flag-ship, the Sutherland, above Cap Rouge, with ‘Jacky Jervis '—the future Earl St Vincent, but now the youngest captain in the fleet, only twenty-four. Wolfe and Jervis had both been at the same school at Greenwich, Swinden's, though at different times, and they were great friends. Wolfe had made up a sealed parcel of his notebook, his will, and the portrait of Katherine Lowther, and he now handed it over to Jervis for safe keeping.
But he had no chance of talking about old times at home, for just then a letter from the three brigadiers was handed in. It asked him if he would not give them ` distinct orders ' about ` the place or places we are to attack.' He wrote back to the senior, Monckton, telling him what he had arranged for the first and second brigades, and then, separately, to Townshend about the third, which was not with Holmes but on the south shore. After dark the men from the island and the Point of Levy had marched up to join this brigade at Etchemin, the very place where Wolfe had made his plan on the 10th, as he stood and looked at the Foulon opposite.
His last general orders to his army had been read out some hours before; but, of course, the Foulon was not mentioned. These orders show that he well understood the great issues he was fighting for, and what men he had to count upon. Here are only three sentences; but how much they mean ! ‘The enemy's force is now divided. A vigorous blow struck by the army at this juncture may determine the fate of Canada. The officers and men will remember what their country expects of them.' The watchword was ‘Coventry,' which, being probably suggested by the saying, 'Sent to Coventry,' that is, condemned to silence, was as apt a word for this expectant night as 'Gibraltar,' the symbol of strength, was for the one on which Quebec surrendered.
Just before dark Holmes sent every vessel he could spare to make a show of force opposite Pointe-aux-Trembles, in order to hold Bougainville there overnight. But after dark the main body of Holmes's squadron and all the boats and small transports came together opposite Cap Rouge. Just before ten a single lantern appeared in the Sutherland's main topmast shrouds. On seeing this, Chads formed up the boats between the ships and the south shore, the side away from the French. In three hours every man was in his place. Not a sound was to be heard except the murmur of the strong ebb-tide setting down towards Quebec and a gentle south-west breeze blowing in the same direction. 'All ready, sir !' and Wolfe took his own place in the first boat with his friend Captain Delaune, the leader of the twenty-four men of the 'Forlorn Hope,' who were to be the first to scale the cliff. Then a second lantern appeared above the first ; and the whole brigade of boats began to move off in succession. They had about eight miles to go. But the current ran the distance in two hours. As they advanced they could see the flashes from the Levis batteries growing brighter and more frequent ; for both the land gunners there and the seamen gunners with Saunders farther down were increasing their fire as the hour for Wolfe's landing drew near.
A couple of miles above the Foulon the Hunter was anchored in midstream. As arranged, Chads left the south shore and steered straight for her. To his surprise he saw her crew training their guns on him. But they held their fire. Then Wolfe came alongside and found that she had two French deserters on board who had mistaken his boats for the French provision convoy that was expected to creep down the north shore that very night and land at the Foulon. He had already planned to pass his boats off as this convoy ; for he knew that the farthest up of Holmes's men-of-war had stopped it above Pointe-aux-Trembles. But he was glad to know that the French posts below Cap Rouge had not yet heard of the stoppage.
From the Hunter his boat led the way to Sillery Point, half a mile above the Foulon. Halt ! Who comes there!' — a French sentry's voice rang out in the silence of the night. ‘France !' answered young Fraser, who had been taken into Wolfe's boat because he spoke French like a native. ‘What's your regiment ?' asked the sentry. 'The Queen's,' answered Fraser, who knew that this was the one supplying the escort for the provision boats the British had held up. ‘But why don't you speak out ?' asked the sentry again. ‘Hush !' said Fraser, 'the British will hear us if you make a noise.' And there, sure enough, was the Hunter, drifting down, as arranged, not far outside the column of boats. Then the sentry let them all pass ; and, in ten minutes more, exactly at four o'clock, the leading boat grounded in the Anse au Foulon and Wolfe jumped ashore.
He at once took the 'Forlorn Hope' and 200 light infantry to the side of the Cove towards Quebec, saying as he went, ‘I don't know if we shall all get up, but we must make the attempt.' Then, while these men were scrambling up, he went back to the middle of the Cove, where Howe had already formed the remaining 500 light infantry. Captain Macdonald, a very active climber, passed the ‘Forlorn Hope' and was the first man to reach the top and feel his way through the trees to the left, towards Vergor's tents. Presently he almost ran into the sleepy French-Canadian sentry, who heard only a voice speaking perfect French and telling him it was all right—nothing but the reinforcements from the Beauport camp ; for Wolfe knew that Montcalm had been trying to get a French regular officer to replace Vergor, who was as good a thief as Bigot and as bad a soldier as Vaudreuil. While this little parley was going on the 'Forlorn Hope' came up ; when Macdonald promptly hit the sentry between the eyes with the hilt of his claymore and knocked him flat. The light infantry pressed on close behind. The dumbfounded French colonial troops coming out of their tents found themselves face to face with a whole woodful of fixed bayonets. They fired a few shots. The British charged with a loud cheer. The Canadians scurried away through the trees. And Vergor ran for dear life in his nightshirt.
The ringing cheer with which Delaune charged home told Wolfe at the foot of the road that the actual top was clear. Then Howe went up ; and in fifteen minutes all the light infantry had joined their comrades above. Another battalion followed quickly, and Wolfe himself followed them. By this time it was five o'clock and quite light. The boats that had landed the first brigade had already rowed through the gaps between the small transports which were landing the second brigade, and had reached the south shore, a mile and a half away, where the third brigade was waiting for them.
Meanwhile the suddenly roused gunners of the Samos battery were firing wildly at the British vessels. But the men-of-war fired back with better aim, and Howe's light infantry, coming up at a run from behind, dashed in among the astonished gunners with the bayonet, cleared them all out, and spiked every gun. Howe left three companies there to hold the battery against Bougainville later in the day, and returned with the other seven to Wolfe. It was now six o'clock. The third brigade had landed, the whole of the ground at the top was clear ; and Wolfe set off with 1000 men to see what Montcalm was doing.
Quebec stands on the eastern end of a sort of promontory, or narrow tableland, between the St Lawrence and the valley of the St Charles. This tableland is less than a mile wide and narrows still more as it approaches Quebec. Its top is tilted over towards the St Charles and Beauport, the cliffs being only 100 feet high there, instead of 300, as they are beside the St Lawrence ; so Wolfe, as he turned in towards Quebec, after marching straight across the tableland, could look out over t French camp. Everything seemed quiet ; so he made his left secure and sent for his main body to follow him at once. It was now seven. In another hour his line of battle was formed, his s reserves had taken post in his rear, and a brigade of seamen from Saunders's fleet were landing guns, stores, blankets, tents, entrenching tools, and whatever else he would need for besieging the city after defeating Montcalm. The 3000 sailors on the beach were anything but pleased with the tame work of waiting there while the soldiers were fighting up above. One of their officers, in a letter home, said they could hardly stand still, and were perpetually swearing because they were not allowed to get into the heat of action.
The whole of the complicated manoeuvres, in face of an active enemy, for three days and three nights, by land and water, over a front of thirty miles, had now been crowned by complete success. The army of 5000 men had been put ashore at the right time and in the right way ; and it was now ready to fight one of the great immortal battles of the world.
‘The thin red line.' The phrase was invented long after Wolfe's day. But Wolfe invented the fact. The six battalions which formed his front, that thirteenth morning of September 1759, were drawn up in the first two-deep line that ever stood on any field of battle in the world since war began. And it was Wolfe alone who made this ‘thin red line,' as surely as it was Wolfe alone who made the plan that conquered Canada.
Meanwhile Montcalm had not been idle ; though he was perplexed to the last, because one of the stupid rules in the French camp was that all news was to be told first to Vaudreuil, who, as governor-general, could pass it on or not, and interfere with the army as much as he liked. When it was light enough to see Saunders's fleet, the island of Orleans, and the Point of Levy, Montcalm at once noticed that Wolfe's men had gone. He galloped down to the bridge of boats, where he found that Vaudreuil had already heard of Wolfe's landing. At first the French thought the firing round the Foulon was caused by an exchange of shots between the Samos battery and some British men-of-war that were trying to stop the French provision boats from getting in there. But Vergor's fugitives and the French patrols near Quebec soon told the real story. And then, just before seven, Montcalm himself caught sight of Wolfe's first redcoats marching in along the Ste Foy road. Well might he exclaim, after all he had done and Vaudreuil had undone : ‘There they are, where they have no right to be !'
He at once sent orders, all along his six miles of entrenchments, to bring up every French regular and all the rest except 2000 militia. But Vaudreuil again interfered ; and Montcalm got only the French and Canadian regulars, 2500, and the same number of Canadian militia with a few Indians. The French and British totals, actually present on the field of battle, were, therefore, almost exactly equal, 5000 each. Vaudreuil also forgot to order out the field guns, the horses for which the vile and corrupt Bigot had been using for himself. At nine Montcalm had formed up his French and colonial regulars between Quebec and the crest of rising ground across the Plains beyond which lay Wolfe. Riding forward till he could see the redcoats, he noticed how thin their line was on its left and in its centre, and that its right, near the St Lawrence, had apparently not formed at all. But his eye deceived him about the British right, as the men were lying down there, out of sight, behind a swell of ground. He galloped back and asked if any one had further news. Several officers declared they had heard that Wolfe was entrenching, but that his right brigade had not yet had time to march on to the field. There was no possible way of finding out anything else at once. The chance seemed favourable. Montcalm knew he had to fight or starve, as he was completely cut off by land and water, except for one bad, swampy road in the valley of the St Charles ; and he ordered his line to advance.
At half-past nine the French reached the crest and halted. The two armies were now in full view of each other on the Plains and only a quarter of a mile apart. The French line of battle had eight small battalions, about 2500 men, formed six deep. The colonial regulars, in three battalions, were on the flanks. The five battalions of French regulars were in the centre. Montcalm, wearing a green and gold uniform, with the brilliant cross of St Louis over his cuirass, and mounted on a splendid black charger, rode the whole length of his line, to see if all were ready to attack. The French regulars—half-fed, sorely harassed, interfered with by Vaudreuil—were still the victors of Ticonderoga, against the British odds of four to one. Perhaps they might snatch one last desperate victory from the fortunes of war ? Certainly all would follow wherever they were led by their beloved Montcalm, the greatest Frenchman of the whole New World. He said a few stirring words to each of his well-known regiments as he rode by ; and when he laughingly asked the best of all, the Royal Roussillon, if they were not tired enough to take a little rest before the battle, they shouted back that they were never too tired to fight—' Forward, forward !' And their steady blue ranks, and those of the four white regiments beside them, with bayonets fixed and colours flying, did indeed look fit and ready for the fray.
Wolfe also had gone along his line of battle, the first of all two-deep thin red lines, to make sure that every officer understood the order that there was to be no firing until the French came close up, to within only forty paces. As soon as he saw Montcalm's line on the crest he had moved his own a hundred paces forward, according to previous arrangement ; so that the two enemies were now only a long musket-shot apart. The Canadians and Indians were pressing round the British flanks, under cover of the bushes, and firing hard. But they were easily held in check by the light infantry on the left rear of the line and by the 35th on the right rear. The few French and British skirmishers in the centre now ran back to their own lines ; and before ten the field was quite clear between the two opposing fronts.
Wolfe had been wounded twice when going along his line ; first in the wrist and then in the groin. Yet he stood up so straight and looked so cool that when he came back to take post on the right the men there did not know he had been hit at all. His spirit already soared in triumph over the weakness of the flesh. Here he was, a sick and doubly wounded man ; but a soldier, a hero, and a conqueror, with the key to half a continent almost within his eager grasp.
At a signal from Montcalm in the centre the French line advanced about a hundred yards in perfect formation. Then the Canadian regulars suddenly began firing without orders, and threw themselves flat on the ground to reload. By the time they had got up the French regulars had halted some distance in front of them, fired a volley, and begun advancing again. This was too much for the Canadians. Though they were regulars they were not used to fighting in the open, not trained for it, and not armed for it with bayonets. In a couple of minutes they had all slunk off to the flanks and joined the Indians and militia, who were attacking the British from under cover.
This left the French regulars face to face with Wolfe's front : five French battalions against the British six. These two fronts were now to decide the fate of Canada between them. The French still came bravely on ; but their six-deep line was much shorter than the British two-deep line, and they saw that both their flanks were about to be overlapped by fire and steel. They inclined outwards to save themselves from this fatal overlap on both right and left. But that made just as fatal a gap in their centre. Their whole line wavered, halted oftener to fire, and fired more wildly at each halt.
In the meantime Wolfe's front stood firm as a rock and silent as the grave, one long, straight, living wall of red, with the double line of deadly keen bayonets glittering above it. Nothing stirred along its whole length, except the Union Jacks, waving defiance at the fleurs-de-lis, and those patient men who fell before a fire to which they could not yet reply. Bayonet after bayonet would suddenly flash out of line and fall forward, as the stricken redcoat, standing there with shouldered arms, quivered and sank to the ground.
Captain York had brought up a single gun in time for the battle, the sailors having dragged it up the cliff and run it the whole way across the Plains. He had been handling it most gallantly during the French advance, firing showers of grape-shot into their ranks from a position right out in the open in front of Wolfe's line. But now that the French were closing he had to retire. The sailors then picked up the drag-ropes and romped in with his most effective six-pounder at full speed, as if they were having the greatest fun of their lives.
Wolfe was standing next to the Louisbourg Grenadiers, who, this time, were determined not to begin before they were told. He was to give their colonel the signal to fire the first volley ; which then was itself to be the signal for a volley from each of the other five battalions, one after another, all down the line. Every musket was loaded with two bullets, and the moment a battalion had fired it was to advance twenty paces, loading as it went, and then fire a ' general,' that is, each man for himself, as hard as he could, till the bugles sounded the charge.
Wolfe now watched every step the French line made. Nearer and nearer it came. A hundred paces ! —seventy-five ! — fifty !—forty ! !—Fire !!! Crash ! came the volley from the grenadiers. Five volleys more rang out in quick succession, all so perfectly de-livered that they sounded more like six great guns than six battalions with hundreds of muskets in each. Under cover of the smoke Wolfe's men advanced their twenty paces and halted to fire the ‘general.' The dense, six-deep lines of Frenchmen reeled, staggered, and seemed to melt away under this awful deluge of lead. In five minutes their right was shaken out of all formation. All that remained of it turned and fled, a wild, mad mob of panic-stricken fugitives. The centre followed at once. But the Royal Roussillon stood fasta little longer ; nd when it also turned it had only three unwounded officers left, and they were trying to rally it.
Montcalm, who had led the centre and had been wounded in the advance, galloped over to the Royal Roussillon as it was making this last stand. But even he could not stem the rush that followed and that carried him along with it. Over the crest and down to the valley of the St Charles his army fled, the Canadians and Indians scurrying away through the bushes as hard as they could run. While making one more effort to rally enough men to cover the retreat he was struck again, this time by a dozen grape-shot from York's gun. He reeled in the saddle. But two of his grenadiers caught him and held him up while he ode into Quebec. As he passed through St Louis Gate a terrified woman called out, 'Oh I look at the marquis, he's killed, he's killed ! ' But Montcalm, by a supreme effort, sat up straight for a moment and said : ‘It is nothing at all, my kind friend ; you must not be so much alarmed !' and, saying this, passed on to die, a hero to the very last.
In the thick of the short, fierce fire-fight the bagpipes began to skirl, the Highlanders dashed down their muskets, drew their clay-mores, and gave a yell that might have been heard across the river. In a moment every British bugle was sounding the 'Charge' and the whole red, living wall was rushing forward with a roaring cheer.
But it charged without Wolfe. He had been mortally wounded just after giving the signal for those famous volleys. Two officers sprang to his side. ‘Hold me up !' he implored them, ‘don't let my gallant fellows see me fall !' With the help of a couple of men he was carried back to the far side of a little knoll and seated on a grenadier's folded coat, while the grenadier who had taken it off ran over to a spring to get some water. Wolfe knew at once that he was dying. But he did not yet know how the battle had gone. His head had sunk on his breast, and his eyes were already glazing, when an officer on the knoll called out, ‘They run ! They run ! 'Egad, they give way everywhere !' Rousing himself, as if from sleep, Wolfe asked, ‘Who run ? '—'The French, sir !'—'Then I die content !'—and, almost as he said it, he breathed his last.
Benjamin West's (1738-1820) romanticized painting of the death of James Wolfe.
The painter took considerable liberties with his subject. This caused controversy at the time. However, the rise of British imperialism in the XIXth century led to the widespread use of the painting as a symbol of imperial unity and self-sacrifice
He was not buried on the field he won, nor even in the country that he conquered. All that was mortal of him—his poor, sick, wounded body—was borne back across the sea, and carried in mourning triumph through his native land. And there, in the family vault at Greenwich, near the school he had left for his first war, half his short life ago, he was laid to rest on November 20—at the very time when his own great victory before Quebec was being confirmed by Hawke's magnificently daring attack on the French fleet amid all the dangers of that wild night in Quiberon Bay.
Canada has none of his mortality. But could she have anything more sacred than the spot from which his soaring spirit took its flight into immortal fame ? And could this sacred spot be marked by any words more winged than these :
Source: William WOOD, "The Plains of Abraham - September 13, 1759", The Winning of Canada. A Chronicle of Wolfe, Toronto, 1915, 152p., pp. 99-139
© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College